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The Delights of East Africa’s Swahili Coast

The Swahili Coast of East Africa leaves a much more lasting impression to the visitor than your usual island destination. The region is an amalgam of exotic history, ancient cultures, and white sand tropical beaches. You have on these ancient shores excellent places to enjoy: the sun, exotic beaches, scuba diving, windsurfing, golfing, sailing, deep-sea fishing, clubbing, time travel, souvenir shopping, fine and spicy cuisines and much more.

The Swahili Coast refers to a stretch of about 2,900 km along East Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast, – from Mogadishu in Southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. This has been the window through which -by means of commercial and cultural exchange, East Africa’s has interacted with the outside world since at least the 2nd century A.D.

In it’s heyday, between the 12th and 18th centuries, the Swahili Coast was a collection of rich city-states whose prosperity was anchored on the Indian Ocean trade. The trade mainly involved Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, and even China. East Africa was able to participate in this trade due to the monsoon winds, which eased navigation from the Persian Gulf and the Indian subcontinent.

The principal city-states were Mogadishu in today’s Somalia, Lamu, Mombasa, and Malindi in Kenya, Kilwa and Zanzibar in Tanzania, and Sofala in Mozambique. Today however, most tourists to the region associate the Swahili coast exclusively with Kenya and Tanzania tours.

The original inhabitants of the East African Coast were Bantu Africans, who were fisherman, hunter-gatherer and agricultural folk. They first encountered the outside world slightly before 1st century AD. Over the centuries, an intense interaction with non-African societies saw the emergence of a unique culture and people- the Swahili.

The Arabs and Persians were the first to dock the shores in their trademark dhows. The Arabs brought in glassware, ironware, daggers, swords, blades, pots and pans while Persia supplied the market with carpets and rugs. Mercantile Asia also ventured into the region, bringing
in a variety of commodities. From India came pepper, cotton, hardware, spices, beads and cereals, and from China: jade, silk, porcelain and rice.

The visitors went back with foodstuffs, ambergris, tortoise shells, rhino horn, leopard skin, copper, gold and most importantly ivory. All wanted a piece of African ivory, and trade sieved into inland Africa where the elephants dwelt. By 2nd century AD, the trade had come to the notice of the Greeks and Romans alike; they called these shores ‘Azania’.

Of all the traders, it is the Arabs who brought Islam at around 8th century AD that had the most lasting impression. Some Omani Arabs and Shirazi Persians fled south to East Africa to escape religious wars at home.
By the 9th century A.D, from the interaction of Africans, Arabs, and Persians who lived and traded on the East African Coast, there had emerged a language that they could all understand -Kiswahili. At the same time a distinct cosmopolitan and urban Swahili culture rose.

The language is based on the Bantu language Sabaki- in structure and syntax, and uses Arab, Persian and even Hindi loan words. The borrowed words have maintained heavy Bantu intonations. Swahili is distinctly a Bantu language and is linguistically closer to other coastal Bantu languages, than to Arabic or Persian. Kiswahili was adopted as the main trade language across this coastal belt and was spoken widely by the people along the shoreline. The word Swahili is a Bantu form of ‘Sawahil’ – an Arabic word meaning “of the coast”.

Today, the Swahili language is the most widely spoken language in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has an estimated 45 million speakers spread over Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Somalia, and the Comoros Islands. The language has numerous local dialects, but Standard Kiswahili is based on Kiunguja, the dialect of Zanzibar town. The British and German colonists can be credited with the spread of Swahili. It is the local language they chose to facilitate administration over a region having more than 100 languages.

The end of the 15th century saw the coming of the Portuguese with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498. His sailors were scurvy ridden and badly in need of food and care. The hospitable Swahili allowed the sailors to dock their shores and lavished them with food and fruit. Little did they know that the Portuguese -who were a substantial seafaring power, were anxious to dominate the Indian Ocean trade. The Portuguese attacked and plunderer the cities, starting with Kilwa Kisimani, then Mombasa,reducing them to nothing.

