Unguja island
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Pemba island

People and Culture

Introduction Ancient Records
Persian Connection Watumbatu
Wahadimu Wapemba
Wadiba Bantuism


The word ZANZIBAR is of Persian or Arabic origin. The Persians derive the name from Zangh Bar, meaning "the Negro Coast." On the other hand the Arabs deduce the name from the Arabic Zayn Z'al Barr, meaning "Fair is this land", an epithet that aptly describes the striking beauty of the country.   Norman Bennett writes in his book - A History of the Arab State of Zanzibar (pp.1):

"There is surely nothing more beautiful on earth' exclaimed an early twentieth century   visitor at his first sight of the island of Zanzibar, sharing a reaction common to most travellers to that Indian Ocean island."

The name Zanzibar once applied to the whole of the East African coast with its adjacent islands, from Somalia to Mozambique, and far into the interior of Zaire. Before that the Coast was known as the Coast of Ausan, after the "kingdom which was the first in Arabia". The whole area was dotted with towns at various stages of development, each one of them being practically a state by itself, sometimes in conflict, and sometimes in co-operation with one another. Occasionally various city states would recognize the supremacy of one of their number as head among equals, as it happened in the case of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Indeed it might even be that the city states would swear allegiance to an outside suzerain authority as they did to the ancient rulers of Yemen, to the Imam of Oman, to the Caliph of all-Islam, to the Portuguese rulers, or to the British crown. It was also not unusual for the rulers of different city states to be inter-related, as it happened in the case of Hassan bin Ali and his six sons from Shiraz who together formed a loose sort of empire known as the Daulat-e-Zinj or the Zenj Empire. Such a pattern existed and to a certain extent still exists among the ruling families of various European states. And thus it came about that the Al Busaid of Zanzibar, the Nabhani of Pate, the Bani Hashim of Pangani.

Zanzibar and the Comoro Isles have had their relations in Hadhramout and Oman. What happened with the ruling classes happened also with the rest of the population. Intermingling is life's tradition from antiquity, and its continuation is a historical necessity. How much influence the coastal states had with the interior of Africa depended upon varying factors, such as the power and political acumen of rulers, or the love of adventure and boldness of traders and pioneers enjoying the protection of such rulers. And so it became common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for one to say: "When one pipes in Zanzibar they dance on the lakes." When Said bin Sultan established his seat on the island of Zanzibar as his capital his authority extended to cover not only the Coast and the Isles, but the whole of Tanganyika, Malawi and Zaire, to the borders of Sudan, where his influence came into contact with that of the ruler of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali the Great.


When Ibn Batuta, the famous Arab traveller and author, visited East Africa in the fourteenth century he was amazed to find that the Swahili people were as well housed, clothed and fed as the Europeans of his time. Dr William Hichens describes that civilization in Islam To-day thus:

"By the dawn of the fourteenth century the fair citadels of Islam lay like a string of lustrous pearls along the green cushion of verdant coast."

With regard to the cultural and intellectual level he says:

"By the wealth in his warehouse a man might be adjudged but it was by the wealth in the storehouse of his mind, as a poet a jurist, a theologian that he won that renown, respect and esteem which in these lands is called heshima. The early Arabian settlers had brought with them the art of writing, a marvel unknown elsewhere in Bantu Africa. They had brought with them too their traditional love of the arts of the poet and the bard."

How did this come about?

Professor Coupland admits in his book - East Africa and Its Invaders, that East Africa has never seen from the Arabs a dark period of conquest. It was all peaceful penetration. Rev. Lyndon Harr ies explains in his book - Islam in East Africa:

"Islam depends almost entirely for the spread of its faith upon the influence of the Muslim community. When social distinctions are overcome, the progress of conversion is likely to be accelerated. This is why the thrust from Southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf has resulted in the majority of conversions from paganism to Islam. By marriage with the Bantu women, the Arab merchants were finding a home in East Africa not only for themselves, but for their religion as well. The true Swahili are now a Bantu people, and the social gulf between the Arabs and the Bantu has been bridged. It is a bridge that many tribal Africans are attracted to cross. For them it leads, not only to Mecca, but to a companionship with fellow-believers of at least some common blood."

