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Speak to My Heart! A Place for Indigenous Languages in African Fiction

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African mother tongue languages are increasingly being abandoned, with sub-Saharan Africa being one of the regions with the most endangered languages. But the solution will not come from simply promulgating policy. The “African society” must hold conversations with itself and overhaul its value system, because language is culture, and culture is empty without its set of values and truths.

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Speak to My Heart! A Place for Indigenous Languages in African Fiction
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In an interview on Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station radio back in 2017, celebrated South Sudanese essayist, poet and scholar Professor Taban lo Liyong’ was asked by the interviewer to give his thoughts on the famous first African Writers Conference that took place on June 1, 1962 at Makerere University, Kampala. Taban, whom I fondly call the ‘poetrigenarian’, did not mince his words. He quipped that the Conference of African Writers of English Expression, as it was dubbed, not only isolated East African writers but also snubbed African writers who had published their works in indigenous languages. He went on to observe that Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek “invited himself” to the conference while Ngugi wa Thiong’o – then James Ngugi, attended it, not as a writer of fiction but as a journalist. At the time, Okot had published Lak Tar (White Teeth) in Acholi while Ngugi would proceed to give his The River Between manuscript to Chinua Achebe at the conference, a book that the South Sudanese interestingly describes as “algebraic” as it is “the writing of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in the Kenyan context”.

Taban further observed that the isolation of East Africans from a conference that occurred right on their territory was meant to “shame them into writing since East Africa was a literary desert at the time”. But Taban was particularly disturbed by the deliberate move to lock out African writers who wrote in their mother tongue. In so doing, the Western organisers of the conference simply told Africans that English was superior to African languages and had a special place in the land they had colonised.

Ironically, it was after this conference that Nigerian scholar Obi Wali published his controversial essay titled The Dead End of African Literature in which he argued that “an African writer who thinks and feels in his or her own language must only write in that language”. English, he argued, did not have the capability to “carry the African experience”. Some of the writers like Achebe argued to the contrary that Africans could Africanise English to authentically convey our cultural truths. But Wali’s paper inspired young writers of the time, notable among them being Ngugi wa Thiong’o who went on to become one of the chief proponents of writing in indigenous languages.

Mukoma wa Ngugi, in What Decolonizing the Mind Means Today, an article published in Literary Hub in June 2018, echoes his father’s views when he observes that the relegation of African languages in the post-colonial literary space influenced Ngugi to publish Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature in 1986. In the work, Ngugi rightly spiritualises language as culture and demonstrates its critical role in the decolonisation of the mind.

Earlier in 1966, Ngugi together with Taban and p’Bitek led other scholars at the University of Nairobi in pushing for the abolition of the then English Department and its replacement by a new department that would open up the study of literature to African literature and literature from other cultures. Indeed, the Department of Literature was finally established by the university and this saw the introduction of courses like East African Literature.

It’s more than half a century since these writers challenged the colonial hoisting of the English language post the fall of the Union Jack. Today, the University of Nairobi’s Education Building hosts, among other departments, three key departments that teach languages and literature: the Department of Literature, the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Kiswahili. In major universities across Anglophone Africa there exists a department that teaches African Languages, notable among them being Makerere University, University of Botswana, University of South Africa, Wits, Stellenbosch and University of Zimbabwe, among others. In these universities, post-graduate students are at liberty to identify and conduct research on any language or literature of their choice, including indigenous knowledge systems.

It’s safe to say that the rise of African languages and literatures in African universities is something that should be treasured. However, it’s hard to identify any palpable influence beyond the theoretical walls of academia. In fact, there is every indication that we have come full circle, and despite academic research in universities, mother tongue languages are increasingly being abandoned, mostly by educated native speakers in cities and towns. In particular, Generation Z or Gen-Z (described by the BBC as anyone born after 1995) represents a generation that can hardly communicate in their mother tongue. A majority of Millennials (the generation preceding Gen-Z) are equally unable to speak their mother tongue. The only difference is that the former are generally apathetic – if it’s not technology or social media, it’s not worth their time.

UNESCO observes on its website that Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the three regions with the most endangered languages, the other two being Melanasia and South America. But Sub-Saharan Africa has a special relationship with French just as it does with English and Portuguese. According to a report published by Quartz Africa in October 2018, French is now the world’s fifth most spoken language “thanks largely to the millions of Africans who speak it each day”. The report states that 35% of the three million French speakers are from Sub-Saharan Africa while Asia only accounts for 0.6%. Interesting.

There is every indication that we have come full circle and despite academic research in universities, mother tongue languages are increasingly being abandoned

In the meantime, African languages are falling off the scale. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 observed that Sudan had the highest number of endangered languages, a total of 65; Cameroon was second with 36; and Nigeria tied with Chad at number three with 29 endangered languages. Kenya was third from last with 13 endangered languages; with slightly more than 60 indigenous languages in the country, this is tragic. In Kenya, languages like Burji, Suba and Boni are considered endangered while Yaaku and El Molo have been declared extinct. These deaths occur more as a result of political rather than natural causes.

