The Swahili are a mixed group of people speaking closely related forms of Bantu speech, living on islands and coastal areas of East Africa from Brava (Baraawe), Somalia, to Kilwa, Mozambique and the Comoro Islands. Not all the dialects are mutually intelligible, while some Swahili dialects are mutually intelligible with dialects of Giryama, spoken along the coastal ridge in Kenya. One community of people, called the Ngwana (Wangwana), whose mother tongue is Swahili, live in Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

The Swahili community developed as a people group as Arab and Persian traders established business contacts and married local women on the East African coast. This was probably around AD 700 though some scholars think there were Arab settlements before the advent of Islam.

The resulting people were Islamic Bantu-speaking fishers, traders and woodwork artisans, living in city-states varying from governorships to republics, with allegiance to the Sultan of Oman and the later independent Sultan of Zanzibar.

In the 9th to 12th centuries the Benaadir coast of Somalia and the Jubba River Valley was a major center of Swahili culture. Many towns there still retain their Swahili language and culture today, though it has been eroded in the centuries of Somali incursions.

The people’s features vary from light-skinned Arab to Bantu. Some African Muslims will call themselves Swahili even though they speak a different tribal tongue, including one group of coastal Muslim Kikuyus, who speak Kikuyu and whose women wear buibuis. One prominent but small group call themselves Shirazi, after the capital of the ancient Persian Empire, noting their Persian ancestry.

Shirazi sometimes consider themselves a separate ethnic group from the Swahili, but Swahili is their mother tongue. The famous elite Mazrui family of Mombasa are Shirazis. The Bajun, considered a separate ethnic group in the Kenya census, are also Swahili and sometimes call themselves Shirazi.

Other Kenya Swahilis are in Kiyu, Pate, Shela (Lamu Islands); Ozi who have now become largely Muslim Pokomo). The Vumba people live from Vanga to Tanga, Tanzania, and on Wasini Island. Pate, Siyu and related languages are considered by some as Bajun dialects.

In Mombasa the Swahili maintain close relationships with Arabs, some native to Kenya and some Yemeni. Most of the Kenya Arabs speak Swahili as a mother-tongue. In Tanzania the term Swahili is used by some to refer to all coastal Africans who speak Swahili as a mother tongue or primary language. The term Shirazi is used by some people of mixed or African background to denote an Arab background

Total Swahili-Arab population in Kenya is about 112,000. About 58,000 mother-tongue speakers live in Somalia. The Zanzibar (Unguja) people claim to speak the best Swahili of anyone. Peoples with Swahili as a mother tongue in Tanzania appear to be about 375,000, plus 1,700 Hadimu on Zanzibar, who are sometimes listed as a separate people. Mother-tongue speakers in all countries appear to be about 966,227

The Comoro Islanders, speaking Swahili languages but usually counted separately, total in addition about 650,000, in the Comoro Islands and other countries. One group of mother-tongue Swahili speakers live in Zaire, speaking a form called Kingwana, from their name Wangwana (the Refined/Cultured People). Their heritage goes back to the trade caravans of the early 1800’s. The Ngwana number only about 10,000, according to the Summer Institute of Linguistics. In addition, about 30,000 “standard” Swahili speakers live in Zaire.

The Swahili language developed in the early centuries of the Christian era along the coast of East Africa from Kismayu to Kilwa and on the Comoro Islands. The Swahili language is a major lingua franca of Eastern and Central Africa.

The forms of Swhaili spoken in the Comoros are considered by some to be a separate language. Linguists have trouble deciding whether to classify some speech forms around Malindi, Kenya, as dialects of Swahili or Giriama.

The actual language forms vary from Standard Swahili (Kiswahili Sanifu, a standardized interlanguage based heavily on Zanzibari forms). The most prestigious form of Swahili in Kenya seems to be Mvita (Mombasa Old Town), a literary language. Amu (the dialect of Lamu Island) has the oldest literary tradition, with the epic poem al-Inkishafi dating from about AD 1000.

The Swahili languages are characterized by heavy word borrowing from Arabic, Persian and Portuguese, with more recent borrowings from Hindi and English. There are notable differences in words between the different dialects of Swahili.

The language of each town or island, usually named after the place, has its own characteristics. There are about 15 major dialects of Swahili. The speech of the Bajun, in Somalia and Kenya, includes several sub-dialects. These Bajun groups are sometimes considered a separate people.

The Ethnologue says Ngwana, spoken in Zaire, is a pidgin language, but Edgar Polomé‚ says it is the language of a community descended from the African helpers of 19th century Arab merchants, so it should be considered a Creole. Polomé indicates it is similar to Western Tanzania forms of the language, and written forms are close to East African coastal Swahili. The Ethnologue reports only about 1000 mother-tongue speakers, but 9,100,000 second-language speakers of this variety.

The Ngwana dialect borrows words from French and inland Bantu languages, where East African forms have borrowed words from Arabic, Portuguese and Hindi, as well as German, and more recently, form Enlgish. In addition to these mother-tongue speakers, over 50,000,000 people use forms of Swahili as primary or secondary languages, about 10,000,000 of them in Zaire. The Ngwana language claims 9,100,000 secondary speakers.

There are various “up-country” pidgin forms of Swahili used in market areas and along trade rouites where few if any native speakers of Swahili live, but people of many tribal languages use a form of Swahili for commerce. Many young Kenyans are functional bilinguals in a form of Standard Swahili, since Swahili has been a major medium of education for decades, as well as one of the languages of government business. Since 1980, the level if use and the quality of Swhaili has risen considerably, althoguht Enlgish likewise has spread and improved. Many young urban couples are using English in the home with their children.

In Tanzania, a high percentage of the population, especially in the eastern aras, are functionally bilingual in Swahili. Many small ethnic gourps have long used Swahili with their neighbours. The Ethnologue reports that in Tanzania 30,000,000 rural people are second-language users of Swahil, speaking it with outsiders, but their mother tongue within their own community. For many it has been their primary language (most-used, but not the mother tongue). Several ethnic groups are shifting to Swhaili.

There are strong cultural similarities acknowledged by the diverse peoples. They are matriarchal and family or clan oriented. They observe the normal Islamic celebrations, but the various groups also have dances and festivals from their Bantu cultural roots. They are renowned as sailors, traders and artisans. They are a welcoming and hospitable people and seem to enjoy meeting people from other places and cultures.

They are traditional Sunni Muslims, mostly Shafiite on the East Africa coast.

Swahili people are 100% Muslim. The only concerted culturally-appropriate mission efforts have been primarily in Mombasa island, where they have been included in a broader target group including the Swahili-speaking Arabs.

A church in Lamu is composed totally of upcountry people of other tribes. Most Christian influences have made no attempt to be culturally relevant. The Swahilis have a had proud, generally peaceful history and a high cultural heritage, largely identified with Islam. They have a proud, generally peaceful and historical heritage. They are a very tolerant people and have lived in peace and harmony with their traditional religion neighbours and over the last century with Christians.

There are Bible portions and the full Bible in several translations, plus many Christian tracts and publications in Standard Swahili. Numerous Christian films are available in Swahili, but the setting of many is more appropriate for “up-country” people than for coastal Swahili-Arab people


Swahili People Population Summary (Mother-tongue Speakers Only)
Primary Countries

Country Population (1996)
Kenya (Swahili, Bajun, Arab) 112,347
Tanzania (Swahili, Hadimu) 377,280
Zaire (Standard Swahili, Zaire (Ngwana) Swahili) 48,000
Somalia (Swahili, Barawe, Bajun) 58,000
Total Mother-Tongue Speakers 595,627