However, one must always be on guard against the intrigues of the jealous ones whose faiths build no bridges because of the racial barrier that hasalways barred the intermingling of their races. The traditional ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), the Prophet Ismail (a.s.) was from the very start a product of an Asiatic Semite and an African Hamite. In other words he was a half-breed, a chotara, a half-caste, a derogatory word in the west, but having no Swahili or Arabic equivalent.

Ancient Records

When a Greek author and traveller from Egypt visited East Africa about the middle of the first century of the Christian era he found the Coast and its islands already settled by Arabs who recognized the King of Yemen as their suzerain lord. According to the writings of this author in his book The Periplus Of The Erythrean Sea, those Arabs had made their settlements in East Africa for centuries before his visit, and had already mixed their blood with the local population. By this evidence it becomes clear that Arabs have been inhabiting East Africa for much more than 2,000 years (John Gray: History of Zanzibar pp 10-11). W.H. Ingrams, quoting Rev. W.A. Crabtree, writes in his book - Zanzibar Its History and Its People that about four thousand years ago Arabs, known to the ancient Egyptians as "Aamu" and "Arapin", came to East Africa. Says Ingrams

"Some of these people wandered into the interior and some followed the coast. Those that went into the interior lost their nationality and became, claims Mr. Crabtree, the origin of the Hamites. The remainder were called Arabs."

The Egyptian word "Arapin" obviously means "Arabs", but is there not an intriguing connection between the ancient Egyptian word "Aamu" for Arabs, with the name of the island of "Amu", as the inhabitants call it, Lamu being merely a corruption of the Arabic "Al-amu"? About 1400 BC. the Egyptian king Rameses II sent an expedition to East Africa. That expedition, which was manned by Phoenicians, is supposed to have reached Madagascar. King Neco of the 26th Dynasty (630-527 BC.) dispatched another expedition which rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed northward along the West African coast, entered the Mediterranean through the Straits of   Gibraltar and arrived back in Egypt after three years of voyaging. At each place of call these ancient men stayed long enough to sow a crop of wheat and harvest it. Records do not say, but it can well be assumed, that they must have sown and cropped children as well as grain in their ports of call, much in the same way as their descendants, the 'Soori' tribe from Oman who claim descent from the Phoenicians, have down the ages been planting seed from their loins up and down the coast, from Lamu to Zanzibar and the Comoro isles. Phoenicians (in Arabic Finiqiyyin) used to call themselves Khna or Kina'an, which is a well-known Arab tribe.

It was from them that the Bajuni and the Watumbatu, the intrepid seamen of East Africa, derived the art of navigation. Keble Chatterton says in his book - Sailing Ships and Their Story: "...when at the end of the fifteenth century of our era, Vasco da Gama doubled the Cape of Good Hope and called at the East African ports, he found that the arts of navigation were as well understood by the Eastern seamen as by himself. This would seem to imply that these Africans had years ago reached the state of advancement in sailing a ship already possessed by the more civilized parts of the world. While the Phoenicians of the Mediterranean went as far as Cornwall for tin, their counterparts from Oman sailed as far as Comoro and China for various  ther commodities, and those from Tumbatu and Lamu plied with accustomed ease the western portion of the Indian Ocean seasonally between East Africa, India, the Gulf and Iran, exchanging material goods, culture, language and blood. Before the upheaval of 1964 the Zanzibar harbour used to accommodate as many as 2,000 dhows from the Gulf and Southern Arabia every monsoon season.

