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KARIBU is not as mysterious as it sounds, it is simply the Swahili word used to welcome you in East Africa.

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Swahili is one of the twelve major languages of the world. It's estimated it is spoken by over 50 million people.
It is spoken throughout East Africa, that is to say Tanzania, (i.e. Tanganyika and Zanzibar), Kenya, Uganda, and a little in Eastern Zaire and Burundi. The purest Swahili is to be found on the island of Zanzibar and along the mainland coastline closest to it. But as you get farther away, both north and south as well as inland, the standard of the language lowers. Therefore, in northern Kenya, the extreme west of Tanzania and its southern borders, the language may be little known or extremely ungrammatical. In Uganda, the language is fairly commonly used except in the south-west. In eastern Zaire and Burundi, the Swahili language has a strong French flavour which is perfectly understandable to someone who knows both languages.


The Swahili language belongs to the linguistic family of the Bantu languages, numbering well over a thousand languages and dialects which are spread over most of Africa south of the equator, reaching north of it in Cameroun, Zaire, Uganda and, sporadically, in Kenya.
The characteristic of Bantu languages is their class system of nouns. In English we are accustomed to changes at the end of a noun, e.g. child, children, childish, childhood, etc.; in Bantu languages the changes come at the beginning, because Bantu nouns consist of a stem with a prefix attached and they fall into different classes according to their prefixes.
Class 1 has nouns indicating people, class 2 gives the plurals of class 1, class 3 is for trees, 4 gives the plurals of 3, 5 is for fruits and 6 has plurals of 5, 7 is for instruments and other things, 8 gives the plurals of 7, 9 is for animals and the plurals are in class 10. Class 14 is for countries and abstract concepts, and the nouns of classes 16, 17 and 18 indicate places.
This class system is the basis of the structure of each Bantu language.

During its first millennium Swahili was enriched with thousands of Arabic words, which were fitted into the Bantu system of noun classes and verb categories. The result was a totally new linguistic structure, that evolved along its own lines.

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Swahili literature is exceptionally rich.
This offshoot of the Bantu stock was already the medium of an African culture and the treasure trove of many songs, proverbs and stories, when, during the first millenium, the religion of Islam spread peacefully along the coast. Islam is more than dogma and morality, more than ritual and ceremony: Islam is a way of life, a law for the individual as well as for the community, a cosmology that has made the Swahili language into a uniquely beautiful vehicle for the expression of its ideas in literary form.
With the influence of Arabic, Swahili evolved along its own lines and blossomed forth into a wealth of forms, uniquely suitable to become the vehicle of a great epic tradition, something unknown in equatorial Africa; of a fine liturgical tradition within the framework of Islamic sung worship; and of a new tradition of scholarly works on history, theology, law and morality.

Prose was until recently practically restricted to utilitarian purposes, but the traditional art of verbal expression in poetry has produced an overwhelming number of valuable works. The traditional poetry can be divided into different groups according to its form and content: it can be epic, lyrical or didactic, as well as religious or secular.

After the First World War writers composed stories and novels in Swahili which added a new dimension to Swahili literature which hitherto had not known fiction as a written form. Prose, formerly largely confined to historic subjects, theology and other such subjects, was successfully used by Shaaban Robert for essay writing. A second new development during the same period was the appearance of poems in the weekly press, mainly in the shairi metre, which had previously belonged chiefly to the oral tradition of secular verse.

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The origin of the language itself is disputed. There is no unquestionable evidence as to the date of the formation of the coastal language from which Swahili ultimately developed.
The first refence to definite commercial relations between Arabia and the east coast of Africa dates back to the end of the first century AD, when the compiler of the Periples of the Erythraen Sea mentions several place names on the trade route, describes commodities corresponding to the expected exports of the Tanganyika coast and the described inhabitants may have already been Bantu. Periples of the Erythraen Sea
Other ancient sources are Ptolemy and Cosmas, a 6th century Egyptian monk.

When the learned Arab traveller Al-Mas'udi landed at Mombasa in the tenth century, he noted a few words in the local language which he called Zinji or Zanji (owing to the fact that Arabic script does not usually distinguish the vowels, we are not certain of the pronunciation). On the present linguistic evidence, therefore, it is possible to conclude that some form of Proto-Swahili was being spoken along what is now the Kenyan coast before the tenth century.

Swahili was originally spoken as far north as Mogadishu where some place names (such as Shangani, on the sand) are reminders of the former population who were expelled by the Somalis in the sixteenth century and later. In Barawa and Kisima-iu (the latter place name means upper well in Swahili) Swahili is still spoken, as also on the islands along the southern Somali coast.

The southern tip of the Swahili language area lies in northern Mozambique; the town of that name was once a Swahili town, and its original name Msumbiji, is Swahili.

In between Mogadishu and Mozambique lies what has been known since the Middle Ages as the Swahili coast. Arab scholars of that period called it the biladu 's-sawahili (the towns of the coastal people), hence the name Swahili. All the islands off the coast between these places are Swahili speaking, including the Comoro Islands.

Swahili was carried inland by the caravans which bartered Indian cotton cloth for ivory and other wares.

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This text on the Swahili language is freely adapted from the writings of J.Knappert, E.C.Polomè and others.

© Nino Vessella , 1996-.
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1999 01 10 Visits from March 2006