They have lived where they are now for
many centuries, and their way of life is one they, and
other peoples who know them, characterize as having
utu , a word that can only be glossed as
"civilization" or "humanness."
It is no accident, no artifact of
the ethnographic enterprise, to find that the
Swahili view themselves as truly civilized and
"human" beyond many others of our species.
Their influence on the peoples they
have had contact with over the centuries has been a
profound and lasting one.
They are the residents and probable
founders of what may be East Africa’s greatest
Their trading with other groups over
centuries has carried their influence beyond that of
other communities far larger than theirs.
Their deep allegiance to Islam has
made them a very conscious part of one of the earth’s
most influential traditions, and their language is the
lingua franca for most of eastern and some of
The culture of this impressive group
endures down the length of the East African coast
and on the islands as far into the Indian Ocean as
The Swahili of Mombasa have close
ties with the other members of their ethnic group
along the coast, but they are a proud and
Despite economic and political
upheavals of significant magnitude over the centuries,
including, especially, the period from World War I
until the present, their culture has retained its
vitality and the community its coherence.
I count it a privilege to have had
the opportunity to live among them and to chronicle
some of the bases for their way of life.
The friends I have in this community
are among those I value most among all the people I
have ever met.
In some respects, this study was more
difficult than the others I have undertaken, but the
hospitality and charm of the community members, in
addition to the challenging data, provided substantial
This book is based on what I have seen
and heard in my eight field trips (1975–76, 1977,
1980, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988) totaling
twenty-four months in Old Town, the Swahili section of