Workshop on language planning and language policies,
4-6 March 2008, Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore, India.
Indians and Indic languages in Eastern Africa: The Status of South Asian
Languages in Eastern Africa.
Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, Dept. of Linguistics & Philology, Uppsala University, Sweden.
South Asians and their descendants, generally known as ‘Indians’ or ‘Asians’ in East,
Central and Southern Africa, form less than 1% of the total population of this vast
region. Their exodus beginning 1960 mainly to the West, India and Pakistan resulted in
the bottom figures in 1986 giving an estimate of about 265 000 in East, Central and
Southern Africa (excluding the Republic of South Africa which had about 2 million
Asians at that time). Their number in tropical Africa has been reduced and it increases
very slowly due to constant emigration in spite of new immigrants from India and
Asians in Eastern Africa are commonly called Wahindi in Swahili and the other local
languages, and they regard themselves as North(west) Indians. Monolingualism is
generally unknown among them. This phenomenon has two linguistic aspects, viz.
multilingualism and diversity, and their various subgroups however are not based on
their community language, but rather on their religious and denominational differences
The following language shifts have taken place among Asians in Tropical Africa:
Cutchi > Gujarati for Ismaili, Hindu Batia, Wania and Jains
Cutchi > Swahili for Sunni and Ithnaasheri, and some Ismaili
Konkani > English for Goan Catholics
Konkani > Urdu/Swahili for Kukni (Konkani Muslims, who also use Cutchi and
Gujarati in some situations)
Punjabi > Swahili for assimilated Muslim Punjabi in Tanzania
Sindhi > Gujarati for Hindus and Jains
Sindhi > Cutchi for Muslims
Gujarati/Tamil/Telugu > English (Southern Africa)
Gujarati > Urdu for some Muslims (South Africa)
General language typology of Asians in Eastern Africa:
a. regional Indic (Indo-Aryan) language at home, mixed with Swahili in many cases
b. classical languages (Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit) as liturgical languages
c. standard languages (Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi), limited use for nursery/primary
instruction, private correspondence, etc.
Case Study of language use among Tanzania’s 85 000 Asians speaking five different
Indic languages - Cutchi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani and Urdu in descending order of
numbers: The linguistic data collected in Daressalaam by Kassam (1971) indicated that
about 40% of the Cutchi Sunnis, and almost all other Cutchi speakers (Shia Imami,
Ismaili, Hindu and Jain), were literate in Gujarati, due to their Gujarati medium primary
schools. Most Asian Muslims of all denominations could read Koranic Arabic. They
used Cutchi in 52%, Gujarati 14.5%, Swahili 7.3% and English 26% of their working
situations. Some price tags, lists and shop notices were in Gujarati, while both Gujarati
and Hindi were used as written and printed languages. 13% of the Asians claimed they
spoke Swahili at home; and the Tanzania Library Survey (Hill 1969) showed that every
tenth borrower in all the libraries of the country put together was Asian. The
Daressalaam survey may be taken as representative of the whole country, but certainly
not for the rest of the region in which Swahili and English are the dominant languages
among the Asians today.
1. Historical background. When Ibn Batuta visited East Africa in 1331, he met an
Afro-Oriental Islamic culture there. Regrettably he does not mention any specific
Indian presence; but he does mention a couple of Indian linguistic and cultural
elements still found among the Swahili coastal peoples, i.e. tambuu (betel leaves) and
popoo (areca nuts).1 Al Idrisi reports of some Indian settlement at the mouth of the
Zambezi River around AD 1150. However, when Vasco da Gama arrived in East Africa
in 1498, there was a notable presence of Indians there, and a Muslim Indian pilot (with
the Cutchi title Mālam < Arabic ‘mualim’, ‘maalim’, and in modern Swahili Mwalimu)
led the Portuguese from Malindi in Kenya to the western Indian port of Kalikat.
According to Freeman-Grenville (1962), the Portuguese mention some permanent
Indian settlement on the Kenya coast and regular visits from India. Cooper (1974) also
mentions existence of title deeds by Shia Muslim Indians on the Kenya coast in the
1500s. Atkins Hammerton, the first British Consul and Political Agent sent to Zanzibar
in 1841, reported that the “Indian merchant class was indigenised” (Sheriff 1987:203,
and Note 5 Ch. 6). This merchant class was an offshoot of the Indian merchants of
Muscat who started arriving in Zanzibar in 1804, and by 1819 as noted by Captain
Smee, there were 214 Indian merchant houses in Zanzibar Town alone (Sheriff
1987:84). Almost all of these were from the kingdom of Cutch in northwest India. Still
in the 1830s the capital city of Mandvi in Cutch, “before being superceded by Bombay,
was the Indian port with the largest trade with East Africa” (Sheriff 1987:40 and Note
16 Ch. 3.).
Many Indian words must have been borrowed into Swahili long before the
Portuguese arrival in East Africa in 1498 when there was a notable presence of Indians
on the Kenya coast, and some elements must have been borrowed during the
Portuguese period up to the middle of the 1700s when there were many Indians in the
Portuguese service. The Indian cultural influence in East Africa is later than the Iranian
one, and Muslim India itself was under great Iranian impact with Farsi/Persian as the
court language from the tenth century AD until the imposition of English after the
Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-9 when the rest of the Moghul Empire was brought under the
After the Omani invasion and occupation of the East African coast beginning 1821,
making Zanzibar Town the political and commercial capital of the whole region, Indian
presence there increased tremendously and became extremely important. Seyyid Said,
the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar, because of his military, commercial and matrimonial
ties with India, and close cooperation with the British in Bombay, encouraged Indian
immigration to Oman and his possessions in East and Central Africa to finance the
caravan trade with the interior and administration of the ports. By 1886 there were 6000
Indians in British East Africa, i.e. Kenya Colony and Uganda Protectorate (Were and
1 The etymology of the other Swahili word popoo (‘fuful’ in Arabic, and ‘pupal’ in Persian) recorded by him has not been satisfactorily
Wilson 1984:89). Indian pioneers were in the interior of Tanganyika and Uganda long
before the Europeans, e.g. Musa Mzuri was in Tabora in 1825 (before Speke and
Burton in 1860), and Alidina Visram established his business in Kampala in 1896,
before British settlement there.
In Kenya and Uganda, the British railway building brought thousands of Indian
workers, e.g. in 1895 there were 13, 000 Indians in Kenya (mostly Hindus and Sikhs);
in 1891 there were 9000 Indians settled in Zanzibar, who were mostly Cutchi and
Gujarati Muslim and linguistically swahilized (Bennett 1978:172). Most of the
indentured Indians in Kenya and Uganda returned to India at the completion of their
World War I brought the British India Army to Tanganyika to fight the Germans, and
in its aftermath, several thousand Indians were brought to join the expanding British
administration in East Africa. Most Indian merchants in Tanzania Mainland
(Tanganyika) were, and still are, of Zanzibari origin, or they moved to the mainland
areas after first settling in Zanzibar for a few years. Many of them from all over East
Africa have later settled in Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and
other parts of central and southern Africa, and a few in the islands of the Comoros,
Madagascar, Reunion, Seychelles and Mauritius. It is common even today that they
have relatives spread in several of these countries since they continue to prefer to marry
within their original castes and clans of loose affiliation across international borders.2
After World War II, Asian population in East Africa doubled reaching the highest
figures in 1961/62, around the Independence of Tanganyika: Kenya 177 000, Uganda
77 000, Tanganyika 88 000 and Zanzibar 20 000 (Census reports of Kenya, Uganda,
Tanganyika and Zanzibar). In November 1986, the Asian population in East (and
Central) Africa was at its lowest, an estimated fall by half compared to the figures of
1961/62 (Africa South of the Sahara 1986). The latest figures published in 1998 were as
follows: Kenya 89 185 (August 1989), Tanzania 75 015 (August 1967), and Malawi 5
682 (1977); no such figures are available for Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia and
2. Occupations of Asians. The Asians in East and Central Africa came as sailors,
traders, financiers, soldiers, railway workers, technicians, administrators and also
professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and skilled and semi-skilled
craftsmen, and some even as farmers (cattle keepers, milkmen and market gardeners).
At Independence in each country in East Africa, about a third of the officers in the
armed forces were Asians. During the 1960s, the policies of Africanization of the civil
service, the uniformed professions and the parastatals, reduced the gross over-
representation of the Asians in these areas of occupation, e.g. in Kenya from 12% in
1961 to 8% in 1968; in Uganda from 2% in 1961 to 1.3% in 1968. Most Asians in East
Africa are today involved in the private or parastatal sectors justifying the misconceived
reference ‘the Jews of East Africa’.4
Since Independence, Asians have become more urbanised, particularly in Tanzania,
thereby making way for the African indigenous petty bourgeouise to develop in the
rural areas; but this caused serious problems in Tanzania where state involvement in
2 See also Gangulee (1947) and Chattopadhayaya (1970).
3 Africa South of the Sahara 1999 and Africa Review 1999. For comparison, the number of “Arabs” for the same year were 41 595 in Kenya and
29 775 in Tanzania.
