Although scholars have been unable to pinpoint exactly where and when the Kiswahili language and culture first emerged, it is assumed it did so well before 1,000 AD, when the Swahili occupied territories near the Indian Ocean.
Studies show that the arrival of Arab traders from at least the 6th Century AD from the East African Coast and the spread of Islam from at least the 9th Century, helped to spread Kiswahili.
The spread of Islam was later assisted by the settlement of people from Oman and the Persian Gulf in the Zanzibar archipelago.
The Swahili language and culture, thus spread in major trading centres like Sofala in today’s Mozambique, Kilwa in today’s Tanzania as well as Mombasa and Lamu in Kenya.
Other trading towns included Barawa, Merca, Kismayu and Mogadishu in today’s Somalia, plus parts of the Comoros Islands and northern Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
Around 1,800 AD, rulers of Zanzibar started to organise trade expeditions in the mainland and Kiswahili-speaking merchants settled at several stops along the trade routes. This helped to spread Kiswahili in places like today’s Katanga Province in the DRC.
Colonialism also had an effect on the development of Kiswahili. For instance, after Germany seized Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania mainland) as a colony in 1886, it designated Kiswahili as the official administrative language.
Role of colonialism
After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Tanganyika fell into British hands. British authorities in collaboration with Christian missionaries in Uganda, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and Kenya, made Kiswahili the official language for primary education and low-level governance.
Later, writers such as Prof Penina Muhando Mlama, the dramatist and Kiswahili playwright from Dar es Salaam University chose Kiswahili as their medium of expression.
Prof Mlama was among African writers included in In Their Own Voices: African Women Writers Talk, a collection by Nigeria’s Prof Adeola James published by Heinemann in 1990 under the Studies in African Literature Series.
The development of Kiswahili literature in East Africa benefited greatly from the initiatives of people like former Tanzanian president the late Julius Nyerere, who translated Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice into Kiswahili as Mabepari wa Venisi.
Earlier, the seeds of Kiswahili literature had been sown by the late Shaaban bin Robert, a renowned Tanzanian writer.
Other past and present Kiswahili literary figures include Muhammed Said Abdulla, Pera Ridhiwani, May M Balisidya and Mzee Hamis Akida, all from Tanzania.
In Kenya, top literary figures like Abdilatif Abdalla, Prof Alamin Mazrui and the late Prof Katama Mkangi contributed to the emergence of Kiswahili as a versatile literary medium.
Zanzibar, has also produced literary figures of note including Farouk Topan, Said Khamis, Adam Shafi Adam and Mohamed Suleiman Mohamed.