Reflections of a scholar - Daily Nation

I may not walk up Ndia Kuu any more, but I will hear some of the Coastal Kiswahili of my youth

Saturday June 9 2018

Fort Jesus, Kenya’s famous historical monument in Mombasa Old Town at the Coast. PHOTO | COURTESY

Fort Jesus, Kenya’s famous historical monument in Mombasa Old Town at the Coast. PHOTO | COURTESY 

By Austin Bukenya
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I am finally in Mombasa, and you would expect that my endless longing for my beloved Coast would be considerably assuaged. Indeed, I am briefly flattered when the airport taxi driver I consult about my destination mistakes me for a returning “local” and apologises for his limited Kiswahili, as he is an upcountry lad.

Maybe I have not been away that long, I wonder for a moment. But alas, I have. A wave of nostalgic loneliness envelops me as I realise that the last time I was here was nearly five years ago.

The Kiswahili word is ukiwa (desolation), the kind of “aloneness” I felt as we crossed the Island towards the North Coast. Ukiwa, incidentally, is the title of a touching little first novel by my dear departed friend and ex-Dar classmate, Prof Katama Mkangi. 

Anyway, this time I headed for a modest but respectable beach establishment in Shanzu on the North Coast, as I am on official business for the East African Kiswahili Commission. We are working on a project that I think closely fits the description of what I called “language quality assurance” last week. The commission is formulating policy proposals to maximise and optimise the spread and growth of our lingua franca.

But back to Mombasa. You probably know that the North Coast is not quite my stomping ground, despite my having relatives there (through marriage), all the way from Kikambala to Kaloleni. My turf is down south, from Mvita (the island), through Likoni, Ukunda, Msambweni to Shimoni and (by a long leap) to Dar-es-Salaam.

But this time my nostalgic mind lingered over the Island, and the many friends there with whom I realised I have not been in touch with in a long, long time, just about 20 years, to clutch at a number. I think particularly of the supercharged team of my research assistants, walimu Zena Mshenga, Job Nyanje, Janet Fundi, Pius Kithu, Juma Zana, Qureish Akram and the strikingly earnest Mwanahamisi Bilashaka (yes, she “without a doubt”).

With them, between 1997 and 1999, I crisscrossed the ways and byways of Bondeni, Ganjoni and, of course, Mji wa Kale (Old Town), chatting up and quizzing willing residents about the intricacies of the formulae of Kiswahili orature. I hope they will let me know how they have been faring since those distant days. I will certainly dedicate to them the final version of our research findings, when I finally publish them.


Thinking of Old Town, I wish I could do today what had become my habit on each arrival in Mombasa in the late 1990s. I would head straight for the Kiswahili Cultural Centre (which I understand is now an establishment of university status), to respectfully greet (kuamkia) its venerable founder and director, the late Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany.

He was always willing to spare a moment for a chat with every guest, especially about his beloved classical Kiswahili poetry and his passionate commitment to the growth of a viable modern but genuine Kiswahili lexis.

Often, the conversation would lead to his irresistible invitation to go “home” to his residence, even for an overnight stay. Then you would walk up the quaint Ndia Kuu (Main Street) in the historic old quarter of the city, off which his abode was situated.

The walks down that famous thoroughfare held precious gems for me. They concretised for me, for example, my experience of reading the first Kiswahili text that I perused from the beginning to the  end.

This was the annotated selection of the poems of Muyaka bin  Haji al-Ghassaniy, given to me in typescript form by its editor, my beloved Dar-es-Salaam teacher, Prof Mohamed H. Abdulaziz, in 1966. Muyaka, as you know, was a prominent resident of what is today called Old Town on the Mvita Island.

Maybe this also goes some way towards answering the question my friend Prof Ken Walibora asked me once in a TV interview. He wanted to know why, despite my Tanzanian education, my language, both written and spoken, betrays traces of Kimvita, which might strike some observers as affectations.

But mention of Walibora brings me to a happy note, on which I would like to end. My nostalgic gloom was lifted once I connected with my colleagues and got to work on the East African Kiswahili Commission assignment. The workshop, to compile a research-based report on Kiswahili in East Africa, turned out to be a reunion of Kiswahili scholars and enthusiasts from all over the region.

Apart, for example, from Prof Inyani Simala, the founding Executive Secretary of the Kiswahili Commission, we had Prof Chacha Nyaigotti Chacha, who needs no introduction, apart from the reminder that he was my colleague at KU back in the late 1970s. He was also a “neighbour” in Kampala, where he headed the Inter-University Council of East Africa in the early 2000s.

Then we had my fellow alumni, though many years or even decades behind me, from Dar, like the youthful Dr Ahmed Kipacha and the eminent lexicographer, Prof Hermas Mwansoko, now Vice-Chancellor of the Teofilo Kisanji University in Mbeya. I have been interacting with the good Prof for many years through his work at the Institute of Kiswahili Research (TUKI), currently the Institute of Kiswahili Studies (TATAKI), at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. Prof Walibora, of course, wears many hats: scholar, literary magician and media master.

In such distinguished company, I just felt honoured to be representing the unschooled lovers and enthusiasts of Kiswahili (wakereketwa), whose voice should not be ignored, since we are the majority. Anyway, once the discussion started flowing, in steady, fluent Kiswahili Sanifu, whether from Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya or Uganda, I knew all was well.

We individuals may come and go. The loneliness and desolation may hit and strike. But so long as Kiswahili thrives and East African unity endures, I will be content, and Pwani ni kwetu nyumbani (the Coast is our home).