Kiswahili or Swahili is a language which originated many centuries ago between the Lamu archipelago and Zanzibar. It belongs to the family of the Bantu languages that are spread nearly all over the whole eastern and southern parts of the African continent. It feeds itself from African, Arabian, Asian and European pours and contains words and understands from different countries.
Swahili actually means ‘edge’ or ‘coast’. The influence of the Arab speakers is significant. As lingua franca it is the link of a multicoloured and polyphonic mixed culture of traders and sailors that put into port and has been doing this with their traditional dhows since a thousand years travelling between Lamu, Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, Mogadiscio and Dar es-Salaam. Driven by the seasonal monsoons, they sailed further south to Mozambique and Madagaskar, and even north-east as far as Arabia and India.
The captains and merchants came from many different countries, they were Somali, Chinese, Indonesian, Persian and Osmani, later on they were joined by the Turks, Portuguese, British and Germans. They all brought valuables from all over the world to the port of the Lamu archipelago: silk and porcelain from China, spices from Indonesia and cotton from India in exchange for ivory, wood, skins, gold and incense from Africa. There existed also a busy slave market. The time of prosperity of these East African cities was from the 12th until the 15th century. Their heyday ended with the arrival of the Europeans.
Islam is the main religion of the Swahilis. It came to the East African coast in the 8th century and has gained influence since then. The earliest mosque dates back to the 9th century.
The first settlements were built a long time ago. The city of Manda is supposed to have already existed in the 9th century. Lamu Town is mentioned in Portuguese sources from the 14th century. There are some more ancient settlements, the old Swahili city of Takwa that flourished between the 15th and 17th centuries. Only ruins give evidence of the history of this town, which was inexplicably abandoned in the 17th century and whose inhabitants were the first Shela settlers.
The archipelago consists of three main islands (Lamu, Manda and Pate) with countless smaller ones and had its golden age from 1650 until 1900. The influence of the Arabic culture brought with it also the religion and, as on the entire coast. Islam prevailed against traditional beliefs. Mosques were built and the Sharia, the Islamic law, was introduced.
The residents of the urban centres were very artistic people: wood- and ivory carvers, stonemasons, gold- and silversmiths brought prosperity to the region; the architecture with its beautiful ornamental limestone carvings flourished. Literature and rich poetry reflect the richness of the social life in the region.
So Lamu Island became an important centre of the Swahili culture. But several war campaigns, the end of the slave trade and the harbours that aren't suitable for steamships, brought an end to prosperity. Afterwards, the archipelago sank into economical stagnation and political meaninglessness. Nowadays the inhabitants make their living from modest trading and a slowly growing tourism.
Thanks to the historical order of the events, the townscape of Lamu Town is to a great extent intact and bears witness of the countless occurrences of its glorious past. It is the oldest surviving Swahili town in East Africa.
The stone houses are very typical in the Swahili culture, many of them can be seen in Lamu Old Town. These houses are separated from one another by long narrow lanes which provide shade and cool down the hot humid environment.
They are famous for their elaborately carved doors and posts. The Swahili reception (daka), an open space with stone benches (baraza), facing each other, is unique and serves as the public entrance of the houses, where the local men sit in the afternoon, letting time pass by.
The houses are usually not divided into individual rooms, but built in the style of a loft. Most of the houses have four of this so-called “Swahili galleries”, each one used for a different requirement. The front galleries are rich with stucco and niches embedded in the wall (vidaka) for decoration and contain books, pottery lamps and important items to demonstrate the richness and social standing of the family.
The artistic talent to make stucco with limestone has seen a revival since the 1990ies. A Swahili stone house, depending on the number of family members and how wealthy they are, can be four storeys high and has natural ventilation. The ceilings are made of mangrove (boriti) poles and on the flat roofs there are often airy terraces with shady palm tree shelters (makuti) and provide a beautiful view of the surroundings – perfect spaces for relaxation.
Since the seventies, Americans and Europeans keep discovering the treasures of this Swahili architecture, restoring the old monuments and putting a lot of love into the details.