Modern Swahili Poems – Ushairi wa Kiswahili wa Kisasa – a seminar and book launch on 16th October 2017

Modern Swahili Poems – Ushairi wa Kiswahili wa Kisasa – a seminar and book launch on 16 October, SOAS, Russell Square, London, WC1H 0XG

In 2014 a prize for modern swahili poetry was created in Dar es Salaam, using money left by Gerald Belkin. A little of his story is told on page 11 of this Newsletter.

The competition was first held in 2014, and attracted a lot of interest. 81 of the poems submitted for the first two competitions have now been published (Diwani ya Tunzo ya Ushairi ya Ibrahim Hussein. Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam, 2016).

This seminar, run in conjunction with the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at SOAS, will introduce this literature to audiences in Europe. Ahmed Rajab – a retired journalist with the BBC Swahili Service – will chair the event and give an introduction to the modern development of swahili poetry. The poems will be read in swahili, with English translations, and then discussed in English. So this event will be meaningful to anyone interested in poetry from the African and Arab worlds – and its contemporary impact.

An extraordinary Canadian, Gerald Belkin, who took some of the first video cameras used in Africa into two ujamaa villages in 1971 (the camera being far to heavy for a person to hold, and so mounted on the back of a pick up truck, with a huge array of batteries behind it, that could be recharged by the engine of the pick up). In true anthropological style he spent a year preparing for this and became fluent in swahili in the process and also became friends with Ibrahim Hussein. When he died he left money to promote the swahili language, and his old friend Laurence Cockcroft worked with Ibrahim Hussein (itself a achievement, as he was living a quiet, almost reclusive life to avoid political persecution) to set up the prize. The book which we celebrated on Monday is a selection of poems from the many entries in the first two competitions. Belkin’s daughter Aurore spoke about the prize at the baraza and I assumed that she had mentioned the seminar then. She was also at the seminar on Monday, along with some very distinguished swahili scholars, one of whom had come from Hamburg to be there. There were 6 readers of the poems, including Farouk Topan, Donovan McGrath, Chege Githiora, Ida Hadjivayanis. Translations were available in English. Much of the discussion was about the meaning of “modern” in this context – and the debate between Mulokozi (one of the judges but not at the seminar) and Topan (who was one of the readers) on the one hand and Abdilatif Abdullah (the guy from Hamburg) on the other about whether it was acceptable to write in free verse. The poems themselves were very touching – about struggles and joys in today’s Tanzania but almost all with some kind of message or twist. A second book has just been published, so Laurence thought it made most sense to review the two together.

 

Date: 16th October 2017

Time : 5pm – 7pm

Location :  School of Oriental and African Studies, Russell Square, London  WC1H 0XG

The tradition of poetry writing and recital has very long roots in Swahili culture, and is recorded as a feature of life in the great halls of Kilwa in the sixteenth century.  Ebrahim Hussein, whose family originates in Kilwa Kisawani, is both an heir to this tradition and has been one of its leading modern exponents. But he is not alone: the Department of Swahili Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam found in a national survey that there are five thousand writers of poetry in Tanzania at the present time. In recognition both of the tradition and its living exponents a ‘Prize for Swahili Poetry’ was established in 2014 having been funded by Gerald Belkin, an enthusiast for the language, its poetry and of Ebrahim Hussein himself.

The friendship between Gerald, (who sadly died in 2012) and Ebrahim dates from the early 1970s when Gerald was filming village life in selected but pioneering ujamaa villages in Singida and Tanga Regions.  Ebrahim was part of his advisory and linguistic team and they remained in touch whilst he took his PhD in East Berlin.  Gerald’s films are now being curated by the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris and will be publicly available in a year’s time.

The first round of the Prize was awarded in 2014 and the second in 2016. The 2016  award and reading of the poems was held at the National Museum in Dar. Ebrahim Hussein was present on both occasions.

81 of the poems from these two competitions were published last year (Diwani ya Tunzo ya Ushairi ya Ibrahim Hussein. Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam).

On 16 October we will introduce this to audiences in Europe for the first time. Ahmed Rajab – a London based journalist born in Zanzibar — will give us a brief introduction to the modern development of Swahili poetry and chair the event. A selection of the poems will be read in Swahili, with English translations, and then discussed in English. So this event will be meaningful to anyone interested in poetry from the African and Arab worlds – in its contemporary cultural situations.