There is ample evidence in language and traditions to indicate the existence of a close connection between the Swahilis of East Africa and the Assyrians of 4-5,000 years ago as well as the Sumerians of 5-8,000 years ago. These very ancient Iraqis were highly civilized people. The Euphrates and Tigris valley is reputed to have been the cradle of civilization. The art of writing is believed to have been born there. Ingrams quotes a number of striking similarities in pronunciation and meaning between the Sumerian language and Swahili. For example, the word ZI in Sumerian indicating Spirit is in Swahili MZIMU. The word Goat is in Sumerian UZ, while in Swahili it is MBUZI. In the Gulf dialects, both Persian and Arabic, of today a goat stuffed with rice is significantly called Ghuzi. Man in Sumerian is MULU, while in Swahili it is MTU, or in other Bantu dialects it is MUNTU. One could go on indefinitely quoting historical, cultural and ethnic connections between East Africa and the Middle East from antiquity to the present day, which prove beyond the shadow of a doubt inalienable indigenousness of all those who dub themselves Zanzibaris or Swahilis.

With regard to Zanzibar's past connection with India, it is known that a certain people, practising Islam, came from the western coast of India and settled in the island between the 15th and 17th centuries. These are the so- called Wadebule. They are not to be confused with another group of settlers who seemed to have been ruling Pemba, Pujini to be more precise, and were called Wadiba. The latter's most remembered ruler is one Muhammad bin Abdulrahman, nicknamed "Mkame Ndume", a title, which I believe, is wrongly translated "Milker of Men", implying his alleged reputation of giving impossible commands. But the word "Mkame Ndume" does not sound correct Swahili. It could possibly as well have been derived from the word "Makamo wa Madume", which could have been calculated to mean: "Supervisor of Males", or "Ruler of Men", more or less equivalent to the Kiganda title for the Kabaka, "Sebasaja", meaning "Above Men", a loose substitute for His Highness, or His Majesty. The Swahili word Makamo and the name "Makame", are derived from the Arabic Maqaam, meaning rank or position. It is used, for example, in the expression: "S'aahibul maqaami rrafii', that is "He of exalted rank."

According to archaeological evidence the Wadebule were people from Dabhol, a port on the west coast of India about a hundred miles to the south of  Bombay. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this port was ruled by the Bahmani dynasty. About this time there was a considerable population of Africans from East Africa in that part of India. These East Africans were known locally as "Siddis", from Arabic meaning "my lord", a trait of self- esteem not completely unknown among the Swahili people in a foreign country. Sir John Gray reports them to have played "a prominent part in the political dissensions which eventually led to the fall of the Bahmani dynasty and the disruption of their kingdom."

With regard to the Wadiba Sir John Gray presumes that they came from the Maldive Islands, which he claims were known to the Arabs as Diba. I have not been able to verify this claim, but what we do know is the existence of Diba in the Gulf, shared between Oman and Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. It is a seaside town near the promontory of Musandam which guards the entrance into the Gulf. I have visited it. It is more logical therefore to believe that the Wadiba of Pujini to whom are attributed a number of mosques which they built, came from this original Diba which is on the Arabian side of the Gulf. They are reported to have been very particular about the formal observance of Islamic worship.

Persian Connection

There is no doubt at all that Zanzibar, and the whole coast of East Africa for that matter, has been greatly influenced ethnically and culturally by people from Persia, or Iran, as it is now called. The Persian new year, the Nairooz, is celebrated with a good deal of local enthusiasm in the islands as well as in several parts of the Coast. The majority of the people, the Wahadimu, the Watumbatu and the Wapemba, are referred to collectively as Washirazi who claim descent from early immigrants from Shiraz in Iran. In 1955 Sir John Gray, former Chief Justice in Zanzibar writing in a report on his investigation into claims to certain land in Pemba says:

"...for want of a better name it has become customary to call the era preceding the advent of the Portuguese the Shirazian era and call those inhabitants of Pemba, who claim descent from these early colonists, the Wa-Shirazi."

The true picture is not as simple as all that. Let us attempt to look into it more analytically than has so far generally been done. The most prevalent story relates that a prince from Shiraz by the name of Hassan bin Ali and his six sons arrived in East Africa about 985 AD., that is about one thousand years ago, and established themselves at several points on the coast and the isles. This is according to an Arabic chronicle found in Kilwa. However, another chronicle found in Pemba relates that a Sultan of Shiraz by the name of Darhash bin Shah was the one who betook himself from his home country to flee from famine. He was accompanied by two brothers, one sister, three sons of an aunt, a number of neighbours and slaves. A cousin of Darhash, named Shame bin Ali made his settlement in Pemba

Another cousin Daud bin Ali, and another cousin, and Darhash's sister, Kazija binti Shah, came down in Zanzibar, Kilwa and the mainland of Tanganyika. Kazija's child with a slave girl called Tanu binti Shah settled at Tumbatu. It is difficult to say whether these two chronicles of Kilwa and Pemba speak of the same incident, or relate two separate incidents which took place about the same time. What we can be certain of is that there did come some people to East Africa from Shiraz to make a permanent settlement about one thousand years ago.


