There are many to whom I owe my appreciation and thanks, beginning with my first Swahili teachers at Duquesne University and finally with colleagues and friends in East Africa and elsewhere.

At Duquesne Frs. Joseph Varga C.S.Sp. and Alfons Loogman, C.S.Sp, Mwalimu Peter Kyara and Mwalimu Sultani George Patrick Kunambi introduced me to the wonders of the language in the early ’60s.  Little did I know then that one day I would be working intensely on translating Swahili poetry and plumbing its lexical depths.  Then, I had mundane and practical objectives that would have led me away from academia.

My teaching of Swahili both in Tanzania from 1965 to1968 at the Maryknoll Language School in Musoma, and in the states at UCLA from 1973 to my retirement in 2005 was directed to the practical: developing practical teaching materials and teaching students who wanted proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing the language. Their interest and mine in literature was defined by those same goals. The texts assigned in our intermediate and advanced classes focused on modern authors, e.g. Shabaan Robert, E. Kezilahabi, Adam Shafi Adam, and others too numerous to mention.  Poetry, except short passages and song lyrics, was never part of the curriculum.  It was only when one of my students, now Dr. Joyce Boss, then a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature, wanted to begin studying the thematic content of poetry that I realized we had very few tools for students to even begin reading poems such as Mwana Kupona. The main problems were vocabulary and grammar along with an unfamiliarity, at that time, of the non-Standard variants of Swahili that so much early poetry was written in.  So thanks to Joyce for sparking my interest in the genre.

It is difficult to single out any one individual to whom I owe my greatest appreciation.  There is now the well-known aphorism, “It takes a village….”, that succintly sums up the nurturing I received over the last 20 some years of my career and effort to read and understand Swahili poetry. While some might identify them as colleagues, they are truly my teachers and mentors. Professor Mohamed Abdulaziz (Univ. of Nairoibi) helped in many ways, especially with the poetry of Muyaka, discussing the intricate meanings of much of the vocabulary used in his poetry . Over several years Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany discussed his poetry with me and helped with its translation.  Others who helped in numerous ways were Professors Kineene wa Mutiso (Univ. of Nairobi), Geoffrey Kitula King’ei (Kenyatta University), M. M. Mulokozi and K. K. Kahigi (Univ. of Dar es Salaam).  Sarah Mirza, my student at UCLA and before that at the University of Nairobi, and co-author of our Elementary Swahili text book, continues to be a great help with many aspects of the project.  Too all these and others I have failed to mention I am most grateful.  Without their help and support none of this would have been possible.  Finally, a nod of gratitude goes to all the scholars on whose published work this project stands.  I refer the reader to the project’s bibliography page.

Here at UCLA the project has received support from UCLA’s African Studies Center, the Academic Senate, and the Center for Digital Humanities.


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Discovering Swahili Poetry