The Origin of The Swahili Stone House and The Dual Nature of Swahili Urbanism


The  key  developments  surrounding  the  political and  economic  setting  of  the  East  African  coast have   influenced   the   form   and   evolution of Swahili  architecture  and  particularly  that  of  the residential typology.

While the history and origin of  the  Swahili  stone  house  remains  contentious, scholars of culture and house form have in the past acknowledged  that  there  is  an  obvious  difficulty in   attempting   to   transfer   ideas   and   concepts from  one  culture  to  another.  Swahili  culture  and its  subsequent  architecture  is  seen  to  display  a myriad of influences producing an integrated mix that  is  different  from  its  antecedents,  something Deetz   (1977),   a   historical   archaeologist   and anthropologist,  termed  as  creolization.  Historical archaeological  studies  of  the  East  African  coast are  relevant  in  providing  a  solid  ground  for  the concept  of  hybridity  or  creolization  in  material culture.   

Much    of    the    literature    concerning Swahili   architecture   is   hinged   on   the   work of    early    archaeologists,    anthropologists    and historians  visiting  the  East  African  Coast  in  the 19th  and  20th  centuries. As  regards  the  Swahili stone house, conclusive published  literature  that has  commanded  authority  and  continues  to  be referred  to  today  is  based  on  the  earlier  works of  Prins  (1961);  Chittick  (1974);  Garlake  (1966); Ghaidan (1975); Allen (1993); Horton (1994).

The  controversy  that  surrounds  this  debate  and from   which   arguments   have   stemmed   is   the shifting paradigm between academic imperialism and afrocentrism. This study does not attempt to determine  who  introduced  stone  and  mortar  (a material that already existed in the coast) to the East African  building  technology;  without  scientific evidence,  such  debates  have  proved  futile.  In  an attempt  to  take  the  debate  forward,  this  paper considers  the  concept  of  transculturation,  which is the antithesis of the notion of acculturation, as introduced by Hernández et al. (2005), an architect specialised in translation theory and translational architectures.


Principle Instigator
Peninah Mutonga

Swahili architecture is characterised by grandeur stone houses on one side and earth-and-wattle houses on the other. By considering the concept of transculturation as introduced by Felipe Hernandez et al. (2005), and employing hermeneutic research methods in the critical analysis of historical data, this paper explores the factors that contributed to the transformation of Swahili material culture and the perceived dual nature of the urban morphology. Key findings point towards a broader range of socio-cultural issues namely; trade, market competition among merchants, increased population densities, practices of sponsorship, involvement, and the adoption of immigrants as the motivations for the transformation from earth-and-wattle to stone building technology. The author recommends an analysis of Swahili architecture that extends beyond the widely-accepted traditional symbols in order to uncover the underlying intangible heritage.