Major F.B. Pearce, a former British Resident of Zanzibar, writing in his book - Zanzibar The Island Metropolis of East Africa, infers from the Geographical Dictionary of Yakut bin Abdulla Al Rumi, that;

"...it appears probable that the city on Tumbatu was really the first town to be established in Zanzibar, and I must surmise that when mention is made in the Kilwa chronicles of `Zanzibar', and the Sultan thereof, the town on Tumbatu islet is really referred to, although the very name of this ruined town is now forgotten."

According to Major Pearce, Yakut

"states that the people of the `island of Tumbat' were Moslems early in the thirteenth century, and that people of the neighbouring Lenguja (i.e. Al-Unguja, the Swahili name for Zanzibar) were wont to go to Tumbat to seek safety from their enemies.' On the island of Tumbatu are the ruins of an extensive stone-built town."

Points To Be Noted Here; There is some justification in the Watumbatu's claim for antiquity in Zanzibar, and their right for self-determination in the affairs of the country, as for instance when in the fifties of this century there was subversive talk by certain groups to drive out the Sultan and terminate monarchy. The Watumbatu were outraged. They argued that the country belonged to them, and since it had been they who had asked the Sultan's predecessors to come and deliver the country from the Portuguese oppression, it was only the Watumbatu who had the right to ask the Sultan to go and nobody else. Indeed they have been regarding the royal family as being virtually Tumbatu. In recent years this was much enhanced by Prince Sayyid Soud, son of Sultan Ali bin Hamoud (1902-1911), marrying a Tumbatu girl, and identifying himself as belonging to the Tumbatu tribe.

Another point to note is that the Watumbatu, contrary to popular allegations by mischievous foreigners and malcontent townee agitators, were never driven out of the main island of Unguja. On the contrary indications are that it was the small island of Tumbatu which had f irst been settled and developed. Tumbatu was the first capital of   Zanzibar to be followed by Unguja Kuu. This latter place was the seat of the King of Zanzibar to which the second Portuguese ship came in 1503. According to Portuguese chroniclers the inhabitants of Zanzibar were "Moors". The ship was commanded by Lourenco Ravasco. The present capital of Mjini developed only towards the end of the Portuguese occupation, and especially after their eviction by the Omanis. Hitherto it had been no more than a fishing village. The third point to note is that there is no mention of Africans, according to the definition given by racial bigots, as forming the inhabitants of Tumbatu, Pemba or Unguja. Major Pearce says about the Watumbatu:

"The Tumbatu islanders of the present time, like their kinsmen the Wahadimu, show but little variation from the ordinary Swahili type, but nevertheless they strongly maintain that they are distinct from the negro 'coast man', and that they are directly descended from the kings of Shiraz."

Pearce further states:

"The characteristic which struck me most in my dealings with them was the genuine interest they took in their ancient descent, and in the ruins in their island. This trait is unusual in the negro, who generally refers to ancient ruins as ukuta (walls), and appears to think that no more need be said about them. The Tumbatu headmen, on the other hand, waxed quite enthusiastic about their ruins, and not only cleared the more important ones of jungle growth, but were full of stories as to what the various buildings may have represented, and of the people who built them. One of my informants produced his genealogical `tree,' which showed a list of no less than fifty-seven generations."