4 Asians have been erroneously referred to as ‘the Jews of East Africa’ and compared with the Jews in Europe and the Middle East. A shop survey
conducted by me in December 1978 in Daressalaam in the Kariakoo area, Uhuru Street, Independence/Samora Avenue and Morogoro Street, the
major shopping quarters of Daressalaam, showed that 7 out of 10 Asian shopkeepers were first generation traders; their fathers and grandfathers
had a variety of occupations other than trading. See also postings in NAMASKAR-AFRICANA-L forum during September-November 1998. For
a recent balanced history of the Asians, see Gregory (1993).
replacing the Asian dominance led to the collapse of retail trade, distribution of
consumer goods and the local transport systems. In Uganda, the summary expulsion of
Asians led to a near-total collapse of the commercial and industrial infra-structure in the
3. Political involvement and treatment of Asians. A myth prevails that Asians in
East Africa were politically docile, or unconscious, or uninvolved. Since about half of
the Asians were not citizens of their country of residence, or even birth, they were
legally barred from actively participating in local and party politics. Many Asian
individuals and interest groups everywhere supported the freedom movements, at times
very strongly, e.g. Makkhan Singh, the pioneer anti-colonialist agitator and trade
unionist in Kenya, and Pio Gama Pinto who was with the Mau Mau freedom-fighters in
Kenya, the Madhwani group in Uganda, the Karimjee merchant houses in Tanganyika
and Zanzibar, and the Aga Khan Ismailis in general in all the territories; there were
several Asian MPs, ministers and high state officials in each country, and it is even so
today in Tanzania where, because of different historical and political developments, the
Asians are much more politically, culturally and linguistically integrated than it is
Asians have been treated differently in the different countries of the region in the
post-Independence period. In the extreme case of Uganda, both citizens and non-
citizens of Asian origin were expelled from the country. In Kenya, with its history of
racial and ethnic tension and conflicts, there was much coercion of non-citizens with
Africanization applied throughout the 1960s. In liberal Tanganyika there were active
campaigns for national integration with Africanization applied only for a few years to
achieve racial parity in the civil service, the Police and the armed forces. In Zanzibar
there was no definite policy for Asians though there were cases of persecution of Asian
individual political opponents and sub-groups during the dictatorial rule of Sheikh
Abeid Aman Karume in 1964-72. In comparison, in central and southern Africa (except
for in apartheid South Africa), Asians have generally experienced a tolerant attitude of
Asians were not exactly, and are still not, “strangers in African society” as perceived
by Jessica Kuper (1979). They were, and are to an extent, in the well-formulated words
of Peter Nazareth, a Uganda Asian writer living in exile, “.... anxious about their future
in the country, and foresaw the possibility of being scapegoats, or at least of being the
victims of discrimination” (Nazareth 1972:55)5. He further clearly expresses the point
of view of the East African rulers and the growing young political elite stating
“Whereas the Asians were nonexistent politically, physically they were all too real.
They were the customs and immigration officials, the desk clerks and managers, the
shopkeepers, landlords, etc. There were African businessmen and landlords, but they
were invisible. The Government’s task was to turn the town of Damibia into visible
African areas only speckled with Asians and Europeans” (ibid.). In Uganda, almost a
total ‘Asian vacuum’ was created after their tumultuous expulsion by the dictator Iddi
Amin Dada in the early 1970s.
4. Asians – a false minority! Or many minorities! British sources document that a
great majority of the Asians during the British period since the 1880s have come from
Gujarat and Punjab, about a third of them being Muslim, and two thirds being Hindu,
Sikh, Jain, Bhudhist and Christian. The only Parsee community with a temple was in
Zanzibar Town. Most of these have had contacts with India or Pakistan. On the other
5 I am obliged to Mr. Benegal Pereira (Namaskar-Africana-List) for references to J. Kuper and P. Nazareth.
hand, almost all Asians who have lost contact with their kin in India, and who claim
that they have been in East Africa for five or more generations, maintain that their
ancestors came mainly from Cutch/Sindh (and Gujarat). Most of them were Muslim, or
they converted from Hinduism to mostly Shia Islam after coming to East Africa.
They speak Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, Cutchi/Sindhi, Konkani (the language of the old
kingdom of Konkan including the later colony of Goa), Hindi and Singalese as their
home tongues. A lot of them in Zanzibar and the coastal towns speak Swahili at home,
or a mixture of Swahili and Cutchi. On the whole, the Hindus are divided along caste
lines; the Sunni Muslim, despite intermarriage, were loosely re-grouped into Cutchi,
Gujarati, Konkani and Punjabi speakers, which is noticeable to an extent even today;
and the Cutchi/Sindhi-speaking Sunni Muslim were superficially organised into ‘clans’
based on their Hindu castes of many generations back. The Shia Muslim Asians belong
to three different sects: the Imami Ithnaasheria, the Nizari Aga Khan Ismaili and the
The British encouraged the Asians to have their own separate ‘community’ schools,
hospitals, dispensaries, cemeteries, sports clubs and scout troups, etc. This was partly to
follow their language and religious needs, but it was also an integral part of the colonial
policy of ‘divide and rule’. However, Asians always used one another’s communal
educational and medical facilities, and in the post-Independence era it has not been
difficult to turn such facilities into common public services supported by the state. Up
to the mid-60s educational and health facilities initiated and developed by Asian
investments and donations in the urban areas far out-numbered those of colonial
administrations and western missions. It is generally accepted that such originally
private Asian facilities functioned better than those completely controlled by the state
or the municipalities, which is similar to the case of facilities and services offered today
by Western NGOs and Christian missions with greater financial resources (Andersson-
Brolin et al. 1991).
Asians in East and Central Africa today have a very high degree of social intercourse
across their traditional religious, language and occupational barriers of Indian origin.
This has increased in the face of external political threats, both British and African. The
British practised their ‘divide and rule’ with separate segregating and discriminating
educational and other facilities for the different ‘races’ and ‘communities’ in their
African colonies, except in the Zanzibar Protectorate and the Kenya coastal region
(which was also a protectorate, as against the interior of Kenya which was a Crown
Colony) where such segregation did not exist. However, the various Indian
‘communities’ were ‘encouraged’ to maintain their own separate identities, and this has
survived to some extent in the region. The White minority in Kenya constantly tried
with some success to turn the Asians into a buffer between themselves and the
Africans, as in South Africa, where apartheid was a unique suppressive system that
separated Asians from the others but gave them some rights which were denied the
African indigenous majority.
About the Uganda Asians, Kuper (1979:243-259) says: “The point has frequently
been made that the Asian population of Uganda in no sense represented a community.
‘Asian’ was merely a racial category imposed upon several communities originating
from the Indian subcontinent and broadly differentiated from one another by language,
religion, and area of origin in India and Pakistan, with still further divisions according
to caste or sect.” And specifically on the Goans who were predominantly in government
service, Kuper concludes: “From the point of view of class analysis, it can be argued
that after independence they had more in common with African white-collar workers
than with Asian traders.”
Asians form less than 1% of the total population of the region, in spite of continued
immigration from India and Pakistan, and Uganda returnees from the West, but they are
an easily noticeable minority since they are concentrated in urban centres which after
the exodus of Asians and Europeans in the 1960s no longer have non-African majority.
Most Asians who left East and Central Africa migrated to the UK, USA, Canada and
India. The bottom figures reached in 1986 gave an estimated total of about 250 000 in
East, Central and Southern Africa (excluding the Republic of South Africa). Since
around 1961, the number of Asians in tropical Africa has been reduced and it is
estimated that it increases very slowly; in comparison, the number of ‘Whites’ is
estimated to have more than quadrupled because of the increasing size of foreign aid
agencies, NGOs, Christian missionary activities, establishment of multinationals and
small businesses (particularly from southern Africa), and diplomatic missions.
5. Major Asian ‘ethnic’ groups in East Africa. The following Asian groups or
‘castes’ and ‘communities’ are found today in East Africa: 6
Cutchi/Sindhi/Swahili-speaking Muslim (Sunni) (Tanzania)
Cutchi-speaking Muslim (Sunni) (Kenya, Uganda)
Cutchi speaking Bhatia (Hindu)
Cutchi-speaking Leva Patel (Hindu)
Cutchi/Gujarati/Swahili-speaking Aga Khan Ismaili (Shia)
Cutchi/Gujarati/Swahili-speaking Ithnaasheri (Shia, also called Shinashri)
Gujarati-speaking Parsee (Zoroastrians of Iranian origin)
Gujarati-speaking Wohra/Bohra/Musta’ali/Dawoodi (Shia)
Gujarati-speaking Sunni Wohra/Patel (also called Surti)
Gujarati/Cutchi-speaking Banya/Wania (Hindu)
Gujarati/Cutchi-speaking Jain (also called Lohana/Luana)
Konkani/Urdu-speaking Kukni Muslim (Sunni)
Konkani/English-speaking Goans (Catholics)
Marathi-speaking Maharashtri Brahmin
Punjabi/Urdu-speaking Muslim (Sunni and Shia),
Urdu-speaking Pathan (Sunni and Shia)
Sindhi Sunni Muslims now speaking Cutchi
Gujarati and Cutchi Hindus and Jains have the following main castes called ‘Jati’:
Banya (traders), Brahmin (priests), Bhoi-dharji (tailors), Dhobi (washermen), Gola-rana
(workers, labourers, later craftsmen, and claim Rajput origin), Gowar
(cattlekeepers/milkmen), Kanbi/Kurmi/Leva Patel (farmers), Kansara (tinsmiths),
Kumbar (potters), Korhi/Koli (masons and builders), Lohar/Lohara (blacksmiths),
Mochi (shoemakers), Patel (farmers, now traders, industrialists, bankers, clerks, etc.),
Shah (merchants, etc.), Soni (gold/silversmiths), Suthar/Sutharia (carpenters), Warand
6 Some data on the caste system among the Asians of East Africa and the languages they speak was gathered from NAMASKAR discussion
forum “Indians of East Africa; Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania” <NAMASKAR-AFRICANA-L@HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM> during the first
week of October 1998 in which the following members took active part: Benegal Pereira, Peter Nazareth, Rahul Patel, Ashul Shah, Ramnik
Shah, Mario J. Afonso, Ish Tailor, Baqir Alloo, Rakesh Gadani, Mustafah Dhada, Ronald S. Edari, Jaffar Manek, Tim de Mello, Karamjit
Bharaj, Micky P. Soorae, Jeremy Brennan and myself. Some details on the Cutchi in Kenya were gathered from David Schaad (1994).
