Unit 1: Conversations

Warming up to conversations about religion

Proficiency Objectives

  • find and use information for practical purposes
  • read texts that compare and contrast information
  • follow the general ideas and some details of what is written in a variety of stories and autobiographical accounts
  • meet basic work and career writing needs
  • understand written messages on a wide variety of past, present, and future events

Content Objectives

  • read about and discuss Hinduism in East Africa
  • notice and discuss code-switching between Swahili and English
Jump to Tips for instructors
The BAPS Shree Swaminarayan Temple in Kisutu

Culture notes:

East Africa’s main religions are Christianity, Islam, and “traditional African religions,” but there is also a small number of Hindus, mainly people of Indian ancestry. (However, there are also Muslims of Indian ancestry.) In 2010, there were approximately 50,000 Hindus in Tanzania, 60,000 in Kenya, and 100,000 in Uganda.[1] There have been small settlements of Hindus in East Africa since at least the 1st century AD.[2]After British colonialism ended in the 1960s, East Africans of Indian ancestry became a persecuted group, particularly in Zanzibar and Uganda, but also in mainland Tanzania, and many emigrated to India, North America, and Europe. In Tanzania at least, there are ongoing tensions between people of African ancestry and those of Indian ancestry.

Because most Hindus are not first-language speakers of Swahili, it can be difficult to find information about Hinduism in Swahili. However, most East Africans of Indian ancestry do speak Swahili to varying levels of proficiency, in addition to other languages such as Gujarati or Hindi.

Recommended further reading:

Brennan, James R. 2012. Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Higgins, Christina. 2009. “‘Are You Hindu?’: Resisting Membership Categorization through Language Alternation.” In Talk-In-Interaction: Multilingual Perspectives, edited by Hanh Thi Nguyen and Gabriele Kasper, 111–36. Pragmatics & Interaction. University of Hawai’i at Manoa: National Foreign Language Resource Center.

Pre-reading Exercise

Do some quick research on Hinduism in East Africa (e.g. using Wikipedia). For example, what do Hindus believe? Are there different branches of Hinduism? Where do Hindus worship, and what does their worship look or sound like? Look up some of the words you think you will need to know in order to discuss Hinduism in Swahili. If you are a classroom learner, bring your vocabulary list to class.


The following reading comes from a book chapter by applied linguist Christina Higgins, “‘Are You Hindu?’: Resisting Membership Categorization through Language Alternation” (cited above) in which she analyzes a conversation between two Tanzanians, “Irene” and “Braj” (both pseudonyms) to demonstrate how they use code-switching between English and Swahili. Both were multilingual; in addition to both speaking Swahili and English, Irene was a speaker of Chagga and Braj of Gujerati. They worked together in a newspaper office in Dar es Salaam, where Higgins conducted linguistic fieldwork in the early 2000s.

I have modified the transcript to remove some features that are not necessary for our purposes, and added some punctuation. This chart explains some of the remaining symbols in the transcript:

Symbol Meaning
wor- a cut off word, i.e. when the speaker starts to say one word and then restarts with a different word
a cut off phrase, i.e. when the speaker starts a sentence one way and then restarts another way
italics code-switched words (in this case, English)
#word transcriber’s best guess at a word that is hard to hear
# unintelligible syllable

Read the transcript below; just read for the gist and don’t worry about understanding every word. Some words that may be new to you are glossed in the right column.

1 Irene; Nanii wewe ni Hindu? nanii indicates the speaker is searching for a word; Higgins translates it here as ‘um’
2 Braj; M-mh. Baniani. Baniani (sometimes Banyani) 5/6 & 1/2
a Banyan; a follower of Brahma; historically, a trader from the Gujerat region of India; in Tanzania, a follower of a Hindu sect local to the Dar es Salaam area
3 Irene; Eeh?
4 Braj; Baniani.
5 Irene; Baniani.
6 Braj; Eeh Hindu.
7 Irene; Baniani. Is it different from Hindu?
8 Braj; Yeah tunatofautiana kwa #kabila mbalimbali. Kwa mfano Wasukuma,
9 Irene; Eeh.
10 Braj; Wahehe,
11 Irene; Baniani. Eeh una- you worship kwenye hii nanii Jamatini pale? jamatini 9/10 Ismaili mosque; jamatkhana
12 Braj; Jamatini ipi?
13 Irene; Jamatini ya hapo Upanga.
14 Braj; Upanga Road pale?
15 Irene; Hii hii ya hapa karibu na nanii
16 Braj; Na
17 Irene; na Aga Khani ## hospital.
[some lines omitted]
18 Braj; Nitakusindikiza. sindikiza escort; go a piece of the way with someone
19 Irene; Whom do you believe in, Mohammed?
20 Braj; Ni Waislamu.
21 Irene; Nyie? Nyie mnabelieve in what? nyie a contracted form of ninyi
22 Braj; Tunabelieve na mungu wetu.
23 Irene; Mungu wa Baniani.
24 Braj; Yes.
25 Irene; Ni nani huyu?
26 Braj; Kuna wa mbalimbali.
27 Irene; Miungu.
28 Braj; Yeah. Kuna m-
29 Irene; Kama sisi Christians tuna Jesus Christ kuna Mohamed for Muslims
30 Braj; Yeah we have different ones. Different
31 Irene; Kwa hiyo you don’t have one god you believe in.

Post-reading exercises

Exercise 1

Answer the following questions to check your own understanding of the transcript. If you have questions about any of your errors, take note of them so you can ask another Swahili speaker (e.g. your teacher if you are a classroom learner; or your conversation partner if you’re learning independently).

Exercise 2

Think about the following questions. If you are a classroom learner, discuss your answers with your classmates.

  1. Higgins suggests that this conversation has an interview-like quality and that Braj seems to resist answering Irene’s questions. Given the cultural background provided above, why do you think this might be the case?
  2. Do you think Irene knows many Hindus? What is the evidence?
  3. If you were going to have a conversation about religion with someone whose religious beliefs differ from your own, how might you approach to conversation in order to make your conversation partner comfortable?

Exercise 3

  1. Imagine that you are the boss in the newspaper office where Braj and Irene work. Braj approaches you to tell you that his conversation with Irene about religion made him uncomfortable, and you decide that your office needs a policy on what kinds of personal conversations are appropriate for the workplace. In Swahili, write a memo addressed to your employees that outlines your proposed new policy and asks for their feedback before it takes effect. If you’re not sure how to write a memo, you can find some examples in English online.
  2. If you are a classroom learner, exchange memos with one of your classmates. Take the role of an employee, perhaps Irene or Braj. In Swahili, write an email response to your boss, acknowledging the memo, agreeing or disagreeing with any of your boss’s proposed policies, explaining your reasons for agreement or disagreement, and asking any questions you have about it.
Permissions and credits

  1. Pew Research Center. 2012. “Table: Religious Composition by Country, in Numbers.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. December 18. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/table-religious-composition-by-country-in-numbers/.
  2. “Hinduism in Tanzania.” 2017. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hinduism_in_Tanzania&oldid=785604560.


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Dini Afrika ya Mashariki by Katrina Daly Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.