Teaching the Swahili Coast

Map of Swahili Coast

Getting Started

From about 1000-1500 CE, the Swahili coast was one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. Located along the Indian Ocean between Somalia and northern Mozambique, the region was home to dozens of small city-states which vied for control over lucrative trade routes between the African interior and the Middle East, India, and China. Ibn Battuta, a famous global traveler, visited Kilwa in 1331 and wrote that it was “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.”1 For world history instructors, the Swahili coast is a fascinating early example of global connections.

Textbook publisher have done an excellent job of describing these connections. Patterns of World History uses a detailed map to illustrate the trading links, but in the text focuses on the spread of dissident forms of Islam to the Swahili coast. This helps integrate this part of the world into the textbook’s overall framework of “religious civilizations.” Traditions and Encounters places greater emphasis on economics. An excerpt from Ibn Battuta describes how hospitality lubricated the wheels of commerce, and an image of a 15th century piece of Chinese porcelain found in Dar es Salaam provides a concrete example of the extent of the Indian Ocean trade. Panorama touches briefly on the significance of the Swahili language and its incorporation of Persian and Arabic loanwords, while Worlds Together Worlds Apart is the only textbook to mention Madagascar. The northern part of the island likely experienced the arrival of migrants from both the East African coast and the islands of Indonesia during the first millennium CE, and is described as one of the most multicultural places on earth at that time. It has far less to say about the rest of the Swahili coast, however.


A dhow along the East African coast. Source: Wikipedia

My Original Lesson Plan

Thanks to my specialist background, I had access to a different source than a generic world history textbook. In this case, a generic African history textbook! Africa in World History is written by two specialists on Islam, and Erik Gilbert is a historian who has extensively studied seaborne trade along the East African coast. Their chapter on “East Africa and the Advent of Islam”2 thus became the basis for my first class on the subject. Gilbert’s background led him to emphasize environmental factors in the origins of the Swahili. He feels the coastal city-states would not have emerged without the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean. These winds blow out of the northeast from November to April, and then transition to the southwest from May to October. This makes rapid downwind sailing possible from the Middle East and India to the Swahili coast in as little three weeks, but makes a return voyage impossible until the winds have shifted. This led many merchants to take rooms in Swahili towns while waiting for the winds to shift, and some even married into local families. Cultural exchange was greatly intensified by the monsoon winds.

My class then learned about the arrival of Islam, which we can date to 780 CE thanks to Horton’s excavation of a small mosque in Shanga. I described the importance of export commodities like ivory, gold and slaves, and following Gilbert and Reynolds included a brief description of how chattel slavery in the Middle East came to an abrupt end after the Zanj Rebellion in the 9th century. This would have reduced trade along the coast to an extent, but the discovery of gold in Great Zimbabwe created a significant boom after 1000 CE. I explored the depth of these global connections through a segment entitled “The Shanga Lion” on p.125 of Africa in World History. The students reading this excerpt learned about a small statue found in Shanga. It was made of copper from China, depicts an African lion, uses Indian artistic styles, and likely functioned as a weight for measuring currency. This segment does an excellent job conveying just how cosmopolitan the Swahili coast was, but sadly no image accompanies the excerpt. The class then finished with a description of Kilwa, focusing on the spectacular architecture of the Husuni Kubwa palace as well as the Great Mosque. From the beginning I enjoyed teaching this class, and I think students got a great deal out of it. Few knew that any place on earth, let alone sub-Saharan Africa, was so “global” during this early time period.

Zanzibar Stone Town today

Zanzibar Stone Town. Source: Wikipedia


The Specialist Literature

Much of the specialist literature on the region debates how much Swahili culture is borrowed from the wider Islamic world and how much is indigenous. This debate was extremely heated in the mid-20th century, when nationalist scholars challenged older imperial narratives that described the Swahili as Arab colonists. This was important at the time, but it led to an opposite overreaction which tended to minimize any borrowed cultural elements. Scholars and textbooks are now in general agreement that the Swahili borrowed extensively from Africans, Indians, and Arabs alike.3

The more vibrant debate today surrounds the significance of Islam. World history textbooks often seek to explain the rapid expansion of the Islamic world, but it is very interesting that the faith rarely spread more than a few miles from the Swahili coast before 1500. While Islam is a global religion, it did not necessarily sweep away the faiths of people living inland. Dave Bresnahan’s research on Swahili linguistics suggests an alternative past – kusoma, for example, means “to read” today, but its original Bantu root likely meant “to stutter.” Muslims were not held in awe, even though they brought powerful new technologies like writing with them.4

This topic became a challenge when I started trying to teach more historical skills. Classes about trade can become a list of items changing hands, and that is rarely interesting. Fortunately, there is another debate on the Swahili coast that may be more intriguing to students. This involves the ongoing efforts to integrate archaeological, linguistic, and even genetic data into the historical record.5  In a region where historians have only a fragmentary written record, how do we know what we know?