Specifically on the Ismailis, see Daftary (1990) and Nanji (1974 and 1978).
Among the Cutchi/Sindhi and Gujarati Sunni Muslims the following main sub-
groups called ‘Jamaat’ are represented: Badala or Kharwa (sailors, salt workers),
Dhobi (washermen), Garana (farmers, now turned carpenters and builders), Guwar
(cattlekeepers, milkmen, camel riders of the past), Hajjam (barbers), Khatri (soldiers
and textiles producers, originally high caste Kshatriya Rajputs from Sindh), Kumbar
(potters, including Manyoti who came to Mombasa as soldiers), Kanbi/Kurmi/Patel
(farmers), Loharwadha or Luwarwadha (blacksmiths, tinsmiths), Machiara (fishermen),
Meman (merchants, originally Lohana or Luana of Sindh, most of whom converted to
Islam in the middle of the 1400s and moved to Cutch in the 1600s), Sonara (gold,
silversmiths), Sumra (originally high caste Kshatriya from Cutch) and Suthar
(carpenters). The Badala/Kharwa, Dhobi, Garana, Guwar, Sumra and Suthar are
collectively also called ‘Lashkri Jamaat’ (Warrior Community), since they frequently
worked temporarily as soldiers in different armies, and were in Swahili called Sindikali,
the ferocious Sindhis. In Mombasa they are called ‘Samatri Jamaat’. The ‘Lashkri’ and
‘Samatri’ claim they have ‘foji’ (military) origin. The Guwar have three clans, viz.
Juneja, Nareja and Sameja. The term ‘jamaat’ is an Arabic loan.
Some Asians, both Hindu and Muslim, further observe an endogamous clan-like
affiliation called ‘atak’ based on their ‘gaam’ (the original Indian village or town and
districts the founders of their households came from), e.g. among the Cutchi/Sindhi
Sunni Muslims of Zanzibar, Daressalaam and Mombasa, there are the Madhapuria
Guwar (from Madhapur/Madhawpur), the Manyoti Kumbar (of Manyot), the Bhujpuria
Kumbar (from Bhujpur/Bhojpur) and the Madiyar Kumbar and the Madiyar Hajjam
(from Maddai/Mandvi, the old main port of Cutch). Many other sub-clan names (called
‘atak’ in Cutchi, Gujarati and Sindhi) such as Bachani, Betai, Bhadresar, Gandai,
Gundiyara, Halai and Kothari, derived from different place names in Cutch, Gujarat
and Sindh, are also found among both Hindus and Muslims and are frequently used as
surnames. This ethno-social self-identification in rather narrow contexts is similar to the
different sub-groupings among the so called Arabs and some Swahilis of Zanzibar and
the Kenya coast, e.g. Barwani (of Barwan), Jiddhawi (of Jeddah), Riyami (of Riyam)
and Mkelle (of Mukalla). Among the Baloch and the Pathan, only loose agnatic clan
affiliation exists, and they are not endogamous.
The Sikhs are again subdivided into Tharkan (craftsmen) and Jat (farmers). In
Nairobi where there are two Sikh temples because of the large number of Sikhs there,
the former go to the Ramgarhia Temple, while the latter to the Singh Sabha. But in
other towns with smaller Sikh communities, such as in Arusha, Tanzania, “where there
is only one temple, the main concern lies with who exactly becomes the Chairman, a
Tharkan or a Jat! Other issues affecting the community take a secondary role (Micky P.
Soorae, Namaskar 7-10-98).” There are also two more small sub-groups of Sikh, viz.
the Kuka (with Hindu practices) and the less rigid followers Sikh Dhobi (Washermen
Among the Goans, there were also traces of Hindu castes such as tailors, fishermen
and farmers, distinct from those with Portuguese admixture. These rather narrow
distinctions among many Goans and other Asians have become blurred during the last
five decades due to education and greater social mobility. Very few Asians in Eastern
Africa are engaged today in the traditional occupations (based on the caste system) of
their ancestors in India, but most of them continue to perceive themselves as belonging
to loosely organised Jati (for non-Muslims) and Jamaat (for Muslims), few of which
have any registration of members.
There is much intermarriage among Asian Sunni Muslims, and between them and
other Muslim groups of diverse origins. Since Independence, this development has
taken place mainly because of the anti-communalism campaigns led from Zanzibar by
Maulana Ahmadshah Qadiri Bukhari of Cutch who regularly visited East Africa during
the late 1950s to the end of 1980s, and the revival of Islam which exercises a unifying
force on the Muslims in general.
As for the Hindu and Jain communities, jointly referred to in Swahili as Baniani (pl.
Mabaniani), efforts were made in 1950s to reorganise them with the progress of the
Arya-Samaj and the Brahma-Samaj movements to counteract the caste system, with
some success among the Hindus in Tanzania. As for the different Shia groups, because
of their somewhat insulatory and hierachical organization, there is less tendency for
‘matrimonial’ assimilation, except for the Ithnaasheri men who have always been
intermarrying with wives from other Asian, Arab and African groups, increasing
particularly the African and Arab features of their community and maintaining their
6. Language use and language shifts among Asians. Asians in East Africa regard
themselves as North(west) Indians. Monolingualism is almost unknown among Asians
in general. This phenomenon has two linguistc aspects, viz. multilingualism and
diversity. The various subgroups of Asians however are not based on their community
language, or ‘nationality’, but rather on their religious and denominational differences.
The term Hindustani is used often in previous research and documentation on the
subject to include both Hindi and Urdu which are cognate languages. It is probable that
the ‘Hindustani’ loans in Swahili are mainly from Urdu and not from Hindi, as most of
the early Indian immigrants to East Africa during the pre-colonial period appear to have
been Muslims having first Sindhi and later Urdu, which are both heavily infused with
Perso-Arabic elements, as their literary and religious languages.
The linguistic data collected in the 1967 Census (Kassam’s 1971 Report, Polome and
Hill 1980) gave a figure of 85 000 Asians living in Tanzania speaking five different
Indo-Aryan languages, viz. Cutchi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani and Urdu in descending
order of numbers. About 40% of the Cutchi Sunnis, and almost all of the other Cutchi
speakers (Shia Imami, Ismaili and Hindu), were literate in Gujarati, due to Gujarati
medium primary schools they had attended; and most of the Asian Muslims of all
denominations could read Koranic Arabic.
Kassam’s unique survey of language use among the Asians of Daressalaam in 1970
(included in Polomé and Hill 1980) showed that they used Cutchi in 52%, Gujarati
14.5%, Swahili 7.3% and English 26% of the situations. The high frequency for English
was a result of using English as a commercial and office working language. Some price
tags and lists, and shop notices were in Gujarati, while both Gujarati and Hindi were
used as written and printed languages. 13% of the Asians claimed they spoke Swahili at
home; and according to the Tanzania Library Survey (Hill 1969), every tenth borrower
in all the librariers of the country put together was Asian. The Daressalaam survey may
be taken as representative of the whole country. Today however, Gujarati has
completely disappeared from this kind of usage.
The linguistic situation of Asians in Kenya is more complex – a majority of the
Punjabi and Gujarati speakers left the country in the aftermath of Independence coupled
with Africanization, reducing their numbers from 174 000 in 1962 to 57 000 in 1974.
Gujarati (with Cutchi) was spoken by 70%, Punjabi 20%, English with Goan Konkani
10%, and tiny minorities spoke Sindhi, Marathi and Bengali (Neale 1974). Almost 75%
of the Asians were settled in and around Mombasa and Nairobi. In Kenya, they
normally speak four languages, i.e. community language, Hindustani, Swahili, and
English; the last three are their links with Asians, Africans and Europeans respectively.
In contrast in Tanzania, Gujarati rather than Hindustani is the main link with Asians, as
a result of the language shift among the dominant Ismaili group, from Cutchi to
Gujarati, after a firman (decree) from their religious leader the Aga Khan. This was also
the case in Uganda where Gujarati was dominant because of the Gujarati-speaking
Hindus, Jains and Shia Muslims.
Asians in East Africa, with English background in British India, (and Portuguese
with some Latin in Goa), use Gujarati, Cutchi/Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Konkani
and Bengali as regional vernaculars. Zoroastrian Parsee Gujaratis and Shia Wohra
Gujaratis in India and East Africa speak their own subdialects of Gujarati which are
both characterised by the replacement of the dental /t/ with the retroflex /ţ/, and
terminology specific to Zoroastrianism and Shia Islam respectively.
