Introduction / History
The name Swahili literally means "coast," and is the name given to several people groups that share a common culture (Uswahili), language (Kiswahili), and religion (Islam). Thousands of years ago, groups of hunters inhabited the East African coast and intermarried with the shepherds there. By the second century, people from northern Congo came to the area and intermarried with them. Subsequent groups of people migrating from other areas such as the Persian Gulf also joined these coastal people, adopting parts of their culture and language. Later, Indonesian, Hindi, and Portuguese traders settled on the coast. Soon, they too began adopting Swahili traits and became a part of the larger group. The Swahili language has many different dialects. A number of its words were borrowed from Arabic, the second language for many Swahili. As you could imagine from the mix of people who have joined under the "Swahili" umbrella, this language is very complicated. Though they are called "Swahili" by others, they prefer to be named according to their local settlements. Since that time, groups of Swahili have migrated to different parts of the coast, forming their own dialects and cultural variations. They are most likely to be living up and down the East African coast, and their highest populations are in Somalia and Tanzania. The Swahili has some subgroups; among them are the Barawani.
What Are Their Lives Like?
For about 2,000 years, the backbone of the Swahili economy has been commerce no matter what part of Africa they live in. They worked as cross-national merchants trading spices, slaves, ivory, gold, and grain. Today, international commerce is still important to the Swahili but to a lesser degree. Many of the upper-class Swahili now manage small businesses, do clerical work, and teach school. Those living in cities sometimes own plantations that provide both their income and their food supply. Most lower-class Swahili are farmers. Their principal crops include rice, sorghum, millet, and maize. Since the Swahili in Somalia are predominantly Muslim, Islamic practices play a large role in their daily activities. Dietary laws, rules of dress, social etiquette, marriage ceremonies, laws concerning divorce, and rituals at birth and death are all governed by Islamic tradition. Parents strive to have well-mannered, respectful children, since this is highly valued among Muslims. Boys go to Islamic schools where they study the Koran. The central building in each town is the mosque. The male population prays there five times a day and at special prayer meetings on Fridays. The Swahili in Somalia have recently demonstrated an interest in Western culture. For example, in addition to attending Islamic schools, most children also attend non-religious schools to acquire a Western-style education. Also, traditional Swahili folk medicines are no longer the only means of treating those with illnesses. In some areas there are modern medical clinics. Many of the Swahili people who live in large cities now own televisions through which they are constantly being exposed to Western ideas. Swahili women are more independent today than in times past and are becoming more involved in the economic and social realms of society. Swahili culture has not only been influenced by the Islamic religion and Western ideas but also by the Northeast Bantu (from Sub-Saharan Africa) and Arab cultures, as well as Asian, Persian, and Indian cultures. This has made their culture quite unique, and they can easily be distinguished from their neighbors. Their art has been affected by far-away cultures.
Islam is deeply ingrained in the worldview of the Swahili people. It will be difficult for them to accept other foundational answers to spiritual questions, such as salvation by Jesus Christ, not by human effort.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Barawani Swahili in Somalia identify with Islam, and to them it is a way of life. Nearly all of the Swahili profess to be Muslims; however, many of their traditional pre-Islamic beliefs and practices still exist. For example, they believe in many spirits, both good and evil. They also believe in the supernatural power of witches and sorcerers. The Swahili often have folk explanations for natural occurrences. For example, some believe that a cow is supporting the earth and that earthquakes are caused when the cow moves its horns. They believe that thunder is the sound of God speaking with the angels and that lightning occurs when God is pleased. To the Swahili, lightning is a good sign because it means that God will send plentiful rain and food that year.
What Are Their Needs?
By African standards, the Swahili are economic prosperous. But like the church in Laodicea that was economically rich but spiritually needy, the Swahili are in great need of the only Savior.
Pray for the Lord to give Barawani Swahili people the humility to come as beggars to the only one who can save them from sin and spiritual death. Pray for the Lord to send his children as long-term ambassadors to the Barawani Swahili people. Pray for a Disciple Making Movement among the Barawani Swahili people that will spread to every country in eastern and southern Africa.
Scripture Prayers for the Swahili, Barawani in Somalia.