As Kenya mourned the Siku Njema author Kennedy Athanasious Waliaula, better known as Ken Walibora, who died tragically on April 10, Tanzania had just buried another great writer and translator, Mr Fortunatus Felix Kawegere.
Unlike Prof Walibora, whose demise attracted the attention of the whole of East Africa and beyond, Kawegere’s death may have passed unnoticed by many. Although Kawegere launched his writing career in Kenya, where most of his works are published and read, news of his demise took almost two months to reach Nairobi.
Mr Kawegere, who died suddenly at the age of 77, is not a new name in Kiswahili literary circles — more so in Kenya, where his translation of George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945) — Shamba la Wanyama (Phoenix Publishers, 1967) — was once a set book.
George Orwell, whose real name was Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950), was an English novelist and essayist, journalist and critic. Animal Farm is an allegorical novel about a group of animals who rebel against a farmer with the hope of creating equality in society where all animals are free and happy. However, their rebellion turns out to be counterproductive because the farm ends up in a worse state under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon. The main theme in Shamba la Wanyama reflects the trajectory taken by most post-independent African states, whose leaders turned into demagogues.
I stumbled upon the sad news of the death of Kawegere when I called my editor and publisher, James Mwilaria, of Longhorn Publishers to share my discontentment on how Prof Walibora had been handled from the time he was involved in an accident to the time he painfully died. It has puzzled all and sundry how a person of Walibora’s stature in society died a lonely and painful death because ‘nobody knew who he was.’
Even then, Mr Mwilaria could not confirm to me with finality about the death the Siku Njema and Shamba la Wanyama translator.
The connection between Walibora and Kawegere is that the latter, together with Dorothy Kweyu of Daily Nation, translated Walibora’s Siku Njema into English — under the title A Good Day (Longhorn Publishers, 2019).
Siku Njema is a story about a young man — Msanifu Kombo aka Kongowea Mswahili, who is born out of wedlock. Kongowea does not proceed with his schooling due to lack of all the basic needs — food, clothing, love, care and education. When Kongowea’s stepmother becomes a threat to his life, he leaves Tanga through Mombasa as a stowaway. His mission is to trace the whereabouts of his father, who he believes lives somewhere in Kenya.
In spite of being illiterate, Kongowea becomes a star in Kiswahili and finally succeeds in tracing his biological father, Mzee Kazikwisha in Cherangani Hills. The author uses a journey motif through which he emphasises self-discovery and identity of the protagonist.
It was, therefore, a sad coincidence that both Walibora and his translator died in a span of two months. It is barely four months since another great Kiswahili writer and scholar, Prof Euphrase Kezilahabi of Tanzania, passed on.
Having failed to confirm the death of Kawegere, with whom I have contributed many titles under the ‘Hadithi za Kikwetu’ series (Phoenix Publishers), I asked members of a WhatsApp group, Chama cha Ukuzaji wa Kiswahili Duniani (CHAUKIDU), majority of whom are Tanzanians, if they knew anything about it. The message caught many in the group, including Tanzanians, by surprise.
A group member, Ms Gertrude Joseph of Kiswahili Council of Tanzania (BAKITA), who happens to know the author’s family members, linked me to one of his sons, Prof Adalbertus Kamanzi Kawegere, who confirmed that, indeed, his father died on February 29, 2020.
His former student at Ihtawa Primary School, Bukoba, between 1966 and 1969, Prof Charles Bwenge, currently teaching Kiswahili at the University of Florida, USA, described Mr Kawegere as a great Kiswahili teacher and writer.
“Mwalimu FF Kawegere, as we used to refer to him, was a unique teacher. I think he was translating Animal Farm at the time he was teaching us. It is quite sad that we have lost such an inspiring teacher and writer,” Prof Bwenge said.
Translation scholar and theorist Prof Zaja Omboga of the University of Nairobi says Kawegere’s Shamba la Wanyama enriched the corpus of translated Kiswahili literature. “The book was among the seminal translations in Kiswahili literature in the 1960s when we did not have many Kiswahili novels and, as a result, it has been extensively used in researches about literary translation,” he said.
Mr Kawegere was born on February 8, 1943 in Bukoba, Tanzania. He studied at Bunena Missionary School, Bukoba, for both his primary and middle school. He proceeded to Kajunguti Teachers’ Training College and later Mpwapwa Teachers’ College. Upon completing his training, he taught at Ihtawa Primary School from 1966.
According to his son, his father also registered for an English course in the United Kingdom, which he learnt through correspondence. It is this course that came in handy in his translation and creative writing endeavours.
Apart from translating Siku Njema and Animal Farm, Mr Kawegere was an accomplished writer in his own right. His other works, mostly published in Kenya, include Kinga ya Rushwa, Kazi Yangu (poetry), Uongo Uliozaa Jitu, Kuku Aliyegeuka Kanga, and Inspector Rajabu Investigates, all by Phoenix Publishers Limited, Nairobi. Other titles are Vituko vya Bwana na Bibi Msafiri and Mfalme Busara, all published by Hakika Publishers, Tanzania.
Enock Matundura teaches Kiswahili literature at Chuka University and is a ‘Taifa Leo’ columnist; [email protected]