Asians also use Sanskrit, Ardhamagadhi Prakrit, Arabic, Persian/Farsi and Avestan
as their liturgical languages. Earlier the Goans used also English with some Latin as
their church language. Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, occasionally with announcements and
short sermons in Cutchi and Swahili are also being used in religious contexts. In
Tanzania, the Sunni Asians increasingly use Swahili as their religious language. 7
The Arya-samaj and Punjabi Hindu use Vedic for prayer with explanation in Hindi,
and the Swami Narayan Gujarati Hindu use Gujarati for prayer.
Over the generations, the following language shifts have taken place among the
Asians in East Africa:
Cutchi > Gujarati for Ismaili and Hindu Batia and Banya/Wania
Cutchi > Swahili for Sunni and Ithnaasheri
Konkani > English for Goan Catholics
Konkani > Urdu/Swahili for Kukni (Konkani Muslims)
Punjabi > Swahili for some assimilated Muslim Punjabi in Tanzania
Sindhi > Gujarati for Hindus
Sindhi > Cutchi for Muslims
The general language typology of the Asians is as follows:
a. regional Indic (Indo-Aryan) language at home, mixed with Swahili in many cases
b. classical languages (Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic) as religious languages
c. standard languages (Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, English) for nursery/primary instruction,
private correspondence, etc.
The case of Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani written forms is also complex: Punjabi Hindus
use sanskritised Hindi in the Devanagari script; Punjabi Muslims use persianised Urdu
in the Perso-Arabic Ajami script. Both these languages were mediums of instruction at
the primary level during the colonial period in Kenya, while Gujarati was used during
the first four classes in almost all Asian primary schools in Tanganyika, Uganda and in
some schools in Zanzibar Town, and Gujarati Hindu institutions in Kenya. The Sikhs
have gone over to the Gurumukhi script from the earlier Ajami script which today only
the India-born dying generation of elders can read and write (Neale1974:72 and my
7 Fieldwork in Zanzibar and Daressalaam during December 1992-January 1993, July-August 1994 and June 1998 showed that several Indian
Sunni Muslim wedding ceremonies were conducted completely in Swahili or Cutchi, Swahili with Cutchi or Urdu, one ceremony in Swahili with
some Arabic, and one in Swahili with some English for the foreign guests. Verses from the Koran were recited during all these weddings in
Arabic only. What Gabriele Sommer (1994:497) concludes for the language situation in northen Namibia, to a large extent holds also for the
language shifts in East Africa.
7.1. Transmission from Indians to Swahili speakers. Away from the coast, where a
majority of the Asians lived after the 1880s, social contacts between Swahilis and
Asians were minimal during the colonial period, especially in Kenya and Uganda.
Hence Indian cultural and linguistic influences in Swahili cannot be attributed to the
up-country and later Asians and those (non-Muslims) who did not share their religious
conviction with the coastal Muslim Swahili. For Asians on Mainland Tanzania, “In
their professional activities, the level and depth of contact with Africans was the
greatest for the Ithnaasheries, the Sunnis and the Sikhs; it was lesser with the Ismailis
and the Bohoras, and even more with the Hindus. The Goans kept aloof from the
Africans, and the Parsees had practically no relation with them” (Polomé 1980:136).
However, there were many cases of Asian men of different communities up-country
married to African women, and some cases of Parsee men in Zanzibar who had
embraced Islam and were married to non-Parsee Muslim wives of African-Arab
In the post-Uhuru societies of East Africa, many forces and undercurrents are at
work, which have broken the communal, tribal and racial barriers, for Asians and
Muslims in general in Eastern Africa. Ghai (1969:103-6) wondered if this in the long
run would lead to genuine social integration of the Asians. Certainly, today there is
greater linguistic integration of both the Asians and Africans who increasingly use
Swahili. Extensive and intensive linguistic integration of the Africans, linguistic
nationalization or Swahilization, has taken place in East Africa. A similar development
has been noted for the Asians, showing that knowledge of Swahili has improved
tremendously, and cases of Swahili “as a mixed language of Kuchi [Cutchi] verbal
stems with Swahili morphemes (Polome 1980:135)” have become uncommon. 8
7.2. Indian influences in the arts and architecture in East Africa. Indian influences
on East African art, architecture, literature and music have not been given much
attention by researchers; not even the most common Swahili, and East African,
garment, the khanga, has been given its due recognition as an Indian contribution.
The other main unnoticed Indian influence is in the genre of painting. Modern
painting as an art in East Africa was introduced by Indian sign writers such as the
retired wrestler Nura Pahelwan and the singer/actor Ramzan Natakio, both of Zanzibar,
who mass-produced Indian motives on sheet glass to be put in frames on Indian and
Swahili ‘Zanzibar beds’ which were also an important export item. Furniture of quality
was almost exclusively produced in Indian workshops which however employed many
Swahili and other African workers. The paintings usually had lilies and peacocks, a
motive commonly found in Indian calendars which were very widespread in East Africa
where almost every importer of any item had a single piece calendar printed for him in
Surat or Bombay for free distribution to his major customers, relatives, friends and
neighbours in East Africa. It was these calendars, and other colourful pictures in Hindu
and Jainist homes depicting Indian mythology, which inspired Tingatinga, who was a
domestic servant in a Hindu family for several years after his arrival from Mozambique
at the age of sixteen, to create the famous art school named after him and copied all
over East Africa.9
8 Field data collected during June-July 1983 included the following Cutchi creole Swahili sentences uttered by two Ithnaasheri ladies in the
transit lounge at the Daressalaam Airport (Cutchi elements in bold face, Arabic elements in Italics): 1. Bha yako (a)nampenda kama sago bapa
wallahi. (Your brother, i.e. my husband, loves him like a real father. Swahili verbal cluster + function words.) 2. Nilo-piro (i)nachamke kama
sacho hiro. (The greenish-yellowish shade shines like a real diamond. Cutchi-Swahili verbal cluster.) In this variant of Swahili, Indic verbal
stems and adjectives are frequently used.
9 Together with Messr. Henry Blid and Christer Ågren of the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA), I spent one whole
afternoon of late December 1971 at the home of Tingatinga in Msasani/Daressalaam and interviewed him and his Zanzibar born wife (who wore
the Muslim Swahili buibui veil) for the Swedish writer and journalist Elly Jannes who took notes; her daughter Elle Kari Højeberg took a
In the field of architecture, Indian influence is also enormous in East Africa; one can
see the striking resemblance of the urban apartment buildings in East African towns to
those in the Indian sub-continent. Most of the major housing areas and schemes in East
African towns were planned by Asian architects, or Asians employed by British firms.
The coastal ‘Arab’ carved doors with brass knobs and other brass or copper details, and
the Zanzibari wooden carved doors and chests with brass details, are also based on
Indian carved doors and chests from Cutch and Gujarat. In the old parts of the coastal
towns, one can see beautiful examples of Indian influences in the mansions – the doors,
windows and the balconies hanging over the stores on the street level. The Old
Dispensary in Zanzibar city, now restored, is a magnificent example of this kind of
Indian architecture raised by artisans brought from India – similar buildings abound in
Bhavnagar and Mandvi. The mosques with minarets of the Persian and Indian types are
also a recent phenomenon from the later half of the 19th century introduced by Indians;
Swahili mosques as a rule did not have a minaret, and those few which did, have a very
simple and short minaret of the Hadrami type without stages. However, there is very
little early archeological evidence of Indian style pottery, metal ware or tomb-types in
the region. The Gedi ruins in Kenya show traces of the characteristic pre-Muslim Indian
architecture, the corbelled-out arches (Kirkman 1954:2-3).
Lewcock (1971) claims quite much archeological evidence of Indian influence in
Swahili architecture which Allen places in the early 19th century because of the sudden
influx of Indian merchants and capital during the Omani rule, and the popularity of
Indian fashions and styles after Prince Seyyid Barghash’s long exile in Bombay in the
1860s. Allen believes that “such cultural parallels from an earlier period are mostly
between the Swahili world and the Deccan, where African mercenaries played a
political role from the fourteenth century onwards, and parts of which were actually
ruled by dynasties of African origin in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many
of these mercenaries and perhaps even some of the rulers may have stemmed from the
Swahili coast, and some of the cultural parallels may result from innovations introduced
from East Africa to the Indian sub-continent and not the other way round” (Allen
1993:245). The ethnonyms of some Sidi (Afro-Indians, African descendants in India),
i.e. ‘Saheli’ (Swahili), ‘Shemali’ (Somali), Makwa/Makwana (Makua), Myava (Myao)
and ‘Kafara’ (Ar. ‘kāfir’, non-Muslim; Sw. kafiri, non-Muslims and those tribes who
provided slaves to the Swahili coast, especially from Mozambique; ‘kaffer’ in southern
African derogatory usage meaning ‘negro’) show that they do originate in
Kenya/Tanzania, Somalia and Mozambique respectively (Lodhi 1992a:83-86 and 2008:
and Stone 1985:131-51). The Juma Masjid (the Great Friday Mosque) in central
Ahmedabad in Gujarat, was designed by an East African ‘Sidi’ and the beautiful and
detailed stone masonary is also the work of African artisans.10
8. Indian contribution to linguistics, literature, music and drama in East Africa.
There are only a handful of East Africans of Indian origin who write Swahili poetry,
and none who writes prose fiction in Swahili. Towards the end of the nineteenth
century and in the beginning of the twentieth century, there was very little Asian
number of photographs. To date, Jannes and Höjeberg have not published anything on Tingatinga.
