The last time I heard from Ali Zaidi was May 22nd this year in a message that blipped out from a long stretch of silence.
I sent an email in reply, I texted, I called. There was no response.
I had spent nearly a week in northern Kenya, and the poor connections prevented me from checking my mail. The events of 21st May had passed me by. A source I was due to interview in Turkana had abruptly travelled to Uganda and so in a hurry, I had caught a plane from Lodwar and flown to Eldoret to cut the 6 to 7 hour journey down to 30 minutes so that I could arrive overland in Soroti in Uganda, where he was, before nightfall. Right on the tarmac of Eldoret airport, with reliable connection back on, the news jolted me.
I went numb. I tried calling several people. The messages kept rushing in. The drive from the airport to Eldoret town itself seemed surreal.
An email sent the day before popped up. It read:
“David, sorry to have missed you. Listen, we want to put together a tribute next week. Care to do something?
He was so much fun.”
The emailer was Ali Zaidi. And that email was the first communication we had had in ages. It was also the last time I heard from him. His “sorry to have missed you” was from the fact that the week before, I had passed by the Nation Centre, where Ali worked, and been told that he had stepped out briefly. The “tribute” that Ali was referring to was what he was putting together for The EastAfrican following the untimely death of Kenyan writer BinyavangaWainaina, with whom he had a long and close connection.
Circumstances play a sadistic hand. The next email I got from Nairobi was nearly four months later. It was a request to write about my memories of Ali Zaidi, who had passed away a few days earlier. Two obituaries in a year of people I knew left me crushed.
I had written for The EastAfrican newspaper since 1999 but I only got to know Ali Zaidi in 2008. I had spent that decade in Kampala, so the occasional walk-ins into the Nation Centre were hurried, impersonal, encounters. But in 2008, my life had changed. Constant conflict with the Ugandan government over my writing made my career at the paper untenable. So I became a full-time writer, something I had always wanted. And in 2008, Nairobi was where actual writing was taking place. After I met Binyavanga and Billy Kahora in Kampala in March of that year, I moved to Nairobi in August.
Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to. This time, the formality of him being my boss was gone, and we could talk openly.
The 18th birthday of his son Hassan provided the occasion at which I formally met Ali Zaidi’s circle. It was a Saturday, a day that also coincided with the opening of the KwaniLitfest of that year. New and a guest of Kwani, I spent that weekend driving around Nairobi in cabs with Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of the literary journal.
Kwani had organised a discussion on writing for magazines, which was being held at the Karen Blixen Museum in Karen, with Binyavanga and Yvonne Owuor sharing the stage. It was an interesting, writerly talk, but Ali had personally called and invited me to his house and I was getting anxious to leave.
Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was an editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to.
We arrived at Ali’s well after 2 o’clock that afternoon. New in Nairobi, I could not believe how cold it was at that hour, right on the equator! But that had been my experience during my early days in Nairobi; cold all the time, and because of cold, also constantly hungry. My hosts did not seem too keen on food themselves, and I wondered about their lives, and just what it was I had stepped into.
Ali’s house in Loresho was not what I had expected it to be. It was also unsurprising that it was what it was. Informal, comfortably disarrayed, welcoming, unintimidating. Loresho was a gated estate far from the centre of the city, nestled in a thickly wooded “leafy” suburb.
It seemed that everybody was there. I recognised Lynn MuthoniWanyeki from her mugshot in The EastAfrican. A young, energetically bouncing writer (he wore his credentials too well) introduced himself as Parselelo Ole Kantai. Ali emerged from his house, and amidst the crowd (for it was a packed compound, very wide, with wood and stone sculptures all over), he spotted me and Binyavanga coming in. He stood waiting for us to approach. “David,” he said, smiling, warmly. He took my hand and led me indoors. “Let me feed you.” At last. Someone in Nairobi understood that people needed to eat.
But it was the sheer number of people in Ali Zaidi’s house that occupied my mind. From the sound of them (all eloquent), and the look of them (the tasteful but crumpled look of arty sorts) you could tell who the writer was, the filmmaker, the musician, the activist. Had he taken each one of them by the hand and said “let me feed you”?
Ali’s warmth spoke volumes about who he was. Firstly, his was a house full of children. And then books, and artwork enough to qualify as a museum. We went past the living room, and inside the kitchen, he introduced his children. There, where I was to often find him, was Hassan, marinating piles of meat. We went past him to more introductions – Franco, Emma, Tara (Ali’s children) to the backyard so I could see his wife Irene’s big marble sculpture, a work in progress.
Back to the front garden, which was enormous and punctuated with Irene’s sculptures, there were more introductions, hands to grip, names to exchange: Betty Muragori (soon to be Sitawa Namwalie who invited me to the opening of her poetry show, CutoffMyTongue), Wanyeki, Rasna Warah, Shalini Gidoomal. I forget the rest. The talk was a high, theory-studded tenor. You turned here and caught a whiff of postmodernist extrapolations that side someone in deconstructionist pique, and over there, postcolonial postulation. People held court, drew a circle, talked, then dispersed, sat by the fire, re-congregated around another forth-holder, filled glasses, opened another bottle.
As I was quickly learning, in that circle, you did not simply say things. There had to be an intellectual filter, an optic, a politics via which you saw the world. It was like living inside the pages of The New Yorker, or the Times Literary Supplement, or the London Review of Books. Books, titles, verses, quotes and much else flew about to emphasise a point, a name invoked to shore up a position, wedge in a definition.
And there was Ali Zaidi, walking in, resting on an elbow, listening, gathering a line, looking over shoulders, recharging an empty glass, then pulling over someone who might inject a new idea, an anecdote, drawing the embers out of an overcharged guest, keeping the fires burning. I thought of Anna Scherer in the opening scenes of War and Peace. Had the Tolstoyan character been less pushy and read Marx (a century before her time, admittedly but it might have saved the characters in that book!), her name would have been Ali Zaidi.
What he might have meant when he took my hand, might as well have been “let me seed you”.
As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani? went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.
I don’t remember at what point Binyavanga left the party (he forgot his jacket there that evening, I recollect), so I caught a ride back to where I was staying with Parselelo well after 1 on Sunday morning.
To start life in Nairobi, I had to get pragmatic. I had shut down my workshop in Kampala, so I was not making anything to sell to pay the rent. During the week, I rung Ali up. He suggested lunch at Riviera Bar and Restaurant, a short walk from the Nation Centre. As I was to find out, Ali’s haunts were a circle of restaurants minutes from the Nation Centre, which allowed him to nip out briefly and then return to his desk.
I needed to write more regularly, I told him. Nairobi is expensive, I said. That year, I had also strayed into literary infamy and needed to explain myself.
As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani?went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.
He chuckled. He may have intuited that already. It was lunch but all he had was a Spanish omelette. I told him I had some ideas about art and literary criticism. “Send in some stuff and let’s see,” he said, instantly looking worried. Perennial bet-hedgers, editors, I always found, reacted to writing proposals with alarm where writers expect gushing enthusiasm.
The closing months of 2008 were fascinating. What started as a weekly comment on this and that literary tradition and heritage turned into a ping-pong exchange of comments and counter-arguments with other literary commentators in Nairobi. We had a lovely debate about literature and history in the pages of The East African. It was the most engrossing bout of newspapering I can recollect.
Over the next few years, I was to see Ali in a way that had not been possible from a distance.
There was his personal/intellectual background and also the context in which it fit. For decades, to be an editor in Nairobi was to have occupied a serious position via which power and public life were mediated. From descriptions, one could hazard that the template may have been set as far back as 1902 when A.M. Jeevanjee hired the British editor W.H Tiller to man the African Standard (later bought by British interest and renamed East African Standard) as founding editor.
By many accounts a grasping man, W.H. Tiller was said to have run the place in the pugnacious mould that was to characterise the job thereafter. Post-independence Kenya was enlivened by a procession of print media editors whose reputations remain in the same ring as generals, CEOs and politicians: John Bierman, Hillary Ng’weno, Boaz Omari, George Githii, John McHaffie, Philip Ochieng, Joe Rodriguez, Gerry Loughran, Joseph Odindo, Peter Mwaura, George Mbugguss, Joe Kadhi. Dramas and epochs attach to each with the swing of Kenyan and East African politics.
Ali Zaidi brought his intellect and social gift to the role. He ran a newspaper whose reputation was without equal in East Africa and beyond. By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.
Ali Zaidi was born Aligarh in India and came to Kenya in the early years of President Daniel arap Moi’s rule. He did some teaching before finding his calling as an editor. He told me he could no longer live in India after witnessing the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. He had read economics at Master’s degree level at Delhi University.
