Swahili: A Taste Of Culture

I will not write about a meal in a restaurant unless I have eaten that meal in that restaurant.’ – Sidney Sheldon, author of The Other Side of Midnight (novel)

Some of the most popular Swahili foods are pilau and biryani (or biriani). Both are ricebased, contain meat and and may be enriched with any number of spices. The difference is that with pilau the meat is cooked with the rice (everything – spices, veggies, tomatoes, onions, potatotoes etc – is stuck together in a single super-meal) whereas with biryani, the meat (fish, chicken, beef etc) is prepared separately from the rice and then served together, usually with a drink like the super-sweet ukwaju juice. In his voluminous novel, Poor No More, Robert Ruark describes a tumultuous sea voyage from Mombasa (the main character is an impressionable young man working on the ship). As the ship finally nears its destination, the cook uses the remaining ingredients to prepare a feast for the seafarers – a dish of pilau (also called pilaf or jambalaya in the West). Ruark (who had been to Kenya and is also the author of Uhuru and Something of Value), writes:

‘What he (the cook) was making was one big dish and he made in an iron cauldron big enough to boil a hog in. It was jamabalaya but its main ingredient was rice and peppers. Into this rice had been mixed shrimps, oysters, clams, clayfish, pork sausage, white slabs of fish, a chicken of the stock, and the whole business cooked together until it was one great beautiful adventure. Dan had coloured the rice with saffron, and the juices from the chicken had got married in a tremendous soupy ceremony so that the rice while dry by grain, was damp by volume…’

In his non-fiction book, The Lunatic Express, Charles Miller talks of visiting a seedy restaurant in Mombasa that served the most delicious omelettes he had ever tasted. This is common in that part of the world (and a parallel can be drawn with Somali-predominated Eastliegh in Nairobi). You may enter an eatery that doesn’t look very sanitary (the walls, the tables, the waiters etc); you order something like fish biryani or beef shawarma (pronounced: shahwah–r-mah) and, after a wait, comes this delightful adventure of a meal served on a metallic plate in generous proportions. Shawarma is sort of a supersized burger with all the trimmings, although comparing a fast-food burger with shawarma is like comparing a visit to the local zoo with a wildlife safari through the Serengeti. Visitors are often advised not to leave Mombasa until they have tasted shawarma. The local traditional alcoholic drink is a foul-smelling/tasting whitish liquor drawn from palm trees, called mnazi. The locals say that the highly intoxicating mnazi70 is good because it is all-natural (no additives or preservatives) hence it’s a gift from God. Tourists might beg to differ, as mnazi is an acquired taste. It is usually drunk by men, young and old, in open-air shebeens and has evidently been around for centuries. Other foods that are common at the Coast but not inland include pepe (jack fruit) and coconuts or coconut-based dishes and drinks.

The Lunatic Express has a hilarious section concerning the food that was served on the British-sponsored trans-Kenya railway in colonial times. The following passage takes place on the train, in Voi, not far from the coastline:


‘Critiques ranged from “the chef is a true artist” to “excepting of course the food served on German liners, never have I tasted such filth”. The latter assessment was probably more accurate. At Voi, the main course invariably consisted of iron boiled beef, rubber mashed potatoes and something that the menu called cabbage. All entrees were garnished with insects; diners ate with one hand while the other fanned away mosquitoes.’

Let’s discuss the weather in the land where Swahili began. Being located squarely in the tropics, the E. A. coast is usually warm/hot, as you might expect. It is often warm even during the night and visitors quickly notice the large number of fans and forever-opened windows in hotels and villas. The default state of weather is: Hot and Humid.

In the book Isle of Cloves (believed to be about Zanzibar) author F. D. Ommanney beautifully describes the weather at the Swahili Coast.

‘It is very hot and damp from about November to May. The humidity…is very high so that one lives in a state of unbecoming dampness and nothing seems to dry. In about May, a welcome change takes place; it begins to rain. Heavy black clouds build over the island and spill their contents in crushing downpours which advance through the coconut plantations with the noise of an express train. At first, these refreshing cloud-bursts come in intervals and everyone is thankful for them; but they become more and more frequent until they form into a steady downpour… Long before it has ceased…everyone is praying for it to stop. Roads become impassable. The narrow streets are racing rivers of muddy water. Water spouts solidly with ceaseless chatter from every pipe and gutter. Broad lakes poked by pitiless falling pencils of rain cover every square yard of flat ground. The people paddle about under umbrellas, holding their white robes about their knees. The mosquitoes and every other insect imaginable rejoice and arise in clouds, singing. The monsoon comes like a fierce hot breath, covering the surface of the straits between the island and the mainland with white horses and dark squalls. Every day, the wind blows hard but falls away about sunset to give place to those serene and silver nights that are one of the glories of this part of the world.’

Music forms a large and critical part of coastal culture. While modern forms of music and dance, like rap and ragga, are gaining ground – especially amongst youths – more traditional forms like Taarab and Bango remain highly popular. Contemporary Tanzanian music in Swahili – popularly referred to as ‘Bongo Flavour’ – is also a staple at the Kenyan coast and many Tanzanian musicians continue to be invited to perform there. Even the urban Coastbased musicians – practicing Hip Hop, R&B and other contemporary styles – often use Kiswahili language as opposed to English. Taarab music is slow-tempo, easily listening music that is highly influenced by Arabian styles. It is probably the most ‘Swahili’ of music styles and is often played during social occasions such as weddings. ‘Bango’ is also easy listening music that draws a lot of parallels with Calypso71 (Afro-Caribbean music). One parallel is that Calypso music covers all aspects of society like a flood, as does Bango. In a song dubbed Chozi La Mnyonge (“The Victim’s Tear”), for example, Bango maestro Mzee Joseph Ngala re-tells the allegedly true story of a family that was torn apart by a rape case. The documentary, Calypso Dreams, mentions this socio-political aspect in the art form:

‘Every song they make in America is about love. But we sing from politics to sport to science to whatever…it is recorded in Calypso.’ – From Calypso Dreams (documentary)



Written by PH

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