Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture & the Shungwaya Phenomenon

Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture & the Shungwaya Phenomenon

Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture & the Shungwaya Phenomenon

Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture & the Shungwaya Phenomenon


Kiswahili has become the lingua franca of eastern Africa. Yet there can be few historic peoples whose identity is as elusive as that of the Swahili. Some have described themselves as Arabs, as Persians or even, in one place, as Portuguese. It is doubtful whether, even today, most of the people about whom this book is written would unhesitatingly and in all contexts accept the name Swahili. This book was central to the thought and lifework of the late James de Vere Allen. It is his major study of the origin of the Swahili and of their cultural identity. He focuses on how the African element in their cultural patrimony was first modified by Islam and later changed until many Swahili themselves lost sight of it. They share a language and they share a culture. Their territory stretches from the coast of southern Somalia to the Lamu archipelago in Kenya, to the Rovuma River in modern Mozambique and out into the islands of the Indian Ocean. But they lack a shared historical experience. James de Vere Allen, in this study of contentious originality, set out to give modern Swahili evidence of their shared history during a period of eight centuries.


John Middleton

James de Vere Allen was born in Nairobi in 1936 and educated in Kenya and England. After taking a degree at Oxford he joined the Kenya Ministry of Education, teaching at what is today the Lenana School and, after a spell at the University of Malaya, at Makerere University and the University of Nairobi. In 1970 he joined the Kenya Museums and founded the Lamu Museum. He retired in 1980 and near Kwale, on the top of a hill with a distant view of Mombasa and the Indian Ocean, designed and built a charming house with a small farm. Here he wrote this book, but due to perennial lack of water could not make the farm profitable. This worry and ever-worsening sickness made his determination to finish the book the more impressive; but it remained uncompleted at the time of his death in June 1990.

A year or so before he died he paid me the honour of asking me to edit for publication his over-long typescript on the history of the Swahili people. He was already seriously ill; he had his farm to run; he had to write and revise papers under difficult conditions; and he had neither the will nor the energy to shorten it himself.

I had met Jim in 1985 in Washington, before beginning my work in Lamu, and during the following years when in Kenya I always met with him either in his house in Lamu or at his farm in Kwale. He was hospitable, friendly, enthusiastic about anything to do with the coast and its peoples, and had a sharp sense of humour when observing the world around him which gave him so little recognition or support. Many people were puzzled by Jim, not knowing whether he was an eccentric amateur historian often scorned by professionals (he had neither a doctoral degree nor a university position), or whether he was an original and learned scholar who had devoted more years to the study of Swahili history than almost anyone else in that field. Jim was a frustrated man in his career, his writing, and his farm, and was always secretive about his work. He felt . . .

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