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Prof. Ebrahim Hussein—poet, playwright, author—is a powerful teller of Tanzania’s and Africa’s story, a relentless chronicler of the African post-independence condition and a towering figure of the arts and literature in East and Central Africa. His works—Kinjekitile (1965) in particular—are studied across the region by university students and are set texts for high school students studying Kiswahili. His plays Mashetani (1971) and Jogoo Kijijini (1976) are also famous across East Africa. The Anthology of the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize 2014–2020 is a collection of poems submitted towards the award of the prize that bears the professor’s name in 2014, 2015/6, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Kinjekitile tells the story of the defining Maji Maji uprising against the Germans in Tanzania between 1905 and 1907. It uses the African voice and perspective of the leader of the uprising, Kinjekitile Ngwale, to reconstruct the epic struggle between the coloniser and the colonised in Tanzania that delineated the contours of Tanzanian nationhood and spoke to similar struggles across Africa. A student of Hussein’s explained: “We found Kinjekitile far more accessible than Mashetani … but Prof Hussein was unapologetic—in that way he resembles Wole Soyinka in attitude—it was up to you to travel the journey of knowledge and enlightenment with him. If you didn’t understand him that was up to you.”

Students of Hussein are energised just hearing that an article is being written about him. The impact he has had on those he taught is palpable whether one speaks to Tanzanians, Kenyans or other students that he taught. “Kinjekitile is a profound, biting and rich exploration of the process of African freedom from colonialism”, one of his students from the 1980s explained, “Mashetani is a deeper and more sophisticated critique of Ujamaa and Mwalimu Nyerere’s government… Prof Hussein taught me how the mechanics of Kiswahili provides enlightenment for Africans seeking to understand themselves. Intellectually Hussein is a person of rare and great depth who is not limited to a narrow field but would have something wise to say if you asked him about politics or nuclear physics.”

Ironically, despite being most likely the world’s most influential thinker and author in the Kiswahili language, Prof. Hussein, remains largely unknown outside the vibrant and growing ecosystem of Kiswahili speakers—because he writes in Kiswahili. Unlike others, however, Prof. Hussein has never engaged in advocacy about the use of language and accessibility. Implicit in his life and politics—for lack of a better term—is the centrality of African culture and thought in everything he does. The use of Kiswahili for Hussein is as close as one gets to manifest truth.  Debate is unnecessary for, in life, Kiswahili’s dominance in the most enduring narratives of the African reality is unquestioned and, with the passage of time, this has become even more true. Hussein’s notable fellow writers in their African tongues include Ngugi wa Thiong’o, from Kenya (1938- ), who writes in Gikuyu, Peninah Muhando, from Tanzania (1943- ), who writes in Kiswahili as did the late Shabaan Robert from Tanzania (1909-1962), Euphrase Kezilahabi (1944–2020), also from Tanzania, Ben R. Mtobwa, from Tanzania (1958–2008), and Kenya’s Ken Walibora (1965-2020). Except for Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has been based in the US for decades, the rest of this accomplished community is largely unknown outside East and Central Africa.

Kenyan Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha—former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Egerton University, former executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, currently chair of the Commission for University Education in Kenya, an educationalist, playwright, Kiswahili scholar and contemporary of Professor Hussein, explained: “Hussein is a profound creator of knowledge in the Kiswahili language whose contribution to literally discourse has helped Kiswahili penetrate the politics realm across the African continent.” Prof. Chacha fondly remembered the time in the 1980s when they almost succeeded in getting Prof. Hussein to spend time teaching in Kenya, something the academic bureaucracy unfortunately moved too slowly to make possible. Hussein was, however, able to spend some time in Kenya with students at Kenyatta University who have strong memories of him to this day.

Kiswahili has always lent a unique power to Prof. Hussein’s work for he writes in the tongue of those who live the lives he describes. The Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize honours Prof. Hussein and the language whose authenticity and immediacy he has implicitly championed all of his life. For hundreds of years Kiswahili was considered a mongrel language —a mixture of Bantu languages and Arabic—and its speakers similarly a hybrid nation produced of Bantu and Arab blood. This early fake news has been debunked comprehensively and the Swahili nation is today acknowledged as one of the East Coast of Africa’s oldest people, cultures and language.

Kiswahili has always lent a unique power to Prof. Hussein’s work for he writes in the tongue of those who live the lives he describes.