According to the information that Major Pearce got from the individual with the 57 ancestors, the first man to settle in Tumbatu was a prince of Shiraz who came from Bushire. His name is given as Yusuf bin Sultan bin Ibrahim  el Alawi. On his way out from Persia he first of all stayed at Merka in Somalia long enough to have built a mosque. Here there are two points of significance:

The name of the prince from Shiraz shows that he belonged to an Arabian clan, if not indeed of Hashimite descent, which is more likely. This generally bears out the claim that the Shirazis who came to East Africa were indeed Arabs from Al Hassa in what is now Saudi Arabia. Indeed even today the Gulf region of Iran which borders Iraq is known as Arabstan being predominantly inhabited by people from Arabia. The second point is that more than half a century before the first Shirazi set foot on East Africa, the Al Harth from Oman had already made their settlements on the coast and the isles, founding towns like Mogadishu and Barawa before their establishment on the islands of Zanzibar as early as 924 AD. It is of interest to note that the Somalis pronounce Barawa shortly and sharply as "Brawa" just as the Al Harthi call their native town in Oman "Bra", and not Ibra as it is known to outsiders. Preceding the Al Harth from Oman were the Al Uzd, from whom springs the Al Busaid clan which came into political ascendancy in the eighteenth century. The Al Uzd is a collection of many tribes in Oman. These like other Arabs in the Gulf hailed originally from Yemen. Their emigration to East Africa dates much earlier than their arrival in Oman and other Gulf states.

Another version of the history of Tumbatu is that there arrived in the six hundredth year of the Hegira (about 1204 AD.) a certain Sultan Yusuf bin Alawi of Ahdali or Alawi tribe from Basra. It was he who built Makutani (The Walls), the ruins that may be seen today. About the same time there came an African from the mainland by the name of Chongo who settled at Chongo-we, which is now known as Jongowe in the south of the island. Conflict arose between the two factions, but ultimately intermarriage too  place between their descendants and the result was the present inhabitants of Tumbatu. All such traditional stories, or legends transmitted by word of mouth or written down in chronicles, are over-simplifications of much more complex patterns of events that must have taken long periods of time, involving many families, clans or even tribal groups. However, of importance here is not so much the actual name of the founder of the first permanent settlement of Tumbatu, his belonging to the clan of Al Alawi or Al Ahdali, nor indeed whether he came from Shiraz in Iran or from Basra in Iraq. The significant point is that even if he came from Shiraz he was of Arab descent, for both Al Ahdali and Al Alawi are well known Arab clans. Apart from that early intermarriage between the immigrant Arabs or Shirazis of Arabian origin and the immigrant Africans from the mainland, there does not appear to have been very much intercourse between the Watumbatu and the mainland Africans in later years. This is confirmed by Major Pearce who writes:

"With respect to the islanders of Tumbatu it would seem that they are the most unaltered representatives of the original island stock, for there is no record that they ever associated or intermarried with any native races from the mainland, since at least the advent of the Portuguese to East Africa, and the fact that they live on an island, and are of a characteristically suspicious and retiring disposition, points to the probability of their having maintained their racial individuality to a greater degree than was possible in the case of the Wahadimu."


The Wahadimu tribe also claims to be Shirazi. Its traditional home is the south and the east of the island of Unguja. The inhabitants of Donge, although geographically in the north, regard themselves as belonging to the Wahadimu rather than the Watumbatu group. As with the Watumbatu it is to oversimplify matters to say that the Wahadimu as a whole are descended from a single family of immigrants from Shiraz. Down the centuries there have been many groups of settlers who infused their blood as well as their culture to make up the tribe. Indeed the Wahadimu are no more homogenous than any other people. There is little doubt that various groups of people from the continent of Asia as well as from the mainland of Africa have contributed to the making of the present day Wahadimu. While old historical records indicate that in the past the Wahadimu to be more of Asiatic appearance, in the later years there has been a much greater infusion of mainland African blood in their veins. The Portuguese on their first arrival early in the 16th century found the people of Unguja Ukuu, which was the capital of Zanzibar, to be apparently Arab, or "Moorish" as they called them. But Sir John Gray writes with regard to the succeeding years:  

"It is interesting to note that over a course of many years there would appear to have been a more or less continuous arrival of newcomers from the mainland by way of Unguja Ukuu, which might almost be described as having been used by them as a kind of base transit camp for immigrants. Thus, it is generally acknowledged by the people of the east coast villages of Chwaka, Mapopwe, Charawe, Ukongoroni, and Michamvi that their forbears entered the island from the mainland by way of Unguja Ukuu."

