KiBajuni Profile

J. Mahazi and D. Nurse


GENERAL INTRODUCTION. Bajuni, also called Thikhuu, Tikuu, or Gunya, and sometimes as al-Jazira in Somali, live/lived in a string of settlements from Kismayuu[i] in southern Somalia down to the northern tip of Pate Island in Kenya, and Dodori Creek on the mainland opposite, a distance of some 250 kms (150 miles). Some settlements were on the mainland but most were on the islands, facing inland, with agricultural areas, some quite fertile and large, on the adjacent mainland, especially along the four rivers in Somalia, some navigable, that run inland. In bad times, Bajuni living or working on the mainland withdrew to the islands. Bajuni and other coastal Swahili refer to the islands as just “the islands”, other names being the Bajuni Islands, the 500 islands, the Fire Islands, and the Dundas group. The islands do not form a continuous line, there being a northern group from Kismayuu to Chandraa Island, just north of Buri Kavo, and a southern group from Kiungamwini in northern Kenya to Kiwayuu Island[ii]. The islands are small, Grottanelli (1955) giving these estimates of size for the main islands in Somalia: Koyama 7.5 sq.kms, Chovai 6.5, Chula 5, Ngumi 4.5. Prins (1967: 28) says: “The islands are all low coral formations, withered by sea and breeze, only covered by low bush, scrub, and a few palms and trees. Only the two or three bigger islands (Simambaya, Kiunga-mwini, Kiwayuu) are somewhat hillier, and, especially the first, somewhat more wooded. The whole range, together with the outcrops in between, forms a barrier reef protecting the mainland coast and the straits”.

The current size of the population is unclear. The only official census of Somali Bajuni, covering the main Bajuni centres, was made by the Italian administration in 1926; Chovai (434 people), Kismayuu (334), Chula (301), and Koyama (172), reported in Grottanelli (1955: 25). Grottanelli, based on his own 1953 observations, estimated the population of Bur Kavo (mainland) at 80 (Fitzgerald said 50 in 1898), and put the whole Bajuni population in Somalia at not more than 2,000. Three or four centuries ago the population was much greater than in the 20th century (see History, below). Throughout the 20th century, Bajuni individuals and families trickled down into Kenya, long before the troubles of the 1990s.

The size of the Bajuni population in Somalia in the years and decades before The Troubles[iii] is disputed: the figure of “perhaps 3000 to 4000” (Cassanelli 1993) is the best. Allowing for an annual compound increase of some 2%, Cassanelli’s figure fits well with the 1926 figure. A good piece of evidence comes from considering the Google Earth Somalia map. It is possible to look down at nearly all Bajuni settlements and count the buildings. In Somalia: Kismayuu, hundreds of buildings; Fuma and adjacent island, perhaps 12; Koyama, 3 villages, some 150 buildings; Chovai, 2 villages, some 100 buildings; Istambuli, 50 buildings; Chula, one large village, plus Mdowa off the southern tip, with a total of some 400 buildings; Rasini, “a few buildings”; Kudai?; Buri Kavo, 100-150 buildings; Kiamboni, 100+ buildings. Excluding Kismayuu and Kiamboni, that makes a total of ca. 850 buildings, but are the buildings inhabited or deserted? By Bajuni or others? How many are not houses, i.e. mosques or the like? What might be, or might have been just before the start of The Troubles, the average number of people per house/family? If we assume four, then 4 x 850 = 3400, say, 3500. The total today on the Somali islands is much lower, a few hundred at the very most, perhaps less.

Kiamboni and Kismayuu are harder to estimate. Kiamboni grew during the 20th century, and then its numbers were swollen by outsiders after 1991, so at a guess half the houses today have or recently had Bajuni occupants, so 50 x 4 = 200. The Bajuni population of Kismayuu is impossible to know now or in recent years: several hundred buildings are visible, but its population has ballooned in recent years with an influx of outsiders, many Bajuni have fled south, many of the remaining Bajuni (usually women) have married or been forced to marry Somalis, so how large is the “Bajuni” population, even if it could be defined?

Figures for Kenya are much higher, with most of the population in Kiunga and on northern Pate Island. Nurse & Hinnebusch (1993: 6) put the Bajuni population of northern Kenya at 15,000 to 20,000 in the late 20th century, but cite other sources with different estimates. Google Earth images show many hundreds of buildings in Kiunga (260), Fadha (Sw. Faza, 400>), Kidhingichini (Sw. Kizingitini, 300>), and Rasini (200>). A recent census shows the population of Lamu East county (covering the Bajuni coast and islands) as nearly 12,000. Most of these probably speak Bajuni in some form. It is said that a majority of the residents of Lamu Town are also Bajuni but it is not clear how any of these can speak Bajuni.