According to Tingatinga, his paintings were mostly based on pictures and calendars with Hindu mythological figures and sequences which he
had come across as a domestic servant in a practising Hindu family in Daressalaam. This was the only employment Tingatinga had after he
arrived from Mozambique at the age of 16 until he started painting, which he was taught by his employer. Even the Shetani, the Devil (and other
‘evil spirits’) in his paintings, was given a black face after the Indian demon king Ravana. He admitted that in all the paintings in his possession
at that time, the devil was painted black, and not white as is the custom in Eastern Africa; and he had seen this in Indian films which he
frequently went to see at the cinema houses. Several copies of one white bungalow with a peacock and stylised flowers were also copied from
Indian calendars; the bungalow was first drawn after the school building of St. Joseph’s Convent in Daressalaam. Furthermore, Tingatinga did
not hide the fact that he was signing all the paintings produced by his relatives and friends in the workshop in the backyard of his house.
10 Professor Jayanti K. Patel to A. Y. Lodhi, January 1991, Ahmedabad.
intellectual work conducted in East Africa, i.e. the Cutchi-speaking Alidina Somjee
Lilani produced a Swahili grammar in Gujarati in 1890, and a Gujarati-speaking Parsee
physician, Dr. A. Attani, wrote in Gujarati a history of Zanzibar, commissioned by the
Karimjee Jivanjee family in 1911. In the generations born before the advent of World
War II, there were only a couple of Asians who wrote poems and only a few of them
are extant, viz. Ustaad Ismail Raghi of Tanga, and his nephew Ustaad Mitu (alias
Ayoub Ahmed Ayoub Rangooni) of Zanzibar/Daressalaam and Ustaad Mohamoud
Rajab Damodar of Ndagoni, Mafia Island – there are fragments of Raghi’s
poems/songs; one song by Ustaad Mitu, Baba Pakistan, recorded by the ‘Umm
Kulthum’ of East Africa, the Swahili singer Siti binti Saad in the late1940s and
rerecorded on video recently by Bi Kidude (alias Fatuma binti Baraka) in Zanzibar;11
Damodar’s one surviving poem Sabasaba 1964 is included by Saadani Abdul Kandoro,
a founder member of Tanganyika Afrika National Union (TANU), in one of his
collections (Kandoro 1972:127-129). Among the contemporary Swahili writers and
poets, there are the prolific artist Ustaad Ahmad Nassir Juma Bhalo of Mombasa
(whose paternal grandfather was a Cutchi Badala) and his cousin Ustaad Mohamed
Bhalo the singer. Ahmed Nassir has published two poem collections (Poems from
Kenya, 1966, is with English translation), and several articles and cassette tapes of
Taarab music (which is Swahili lyrics, and music influenced much by films from
Cairo, Beirut and Bombay; some of the melodies are from Indian films, and a couple of
songs are translated from Hindi with original Swahili melodies).
In 1955 in Mombasa, Mr. B. V. Trivedi, a Gujarati-speaking Hindu teacher,
published a short Gujarati-Swahili Shabdapothi (Gujarati-Swahili Dictionary). Dr.
Farouk Topan of London (of the legendary Tharia Topan family in Zanzibar) has edited
two Swahili poem collections on Azimio la Arusha, the Arusha Declaration, and written
two Swahili satirical plays (Mfalme Juha/King Idiot 1971 based on a 13th century
Gujarati poem ‘Andheri Nagari Gandu Rajah’, and Aliyeonja Pepo/He who tasted
Paradise 1973), and a number of articles on Swahili literature – it was he who
introduced Swahili literature as a discipline at the University of Daressalaam in the late
1960s). Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi has published one poem collection (Tafkira, 1986) in
Swahili, a number of poems in a couple of Swahili journals and half a dozen
dictionaries and many articles on Swahili linguistics.
Other Asian Swahili scholars of Indian origin are Maalim Jaafer Tejani of Zanzibar
(who was the first Director of the Institute of Kiswahili Research/IKR in Daressalaam,
now settled in Daressalaam), Muhsin M. R. Alidina, now settled in New York (who
was with the IKR for more than 20 years, also as Director for some years), and Abdul
Nanji of Daressalaam, also now settled in New York. The Bhalo cousins and Farouk
Topan are of mixed Cutchi-Gujarati-Arab-African parentage. Tejani and Alidina are of
Cutchi-Persian parentage; Nanji is of Cutchi-African parentage, and Lodhi is of Pathan-
During the 50s and 60s there was also in Daressalaam a Swahili scholar by the name
Ibrahim Sardar of the Cutchi Sameja clan of Zanzibar. Sardar was Head of the Swahili
Department of the Aga Khan Secondary School in Daressalaam. Aided by the Balochi
Swahili scholar Mohamed Kamal Khan, he was also the Swahili expert for all Aga
Khan schools in Tanzania. His Swahili compendium was used in many secondary
11 For details on Siti and the Taarab tradition see A. A. Suleiman (1969) and Issa Mgana (1991).
12 I had the honour of doing my teaching practice (in Swahili, African History and African Geography) with Sardar and Kamal Khan at the Aga
Khan Secondary School (1966) and St. Xaviar Secondary School (1967) in Daressalaam.
Currently, there is a musical group of Cutchis from Mombasa (The Varda brothers
and Co.) touring Kenya and Tanzania who have their own Swahili songs in their
repertoire, together with Cutchi, Gujarati and Hindustani.
During the 30s, through to early 50s there was a theatrical group in Zanzibar
organised by Ustaad Shahjee Bapa Panjabi and his close associates Ramzan Natakio
(painter and sign-writer of Cutchi origin, who used to play female roles as there was no
female in their group) and Alayo Tabalchi (Allarakhia Mohammed Bhujwaro), often
visited Daressalaam, Mombasa and Tanga. Ustaad Ramzan with his three brothers
Budho, Jussi and Osman, and Ustaad Mitu were taught Indian music by Ustad Ismail
Raghi of Tanga, who introduced live Indian music performances (in Mombasa, Tanga,
Daressalaam and Zanzibar), and also the accordion (popularly called ‘harmonium’ in
India and East Africa), which has now been replaced by the portable accordion in
Taarab performances. Ramzan’s group which had its repertoire in Cutchi, Gujarati,
Hindustani and Swahili, was often assisted by Mitu playing the harmonium, tablas and
singing ‘gazals’ in Urdu. Mitu was frequently accompanied by Ustaad Golo Remi and
Ustaad Muso Chotaro (both had Cutchi fathers and African mothers) and together they
taught several others who formed their own orchestra under the leadership of Babu Ally
(of the Cutchi/Swahili-speaking Turk family) of Zanzibar;13 this group ceased to exist
some time in the late 1960s after the exodus of Indians of Zanzibar. Sheriff (1987:107)
includes a plate showing Indian street dancers in Zanzibar around the year 1860.
9. Cutchi in East Africa. Cutchi is one of the four recognised dialects of Sindhi,
spoken mainly in the district of Cutch which today lies in the western part of Gujarat,
east of the desert stretches of the Indus river (Chatterji 1962:31-2, 349, IEL 3:129). In
1971, there were more than 471,000 speakers of Cutchi in Gujarat “and scattered in
other states; also spoken in Kenya and Tanzania” (IEL 3:129). The name Cutchi is also
spelled by various writers as Cuchi, Kachi, Kuchi, Katchi, Kacchi, Kachchi or Kautchy
(ibid.). A Pakistani variant of Cutchi is also spoken by more that 50,000 in lower Sindh,
and is referred to as Kachi Koli, Kuchikoli, Kachi, Kachchi, Katchi, Kohli, Kholi,
Kolhi, Kori, Vagri, Vaghri, or Wagaria by different writers (IEL 1:243). According to
Masica (1991:17) “Beyond the Gulf of Kutch, however, the language, Kachchi, is more
closely related to Sindhi.” Later on Masica describes Cutchi as the “language of Kutch
(desert wilderness in far NW Gujarat); sometimes considered a dialect of SINDHI;
cultural allegiance is to GUJARATI, which serves as written language” (Masica
1991:431). Here Masica appears to have overlooked the pre-Partition history of Cutch
and Gujarat during the British colonial period and the exodus of Muslim Cutchi-
speakers that started several generations ago; moreover, the Gujarati “cultural
allegiance” in today’s Cutch can be attributed also to Gujarati Hindu settlement in
Cutch and the resulting Gujarati predominance in general during the last two centuries.
In East Africa, Cutchi has several sub-dialects, namely those of Sunni Muslims
(heavily infused with Perso-Arabic and Swahili words and phrases), of Bhatia and
Cutchi Banya/Wania Hindus (with much Gujarati intrusion) and of Shia Ismailis and
Ithnaasheris (with Persian-Arabic, Swahili and Gujarati influence). Along the Kenya
coast, one finds a less Swahili-influenced form of Cutchi called Kibadala in Kimvita
(Mombasa Swahili). It was the language of Kalua, the Indian sailors (belonging to the
Sunni Muslim Badala and Kharwa castes) coming to East Africa during the Omani
period.14 Kikumbaro is a swahilized Cutchi form spoken as a mother tongue by Indian
13 Information supplemented by Mr. Baqir Aloo, London, through the NAMASKAR-AFRICANA-L network, Oct 1998. Many Cutchi Sunni
Muslim families in Tanzania and Kenya have saved a number of photographs of all these people.