I first heard the name Ali Zaidi when I joined The EastAfrican newspaper in 1999, still only 23 and not yet graduated from university. Ali likes this. Ali does not like that. He was not the managing editor. That was Joseph Odindo. But he was that éminence grise that all newspapers must have – that one in-house intellectual and grammarian commanding a battery of section editors. I saw him once in those early years, when I visited Nairobi in 2002, and not again till 2008.
Given its structure, and as a weekly, TheEastAfrican’s reporters were required to do hard news. What I really paid attention to was art and literature. It was how I came to the attention of Ali Zaidi.
By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.
He was not too enthusiastic about what I had to say about art and books. He must have thought me a novice all over the place with ideas. Whatever reviews I wrote were whittled down to reporterial bare bones. He also thought I wrote with too much flourish. “Just go down to town,” was his way of saying write simply. I was not too enamoured by him either. I had called him a philistine – not directly, but in words that amounted to the same. It took me a while to understand that the arts section mattered a lot to Ali.
Once settled in Nairobi, the bulk of my meetings with Ali consisted of the lunches at restaurants within walking distance of the Nation Centre. These provided a chance to talk. 2008 was the year of financial collapse. Capitalism, as we had come to know it, had ended. People were starting to talk about Marx again.
“You have not read Marx,” he stated.
“You have read of Marx,” he modulated the charge.
I detailed to him what I had read of Marx. When I mentioned that I planned to tackle the Grundrisse, he scowled.
“Stop telling lies. Read Marx.”
His vehemence gave me pause to reflect. It was not like Ali to insist so harshly. But it was then that I began to sense where his intellectual locus sat. I understood that when he said “you have not read Marx,” he meant I was not hewing to the Marxist school he was beholden to, the very typically Marxist internecine conflict to have. But what might that be? The answer was not a difficult one. He was a Walter Benjamin Marxist. (To boot, he was even a spitting image of the great German philosopher-martyr.)
I was hence starting from the beginning, fleshing out what it was that propelled the man. To begin with, the thorough-going, intellectual coherence of historical materialism always provided penetrative insight. It provided a structure of not only thought but also action that could have tremendous impact. Because it was critical, being as it were, on the offensive against an exploitative class, Marxism did not have to play hide-and-seek with history. Coming up with dodgy arguments to support personal wealth was the territory of liberal and neoliberal apologists, such as Maynard Keynes and his successors, Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek.
I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.
But what was it about Walter Benjamin that appealed to Ali and how might it have shaped how he saw the world?
The Jewish philosopher, whose death on the Spanish border when he was fleeing Nazis in 1939 remains a mystery and continues to divide Spain, had gone longer distances than most Marxists of his times in postulating a critical theory. Walter Benjamin’s idea of history, his “angel of history” (after buying the painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus) is his most powerful idea. The eponymous angel in the painting, Walter Benjamin wrote, “would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed”.
This insight into history was, to say the least, ultra-revolutionary. What it said, and how it has variously been interpreted, is that the past (lost causes) is not dead (defeated) as long as there are people still willing to fight for it. It is the closest one can come to resurrecting the dead, this idea of picking up the cause they died for and then refighting it. The catchy formulation being that the fate of the past lies in the hands of the present. In other words, the past is not dead as long as the living continue to believe in its ideas.
I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.
There was also his critical art theory: Walter Benjamin’s was a fundamental questioning of the concept of art, stripping it down to a matter of aesthetic, from which point open-ended questions become possible: as “Art”, it is an absolute in itself; but as “aesthetic”, it is the territory of the subjective, a thing you can negotiate with. An immensely liberating direction to take, for then, totalities, or what Ali liked to term “absolutes”, rapidly came unstuck. For the work of art, as Walter Benjamin argued, is tied to the question of tradition, what a people think of the object. What had been pure creativity in one epoch had in another age been an object of veneration, of spiritual significance; what had for one people been just a utilitarian, functional object becomes for another a work of art. Created objects are armed and disarmed as art, depending on the politics of a time. For instance, graffiti would in the 1990s be a nuisance scarring cityscapes. In a period of insurrection against the “one percent”, Banksy would be viewed as a great artist.
The work of art becomes tied to other larger aspects external to the object of art, making the metamorphosis from the spiritual stage to the political and the economic. Art in the industrial age hence takes on a new, urgent significance. It becomes the keeper of the forces of a spiritualism exiled from human relationships by the forces of production.
The work of art becomes the only safe place in which freedom, equality, community, and kindness will not jeopardise the profit motive of capitalism. For if these ideas are left within human society, they will inspire resistance against the exploiting class. The work of art begins to command vast sums of money because they are indeed storing the very lifeblood of human society. It might seem as though the capitalist patrons of art are missing the warmth of community they have destroyed. It is telling that global corporations give so much money to museums, not so much as a back-handed apology as ensuring that what is imprisoned in art stays there, to be viewed rather than lived.
According to this line of argument, the work of art is then slightly off-centre to the objet d’art. A sculpted stone is a stone with a shape. It will only become art when we will it to be art. That “will” comes from our political positioning, for it is the belief of our society, as well as the class we belong to, that tells us how to feel. Hence, art is not an intrinsic property of the object. All value is external to the object.
Ali Zaidi spoke often of Walter Benjamin’s examination of the work of art at the dawn of the modern era, the “mechanical reproduction of the work of art”, stating that a photograph of a famous work of art was no less valuable than the original itself. This was Walter Benjamin’s argument. An argument dangerous to a rising age of fascist nativism for which value must be intrinsic and inseparably innate to the volk. (Ali, who moved to Africa and married an African, an act that was anathema within the migrant Asian community, did not see race or tribe or class. His Marxism was a lived idea.) If all interpretations art, history, culture are political, then is it not hogwash to claim any one culture as supreme?
Ali would say things like “the destruction of the material cultures of African societies was central to the colonial enterprise”, a typically Marxist statement to make. But it swept away rhetorical verbiage and overheated, superficialities about identity. It went to the gist of history itself, that the struggle was not of “civilization” but of baser intent, for control of material resources, to put it crudely.
As I saw it, that was the point at which Ali operated his politics, as it were. It also made him a stranger to an age in which identity politics characterised everything. As far as I can remember, he had little to say about post-war philosophical politics and I tried unsuccessfully to get him to discuss Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
The irony was that the intellectual set that gathered around Ali was deeply steeped in the postmodern identity politics spawned by their ideas. Most spouted it second-hand without knowledge of where it emanated from, the free-for-all, anything-goes “deconstruction” tool of reading that Derrida inflicted upon intellect.
I never came to know Ali’s views on postmodernism. Perhaps others did. But it was not a topic he encouraged whenever I brought it up. At any rate, extend the ideas of Walter Benjamin two or three decades into the 21st century and they likely end up there.
He did not set out to influence anyone. That would have been not only crude but disingenuous. They would all have dropped him for that. It is not that he was too clever for that. Rather, Ali was genuine.
He was addicted to people. I could see that. He could not get through an evening without the company of at least half a dozen people. People were his element. He was happiest in large groups.
I’d like to think he found a home in East Africa. He believed in things, and he went out of his way to make it possible for creative, earnest and driven intellectuals to have a say. We appreciated that deeply.
He seemed happy. He often said: “In Africa, people accept you as long as they sense that you are genuine. Elsewhere, they see your face, your religion, and shoo you away.”
The Return of the Repressed: Religion in the Fictions of Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, although from two different faith traditions, use fiction as a conduit to re-affirm these faith traditions, one Muslim, and the other Christian.
There seems to be a resurgence of the kind of genre in the contemporary world where religion, initially thought to be on the wane, is actually reasserting itself in various ways. One of the most conspicuous voices, for example, in contemporary America, is Marilynne Robinson, whose works are followed with keen interest. We however are sceptical that such themes can sustain writers in the long run, and will label them as genre writers. This seems to us as the return of the repressed, in the classical Freudian sense, in the sense that themes that were becoming increasingly repressed in secular societies are finding their way back into the public consciousness through the works of gifted contemporary novelists.
Literature is often a mirror of the period in which a work of art has been created. It is for this reason that we often frame literary texts within the time period that the texts are created. It is this assumption that we neatly categorise within the historical period that they were created. It is for this reason that we describe fictions as say, Victorian, Industrial Revolution, Edwardian, Modernist, and so on. This is particularly true of English literature. Other literary traditions have different ways of categorising literary productions. For example, postcolonial literatures are often categorised on the basis of the trauma of colonialism: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Literatures of the Islamic Middle East have added categories such as post-Ottoman, pre-revolution, revolutionary, apart from the classical jahiliyya and post-jahiliyya periods.