The cemetery of dead languages may have no physical graves or tombs but it surely is just as unnervingly silent as the human cemetery. These languages are buried in the minds of native speakers as a memory of an empty epitaph – one that cannot be understood, retrieved and passed on to the next generation.

Long before we began committing linguicide (death of a language), the colonial masters knew how valuable our indigenous languages were to us and ensured that they colonised us culturally by perpetuating injustices against our languages. Through subjugation, slavery and total dehumanisation of Africans, the colonial master succeeded in creating an image of Africa and Africans that couldn’t exist independent of the colonial crown.

Every country had its fair share of colonial experience. In most of these countries, the colonial experience created a black mzungu (Englishman/woman) out of the educated class and those born afterwards inherited the primitive worship of mzungu as superior to us.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger 2010 observed that Sudan had the highest number of endangered languages, a total of 65

In Kenya, the black mzungu syndrome is linguistically evident in our collective response to the misguided belief that the English language is superior to our indigenous languages including Kiswahili. To be educated in Kenya is to speak good English; you are a genius if you speak the Queen’s English. English is a key metric of academic excellence. Woe unto you if you speak English with your mother tongue accent, even though Kenyans admire Russians when they speak English with a Russian accent and are glued to their TVs when an Italian speaks Swahili or Kikamba with an Italian accent. Those of us who stay in America for a minute land back home with an American “accent” that openly clashes with our mother tongue accent. To sound American is to sound polished.

But our love for foreign accents strangely isn’t limited to the West. I have come across Kenyans who while they shame or bully a fellow Kenyan on social media because he or she speaks English with a heavy mother tongue accent, delight at and in fact mimic with admiration how, say, South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema says “Mama, give us a signal”. Somehow, it doesn’t bother them that Malema’s accent is influenced by his mother tongue, and he’s perfectly proud of his mother tongue just as other South Africans probably are. The same thing can be said of our celebration of Nigerian pidgin. Clearly, our disdain for how we speak English points to an identity crisis we host in our bodies. It has appreciably affected how we relate with our mother tongue languages and with one another.

Some of the Millennials and Gen-zers attempt to justify this disdain by claiming rather erroneously that indigenous languages are a cause of disunity in pluralistic societies like Kenya. Yet inter-ethnic hostility is not a function of one’s language. Rather it is a by-product of misguided tribal attitudes characterised by hate and insecurity. But it is not surprising that these two generations cannot appreciate the place of the indigenous language in their culture; the education system never trained them to. It is proof that learners in our schools deserve a system of education that destroys the black mzungu mentality and enables them to creatively learn their mother tongue, particularly in lower primary school.

In 2019, a Member of the Nairobi County Assembly, Ms. Sylvia Museiya, sought to introduce a Bill in the County Assembly to make learning the mother tongue compulsory for Early Childhood Development learners. She proposed that parents be compelled to teach their children their mother tongue at home with the learners then expected to speak the language in class. Ms. Museiya’s concern came from the fact that most children in Nairobi cannot speak their mother tongue and their parents seem to be the enablers of this self-inflicted injustice. One may not approve of her approach, but there is consensus that there exists a problem somewhere. Ironically, while learners in Nairobi are soon being forced to learn to speak their mother tongue, learners in rural schools have always been punished for speaking their mother tongue. In my formative years, we had the dreaded “disc” – a physical object that pupils hung around their necks whenever they were “caught” speaking their mother tongue. Same system of education, different motivations. In one, the city parent is guilty, in the other, the rural teacher is.

Post-colonial scholars questioned and sought to dethrone colonial ideologies that shaped education and gave learners a false consciousness through “internalisation of the image of the oppressor” and the oppressor became “the model of humanity” for learners as Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire observed in his influential work Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

As post-colonial scholars sought to install the indigenous language at the center of literary and linguistic studies in our universities, the education system of the time was already dehumanising learners in primary school with a warped philosophy that radicalised learners into disowning their languages. Metaphorically speaking, post-colonial African scholars prepared the way but no one really showed up; young learners had been directed the other way.

Over time, our society and its political body parts (citizens and institutions) have become more culturally unconscious in a world that is fast changing. Consequently, identity becomes loose if not nebulous since people are generally learned but not necessarily educated. This lack of cultural consciousness is proof of failure on the part of our social institutions and explains why over fifty years later, we are still debating whether we should write in our indigenous languages.

Nonetheless, I find it grossly unfair to assess the African writer’s commitment to his or her culture based on whether he or she has authored works in his or her indigenous language. As much as an indigenous language enables its speakers to authentically express their truths and values, these truths and values may still be expressed in a foreign language. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart back in 1958 and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust fifty years later are just but a few demonstrations of this possibility.

This view is not to be interpreted to mean that a foreign language can usurp (violently or on the pretext of conveying a people’s truths) the cultural power of an indigenous language. Foreign languages shouldn’t be made or be seen to compete with indigenous languages because they actually can co-exist. They should not be considered as alternatives to the existence of any indigenous language.

