“The story of Swahili is one of globalization, cosmopolitanism, and creolization over the past 500 years. This book will stand on the shelf next to works such as Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and Abdul Sheriff’s Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam.”
Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history and of African and African American studies, Harvard University
Swahili was once an obscure dialect of an East African Bantu language. Today more than one hundred million people use it: Swahili is to eastern and central Africa what English is to the world. From its embrace in the 1960s by the black freedom movement in the United States to its adoption in 2004 as the African Union’s official language, Swahili has become a truly international language. How this came about and why, of all African languages, it happened only to Swahili is the story that John M. Mugane sets out to explore.
The remarkable adaptability of Swahili has allowed Africans and others to tailor the language to their needs, extending its influence far beyond its place of origin. Its symbolic as well as its practical power has evolved from its status as a language of contact among diverse cultures, even as it embodies the history of communities in eastern and central Africa and throughout the Indian Ocean world.
The Story of Swahili calls for a reevaluation of the widespread assumption that cultural superiority, military conquest, and economic dominance determine a language’s prosperity. This sweeping history gives a vibrant, living language its due, highlighting its nimbleness from its beginnings to its place today in the fast-changing world of global communication.
John M. Mugane is the professor of the Practice of African Languages and Cultures and the director of the African Language program in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
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Kiswahili has become the lingua franca of eastern Africa. Yet there can be few historic peoples whose identity is as elusive as that of the Swahili. Some have described themselves as Arabs, as Persians or even, in one place, as Portuguese. It is doubtful whether, even today, most of the people about whom this book is written would unhesitatingly and in all contexts accept the name Swahili. This book was central to the thought and lifework of the late James de Vere Allen.
Africa is a marriage of cultures: African and Asian, Islamic and Euro-Christian. Nowhere is this fusion more evident than in the formation of Swahili, Eastern Africa’s lingua franca, and its cultures. Swahili beyond the Boundaries: Literature, Language, and Identity addresses the moving frontiers of Swahili literature under the impetus of new waves of globalization in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.