An implicit but unspoken assumption in all these categorisations is that at a deep level, these literatures are underpinned by a certain spirituality, be this Christian, Islamic or Hindu. Behind this assumption is the given that the earliest forms of literary production were saturated with the mystery surrounding creation, institution building and the mores of society. These mysteries gave rise to the earliest forms of literature and mythology. Humans created stories to explain to themselves the incomprehensible and these stories at a certain point became the basis of religious beliefs and philosophical speculation. Without these stories, there would neither have been religious belief, philosophy nor science. The unstructured reality began to take shape only when mythology was created. The gods and goddesses that we created ourselves and then began to worship, were a step towards self-realisation. The earliest gods and goddesses had the same flaws as us human beings, they were assailed by the same weaknesses that we found in ourselves, and they became a sure mirror of the human person, with all his/her frailties. Later, the heroes, during the heroic age, again reflected our own wishful thinking.
With the rise of critical philosophy and the scientific method, there was no attempt to abandon the mythic in human history. It was assumed that, although now we started to think in more abstract terms, not everyone was capable of benefitting from this new worldview. It was taken as a given that, in human societies, there will be those among us who will be unable to make the mental leap from the concrete to the abstract, and for this reason, it was necessary to defend mythology as part of human heritage, a part that has its significance in transmitting ethic and moral values from one generation to the next. As such, discussions of such human values as virtue, justice, friendship, could only be transmitted through the silly stories of mythology. This is well articulated by Luc Brisson in How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical interpretation and Classical Mythology. This was ol’ time religion.
The Bible, the Qur’an and the Vedas brought new kinds of stories, whose underpinning was the construction of new moral orders. The new texts brought in their wake the new religions of Islam and Christianity, but Hinduism, Shintoism and Traditional African and Amerindian religions are still remnants of the primeval spiritual order. There has always been what the British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has called the Persistence of Faith throughout human history, to the present.
In the Western intellectual tradition, the Renaissance is hailed as a New Era, but in fact, it was no more than an attempt to reclaim through the back door the pagan spirituality deriving from Classical and Late Antiquity. The intellectuals of the period, be they artists, creative writers or philosophers, were weary of the stranglehold of Christianity on all aspects of society, and sought to liberate themselves from this straight-jacket. Other, non-Western, societies did the same by creating a discourse counter to that of the religious. That is how the Arabian Nights were born, from ancient India all the way to what is today the Middle East. This was something like a literary carnival, where imagination was allowed to run wild outside the orbit of religion. These were all attempts at circumventing the official discourse dominated by men of religion and sanctioned by the rulers. Contemporary World Literature is incomprehensible without this mythological, spiritual background, because whether we speak of Greek/Roman mythology, African, Hindu or Japanese or Amerindian mythologies, the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, these are part of the collective unconscious, and form an important part of the inter-textuality necessary to self-referentiality.
Creative writers have for centuries situated themselves within particular spiritual traditions while creating works of art. This is taken for granted in the West. The medieval period in the West is considered collective because all European societies, without a single exception, went through the long experience of Christianity, from the tenth century all the way to the early twentieth century, with intermission for the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Although writers are situated within particularistic traditions, some, because of their intellectual versatility, have dipped into traditions that are not primarily their own, and claimed them for themselves by taking allusions from those external traditions. For example, Dante borrowed from the story of the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad to Heaven as recounted in the Hadith of the Prophet to construct his Divine Comedy. Or, to take a more contemporary figure, in his novel Spider’s House, Paul Bowles uses the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s anecdote about his being protected from his enemies by hiding in a cave on his way into exile in Medina. Spiders form a protective wall with their web which stops his enemies from pursuing him further. Or Salman Rushdie’s constant allusions to Hindu mythology in Midnight’s Children.
This cross-cultural enrichment does not necessarily mean that writers do not situate themselves solidly within their religious traditions. Indeed they do.
The two writers that we have chosen, Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese novelist currently based in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, are examples of novelists who still stick to religion as their default mode of literary exposition. Both use fiction to advance their sectarian viewpoints without being offensive to secularists or the non-religious in general.
Leila Aboulela’s spirited spiritual damage control
Leila Aboulela, throughout most of her fictions, novels and short stories, has tried to defend Islam as a spiritual religion, and not a political religion. That she should hold such a position is evident from her own background as a Sudanese. Mystical Islam, with its headquarters at Omdurman, is very much part of the Sudanese landscape. In fact, modern Sudan is dated at the point the Sudanese resisted British colonial encroachment under Lord Gordon Kitchener in the nineteenth century. Led by Muhammad al-Mahdi, Restorer of the Faith, the Sudanese rallied under his mystical brotherhood to push the British out, resulting in the death of Gordon. This millenarianism galvanized the Sudanese into a national consciousness embedded in Islam. Like much of West Africa, society in the Sudan is organised partly around belonging to a brotherhood. The brotherhoods double as communities of self-help and also as spiritual sanctuaries complete with an organisational structure. The main activities of these Sufi brotherhoods are centred on remembering Allah and his ubiquitous presence in the thoughts and actions of individuals.
It is important to stress that Sufi religiosity is based on individual accountability that is ultimately anchored in internal purification as prioritised before the practice of ritual. It tends to de-emphasise the legalistic aspects of the faith, unlike for the Salafis, for example, who give importance to the minutiae of ritual practice. This legalistic emphasis on the part of the Salafis pits them against the purely spiritual emphasis of the mystics.
Leila Aboulela, in her fictions, is at pains to point out that what is done in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, and that those who are prone to violence only do so after they have politicised Islam by demanding, for example, the establishment of an Islamic state, the Khilafah, or Islamic Caliphate. Sufi immersion in God-consciousness is considered a form of escapism from the challenging political and economic realities of the Islamic world. On their part, the Sufis accuse the Salafis of sanctimonious ostentatiousness and consider themselves to be the real upholders of the prophetic message of peace and love, without at the same time holding to the highest standards set by the Prophet himself.
On reading Aboulela’s fiction, one is left with the impression that she tries to compress the whole Islamic ethos and practice within her short fiction, where readers will not only enjoy the storyline, but at the same time gradually learn what the “real” Islam or Islamic practice is. In reading her fiction, we are taken through all the essential, but simple Islamic practices and beliefs without seeming to be coerced. The message is that Islam is such a practical and simple faith that it cannot be distorted or abused without exposing those who want to put the religion to their own nefarious uses. For example, Dr Nizar Fareed, a Salafi character in The Translator, is portrayed as well-intentioned but indoctrinated by rigid Salafi interpretations of the scripture and the practice of the Prophet. He emerges as inflexible, opinionated and self-righteous. He appears as some kind of cardboard character, uncritical and gullible, although kind and intelligent.
Leila Aboulela encapsulates the whole gamut of Islamic practice and belief in that short novel, The Translator. For example, she describes the cornerstone of Islamic belief as the absolute surrender to Allah in all one’s actions, and believing that He is the one who proposes and disposes of the believers’ every action. They are helpless before His immense omnipotence. Although we may plan our actions, we must never lose sight of the fact that everything is preordained, and we should not be overly disappointed when things do not go our way. God consciousness entails our planning for the future, but not being deluded into believing that things will always go the way we have planned. This is the classical tawheed position, where, tawakkul, or total surrender to the will of God is the pure faith. Tawheed and tawakkul are the twin pillars on the road to sainthood. The fragility of human life makes it necessary for humans to acknowledge the presence of a force mightier than any human society can command. In fact, Sammar, the main protagonist in The Translator, is sustained in her grief by her total surrender to the will of Allah. Her strong faith sees her through unimaginable grief after the loss of her young doctor-husband in a tragic road accident in Aberdeen, Scotland, far from home, where she finds succour and help from absolute strangers whom she only knows through shared faith and belief in Islam. They take over the funeral arrangements, the washing of the body and its transportation to Khartoum for burial, without having known the deceased or the widow. They answer the call of Islam to help one another in a time of need, the true implementation of Islamic teachings. In a poignant scene, Aboulela, using Sammar as her mouthpiece, describes this communal involvement during the arrangements immediately after the death of her husband:
A whole week passed before she got him under the African soil. It had taken that long to arrange everything through the embassy in London: the quarantine, the flight. People helped her, took over. Strangers, women whom she kept calling by the wrong names, filled the flat, cooked for her and each other, watched the ever–wondering child so she could cry. They prayed, recited the Qur’an, spent the night on the couch and on the floor. They did not leave her alone, abandoned. She went between them dazed, thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were stronger than her, more giving than her, though she thought of herself as more educated, better dressed.