The Swahili coast was engulfed in turmoil between the 15th and 19th centuries. Mombasa in particular saw plenty of war. For this reason, the city was nicknamed Mvita, which in Swahili translates as Isle of War. Fort Jesus, the permanent garrison established by the Portuguese in 1593, changed masters 9 times before 1875. By the terror of war, the Portuguese sought to control the East African coast. But as colonial overlords, the Portuguese were deficient; they were mostly interested in plunder and trade, and did not establish robust systems of administration.

The thrashing of Mombasa – the most prominent of the Swahili city sates, meant the loss of Swahili independence across the entire coast. The Portuguese were finally driven out by the emerging power of Omani Arabs in 1729, when the Sultan of Oman claimed control over the entire coastline.

The Omani’s were so profitably settled in East Africa that the Sultan moved his seat to Zanzibar in 1832. Their prosperity was anchored on the slave trade- and it is estimated that by the 1860’s the notorious Zanzibar slave market had a turnover exceeding 50,000 Africans each year.

Life along the coast takes on a slower pace, and the people are generally laid back. Swahili men traditionally wear kikoi wraps around the waists and white kanzu robes and kofia (small religious hats) to the mosque. The women are covered with bright and colourful cotton material known as kanga or leso, wrapped around to cover the whole body, including the hair. Sometimes, they wear the buibui -a long black veiled garb worn by Muslim women.

Swahili cooking heavily incorporates the use of spices, like Arabs and Asians do. They also use coconut and palm oil in their cooking. There is a distinctive Swahili architecture and building code; houses are built from coral stone crusted with limestone, and coral rag spread over the mud and thatch buildings. The houses are large, with huge doors elaborately curved and ornamented with showy pattern.

The Sultans’ palaces were storied and much larger than ordinary houses. The mosques were built in a similar fashion and their tombs were inimitably peculiar. Their style is autonomous of Arabian and Bantu idiosyncrasies; it was just Swahili.

Mombasa is the jewel in the crown of Kenya’s coast. Sitting pretty on the shores of the Indian Ocean, Mombasa Island is famous for its rich marine appeal, exotic beaches, grand accommodations, a vibrant nightlife and a hospitable people. The Old Town is a wonderful place to experience Swahili culture. You will encounter locals seated along the winding, spice-scented streets peddling their spicy foods and coffee, as others while the day away over a game of draft.

Fort Jesus is a place you can revisit a bygone era on a Mombasa cultural tour. In addition to being an attraction itself, the fort houses a museum exhibiting various artifacts reflecting the cultures that have influenced the East African coast. You will also see articles recovered from the ill-fated Portuguese warship Santo Antonio De Tanna, which sank in the siege of 1697 that lasted 1000 days.

Biashara Street is an excellent bazaar to pick up local fabrics and clothing. There are numerous bustling markets, curio and curving shops. The Mamba Village (Crocodile Park), Haller Park (Formerly Bamburi Nature Trail), and the monumental landmark tusks crossing at the entrance of the city are other spots not to miss. Mombasa has through the years risen to become a city of international status, and in March 2007, successfully hosted the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

At Mombasa’s North Coast, you will find some of Kenya’s finest soft sand beaches and resorts. Nyali, Vipingo, Kikambala and Shanzu are some tourist favourites. Those seeking a getaway from everyday hustles favour Mtwapa and Takaungu with their stretches of deserted beachfronts. The North Coast offers excellent diving with opportunities to swim with turtles and dolphins, see the corals and enjoy wreck diving.

Further North is Malindi -the only town along the East African Coast that extended friendship to the Portuguese without the persuasion of arms. The pillar that Vasco Da Gama erected to serve as a navigation aid still stands. Today, the town is a particular favourite with Italian visitors. Most of the hotel and resort development are to the South of the town along the Silversands beachfront and nearer town around Malindi Bay.

At Malindi Marine National Park, you can see some fascinating coral gardens by diving, snorkelling or from a glass bottomed boat. The town is a respected centre for big game fishing and several world records have been set here. The American writer Hemingway was here in the 1930’s to enjoy one of his favourite macho sports.

Watamu, 15 km further south, is a small beach development around the beautiful inlets of Turtle Bay and Blue Lagoon. Watamu too has its own Marine Park. At the edge of the park, you find a collection of caves housing a school of giant rock cod, some stretching the whole of 2 metres.

