We need a slave rebellion in literary studies of Swahili - Daily Nation

We need a slave rebellion in literary studies of Swahili

Friday January 6 2017

We have particularly enjoyed two new books:

We have particularly enjoyed two new books: John Mugane’s The Story of Swahili (2015) and Alamin Mazrui’s  The Cultural Politics of Translation: East Africa in Global Contexts (2016). PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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My dog Sigmund and I have of late been reading a lot of Swahili literature and its translations for some short projects we are working on. Sigmund likes in Swahili novels and poetry what he calls, in the voice of a seasoned Swahili critic, mtiririko wa matini (smooth flow of the text), although some of the best works he has read are interruptive in their language and structure. Probably the drunkard also expects to experience from the books' mtiririko wa margarita.

We have particularly enjoyed two new books: John Mugane’s The Story of Swahili (2015) and Alamin Mazrui’s The Cultural Politics of Translation: East Africa in Global Contexts (2016). They are published by Ohio University Press and Routledge respectively.  

Prof Mugane is the Director of the African Language Program at Harvard, while Alamin Mazrui is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at the Ohio State University and visiting professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Rutgers University.

In his new book, Mazrui illustrates that translation is primarily a political act. Most post-colonial, queer, and feminist theorists of translation (e.g., Tejaswini Niranjana, Luise von Flotow, Lawrence Venuti, Susan Bassnett, Keith Harvey, and Gayatri Spivak) have since the late 1980s emphasised this point. But Mazrui offers cogent examples from East Africa to illustrate his arguments.

Mazrui observes that Kiswahili translators mould the text “to fit the Swahili cultural universe, constantly breathing Swahili life and culture into the textual fabric of the stories.” I zealously follow Venuti’s theory, but I liked that sentence in Mazrui’s book so much I had to belatedly sneak it into my forthcoming book on translation.

Like Mazrui’s other book, Swahili beyond the Boundaries (2007), Mugane’s book traces the development of Swahili from the 17th Century to the present. It includes commentaries on various Swahili dialects, women’s art, and the use of Swahili among African Americans.  


The accessibility of these two books is what makes me admire (nay, envy) them. If you write a book in Sheng, English, Ekegusi, Kiswahili, Kikuyu,  French, Luhyia, Dholuo, or Kikamba that I can’t understand after spending so much  time with books I can hardly see without the aid of my thick glasses, it is very likely you’re saying nothing in that book. 

I didn’t see any weakness in these two handsome books, but my dog Sigmund says he has a few thoughts about them. Over to you, Sigmund. Remember our “kiss” rule. Keep it short and simple. And don’t be too academic.

Sigmund: (putting on his thick glasses and bending backwards to stretch his herniated lower-back discs, muttering “sitting is the new smoking”, while at the same time lighting a thick joint of medical marijuana). No lie has been told by the fool who’s spoken above. But the coward tends to agree with his seniors too quickly for fear he might get castrated. I particularly want to critique Mazrui’s book because it deals with the topic I’m currently working on: translation in African contexts. 

Both Mugane and Mazrui try to be sensitive to gender issues. But the way they refer to contemporary women critics, especially those teaching in African universities, sounds a bit condescending. For example, Mazrui tells us that Naomi Luchera Shitemi is one of the few scholars dealing with translation in East Africa, but he does not deign to engage her in any meaningful way.

In the competitive world of neo-liberal western academia, intellectuals tend to justify their projects by exaggerating the dearth of scholarship in their subfield. Reminiscent of Taaban in the 1960s, Prof Mazrui claims that East Africa “continues to show a certain barrenness in the study of translation.” But he overlooks work  by Nairobi-based translation theorists, such as Okoth Okombo, Karega Mutahi, and James Omboga Zaja. Indeed, since Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998), Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s most important work has been about translation. 

At some point, Mugane’s The Story of Swahili starts to read like Story of the Swahili. This takes Swahili studies a step backwards because it implies that “Swahili” is a putative genetic category, a typology already rejected by Ali Mazrui and Alamin Mazrui in their Swahili State and Society (1995).

