Swahili Culture…

I thought I’d talk about the very fascinating culture that belongs to Swahili speakers. (mostly found in the Coastal areas of Tanzania & Kenya ). This is from my perspective as a Swahili speaker but not really a Swahili person. My dad actually comes from this beautiful mountainous place called Morogoro a.k.a. “Mji Kasoro Bahari” (The city minus an ocean). I shamelessly don’t speak my mother tongue and to be fair neither does my dad but it’s all good because half the people in Tanzania can’t speak their mother tongue, all they know is Swahili, thanks to our founding father Mwl. J.K. Anyways I do digress, on to the Swahili Culture…

As far as greetings go, older people receive their own special brand of greeting from younger ones i.e. normally even if someone is older than you by a mere year then they are entitled to hear the word, “Shikamoo!” in greeting and they reply with, “Marahaba!” However with my generation we normally give our “shikamoo” to a person from around 4-5 years older than ourselves (at least I know am guilty of that!)

There’s also the culture of greeting people whenever you meet them. Yes! Including total strangers! So for example if you arrive at a bus stop and meet a person/people waiting there you are expected to greet them otherwise you’d receive quite the menacing looks! Having lived in Kenya for so long I tend to forget my manners whenever I am in Tanzania and I have been called out more times than I care to remember for not greeting people and just straight away stating my business to them. 

There’s also the eating culture that’s quite unique to the Swahili. It’s eating food ‘communal style’ as in there’ll be this huuge plate of ugali (most common dish in our part of the world) and everyone would literally dig in instead of cutting it up and having everyone have their own portion. It can be considered a bit unhygienic by some snobs people but it’s one of those things that gets, a family in particular, closer together. Outside the family this also happens at events such as funerals whereby it’s actually a good thing because it’s a bit of a stretch to be expected to provide hundreds of plates and what not for all the mourners.

Speaking of funerals, if there’s one thing I have learnt about the Swahili culture is the concept of “communal mourning”. I am referring to the practice whereby when a neighbour is in mourning then whether you are acquainted or not you are expected to visit them and comfort them. (we call this “kutoa mkono wa pole” or “kutoa rambirambi”). We normally do it by giving money or just a handshake (or a hug between f/f & m/m). The money is normally used to wards the funeral expenses as not many of us are usually prepared for our deaths anyways. Furthermore, women in particular are expected to see to the food preparations and serving as well as helping with cleaning and any other house chores. 

There’s also the very popular practice of asking for money from friends, family etc (“mchango” in Swahili) when one wants to tie the knot. This is to help towards the wedding expenses although personally I am not a big fan of this practice. I am a strong believer in not living beyond one’s means and I say if a small wedding is all your pocket can afford you then so be it, don’t bankrupt the rest of us in the name of holding ‘the wedding of the year’! It’s even funnier because most of the people use their friends “mchango” to hold this humongous wedding and then they start their new life and they don’t even have dishes in the house…wth?!!! There’s other times whereby “mchango” comes into play e.g.during funerals, to help cover medical bills etc This all goes to show the sense of community that is upheld in the Swahili culture and I for one am proud of my roots!

Lastly, I spoke of hugs in the funeral section and that reminded me of male-female relationships. We take “skinship” (to borrow a popular Korean expression) very seriously and if a man and a woman are seen embracing in public then tongues start wagging! It’s quite alright to share hugs/skinship between same sex but when it’s the opposite sex then one better ensure their counterpart is either their spouse, parent or sibling…or uncle/aunt but that’s a loong stretch! We also don’t do PDA as we were all taught that such things are only reserved for the bedroom. (literally!) Of course my generation being the dot com generation is much westernized and you see the opposite sex hugging and what not in greeting but there’s also many that still uphold our culture and values.

So, there’s a bit of an introduction into the Swahili culture just to give people an idea of our practices and values and how we live. This section might be updated in future if I think of other important practices so look out for that.

Yours Truly…

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2 Responses to Swahili Culture…

  1. boga says:


    I am very interested to read about that cultural part in that article. During my stay in Tanzania I was very interested to see and to learn about a totally different culture, than our western culture is. One funny thing i realised that you can not find any logic in cultures, so you it can happen that you make mistakes, but don’t worry, as long as you show respect for the other culture nobody will be very angry, if you don’t do anything which is totally blameful, so at home you should read some stuff about taboo (like pda between different sex in public in east africa) and how to be polite. But remember it is not possible to do no mistake and to understand the whole culture, especially in Tanzania many tribes are also somehow different. For me as European it was very funny as I tought in a homophobic country like Tanzania you will not see men holding hands, but they really like to do and there the meaning is totally different it shows a big respect for another, they are even kissing and hugging. For example also western culture has funny things for others like a friend of me from Tanzania asked me for the logic why we make in Europe a big problem if you see somebody in his underwear, but it’s no big deal if it is a bikini or bath-trousers. Please correct me if I told something wrong or you think it’s not like this or you experienced different.

  2. lisensei07 says:

    I nodded my head at pretty much everything you said, spot on!

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