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Kezilahabi and his ‘mystical rose’ prophesied against femiphobia

Saturday January 18 2020

Prof Euphrase Kezilahabi

Prof Euphrase Kezilahabi is arguably the foremost Kiswahili existentialist novelist and poet. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

AUSTIN BUKENYA
By AUSTIN BUKENYA
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I was mourning the loss of my age-mate and fellow UDSM (Dar) alumnus, Euphrase Kezilahabi, when I got the stupefying news of the mob killing and burning of the Ndooni Primary School teacher, Daisy Mbathe Mbaluka, in Kitui County. Somehow, this ghastly incident took my mind back to my departed friend’s first novel, Rosa Mistika, and the fate of our sisters in an apparently woman-hating environment.

At a personal level, Kezilahabi, from the big island of Ukerewe in Lake Victoria, was a long-time friend and colleague, only two months younger than I. At university, he studied literature, language, linguistics and education, like me. Curiously, however, we had no formal Kiswahili courses in those days. As I keep saying, I always wonder how such literary and linguistic Kiswahili stalwarts as Said Ahmed Mohamed, Ibrahim Hussein, M. M. Mushi, Clement Maganga and Euphrase Kezilahabi himself emerged from our ranks. But that is a topic for another day.

Back to Kezilahabi, we graduated and went our different ways, though remaining on the academic and literary path. Our colleague, however, was to become a veritable giant in Kiswahili literature, because of not only the sheer volume and variety of his work but also, and maybe especially, because of the structural and stylistic subtlety with which he conveyed complex and even abstract concepts through his creative output.

His articulate and well-practised approach to the “liberation” of Kiswahili verse from the stranglehold of the conservative “shairi” tradition put him in the frontline of the “wachokozi wa Kilimani” (the provocateurs of the Hill), the “Hill” being Ubungo in Dar, where our campus is sited. Kezilahabi’s contribution to the modernisation of Kiswahili verse is iconised in his famous poem, “Pingu” (Shackles), as my more knowledgeable colleagues, like professors Kimani Njogu, Ken Walibora and others have told us in their eulogies.

But, coming in the wake of the murder of Daisy Mbathe Mbaluka in Kitui, Kezilahabi’s death reminded me of Rosa Mistika, his first but subtly outspoken narrative of the predicament of a woman in a sickeningly “femiphobic” patriarchy. The rare term “femiphobia” means the fear and hatred of women for the simple reason that they are women.

I use “femiphobia”, instead of the commoner term “misogyny”, to focus greater attention on the plight of our daughters, sisters, mothers and grandmothers trapped in cultures that assume that women are, ab initio, not only “bad” but also deserving of “punishment”, deceit, mistreatment and even death if they transgress the male-defined codes of “decency”. One thus notes that femiphobia is closely related to femicide, the sexist and reckless murder of women and girls, of which we have had a nauseating glut in our own society in recent times.

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“Rosa Mistika” (mystical rose, from Latin) is an item in the Litany, or list of praise names, of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. The phrase also happens to be a much-loved first name for Catholic girls, as it is in the case of the hero-victim of Kezilahabi’s novel. The symbolism of the “mystic rose” hints at both the irresistible “flowerlike” beauty of the woman and the complex and challenging nature of her personality.

Curiously, and sadly, however, instead of courageously and rationally exploring, understanding and accepting this feminine complexity, male-dominated societies choose to curb it, control it, smother it and even kill it if it threatens to assert itself. This is the root of femiphobia, and it is practised through such institutions as religion, customs (like FGM, child marriage and bride price), political and occupational exclusivism and objectification of the woman.

Over and above all this is the overarching strategy of “silencing”. Any frank and open talk about women, and especially about their sexuality, their desires, their rights and aspirations, is labelled dirty, pornographic, irreligious and subversive. It is brutishly and brusquely suppressed. This explains the well-documented bans of Kezilahabi’s novel, which was uniquely outspoken about these matters, especially by the standards of our generation. 

This is what I see in Kezilahabi’s Rosa Mistika, and its literary history, with my gender-conscious eyes, and in the light of what is happening around us today. In the novel, Rosa, an intelligent, lively Lakeside girl, is raised in a family controlled and brutalised by sanctimonious but violent patriarchs. This obviously anticipates seminal works on the subject, like Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Neversous Conditions, Alifa Rifaat’s Distant View of a Minaret and, even more recently, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus.

Kezilahabi’s Rosa ends up as an academic and professional success of sorts, despite the serial abuses she suffers at the hands of not only her family and religious leaders but also cynical seducers, predatory teachers and administrators and perverted advisers. But she has been turned into a rebellious, opportunistic cynic, ready to risk anything that, however falsely, promises some survival. Her fate is sealed. Did she have a choice in the matter?

Of Mwalimu Daisy Mbathe Mbaluka, I can say very little, for two reasons. First, I had never heard of her until after her being killed and reduced to ashes. Secondly, her case is under investigation by both trained journalists and competent security agencies. We do not wish or intend to prejudice their investigations.

A few facts, however, remain clear. Mbathe was a woman. She was a teacher at a school. Mbathe was killed and burnt up on a road, by a mob.

To avoid jumping to conclusions about this sad incident, I will only pose a few brief questions. Is it ever justifiable to lynch a woman, in front of her daughters, for whatever reason? If there were objectionable traits in Mbathe’s character, what were they, and what had led to them? Did she have a “Rosa Mistika” background of being abused, exploited and hated?

May our dead rest in peace.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]

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