However it is certain that the Wahadimu until lately have been maintaining their ancestral connection with Arabia, as note that their last ruler, or Mwinyi Mkuu,(born 785, died 1865) whose seat was Dunga was Ahmed bin Muhammad bin Hassan el Alawi. With the destruction of Unguja Ukuu by the Portuguese the inhabitants repaired to Kizimkazi and revived an old Arab or Persian settlement. Here are still to be found remains of a fort with a few graves near the beach, and a restored mosque which is nearly 900 years old. On the wall of the mihrab is a Cufic inscription which says:

"This is what has been ordered by the high and very great Sheikh Assayid Abu Imran Musa bin Alhassan bin Muhammad, may Allah grant him long life and destroy his enemies - on a Sunday in the month of Dhul Haj in the year five hundred." (i.e. August 1107)


Yakut bin Abdulla Al Rumi in his geographical dictionary - Mu'jam Al Buldan, describes the island of Pemba thus in the thirteenth century:

"Jaziiratul Khadhraa (The Green Island) is also a large island in the land of Zinj in the Indian Ocean. It is long and wide. Salt water is surrounding it on every side. In it are two towns. One is called Matumbini, and the name of the other is Mkumbuu. In each of the towns is a Sultan of its own. Each of the town has its own independence. There are also other villages and markets.Its Sultan says he is an Arab, and that he has come to stay there from Al-Kufa (in Iraq). I have been told this by Sheikh Salim Abdel Malik Al Halawi who came from Basra. He saw this with his own eyes, and knows it. He is a reliable man."

Matumbini is an island south of the port of Mkoani, and Ras Mkumbuu is at the end of a long and narrow isthmus on the west coast of Pemba at the entrance to Chake Chake. At Mkumbuu, or Ndagoni to be exact, there are ruins of a mosque which J.S. Kirkman, the archaeologist,

"considers to be the second finest Jami or congregational mosque in the territories of Tanganyika, Kenya and Zanzibar."

There are also a number of pillared tombs and some dwelling- houses. At Pujini, on the east coast of Pemba, there are ruins which are reputed to have been left by the Wadiba, and particularly by the so-called Mkame Ndume, Muhammad bin Abdulrahman. The dynasty of this man ruled part of the eastern portion of Pemba from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the seventeenth. To the Wadiba is accredited the introduction of the coconut palm, and the building of the Mitepe, sailing boats made by tying together wooden planks with ropes, instead of using nails. This is done until today by the Wagunya or Bajuni. Msasani at Dar es salaam used to be called Rhapta in ancient times, from the Arabic "RABT'A", i.e. tying together, indicating where the Mitepe of sewn boats used to be built in the past. From this comes the Swahili word: Robota, meaning a bundle which has been carefully bound together.


Those Wadiba who ruled a part of Pemba for two centuries, and left their mark in structures and genes among the inhabitants of the island, where had they come from? Sir John Gray supposes that they are from the Maldive Islands, which are in the Indian Ocean, between India, Arabia and Africa.

He says that the Maldive Islands were known to the Arabs as Diba. Even if that is true, and I have not been able to verify it from Arab sources, why should it not be the original Diba, the Diba that is in Arabia, shared by Oman and Sharjah of UAE. That is the Diba which has been known from ancient times until today. Even if the Maldives were known as Diba by the Arabs, it would only be by borrowing, such as the "Shiraz" which is in Kenya, the "T'aif" which is in Pemba, or the "Marseilles" which is in Unguja at Kwambani. The people of Pemba, like those of Unguja and Tumbatu, are mixtures of mixtures, from the various ethnic groups that came, settled, married and produced the people who now make the Zanzibaris.