There wouldn’t be a better time than the time when Africa starts to produce just as much writing in indigenous languages as in foreign languages. But how would it be possible if African governments do not devotedly invest in their languages and cultures? How would it be possible if the West that controls the African fiction enterprise continues to respond to the demands of their (Western) market? How would it be possible if the 21st Century African writer is blamed for a problem that is clearly not of his or her own making?

It is not enough for the older generation of African writers to simply cheer younger African writers into writing in their mother tongue. In fact, it would be a catastrophic failure on the part of the former if they didn’t appreciate that writing in indigenous languages is dependent on various dynamics and thus cannot be resolved by merely “encouraging” the younger generation of writers to write in their mother tongue.

First, take for instance the cancer of cultural illiteracy that prevails in our society today. We live in a society that perpetuates, against itself and its own offspring, the colonial and neocolonial ideologies. It’s a generation of culturally illiterate learners who are hardly interested in literature published in their indigenous languages. If they don’t speak it, either because they can’t or because they don’t want to, will they read it? In this environment, the African writer of mother tongue fiction isn’t guaranteed returns and thus has every right to choose a language that guarantees financial reward. Writing is not martyrdom.

Sadly, this cultural illiteracy is sustained by a snobbish political class that clings to the traditional hierarchical exercise of power through domination and thus is antagonistic to open and truly participatory policy-making processes that involve stakeholders. The recent contentious implementation of the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC) that replaced the 8-4-4 system in Kenya amply embodies this problem.

Secondly, textbook publishing has bedeviled the growth of fiction in Kenya. In a country where publishers are motivated by profits, fiction writers are bound to struggle to get their work published. It can only get worse for writers of mother tongue fiction. In an article published in The Elephant titled African Publishing Minefields and the Woes of the African Writer, Kenyan author Stanley Gazemba lays bare the inability of the local publishing industry to support the growth of fiction. He observes that the local publisher is profit-motivated and would rather invest in publishing books for schools than take a leap of faith into works of fiction. These publishers fundamentally publish fiction for speculation; if they don’t see a set book or a school reader in a writer’s manuscript, they’ll most likely not publish it. It’s for this reason that the African writer turns to foreign publishers, which as Gazemba observes, is a difficult expedition.

It’s a generation of culturally illiterate learners who are hardly interested in literature published in their indigenous languages

But the reality is that it’s rare to come by foreign publishers interested in mother tongue fiction. Those that are will ask for a translation (to see if it meets their threshold, and fits their style and audience) and the assessment will most likely be based on the translation, not the work in its original form. Not even the many online literary journals and magazines that dominate the African literary scene today are actively publishing works in mother tongue save for a few editions here and there. In 2016, for instance, Jalada translated into over 30 languages Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Gikuyu fable The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the then Jalada Managing Editor Moses Kilolo said Ngugi was “uniquely placed to be the first distinguished author and intellectual featured in our periodical Translations Issue”. During the 2017 Caine Prize Writers workshop in Tanzania, the Director of the Prize, Dr. Lizzy Attree, commissioned the translation into Kiswahili of selected excerpts from Lidudumalingani Mqombothi’s “Memories We Lost”, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky and Abdul Adan’s The Lifebloom Gift. Such projects are expensive and are isolated cases on the continent; it explains why I can’t seem to find Jalada Translations Issue No 2 four years later. Away from this, there’s hardly any fiction published today in indigenous languages in Kenya, besides Kiswahili which is one of the two official languages.

In my early school years, I came across a number of Dholuo stories that are mostly out of print today. These included Otieno Achach, a classic by Tanzanian writer Christian Konjra Aloo, published by East African Publishing House in 1966; Masira ki ndaki (Misfortune is Inevitable) by the late Professor Okoth Okombo, Miaha by Grace Ogot (later translated as Strange Bride by Okoth Okombo). Asenath Bole Odaga perhaps stands out as the greatest contributor to Dholuo literature, with works varying from short stories and oral literature to an English-Dholuo dictionary. It would be accurate to say that, unlike today, publishers of the time embraced mother tongue fiction..

Without a doubt, because of these dynamics, the African writer may lack the motivation to write or even translate works of fiction into his or her indigenous language. The popular line has been that writers should be left to choose their preferred language of telling their stories, a position that I do not have a problem with. However, it’s reasonable to argue that our choices could have been different if our collective experiences had been better. It would help if we held the political class accountable for their cultural sins of enabling cultural servitude through neocolonialism and moral corruption in independent Africa. In so doing, we can reward ourselves with the opportunity to redefine the determinants that govern the choices that this and the next generation will make. This is a critical stepping stone to a more sustainable conversation.

At the risk of sounding academic, Sun-ki Chai, in a paper titled Rational Choice and Culture: Clashing Perspectives or Complementary Modes of Analysis, reports that individuals’ actions usually are “dependent on preferences that are determined by socio-psychological factors” and that “culture plays a role in shaping the behavior of rational individuals”. In this context, the African writer’s choice to write in a foreign language is influenced by his or her past and present environment.

