Who Are the Waswahili?
The East African (Nairobi)
October 25, 2005
Posted to the web October 25, 2005
FOR OVER 20 YEARS NOW, scholars and researchers have been locked in an inconclusive debate on whether theWaswahili as a community actually exist and how best they can be identified.
The debate has centred around whether one becomes a Swahili by birth, by domicile, culinary habits, or by simply mastering Kiswahili the language widely spoken along the coast of East Africa.
Now, a new Swahili University recently opened in Mombasa is endevouring to put into perspective years of scattered and unco-ordinated research into Swahili language and culture. The Research Institute of Swahili Studies in Eastern Africa (RISSEA), a joint venture between the the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the National Museums of Kenya, is meant to spur the conservation and development of the Swahili culture and language.
The inaugural batch of eight students from the School of Oriental and African Studies arrised on September 26 for a three-month course that will last till December 16. RISSEA will be joining the over 100 universities worldwide that teach Kiswahili, 50 of them in the United States alone.
The institute is located in the former residence of the provincial commissioner inside the Fort Jesus compound, and has on-site campus in Lamu as well
Tom Olali, associate-director of the new institution, says research on Swahili has for many years been carried out by independent researchers, who have not treated the entire coast as one historical, cultural and linguistic unit.
"Sometimes, the research findings are incomplete and do not give a true picture of the various aspects of Swahili society," said Dr Olali, adding that the institution will enable students and researchers to learn more about the spread of Swahili in East Africa through observation, listening and being incorporated into the Swahili society.
Dr Olali said that students from various universities and researchers will be affiliated to the institution for undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies.
The establishment of the institute was spurred by the fact that there are currently 100 million Kiswahili speakers globally. Promoters of Kiswahili note that the language is increasingly gaining ascendence as pan-African language and are bullish that it will soon become the lingua franca of the African Union.
According to Yasin Ahmed, the co-ordinator of the institute, Swahili culture and language are widely appreciated, with people across the globe interested in learning the language. "It is just a matter of time before Kiswahili is accepted as one of the major UN languages," he said.
The institute - that will serve as a focal point for Swahili studies for the whole of East African coast - is complementary to Tanzania's Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili, which has been attracting students and researchers from Western countries, but which is different from the new initiative since it focuses on the Swahili language, while the Kenyan institution is dealing with the Swahili civilisation as a whole.
THE CURRICULUM FOR THE institute incorporates seven modules. They are the controversial Swahili identity; the evolution of the coast; Swahili economy and international relations; the resistance to the Portuguese colonisation during the 15th and 16th centuries; the anthropology of the Swahili, Swahili literature and their craft and architecture.
Key administrative and teaching staff at the institute are mostly from National Museums of Kenya personnel who possess a strong background in Swahili studies and related disciplines. Native waSwahili form most of the teaching staff. They include prominent Kiswahili scholar Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany.
The institute will act as a major documentation centre of international standing dedicated to preserving historically significant documents on Swahili society.
IT WILL ALSO SEEK TO PROMOTE the importance of materials and objects of cultural expression including artefacts, sites and monuments; works of art, language and poetry.
The institute has an independent advisory board of directors drawn from eminent Swahili scholars, and from collaborating institutions that have strong Swahili research and training programmes. Dr Yasin says that although Kenya's Lamu region is known to be the cradle of Swahili civilisation, Tanzanians are reputed to be better Kiswahili speakers than Kenyans.
However, he adds, "The arguments that Tanzanians are better speakers of the language is only true to the extent that we have not had a co-ordinating institution of this kind. But we are looking at co-operation, not competition." Dr Yasin also expressed the fear that the Swahili language is in danger given that some of the local dialects such as Kimvita (spoken in central Mombasa) and Kiamu (the original dialect of Lamu residents) have virtually become extinct because of globalisation.
Unfortunately, these two dialects, among others, are not documented. Besides a resource centre and language laboratory, a Ksh7.5 million () Swahili museum is also to be established in Fort Jesus as a teaching museum to generate income to sustain the institute, which aims to be self-sustaining in the long run.