The Sumerians and the Assyrians from Iraq, the Pharonic Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Shirazis, the Bantus, the Abyssinians, the Somalis, the Comorians, the Indians, the Wadiba, the Wadebule, the Portuguese, the Baluchis, the Kurdis, the Georgians, the Circassians, the Chinese, the Sri Lankans and all the conglomeration of ethnicities that found their way across the Ocean from near and far combined to make the Zanzibaris as they are today. Two generations on the islands are enough to make one so thoroughly mixed that one's race would defy definition. Ethnic classification thereafter would be completely arbitrary, and may be resorted to only by bigoted fascists who, like weak vines, have nothing to cling on for support but on the fiction of race.


To many amongst us the sheet-anchor of the Zanzibari make-up is the Bantu element. Its language and blood have permeated into almost all the nooks and corners of the Zanzibar society. It is indeed of all the factors the most dominant in appearance. However, like the whites in America or Australia, the Bantus are not, necessarily, the worthiest claimants to indigenousness. With this regard Sir John Gray has this to say in his book, History of Zanzibar (pp 10-11):

"The legends and traditions of most Bantu peoples almost invariably point to a northern origin. From their first home they made their way to the Central African lakes and thence to the south as well as eastwards to the shores of the Indian Ocean. Tribal legend and tradition suggests that their arrival at the great lakes was at a date not wholly removed from their racial remembrance. It is not possible to assert how many centuries ago it was that Bantu-speaking peoples first reached the East African coast and thence crossed over to Zanzibar and Pemba. They may have arrived there after the first discovery of the islands and coast by people of non-African origin - possibly many centuries after that event. The East African coast was certainly known to the people of Arabia in the eighth century before Christ. The Arab state of Ausan, which came to an end about 700 BC. traded with, and possibly held a portion of the coast...."

W.H. Ingrams writing in Zanzibar Its History and Its People (pp. 70) has this to say about the arrival of the Bantus to the East African coast:

"About a hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era, the Bantu peoples who had been forming for about a thousand years before, started off from the Nile direction on their great career of conquest. The aborigines were still in the Neolithic age, but the Bantus were armed with weapons of copper and iron, which no doubt considerably facilitated their progress. Guided possibly not only by tribal pressure, but by the desire for salt, these hordes swept down southwards and made for the coasts."

Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage in their book A Short History of Africa, (pp. 98) say:

"It is significant that the Periplus, which describes the East African coast approximately as far south as Zanzibar, makes no reference to black men. Ptolemy's Geography mentions their existence, but only in the extreme south of the area then known, which must have been at least as far down as the south of modern Mozambique. Further north, by implication at least, the population was of Somali or Ethiopian type."


It can easily be concluded that Zanzibari people are a mixture of mixtures, no group of people can claim to be more indigenous or   having more rights than others;  the deciding factor for civilized man is not ethnicity, what race one belongs to, but nationality, one's birthplace or one's choice of a country to belong to, to die for if need be. Neither is it a question of who came first. An American is an American whether he is descended from Red Indians who footed it from Siberia into Alaska across the Bering Strait 20 to 40 thousand years BC., or he was uprooted from his African soil and deposited in chains on the inhospitable shores of the New World a mere three hundred years ago, or indeed of his own volition jetted down in comparative comfort to claim the asylum and, in due course, the citizenship of the most powerful and most advanced nation in the world. Whether he is black, white, brown or yellow, his hair woolly or silken, black or golden, his eyes almond shaped or popping, his nose flat or curving, are matters of little significance to any but fools. The skeletons of all are much the same.

All that  have been said about the make-up of Zanzibaris applies with equal force to all the peoples of the East African Coast from southern Somalia, down the Mwambao of Kenya and the Mrima of Tanganyika to the isles of Comoro, wherever Swahili in its various dialects is spoken as a mother-tongue. They are all mixtures of mixtures, predominantly Bantu and Arab, but with undeniable doses of the various races and mixtures of races which infuse the inhabitants of the lands that are washed by the western portion of the Indian Ocean. It is the characteristic of being able to imbibe culture and genes, without disturbing its basic identity that gives confidence in the continued virility of the Zanzibari nationality unperturbed by a multiplicity of ethnicities.


By Mr. Farouk Abdullah Al Barwani



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