About The Project
East Africa - an Overview
Teaching Swahili






(Supported by a Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities)
Kenya Tanzania  Uganda Burundi  Rwanda

East Africa - An Overview

In recent years a vast body of knowledge about Africa has emerged. There are a great many languages, cultures, and histories on the African continent, and people who wish to penetrate this large body of learning and information - and gain a cohesive sense of African peoples, their arts, and their histories - are faced with a bewildering task. This Living Encyclopedia of East Africa is intended to provide information on the countries that primarily make up Swahili-speaking region of East Africa in a concise form. These countries are Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. The Swahili-speaking area also extends into southern Somalia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and parts of northern Mozambique and the Comoros Islands. We have chosen the East Africa region for a number of reasons: 1. Geographically, the region is well known for its magnificent physical features. The two highest mountains in Africa are located here: Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. The River Nile, the longest river in Africa has its source from Africa's biggest lake, Lake Nyanza also known as Lake Victoria. The region is also famous for its game reserves located at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania and Masai Mara in Kenya. East Africa's governments recognize the value of their natural resources and have set aside large areas as national parks. Twenty-five percent of Tanzania's land is designated as national parks or game reserves. The largest, Selous Reserve, is larger than the country of Denmark. 2. East Africa is at the center of speculation over human origins. Anthropologists like Louis S. B and Mary Leakey have indicated that human ancestors may have lived in Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge at the edge of the Great Rift Valley, over two million years ago. 3. The region is also famous for the research on Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall. Jane Goodall conducted over thirty years of research in Tanzania and established a primatology research center known as the Gombe Stream Research Center at the shore of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. 4. Politically, the region is famous for its hospitality to refugees and other politically dispossessed peoples. It was known for its involvement in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and for providing refugee facilities for freedom fighters from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola. More recently it has befriended refugees from Rwanda, the Sudan, and Somalia. The region also is known for its political innovations. African socialism Ujamaa as advocated by Mwalimu Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, is a policy that attracted attention of people world wide. Pre-colonial East Africa was important politically in that several large kingdoms dominated regional affairs. Two of them were the Kingdom of Uganda, which now constitutes the core of contemporary Uganda, and the Kingdom of Rwanda, which also is the core of a modern nation-state. The coastal regions were dotted with powerful city-states--settlements that brokered trade between the interior and the Indian Ocean. 5. Historically, East Africa was known for the extensive trade networks that penetrated the region and linked together people of various backgrounds, reaching deep into the interior of Central Africa and eastward across ocean as far as India. At various periods the valued trade items were ivory, gold, slaves, beads, salt, and foodstuffs, especially spices grown in Zanzibar. Indian Ocean trade meant that Swahili and Arabic-speaking merchants were interacting for at least 1,000 years, and eventually brought Islam to the shores of East Africa. Traditional economies were based on hunting, farming, animal herding, and even fishing in coastal areas. Iron-making was practiced as early as 500 B.C. Local textile manufacture, using cotton, began during the 11th century. 6. In terms of language, East Africa is united by the common lingua franca known as Swahili. This language is both the native tongue of a specific people - "the Swahili" - and a lingua franca spoken by more than 50 million people throughout the region. Swahili is one the few lingua francas among the more than 1,000 languages spoken on the African continent, and therefore one of the most widely used. Thus, although "Swahili" denotes a specific people, a cultural way of life, a literature, and a geographical region, its status as a lingua franca means that it is used in many communities that embrace diverse life styles, economic and aesthetic practices, religions and ideologies. Within the linguistic rubric of Swahili, an entire region - a diverse and complex spectrum of landscapes, peoples and world views - is accessible. In the United States, Swahili is classified among the less commonly taught foreign languages. Such languages are rarely taught below college level, Swahili being the rare exception. It is one of the most accessible African languages in terms of difficult of learning and availability of learning resources. A Swahili Dictionary, Swahili Listserv, and Swahili Club (interaction in real time) exist on the Internet; videotapes, illustrated story books, visual aids, supplementary materials for computer-assisted instruction, and radio programs on the internet are available. Swahili is already used in African-American communities during their annual celebration of Kwanzaa, a festival which uses Swahili words and expressions. Language is one of the best lenses through which to view the life ways, cultures and practices of other peoples. Languages are not simple communicative systems; they are cultural phenomena in and of themselves and at the same time mediators of other forms of culture. As such they serve as powerful tools for understanding the human groups that speak them. For example, the basic greetings in Swahili are more complex and time consuming than greetings in most European languages. They demonstrate the importance of human interaction and mutual respect in Swahili-speaking societies. The identification of loan-words (Arabic, English, neighboring African languages, etc.) in Swahili also shows the importance of history: trade, conquest, religious movements, and global currents in the region. While the exploration of Swahili history and culture is important in an of itself, the contexts in which Swahili is used as a second and third (and fourth ...) language are also important. For most of its non-native speakers, Swahili is a language not of tradition but of modernity. It is used in situations of migration and urbanization, and it is spoken to facilitate communication with other ethnic and national groups. An examination of the dynamic and diverse situations in which Swahili is spoken as a lingua franca serves as an excellent introduction to contemporary Africa and goes a long way toward dispelling essentialist myths about a perpetually rural and traditional Africa.


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