I’ve just returned from a visa run across the border to the Kenyan city of Mombasa. Like Dar es Salaam, Mombasa is a major seaport of the Swahili Coast, but in some ways is more typical of coastal history and culture than its younger Tanzanian counterpart. I’d like to share some of what residents have told me about their thousand-year old civilization and culture. What follows is not historical research; it is based on casual observation and conversation with locals.
The Swahili Coast stretches for more than a thousand miles from southern Somalia southward across Kenya and Tanzania all the way to central Mozambique. Many of the major towns were once city-states, sometimes independent and sometimes tributaries to each other or to the Omani empire. By the early 20th century British, German and Portuguese invaders had conquered all of the Swahili sultans and today the coastal cities are linked to various inland countries created in the colonial era. While Swahili civilization shares a common language, the people differ from one another in many ways. The Swahili are of no single ethnic group but include many races: Goan, Gujarati, Punjabi, Shirazi (Persian), Arabic, Mijikenda and other Bantu peoples. Their religions are likewise diverse: Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Ismailism, Bohra, Sufism, and Shi’a are all well-represented. Sunni Islam is, however, the dominant faith.
Like Christians, Sunni Muslims practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Whereas historic Christianity has many fasting seasons throughout the year (Lent, Advent, etc) the Islamic faith has only one fasting season, which is the month of Ramadan. And while historic Christian fasting involves simplification of the diet and abstinence from certain foods for a season, the Islamic fast involves total abstinence during daylight hours followed by uninhibited consumption at night.
This means that, during Ramadan, Swahili cities come alive at night. Tables appear on the streets, and when the muezzin announces sunset people begin feasting together on dates, sweet ginger tea, an almond pastry called halwa, and many other foods. Mosques are decked in lights as the muezzin chants splendidly for hours on end; the streets are filled with energy and vigor.
Like Christians, Muslims fast as an exercise of faith. Fasting is a reminder that “man does not live by bread alone,” but that we can depend only on God for true nourishment. By abstaining from food during times of plenty, one can learn to cope faithfully in times of famine. A soul that is freed from earthly cares can more easily fly heavenward.
Of course there are many differences. Islam denies the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation; its understanding of God is as an entity distant and unknowable. In many parts of the world (though not, thank God, in Tanzania) Christians and Muslims live in mutual antagonism and fear. But all the same, I will not soon forget the experience of a Swahili city at Ramadan.
As always, I thank you for your friendship, encouragement, communication, financial participation and especially for your prayers. It is exciting to be in this place, seeing and learning all that I do. To have been sent here by all of you is a great privilege.
By your prayers,