Islamic teachings are inserted in a subtle way at appropriate places to create the desired effect. The Hadith of the Prophet are summarised and included as explanatory tropes to affirm Islamic teachings. For example, all the major issues at the core of Islam like tawheed, qadar, or predestination, prayers, charity, the apportionment of inheritance to both male and female inheritors, the etiquette of grieving for widows, are highlighted. These issues are introduced seamlessly without appearing as sermonising. As an illustration, Sammar tries to convince Rae, her new-found love, to recite the declaration of the intention to embrace Islam. She notes the simplicity of the creed itself by getting Yasmin, Sammar’s friend, to say that the creed has sometimes been abused or taken lightly, as some kind of fig leaf to mask relationships between a Muslim and a non-Muslim:
‘I have seen the kind of Scottish men who marry Muslim girls.’ Yasmin went on, ‘The typical scenario: he is with an oil company sent to Malaysia or Singapore; she is this cute little thing in a mini-skirt who’s out with him every night. Come marriage time, it’s by the way I’m Muslim and my parents will not let you marry me until you convert. And how do I convert my darling, I love you, I can’t live without you? Oh, it’s just a few words you have to say. Just say the Shahadah, it’s just a few words. I bear witness there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messanger of Allah. End of story. They get married, and she might as the years go by pray and fast or she might not, but it has nothing to do with him. Everything in his life is just the same as it was before.’
On Tawakkul and destiny, Aboulela is also discreet in her explanation:
Her fate was etched out by a law that gave her a British passport, a point in time when the demand for people to translate Arabic into English was bigger than the supply. ‘No,’ she reminded herself, ‘that is not the real truth. My fate is etched out by Allah Almighty, if and who I will marry, what I eat, the work I find, my health, the day I will die are as He alone wants them to be.’ To think otherwise was to slip down, to feel the world narrowing, dreary and tight.
Further on in the novel, Sammar ascribes her steadfastness and hope to spiritual underpinnings. Her spirituality acts as a shield that protects her from hopelessness and resignation: “She had been protected from all the extremes. Pills, break-down, attempts at suicide. A barrier was put between her and things like that, the balance that Rae [her love] admired”.
Leila Aboulela compares the real rational position of Islam, based on transcendence and the rationalism of the empiricist and positivists of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. In the words of Rae, who hovers between positivism and doubt,
‘In this society,‘ he said, ‘in this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. With exceptions and apart from those who are self-convinced atheists, the speculation is that God has put up this elaborate solar system and left it to run itself. It does not need Him to maintain it or sustain it in any way. Mankind is self-sufficient . . . ’
The rational and plausible Islamic belief system is validated by the, until then, non-Muslim Rae. Having read Islamic religious and other literature, he is gradually won over by this rationality. But he validates Islamic tenets through a third party, Rae’s uncle who “went native” or in Tudor parlance, “turned Turk”. He quotes from Uncle David’s epistolary confession:
David never of course said that Islam was “better” than Christianity. He didn’t use that word. Instead he said things like it was a step on, in the way that Christianity followed Judaism. He said that the Prophet Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets that stretched from Adam, to Abraham through Moses and Jesus. They were all Muslims, Jesus was a Muslim, in a sense that he surrendered to God. This did not go down very well in the letter nor in the essay.
Leila Aboulela takes the opportunity in her fiction to also explain how the Sacred Hadith, or what are better known as Hadith Qudsi, the second most important source of authority after the Qur’an, came about, while dictating to Rae, who gave her the assignment:
She sat on the floor of the landing and read out, over the phone, the notes she had made from the book. ‘A definition given by the scholar al-Jurjani, “A Sacred Hadith is, as to its meaning, from Allah Almighty; as to the wording, it is from the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. It is that which Allah almighty has communicated to His Prophet through revelation or in dream and he, peace be upon him, has communicated it in his own words. Thus the Qur’an is superior to it because, besides being revealed, it is Allah’s wording.” In a definition given by a later scholar al-Qari, “ . . . Unlike the Holy Qur’an, Sacred Hadith are not acceptable for recitation in one’s prayers, they are not forbidden to be touched or read by one who is in a state of ritual impurity . . . and they are not characterized by the attribute of immutability”.
This is heavy stuff for the uninitiated, and requires extra work to understand this background, even for an average educated Muslim, let alone one who is completely unfamiliar with the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is the kind of intertextuality that is not easily accessible for western readers who mostly read texts from the Western intellectual tradition, and whose allusions are generally familiar. Postcolonial writers now demand that Western readers also exert themselves in order to benefit fully from their reading, just as non-Western readers have to immerse themselves in the Western intellectual tradition to fully enjoy literature emanating from the West. In a recent collection of essays, Can Non-Europeans Think? the Columbia University Iranian American scholar Hamid Dabashi decried the provincialism of Western intellectuals. He argues that rarely do Western intellectuals bother to educate themselves about the intellectual traditions of the “others”, although they will not shy away from making uninformed pronouncements about those societies that they know little about. He gave the example of Slavoj Zizek, who knows a lot about Marxism and the Western Intellectual tradition, but next to nothing about the Eastern ones. In his view, there is a lot of navel-gazing among them, unable to appreciate other traditions unless they are themselves area specialists churning out papers for policy think tanks, and regurgitating the same orientalist pieties.
Leila Aboulela assumes herself a conscientious and responsible Muslim, whose obligation it is to portray what she believes is the real image of Islam, untainted by its association with the Islamic lunatic fringe hell-bent on wreaking global terror, without any sectarian differentiation. It is through literature that she feels she can best serve her faith. She is conscious of the fact that as a liberal Muslim, she is under constant pressure, like all liberal Muslims to condemn acts of violence perpetrated in their name by their co-religionists. In a column in the British Guardian entitled Why Must Britain’s Young Muslims Live With Unjust Suspicion? she described the double jeopardy of these liberals:
The causes and solutions can be hotly debated but it makes little difference to the daily life of Muslims. Until this climate [of fear and suspicion] eases, the day-to-day anxiety, the feeling of being tainted, of being tested, will still be the same. Ironically, it is the liberal integrated Muslims who bear the brunt. On them lies the responsibility of explaining and apologising. If you live in the kind of ghetto where you never read newspapers, never make friends with non-Muslims, never participate in sports, you can feel safe and oblivious. Start to engage and you will immediately realise just how careful you need to be. Young British Muslims are being watched. This is not paranoia. This is just how things are after 9/11 and 7/7.
From the above it is clear that Leila Aboulela took it as her mission to explicate the tenets of Islam to a wider public as a contribution to mutual understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths and other worldviews. A hard sell this, the defence of Islamic values under the present climate of fear and suspicion. One may also wonder how much mileage she can extract from mining this theme, even under these trying circumstances.
Unlike in the fiction of other writers of Islamic faith, where Islam merely forms the background, as in Nuruddin Farah’s later fictions The Closed Sesame and Crossbones, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Leila Aboulela is deliberate in foregrounding Islamic belief system and practice. It is as if she was an author with an agenda, which she turns out to be in this particular fiction. In this regard, her creative work has more affinity with that of Marilynne Robinson who puts her creative energies to wearing her religion on her sleeve, as does Aboulela in The Translator.
The Christian fiction of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who died in December 2015, is a Kenyan novelist of British descent and a lay Protestant missionary. She came to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, fell in love with the country and in 1960 married Dr. Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a local doctor from the Luo tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, with whom she had four children. Over the years, she took all the necessary steps to become fully integrated into Kenyan society, and especially completely within the Luo culture; she learned the language to complete spoken and written fluency and accepted almost all aspects of Luo tradition, except those she deemed inimical to Christian values and virtues.
Macgoye is a well-informed and conscientious novelist, having graduated with a degree in English literature from the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and later earned a Masters from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her grasp of Kenyan political history, and the social changes that she has witnessed personally throughout her extended stay in Kenya, put her in the same intellectual league as the most famous Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In fact, Macgoye’s fiction covers the same terrain as that of Ngugi because they seem to have lived almost the same experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism, and their works are a mirror of contemporary history through their neo-realism.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye arrived in the country when she was barely in her mid-twenties, and lived the next sixty years mostly in Kenya, with a short interlude in Tanzania as the bookshop manager at the University of Dar es Salaam. During her long residence in Kenya, she witnessed almost all the major political events that shaped the nation: the Mau Mau insurgency, independence, the struggle to create a unified nation out of a welter of ethnicities, tribes, religions and political ideologies. As acute observers of the Kenyan political scene, both Ngugi and Macgoye write proletarian fictions populated by perplexed and dislocated rural masses and the lumpen proletariat who have washed up in the urban areas because of colonialism and post-independence mass migration.
Macgoye’s fiction is populated mostly by female characters, strong women who struggle against all odds. They are mostly uneducated but pick up street smarts as they go through life’s trajectory. Female characters like Paulina and Amina are portrayed as strong characters, Amina with her strong entrepreneurial spirit, and Paulina gradually asserting her individuality in the face of constricting tradition.
Perhaps the main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions. In fact, it appears that in the case of this particular novel, many aspects of Luo culture are held up to be antithetical to all that Christianity stands for. The novel critiques such time-honoured cultural practices as polygamy, levirate marriages, lavish and extravagant wake and funeral practices and the cultural sanctioning of domestic violence in the form of wife beating.