In light of this, it is necessary that the society interacts with its past and present to eliminate encumbrances that stifle the growth of indigenous languages in all forms. These hindrances are more political than we would want to imagine. Since politics can be complex and subjective, the solution will not come from simply promulgating one policy after another. The “African society” must hold conversations with itself and overhaul its value system, because language is culture, and culture is empty without its set of values and truths.

Since politics can be complex and subjective, the solution will not come from simply promulgating one policy after another

Finally, an anecdote. I once bumped into a professor of Literature along the pavements of University of Nairobi. The professor was chatting with a female colleague and I gathered he was trying to speak to the lady in her mother tongue which was not his mother tongue. She kept smiling. The professor then went on to wittily tell me he was trying to “speak to her heart”. He said that when a man speaks in English to a lady whose first language isn’t English, he speaks to her head; but when he speaks to her in her mother tongue, he speaks to her heart. In our case, the lady goes by the name Africa. She may understand English, French or Portuguese, but I’m sure she misses mother tongue stories and the poems of the African writer audibly flowing in the calm beat of her heart.

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Adipo Sidang’ is an award-winning author, poet, playwright and consultant on governance and culture issues. His first work of fiction was a collection of poems titled Parliament of Owls published by Contact Zones Series Nairobi in 2016. The title poem Parliament of Owls was adapted into a stage play and staged in Nairobi by Agora Theatre. His second work A Boy Named Koko, a novella, won the 2017 Burt Awards for Young Adult Literature and was shortlisted for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature (Young Adult) in 2019. Sidang’ was part of the jury for Goethe Institut’s 2018 Afro Young Fiction Competition for young adult fiction from Africa. He’s currently working on a number of projects including a collection of poems in his mother tongue titled Abaramach which will be out in March 2021. Email: adiposidang@gmail.com

Culture

The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona

The creative economy can turn artists into significant cogs that build a nation’s resilience. Research shows that the culture and creative industry is the next frontier for growth, but there is a need for sound investment in the right legal and policy frameworks, financial and human resources, technology, and institutions.

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The Role of the Artist in the Time of Corona
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Criticism of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s announcement of Sh200 million monthly payouts to artists has centred on mistakenly equating the immediate needs of healthcare workers at the front line of the battle to beat the coronavirus with paying royalties for creative work. This announcement came on the back of his order to lock in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties.

Completely missed in the ensuing furore was the fact that Kenyatta was only reporting progress on an earlier pledge, when he said: “My administration has projected that a total of Sh200 million every month will be paid to musicians through the system and other platforms. This translates to over Sh2 billion going into the pockets of Kenyan artists. These payments will begin this week in line with the pledge that I made in January.”

Should the president have used the same platform announcing measures to address the crisis, such as setting up of a National COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund, getting the seed capital for the Fund from the Exchequer, taxation, and pay cuts to assure the country of continuing entertainment from artistes?

The arts during the HIV/AIDS epidemic

Entertainment is the visible contribution the arts make, but recent local history is replete with examples of how music, performance theatre, literature and visual arts have enabled conversations that built a shared understanding of complex problems to enable the people to find solutions. Song, dance and theatre modelled on the Latin America experience around theatre for development have helped Kenya to confront poorly understood phenomena like the HIV/AIDS pandemic, chipping away at stigma and bringing hundreds of thousands of infected people into care and treatment to blunt its effects on the affected and reduce its impacts on society.

“When one speaks of health communication using art and the role of artists, several creative pieces in different genres come to mind,” Oby Obyerodhyambo, a public health professional and leading author, playwright, actor, noted in an interview. “I think of songs such as Todi by the late Oliver Mutukudzi, Dunia Mbaya by Prince Julie, Attention na SIDA by the late Franco Luambo Makiadi. I am reminded of the images of the late Philly Lutaaya descending the flights of stairs at Entebbe for the last time after he had broken the stigma about HIV in Uganda several years earlier using his music. Music and musicians played a major role in raising awareness about HIV when all that people knew about HIV was the death. Music was not best in terms of providing detailed information about the health continuum from the transmission to treatment but played a huge role in breaking the silence about HIV. The mention of the word UKIMWI was eased by songs like Dunia Mbaya increasing community discourse on HIV was greatly aided by art and artists.”

Awareness of how to deal with HIV/AIDS was not done through music alone. There was theatre that provided more latitude for a detailed description of the virus, its behaviour and its impact on life.

“However, theatre had a terrible history,” Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “The journey started with the horrific play, Tone kwa Tone, that was among the first HIV dramas staged in Kenya. It was grotesque; diabolic images of skulls, blood dripping, coffins and HIV depicted as a devil, coffins and promiscuity and immortality associated with HIV. The typical play showed the Simon Makonde story of infected today and dead in seven days marked by intense suffering. This enhanced stigma to a very high level.”

Awareness of how to deal with HIV/AIDS was not done through music alone. There was theatre that provided more latitude for a detailed description of the virus, its behaviour and its impact on life.

