The world fetes a great Swahili griot - Daily Nation

The world fetes a great Swahili griot

Saturday September 3 2016

Kenya’s first political detainee and Kiswahili

Kenya’s first political detainee and Kiswahili scholar Prof Abdilatif Abdalla is honoured in new book. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Hezekiel Gikambi
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They descended on the small and quiet northern city of Bavaria to celebrate one of the world’s greatest authors in the Swahili language.

And he merited the honour. For Abdilatif Abdalla, one of the first post-independence political prisoners in Kenya, has given a lot to the world of letters in poetry and prose.

The 2016 Kiswahili Colloquium at the Bayreuth University in Germany was not only celebrating the launch of the book about the works of this renowned Kenyan Swahili guru, but also honouring the first bunch of winners of the The Mabati-Cornell Prize for Literature — where Abdilatif was also the chair of the panel of judges.

The book titled Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet in Politics, edited by two German professors of Swahili and African literature — Prof Dr Rose Marie Beck of University of Leipzig and Prof Kai Kresse of Colombia University, USA — is a true masterpiece that immortalises the work of Abdilatif Abdalla, one of Kenya’s most well-known poets and committed political activists.

The book includes what the Bayreuth colloquium host Prof Clarissa Vierke calls ‘gems’ in terms of essays on aspects of Abdilatif Abdalla’s work and life, as it interweaves perspectives on poetry and politics, language and history with contributions by East African and German heavyweight writers and scholars of Swahili literature, including professors Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Said Khamis, Ken Walibora, Ahmed Rajab, Mohamed Bakari, Grudun Miehe, Ekkehard Wolf, Alena Rettova, Imtrauds Herms, Jasmin Mahazi, the editors Rose Marie Beck and Kai Kresse and Abdilatif’s elder brother and mentor Sheikh Abdilahi Nassir.

Reading through the various essays by these experts brings one a feeling of sampling the best from the world of Swahili poetry and East African politics.


The volume of essays is a must read for Swahili scholars, enthusiasts, politicians, historians and general public not only because it does not simply express adulation for the works of Abdilatif Abdalla, but also represents a solid collection of papers most of which were presented in the preliminary sessions at the symposium that was held on May 4 and 4, 2016.

Abdilatif Abdalla retired from the University of Leipzig in 2011, where he taught for more than a decade and-a-half.

Abdilatif Abdalla:Poet in Politics, published by Mkuki na Nyota of Tanzania in 2016, is packaged in four sessions, each with unique contributions that share not only similar thematic, contextual, ideological perspectives, but also style. The divisions make the book readable in terms of navigation as it enables a reader to sample the pieces freely, making the publication a dynamic and flexible reading.

The one thing that cuts across all the sections, though, is the way almost all contributors dissect Abdalla’s poems and reminisce with the message and its tone in championing societal rights of equality and freedom from tyrannical rule.

Section One focuses on issues that range from the problems of translating Abdilatif’s work into other languages as seen in the works of Beck and Khamis, to the evaluation of his persona and poetry as explored by the contributions of Walibora and Bakari that see how Abdilatif is mirrored in the contemporary Swahili and East Africa societies.

Abdilatif is an enigmatic figure who has to be seen in terms of “deep language” as Beck puts it. In his essay, Ngugi wa Thiongo, a long-term friend of Abdilatif who also suffered imprisonment for opposing oppressive Kenyan regimes, maps his life and journey with Abdilatif’s and creates a congruence that epitomises the post independence struggles by writers who decided to use the barrel of a pen.

This perspective concurs with Walibora’s views about Abdilatif in his essay ‘Doing Things with Words in Prison Poetry’. Prof Walibora quotes another victim of prison poetry, Wole Soyinka, who thought that poems are a ‘map of the course trodden by the human mind during the years of incarceration’.


Walibora’s piece also justifies the context of the poet in politics by showing that Abdilatif’s prison anthology of poems, Sauti ya Dhiki, which was written on a toilet paper and sneaked out during his imprisonment at Kamiti and Shimo La Tewa from March 1969 to March 1972, save for one poem he wrote after prison, were all poetic diaries.

There is a sense of chronological tracing of the moods, feeling and thoughts of Abdilatif in solitary confinement. In this section, Kai Kresse has amplified Abdilatif’s role as a champion of people’s rights and as a

poet by basing his essay ‘Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Activist Voice of the Discontented, Voice of Humanity’ on the Swahili expression wasiotosheka that was a trade mark signature to sign off Abdilatif’s Kenya

Twendapi (Kenya: Where are we heading?) pamphlet that earned him three years in prison as a young KPU supporter.

The second section called ‘Selected Works of Abdilatif’ makes one feel the poet’s power. These are texts sought after but inaccessible anywhere by Kenyans, global scholars and lovers of Swahili poetry.

One of these pieces is the type-written and facsimiled copy of Kenya Twendapi of November, 1968 that saw the Kenyan government put him in prison. Other essays are Wajibu wa Mshairi katika Jamii Yake (Social Obligation of a poet) written in 1970 and Matatizo ya Mwandishi wa Jamii Katika Afrika Huru, a speech given in Dar es Salaam to protest Ngugi’s detention by the Kenyatta regime.

There is also an English translation of Abdilatif’s prison diaries, The Right and Might of a Pen, first published in London in 1985.

The third section sought to put in context the work and person of Abdilatif Abdalla, first by his mentor and elder brother Sheikh Abdilahi Nassir in Hope and Despair in Kenyan Politics During and After Independence, Alena Rettova’s ‘Existentialism and Swahili literature,’ and Abdilatif’s former colleague Ekkehard Wolf, who looks at the place of language in understanding Africa.

The last section in this book is made up of ‘Kongole’ or congratulatory messages from colleagues Grudun Miehe, who is remembered for the key role of starting the now 29-year-old annual Bayreuth University Swahili Colloquium with Abdilatif, Herms and former Deutsch Welle radio reporter Miraj Othman. Also his students at Leipzig penned emotional pieces to celebrate their teacher.

The principal message from this book is the power of the words of poetry in correcting errant leadership and the challenge and risk that a citizen can take in expressing his/her thoughts freely to oppose evil in the society regardless of the consequence.

The book comes at a time when the post independence Kenya that Abdilatif has toiled to correct throughout his life is still struggling with corruption, kleptomania and impunity, ills that have left the East African nation perpetually in dire straits.


Hezekiel Gikambi, author of Safari ya Serengeti is a Swahili Scholar, lecturer and currently a prospective PhD student in Swahili Language, Media and Technology. [email protected]



Abdilatif Abdalla’s poetry inspires and gives hope to the down trodden . His anthology ‘Sauti ya Dhiki’   speaks volumes about class struggles while responding ruthlessly to social injustices;.”

Prof Clara Momanyi, chairman Kiswahili Dept, CUEA


"I used to perceive Abdilatiff Abdalla through his poetry as a violent and bitter person until I met him and saw a calm,  jovial and pleasant individual”

Prof Iribe Mwangi chairman, Kiswahili Dept, UON


" I have taught Utenzi wa Adamu na Hawa and Sauti ya Dhiki and I think  Abdilatiff inspires revolutionary ways of governance to build a just and classless society”

Prof Kithaka wa Mberia, poet, author and Kiswahili scholar