African Literature in African Languages

Leiden library has recently been selling a collection of books for 1 Euro each. I was passing through recently and managed to pick up a few. The majority of them seem to come from the collection of the scholar of African linguistics K.F. de Blois. Among several grammars, dictionaries and journals of African languages, he also had a sizeable collection of literature in African languages (mostly Swahili).

The majority of these works are poems, plays and translations, published either by Longmans in East Africa, OUP in East Africa or the East African Publishing House.



The aim of publishing all these books in Swahili (which started around the 1920s) was the polar opposite of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s attempts to “decolonise of the mind” by rejecting colonial European languages. This was an explicitly colonial enterprise to educate people within the British system, even if using their language. Early Swahili magazines like Mambo Leo, poems from which were in de Blois’ collection, were published by the British in order to address and educate the “natives”. Several of the works, including the great Shaaban Robert’s epic Swahili poem about WWII are dedicated to A.A.M Isherwood, the colonial head of education.


Probably the most striking example of this comes from the front of a small collection of poetry called Fasili Johari ya Mashairi.


There is an introduction in this book by Harold Lambert, the anthropologist and linguist. In it he complains that “literary use of the poems of other languages”. He then goes on to say that “The reason, no doubt, is largely religious”, blaming Islam for not accepting the polytheism of other literatures. He is, therefore, pleased with the author of “Fasili Johari Ya Mashairi” because he has been open to other influences. By other influences he seems to mean “passages from the New Testament”.

What started off, then, as a seemingly reasonable criticism of Swahili poetry (albeit one with many inherent biases) has now somehow morphed into Christianisation of the literature and an attack on the narrow minded-ness of the people.

The whole endeavour of publishing Swahili literature in this way starts to look like a way of controlling it. Oral literature cannot be subject to the same kinds of censorship (whether direct or by controlling what gets published – remember most of the presses were British even after Independence in the 1960s.

I generally write this blog with the idea that print books are a good thing: they allow expressions of creativity and thought to survive long after their author has died and, perhaps, been forgotten. However, the obvious control that is present in these books and the imposed movement from an oral to a written literature is a reminder that not everything is preserved by print.

So that we don’t have to end on a total downer, I was also very happy to discover 4 volumes of the Arabian Nights in Swahili. These stories have a long history in East Africa and, it has been argued, were circulating in Swahili oral poetry before the British printing drive came to East Africa.

But, mostly, who doesn’t love The Nights?



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