Nonetheless the power of using theatre was clearly noted and was thereafter followed subtler plays on HIV, such as Positive Identity written by Oby Obyerodhyambo using the pseudonym Rangóndi Othuon that also won the Okoth K’Obonyo Playwriting Competition that used to be organised by Theatre Workshop Production.

There were several other plays by JPR Ochieng’Odero taken around the country under AIDSCAP project. This USAID-funded programme morphed into the countrywide Theatre for Development or Magnet Theatre projects under the aegis of PATH and FHI. Thousands of shows were staged by the troupe of artists using a Forum Theatre approach inspired by Paulo Freire and Augusto Boan techniques. Around this time we also had Maisha ya Nuru where radio soaps and radio magazine platforms were used.

“At this point, the main role of art/artists was – raise awareness of the REAL cause of HIV and AIDS, promote preventive behaviour (Abstinence, Reduction of Sexual Partners and Condom use),” said Oby Obyerodhyambo, who was at the centre of it all while working with PATH. “It was used to reduce HIV stigma, promote acceptance of PLWHIV [people living with HIV] and promote community dialogue around HIV and AIDS to de-mythologise HIV and give hope to families of PLWHIV (mainly that avoiding opportunistic infections could prolong lives). At this point there were plays that taught that an infected person should prepare for death – there were the Memory Projects with scrapbooks. This was before the advent on ARV [antiretrovirals]. Theatre promoted testing and many people got to know their HIV status courtesy of Magnet Theatre – the MT that we did at PATH would have a very tight referral for HIV testing.”

Apart from theatre and music, graphic art also played a major part, especially the Talking Walls projects where murals were used to engage the community in dialogues. These murals travelled a long way from the grotesque images. In some places, these images can still be seen. Art provided a stark reminder of the ravages of HIV, but also promoted stigma by negative portraying PLWHIV. There were posters that played the same sort of role.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) trained puppeteers and promoted the use of life-size puppets. These travelling, life-size puppet shows were the firsts attempts to objectify the disease with non-real characters who could discuss HIV and being HIV-positive and who could explore real taboo subjects. Puppets actually were the first ones to bring caricature and humour into the portrayal of HIV and AIDS. Their role has been underplayed. Using puppets, the stigmatisation of PLWIV and the mystery around HIV was reduced.

Similarly, these arts— Theatre for Development/Participatory Education Theatre— unlocked emotive conversations in the long search for a new order, contributing to securing Kenya’s constitution-making as one of the most participatory processes in the world.

“The conscientisation of Kenyans towards a new public awareness and education came to the fore in the early 90s with the advent of political pluralism,” Kawive Wambua, an artists and governance expert noted in a seminal paper, “The Artists as the Managers of the Political Transition in Kenya”, presented at the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) Conference on East African Oral Literature in Kisumu in 2005. “CSOs [civil society organisations] such as Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), Citizens Coalition for Constitutional Change (4CS), Legal Resource Foundation (LRF), Centre for Governance and Democracy (CGD) and CLARION commissioned plays to be written and engaged artists to go around the country popularising such ‘taboo’ issues as human rights, good governance and rule of law.”

Wambua noted:

Plays that were significant in the 1990s, were such as Professor Kivutha Kibwana’s Kanzala, Wakanyote Njuguna’s Kabla ya Dhoruba, Kithaka wa Mberia’s Kifo Kisimani, Wahome Mutahi’s Mugaathe Mubogothi, Makaririra Kioro, and Mugathe Ndotono among others. Though these plays lack specific merit as Participatory Education Theatre (PET) or even as Interactive Participatory Community Education Theatre (IPCET) texts, they were unconventional (some even compromising style for messagism) and they interrogated difference and diffidence in community leadership. These writers as well were prominent figures in the intellectual and human rights movements and hence had a lot of influence in the course of action on the educational theatre scene. Their plays, among others, were the precursors of the underground NGO movement that came up with the IPCET play. The individual and really forceful activities of civil society organisations like 4Cs, CGD, LRF and a plethora of other organisations suffered the same fate of being but information points for the community. Information, we should note at this point, empowers, but it is only communication that liberates. And this key issue was never sufficiently addressed. Art was severally massacred at the behest of militant advocacy.

“I would like to isolate the 4Cs and say that they started off as a loosely structured lobby group for constitutional reform,” Kawive Wambua added during an interview. “For three years, its single programme was theatre. The theatre group used the rich history of oppression in the country to create a play “Five Centuries”, later to become the name of the group. The play was an interrogation of the suffering and pain the people of Kenya have gone through in the hands of selfish leaders, the fact of an independence that never was, and the need for this century to be a century of nation reconstruction and a new constitutional order. This trend has survived across the years, at times faltering at the intersection of artistic expressionism and political advocacy.”

He noted: “It is clear that theatre mobilised citizens and led to the groundswell that bore the Change-the-Constitution movement of the late 90s. I have argued elsewhere that the change of government in 2002 was midwifed by artists – literally. Aforementioned groups and others such as 5Cs Theatre were instrumental in cultivating the language of rights and self-liberation by citizens from the government and by women from the clutches of patriarchy. In the mid and late 90s also Theatre for Development (TfD), Participatory Education Theatre (PET) was being used for reproductive health education and HIV and AIDs awareness. CARE-Kenya and other non-profit outfits were big on theatre as a primary methodology of Behaviour Change Communication (BCC). This was to continue in 2003 onwards with Magnet Theatre projects all over Kenya.