 LINGUISTIC AFFILIATION. Bajuni is a Northern Swahili dialect (ND) along with dialects spoken now or formerly in Lamu Island, Siu, Pate, Malindi/Mambrui, and the Mombasa area. We are treating the language of Brava as a separate but related language. Swahili and Bravanese are members of the Sabaki subgroup of the Northeastern Coast Bantu languages, most immediately related to Ilwana, Pokomo, and Mijikenda, spoken in the Kenya coastal hinterland, to Comorian in the Comoro Islands, and to Mwani in northern coastal Mozambique.

LANGUAGE VARIATION. As far as can be judged, Bajuni was homogeneous for most of its history, from early times to the mid 20th century. For most of their history, Bajuni moved freely up and down their coast, traded along the coast, intermarried and spoke Bajuni with little or no variation. There are minute local differences. The identity of traditional Somali and Kenyan Bajuni can be seen by comparing the two largest language samples, Grottanelli (1955, Somalia) and Nurse (1983, 1994, 1996, Kenya)[iv]. The two samples are identical. At the end of Grottanelli are several pages of Somali Bajuni. Although the book was published in 1955, the material derives from sources who were middle-aged or older, who thus acquired Bajuni in the first two decades of the twentieth century, so reflects the Somali Bajuni of that era. Nurse’s material was recorded in the late 1970s, again from middle-aged or older individuals, reflecting the norms of 1920 to 1940. Nurse 1982 and its summary, the Linguistic Sketch in Nurse 2013 reflect the language of that period, referred to in what follows as ‘classical/traditional’ Bajuni.

Starting with political independence came linguistic differentiation: Somalia became independent in 1960, Kenya in 1964. While some adult male fishermen and traders continued to move between the two countries, the two parts of the Bajuni continuum were essentially separated.

In Kenya, (almost) universal education was introduced in the 1970s and along the northeast coast it was taught in (more or less) Standard Swahili, with the result that children no longer spoke Bajuni as well as their parents, their language being Bajuni increasingly heavily influenced by Standard Swahili and the Lamu dialect. This trend has continued to the present, accelerated by the expansion of the economy and of tourism. Few Bajuni alive today in Kenya speak the language as their grandparents did. It is still spoken among uneducated Bajuni women, so before formal schooling begins, some Bajuni children speak Bajuni as their first language. Uneducated Bajuni farmers and fishermen still continue to speak Bajuni among one other, but not to other Swahili. Finally, a very small number of Bajuni male activists try to promote Bajuni by sticking to their mother tongue even in male public spheres: so (Sheikh Msellem (mufti), Abubakar Khuchi (retired education officer), and Mohamed Shali (taraab singer).

In Somalia, the overthrow of President Siad Barre in 1991 upset the balance of power and took Somali Bajuni in a different direction. Ethnic Somalis, who for centuries had lived on the mainland, flooded into the Bajuni islands and mainland settlements, bringing mayhem, violence, destruction and burning of property, robbery, beatings, rape, murder, and a deliberate effort to exterminate or force the Bajuni out of Somalia: genocide[v]. A Somali-speaking presence was established on the islands, for the first time in history, and remains today. Not only ethnic Somalis moved on and off the islands – others from the mainland who felt at risk, or from broken homes, or were felt by the UN to be at risk were also resettled on the islands.

Unable to defend themselves – they traditionally had no weapons and had no access or knowledge of guns – Somali Bajuni were terrified and thousands fled (sailed) south to Kenya, to stay with relatives in Malindi or Mombasa, or to refugee camps near Mombasa (Kwa Jomvu) or near the border in northeast Kenya (Dadaab, Liboi, Garissa, etc, some were even settled in Kakuma, in northwest Kenya). In these camps, forms of Swahili were the lingua franca. The refugee camps held other refugees from Somalia. Bajuni in the camps might have spoken Bajuni to each other but they would have had to be careful because the other refugees were mainly Somalis, who did not like Bajuni or the use of their language, be it in Somalia or in Kenyan camps. When talking to other refugees, the Bajuni did not use Bajuni, but Kenyan Swahili or camp Swahili. Not surprisingly, Bajuni did not like the camps. Incidentally, the camps were porous and refugees in Kenya were allowed to live and work outside camps if they had the right documents, and any doing so would use Kenyan Swahili as their main language of communication. Those who managed to stay with relatives in Kenya coastal towns would have been exposed to Swahili daily.

