Planning an East African safari? you may need to learn a phrase or two in Swahili – one of the most widely spoken languages across the African continent. Here are some interesting facts about the Swahili language and culture …
Swahili is the official language in Tanzania and Kenya and is also widely spoken in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Comoros Islands. It’s also spoken by smaller numbers in Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
Even though less than five million people consider Swahili to be their mother tongue, Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages across the African continent with more than 140 million speakers – 2nd most widespread language after Arabic.
Surprisingly colonialism aided the spread of Swahili. Rather than suppressing the use of Swahili, European colonialists chose to adopt the language, continuing its use as a common tool of communication. German colonial powers were especially zealous in their adoption of the Swahili language (apparently the German language was too ‘precious’ to be taught to ‘natives’), making extensive use of Swahili as the administrative language of Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). This policy was later adapted by the British who took over Tanganyika after the first world war and would extend the same to neighboring Kenya.
Colonial Education Tanganyika. Image Source
Swahili is said to be an easy African language for an English speaker to learn. It’s one of the few sub-Saharan African languages that have no lexical tone, just like in English. It’s also much easier to read as you read out Swahili words just the way they are written.
The Arabic language has had a significant influence on Swahili – a significant proportion of the Swahili vocabulary comes from Arabic. This stems from the centuries of contact between inhabitants of the eastern coast of Africa and Arabic traders. Swahili is a member of the Bantu group, despite its heavy Arabic influence. Swahili’ was the word used by Arab visitors to East Africa to describe ‘the coast’ The first Arab visitors to East Africa used the word “Swahili” to describe the coastal region in general, and it gradually came to apply to the distinctive East African culture in that area.
Here are some words.
|hatari||خطر||Danger. Also the title of a 1962 movie starring John Wayne, set in Africa.|
|Safari||سفر||Travel. Also: trip|
|samahani||سامحني||forgive me, excuse me|
The Arabic and Persian influence is very much present in the Swahili cuisine. Most of the cooking is rich in spices – the use of coconut, cardamom, garlic, saffron, turmeric, and pilau masala – a unique mix of black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and cumin used in many rice and stew recipes. Popular Swahili dishes include biriani, mseto, vitumbua, haluwa, kaimati, mshikaki, mahamri, pilau, boko boko
Swahili time starts at 6 a.m. Like many African cultures, Swahili culture dictates that the telling of time begins at 6 a.m. So double check if you’re told to arrive somewhere at a specific time, as you may need to tack on six hours.
‘Methali’ wise sayings or a form of wordplay, puns, and lyrical rhyming, is a defining feature of the Swahili language and culture. Taking the form of parables, proverbs, and, more recently, rap music, methali is extremely prevalent in Swahili-speaking regions.
Poetic and musical expression is an important feature of the Swahili culture. Swahili music, Taarab, is poetically very rich. The traditional Taarab rhythm is a slow beat that borrows heavily from Indian and Arabic melody
The ‘kanga’ is a popular swahili garment. The KANGA is a rectangle of pure cotton cloth with a border all around it, printed in bold designs and bright colours and a Swahili saying or slogan inscribed at the bottom. . The kanga is the ultimate public billboard for personal feelings. This phrase, called the jina, can be a useful communication tool. For example a woman who’s upset with a friend might give or wear a kanga with a phrase like “njia ya mwongo ni fupi,” which means “the days of a liar are numbered.”
Kangas are extremely popular throughout East Africa not only for clothing but for their multiple uses. Husbands give kangas to wives. children to their mothers, a woman may split a pair to give half to her best friend, babies are virtually born into them, and are usually carried in a soft sling of kanga cloth.
The Kanga. Image source
Swahili’s international appeal has also been helped by the use of its phrases in a number of popular films like the Lion King, and Out of Africa. Renowned musicians like Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, Miriam Makeba and others have used Swahili in some of their compositions. In Michael Jackson’s song ‘Liberian girl’ the African lyrics in the intro aren’t Liberian, they’re Swahili.
The popular word safari means journey in Swahili. In English it means an expedition to observe, hunt animals in their natural habitats e.g. National Parks in Africa or even Australia.
‘ Hakuna matata’ is the most popular quote and means no worries. The phrase gained international recognition after it was used in the animated movie The Lion King. The names of the main characters Simba, Sarabi, Rafiki, and Pumbaa are also swahili words. They mean lion, mirage, friend, and foolish.
The African-American holiday ‘Kwanzaa’ is named after the Swahili word meaning ‘to begin’. Kwanzaa is a seven-day a cultural celebration of African-American culture and heritage. Kwanzaa” is derived from Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “fresh fruits” or “first fruits,” and is used in relation to the first harvest of the year.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa, called ‘Nguzo Saba’ are also called by Swahili names i.e. Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).
The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s, since East African nations were not involved in the Atlantic slave trade that brought African people to America.
African Americans celebrating Kwanzaa. Image source
The broadcast media have also contributed immensely to the spread and popularization of Swahili. It is probably the most widely used African language in radio broadcasts in the world. You can tune in to Swahili programs in major broadcasting houses like VOA (America), BBC (England), and Deutsche Welle (Germany). It is also heard in broadcasts in India, Japan, and China
Interested in learning Swahili? you can get that at a learning institution near you. Swahili is taught in many leading academic institutions in Africa, Europe, America and Asia. It is offered as a subject of study in prestigious universities like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and many others. It is estimated that close to a hundred institutions teach Swahili in the U.S. alone. Swahili has been taught in S.O.A.S. at the University of London since the 1930s. It is also taught in Canada, Germany, Poland, Mexico, Russia, Japan, India, and many other countries.
American collage students in Zanzibar. Image source.
Finally what better way to conclude with some chart topping swahili hits.
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