“Swahili.” To many that language brings to mind visions of Africa and wild animals roaming the grasslands of the Serengeti. Yet, there is much more to Swahili and the people who speak it.
SWAHILI is a language spoken by as many as 100 million people in at least 12 countries across central and eastern Africa.* It is the national or official language in several countries, such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. And in the surrounding lands, it serves as a common tongue, enabling people from different regions to carry on commerce and communicate easily.
Swahili has played a very important role in unifying the people of East Africa. For example, in Tanzania alone there are at least 114 different tribal languages spoken. Imagine traveling just 25 to 50 miles (40-80 km) from your home and meeting people who speak a language completely different from yours! And in some cases all the people who speak a certain language live in only a few small villages. How would you communicate with them? It is not hard to see why having a common language is so beneficial.
History of Swahili
It is believed that Swahili has been spoken since at least the tenth century. It became a written language in the 16th century. Those who learn to speak Swahili soon realize that a number of the words have an Arabic feel. In fact, at least 20 percent of the words in Swahili are of Arabic origin, while the majority of the remainder are of African origin. Thus, it is not surprising that for several hundred years, Swahili was written with Arabic script.
Today, Swahili is written in the Roman script. What happened? Why the change? For the answer, we must go back to the mid-19th century when the first European missionaries arrived in East Africa, intent on sharing the message of the Bible with the native inhabitants.
God’s Word First Arrives in East Africa
In 1499, during Vasco da Gama’s epic voyage around the southern tip of Africa, Portuguese missionaries introduced Catholicism to East Africa by setting up a mission in Zanzibar. However, within 200 years, the Portuguese along with “Christianity” were ousted from the region by local opposition.
It would be another 150 years before God’s Word again made the journey to East Africa. This time it was brought there by a German missionary, Johann Ludwig Krapf. When he arrived in Mombasa, Kenya, in 1844, the religious practice on the coast of East Africa was predominately Muslim, while many of the peoples who lived inland held to their traditional, animistic religious beliefs. Krapf believed that it was vital that the Bible be made available to all.
Krapf did not waste any time getting started with a study of the Swahili language. In June 1844, shortly after his arrival, he began the challenging task of translating the Bible. Sadly, the very next month, he suffered a tragic loss—the death of his wife of two years, followed by that of their infant daughter just a few days later. Though no doubt grieved by this, he continued the vital task of translating the Bible. In 1847, the first three chapters of the book of Genesis were published and became the first printed text in the Swahili language.
Krapf was the first to use Roman script instead of the customary Arabic script for writing Swahili. Among the reasons he gave for abandoning the Arabic script were that “the Arabic alphabet would only be an encumbrance on the Europeans” who would later be learning the language and that “the Roman script would make it easier for ‘the Natives in studying European languages.’” The Arabic script continued to be used by some for many years; portions of the Bible were published in it. However, using the Roman script has indeed made it easier for many to learn Swahili. No doubt many missionaries and other students of Swahili are very happy that this change was made.
In addition to pioneering the translation of God’s Word into Swahili, Krapf laid the groundwork for later translators. He produced the first grammar book on Swahili, as well as a dictionary of that language.
God’s Name in Swahili
In the initial publication of the first three chapters of Genesis, God’s name was simply translated “Almighty God.” However, toward the end of the 19th century, several other men arrived in East Africa who carried on the work of translating the entire Bible into Swahili. Among them were Johann Rebmann, William Taylor, Harry Binns, Edward Steere, Francis Hodgson, and Arthur Madan.
Noteworthy in some of those early translations was the inclusion of God’s name, not in just a few places but throughout the Hebrew Scriptures! Those translating in Zanzibar rendered the divine name “Yahuwa,” while the ones based in Mombasa translated it “Jehova.”
By 1895 the entire Bible was available in Swahili. In the following decades, several other translations were made available, though some of them did not receive a large distribution. During the early years of the 20th century, much effort was put into standardizing Swahili in East Africa. This led to the production of the Swahili Union Version of the Bible in 1952, which has become the translation with the widest circulation. This also resulted in “Yehova” becoming the most commonly accepted translation of God’s name in Swahili.
Regrettably, as those early translations ceased to be printed, the divine name began to disappear along with them. Some of the newer translations have removed it entirely, while others retain it in just a few locations. For example, in the Union Version, God’s name appeared only 15 times, and in its 2006 revision, that name is found but 11 times.*
While that translation omits nearly every occurrence of the divine name, it does have a noteworthy feature. Prominently displayed on one of the opening pages is a clear statement that God’s name is Jehovah. This has proved to be very useful in helping truth-seekers to learn the personal name of our heavenly Father from their own copy of the Bible.
This, though, is not the end of the story. In 1996 the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures was released in Swahili. This is the first Swahili translation to restore Jehovah’s name in 237 places from Matthew to Revelation. That was followed up in 2003 by the release of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the complete Bible, in Swahili. To date, all told, some 900,000 copies of Swahili editions have been printed.
No longer is God’s name buried under certain titles or relegated to an explanatory note in the foreword. Now, when honesthearted people open up the New World Translation in Swahili, they are drawn closer to Jehovah each time they read one of the more than 7,000 occurrences of his name.
This translation has also endeavored to use an easy-to-understand, modern Swahili that is accessible to all Swahili speakers in East Africa. In addition, a number of Scriptural errors that have crept into many other translations have been removed. As a result, the reader can feel confident that he or she is reading “correct words of truth” as they were inspired by our Creator, Jehovah God.—Ecclesiastes 12:10.
Many have expressed their appreciation for the New World Translation in Swahili. Vicent, a 21-year-old full-time minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said, “I was overjoyed because of the simple Swahili in the New World Translation and because it has put Jehovah’s name back in the places from which others removed it.” Frieda, a mother of three, feels that this translation has made it easier for her to explain Bible truths to people.
From its humble beginnings, the task of translating God’s Word into Swahili has continued on for over 150 years. Jesus said that he ‘had made his Father’s name manifest.’ (John 17:6) Now, by using the New World Translation, the more than 76,000 Swahili-speaking Witnesses of Jehovah in central and eastern Africa rejoice to have a share in making Jehovah’s name known to all.
Swahili in various forms is used in these countries.