Although the Luo as an ethnic group is considered overwhelmingly Christian, this Christianity is more a veneer than actual substance. The Luo are portrayed as stuck in the cultural past more than many other ethnic and cultural groups. The Luo are held up and judged by the highest Christian practices and standards, and are ultimately found wanting. But in the tribal world of the Luo, cultural practices were considered more humane than the dictates or demands of Christianity. We see, for example, Paulina, the main protagonist in the novel, going through miscarriages, the harassment of being a childless woman in a society that believes in the strength of numbers, the grief of losing a child obtained outside the matrimonial bed, and the state of limbo that the husband keeps her in because, in Luo culture, once a woman is married, she is married for ever as her husband has a permanent claim on her, however cold the relationship throughout their lives. The husband is never sanctioned for shunning her, physically molesting her and completely neglecting her. Christian values are merely paid lip service. In fact, there is general apathy, if not outright cynicism, towards Christianity among the majority. Martin’s alienation from Christian practice is held up as the general religious malaise afflicting the new generations of post-independence Africans. The narrator notes of Martin that:
He did not regularly go to church any more, though he might go if there was a special speaker or if he felt particularly at odds with Paulina’s having sometimes to work on a Sunday. The climate had changed from the days when you used to say, ’I am a Christian but I am not yet saved.’ To praise the Lord no longer helped you to get a job, and though the top people attended places of worship in surprising numbers they were eager for a quick getaway. It was another way in which light was going out. People talked about religion on buses, in queues, in cafes you heard them talking, but often as though it was something dull, outside themselves.
The celebratory ambience in Luo mourning practices is brought into sharp relief by Macgoye. By letting a comment slip off the mouth of a Kikuyu, a people who are noted for their industriousness in wealth accumulation, the macabre Luo enthusiasm for partying on such occasions is described with a pithy comment from a shopkeeper. In the words of the narrator:
Kano had kept the old hedged homesteads more exactly than the other locations, and also a bigger share of the old plumed headdresses: teams of male dancers bedecked with feathers and bells and intricate chalk patterns were often to be seen going off to the funerals and other public occasions like the Kisumu Festival. Okeyo used to get excited, chattering and pointing till she restrained him, so that the kikuyu shopkeeper remarked somberly, ‘He is a real Luo: more keen on a funeral than anything else’.
Okeyo was the child that Paulina had begotten outside her marriage with Simeon, a clansman of Martin’s, and who was fatefully killed by a stray bullet during the funeral procession of the legendary Kenyan politician, assassinated in broad day light, in one of Nairobi’s busiest streets, on a July day in 1969.
As a counterfoil to Christianity and Christians, Islam and Muslims are portrayed in a less than flattering light through the characters of Amina and Fauzia; as either whores or parents pimping for their own children for survival and livelihood. Both Amina and Fauzia are held responsible for the loosening ties between the rural import, Paulina and her urbanised Martin. Both Amina and Fauzia come out, not only as femmes fatales, but also as some kind of mercenaries out to fleece Martin and lure him to the temptation of sin in the form of nice food, nice dresses and perfumes. Pauline was later to see with her own eyes what Nikos Kazantzakis described these nubile nymphs as: “This labyrinth of hesitation, this poison that tastes like honey…”. Pauline wanted to find out for herself what life for Martin was like in Amina’s grip:
Amina proved unexpectedly expert with powder and feeding bottle and soon afterwards approached the pastor about baptism for the child but bowed to the rule that since there was no Christian parent, Joyce must make her own profession when she could read and write. The baby made a good pretext for Pauline to come and see Amina from time to time. Little by little she built up a picture of a world quite remote from her own, a world of gay wrappers and jingling bracelets and perfumes and spicy dishes, where slim men with bony features came and went, for what purpose one was not quite aware, and of town houses where these urbane traditions from the coast somehow collected themselves despite the bare crumbling walls and the outlandish cold . . .
Swahili culture is taken as a synecdoche for Islam and all that it stands for, what are perceived as its negative influences among the relatively recent native converts to Christianity. Fauzia was later to be warned of the possibility that he, Martin, might take another wife, but of a different kind:
And so he told her that when he took a second wife she must be a Christian who would leave her hair unplaited and her ears without ornament, who would dig in the fields and plaster walls and leave her children fat and naked. But she only laughed and said she must enjoy herself a while longer.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye seems to believe her duty is not to be even-handed when she has to confront the reality that Islam is a major religion and a rival to Christianity in Kenya. In this regard, she takes the opportunity to show what she considers the superiority of Christianity over Islam. She uses her fiction to re-affirm her own faith and its tenuous hold on the relatively new converts on the African continent. Her last work of fiction, Rebmann, is a celebration of the efforts of pioneer missionaries like Rebmann and Krapf, who ventured into Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century to win the flock for Jesus Christ in what was then unexplored terrain in the heart of Africa, or the Conradian Heart of Darkness, as Africa was perceived then. Macgoye was later to come to Kenya under the auspices of the same organisation that sponsored the German missionary, the Church Missionary Society.
Looking at name use in her Coming to Birth, there is a lingering feeling that Macgoye’s ancestors, probably Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who migrated to England from continental Europe to escape pogroms there, might have converted to the Anglican Christian rite upon their settlement. Female characters are given common scriptural names pointing to Old Testament antecedents, names like Paulina, Rebecca, and Rachel, names popular with people of Jewish background. Again, one of her more obscure fictions set in Kenya is A Farm Called Kishinev, described as “a fairly comprehensive picture of Kenyan Jewish experience”.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s working class background and sympathies enable her to empathise with the plight of the African poor and downtrodden. Her descriptions of the African “great unwashed” is accurate in that it is described as a life of ceaseless want and deprivation. Nairobi is notorious for its “parking boys”, an expression that is a euphemism for abandoned and homeless kids, who are often orphaned and use their street-smarts to survive in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment. Their situation is so dire that they have to live off dustbins, and sometimes resort to using human waste as a weapon to extort money from passers-by threatening to smear them with it if they do not respond generously. The tough struggle for survival is described with pathos, in the words of one such street urchin:
So my dad said we couldn’t go on to school for a while because he need all his money to get another woman to look after us. And when he was there she was alright to us, but she started going queer when she got her own baby: then she hated the sight of us and used to beat us for every little thing. And then last year she started saying that she didn’t get married to come and live in a back-of beyond village with a load of kids, and not any rice or hair oil or nice soap like her friends had for their babies, and only seeing her man one day or two in the month, and then she started to drink. And then she didn’t cook everyday, and never early in the morning, and started saying it was our fault that my dad didn’t pay her attention. He only wanted his first wife’s children and all that. In the end my little brother got so hurt he ran off to his granny: she doesn’t have much, but she likes him and tells him stories. But my sister had to stay to look after the baby, so my dad said. But me, she said I didn’t do anything around the place but eat, and so one day when she beat me worse than usual I ran to my friend’s big brother who is a conductor on a country bus, and he talked with his dad and put some ointment on the bad places and gave me a ride on the bus free. That was about two months ago.
‘He didn’t know anything,’ put in Muhammad Ali. ‘Lucky for him I found him wondering about. I showed him the temples, where they give you free food if there is celebration going on. And how to find the eating places, where good food sometimes gets thrown out when they close, and how- well, all sorts of things I showed him. He just didn’t know how to stay alive’.
Macgoye captures the spirit of anxiety and desperation among those living on the edge.
Both Leila Aboulaela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye have used the art of fiction to push their religious agenda, using fiction to both affirm and defend their belief systems in a world that had increasingly come to see religion as dragging us to the medieval bloodletting that so characterised that period. But of late, there has been an upsurge in writers who have unashamedly proclaimed their fidelity to the time-honoured beliefs of their societies and the era in which they are living. This is also an era when we see the rise of militant atheism too, that is challenging the religious discourse and looking for a much wider space than they have ever been accorded. The problem with this kind of genre, where fiction is put at the service of religious sectarianism, is that it soon becomes tiresome in its self-righteousness and tiresome for the secular-minded; these are often people who are also set in their ways of thinking, determined to draw a line between the religious and public space.
Is Kiswahili the Key to Unleashing the Full Potential of Sub-Saharan Africa?
Kiswahili has the potential to forge strong trading ties between the people of eastern, central and southern Africa and to promote cultural cohesion. If widely promoted in these regions, the language can single-handedly remove the artificial barriers and boundaries imposed by imperial powers.
Compared to the children growing up in affluent households of the global North, the African child faces unique challenges when it comes to mental growth and development. Statistics, though contested, have rated the African child as having a lower IQ (at about 60 per cent) than that of the average child of the same age in the West.