14 IEL 3:229 confuses this “Cutchi-Swahili: a Swahili-based creole spoken in Kenya by South Asians” with “Asian Swahili.”. “Cutchi-Swahili” is
a Cutchi-based Swahili creole, whereas “Asian Swahili” or Kibabu is a social dialect of (‘broken’) Swahili used by many Kenya and Uganda
Sunni Muslims in Tanzania, with its base in Zanzibar Town and southern Unguja
Island. The term Kikumbaro is derived from the Kumbar caste of potters of Cutch who
beginning in the 1820s settled in the Ng’ambo area outside Zanzibar Town and the
Hadimu/Shirazi villages of Makunduchi, Kizimkazi, Jambiani, Paje, Muyuni, Unguja
Ukuu and Fumba in southern Zanzibar. They owned pottery workshops and limestone
kilns and intermarried with the Hadimu/Shirazi. They introduced in East Africa a
number of Asian fruits and vegetables (e.g. embe za Muyuni, a variant of the yellow
Bombay mango growing in the south of Zanzibar island, and the ‘apple mango’ of
Mombasa), and professional skills and small industries such as carpentry and metal
work, building and construction, and had in the beginning virtual monopoly of rural
retail trade and motor transport, particularly in Zanzibar and coastal and southern
The Swahili forms of the Indic loans in the following list, for example, show that the
source of the Indic loans here are most probably Cutchi, which also establishes Cutchi
as an Indic contributor.
Swahili/ Cutchi/ Gujarati/ English
(sukari) guru‘ģur’‘gōr’brown raw sugar
jinjiroo‘jānjrō/jānjar’zānzar’bracelet with bells
The foregoing short list includes also a few indirect Persian loans (nanga and ndimu)
borrowed via Cutchi.
10.1 Indic loans in Swahili. Indian influences in East Africa are complex and their history goes
back probably to the middle of the first millenium of our time. Below is a phonological analysis
of the Indic loans in Swahili, which shows how their pronunciation or meaning has changed, and
to what extent one can distinguish the various Indic languages as specific contributors.
Furthermore, it is not only purely Indic words that were brought to East Africa, but also Arabic,
Persian, Portuguese and English words borrowed first in India were introduced in Swahili by
Indians as indirect loans. Consequently, in this section we also give the distinguishing features of
some of these indirect loans.
The Indic elements in Swahili are of three types, viz.
Asians, similar to the social dialect Kisetla ‘Settler Swahili’ or ‘Kitchen Swahili’ used by the European settlers in East Africa.
1. Purely Indic elements found in Indo-Aryan languages spoken by Indians in East Africa
(Cutchi/Sindhi, Gujarati, Hindustani, Konkani, Punjabi, Urdu); for these specific Indic
etymologies are suggested.
2. Iranian elements found in Indo-Aryan languages and Iranian languages (including Persian,
Baluchi, Pashtu) spoken by Iranic speaking immigrants to the East African coast a) already in
pre-Islamic times, b) after the Shirazi invasion of the middle of the tenth century from Persia, and
c) after the Omani invasion of East Africa and settlement in the 1820s.
3. Indirect loans via Indic of English, Portuguese and other non-Indo-Iranian origins such as
English meli, skrubu, and English-Arabic (Anglo-Indian) mamsab/memsab. Such loans are
described and their specific etymologies are suggested below in section 11..
10.2. Transfer phonology of Indic loans in Swahili. As related earlier, most of the early Indians
who settled on the coast of East Africa came from Cutchi/Sindhi and Gujarati areas; whereas
among the later Indians of the colonial period who settled mostly in the interior of East Africa,
there were many Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speakers. The influence of these later Indians on the
Swahili language and culture is thus not as strong nor deeply rooted as those of the earlier
settlers, as described in section 4.5.
Cutchi (and Sindhi) has roughly the same loans from Arabic and Persian as Swahili has. This
feature is shared also by other Indic languages spoken by Muslims; and Gujarati, Hindi and
Punjabi are no exception to this. However, in the usage of Hindu, Sikh and Christian Indian
speakers, many Persian and Arabic loans in their respective languages have recently been
replaced by Sanskrit words, both old terms and neologisms. The Gujarati lexicon common to
Cutchi also presents difficulties in exactly determining the specific Indic source of some loans in
a. Liquids, laterals and flaps. In the Bantu languages of Eastern Africa there are several “r-like”
sounds and varieties of /l/ (Nurse and Hinnebusch 1993), but in modern Swahili (both Standard
Swahili and dialects) there is only one clear rolled /r/, distinguished from the clear /l/, which are
allophones only in half a dozen cases showing dialect variation, e.g. rowa/lowa (to get wet),
tereza/teleza (to slide down) and randa/landa (1. to loiter; 2. carpenters plane). In some
languages in East Africa such as Kikuyu, there is no /l/, and in many languages such as
Kinyamwezi and Kihaya there is no clear /r/ or /l/. These varieties of /r/ and /l/ are derived from
Similarly in the modern Indic languages of Cutchi/Sindhi (North-western Indo-Aryan),
Gujarati, Hindi and Konkani (all three Central Indo-Aryan), there are many cases of /r/, /l/ and /d/
variation in cognates that distinguish one language, or dialect, from the others. In many cognates
the Hindi retroflex /d/ has the Gujarati retroflex /d/ or /ŗ/ as equivalents, Hindi flapped /ļ/ is
realised as flapped /ŗ/, in Gujarati, and their Cutchi equivalents are sometimes retroflex /ŗ/, and
frequently a clear /r/. I would therefore suggest specific Cutchi etymologies of Indic loans such as
kachara (garbage) and karai (deep frying pan) since in the Cutchi forms they have a clear /r/,
whereas the alternative form kachala, mostly used in the interior of East Africa away from the
coastal Swahili, may have the specific Gujarati or Hindi etymology, or else the Cutchi clear /r/ is
reproduced as /l/ or /ļ/ because of the intereference of the local Bantu languages. For Swahili
bangili (bangle) and pakari (tongs) I would also suggest Cutchi specific etymology since the
Cutchi forms have a clear /l/ and a clear /r/ respectively, whereas the Gujarati and Hindi forms
have a retroflex /d/ in both cases.
“A retroflex flapped /ļ/, contrasting with the ordinary /l/, is a prominent feature of Oriya,
Marathi-Konkani, Gujarati …. It is absent from most other N[ew]I[ndo]A[ryan] languages,
including most Hindi dialects, …. And from Sindhi, Kacchi, …. The retroflex flapped /ŗ/ is often
taken as an allophone of /d/, with which it often stands in complementary distribution: initial,
geminate and postnasal for [d]; intervocative, final, and before or after other consonants for [ŗ]. It
has, however, come to contrast with [d] in some environments in Punjabi …. Sindhi, … in
Modern Standard Hindi …. It may be or is reported as phonemic also in .…, various Western
Hindi dialects. …. It remains subphonemic in Marathi, Gujarati, ….” (Masica 1991:97).
“All five sounds [d, ŗ, ļ, r, l] are closely related descriptively and also historically …. It should
also be noted that /ŗ/ is present phonemically in some languages (Western Hindi, Sindhi, .…) that
lack /ļ/ and absent from some …. (Oriya, Marathi, Gujarati) that possess / ļ/” (Masica 1991:98).
A few examples:
Indic15 > Swahili
‘banglī’ (armlet) bangili, Cut. /l/ > Sw. /l/.
‘bhūmbhlā’ (Bombay duckfish) bumbla, Ind. /l/ > Sw. /l/, or
bumbura, Ind. /l/ > Sw. /r/.
‘jhīrā’ (cumin seeds) jira, Ind. /r/ > Sw. /r/.
‘kačrā’ (rubbish) kachara, Cut. /r/ > Sw. /r/.
‘kačdā’, ‘kačŗā’ kachala, Guj./Hindi /ŗ ~ d/ > Sw. /l/.
The initial Indic liquids /l/ or /r/ conform to the Swahili rule /n/ + /r/ or /l/ > /ndh/, e.g. ‘limu’
(lime) > ndimu in nominal classes 9-10.
b. Further, /w/ and /b/ are sometimes allophones in the Indic languages involved here as they are
generally in the Bantu languages of the East African coast, but the phenomenon is not so
common in Swahili itself. Masica (1991:88-89) discusses the problem of /p/ and / b/ in NIA; but
in the Indic languages involved in East Africa /b/, /bh/ and /p/ occur in complementary
distribution, e.g. Cutchi/Sindhi ‘bāpā’ (father), Gujarati/Hindi ‘bāp’, Cut. ‘bhā’ (brother),
Gujurati/Hindi ‘bhāi’ (brother) and Cutchi/Gujarati/Hindi ‘bāi’ (sister), Cutchi/Gujarati ‘pā’ (a
quarter, one fourth), Gujarati ‘bā’ (mother).