“It is clear that theatre mobilised citizens and led to the groundswell that bore the Change-the-Constitution movement of the late 90s. I have argued elsewhere that the change of government in 2002 was midwifed by artists – literally…”

In the run-up to the 2002 election, Gidi Gidi, Maji Maji’s popular song We Are Unbwogable became the rallying call for the nation’s new heroes Those people who had been frustrated by the regime and its machinations came together and sought artists to ignite the fire that would stamp them with confidence and endear them to the electorate. Another song, Yote ya Wezekana, a popular gospel tune, was used to appropriate the political mood and to whip up the mood and empathy of the people from the apparent defeatism and lethargic complacency that had enveloped them after three subsequent defeat upon defeat of those that seemed to be conscientious leaders faced by the misuse of state machinery and resources.

From disease comes great art

“Art has a way of objectifying reality and therefore making difficult topics discussable. This was clearly the case with HIV because of the preponderance of sexual transmission,” Oby Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “Art very effectively made it possible to discuss the issues around HIV and suggest the steps that could be taken to cope. Objectivity through depiction in art and film such as the iconic movie Philadelphia where Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington dealt with the issues of human rights and stigma associated with HIV. Art and artists worked through their creative expression to raise awareness of HIV; build knowledge about the disease – its transmission, diagnosis, management and prevention strategies and removing myths that fuelled stigma and discrimination; created a more receptive environment by famous musicians coming out as Lutaaya did; then there were those who drew crowds by their fame and did edutainment shows – Prince Jully, Ochieng’ Kabaselle, (many in local languages) and big names like Franco Luambo Makiadi with Attention na SIDA.”

“The spectre of disease, pandemic, and death have been with us since life emerged on this rock. And once we got around to discovering music, homo sapiens (and perhaps Neanderthals, whose numbers were probably drastically culled by disease), began reacting to these periods of widespread sickness with stories, art, and song,” writes Allan Cross, a broadcaster and a commentator for Global News.

Utilitarian art that responds to the crisis of the moment certainly has its uses, but when the crisis of the coronavirus is behind us, it is to the songs, the theatre and the stories from this epoch that Kenyans will look for a reflective history of their experience.

“The first recorded pandemic hit the people of Athens between 429 and 426 BC,” Cross writes. “No one knew why, other than the gods must have been displeased with mankind. We still don’t know what caused the death of up to 100,000 — Typhus? Typhoid Fever? Some sort of viral hemorrhagic disease? — but it left an unusual mark on the city. Those were the peak years of Greek tragedy, a form of theatre that had tremendous influence on both ancient Rome in a few centuries and the Renaissance more than a thousand years in the future. From disease came great art.”

Science is moving at great speed to educate us about the coronavirus, how it spreads and ways to contain it, which require changes that cannot be enforced by official diktat alone. “The Black Death killed majority of the population in Florence in 1348 (and maybe as much as 60 per cent of all of Europe between 1331 and 1353) yet Florence rallied, becoming a flashpoint of intellectual and artistic evolution that was felt for centuries,” Cross adds. “London was plagued through much of the 16th century and King Henry VIII was forced to self-isolate during the Sweating Sickness of 1529, much in the way we are today and saw a spike in fatalities in the early 1600s. But as England slowly recovered, Shakespeare was somehow inspired to write King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all in 1606.”

Utilitarian art that responds to the crisis of the moment certainly has its uses, but when the crisis of the coronavirus is behind us, it is to the songs, the theatre and the stories from this epoch that Kenyans will look for a reflective history of their experience.

Exploring these tragedies, the deprivations they visit upon society and the adaptations that are required to survive is a matter of emotional persuasion as it is of logic. “The artist provides society with emotions, colour, and texture. Scientists think up of ways to make life easier, builders and technicians turn those scientific ideas into tangible objects. These things help us – they blend our foods, put roofs over our heads, make mowing the lawn easier – but they never add real emotion. Artists come in to play on our emotions and subconscious thoughts,” notes Andre Deherrera, a creator/artist for AndreDDesign.

Aziza Atta, founder of Ozoza Lifestyle in Abuja, notes: “Art is the natural way in which we create relationships in the world and also where we build life experiences. Being an artist is to express one’s soul. The responsibility of the artist is to consciously bring about an internal change within us. We cannot bring to the world what we have not ourselves internally absorbed, digested and assimilated. It all starts in the heart and in the mind. Through its emotional outreach, art can affect these transformations. It is a powerful force.”

Besides artists being direct taxpayers, they are also consumers. In a streamlined and transparent system, paying artists the over Sh2 billion (about $20 million) owed to them each year can take away a great deal of pressure on the state to provide relief.

