Swahili culture was born a thousand years ago at the larger East African coast comprising of the current Somali, Kenyan and Tanzanian territories. Through trade, Arabs and Indians brought along their cultural practices to the native Africans at the coast in which basic ideas of the religion of Islam and the Arabic language met local traditions.
Since the late 17th century elaborated scripts on Swahili language are handed down. These early artifacts can still be studied today when the former dwellers directly transmitted their knowledge, opinions, experience and ideas of social life to their children and grandchildren. Continuous exchanges gave them the basics for peaceful co-existence.
Even when the main embodiments of trade were often mainly slaves, gold, jewellery and ebony sourced from central African regions, the East African coastal people developed advanced skills, especially in handcraft trade and their exceptional hospitality was an added value. Besides, busy vegetables and fruits farmers cultivated the fertile soil under the warm climate, while talented cooks invented lovely dishes to feed an armada of hungry travelers.
From their Arabic customers the locals also learned how to build harbors and adopted medical skills. Besides, the fact that Swahili people love their sense of style as expressed in their fashion, hospitality and open-minded mentality, they always seem to keep themselves busy even in their sometimes-unfavorable hot weather as long as the work is worth it.
At Bamburi beach, you find more than just the general traces of traditional Swahili behaviour. Most traders display the known early spirit of social life and extending trade by selling hand made products such as carvings, clothes, sandals including fresh fruits and offering the famous traditional Swahili massage. Instead of organizing caravans they offer safaris and camel beach walks—their ability unfortunately restricted to the presence of tourists who are their main customers.
In Kenya, today, as a colonialism aftermath and other related factors, a lot remains to be done in the provision of public health services and education, which is still inaccessible for the under-privileged. On the other hand, globalization leaves its heavy marks on the local handcraft business. It is only a decade ago when weavers could walk from village to village in Tanzania to process local cotton harvests to nice versatile kanga clothes – but today mass products arriving from China have unfortunately replaced such locally produced beautiful commodities which are important in uplifting the living standards of the local people.
Therefore, social pressure as a result of globalization is not likely to support most ordinary Kenyans worsened by the handsome promises given by politicians during election periods that are hardly acted upon. While omnipresent mass media promote questionable ideals of behavior and ownership, it becomes even harder for people to continue respecting cultural values. This is the reason why the Swahili spirit is eroded by the day –Unfortunately! Not too Late....
You can Improve and Support Swahili Spirit…
If you take a closer look at most locally produced products along the famous Bamburi beach, you will definitely trace the Swahili spirit from the creativity used to make them. The products however represent more than just pieces of nicely handmade products because, behind the facade, the income generated is used to support families and educate children.
Therefore, during your holiday when you just want to relax, you may once in a while feel bothered by the traders as they try to sell their commodities. In such a case, kindly try to understand by remembering that there is an ever-growing pressure and competition on the sellers because many hotels located along the beaches have opened their own gift shops as a way of tapping the cash that tourists would instead be spending on those local beach traders. Also, please remember that in most of those shops, little salaries and low acquisition prices are made in exchange for high profits, which is not a fair deal to the original producers.
As a way of organizing themselves therefore, the official traders of Bamburi Beach wear badges to identify themselves—a true sign of Swahili spirit’s order. Even if the local culture is more than just selling of commodities along a famous tourist beach, every buyer can only give what is in his or her own reach!
Therefore, let’s support local entrepreneurship; let's build a better world by uplifting local living standards through sustainable tourism!
For further information, read: Ali and Alamin Mazrui, Swahili State and Society, 1995.
And don’t forget to visit Fort Jesus in Mombasa’s Old Town.