Swahili Cultural Objects

by Kassim O. Ali

There are a number of objects that characterize the daily life of the people living in the coast of East Africa. On this page you have a chance to read about these cultural objects. Our page is devoted primarily to Swahili handicraft particularly to those objects made by amateur artisans. Unfortunately those objects are disappearing and largely displaced by cheaper manufactured products.

Readers interested in other works of art should visit our Swahili Resources page to obtain links to other sites. The list is not exhaustive as it is difficult to cover all Swahili settlements stretching from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. However we hope you can learn something about Swahili cultural objects. Furthermore, by documenting Swahili cultural objects we may contribute in conserving the rich Swahili heritage.

Household Objects
Agriculture & Livestock
  • Kingoe (pl. Vingoe) - a hook made from tree branches used in harvesting fruits, cloves, and other crops.
  • Panga or Mndu (pl. Mapanga or Mindu) - a machete.
  • Tasa or Susu or Tenga (pl. Matasa or Masusu or Matenga) - a loosely woevn container for carrying fruits or transporting chicken made. It's made of raffia or other palm tree fronds.
  • Tungu (pl. Tungu) - a gourd for keeping seeds or churning milk.
  • Ujamu (pl. Majamu) - a halter for restraining cattle originally made from natural fibres. It usually contains a piece of rope that is looped through a holed nose septum.
  • Ungo (pl. Nyungo) - straw- or palm-frond wooven tray with a curved surface for winowing grains.
  • Peku (pl. Mapeku) - just like "Ungo" but deeper and with a larger diameter.
Communication & Transport
  • Gari (pl. Magari) la shamba - an up-country truck with a wooden body and wooden passenger benchs, used especially in Zanzibar. This is also locally known as "mbavu za mbwa" literally meaning "dog's ribs" due to its shape.
  • Ngalawa (pl. Ngalawa) - a canoe with balancing and floatation flaps on either side.
Fisheries, Forestry & Wildlife
  • Dema (pl. Madema) - fish trap made of the fronds of raffia or other palm trees.
  • Fyuka (pl. Fyuka) - A swing trap for rabbits, duikers, birds and other small wild animals. It is made of a strong elastic stick with one end securely planted on the ground and the other end bent in a semi-circular curve, held loosely in that position by a set of small sticks. The trap when disturbed, swings up and holds the catch by the noose.
  • Tenga (pl. Matenga) - a trap for monkeys, civets, and other wild animals. It is made of wood.
Financial & Business
  • Bweta (pl. Mabweta) - wooden safe.
  • Pishi (pl. Pishi) - wooden or metal volumetric measure for grains, pulses, spices and cloves.
  • Tajuri (pl. Matajuri) - boxes made of wood and/or metal used to keep valuables.
Other Objects
  • Susu or Tundu (pl. Masusu or Matundu) - cages made of raffia fronds for keeping birds as pets. They may contain a trap that can be used to catch birds of a similar nature.
  • Matarawanda - a pair of wooden sandals.