African Studies Quarterly

The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Chapurukha M. Kusimba. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 1999. Pp. 237. Paper: $27.95. Cloth: $55.00.


The purpose of this book is to document the growth of Swahili civilization on the eastern coast of Africa, from 100 B.C. through the European colonialism in the sixteenth century. By using archaeological, anthropological, and historical information, Dr. Kusimba endeavors to describe the origins of this unique and powerful culture, including its Islamic components, architecture, language, and trading systems. He combines the results of his own anthropological surveys and archaeological excavations, providing a comprehensive study of the origins, rise, and collapse of societies on the Swahili Coast and their broader influence on African history.

Dr. Kusimba definitely views the origins of the Swahili States as distinctly African in nature and he offers historical, anthropological and archaeological evidence in support of this idea. The underlying basis of Swahili societies were long-established populations and cultural mores of African origin. Despite other scholars suggestions supporting extensive Arab settlement and even colonization along the Swahili Coast, Dr. Kusimba maintains that Swahili culture was not simply imported or derivative, but a rich fabric of African manufacture, one woven with threads spun from local fiber as well as imported yarn (p 26). The author repeatedly emphasizes that the ancestors of modern Swahili settled in East Africa long before the ancestors of many ethnic groups. The evidence presented in this book suggests that the Coastal peoples are not biologically different from other East African groups. The cultural diversity of Coastal peoples is similar in magnitude to the general diversity one finds among African peoples. The author proclaims such diversity should be celebrated rather than demeaned by who believe that the Swahili states originated from foreign settlement (p. 202).

The author maintains that the Swahili elite (during the Omani regime) wished to be associated with places from which power and authority emanated. Therefore, they emphasized traditions of blood ties to Oman and Persia while minimizing their African roots. They even claimed to be Sharifs, the reputed descendants of the prophet Mohamed (p. 174). Because of this myth that Swalili states originated from Arab settlements, many modern Africans consider the story of the Coast to be outside the African experience. Thus, the descendants of that colonial heritage occupy only a marginal position in the current order of things. Anti-Swahili sentiments among post-colonial East Africans have arisen from an under-appreciation of the relevance of Swahili history and culture (p. 202).

Dr. Kusimba's book is very well organized. The geography, resources, languages and peoples of the coast are described in detail. The earliest settlements and those that followed between 300-1000 are well documented and clearly described. The role of iron working, the importance of interregional trade, and the impact of Islam prior to 1500 are all discussed at length. Dr. Kusimba also examines the hierarchy of Swahili Coast society. This book not only provides for a better understanding of the complex Swahili polities between 100 B.C. and the sixteenth century, but also lends itself to an appreciation of the relevance of Swahili society and culture in East Africa today.

David S. Fick
Overland Park, Kansas