Others, however, claim that the fact that African children can speak roughly two languages (their first language or mother tongue, together with an inter-tribal trading language) by the time they enter school, they have a considerable advantage. The fact that they soon after start to learn a third official language in school (in Kenya’s case this would be English, the medium of instruction) they develop higher cognitive abilities. On the other hand, their compatriots in the West will have mastered only one or two languages.
At face value, being multilingual appears advantageous. However, its drawback is that it taxes the African child with the additional burden of mastering a language of instruction at a stage when his compatriot in the West will have already started receiving practical knowledge. This means that this African child will always play catch-up, however adept he is at mastering instruction.
Even worse, the concepts he is being taught in class will always come in a foreign language, with examples and references that in some cases are not familiar to him, leaving the African child trying to grasp what he is being taught. This probably, I would argue, is one of the reasons why world-changing innovations, especially in science, rarely emanate from Africa, not necessarily because the African child is less gifted, but because the operating environment is stifling right from the first day of school. The situation compounded by a poor learning environment.
A quick survey of all the tech and industrial giants in the world indicates that all school-going kids in these regions receive their elementary instruction in their first language. This includes North America, Western Europe, Scandinavian countries, Japan, China, Korea and Asian and South American powers, such as India, Brazil and Malaysia, which have muscled their way into this league in the past century. These countries fight to retain a hold on their indigenous languages and cultures by jealously promoting and preserving them, even as they interact with and trade with foreign cultures. This is most evident in Scandinavian countries, where lots of resources are directed at promoting the production of literature in the indigenous languages which, otherwise, would become extinct, given that numerically, the indigenes are far outnumbered on the world stage.
In Africa, vast differences appear between urban and rural school-going children. There still exists a wide gap between urban kids and those from the countryside when it comes to formal schooling. According to research conducted in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the findings of which were published in 2003 in Etienne Benson’s article “Intelligence across Cultures”, kids born and raised in urban households, and who have early access to television, film and video games, are more likely to score highly in Western-style Matrix-based visual intelligence tests than those born and raised in the countryside. They also do better in verbal tests. These tests acknowledge the existing cultural bias that makes it difficult to come up with a test that can be applied across the board to both kids from a rural setting in Africa and those from an urban Western setting because the two cultures perceive intelligence differently. Which further compounds the challenges the average African faces when it comes to asserting his place on the global stage.
In Africa, vast differences appear between urban and rural school-going children. There still exists a wide gap between urban kids and those from the countryside when it comes to formal schooling.
In this modern age of easy transport and communication between cities, it is cheaper and faster for people to communicate across borders and do business. While these changes in technology have opened up previously inaccessible places on earth for commerce, they have also ushered in a new era in which less developed economies and cultures are likely to be overshadowed by the more developed ones. It is one reason why UNESCO has been identifying and protecting more cultural heritage sites across the globe that are under threat of extinction by real estate developers as populations swell and prime land gets scarcer.
The dizzying rate at which the economies of the East African region have been transforming since the turn of the millennium in terms of infrastructure development is not only opening up the fragile hinterland to global commerce, but is also proving to be a serious challenge when it comes to preserving indigenous heritage, especially that which isn’t properly documented, as is the case across most of Africa, where the arts and culture are still not perceived as a bankable asset that can generate revenue.
If there are any lesson to be drawn from the global North, it is that African countries should strive to promote learning in their indigenous languages if they hope to make the leap into the club of newly industrialised countries. This is because language is the key to unearthing and exploiting indigenous knowledge and wealth. History has shown that there’s no world power that has exerted influence and control using a foreign language. We also know that imported technologies and knowledge rarely work unless they are adapted and customised for the prevailing local environment.
The case for Kiswahili
That said, the problem with Africa is that it is not homogenous linguistically. There are an estimated 2,000 languages spoken on the continent. Colourful as this may appear, it also poses a challenge in marshaling all these diverse cultures into thinking and working towards a collective goal, which necessitates the creation and promotion of a lingua franca that can be used seamlessly across political and administrative borders, and which can ultimately allow the African people to speak in a single voice. Kiswahili has proved to be a useful tool in unlocking the potential of this sleeping giant in the regions south of the Sahara.
Derived from the Pokomo, Taita and Mijikenda languages of the East African coast, alongside other Bantu languages of the interior, Kiswahili has borrowed heavily from Arabic, English, Greek, Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Latin, Portuguese, Turkish and Indian languages and cultures in the course of its development.
There are an estimated 2,000 languages spoken on the continent. Colourful as this may appear, it also poses a challenge in marshaling all these diverse cultures into thinking and working towards a collective goal, which necessitates the creation and promotion of a lingua franca that can be used seamlessly across political and administrative borders…
From its origins on the East African coast in the AD 1200 period, the language was largely spread inland by the adventurous Swahili and Arab traders, reaching as far north as Barawa in Somalia where a dialect known as Chimiini is spoken, the Great Lakes to the west where a dialect known as Kingwana is spoken, and further south as far as Mozambique, where a dialect known as Kimwani is spoken.
Along the East African coast itself there are various dialects spoken, with the Kiamu spoken in Lamu and Kingozi further north being amongst the oldest. The Kibajuni dialect is spoken north of Lamu up to Kismayu in Somalia and Kimvita in Mombasa. To the south are Kimtang’ata as spoken in the Tanga region of Tanzania, Kimrima spoken in Mrima and parts of Dar es Salaam and Kimgao in Kilwa further south and in parts of Mozambique.
The islands off the coast have a whole stew of dialects, among them Kimakunduchi as spoken on Zanzibar island, Kipembaas spoken in Pemba, Kipate spoken in Pate, Kitumbatu spoken on Tumbatu island, Kingazija spoken on Ngazija island, and Kivumba as spoken in Vumba, Vanga and the northern Tanga region.
Although it started out as a lingua franca, Kiswahili has over the years grown in stature as the speakers seek to assert their identity in global geopolitics and break away from the dependence signaled by the continual use of colonial languages, especially in official circles. The language has increasingly received official status in diverse regional bodies, signaling its growing importance.
Of late, Kiswahili experts have been grappling with terminology relating to the rapid changes taking place in information technology, which have to be incorporated into the language. It is a task that has rested squarely with the Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (BAKITA) in Tanzania, who are charged with sieving the emergent vocabulary in order for it to gain acceptance for use in standard Kiswahili widely used in schools in East Africa. Dar es Salaam University’s Taasisiya Taaluma za Kiswahili (TATAKI) is playing a crucial role in the “Swahilisation” and standardisation of this new vocabulary. The other factors shaping the direction the language takes are political, legal, administrative and trade; all of which impact the language’s development.
In July 2004, Kiswahili was declared the official language of the 55-member African Union (AU), with the then chairperson, Joaquim Chissano, delivering his entire speech during the AU Heads of State and Government Summit in the language. It is also the official language of the 6-member East African Community. Kiswahili was also adopted as one of the official languages of the South African Development Community (SADC) in 2019, alongside English, Portuguese and French.
By 2012 Kiswahili had an estimated 150 million native speakers spread across East Africa, and stretching south as far as parts of Zambia, Malawi, Madagascar and the Comoros islands. It enjoys official status in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, DR Congo and Rwanda.
In January this year, South Africa became the first southern African country to offer Kiswahili as an examinable subject in its schools, in addition to German, French and Mandarin. Piloted in 90 schools across the country, Kiswahili became the first African language from outside southern Africa to be taught in the country. This was partly in a bid to stem the rising xenophobia attacks perpetrated on other African nationals living in the country since the mid 1990s, which had resulted in up to 600 deaths by then. The government believed that teaching the language was one way of encouraging cohesion between black South Africans and other African nationals living within South Africa, and ultimately integrating South Africa – which had endured economic and social isolation during the long Apartheid era – fully into the trading blocs of the region.
In January this year, South Africa became the first southern African country to offer Kiswahili as an examinable subject in its schools, in addition to German, French and Mandarin. Piloted in 90 schools across the country, Kiswahili became the first African language from outside southern Africa to be taught in the country.
Although the growth of Kiswahili has been phenomenal in the regions south of the Sahara, penetration in the north has been slow. Even though Kiswahili is heavily shaped by Arabic and Arab culture, the Sahel countries have preferred using Arabic. One of the reasons could be cultural. The northern peoples are mostly pastoral, and their Cushitic languages are distinctly different from Bantu, which forms the root of Kiswahili, and which is steeped in the Bantu people’s background as farmers and iron-workers. So in order to gain wider acceptance there, Kiswahili might have to adapt more to Cushitic language forms and structures, and incorporate more of its vocabulary. The same applies to the Nilotic peoples, whose uptake of the language has been equally slow, partly because of the phonetic dissimilarities between Kiswahili and, say, Lang’o or Nuer. To the immediate north is the Amharic culture that is as old as the continent itself, and which culturally has always remained distinct.