Swahili bali (ear-ring), banyani (Hindu, Jain), bepari (trader, capitalist), bima (insurance),
binda (okra, ladies fingers), and bindo (loin cloth) are therefore most probably of Hindustani
source (or Marathi/Konkani, Punjabi). These words in Cutchi and Gujarati have an initial /w/
instead of the /b/. It is possible that the /b/ form has been preferred in Swahili to avoid confusion
with the original Swahili words wali (cooked rice), wima (straight, upright, verticle), winda (to
hunt, prey), and windo (prey, hunting ground) respectively; or that they were borrowed after the
original Swahili /b/ became /w/, as in Old Swahili kubona (to see) > Northern Dialects kuwona >
Southern Dialects kuona. Alternatively, this sound change may have taken place not long after
the borrowing, not affecting foreign items which had not been properly assimilated, and thereby
enabling Swahili speakers to distinguish foreign words. This is through a process of ‘innovation
by interference’ versus the normal process of ‘internal innovation’. “Whenever a linguistic form
falls outside the productive rules of grammar it becomes lexicalised” (Antilla 1972:151-2).
In some cases, the Indic bilabial unvoiced/unaspirated /p/ is reproduced as voiced /b/ in
15 Forms commonly found in the three languages Cutchi, Gujarati and Hindi are given here as Ind. (Indic).
Cut. ‘čāmprō’ (small pliers, tongs) > Sw. chamburo, /p/ > Sw. /b/.
Ind. ‘čup! ’ (Quiet!, Shut up!) > Sw. Chup!, Chub!, /p/ > Sw. /p/ or /b/.
c. There is loss of aspiration in Ind. /bh/ and /kh/, unaspirated dental /t/ is realized as the
unaspirated alveolar /t/, aspirated dental /dh/ is reduced to unaspirated alveolar implosive /d/, and
aspirated retroflex /ţh/ and /dh/ are reduced to unaspirated alveolar /t/ and /d/ respectively in loans,
‘beţhō’ (sitting) > kibeto (small house of one floor), Ind. asp. retr. ‘ţh’ > Sw. unasp. alv. /t/.
‘bhāng’ (marijuana) > bangi, Ind. asp. ‘bh’ > Sw. impl. //.
‘bhōi’ (domestic servant) > boi, Cut./Guj. asp. ‘bh’ > Sw. impl. //.
‘buddhā/ (old man) > buda, Ind. geminated asp. retr. alv. ‘ddh’ > unasp. impl. /d/.
‘dhōbi’ (washerman) > dobi, Ind. asp. dent. ‘dh’ > Sw. impl. /d/.
‘dhōti’ (white cotton sarong) > doti, Ind. asp. dent. ‘dh’ > Sw. alv. impl. /d/,
and Ind. voiceless dent. ‘t’ to Sw. voiceless alv. /t/.
‘ghōdhŗō’ (mattress) > godoro, Guj. asp. dent. ‘dh’ > Sw. alv. impl. /d/, retr. ‘ŗ’ > Sw. clear /r/
‘jhōkham’ (risk, responsibility) > jukumu, Ind. asp. ‘kh’ > Sw. unasp. /k/
‘laţţhī’ (stick) > kileti (small stick), Ind. gem. asp. alv. retr. ‘ţh’ to Sw. unasp. alv. /t/
d. The allophones /g/~/g /and /dʒ/, common in East African Bantu, and southern Arabic, appear
to have been loaned from Indic without any definite rule:
‘gūnī’ (jute, jute sack) > gunia/junia, Cut. /g / > Sw. /g / or /dʒ/
‘sangar’ (chain) > sanjari, Ind. /g/ > Sw. /dʒ/
‘satrangī’ (carpet of stripes of 7 colours) > satarangi, Ind. /g/ > Sw. /g/
‘šatranjī’ (chess) > shatarangi, satarangi, Ind. /dʒ/ > /g/ and /ʃ/ > Sw. /s/
e. The choice of final vowel in Indic (Cutchi) loans in Swahili is according to established Swahili
phonological rules, i.e. syllabic /u/ with labials, and /i/ with other consonants:
‘čakkār’ (full to the brim, drunk) > Sw. chakari
‘čakram’ (mad, crazy) > Sw. chakramu, chakaramu
‘pakar’ (pliers) > Sw. pakari
‘sēţh’ (Indian merchant) > Sw. seti
But in the Indic imperative ‘čup’ > Swahili Chub!, no final vowel is added. This tendency is
met with also in the Zanzibari usage in Indic words such as chakar/chakkar and chakram, and
English loans such as filam (film) and bom (bomb) instead of the standard forms filamu and
bomu respectively. Arabic safari (journey), mauti (death), English skuli (school) and skati (skirt),
and German Benzi (Mercedes Benz), mbenzi/wabenzi (owner/owners of Mercedes Benz, i.e. the
newly rich or highly placed bureaucrats) are good examples of it. However, through a process of
reduction, the syllables /nia/ become /ña/ in the Swedish loan ‘Skania’ (lorries) swahilized to
f. In ankra (bill, invoice), chakramu and kanchri (brassiere, bra), -kr- and -chr- are rare
consonant combinations in Swahili. -kr- is also found in the English loan skrubu (screw), or
rather the -skr- combination. But many non-native speakers of Swahili insert a syllabising
(anaptyctic or epenthetic vowel) a, i or u, e.g. ankara, kanchiri, skurubu/sukurubu.16 In Swahili,
the syllabic /i/ is the most common vowel resorted to in the process of borrowing not only Indic
but other loans too.
g. Since sex-gender is absent in the coastal Bantu languages of East Africa, Swahili does not take
into consideration the Indic suffixes for the various genders in Indic loans ─ -ō for singular
masculine and neutral, -ī for singular feminine and -ā for the common plural. The suffix is
included in the loanword but carries no meaning of its own in Swahili, e.g.
golo (black man) < Cut./Guj. masculine < Pers. ‘γōlam’ (serf/servant).
hando (copper vessel for fetching/storing water) < Cut./Guj. masculine.
jinjiroo (anklet with small bells) < Cut. masculine.
kalasia (brass mug/jar without handle) < Cut./Guj. plural.
kichiri (hotchpotch, untidy state of things/affairs) < Indic feminine.
zari (gold/silver thread, brocade) < Guj./Hind feminine < Pers.
However, both godoro (mattress) and godori (thin/fine mattress) occur in Swahili; godoro is
singular masculine/neutral, whereas godori is singular feminine, or diminutive, from Gujarati
‘gōdhŗō’ and ‘gōdhŗī’ respectively.
11. Transmission of non-Indic words in East Africa through Indian languages. The peoples
of the coastlands of present-day Pakistan and its hinterland of the Sindh area together with the
Cutch peninsula east of the river Indus embraced Islam during the period AD 711-713 before the
spread of Islam on the East African coast. Hence deeply rooted Islamic and Arabic cultural
influences have a longer history in western India than in East Africa. Probably, Arabic items such
as duka (shop) came into Swahili via Indian shopkeepers, as almost all the early shopkeepers, and
most of the later ones, were Indians. Also Arabic items such as ‘kitāb’ (book) and ‘kalam’ (pen)
which replaced Indo-Aryan usage in Muslim India, though introduced there by Arabs as direct
Arabic loans, were probably spread in East Africa by Indians who imported and sold these items
(including Islamic literature in Arabic). 17
Similarly, it could be argued that some Portuguese items were borrowed by the Swahili after
they had been incorporated in the Indic languages in contact with the Portuguese. Because of
greater cultural contact and physical presence of the Portuguese in India than in East Africa, it is
more probable that loans such as kaptani and meza may have been indianised first before being
taken into Swahili, e.g.
16 The /b/ in skrubu is probably via the Indic form ‘askrub’ < English ‘screw’. The older Swahili term for ‘screw’ is parafujo, which is a
17 An oral tradition among the Sunni Muslim Hajjams and Kumbars of Cutch claims that they are of mixed Arab-Indian origin, and they trace
their history to the Muslim/Arab invasion of Sindh led by Muhammad bin Qasim who brought the message of Islam to them in the year AD 711.
Arab settlement on coastal Sindh and Cutch is pre-Islamic (Kureishi 1969:14). The caste name Hajjam (barber/hairdresser) is in fact an Arabic
word, and the Hajjam caste are a Muslim people. The professional Hajjam is also a circumcist (for boys only) and the barber at the Islamic ritual
‘akika’ ceremony when a child is shaven for the first time. The Muslim Hajjam thus has a rather high social status in society, whereas a
traditional Hindu Warand (barber/hairdresser) has little religious function and relatively low social status (Usman 1969). South Arabian male
names Khamis and Juma (for boys born on Thursday and Friday respectively) and also the Cutchi name ‘arbā’ for Wednesday (< Arabic ‘arbā’
four, ‘yawm-ul arbā’ Wednesday, the fourth day of the Muslim week) are commonly found among Muslim Sindhi and Cutchi.
Port. > Indic > Sw. Eng.
armario almāri almari18 cupboard
bule būlī buli teapot
kapitan kaptān kaptani captain
pao pãu pau loaf of bread
The Indic languages involed here are probably Konkani, Kannada, Oriya, Cutchi or the
Gujarati dialects of the Portuguese enclaves of Daman and Diu. The Swahili nouns kapteni and
kepteni (captain) are later direct English loans.
