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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.
- Linguistic classification
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
This text on the Swahili language is freely adapted from the writings of
J.Knappert, E.C.Polomè and others.
Nessuna parte può essere riprodotta, in qualsiasi forma o mezzo,
senza citare la fonte.
Ĉiuj rajtoj rezervitaj.
Neniu parto povas esti reproduktita, en kiu ajn formo au per kiu ajn metodo,
sen mencii ĉi tiun fonton.
Haki zote zimehifadhiwa.
Hairuhusiwi kunakili sehemu yoyote bila kuitaja asili yake hii.
All rights reserved.
No part may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, without
mention of this source.
1999 01 10
Visits from March 2006