Using Swahili as Historical Evidence

Swahili Language and the Social Studies

Historians and geographers can use the Swahili language, particularly the origins of loan words in Swahili, to learn about East Africa. Teachers can incorporate East African history and language into World History, Global Studies, and Human Geography classes using the materials below.   Teachers and students can adapt the ideas and materials in the slides and handouts for a variety of lessons: a three-four day study of language; one or more stand alone lessons; or as examples in existing lessons.

Lesson Materials

  • Model lesson plan for studying East Africa and the Indian Ocean world, probably the most useful application for many secondary World History and Geography courses.  Teachers can use the method in this lesson with other topics.
  • Uncut slide presentation, includes all of the topics below
  • Uncut worksheet, includes all of the topics below except globalization

I compiled these resources for use in eleventh grade World History classes, both on-level and Advanced Placement.  The Swahili language developed as a part of series of interregional encounters, all of which were significant moments in World History:

  • As a Bantu language, Swahili provides a vehicle for discussing theories of a Bantu migration throughout Africa.
  • Swahili city-states prospered through participation in the Indian Ocean trade network.  If a World History class discusses Swahili just once, I recommend using Swahili to discuss Indian Ocean trade.  Swahili means “coast”, and trade along the western Indian Ocean rim brought together East Africa, the Middle East, and South, East, and Southeast Asia.
  • Portuguese entry into this trade network was the first development in European imperialism in the Indian Ocean basin.  British and German colonialism in East Africa in the nineteenth century was much more intense and can be discussed on its own.
  • With 100 million speakers Swahili is very much alive today.  Swahili culture has always adapted, so it can also be discussed in the context of globalization.

Students can think like historians by corroborating the linguistic evidence with texts and archaeology.

Key Resources

  • Episode of the On Top of the World history podcast with great ideas for studying Africa in a World History class, including using Swahili.  Professor Dave Eaton inspired me to compile these materials with this podcast.
  • The Story of Swahili, by John Mugane.  The source for all of the linguistic information in the presentations and lessons.
  • Ibn Battuta: Travels in Africa and Asia

Resources for Corroboration

Additional Resources

Presentation Materials from Minnesota Council on the Social Studies 2017 Workshop

Please copy, modify, and let me know how it goes!

One reply on “Using Swahili as Historical Evidence”

Eric, as a retired teacher and an experienced African traveler, I deeply appreciate your work on the role of Swahili in teaching social studies. Today, long retired, My second career was in environmental protection and academia. I’m now happy pursuing my third career: writing. The book I have underway is The Mombasa Chronicles, set in the 1400s. I would deeply appreciate any thoughts and guidance on my research to ground my writing in the true context of Mombasa at that time. Thanks!

Let me know what you think! Comments are moderated to avoid spam posting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.