Indeed, it should be observed that some of the best Swahili writers (e.g., Shaaban bin Robert) are not ethnic Swahilis. More productive would be to study all writing in Kiswahili, including works by ethnic Swahili writers.  This would give the writer an opportunity to discuss such accomplished Swahili women writers as Amandina Lihamba, Penina Mhando, and Ari Katini Mwachofi. Or maybe these are too contemporary, and the only good women writers are the long dead ones like Mwana Kupona.  

Me: Stick to the topic, Sigmund. And wrap up. Please.

Sigmund: (leisurely puffs on his medical marijuana joint and blows the smoke into my face. Then continues with his review).

Both books seem to be primarily addressing an American audience. For example, Mazrui argues that we don’t have a lot of black diaspora writing in East Africa. With such a claim, it is clear that he prioritises South-North travels to America and sidelines South-South migrations to and from Asia and the Middle East as facilitated by Indian Ocean trade from antiquity.

Even when viewing diaspora through this narrow lens, Mazrui overlooks such East African works as Shafi Adam Shafi’s Mbali na Nyumbani (Far from Home), about travels up the Nile and to East Germany, and Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed, about an African American woman’s experiences in East Africa. 

Another question we may have for Mazrui is: how do you expect an American-like black diaspora writing tradition in East Africa if Arab slavers castrated their victims and turned male slaves into (with apologies to Vincent Woodard) delectable sexual vassals for the erotic pleasures of their masters? Probably it’s because the Swahili intellectual habitus still quietly endorses black slavery that no African American works circulate in Kiswahili.

Written from Islamic/Arabic perspective, Swahili criticism tends to be too defensive about Arab involvement in slavery. Mazrui’s book falls into this trap when he seems to, again, denigrate James Mbotela’s 1934 Uhuru wa Watumwa (freedom of the slaves) as ghost-written Christian missionary propaganda. 

Several good African books are ghost written, including Nelson Mandela’s and Wangare Maathai’s memoirs. Various scholars (e.g., Barbara Harlow and Lesa B. Morrison) have even claimed that Oginga Odinga’s Not Yet Uhuru was ghost written by the anti-apartheid icon, Ruth First. Therefore, it is the content of Mbotela’s book that should be under debate, not who authored it. 

Much of Swahili literature, including proverbs and canonical works like Utendi wa Mwana Kupona, denigrate watumwa (slaves) as if blacks were not forcibly captured, raped, castrated, and uprooted from their cultures. The casualness with which slavery is treated, even by progressive poets like Muyaka, is the biggest scandal in Swahili letters.  

As literary critics, we have given Swahili writing short shrift. Most people who analyse Swahili literature are trained as linguists and probably lack the necessary critical skills to help them come to terms with the ghost of slavery that haunts the literature.  

This is why a serious slave rebellion similar to the one Tanzanian “modernists” represented by Euphrase Kezilahabi, Mugyabuzo Mulokozi, and Kulikoyela Kahigi staged in the 1970s is long overdue in Kenyan Swahili literary studies. 

Such rebellions (e.g., Légitime Défense in Francophone Caribbean and Noigandres in Brazil) are led by young critics in their early 20s, not some well-fed old fogies like the ventriloquist Evan Mwangi, intellectual eunuchs teaching in American universities built with slave sweat and proceeds from genocides. 

We welcome Kithaka wa Mberia’s experiments that steer Swahili poetry from the shackles of suffocating Arabocentric traditions. John Habwe has made a similar attempt in his literary criticism, but only with one-off short critiques of the likes of Muyaka. To be effective, the rebellion needs to be sustained. 

Sadly, if we applied a strictly anti-slavery approach to East African literature, much of Kiswahili writing and its criticism would be found to be so retrogressive it would all be thrown into the Indian Ocean to rot at the bottom of Bahari Hindi.


The writer teaches literature in the US