However, the growth south and westwards has been steady, thanks to the huge swathe of Ngoni-speaking people who populate most of southern and central Africa from the Cape upwards into modern Tanzania, Congo and Kenya, thanks to the migratory patterns of the seventeenth century occasioned by the expansionist Mfecane wars, the slave trade and the arriving settler communities from Europe. Westwards, Kiswahili found fertile ground in the vast Congo interior because of trade in ivory, slaves and gold, and also thanks to the close cultural ties between the Congo and the East Coast.
Although the growth of Kiswahili has been phenomenal in the regions south of the Sahara, penetration in the north has been slow. Even though Kiswahili is heavily shaped by Arabic and Arab culture, the Sahel countries have preferred using Arabic.
For a while Rwanda, a former colony of Belgium, together with her neighbour Burundi, operated from an awkward position as French-speaking nations in a region that was predominantly English-speaking. This came with its complications when the East African Community started taking shape. There was also the effect of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 that dispersed a considerable number of Rwandan and Burundian refugees into neighbouring East African states. This meant that by the time Rwanda had stabilised enough to welcome them back home, a sizeable number of the refugees had not only been born in exile, but had attended English- and Kiswahili-speaking schools in neighbouring Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, with very few of them speaking French.
It was only a matter of time before French was dropped in favour of English, thanks in part to the awkward diplomatic falling-out between Kigali and Paris in the aftermath of the genocide. And as the East African Community took shape, it soon became apparent to the leadership of the member countries that the only language that cuts across their borders was Kiswahili in its various dialects. The little charcoal and banana traders at the Goma and Uvira border crossings were not communicating in English or French but in either their native tongues, or the lingua franca: Kiswahili. It is only the trade conferences in Nairobi, Arusha and Kigali that were being conducted in English and French. It is little wonder that Kigali officially made the switch to English and Kiswahili, alongside Kinyarwanda, in 2017.
A large trading bloc
There is no doubt that Kiswahili has the potential to forge strong trading ties between the people of eastern, central and southern Africa and to promote cultural cohesion that already exists amongst them. If widely promoted in these regions, the language can single-handedly break the barriers imposed on the people by imperial European powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884. Instead the language will remind the people of sub-Saharan Africa that they share a common heritage, and encourage them to look at their neighbours as partners and family, and not as foreigners. It succeeded in doing this in Nyerere’s Tanzania in the 1960s, so it can be replicated elsewhere if the political will is there. If this works, then the existing national boundaries will be reduced to administrative boundaries, more or less like states within a larger confederacy. A currency and a universal passport will naturally follow, introducing the seamlessness that is crucial for commerce in a large trading bloc, as has been the case lately in the European Union.
Enough man-hours have already been expended by politicians and bureaucrats at forums in the region’s cities to try and knock together trading blocs in the wake of the realisation that it is the only way to go for African countries if they hope to catch up with the newly industrialised countries, especially in Asia, which were at par with them barely 50 years ago. And although they realise the urgency of building these blocs, in most cases the member countries have foot-dragged and even made surprise about-turns, mostly occasioned by deep-seated suspicions carried over from previous attempts.
This foot-dragging may end up being very costly for the region in the near future; especially so after the giant infrastructural projects currently underway are completed and the interior is suddenly opened up fully to products churned up by Chinese mills. Unless the plan is to turn the region into a market for imported industrial and other goods from across the seas down to the matchstick used to light the breakfast stove in the morning, then the only option is to speed up inter-country collaboration in industry and commerce and to forge a well-trained workforce that can serve anywhere within the region to spur growth. The best and easiest tool to help the region towards this goal is a common language and a standardised schooling system across the bloc. The only language I can foresee playing this role in sub-Saharan Africa right now is Kiswahili.
The push to do away with the borders drawn up by the colonial powers may seem alarmist to those holding onto patriotic sentiments embodied in their individual national flags and anthems, but the truth is that the Pan-Africanist ideals envisioned by Nkrumah, Nasser and Nyerere, among others, in the early 1960s will simply not go away; and they are especially relevant at this time when Africa is standing at the precipice. The migratory patterns of the African peoples over centuries, especially during times of crises — both natural and man-made — attest to this.
The same is still happening today, even with the borders in place. It is the reason that eventually forced the Kenyan government in 2017 to grant citizenship to the Wamakonde people who had lived along the Kenyan coast for decades after relocating there in the 1930s from Mozambique to work on British-owned sisal farms. Industrial developments in other economies elsewhere in the world leave the region – and by extension the continent – with no choice but to forge a working relationship or be eclipsed. It is time for the continent’s leadership to pay attention to the role that Kiswahili can play in determining the face of the continent in the immediate future.
Thandika Mkandawire: In Memory of a Beautiful Mind
Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza celebrates the life of his friend and mentor Thandika Mkandawire, remembering his devotion to Pan-Africanism and the diaspora, his deep sense of globalism, his lifelong and unromantic commitment to progressive causes, his generosity in mentoring younger African scholars and his unwavering faith in Africa’s historic and humanistic agency and possibilities.
Thandika Mkandawire, the towering Pan-African Malawian-Swedish public intellectual died on March 27, 2020. The world of social thought, as Samir Amin, another departed luminary, called it, is so much the poorer that he has left us, but so much the richer that he lived for eight decades. Through his copious writings, engagements in numerous forums, and teaching in various universities, he incited and inspired minds and imaginations for generations across Africa, the diaspora, and the world at large with his extraordinary intellectual insights and incisive and surgical critiques of conventional, sometimes celebrated, and often cynical analyses of development and the African condition, to use a beloved phrase of the late Ali Mazrui, the iconic man of letters.
Thandika, as we all fondly called him, has joined our illustrious intellectual ancestors, whose eternal wisdom we must cherish and embrace in the continuing struggle for the epistemic, existential, and economic emancipation of our beloved continent.
When I think of Thandika many images come to my mind: of the luminous beauty and brilliance of his mind; his passion for rigour and impatience with lazy thinking; his bountiful joy of living; his love of music and the arts; his devotion to Pan-Africanism and the diaspora; his deep sense of globalism; his lifelong and unromantic commitment to progressive causes; his generosity in mentoring younger African scholars; his exemplary leadership of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD); and his remarkable modeling of the life of a principled public intellectual.
He is simply one of the most brilliant people I have ever known in my life. As my wife observed on several occasions, Thandika was the only person she witnessed who I was so enthralled by that I could sit and listen to for hours! To be in his company was to marvel at the power of the human mind for extraordinary insights and the joys of living, for he was a bundle of infectious joviality, humour and wit. The breadth and depth of his intellectual passions and unwavering faith in Africa’s historic and humanistic agency and possibilities was dazzling.
I had known Thandika years before I met him in person. I had heard of this fiery Malawian intellectual who as a young journalist had been at the forefront of the nationalist struggle. Like many of us born before independence, his personal biography encompassed the migrant labour political economy of Southern Africa: he grew up in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. And like many smart and ambitious young people of his generation in the early 1960s, he went to the United States for higher education as there was no university in Malawi at the time.
He was a student in the United States in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, and as an activist Thandika immediately saw the intricate connections between the nationalist and civil rights movements in Africa and the Diaspora. This nurtured his profound respect and appreciation of African American society, culture, and contributions, which was a bedrock of his Pan-Africanism in the tradition of Kwame Nkrumah and others. Also, like many activists of his generation, the trajectory of his life was upended by the political crisis in Malawi, known as the “Cabinet Crisis”, that erupted a few months after independence in 1964.
The conservative and authoritarian Malawi leader, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, fell out with his radical younger ministers who preferred democratic politics and more progressive development policies. They were forced to escape into exile. Thandika was suspected of sympathising with the “rebels” as Banda’s regime vilified them, and his passport was revoked. Thus began his long personal sojourn into exile and the diaspora, and professional trajectory from journalism into academia. His exile began while he was in Ecuador on a project and, unable to return to the USA, he got asylum in Sweden.
His experiences in Latin America and Sweden globalised his intellectual horizons and reinforced his proclivities towards comparative political economy, a distinctive hallmark of his scholarship. They also reshaped his interests in economics, pulling him away from its dominant neo-classical paradigms and preoccupations, and anchoring it in the great questions of development and developmental states, areas in which he made his signature intellectual and policy contributions.
Thandika also immersed himself in the great debates of the 1960s and 1970s centred around Marxism, dependency and underdevelopment, African socialism, and the struggles for new international orders from economics to information.
The intellectual ferment of the period prepared him well to participate in African debates about the state, democracy and development when he joined the newly established Institute for Development Studies at the University of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s in the immediate euphoric aftermath of Zimbabwe’s liberation victory. In 1985, he became the head of CODESRIA as Executive Secretary.