The culture and creative industry

Tapping into the potential of the creative economy can turn artists into significant cogs that build a nation’s resilience, beyond just contributing to the national gross domestic product. There is no doubt that this president the others before him have not given the culture and creative industry (CCI) the attention it deserves. However, Uhuru Kenyatta and his team have suddenly woken up to what the CCI stakeholders have been taking about. Gains about the CCI are well documented in reports such as the “Ubunifu Report on the Status of the Creative Economy in East Africa”, the Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC)ianalysis report on the trends shaping the entertainment and media industry in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania, dubbed “Getting Personal: Putting the Me in Entertainment & Media: Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019–2023 An African Perspective, and many other related industry reports.

Champions for CCI have included none other than Hon. Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary- General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), through numerous reports and recommendations and conferences, such as the one that led to UNCTAD’s Nairobi Maafikiano 2016.

In its report, UNCTAD observes: “Trends show the ‘creative economy’ can cultivate meaningful work, make money and help deliver prosperity for all. The creative economy, in some ways, defies definition almost by definition. But its significant 3% contribution to global gross domestic product (GDP) makes it a powerful emerging economic sector that is being strengthened by a surge in digitisation and services.”

Since 2004, UNCTAD has analysed creative industries, providing important insights into its global dimensions. UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Programme, whose focus is on trade in the creative industries, has placed the arts on the world economic and development agenda by imagining a role for them in the growth of developing economies. Its data on trade in creative goods and services provide important insights for understanding the creative economy at a time when many emerging and developing economies are seeking to diversify.

“The creative economy and its industries are strategic sectors that if nurtured can boost competitiveness, productivity, sustainable growth, employment and exports potential,” notes Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s international trade and commodities director.

The creative economy leverages creativity, technology, culture and innovation in fostering inclusive and sustained economic growth and development. Creative economy sectors include arts and craft, books, films, paintings, festivals, songs, designs, digital animation and video games. They generate income through trade (exports) and intellectual property rights, and create new jobs in higher occupational skills, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises.

UNCTAD’s second report, Creative Economy Outlook and Country Profile Report 2018, notes that the “size of the global market for creative goods expanded substantially more than doubling in size from $208 billion in 2002 to $509 billion in 2015.”

In this report, it was noted that the “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million (Sh4.3 billion) and imports at $195 million (Sh20.6 billion) in 2013, the last year for which data was available. Besides the performing arts, visual arts and cultural heritage, Kenyans produce films, videos, television and radio shows, video games, music and books. There is important work being undertaken in the graphic design, fashion and advertising subsectors. These creative activities need to be anchored in political and governmental commitment and concrete support.”

Government commitment and concrete support through the streamlining of the Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) and Collective Management Organisations (CMOs) by streamlining the sector can deliver benefits for artists but can also open a new revenue stream for government. In January this year, President Kenyatta directed that KECOBO license digital platforms run by telecommunication firms and media companies to channel payments of royalties to the three CMOs “in order to ensure compensation for all generators of the works”.

In this report, it was noted that the “creative goods exports from Kenya stood at $40.9 million (Sh4.3 billion) and imports at $195 million (Sh20.6 billion) in 2013, the last year for which data was available.

“Content Service Providers who work with digital platforms such as Skiza and Viusasa, will be eliminated because they sit outside the CMOs,” President Uhuru said. “My practical direction on this is to have all rights holders register on the National Rights Registry.”

Additional funds totalling Sh100m from the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage are also to be made available from the Sports Fund during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These new measures will see the rise of tariffs collected and will create immense savings on the processes of collecting royalties,” he added. “It is estimated that the new system will see an increase in collections from a previous Sh200 million per year to an estimated Sh2 billion per year, a tenfold increase.”

The ministry’s perennial underfunding over the years and its general poor performance mean that they need to be watched closely to turn the order into reality. The coronavirus crisis also presents an opportunity. President Kenyatta has ordered KECOBO to gazette new tariffs within 30 days and ensure that public service vehicles, the hospitality industry, and broadcasters apply them.

The arts and COVID-19

The State House Choir has already showed that artists are going to be significant cogs in the fight against COVID-19. Like in the past, artists in various genres will need to come on board to help deal with numerous issues around COVID 19.

“I suggest that art could be used to respond to the misinformation or disinformation about COVID-19 and coronavirus,” Oby Obyerodhyambo pointed out. “To present the facts in a very easy and understandable way that our grandmothers and children under 5 can understand – unlike HIV that was so stigmatising because it involved sex among others this one is less inhibiting. However, it goes to the very core of our cultural practices so we need to explain why we need to social distance, stay at home and be careful about what we touch – to demystify the preventive procedures including donning of masks.”

He added: “We are social animals and greet and hug a lot. We are a ‘touchy’ culture so the idea that we cannot touch – shake hands – is harder than avoiding sex. Basically we are telling people to dehumanise themselves. We can use the art of humour to do this and create a way that we can laugh at this again because it is not as difficult as abandoning sexual partners. Over that we need art to explain the logic of doing what we are doing.”

