"I have heard the mermaids sing each to each. I do not think they will sing to me.” T. S. Eliot’s lines are what, absurdly, crept into my mind as the taarab lady singer belted out the classical “Uchungu wa mwana (the pain of the child)”.
I say absurd because, first, Eliot’s verse is quintessentially English and one can hardly see its link to the recondite Kiswahili in which the taraab was flowing. But those are some of the tricks which our multicultural minds keep playing on us.
Secondly, the lines are unnecessarily pessimistic because the “mermaids” were actually singing and dancing for me, through the sister at the microphone and the bevy of glamorous participating audience swaying and undulating ever so gently to the music at the foot of the stage.
Anyway, this was Zanzibar last week, and all the magic of the coast and its multitudinous waters, which first gripped me more than half a century ago, was once again exerting its intoxicating charm. I had landed on the Spice Island, as I have done several times before, and stayed for several days, joyfully inhaling and imbibing the ancient yet startlingly innovative Swahili way of life.
When the taraab band, for example, struck up, complete with its traditional instruments of zumari, gambuzi, kinanda and the rest, they were aided with state-of-the-art electronic amplification, and the stage was not only decorated with typical Swahili fabrics but also tastefully lit with strobe lights.
When they struck into soulful renditions of the golden oldies, it was as if the immortal departed of taarab art were back to vibrating life: Siti binti Sadi, Maalim Shaaban, Abdalla bin Mwengo, or even Bi. Kidude. The waghani onstage were the “sea-girls”, the “sirens” whose music was so sweet that, like Homer’s Odysseus, you had to be tethered up to avoid being irredeemably captured by it.
It was Siti that immortalised “uchungu wa mwana” as she crooned her way to stardom through the 1940s and 1950s. “The bitterness of the child (or of childbirth),” she sang, “is known only to Fatima, the child-bearer (mother).
But as I listened to the current rendition of the taarab, an idea flashed through my mind. That “uchungu (bitterness)” bit could be changed to “utamu (sweetness)”.
The first line of the refrain would thus suggest “the sweetness of childbirth is best known to the mother”. After all, adaptation is a common feature of orature. Even the original msemo (saying) on which Siti based her taarab had no “Fatima” in it. She put her in to give the line a stronger personal touch.
The “sweetness of childbirth” would have been even more appropriate last week because the performance was the culmination of the inauguration ceremonies of the East African Kiswahili Commission.
The official “birth” of the Tume (EAKC) was marked by a two-day workshop that included rich reflective presentations by top scholars from the entire Kiswahili-speaking world, including Professors Alamin Mazrui, F. E. Senkoro and Clara Momanyi, the tabling of the commission’s strategic plan and, of course, the official inauguration of this important organ of the East African Community.
The inauguration itself, witnessed by none other than Sheikh Ali Hassan Mwinyi, the former President of the United Republic, and an eminent scholar in his own right, was actually presided over by the current Vice-President of Tanzania, Bi. Samila Suluhu Hassan. (Do not tell anyone this, but, with all my hawkish watch of East African affairs and matters female leadership, I had not realised the Tanzanian Number Two was a woman until I saw her on the platform).
Her Excellency warmly welcomed us to Tanzania and she humbly but articulately underscored the importance of Kiswahili, for which she claimed origins in Zanzibar, as a unifying language of the region. She also assured us and the Commission of Tanzania’s full support in our efforts to promote our unifying language. I was finally convinced that this island was probably the best place to host the Headquarters of the Commission.
Now, this was no small matter. In the early planning stages of the commission, many of the stakeholders had expressed the feeling that it should be based in Uganda, as the people there had the greatest need for encouragement with the language.
You can guess I would have been delighted about this. But when the time came for the commission to get going, the Waganda were just not ready, and Zanzibar was willing. In fact, it had always been willing, since they even have a Kiswahili Council of their own, BAKIZA (for Baraza la Kiswahili Zanzibar).
Zanzibar’s respect for Kiswahili was brought home even more emphatically to me when we visited the palatial mansion from which my Kenyan colleague and friend, Prof Inyani Simala, the executive director, and his team run the affairs of the commission.
The place is a real “kasri” in the most elegant Swahili tradition, complete with lofty arches and an inner sun court. I could not help wondering if Kampala would have provided such premises.
But back to the “sweetness of childbirth”, this special occasion of the inauguration of the EAKC was a moment of poignant joy for three persons who witnessed it.
Those were Professors Anna Kishe, Kimani Njogu — and me. Back in the first decade of this century, the three of us were invited, and challenged, by the East African Community to work as a taskforce on the setting up of an East African Kiswahili body.
It was quite a tall order, and there was no shortage of heartbreaks (“uchungu”) for Anna Kishe, who represented Tanzania and chaired our small band, Prof Kimani, representing Kenya, and me from Uganda. But now, as we reunited in Zanzibar for the official “birth” of the Commission, we felt nothing but sweetness.
The taarab band played us Malaika and a few other classics. But they spared us Muhogo wa Jang’ombe (about the chang’aa addict). Maybe they thought we were too respectably Swahili for that.
Prof Bukenya is a leading scholar of English and Literature in East Africa. [email protected]