Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet In Politics

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017

Editors: Rose Narie Beck & Kai Kresse
: Mkuki na  Nyota
Reviewer: Prof. Kithaka wa Mberia

Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet in Politics is a product of convergence of minds. On May 4-5, 2011, an important event took place in Leipzig, Germany. The event was attended by people from far and wide and with a great variation in terms of ages and experience. The gathering was a symposium attended by scholars of Swahili literature, literature enthusiasts, students of Kiswahili, media people, and invited guests. They came together to honour Abdilatif Abdalla, one of the most respected poets of Kiswahili. A month earlier, the famed poet had retired after fifteen years as a lecturer for Swahili at the Institute of African Studies, University of Leipzig. 

Among those who attended the symposium was the giant of African literature, Ngugi wa Thiongo. Also in the gathering was the dynamo of creative writing in Kiswahili and a critic of note Said Ahmed Khamis. Others who attended the symposium included Rose Marie Beck, Kai Kresse, Mohamed Bakari, Alena Rettova, Ekkehard Wolf, Geddrum Miehe and Ken Walibora Waliaula.

Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet in Politics contains papers presented in the symposium. In the words of Rose Marie Beck and Kai Kresse, who edited the work, the papers constitute ‘praise and exploration of the works of Abdilatif Abdalla’. However, that is only partly true. Some of the papers go further than praising and exploring the works of the writer; they also effectively dissect the person, including the psyche, of the writer. Such, for instance, is the thrust of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s paper titled ‘Abdilatif Abdalla and the Voice of Prophecy’.  In the paper, Ngugi shows how his life (that is Ngugi’s) and that of Abdilatif Abdalla have convergence: both of them published books while in their mid-twenties; both were prisoners at Kamiti Maximum Prison albeit at different times; both wrote books in incarceration; and finally, both ended in exile in distant lands.

Kai Kresse, who is both a critic and a philosopher with an interest in ethics, looks at Abdalla’s work using the poet’s terms and concept phrases as a spring board. On his part, Said Ahmed Khamis uses Abdalla’s work to raise certain fundamental issues regarding the peripheral status of Swahili literature in the global literary space. In a paper titled, ‘Whither Swahili Literature? Translation and World Recognition of Abdilatif Abdalla’s Sauti ya Dhiki’ he theorises the fate of Kiswahili in particular and other marginalized literatures in general vis-à-vis mainstream world literature. In so doing, he engages concepts and theoretical insights from authorities such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Pascale Casanova, David Damrosch and Cornel West.

The volume is divided into four sections. Section 1 consists of academic papers interrogating Abdilatif Abdalla’s poetry and his person as an intensely committed writer. Section 2 reproduces his selected works including the pamphlet that led to his incarceration, namely, ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ Other pieces in the section are ‘Wajibu wa Mwandishi Katika Jamii Yake’, ‘Matatizo ya Mwandishi wa Jamii Katika Afrika Huru’ and the ‘The Right and Might of a Pen’. Section 3, titled ‘Contexts’  is dedicated to pieces that throw light on how Abdilatif Abdalla came to be the person and the writer he is as well and the environment in which Swahili literature finds itself. The fourth and final section contains congratulatory texts by various people including a poem penned by the students of the University of Leipzig.

Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet in Politics is, as far as we are aware, the first book to present an incisive look at Abdilatif Abdalla as a significant poet of the Swahili language, a fiercely committed writer and a literary critic. The book is well written and on the whole properly edited. However, some spelling and grammatical errors escaped the editing process. Such errors include expressions such as ‘how can a poet who is determined to write dares to write the subversive poem in a confinement’ (p.37).

The book is well designed in terms size dimensions. However, the quality of paper and especially for the cover is not particularly impressive. And while talking of the cover, the publisher should have demanded of the printer to use UV vanish not only to enhance aesthetic appeal of the book but also to protect it from wear and disfiguration. In spite of the shortcomings cited here, the 145 pages Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Politics, published by Mkuki na Nyota (Dar es Salaam), is a precious book especially for scholars of Swahili literature, students of Abdilatif Abdalla, and for people interested in the politics of literature and language and how that politics suppresses literatures written in third world languages and maintains their invisibility on the global literary screen.

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