In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Swahili Language and Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Newspapers
  • Journals
  • Literary Criticism in Swahili
  • Dictionaries
  • Swahili Grammars and Studies of Swahili Grammar
  • Historical and Comparative Linguistic Studies
  • Theorizing about Swahili Cultural Identity
  • Translations into Swahili

African Studies Swahili Language and Literature
Ann Biersteker, Alena Rettová
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0008


Swahili has been spoken for centuries along the East African coast from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique and on Indian Ocean islands off the coast of East Africa. In the 19th and 20th centuries the language spread throughout eastern and central Africa. Today 100 million people speak Swahili. Swahili literature began as the literature of coastal and Indian Ocean Muslims. Early Swahili was written in Arabic script and often drew upon earlier texts in Arabic as well as Swahili traditions. During British and German colonial rule in the 20th century, Swahili came to be written in roman script and to draw upon texts in European languages, as well as a wide range of African literary traditions in African and other languages. This article provides an overview of the history of Swahili language and literature from the earliest known texts to contemporary poetry, fiction, and drama. We consider both performed and written texts as well as studies of Swahili literature and studies of the Swahili language, including linguistic studies, dictionaries, and grammars.

General Overviews

Sources are available in English that provide introductions to and overviews of Swahili literature. Mazrui 2004 provides a comprehensive overview of Swahili literature. Fabian 1986 looks specifically at the history of Swahili in what was the Belgian Congo. Gérard 1981 provides an introduction to Swahili literature in comparison with literatures in other African languages. Khamis 2000 considers contending definitions of Swahili literature and argues for an inclusive definition. Lihamba, et al. 1997 is a history of women’s literature in Swahili and includes a wide range of translated texts as well as commentaries that provide context.

  • Fabian, Johannes. Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former Belgian Congo, 1880–1938. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

    An insightful and solidly researched study of the colonial-era history of Swahili in Congo.

  • Gérard, A. S. “East Africa: Swahili.” In African Language Literatures. An Introduction to the Literary History of Sub Saharan Africa. By A. S. Gérard, 93–153. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1981.

    A useful introduction to literature in Swahili.

  • Khamis, Said A. M. “The Heterogeneity of Swahili Literature.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 9.2 (2000): 11–21.

    In this article Khamis discusses previous definitions of Swahili literature and considers the use of various dialects of Swahili in Swahili literature. He argues for a pluralistic definition of Swahili literature.

  • Lihamba, Amandina, Fulata L. Moyo, M. M. Mulokozi, Naomi L. Shitemi, and Saïda Yahya-Othman, eds. Women Writing Africa. Vol. 3, The Eastern Region. New York: Feminist Press, 1997.

    This anthology provides a wide variety of translations of Swahili oral and written poetry, autobiography, fiction, and other writings by East African women.

  • Mazrui, Alamin. “The Swahili Literary Tradition: An Intercultural Heritage.” In The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature. Vol. 1. Edited by Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi, 199–226. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Mazrui’s essay provides a most useful overview of Swahili literature.

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