In 1998 the UN closed the Jomvu camp and told the refugees it was safe to return. While some Bajuni went to a new camp at Kakuma in northwestern Kenya, many decided to return to Somalia (a mistake, as it turned out, as the danger had not gone away), carrying Swahili with them. During the 1990’s UN workers entered southern Somalia, most from the south, many speaking Swahili. The combined result was a Swahili presence, in areas such as the islands, where before only a few older males had spoken Swahili.

Linguistically, any viable homogenous Bajuni language community crumbled in these circumstances. There were few older people to offer a language model, there was no stable set of circumstances for language transmission, families had been broken up, people were too busy just surviving to be concerned about their children learning the language properly, and for young Bajuni in Somalia there was little incentive to speak Bajuni. If you feel your community has no future, why bother acquire its language? Then when Bajuni moved back from the camps in Kenya, many, especially younger ones, would no longer be speaking good Bajuni, but Bajuni mixed with camp/urban Swahili. When they returned, they would mix with those who had stayed. Few (any?) fluent Bajuni monolinguals are left in Somalia. Bajuni in Somalia is rapidly becoming an old people’s language. Young Bajuni from Somalia today speak the kind of Swahili widely spoken in East Africa, especially along the adjacent coast of Kenya. That didn’t used to be the case but in recent years Swahili has rolled up the coast and across the border into southern Somalia. It should be clarified that we have no direct knowledge of recent or current language use in the Bajuni areas of Somalia. That is, no professional linguist has been on the ground to observe the situation. The foregoing is based on many secondary reports from those who have interviewed expatriate Bajuni and asked them about the language situation, and observed their language abilities. Nurse has personally listened to 150. Among the first of these were individuals who spoke Bajuni reasonably well but in recent years not one speaks traditional Bajuni any more.

In sum, in their daily lives most Bajuni on both sides of the border speak a form of Swahili, mixed with Bajuni phonological and lexical features. This does not mean there are no fluent speakers of Bajuni: some older members of both communities still speak fluent Bajuni and certainly there are those who can recite and even compose songs and stories.

ORTHOGRAPHY. We don’t know if Bajuni was written before the 20th century. Though Bajuni stories, verse, kimai (sea-faring songs) and vave (agricultural songs) are and presumably always were predominantly oral, some written manuscripts exist from the 20th century, two in Arabic script (Omar 1967, Dammann 1993). More recently, those writing or transcribing Bajuni have used modifications of the Roman-based alphabet used for writing Swahili since the mid-19th century (adopted and regularized into a standard orthography in the 1930s). The Bajuni modifications vary, attempting to represent its phonetic features (aspiration, dental fricatives in native words, etc). Others writing Bajuni treat it orthographically as Swahili.


LINGUISTIC SKETCH (for details, see Nurse 2013, Grammatical sketch, Nurse 1982)

Consonant phoneme inventory:

p                      t̯                                               c                      k

ph                    t̯h                                            ch                     kh

b                      d̯                                              j                       g

f                       θ                      s                      ʃ                      x

v                      ð                                                                      ʏ

w [ʋ]                                    l, r                    y                      h

m                    n̯                   n                      ny                    ŋ

mb                 n̯d̯               ndr                    nj                     ng

Segments in the second column are dental. Those in the fourth column are palatal or alveopalatal/. Nonprenasalised voiced stops are implosive, less easy to hear in the palatal and velar. The palatal [ʒ] was heard in older speakers in Kenya, in free variation with /y/. Some speakers in Somalia replaced [s] by [θ]. Long consonants can be heard, predominantly in words of Arabic origin. There are over 30 phonological differences from Swahili (Nurse 2013, Wordlist, pp. 47-48).

 Bajuni and Standard Swahili share the vowel inventory (5 vowels, no distinctive length); predominantly penultimate stress; and SVO word order.

Structurally, both are agglutinating, that is, grammatical information is conveyed by attaching prefixes and suffixes to roots and stems. Nouns are divided into sets, referred to as genders. Each gender has a singular and a plural prefix. Bajuni genders are numbered 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11, 12, 14, 15, (16, 17, 18), slightly different from Swahili. Each is associated, not with masculine, feminine or neuter, but with semantic characteristics, such as human beings, animals, plants, artifacts, long objects, abstract concepts, and so on. There is a system of concord in which verb subjects, adjectives, numerals, demonstratives, possessive pronouns, and other sentence constituents agree with the head noun in class and number.

