waswahili

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Swahili people from Stanleyville (now Kisangani in D.R. Congo): These Waswahili are originally from Zanzibar. Most people made no distinction between the Omani Swahili speaking Arabs from Zanzibar and the Waswahili from Zanzibar that was living in Congo at the time. So they were all called Arabs. Waswahili were referred to as Arabs mainly by Europeans and sometimes both Omanis and Zanzibari were referred to as “Ngwana” by the local population. The “Baswahili/Muswahili” identity was introduced later on in Congo’s history

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Illustration of women from different ethnic groups of the Belgian Congo with their traditional hairstyles and adornments

[There are over 250 different ethnic groups in DR Congo but these illustrations only include (in order from left to right) Bambuti, Wasongola, Bangala, Bayaka, Bangelima, Babali, Basengele, Baluba, Bambala, Batetela, Mangbetu, Azande, Wagenia, Sango, Bushongo (Bakuba/Kuba), Arabisée (/Swahili Waswahili/Baswahili), Ngombe and Banyamulenge (Tutsi Congolese)]

From the collection titled “Peuplades du Congo Belge” (People the Belgian Congo”)  part 1 , part 2

Arab slave trade (Zanzibar slave trade) and Congo-Arab war

[This post will be brief and written in a way that is accessible to all. Also, non-Congolese people keep your opinions to yourself, don’t make blank statements and dont no share your thoughts on this post, I don’t care for them. If you comment you will be blocked] This post will not go into too much detail, I won’t talk about specific ethnic groups or places in Eastern Congo (that will be done on separate posts)

The Arabs and Waswahili (Swahili people; who are also referred to as Baswahili in D.R. Congo today) of Zanzibar and other Swahili City States had been trading with states/kingdoms like the Luba kingdom of the Congo region  before the arrival of the Belgians. During the time of the Congo Free State, whilst the Belgians controlled most of the Congo the Arabs and Waswahili of Zanzibar had Eastern Congo. Tippu Tip whose real name was Hamed ben Mohammed al-Murjebi, was one of the most notorious, famous and powerful slavers in Eastern Congo. Reybrouck writes “At first he had acquired his luxury good, slaves and ivory in a friendly fashion. Yet, from 1870 on, all that changed. As more and more tons of ivory began flowing eastward, traders like Tippu Tip grew in power and wealth. In the final account, the sacking and pillaging of entire villages proved more cost effective than battering for a few tusks and adolescents. Why spend days chattering with local village chieftain, refusing lukewarm palm wine when your religion forbade you drinking anyway, when you could just as easily torch his village. The name Tippu Tip sent shivers down the spines of those inhabiting an area half the size of Europe.” And Zanzibari control of Eastern Congo continued until their relationship with the Belgians turned sour which then turned into a war (proxy war). 

[An account of the slave trade:

We pass a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead, the people of the country explained that she has been unable to keep up with the other slaves in the gang, and her master had determined that she should not become the property of anyone else if she recovered after resting for a time. I may mention here that we saw others tied up in a similar manner, and one lying in the path shot or stabbed, she was in a pool of blood. The explanation we got invariably was that the Arab who owned these victims was enraged at losing his money by the slaves becoming unable to walk, and vented his anger by murdering them]

The outbreak of the war was blamed on the Arabs and Waswahili. The Zanzibaris had signed a treaty on February 1887 promising to end the slave trade in Eastern Congo but failed to do so, then the Belgians implemented plans to stop them. This was not done because they cared about the Congolese people, it was done because the slave trade and Zanzibar undermined the Belgians authority. It was the fight for economic and political power in the Congo which the Belgians presented as a Christian anti-slavery crusade. The war broke out it 1892 and ended in 1894 and tens of thousands people died. It was a proxy war because most of the fighting was  done by Congolese people, who aligned themselves with either side.



Baswahili/Swahili identity in D.R. Congo 

After the war had ended, the majority of the Arabs and Waswahili returned back to Zanzibar a lot of them remained and lived in in Eastern Congo. Swahili-Arab culture has had major cultural influences on Eastern Congo, along with the Waswahili descendants of the Free State living in Congo, mainly Congolese people in Eastern/Central Congo identify as Swahili/Baswahili and they are different from ethnic Swahili people living in the country. Ethnic groups such as Lega, Lokele, Baluba (mostly of Katanga but also some from Kasai), Bembe, Kusu etc etc have all been influenced by Arab-Swahili culture. Especially ethnic groups from the Maniema province and other Arabised areas. 

It should also be noted that the majority of the enslaved Eastern Congolese who were sold at the Zanzibar slave markets were taken to Egypt, Persia, India, Pakistan and Arab nations

  • D.R. Congo: The Darkness of the Heart: How the Congolese Have Survived 500 of history  by Loso Kiteti Boya
  • Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck
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Bukavu, South Kivu, (East) Democratic Republic of Congo

It was originally named “Costermansville” (in French) or “Costermansstad” (in Dutch) under Belgian rule. The most spoken languages in Bukavu are French and Swahili (and multiple dialects of Swahili is spoken by the people) but people also speak their native tongue. Swahili was spread by the Arabs and Waswahili from Zanzibar even before the arrival of French.  

Something I love about coming from the coast of Kenya is that depending on how a particular person is mixed, we can pass as all kinds of things but we can recognize another Swahili person if we were to see them walking around. I’ve been asked if I’m mixed in America. I look like an (black)Arab when in Dubai or Qatar, and I’m always being mistaken for Eritrean or Ethiopian -Somali too but I will never get that-It’s cool but sometimes I get that stupid ‘You don’t look African’ shit then that’s when I get frustrated and I’m like bye
But overall it’s cool that we have such a blend of looks