He joined CODESRIA in the midst of the draconian anti-developmentalist assaults of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed on hapless and often complicit authoritarian African states by the international financial institutions working at the behest of the market fundamentalism ideology of neo-liberalism propagated by conservative governments in Washington, London, Berlin, Ottawa, and Tokyo.
Through his own comparative scholarship on regional economic histories, development paths, and the patrimonial state in Africa and other world regions, especially Asia, as well as national and multinational projects commissioned by CODESRIA, he led the progressive African intellectual community in mounting vigorous critiques of SAPs and offering alternatives rooted in the historical realities of African economies and societies, the aspirations of African peoples, and the capacities of reconstructed African democratic developmental states.
In the late 1980s, when the gendarmes of neo-liberalism and apologists of Africa’s bankrupt one-party states were railing against democracy and the struggles for the “second independence”, Thandika unapologetically called for democracy as a fundamental political right and economic necessity for Africa. He was particularly concerned about the devastation wrought on African capacities to produce knowledge through the willful dismantling of African universities and research capacities.
At a conference of Vice-Chancellors in Harare in 1986, the World Bank infamously declared that Africa did not need universities. Mendacious studies were produced to show that rates of return were higher for primary education than for tertiary education. Rocked by protests against tyranny and the austerities of SAPs that dissolved the post-independence social contract of state-led developmentalism, African governments were only too willing to wreck African universities and devalue academic labour.
He was particularly concerned about the devastation wrought on African capacities to produce knowledge through the willful dismantling of African universities
Under Thandika CODESRIA valiantly sought to protect, promote, and project an autonomous space for African intellectual development, for vibrant knowledge production. That is how I finally met Thandika in person. In 1989, CODESRIA established the “Reflections on Development Fellowship”. I was one of about a dozen African scholars that won the fellowship. My project was on “African Economic History in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”. This resulted in the publication of A Modern Economic History of Africa. Volume 1: The Nineteenth Century in 1993, which went on to win the prestigious Noma Award for publishing in Africa in 1994. Some regard this as my most important book.
Thus, like many other African scholars who experienced the devastation of African universities during the continent’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s, I am deeply indebted to Thandika and CODESRIA for ensuring our intellectual support, networking, sanity, and productivity. This is at the heart of the outpouring of tributes by African scholars since his passing. Thandika was not only one of the most important African intellectuals of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but he was an architect of an African intellectual community during one of the bleakest periods in the history of the African knowledge enterprise His intellectual and institutional legacies are mutually reinforcing and transcendental.
Under Thandika CODESRIA valiantly sought to protect, promote, and project an autonomous space for African intellectual development
In August 1990, the recipients of the “Reflections on Development Fellowship” met for nearly two weeks at the Rockefeller Conference and Study Center, in Bellagio, Italy. It was an intellectual palaver like no other I had experienced before. Thandika dazzled the fellows, who included several prominent African scholars, with his incisive comments and erudition, legendary humour, and striking joyousness. Meeting him at Bellagio left a lasting impression on me. His brilliance was accompanied by his uncanny ability to put very complex thoughts in such a pithy way, rendering an idea so obvious that one wondered why one hadn’t thought about it that way before.
Thandika was an architect of an African intellectual community during one of the bleakest periods in the history of the African knowledge enterprise
Thandika was one of those rare people who effectively combined institutional leadership and intellectual productivity. This was the praxis of his reflexive life, in which administrative challenges inspired academic work. While at CODESRIA he pioneered and produced important studies on structural adjustment, development, and African universities and intellectuals. In 1987 he edited the ground-breaking collection, The State and Agriculture in Africa; in 1995 he edited the comprehensive collection on structural adjustment, Between Liberalisation and Oppression; and in 1999 he co-authored, Our Continent Our Future. His articles included “Adjustment, Political Conditionality and Democratisation in Africa” (1994).
After he joined UNRISD, he continued with his old intellectual preoccupations as he embraced new ones as reflected in his journal articles and book monographs. The latter include the co-authored, African Voices On Structural Adjustment (2002); and the edited, African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development (2005). Soon after joining UNRISD, which he led from 1998 to 2009, he launched a program on social policy that increasingly reflected his growing research interests. The articles include, “Thinking about Developmental States in Africa” (2001); “Disempowering New Democracies and the Persistence of Poverty” (2004); “Maladjusted African Economies and Globalisation” (2005); “Transformative Social Policy and Innovation in Developing Countries” (2007); “‘Good Governance’: The Itinerary of an Idea” (2007); “From the national question to the social question” (2009); “Institutional Monocropping and Monotasking in Africa” (2010); “On Tax Efforts and Colonial Heritage in Africa” (2010); “Aid, Accountability, and Democracy in Africa” (2010); and “How the New Poverty Agenda Neglected Social and Employment Policies in Africa” (2010).
In 2009, Thandika was appointed the inaugural Chair in African Development at the London School of Economics. This gave him space to expand his intellectual wings and produce some of his most iconic and encyclopedic work as evident in the titles of some of his papers: “Running While Others Walk: Knowledge and the Challenge of Africa’s Development” (2011); “Welfare Regimes and Economic Development: Bridging the Conceptual Gap” (2011); “Aid: From Adjustment Back to Development” (2013); “Social Policy and the Challenges of the Post-Adjustment Era” (2013); “Findings and Implications: The Role of Development Cooperation” (2013); “Neopatrimonialism and the Political Economy of Economic Performance in Africa: Critical Reflections” (2015); and “Colonial legacies and social welfare regimes in Africa: An empirical exercise” (2016). He also published monographs including the co-authored, Learning from the South Korean Developmental Success (2014), and a collection of lectures he gave at the University of Ghana, Africa Beyond Recovery (2015).
Following my encounter with Thandika at Bellagio, our personal and professional paths crossed many times over the next thirty years. The encounters are too numerous to recount. Those that stand out include CODESRIA’s conference on Academic Freedom, held in November 1990 and at which the “The Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility” was issued; and numerous CODESRIA conferences, workshops, and general assemblies including the one in 1995 where I served as a rapporteur. These forums were truly invigorating for a young scholar meeting the doyens of the African intelligentsia. Like many of those in my generation, I matured intellectually under the tutelage of CODESRIA and Thandika.
Thandika was one of those rare people who effectively combined institutional leadership and intellectual productivity
In return, when I relocated from Canada to the United States in 1995, I invited Thandika or played a role in his invitation to conferences in the US including the 25th Anniversary of the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois in 1995, where I served as director of the center, and to the 1996 US African Studies Association where he gave one of the most memorable addresses, “The Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola Distinguished Lecture”. The lecture, later published in the African Studies Review entitled, “The Social Sciences in Africa: Breaking Local Barriers and Negotiating International Presence”, was a veritable tour de force. It brilliantly traced the development of social science knowledge production on Africa and offered a searing critique of Africanist exclusionary intellectual practices.
Later, when Thandika was head of UNRISD, he invited me to join the nine-member Gender Advisory Group to work on a report on the implementation of the United Nations Fourth World Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995. Out of this conference came the report, Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World published in 2005 to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Beijing conference. Also, in return, I invited Thandika to contribute to my own edited collections, including The Encyclopaedia of Twentieth Century African History to which he contributed a fine essay on African intellectuals.
Our personal encounters were even more frequent and deeply gratifying. In the 1990s, I used to go to Dakar quite often, sometimes several times a year. On many occasions, Thandika hosted me or took me out to sample the incredible culinary delights and vibrant music scene of Dakar nightlife. I recall one night going to a club where Youssou N’dour was playing. It was an indescribable treat. In his customary insightful and pithy way, he made me understand the social vibrancy of Dakar: it was an old city whose residential patterns and social geography were embedded in the rhythms of local culture in contrast to the apartheid cities of Southern Africa from which we were alienated and relegated to the townships.
Another memorable encounter was Christmas in the early 2000s where our two families and close friends spent the entire day at the lake in Malawi. As usual, he regaled us with jokes interspersed with acute observations on Malawian history, society, economy and politics. And last December, he and his dear wife, Kaarina, were in Nairobi. What had been planned as a luncheon turned into an engagement that lasted till dinner and late into the night. We hadn’t seen each other for several years, although we had been in touch, so there was so much to cover. We excitedly discussed his forthcoming 80th birthday celebration, and the possibility of him joining our university as a Visiting Distinguished Professor.
It turned out to be our last meeting. But what a special day it was. Thandika was his usual self, affable, hilariously funny, and of course he made brilliant observations about African and global developments. Thank you Thandika for the privilege of knowing you and your beautiful mind. I was truly privileged to call you a friend. You will always be a shining intellectual light for your generation, my generation, and generations to come of committed, progressive African, diaspora and global academics, researchers, thinkers and activists.
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