Indian language words flourish in East Africa’s lingua franca, writes Kul Bhushan.

Pilao is the national dish of Tanzania. Biryani is a traditional dish of East African coast. Chappati is well known word in Swahili, the common language of East Africa. Samosa is the most popular snack in this part of the world. Yet the Indian influence on the lifestyle of East Africa is not just confined to cuisine.

Indian Food

Other Swahili words with Indian, Arabic and Persian roots are: duniya or world, kitabu or book, dasturi or law, meza or table, duka or shop, biri or beedi and so it goes on and on.

Prof. Abdulaziz Lodhi, a well-known Swahili scholar, estimates that over 600 common words in Swahili have Indian roots. Hindustani, Gujarati, Cutchi, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Konkani are some Indian languages that have intertwined with Swahili for this rainbow vocabulary.

Indians in East Africa are generally known as Muhindis in Swahili. This word comes directly from ‘Hindi’, the name given by Arabs to anyone who lived between the Indus River and the Arabian Sea, irrespective of their religion.

Prof. Lodhi, who hails from Zanzibar, has devised three categories of languages used by the Indian Diaspora in East Africa:

  • Regional Indic (Indo-Aryan) language at home, mixed with Swahili and English in many cases.
  • Classical languages (Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit) as liturgical (for religious purposes) languages.
  • Standard languages (Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi), limited use as mother tongue and for education at nursery/primary school, cultural events, and private correspondence. These languages are spoken in Indian homes even today.

All these Indian languages are alive and well in Eastern Africa. Indeed, the impact of Bollywood movies and music has enhanced their popularity. The satellite telecasting of Indian TV channels has brought them right into the homes of not only the Muhindis but also Africans.

Prof. Lodhi quotes a 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. This linguistic data collected in Dar es Salaam 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.

At least 13% of the Muhindis (all Muslim) 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 Dar es Salaam survey may be taken as representative of the whole country, but certainly not for the rest of the East African region in which Swahili and English are the dominant languages among the Asians today, according to Prof. Lodhi.

The Hindu and Jain communities are jointly referred to in Swahili as Baniani; this comes from the Hindi word bania; the Sikhs are called ‘Kala Singha’ and Hindu Punjabis termed as ‘Kanjabis’. Since a large number of Muhindis left East Africa for the West from the late 1960s onwards, other Muhindis from South India have arrived to fill executive and IT positions with more Cutchis, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Maharashtrans. Although South Indian languages are spoken by these micro South Indian communities at home, these words have not percolated into mainstream Swahili.

If some scholar had the initiative to embark on compiling a list of Swahili words with Indian roots from such diverse areas as architecture to zoology, it would indeed be very interesting indeed!

Article by Kul Bhushan