This year Kiswahili literature lost one of its most distinguished authors, who had made an unprecedented contribution to its growth and development - Euphrase Kezilahabi.
This short article sets out to give a general overview of Kezilahabi’s creative work, of those achievements that forever secured for him the topmost place in the “golden cohort” of modern Swahili literature.
Kezilahabi was born in April 1944 in the village of Namagondo on Ukerewe Island in the south-eastern part of Lake Victoria, in a family of a village headman, having 10 siblings.
He got his primary education in the village school, secondary education – at Nyegezi Catholic seminary, and in 1967 entered University of Dar es Salaam, where he obtained his first degree in 1970, and the second one in 1976.
From 1977 to 1984 Kezilahabi was doing a doctorate programme at the University of Madison in the USA and got his doctorate degree in 1985.
For a number of years he was employed at the Department of Kiswahili and the Institute of Kiswahili Research at the University of Dar es Salaam.
From 1996 he held the post of professor of African Literature at the University of Gaborone in Botswana.
Kezilahabi is the author of six novels, three collections of poetry, short stories and various scientific works. His only play - Kaputula la Marx (Marx’s Shorts), written in the 1970s, was banned by the authorities and was published only in 1996. He passed away in January 2020 after a long illness.
In numerous critical works on Kezilahabi’s poetry, their authors almost unanimously stress one main trait that substantially differentiates his poems from those of his contemporaries and predecessors.
He was the first to abandon the strict canon of classical Kiswahili poetry in favour of free verse. In the preface to his first collection - Kichomi (The Cramp, 1974) he wrote: “I had my aim when I was writing the poems.
The thing that I want to bring to Kiswahili poetry is the use of common language, the language that people use in their everyday conversations… This revolution of not using rhymes and using the common language of the people has happened in the poetry of different countries.
I did the same not to imitate them, but because I believe that a revolution of this kind is a big step forward in Kiswahili poetry.
As a Kenyan scholar - Kimani Njogu noted, “He sought to break the chains of ‘poetic fixity’”. He succeeded, the technique of free verse in Kiswahili was further developed in his subsequent collections Karibu Ndani (Welcome Inside, 1988) and Dhifa (The Banquet, 2008), and has had an impressive following among distinguished Kiswahili poets, such as Tanzanian authors Said Ahmed Mohamed, Mugyabuso Mulokozi and Kulikoyelo Kahigi, Kenyan writers Alamin Mazrui and Kithaka wa Mberia.
Early novels of Kezilahabi comprise the first conscious and successful attempt to introduce into Kiswahili writing the principles of critical realism.
His first novel Rosa Mistika (1971), which caused a trenchant reaction from both members of the public and the authorities (some schools even banned the book), is the story of a virtuous girl, who falls victim to the adverse social circumstances.
The writer, striving to understand the tragedy of his heroine, step by step traces the disintegration of her personality under the pressure of her social milieu – the family, tyrannised by her alcoholic father, missionary school, where the headmistress forced her into becoming a squealer, the college, where she got seduced by the principal.
Afterwards, Rosa slips to a latent prostitution, which does not prevent her from getting a teaching job at a primary school.
However, in the final chapters of the novel the table turns – when she tries to establish a decent life with her new sweetheart Charles, the latter happens to learn about her past and walks out on her.
In desperation, Rosa commits suicide. In this novel Kezilahabi, also obviously influenced by his strong Christian background, depicts a human being as a mystery which even the Almighty can not solve. In the final episode of the book Rosa faces the Creator, who, after questioning her about her life, exclaims: “Vere, tu Rosa mistica es!” – hence the title of the novel.
Kezilahabi’s next novel Kichwamaji (Misfit, 1974) develops artistic principles founded in his debut novel.
It is also pronouncedly influenced by existentialist philosophy, in which the author took an interest during those years.
The novel evolves in a Tanzanian setting, one of the major themes of the modern African literature – a gap between the generations and disorientation of the young.
