On the sidelines of the ‘Kiswahili Symposium and Colloquium on New Dynamics in Swahili Studies’ at the University of Bayreuth in Germany between June 8 and 14, the Nation spoke to Dr Farouk Topan.
Dr Topan, now retired, is among the pioneer lecturers in Kiswahili at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.
He taught Kiswahili for years and retired from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, in 2006, but continues to research and mentor students of Kiswahili at various institutions, most recently The Aga Khan University in London.
Q: Tell us how you landed in literature and the education system you went through.
Dr Topan: I went to England at 19 from my ‘A’ levels, then did a degree in Anthropology, Linguistics and Literature at the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London. Then I used the three disciplines to develop my PhD research topic, which was on spirit possession. I looked at the ‘Kipemba’ cult in Changamwe, Mombasa. The thesis was based on looking at the values and practices of the ‘Pungwa’ and the types of oral literature generated from the cult.
When did your teaching career begin?
I began in 1968, at the University of Dar es Salaam. I went there in between my PhD and started teaching Swahili Literature in Kiswahili; that was for the first time. Then in 1969, with Prof Abdul Aziz, we started a BA in Swahili and Linguistics.
In July 1970, the University of East Africa was divided into the universities of Makerere, Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam and with that came the establishment of the Department of Swahili at the University of Dar es Salaam and I became the chairperson. I can say this was by default because the idea was that Abdul Aziz would have been the head of the department, but he went to the University of Nairobi to join the Department of Linguistics and African Languages.
After completing my PhD, I took up a position at the University of Nairobi in 1972, when Prof Andrew Gurr was the head of the Department of Literature. We had interesting colleagues at the time like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Okot P’Bitek, and Bahadur Tejani.
I taught a course on oral literature to first-year students alongside Okot P’Bitek. I was there for two years before leaving for London. Then I developed an interest in Arabic and the Middle Eastern studies and went to the University of Riyadh
and because I had completed my diploma in education, I taught English Literature.
I remember teaching Shakespeare’s Sonnet ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?’ and it was the most difficult environment to teach such a poem because summer in Saudi Arabia is very hot and it’s not what you’d look forward to, like in London. In fact, people run from the cities during summer to the mountains.
When I asked them what season they’d compare their loved ones to, they unanimously said spring. In fact some came up with compositions in Arabic paralleling Shakespeare, saying ‘Shall I Compare Thee to Rabbia’ (meaning spring).
Did you teach Swahili there?
I didn’t teach Kiswahili there but gave papers during staff seminars on the lexical aspects of Kiswahili in relation to Arabic to help them understand that words, when they migrate, don’t necessarily carry with them the same meaning as in the other target
language as they do in the source language. I was there for two years and left for London to join the Institute of Ismaili Studies.
Because of my background in education, I led a group of students in teacher training. If I go back, I introduced the teaching
of Swahili Literature in Swahili at the University of Dar es Salaam. Among my students were the late Jay Kitsao and Mohamed Bakari.
And from London did you move elsewhere?
I moved to the SOAS, then to my college till retirement. The SOAS never had the post of the head of Department of African Languages and Cultures before, so I became the first. To me it was just a post. When I left the post, I recommended Dr Akin Oyetade from West Africa.
That was a very good symmetry that an East African was succeeded by a West African as Head of Department. I retired in 2006, and the Aga Khan University in London asked me to teach sub-Saharan African traditions at their London Institute since they wanted to expand their curriculum to include Africa.
I decided that I won’t just teach Swahili but rather devised a course where I taught on the Swahili Coast.
Let’s go back to your early research. It is interesting that as you went to school, you always opted to study what I would call ‘native knowledge, cultures, traditions, intelligence and legacies’ at a time when we were just transiting from colonialism, yet colonialism had imprinted in people a culture of loving that which is not theirs. Are there young East Africans doing what you did; something that you would say you’re a pioneer in?
One, I’m proud that I started the Kiswahili literature programme in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi universities because the students who took that became renowned writers — playwrights like Hussein Ibrahim and John Habwe. So that’s the academic aspect, something we can be proud of by saying we started that.
On the social aspects, unfortunately, there are no East Africans who’re interested in it — the subject of my PhD dissertation
— as a worthy subject of study and research. Spirit possession is considered as superstition; there is a negative attitude towards it.
That brings forth the colonial aspect that Ngugi talks about in Decolonising the Mind because the perspective of what is ours is very much influenced by how much we play to the gallery so that others can recognise us rather than we recognising our ideas. But if you take spirit possession, there are scholars from Europe who have continued it.
