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Smith College

Publication Date

Spring 2011

Program Name

Kenya: Islam and Swahili Cultural Identity


The Swahili coast is a section of coastline stretching over 3000 kilometers from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south. The region was first occupied by groups of hunter-gather-fisherman but the Bantu migration in 500 B.C. of pastoralists from Northern Cameroon caused an influx of immigrants from the African interior to settle along the Indian Ocean. Upon the arrival of Islam to East Africa through trade with the Arab world in the ninth century, there was a cultural shift and Muslim traditions began to penetrate into the coastal region, starting in the north and moving down to the southern limits. Religious permeation created a strong economic, artistic and aesthetic society by the end of the thirteenth century, mainly around port cities such as Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya and Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar in Tanzania. Islam became a ruling idea and the Swahili language was adopted as the lingua-franca for the East African coast. To many, the Swahilis are known as the People of the Sea, and several scholars believe that their marine society has given them a unique advantage in African politics and history over the centuries. While fishing and trade have played essential roles in the development of Swahili culture, aquatic activities, both for exercise and recreation, are deeply rooted in the Swahili lifestyle. Folklore about the sea is still told by elders and the demand for swimming instruction in Mombasa, Kenya emphasizes the cultural ties to the water. This paper analyzes the impact and importance of swimming in Mombasa, Kenya today.


Social and Cultural Anthropology


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