The Swahili Coast, Watamu, (2018)

The Roman Catholic Church arrived on the East Coast of Africa in 1498 in the form of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. Between 1593 and 1596 the Portuguese built Fort Jesus on Mombasa Island, but they did not go beyond the coast and left in 1698 when Fort Jesus was captured by Saif bin Sultan.

The Ruins of the Great Mosque at Gedi, Watamu

The Arabs had controlled the East Coast since the 9th century. They had built the Great Mosque at Gedi in the thirteenth century, now one of the Kenya National Museum sites. In the centuries of Arab occupation on the East African coast, a Muslim-Bantu community had developed known as the Swahili. This Swahili community stretched along the coast taking in five African countries, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique and the Comoro Islands. There are over one hundred Swahili sites along the Kenyan coast. The word “Swahili” is of disputed derivation. In his Outline of the Elements of Kiswahili (1850) Krapf gave three possible derivations but settled on the most common and preferred possibility, i.e., that “Swahili” is from the Arabic word for “coast.”

When Ludwig Krapf and his wife arrived on the East Coast in 1844, it was important that they should first stop at Zanzibar to meet Said bin Sultan, the ruler of the Omani Empire. Zanzibar was an important trading port in the early to mid-nineteenth century; the Germans, French, British and Americans all had embassies there. Krapf was introduced to the Sultan when he arrived and found him hospitable. Indeed, the Sultan warned Krapf of the great danger that accompanied his plan to explore the mainland—the reputation of lawlessness, cruelty and violence, and in order to provide him with some protection, the Sultan gave Krapf a letter of introduction:

In the name of God, the most merciful and compassionate, this letter comes from Said the Sultan. To all our friends, governors, and subjects, greeting. This letter is written for a Doctor Krapf, who is a good man and desires to convert the world to God. Behave well to him and be everywhere serviceable to him (Travels 1968, 127).

That letter from the ruler of the Muslim Omani Empire had a remarkable significance. The Omani Empire had held off the Portuguese a number of times and Roman Catholicism had therefore no footing on the East Coast. Who was Ludwig Krapf, but a lonely insignificant missionary who presented no threat and with no national identity—a German working for a British missionary society. Yet Krapf penetrated the East Coast of Africa with a powerful message—the gospel—that would capture the hearts of men and women and spread inexorably through the tribes, throughout the nation and across the continent.

If Said bin Sultan, the Islamic ruler of the Swahili Coast, had known the power that Krapf possessed in the Gospel of Christ, he most likely would never have written that letter recommending Krapf to the tribes of East Africa.  

As Krapf settled into life on the Swahili Coast, the first task was to become acquainted with the Swahili language (properly called Kiswahili). The Swahili was an oral culture with no writing text, although some texts did exist in Arabic script, the earliest dating back to 1652. Krapf had learned some Arabic in Egypt and in his travels in the Red Sea, and this was a great help to him as he began his studies.

His ability to discern and collect important linguistic material in Ethiopia had previously earned him a doctoral degree from the University of Tübingen in 1842. Now in a different environment, he continued his collection of manuscripts and would send them back to Europe. Since Arabic text did exist, although very few, it was not assumed that Krapf would automatically use Roman letters in his translation. Ordinarily, he would have continued with the Arabic script.

Swahili Arabic script on a wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa (Credit: Wikipedia).

But Krapf had given it some thought. “At the commencement of my Suaheli [Swahili] studies,” he says in his Outline of the Elements of Kiswahili (1850), “I often thought about using the Arabic letters in my translations and other writings, but at last I resolved on the adoption of Roman characters.” He reasoned through the advantages of the Roman script.

  • First, the Arabic letters were too inconvenient and cumbersome for the African languages.

  • Second, He discovered that South African missionaries had already begun to use Roman letters in other Nilotic languages, to which Kiswahili belongs.

  • Third, Krapf believed that with “the introduction of Arabic letters a wide door would be opened to [Muslim] proselytism among the inland tribes.”

  • Fourth, he could see the rise of European influence in Africa and the “Arabic alphabet would only be an encumbrance on the Europeans.”

  • Lastly, he thought of how much more convenient it would be for the tribes who would be studying European languages.

Krapf’s linguist gifts were phenomenal. He had arrived in early January 1844 and by Saturday 8, June he was ready to begin translating the book of Genesis. “I always considered that day,” he wrote, “the most important day of my life.” The pages of Krapf’s translation of Genesis were soon published—claimed as the first printed Swahili text. He published the first Swahili Grammar in the University of Tübingen in 1850 and his magnum opus in 1882—his Swahili Dictionary which continues to be highly regarded, not only as a comprehensive Swahili-English lexicon but also for the cultural data supplied in connection with the Swahili terms.

In light of the Muslim domination of the Swahili Coast, it is ironic that Ludwig Krapf, a gifted linguist pioneered East Africa for the Kingdom of God, and that he chose the Roman script when he began to reduce the language to writing—not to mention the multiple other Bantu languages also on which he worked.

Kiswahili became the trading language of East Africa and soon spread throughout the entire Great Lakes Region of East Africa and to parts of Central and South Africa. Today, although East Africa has a large and aggressive Muslim population, Kiswahili is recognised as the lingua franca of the East African Community (EAC) and is spoken by millions across East Africa.