Verbs are agglutinating: a system of affixes marks various grammatical relations, such as subject, object, tense, aspect, and mood. A typical affirmative complex verb form consists of a subject prefix, aspect/tense marker, optional relative pronoun, optional object marker, verb root, and several optional suffixes (called extensions) that define argument roles such as causative, passive, stative, and reciprocal, plus a final vowel to signal indicative, subjunctive, or negation. The tense-aspect system differs from that of Standard Swahili in several ways, some categorical, some morphological. This is a sketch of the system as it was in 1980 (Nurse 1982: 90-91, 97-118):


Perfective Imperfective Perfect Situative
Past–ali(ku)- chw-ali-pika ‘we cooked’N ha-chu-ku-pika hwa-aliveko hunena ‘we used to talk’ chw-alikuva chuy-ele ‘we had gone to sleep’ chw-ali-ki-pika ‘we were cooking’

chwali chu-ki-nena ‘we were talking’

(isi) hu-pika ‘we cook, are cooking’N ha-chu-pik-i chu-pis-ie  ‘we have cooked’N ha-chu-ya-pika ‘we haven’t cooked (yet)’



chu-ki-pika ‘if we cook, we cooking’

chu-kito-pika ‘if we don’t cook’

Futureta(ku)- chu-ta-pika ‘we will cook’N ha-chu-to-pika chu-taku-va hupika ‘we’ll be cooking’ chu-ta-kivachw-endee ‘we will have gone’ chu-taku-vachu-ki-pika ‘we’ll be cooking’

Notes. N = Neg. Some of these features also characterize other ND: (1) Where Standard Swahili contrasts Progressive (tu-na-zungumza ‘we are talking’) and Habitual ((sisi) hu-zumgumza ‘(we) talk’), Bajuni neutralizes the contrast, using only the hu– form: isi hu-nena translates both ‘we are talking’ and ‘we talk’). (2) There is also a –a– marker, used mainly with stative verbs (chw-a-taka kukheti ‘we want to sit’). Speakers disagree on its use with non-stative verbs (Nurse 1982:99). (3) A second, perfect-like form, –ndo– or –nda-, is also used. Some villages use one shape, some the other. Example: chu-ndo-vuka, beside chu-vuk-ie ‘we have crossed’. These are semantically similar, not identical (Nurse 1982, 115-7). (4) A sort of Present Continuous, restricted to two verbs, ‘go’ and ‘come’ (chwendr-ao ‘we are going’). (5) Perfect is marked by suffixal –ie, not prefixal –me– (Ba chu-vuk-ie, StSw tu-me-vuka ‘we have crossed’, Ba chu-kos-ee ‘we are tired’, StSw tu-me-choka). (6) past tense marker is –ali-, not -li- (Ba chw-ali-vuka, StSw tu-li-vuka ‘we crossed’). (7) 3rd person subject marker on the verb is u– ((Ba u-tavuka but StSw a-tavuka ‘she will cross’).

What strikes the Swahili listener above all are the lexical differences between Bajuni and Standard Swahili. As other NDs, Bajuni has a number of loanwords not present in Standard Swahili, some from Arabic (eg buru ‘maize’), many from southern Somali dialects once spoken along the coast (bodo ‘porridge’, some from other as yet unidentified older Cushitic languages, a few from other sources (Nurse 2013, Word List; Sacleux 1939, Nurse 1982: 123-131).

 ROLE IN SOCIETY. This is dealt with above in the section above, Language Variation. For centuries most Bajuni spoke only Bajuni. For trading purposes or political reasons, some older members of the community spoke the Swahili dialects of the Lamu Archipelago, and a very few spoke Somali. That has all changed. Today (2015) three kinds of Bajuni person can be distinguished: those who are ethnically Bajuni but no longer speak the language: a large number who speak Swahili with some Bajuni features: and a few who still speak fluent Bajuni.

 STATUS, THE FUTURE. Bajuni has no official status in Somalia or Kenya. While there are some who would like to maintain the language, it is hard to see how that is to be done. In Somalia, as far as we know, no children speak Bajuni. They do speak Swahili with a Bajuni accent, as described. In Kenya Bajuni is spoken mainly in the domestic sphere or, as mentioned, by farmers and fishermen.

HISTORY. What we can say of Bajuni history is based on four kinds of evidence: archaeology, oral traditions and literature, some recorded and published, some not: accounts by Europeans from about AD1600 to the early 20th century: clan names: various kinds of linguistic evidence.