English also has a longer tradition in India than in East Africa as a colonial language with all
its importance in administration, education, commerce and journalism. The Swahili forms of
some of the English loans clearly reflect the phonetic changes these words have gone through on
the Indian lips ─ the Swahili versions differ from the Indian versions mostly as far as the addition
of the final vowel is concerned. In the direct English loans in Swahili, which are later, one can
clearly see the influence of the native English pronunciation:
Eng. Eng. Loan Loan in Sw. Loan in Sw.
in Indic via Indic directly from Eng.
office ‘afīs’ afisi ofisi
officer ‘afsar’ afisa ofisa
doctor ‘dāktar’ daktari *dakta, *dokta
cup-board kabāt kabati *kabadi
pound pawan pawni, pauni *paundi
screw askrūb/skrūb skrubu/skurubu *skruvu
man of war manuwār manuwari *menowaa
chalk čāk chaki *choki
chocolate čāklēt chakleti19 *chokleti,
hospital ispitāl ispitali/spitali hospitali
Of the above list of direct English loans used in Swahili, only ofisi, ofisa and hospitali are
included in Standard Swahili KAMUSI, and chokoleti is entered as an alternative. The other
direct English loans (marked *) are in the other languages of East Africa and in the Swahili usage
of non-native Swahili speakers. A few other indirect loans via Indic are included in the list in
1 The etymology of the Swahili word popoo (‘fuful’ in Arabic, and ‘pupal’ in Persian) recorded
by Batuta has not been satisfactorily established yet.
2 See also Gangulee (1947) and Chattopadhayaya (1970).
3 Africa South of the Sahara 1999 and Africa Review 1999. For comparison, the number of
“Arabs” for the same year were 41 595 in Kenya and 29 775 in Tanzania.
18 The Portuguese loan almari is probably borrowed via Cutchi or Konkani. Similarly, Swahili pau (for white loaf/bread introduced by the
Portuguese in the 1500s) may have been borrowed via Cutch or Konkani since until recently it was produced in the coastal towns exclusively in
bakeries owned by Cutchi Muslims, Konkani Muslims (Kukni) or Konkani Catholics (Goans).
19 Bakhressa (1992) gives only the form chakleti.
4 Asians have been erroneously referred to as ‘the Jews of East Africa’ and compared with the
Jews in Europe and the Middle East. A shop survey conducted by me in December 1978 in
Daressalaam in the Kariakoo area, Uhuru Street, Independence/Samora Avenue and Morogoro
Street, the major shopping quarters of Daressalaam, showed that 7 out of 10 Asian shopkeepers
were first generation traders; their fathers and grandfathers had a variety of occupations other
than trading. See also postings in NAMASKAR-AFRICANA-L forum during September-
November 1998. For a recent balanced history of the Asians, see Gregory (1993).
5 I am obliged to Mr. Benegal Pereira (Namaskar-Africana-List) for references to J. Kuper and
6 Some data on the caste system among the Asians of East Africa and the languages they speak
was gathered from NAMASKAR discussion forum “Indians of East Africa; Kenya, Uganda and
Tanzania” <NAMASKAR-AFRICANA-L@HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM> during the first week
of October 1998 in which the following members took active part: Benegal Pereira, Peter
Nazareth, Rahul Patel, Ashul Shah, Ramnik Shah, Mario J. Afonso, Ish Tailor, Baqir Alloo,
Rakesh Gadani, Mustafah Dhada, Ronald S. Edari, Jaffar Manek, Tim de Mello, Karamjit
Bharaj, Micky P. Soorae, Jeremy Brennan and myself. Some details on the Cutchi in Kenya
were gathered from David Schaad (1994). Specifically on the Ismailis, see Daftary (1990) and
Nanji (1974 and 1978).
7 Fieldwork in Zanzibar and Daressalaam during December 1992-January 1993, July-August
1994 and June 1998 showed that several Indian Sunni Muslim wedding ceremonies were
conducted completely in Swahili or Cutchi, Swahili with Cutchi or Urdu, one ceremony in
Swahili with some Arabic, and one in Swahili with some English for the foreign guests. Verses
from the Koran were recited during all these weddings in Arabic only. What Gabriele Sommer
(1994:497) concludes for the language situation in northen Namibia, to a large extent holds also
for the language shifts in East Africa.
8 Field data collected during June-July 1983 included the following Cutchi creole Swahili
sentences uttered by two Ithnaasheri ladies in the transit lounge at the Daressalaam Airport
(Cutchi elements in bold face, Arabic elements in Italics): 1. Bha yako (a)nampenda kama sago
bapa wallahi. (Your brother, i.e. my husband, loves him like a real father. Swahili verbal
cluster + function words.) 2. Nilo-piro (i)nachamke kama sacho hiro. (The greenish-yellowish
shade shines like a real diamond. Cutchi-Swahili verbal cluster.) In this variant of Swahili, Indic
verbal stems and adjectives are frequently used.
9 Together with Messr. Henry Blid and Christer Ågren of the Swedish International
Development Authority (SIDA), I spent one whole afternoon of late December 1971 at the
home of Tingatinga in Msasani/Daressalaam and interviewed him and his Zanzibar born wife
(who wore the Muslim Swahili buibui veil) for the Swedish writer and journalist Elly Jannes
who took notes; her daughter Elle Kari Højeberg took a number of photographs. To date, Jannes
and Höjeberg have not published anything on Tingatinga.
According to Tingatinga, his paintings were mostly based on pictures and calendars with
Hindu mythological figures and sequences which he had come across as a domestic servant in a
practising Hindu family in Daressalaam. This was the only employment Tingatinga had after he
arrived from Mozambique at the age of 16 until he started painting, which he was taught by his
employer. Even the Shetani, the Devil (and other ‘evil spirits’) in his paintings, was given a
black face after the Indian demon king Ravana. He admitted that in all the paintings in his
possession at that time, the devil was painted black, and not white as is the custom in Eastern
Africa; and he had seen this in Indian films which he frequently went to see at the cinema
houses. Several copies of one white bungalow with a peacock and stylised flowers were also
copied from Indian calendars; the bungalow was first drawn after the school building of St.
Joseph’s Convent in Daressalaam. Furthermore, Tingatinga did not hide the fact that he was
signing all the paintings produced by his relatives and friends in the workshop in the backyard
of his house.
10 Professor Jayanti K. Patel to A. Y. Lodhi, January 1991, Ahmedabad.
11 For details on Siti and the Taarab tradition see A. A. Suleiman (1969) and Issa Mgana (1991).
12 I had the honour of doing my teaching practice (in Swahili, African History and African
Geography) with Sardar and Kamal Khan at the Aga Khan Secondary School (1966) and St.
Xaviar Secondary School (1967) in Daressalaam.
13 Information supplemented by Mr. Baqir Aloo, London, through the NAMASKAR-
AFRICANA-L network, Oct 1998. Many Cutchi Sunni Muslim families in Tanzania and Kenya
have saved a number of photographs of all these people.
14 IEL 3:229 confuses this “Cutchi-Swahili: a Swahili-based creole spoken in Kenya by South
Asians” with “Asian Swahili.”. “Cutchi-Swahili” is a Cutchi-based Swahili creole, whereas
“Asian Swahili” or Kibabu is a social dialect of (‘broken’) Swahili used by many Kenya and
Uganda Asians, similar to the social dialect Kisetla ‘Settler Swahili’ or ‘Kitchen Swahili’ used by
the European settlers in East Africa.
Forms commonly found in the three languages Cutchi, Gujarati and Hindi are given here as Ind.
The /b/ in skrubu is probably via the Indic form ‘askrub’ < English ‘screw’. The older Swahili
term for ‘screw’ is parafujo, which is a Portuguese loan.
An oral tradition among the Sunni Muslim Hajjams and Kumbars of Cutch claims that they are
of mixed Arab-Indian origin, and they trace their history to the Muslim/Arab invasion of Sindh
led by Muhammad bin Qasim who brought the message of Islam to them in the year AD 711.
Arab settlement on coastal Sindh and Cutch is pre-Islamic (Kureishi 1969:14). The caste name
Hajjam (barber/hairdresser) is in fact an Arabic word, and the Hajjam caste are a Muslim
people. The professional Hajjam is also a circumcist (for boys only) and the barber at the
Islamic ritual ‘akika’ ceremony when a child is shaven for the first time. The Muslim Hajjam
thus has a rather high social status in society, whereas a traditional Hindu Warand
(barber/hairdresser) has little religious function and relatively low social status (Usman 1969).
South Arabian male names Khamis and Juma (for boys born on Thursday and Friday
respectively) and also the Cutchi name ‘arbā’ for Wednesday (< Arabic ‘arbā’ four, ‘yawm-ul
arbā’ Wednesday, the fourth day of the Muslim week) are commonly found among Muslim
Sindhi and Cutchi.
The Portuguese loan almari is probably borrowed via Cutchi or Konkani. Similarly, Swahili pau
(for white loaf/bread introduced by the Portuguese in the 1500s) may have been borrowed via
Cutch or Konkani since until recently it was produced in the coastal towns exclusively in bakeries
owned by Cutchi Muslims, Konkani Muslims (Kukni) or Konkani Catholics (Goans).
Bakhressa (1992) gives only the form chakleti.