Through art, we will explain the lockdown so that the punitiveness of it is explained. The idea of curtailing freedom to move and interact is difficult to explain unless some counter-narrative is spun. We must explain to the man or woman who cannot go to the farm or market or visit his relatives how this is for his or her own good.

“Again, there is a need to reduce the fiat that the administration is adopting,” Obyerodhyambo added during the interview. “The ‘or else’ approach is counter-intuitive. How do you explain to me that going out to fetch food for my hungry children is for their own good? Artists need to rally the public around ownership of the response to corona. The way that the globe was galvanised around the movements like ‘Africa for Africans’ where funds were donated to support the victims of famine must be the approach. The arts must tug at the heartstrings of the population, we must show empathy and concern for one another.”

The role of the artist in the world after corona

No one best captures the hopes and aspirations of artists and the art world better than Dalen O’Connell, a theatre artist from Minnesota, USA, when the coronavirus chaos is finally contained. In a Facebook post, Dalen noted that in theatre “we have a tradition – whenever the theatre is empty, we are always sure to leave one light on. Typically on a stand in the center of the stage, this light is known as the ghost light. There are many stories about its origin- but it’s meaning is unmistakable. It means though the theatre is empty, WE WILL RETURN. So here’s to us. The actors, the technicians, the directors, the carpenters, the designers, the dancers, the teachers, the students, the freelancers, those on tour, those at sea, the electricians, the stitchers, the makers, the stage managers — THE ARTISTS. Many of us have taken big hits during this virus. Financial and emotional weights have come crashing down as our entire industry is reduced to nothing but a bunch of ghost lights. But those ghost lights are temporary place holders. They are a sign. We might be down now- but our passion, our creativity, our drive is still center stage. We will be unplugging those ghost lights in no time. Until then- here’s a ghost light – to let the world know we will be back.” (There was an accompanying picture of the ghost light).

Obyerodhyambo notes that there are hideous songs that have been produced by so-called artists telling people to wash their hands, sanitise, and keep social distance. Most of them are very hurriedly done and lack any artistic flair. After COVID they will remain uninspiring and irrelevant.

He notes: “There is no artistic rendition carrying the questions that society is grappling with such as: Where is the money donated by all manner of people going? Why are our facilities so decrepit and our health care professionals unprotected? Why is COVID weaponised so that the police are killing Kenyans in enforcing the Public Health Act and the curfew? Why is the donated testing costing 10,000 shillings and why are people being charged for being quarantined in places they did not choose? Why are police officers corruptly landing people in quarantine? And why are come counties giving masks and why are politicians branding donated hand sanitisers and getting away scot-free?”

“The role of artists DURING the crisis should be of interest because if they are the moral compass and mirror they should be asking these difficult questions,” Oby added during the interview. “Artists should be questioning why Kenyans still do not wear masks and are not physically distancing? Why are people sneaking in and out of the locked-down cities? There should be messages of self-reflection and introspection. Do the artists actually understand the public health issues at play? Can they be allowed to pass on the message they do not understand?”

Like the proverbial Phoenix, artists believe the industry will rise once again and take its place in society – as entertainers, educators and tax payers.

Obyerodhyambo notes that there are hideous songs that have been produced by so-called artists telling people to wash their hands, sanitise, and keep social distance. Most of them are very hurriedly done and lack any artistic flair. After COVID they will remain uninspiring and irrelevant.

“I believe, like Okot p’Bitek, the artist is the ruler,” Kawive Wambua pointed out in a conversation when this article was being written. “Artists have already unravelled the coronavirus and are crooning from YouTube on what the pandemic means for us. They interpret it and entertain at the same time. In the post-corona period, they will puck the husks of our lives and relive our lives on stage, talking about love gone and death visiting but unwanted. They will create for us a log of memory as they help us reflect and recreate a new world – where wealth and power are demystified and life glorified. They will help us imagine a new world.”

In Kenya, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) envisages artists and cultural workers playing a key role in re-engineering our society. It envisages the resourcing and revitalisation of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Sports to take lead in the rebuilding process. Advocacy and education work using art that will even entail coming to terms with the post-COVID realities will be critical.

The government will need to move beyond talking and tokenism in its effort to strengthen the culture and creative industry. Research shows that this is the next frontier for growth, but there is need for sound investment in the right legal and policy frameworks, financial and human resources, technology, strengthening institutions and associations, among others.

“Double-digit growth is anticipated for Kenya,” the PwC-backed Insights from the Entertainment & Media Outlook: 2019–2023 An African Perspective notes. “Kenya’s E&M market is set to see growth at a 10.3% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) over the next five years, reaching nearly US$3.0 billion in 2023. In 2018 the market rose by 13.0% year-on-year to make US$1.8 billion.”

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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.

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The Return of the Repressed: Religion in the Fictions of Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
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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.

Image of Leila Aboulela

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

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.

Oludhe Macgoye

Image of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye

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.

Coming to Birth

The main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions

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.

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Culture

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.

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Is Kiswahili the Key to Unleashing the Full Potential of Sub-Saharan Africa?
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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.

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