So, the true richness in the latest anthology rests in the fact that it publishes the original Kiswahili poems alongside their English translations. Kiswahili allows the most painful subjects to be handled respectfully and with an African nuance, unavailable in English, and with the kind of ease the cross-section of poets achieve. They tackle everything from the challenges of leadership in Africa to paedophilia, rape, female genital mutilation and other anxieties and complexities of rapidly changing societies.

Most of the poets in the anthology are men but women provide the most touching and interesting works. Their poems are powerful, personal, immediate and handle the most uncomfortable subjects. The themes are ones that speak to those that have preoccupied Prof. Hussein all his artistic life, from African culture to nationhood and leadership. But it is when they explore the issues only women have to contend with as they hold communities together that their art is most compelling in the anthology. Their every day struggles are society’s most enduring challenges. In my opinion they make for the most powerful poems in the anthology. It would be most interesting if the publishers selected poems only from the women who have ever submitted their work for the prize.

Kiswahili is now Africa’s most powerful indigenous language. It is spoken as far north as Oman and as far south as South Africa where the language was approved to be taught in schools in 2018. Kiswahili is a national language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique and South Sudan. In 2019, Kiswahili was designated an official working language in all of the 16 member states of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). It is also an official language of the African Union.

It would be most interesting if the publishers selected poems only from the women who have ever submitted their work for the prize.

As I have observed above, Prof. Hussein is a major literary figure in Tanzania and the East African region and is now the most significant figure writing in Kiswahili globally. He speaks rarely and is known most for his plays and books published in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, it would seem that one of his last appearances in public was to launch the poetry prize named in his honour after which he has rarely been seen. Interestingly, he is actually best known and studied in the region as one of the founders of African experimental theatre. While his reputation as a dramatist overtakes his renown as a seminal theoretician and observer of the African condition, this has changed considerably over the last two decades. Hussein’s PhD dissertation completed at East Berlin’s Humboldt University in 1973 was titled: “On the development of theatre in East Africa”.

His works explore the major political themes of the age and while clearly a committed Pan-Africanist, his most political work—Jogoo Kijijini (1976)—was understood to express disappointment with Tanzania’s defining Ujamaa policy. Hussein has incessantly surveyed refrains of Africa’s post-independence situation, nationhood and the resilience of colonial patterns of political and economic organisation after independence from colonial rule. Ironically, he met Canadian filmmaker Gerald Belkin (1940-2012) when the latter was himself immersed in Ujamaa, studying African socialism in the rural villages of the Tanzanian countryside in the 1960s. The bond the two forged saw Belkin bequeath seed capital of US$57,000 that became his way of honouring his friend and, ultimately, the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize. The prize and the organisation around it were supported by the Gatsby Trust, now the Tanzania Growth Trust, among others. Hussein also helped teach Belkin Kiswahili, first when Hussein was still based in Berlin but later when he joined Belkin and his wife Paule in Ngamu Village, Singida Region. The story of how the award brought together organisations and individuals committed to poetry, to Kiswahili and to honouring Prof. Hussein is thus far unheralded but it is noteworthy that no other such prize exists in the entire region.

Prof. Hussein is a major literary figure in Tanzania and the East African region and is now the most significant figure writing in Kiswahili globally.

It is uncommon to see collections of poetry published in Africa featuring not notable authors but ordinary citizen poets. The book is a great achievement for Prof. Hussein in the creativity it has inspired through the prize named after him in Tanzania. What is compelling about these collections of poems from the competition named after him are the bios of all the poets. Among them are many teachers but also academics, drivers, miners and others—ordinary Tanzanians with poetry in them that they have shared through this prize. The disproportionate number of teachers is fascinating in and of itself. I cannot pretend to even have an elementary explanation for this; only to observe how interesting it is. Still, locals explain that as part of Tanzania’s founding father Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa policy of using Kiswahili for nation-building, Tanzanians attending national schools study in Kiswahili from pre-school until the final exam before graduating to high school. In high school they are subsequently taught in English. Kiswahili is now a global language but nowhere in the world is it spoken better and studied more intensely than in Tanzania. Few countries can produce such a large and totally organic cohort of citizen poets in Kiswahili as Tanzania has.

Tanzania is also home to the Bagamoyo school and tradition in the performing arts. The country’s top dramatists and poets therefore have a range of indigenous avenues for expression not available in many other countries. Taasisi ya Saana na Utamaduni Bagamoyo (TaSuBa) or the Institute for Arts and Culture Bagamoyo—formerly the Bagamoyo College of the Arts—is the only dedicated institution of its kind in the region and serves students and practitioners from all countries in the region.

At the end of this work, I was left wondering: What’s next? What’s the plan for the prize, the poets and their impressive work?