About Swahili Poetry

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There are a lot of very good works available on Swahili poetry from studies in Swahili to anthologies written by both western and East African academics and traditional Swahili scholars.  Some of these are Amri Abedi’s Sheria za Kutunga Mashairi, Lyndon Harries’ Swahili Poetry, and Jan Knappert’s Four Centuries of Swahili Verse.  These and others are cited in the bibliography.  The following are a few thoughts of mine on Swahili poetry with some comments on the problems in understanding the genre for those only familiar with Kiswahili Sanifu (Standard Swahili).

Introduction: The Swahili Language and the Poetic Tradition.

Swahili is an East African Bantu language spoken by at least 70 to 80 million people, mostly as a second language, predominantly in the countries of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and eastern Congo.  It is the mother-tongue language of a relatively small but culturally and historically important group of people — the heritage Swahili communities — who live along a thousand miles of East African coastline mostly centered in urban settings, in small rural settlements, and on the offshore islands of eastern Africa, chief among them Zanzibar and Pemba (both part of present-day Tanzania), the Lamu Archipelago (present-day Kenya), and others (for a recent study of Swahili society and culture see Middleton 1992).  Most speakers in Tanzania and Kenya acquire Swahili as a second language, being native speakers of other African languages. Many speakers of Swahili, especially those further in the interior of the continent (up-country) speak two or more other languages, and use Swahili as a lingua franca.  There is a growing number of first language speakers in the urban areas of East Africa, where multi-ethnic communities are growing.  While it is Standard Swahili (Kiswahili Sanifu), a dialect based on the Kiunguja variant of Zanzibar Town, that is best known and studied, the variants spoken by the heritage communities have received less attention, even though these loom large in cultural and historical importance.  It is the northern cluster of dialects of the Lamu archipelago that has played an especially important role here: the long poetical tradition has been centered on these dialects and a large corpus of poetry has been written in these dialects (see Knappert 1979 for a detailed literary history; also Harries 1962). Important poetical traditions have grown up elsewhere, e.g., Mombasa (the poetry of Muyaka) and Zanzibar.

Poetry and Swahili Society. Poetry has for a long time played a central role in Swahili society. This has not always been appreciated by western students or scholars of the language who have focused on practical and pragmatic reasons for studying the language (though clearly western scholarship has played an important, if not crucial role, in preserving the heritage). See Middleton (1992:188ff, 190) for a brief description of the role poetry plays in the life of the Swahili; Shariff’s Tungo Zetu (1988) is also important here. Furthermore, poetry, composed in heritage variants, has been neglected in most study programs in this country and abroad. Swahili poetry is also stylistically complicated and unfamiliar, largely because it has been unstudied and left to specialists and to the Swahili, for whom the tradition is central. Thus, for these and other reasons, American scholarship and students have neglected Swahili poetry, although there are exceptions (e.g., Biersteker 1990, 1991a &b; Biersteker and Plane 1989; Biersteker and Shariff 1995; Campbell 1983).  It is hoped that one effect of providing this web site will be to stimulate scholarship in this rich area of culture and thought for a language that has already attracted our academic interest in other domains.  Another result will be to make this rich tradition accessible to our students and other Africanists who are interested in the culture, history, and society of the Swahili.

The Swahili Canon. The body of Swahili poetry is large and growing.   Some idea of the richness of this tradition can be had in material that has already appeared in published form (see for example Harries 1962; Knappert 1979; Dammann 1940, 1993; and others too numerous to mention).  Another indication is seen in published bibliographies, especially Allen (1970) and van Spaandonck (1965) and in anthologies for use in East African schools (e.g. Kezilahabi 1974, Kahigi and Mulokozi 1976), and in studies by Swahili scholars, e.g., Chiraghdin 1987.  Also, the untapped oral material, as indicated in Biersteker’s research with Prof. Abdulaziz (p.c.), indicates that we have barely begun to tap the artistic production of the Swahili poet. While the ultimate goal of the project is to provide a digital archive of poetry, initial emphasis will be to provide a representative anthology of poetry spanning several centuries of production.

The Lexicographical Problem.  Because of a decision taken in the 1930s by colonial administrations to focus attention on the dialect of Zanzibar Town as the basis for the language of administration and education (see Whiteley 1969), the heritage dialects have been neglected, especially those that have figured so prominently and historically in the literary traditions of the Swahili communities. With one exception–that of Sacleux’s dictionary (1939)– nearly all lexicographical work (see Krapf, Johnson, Maden, and near or close derivatives of Johnson, e.g. the Kamusi ya Kiswahili Sanifu or Lenselaer (1983)), has focused on the standard dialect, or on its linguistic basis, Kiunguja, or on closely related dialects, e.g., Krapf’s dictionary which also attempts to record Kimvita, the dialect of Mombasa as well as Kiunguja.

Sacleux’s work is the only dictionary that systematically records lexis from the northern area Swahili dialects, as well as others, and marks lexemes accordingly.  As important a source of information as this work is, it is out of print; available copies are scarce and printed on acid paper and are now deteriorating; furthermore, the work is in French making it inaccessible to most people in East Africa, including Swahili scholars, both traditional and western oriented who do not read French.  Furthermore, it is not complete. In a sample of approximately 50 words in Abdulaziz’s glossary in his Muyaka study (1979) that were checked in Sacleux’s dictionary, about 10% were not to be found.  Thus, there is a pressing need to have a reference work that will begin addressing the fundamental requirement of a glossary/dictionary that will serve as the key in making Swahili poetry easily available to students and scholars.

The Grammatical Problem.  Special lexis is not the only distinguishing feature of Swahili poetry.  It also has grammatical features that are unfamiliar to students and non-Swahili specialists who are generally only familiar with the standard dialect or derivatives thereof Much of this has already been described (see, for example, Nurse 1982, Miehe 1979, Nurse and Hinnebusch 1993 for recent studies; Sacleux 1909 and Stigand 1915 for earlier descriptions), but again this descriptive material is not in a form that can be easily accessed by students and non-specialist scholars.  This project will eventually include an online lookup feature that will allow students to understand the special structural features of Swahili poetry.

T. J. Hinnebusch

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Discovering Swahili Poetry