What comes out from these studies is how people negotiate mentally with others so that we have different spirits from Kilimanjaro, India, and Wazungu.
Do you think that research in Swahili is given the attention it deserves in universities, especially in East Africa?
The study of Swahili should be expanded; not just in terms of language and literature. But even before getting to that stage. Some weeds should be removed because of some misperceptions. We shouldn’t be involved in defining who a Mswahili is and who is not.
We should expand Swahili to ask: How does Swahili relate to other disciplines – Geography, Social Sciences, etc., so that there is an understanding not only of the vocabulary, but also of the capacity of the language to deal with the other aspects of life; and of the people because Kiswahili started as a language of a particular people but is now the language of millions of people in East Africa.
What does it mean for a language to be a lingua franca for millions of people? Do we simply use it the way we want or should there be an academy that puts boundaries or frameworks on its use? Do we have a group of translators to keep translating books
in Swahili? Those are the questions we need to ask rather than going back to the identity issues; we’ve gone past the stage.
If that’s the case, what do you have to say about the fact that there is more research about the material and non-material values of Kiswahili outside Africa than within; there seems to be more scholars outside Africa studying Swahili than in Africa.
I agree with the fact that there are more scholars outside Africa studying Swahili than in Africa, but there are several reasons to that. For instance, economics – so that perhaps pursuing such studies isn’t worthwhile in East Africa; it may be seen as not seriously linked to the economic needs and capabilities of the society.
Then the elephant in the room is the fact that English is preferred to Swahili because the former is global and people want
to connect more.
Do you see Kiswahili as the language that will actually unite eastern Africa?
I do, as long as there is a sense of national self-interest in the project. As long as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi,
Rwanda and Congo feel they’ll be benefiting from this project, they’ll put money into it. The other way is the grassroots way where the people are beginning to see the language as that enabling them to communicate with others, then they’ll do it as well.
And it’s also wonderful and nice that people outside here are spending their time and lives researching Kiswahili. We should take off our hats to them because they’re doing our work.
Which brings me to the question of cultural nationalism in the 1970s and 1960s. How did politics tramp on culture at that time, because one expected a very seamless cultural connection in the region so that the universities would drive
these yet they were among the first units to fracture. Was there an intellectual act of betrayal of the people?
That’s a wonderful phrase. That comes very close. In my perspective, things began to go wrong towards the last days of the fight for independence. There was a huge euphoria about the East African Federation, especially the intellectuals were very excited because we had an infrastructure ready made: Common currency, airline, Customs, postal services, etc.
But then, nationalism came in so that it became very much Kenyan, Tanganyikan and Ugandan. But the break came when the currency was changed, the very medium of exchange. The economies were different. Perhaps there is an attempt to redo it now 50 years after it collapsed; we’re looking back and saying that was not the right way to do it. We did miss the boat. I would not call it an intellectual betrayal because it wasn’t a deliberate act of rationality.
But one would have imagined that the universities were producing the future bureaucrats, industrialists, thinkers, progressive minds, yet they were the first to separate and reframe themselves within their nations instead of pursuing the broader project of federation.
You must be making an assumption that the university and the intellectuals within them walked together. I don’t think so. The intellectuals were very rebellious. The higher echelons of the university management were more powerful than the intellectuals and if they made a decision, the intellectuals would only rebel against it. We need to make this distinction.
And there were streaks of rebellions, like in my Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi. Most of us thought we had people looking over our shoulders at that period. There were several strikes but ours were largely ideological. The vice-chancellors were more of an arm of the government than they were part of the intellectual atmosphere of the university.
So there was no complicity but rebelling against the decisions. But all these are now water under the bridge because so much has changed and at the bottom of all these change is a feeling of helplessness. We feel we have been put in a situation where
we’re playing to Europe and USA, on the one hand, and responsible to our people, on the other hand. You feel you’ve been put in the middle and there are not many resources and avenues for help. Every member of the university is seeking to go to Europe.
There is a situation where a majority of scholars are looking for validation outside their own institutions and societies.
What do you say on how we can overcome this?
You’ve hit it with that word “validation”. We feel incomplete until validated from outside and that’s the attitude we need to move away from. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere came close to it with his Ujamaa policy, which has unfortunately been misperceived
mainly as an economic adventure yet it had an ethical, humanistic aspect.
That ethical side had the notion of human beings as people with dignity. If only Nyerere had focused on that and not tying it with villagisation and other discomforts, Tanzania, and largely East Africa, would have gone very far. But Harambee and Nyayo
were mainly just economic, pulling together to make Kenya economically better. My feeling is that if there is any betrayal, it’s by the politicians.