Swahili kaleidoscope

Guess what? I’m in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I arrived last week and I’ll be spending a few months in East Africa in a post-graduate-school, hopefully prolific daze. Here are some initial impressions.

Tanzania is a hybrid place. Last week I saw hundreds of Indians leaving juma’ prayers and then ate rice pilau at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Asians at one elbow and people of African descent at the other. In the crowded streets there are people in every kind of dress, from the face-covering niqab – called buibui here – to both sober and colorful hijabs, wax prints and pants, stylish neckties and badly matched ones, shorts and djellabiyehs, Manchester United jerseys and Afrocentric dashikis. (There was even one guy dressed exactly like E-40, from glasses to jumbo-T-shirt-draped paunch.)

Kiswahili, the language of the coastal Swahili culture and also the national language of Tanzania, exemplifies the country’s hybrid quality. It is a language that I’m just getting to know, and I’m enjoying experiencing its links to Arabic. (It’s also a language that’s on the rise: read here.) There’s the everyday greeting of habari, which means “news” and comes from the Arabic khabar, a word that can also be used in greetings. In Arabic, khatar is “danger;” in Kiswahili, hatari. Khidmah means “service” in Arabic; in Kiswahili it’s huduma. Even the word “Swahili” means something along the lines of “coastal” and comes from the Arabic word for coast, sahel. And so on.

For centuries, the Indian Ocean trade brought merchants from the Arab Gulf (or the Persian Gulf, if you prefer), as well as from further afield. The Arabs’ dhows plied the coastal waters from Yemen to Dar es Salaam. They brought all sorts of goods from the Middle East and returned with wood (so scarce in the sheikdoms that are now countries stretching from Kuwait to Oman), ivory and, especially in later years, slaves.

Apart from a few official outposts, like Tanzania’s Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam, which the Omani sultanate founded in an organized way, this trade was fairly anarchical. The Arab sailors were often dirt-poor. They left the Gulf to seek better fortunes and sometimes made just enough to pay their way. There was no regulation and even the ship’s owners’ profits were often modest.

As far as I can tell, Kiswahili’s incorporation of Arabic vocabulary bears the imprint of this anarchy. There is a happy opportunism to the adoption of some words. I like to think there’s even a sly sense of subversive humor. Thousands of miles from home, poor sailors mixed with local people and they all used a mélange of tongues as they pleased. Grammatical Arabic took a backseat to pragmatism, maybe like the social strictures of their homelands. Bantu languages welcomed the Arabic words into their homes with a relationship that was anything but subservient.

The result is a cultural kaleidoscope.

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