The main source of archaeological data comes from various Wilson publications (eg Wilson 1982), based partly on his own work, partly on his careful assembly and examination of others’ work. Kenya is better surveyed than Somalia, but the general state of archaeology is incomplete and future work will almost certainly change the picture. If we arrange Wilson’s findings by dates, then the earliest, starting in the 14th or 15th century, are: Old Kismayuu, (Koyama, maybe 16th century), Ngumi, Chovai, Chula, Buri Kavo, Ishakani, Kiunga, Mwana Mchama, Omwe, Shee Umuro, Shee Jafari, and Dondo. The fact that the southern dates are as early as those in the north does not support those who hold to the idea that any ‘original’ Bajuni migration proceeded from north to south. A curious feature of Bajuni society was the lack of centralization: no one central leader or place, each community being self-governing.

Some clan names (Nurse 2013, General Document, section 5) suggest connections to southern Arabia, others to southern Somali groups. Some are of unknown origin or are toponyms.

While the archaeology shows no site clearly associated with Bajuni earlier than the late 14th or 15th century, linguistic argumentation suggests Bajuni presence in northern Kenya/southern Somali in the first part of the 2nd millennium AD, maybe a little earlier (Nurse 2013, General Document, section 7b). Of the six centuries from about AD1400 to the present (2015), the first four were the highpoint of Bajuni fortunes. They had many coral buildings (houses, mosques) and traditions talk of two-storey buildings at Shungwaya (unfortunately never been found), all pointing to prosperity. They had extensive agricultural holdings and ‘plantations’ on the mainland. They traded with the Portuguese. In the 17th and early 18th century, Europeans report as many as 5000 Bajuni fighters, who were a threat to the towns of the Lamu Archipelago and helped Europeans as far as Mombasa. Their captains and crews sailed the entire East African coast. The 19th and 20th centuries were a period of decline, culminating in the collapse of the late 20th century.


 Cassanelli, L.V. 1993. Victims and Vulnerable Groups in Southern Somalia. Immigration and

Refugee Board of Canada. Canada.

Dammann, Ernst. 1993. Vave Manuscript. Afrikanische Handschriften MS 3552 H117 (43-47).

Hamburg University CSMC.

Grottannelli, Vinigi Lorenzo. 1955. Pescatori Dell’Oceano Indiano. Rome. Edizioni Cremonese.

Khuchi, Abubaker. 1997. Hongera kwa Vabajuni- kwa kibajuni.

Mahazi, Jasmin. 2008. The Vave Genre in Bajuni Oral Literature: a Stylistic Analysis. Bayreuth. Bayreuth University. MA thesis (unpublished).

Nurse, Derek. 1982. The Swahili Dialects of Somalia and the Northern Kenya Coast, in

Rombi, Marie-Francoise (ed.)M-F Rombi (ed.). Etudes sur le Bantu Oriental. Paris.

SELAF. 73-146. Summarised in Nurse 2013, Grammatical Sketch.

—- 1983. Poème guerrier du bajuni. Etudes Océan Indien 3: 61-64.

—- 1994. Historical texts from the Swahili coast (Part 1). Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 37/Swahili Forum 1: 47-85.

—- 1996 Historical texts from the Swahili coast (Part 2), Afrikanistische Arbeitspapiere 42/Swahili Forum 2: 41-72.

—- (2013).

—- & Thomas J. Hinnebusch. 1993. Swahili and Sabaki, A Linguistic History. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Prins, Adriaan H.J. 1967. The Swahili-speaking Peoples of Zanzibar and the East African Coast.

London. International African Institute.

Omar, Yahya Ali. 1967. Mashairi ya Vave, in Allen, J.W.T, The Swahili and Arabic

Manuscripts and Tapes, University of Dar es Salaam library, registration number 269-274.

A copy also at the SOAS library of London University.

Sacleux, Charles. Rev. 1939. Dictionnaire Swahili-Francais. Paris. Institut d’Ethnologie.

Wilson, Tom. H. 1982. Spatial analysis and settlement patterns on the East African Coast. In Allen & Wilson (eds). From Zinj to Zanzibar, in honour of James Kirkman. Paideuma. 28. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag. 201-219.


[i] The Bajuni term is Kismayuu, which has a meaning: ‘the northern or upper well’, from kisima ‘well’ plus iyuu ‘above, up’. In Bajuni, Kisimaiyuu > Kismayuu > Kismayu. We think these are to be preferred to alien forms such as Chisimaio and Kisma(a)yo.

[ii] For a map, see

[iii] ‘The Troubles’ originally referred to the period of violent unrest in Northern Ireland from about 1968 to 1998. It is borrowed here to refer to the violent period in Somalia that followed the overthrow of Said Barre in 1991.

[iv] Other sources have smaller amounts of material (Omar & Donnelly 1987, Mahazi 2008).

[v] “The deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, caste, religious, or national group”.


See Martin Walsh blog



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