For hundreds of years, the Swahili coast of East Africa was a center of linguistic and cultural exchange. The Kiswahili-speaking area was an important center for trade from at least the twelfth century, and it was influenced by Arabic, South Indian languages and Portuguese, as the author and literary activist Abu Amirah noted at a recent panel called “Against Disappearance.”
In the last hundred years, many of the traces of this history have vanished, and panel members discussed what could be done to better document and engage the Swahili coastal cities’ complex, shared history.
The panel featured Abu Amirah, who is based in Mombasa, and the Sudanese author and activist Hammour Ziada, in discussion with the British author and historian Marina Warner. The discussion, co-sponsored by the British Council and the Shubbak Festival, focused on “coastal cities [that] notably hold vestiges of both nourishing and deadly trades.” It was the second in a series of discussions about cultural heritage and contemporary culture.
“We’ve borrowed a lot from the Arabs, the Indians, and I’m sure that if we delve into history further, there is a lot that we borrowed from the Portuguese,” Abu Amirah said during the panel discussion. “One of the greatest things that Swahili, or Kiswahili, took into its fabric was the writing of poets.”
A Return of Arabized Kiswahili?
One aspect of this linguistic absorption, he said, was an Arabized Kiswahili that flourished along the Swahili coast. The Arabic script remained a part of the region’s written literature until the arrival of missionaries and colonial schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was missionaries in particular who insisted on a change, Abu Amirah said, under the assumption that writing Kiswahili in Latin script would promote Christianity and also suppress the region’s long connection to Islam.