I find this a fascinating entry point to studying the Swahili coast. What can linguistics tell us about the origins of the Swahili? How do we know that Islam arrived in Shanga in 780 CE? How can we piece together the relationships between the urban centers and hinterlands? How do we reconstruct daily life in the towns during this time period? All of these are questions that help students learn how history is made, and give them a better understanding of how historians use evidence. The following exercises are meant to foster this approach while teaching the Swahili coast.

Suggested Classroom Exercises

Exercise on the Swahili Language – Assign the chapter “A Grand Smorgasbord of Borrowings and Adaptations” from Mugane, The Story of Swahili. Have the students read this chapter while keeping an eye out for several key words; these could include mabati and mayai (from original Bantu languages), maziwa and ngonzi (borrowed from Cushitic speakers), rangi and kufuli (borrowed from Hindi), duka and dirisha (borrowed from Persian), chai and kanisa (borrowed from multiple languages), madaftari and dawa (borrowed from Arabic), and bendera and gereza (borrowed from Portuguese). In class, have the students discuss what historians can take from these examples of linguistic borrowing. What do they tell us about the history of the Swahili? What might be some challenges historians face in using this kind of evidence? Be sure to emphasize how languages often borrow new words for things or ideas that they do not have themselves.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence, Historical Significance

Global Themes = Cultural Contact

Image of the Shanga Lion Retouched

Exercise on the Shanga Lion – Divide the class into groups of two. Give one person a drawing of the Shanga lion (pictured above) and give the other Gilbert and Reynolds’ analysis of it. Have the student with the image of the Shanga lion act as an archaeologist discovering the item for the first time. Ask them to come up with a list of questions about the lion, which they can then ask their partner. After getting a response, have the first student come up with a meaning for the Shanga lion. The students should be given a chance to compare their ideas with those of the experts, with a focus placed on how experts come up educated guesses but how these are far from certainties.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence

Global Themes = Making History, Cultural Contact

Exercise on the city of Kilwa – Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 and give each group access to the key written sources on the Swahili coast. These could include Ibn Battuta’s account, an excerpt from Gilbert and Reynolds6 that summarizes the Arabic history of Kilwa, and one of the Portuguese sources from the 1500s.7 Ask the students to analyze these documents as a group and create a picture of life in the city of Kilwa. Once the students are done ask them what they know a lot about from the written sources. Make sure you point out how little these sources tell us about the day to day life of people living in the city. Then give each group a copy of MacGregor’s “Kilwa Pot Sherds” and an excerpt from Fleisher and Wynne-Jones’ article on “Finding Meaning in Swahili Spatial Practices.” This article includes a full report on a recent excavation at Songo Mnara, a small town located adjacent to Kilwa. Have each group finish their report using these new sources. Conclude by asking the class how archaeologists improve our understanding of the past.

Historical Skills = Evaluating Evidence

Global Themes = Making History

Kilwa Pot Sherds

Kilwa Pot Sherds. Source: British Museum


  1. Erik Gilbert and Jonathan Reynolds, Africa in World History, 2ed (New York: Pearson, 2008), 132
  2. Gilbert and Reynolds, Africa in World History, 117-135
  3. Nicely addressed by Mapunda in MacGregor, “Kilwa Pot Sherds,” from A History of the World in 100 Objects, (New York: Viking, 2010), 389
  4. Dave Bresnahan, “To Read, To Write, To Ridicule: Knowledge and expression in early Swahili history, c.1000-1500 CE,” presented at Early Maritime Cultures on the East African Coast, Madison WI, October 23-24, 2015
  5. Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Finding Meaning in Ancient Swahili Spatial Practices,” African Archaeological Review (2012) 29: 171-207
  6. Gilbert and Reynolds, Africa in World History, 130-131
  7. A good option is Duarte Barbosa’s account, taken from McKay et al, Understanding World Societies, 1ed, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2012), 504-505

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