Inculturation on the Swahili Coast

“Nawatakia saumu makbul.”

Omari repeats these words patiently until I can say them back. I have just wished a good fast to him and his friends Abduli and Mohamedi. They are watching the waves crash on the beach while waiting for the muezzin to signal sunset and the breaking of the fast. The evening meal during this month of Ramadan is called “staftahi;” Omari and his friends are grinning in anticipation of the nightly feast.

“Is fasting difficult?” I ask them in Kiswahili. “Not at all,” they laugh. “It’s good for our faith. It makes our faith strong and brings us close to God. Fasting is a joy.”

The night life of a Swahili city during Ramadan does seem to be joyful. From daybreak, Swahili Muslims eat and drink nothing at all. But when the evening chant begins sounding from the mosque, people sit at tables spread out on the streets. They break out bags of dates, and vendors come around with kettles of spiced coffee and sweet ginger tea. Then more food appears– almond halwa, chapati, samosas, and bigger feasts. The mosques are lit up, the chanting continues for hours, and the hubbub doesn’t quiet until midnight or later.

In missionary lingo we sometimes speak of “inculturation.” This is a word for the process whereby a culture becomes so deeply connected with its faith that the two seem inseparable; that the faith belongs to the culture so thoroughly that you can’t imagine the culture without its faith. Christianity in Greece and Christianity in Ethiopia are two strong examples.

Islam, it seems, has successfully been inculturated in Swahili culture. Swahili cities have Sikh temples and Christian cathedrals for sure, but if they didn’t they’d still be Swahili cities. It’s hard to imagine a Swahili city without its mosques, some of them more than half a millenium old. It’s hard to imagine a Swahili city without young men like Omari, Abduli and Mohamedi as they sit on the beach in their embroidered kofia caps, enjoying the sound of the waves and anticipating staftahi with wide smiles.

What would a Christian Swahili culture look like? Thanks to their Islamic heritage, Omari and his friends are familiar with spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These traditions, so foreign and inaccessible to many North Americans, are well-developed here and ready to find their fulness in the Orthodox Christian faith. Even Swahili architecture borrows from Arabic patterns, which were copied from Orthodox Christian temples.

Of course it is important that every Swahili person has his or her life personally transformed by Christ. This is crucially important. It is a matter of life and death. But if an individual converts to Christianity while the culture remains unchanged, it will be very difficult for the individual’s faith to thrive alone. No one can be saved alone, we Orthodox Christians sometimes say. We are saved by one another. We are saved within our culture.

There are many good things about Swahili culture as it is. Omari and his friends, as far as I can tell, are seeking the face of God in earnest joy. Their culture gives them many good tools in this spiritual endeavor. Their culture also lacks some crucial tools. Our task as Christians is not to undermine these good things about Swahili culture, to destroy or belittle the spiritual tools that people use and use well. Our task is to make the toolbox completely full, to use these spiritual tools as they were truly intended: for the glory of Jesus Christ.

This is one of many tasks before the Orthodox Church here in East Africa. Please pray for us as we work alongside the Church to reveal the glory of God here in the local context.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Inculturation on the Swahili Coast

  1. Interesting. Though I’ve met several people who speak Swahili, most have done so as a second language, including our parish priest, Fr Athanasius Akunda, whose doctoral thesis on inculturation in Western Kenya has just been passed by the external examiners.

    • The Swahili people make up only about five per cent of all Kiswahili speakers. While there is no such tribe or ethnic group as “Swahili,” the Swahili culture/ civilization is made up of several coastal ethnicities as well as many people with Asian or Middle Eastern heritage. In fact, the “pure” Swahili people of the Zanzibar Archipelago call themselves Shirazi and claim Persian ancestry.

      So Swahili culture is quite different from that of Western Kenya, although many Western Kenyans use the Kiswahili language as a lingua franca.

  2. If and when that doctoral thesis is available publicly, I will be very interested in reading it.

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