The North culminates at Lamu Island -an old romantic stone-town. Of the Swahili cities, Lamu is perhaps the only one that has retained its original character. It’s attraction is its fascinating past, narrow winding streets, coconut plantations and quaint villages.

Lamu has in recent years found favour with the international glitterati. The town has an ambience of mediaeval romance that attracts those who are offended by the burdens of our modern existence. Life in the island goes on almost like it did in the 14th century when the settlement was founded.

Lamu narrow streets are not car friendly; the town has only a single car for use by the top government official. Everybody else walks, takes a dhow or uses donkey taxis. If you come in by air, you will land at nearby Manda Island, from where you take a dhow or ferry. In this centre of Islamic culture, the men wear full-length whites and the women are shorn head to toe in black.

Shela is the main beach on the island and is just 15 minutes away by motorboat. You will find good rated accommodation at Lamu, and there are also some very pricey hideaways in the neighboring islands of the archipelago favored by the jet set. In the centre of the town, you find a fort built by invading Omani Arabs in the early 19th century that now serves as a cultural centre.

Lamu museum is located at the seafront, in a house once occupied by Jack Haggard, Queen Victoria’s consul in this then important outpost. The museum is a repository of Swahili culture and on display are artifacts, dhows, jewelry and crafts.

The South Coast of Kenya has excellent beaches, elegant accommodation, rain forests teeming with birds and wildlife, marine parks, and coral gardens, and the historic slave caves of Shimoni. The beaches are: Shelley, Tiwi, Diani, Msambweni and Shimoni. The waters provide good sporting and big game fishing. You can take a game safari at the Shimba Hills National Park, which is well within beach range.

The key attraction of the Swahili Coast in Tanzania is a Zanzibar cultural tour. In its days of glory, the island was highly favoured by the Omani Sultans. The Portuguese stripped it of its grandeur, and in its decline it came under German rule and was later transferred to the British after World War I. Today, Zanzibar’s Old Stone-Town lives to tell its tales of better days. It is famed for its narrow winding streets and sultan’s palaces, the Portuguese fort and gardens, old Swahili architecture and Turkish baths.

Zanzibar is referred to as the Spice Islands with good reason. The fragrant scents of cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and vanilla hung in the warm tropical air. The Cathedral Church of Christ, on the site of the open slave market, is of historical interest and for the devout is the appropriate place to pray for the souls of those who suffered and perished in the slave trade.

Diving, surfing, swimming and sunbathing are some of Zanzibar’s delights. The best beaches and waves are up North, the Stone-Town is west, Menai Bay Conservancy Area for endangered turtle species is south, and Jozani Forest with rare primates and small mammals is to the Southeast. The East is made up of broken shores with low tide and plenty of reefs. Nearby isles include: Chole, Prison, Grave & Snake Islands.

Pemba -‘the Green Island’, is one of the isles of Zanzibar to the North. It is also a Spice Island and an ideal place to enjoy unspoilt shores and underwater adventure. Mafia Islands to the South of Zanzibar are remote and provide privacy ideal for relaxation. They are renowned for their coconut and cashew nut plantations, Swahili villages and the coral ruins of Chole Mjini.

Other must-see places on the Swahili Coast in Tanzania include Kilwa; for a tale of turbulent history, Mikindani for excellent game fishing and diving and Saadani Game Reserve -an amazing wildlife sanctuary on the ocean shores.

There is a wide range of hotels at the Kenya and Tanzania coast. To get best value for your holiday, you are advised to combine a visit to the coast, with an East African wildlife safari to view some of the game the region is famed for.

The Swahili coast is generally a hot and humid place, tempered only by sea breezes. The wettest period is April and May with a shorter and lighter wet season in November. The mean minimum and maximum temperatures are between 30 and 33 degrees centigrade. December to March is hot and dry while June to October is the period when it is coolest and driest.

Light clothing is recommended, as even the evenings are usually warm. Short sleeve shirts, shorts and trousers for men and short sleeve blouses, slacks and skirts are sufficient. However, in this predominantly Muslim area, women need to dress modestly so as not to offend local sensibilities. But swimwear is perfectly acceptable at beaches and hotel premises. Talk to us Today on a cultural or beach safari of this awesome region.

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