The main character, a university graduate Kazimoto, is getting gradually disillusioned in life. He is not attracted by his future job as a teacher, which he sees as futile; after the holidays spent in his native village he realizes his total alienation to rural society; his disappointment in the ideology of Tanzanian Ujamaa, or “communal socialism” is sparked by his meeting with his schoolmate Manase, who, having fathered an imbecile child, gives up his career as a civil servant and goes into seclusion with his family.
All these miseries even lead Kazimoto to iconoclasm – he asserts that “God was created by our fears”. The last blow comes, when his own long-awaited child is stillborn. Being overwhelmed by calamities, Kazimoto, as Rosa in the first novel, takes his life.
The founding idea of the novel is also symbolised in its title – “kichwamaji” literally means “water in the head”; in the novel, Manase’s child, born with liquid in the brain, metaphorically represents the future generation, that will have to grow without any guidelines in life – their parents failed to relay those guidelines, because they themselves did not have any.
Two subsequent novels by Kezilahabi, published in the 1970s, reflect his growing disappointment in the practices of Ujamaa.
In Dunia Uwanja wa Fujo (The world is a battleground, 1975) the writer tells the story of Tumaini, who in many aspects resembles Kazimoto from the previous novel.
He is also a university graduate, he is also trying to overcome his alienation to the traditional way of life – he tries to return to his native village, but the indolence of the village customs and rural life makes him desert the village again.
But, unlike Kazimoto, who became disappointed in life as such, Tumaini finds the sense of living in eternal values – family life and free labour.
But his ideal stands far from the postulates of “communal socialism” – he becomes a self-employed farmer, and because of his prudence and diligence, becomes one of the wealthiest landowners in the county.
Tumaini’s tragedy, however, is caused by the spread of “communal socialism” across the country – his land is confiscated, and Tumaini, being deprived of all livelihood, in desperation kills the party official, who coordinates the nationalization of land in the region.
In the final chapter Tumaini, sentenced to death, tells his friend Dennis during their last meeting: “You told me that the world is a battleground, it is a chaos, and thus everyone must rely on his own reason, to work hard so as not to lose oneself… I did all that, and I could live in bliss.
Where am I now? I will die, but my honour remains with me. And whether I was right or wrong – let the future generations make their judgement.”
Even more impartial and generally negative portrait of the propagators of Ujamaa is drawn in the novel Gamba la Nyoka (The snake’s skin, 1979) – namely, of those who were transforming the idealistic principles of “communal socialism” into its not-so-humane practices.
The novel centres on two party activists, Mambosasa and Mamboleo, young university graduates, who are coordinating the forced movement of the provincial rural settlements into the so-called “Ujamaa villages”.
Their effort is accompanied with rampant violence, the inhabitants of newly created “Ujamaa village” are perishing of hunger and diseases; eventually it is discovered, that even their appointment to the provincial areas was in fact a demotion – because of the rape attempt that they committed during their student years.
The senior officials are painted no less reprovingly – when the “heroes” are summoned to the local head official and are expecting a court sentence for their deeds, instead they are given a lecture on moral behaviour and party’s policy, and then dismissed.
However, in the final part of the novel they repent and humbly ask to be sent back to the province as the lowest ranking personnel.
This finale appears a bit artificial in comparison to the general critical-satirical spirit of the novel – but maybe it was caused by extra-literary factors, especially remembering that in those years censorship was at full play.
A real breakthrough in the literary career of Kezilahabi and in the development of Swahili novel writing in general, became the publication of his dilogy (Nagona,1990) and Mzingile (Labyrinth, 1991), where he laid the foundations of the so-called “experimental”, or “new” novel in modern Swahili literature.
Two parts of the dilogy are connected by plot, characters and the main themes – the fate of mankind, its relationship with the universe and the supreme powers.
According to the author, in the future the human world is subject to several catastrophes. The first one may be deemed as the catastrophe of the human society, after it, the human race, allegorically depicted as the town where the main character (referred to as just ‘Mimi’ - ‘I’) comes, decides to reject thinking, throws away all the books, kills librarians and writers, and drags a miserable life in dilapidating houses, feeding themselves from the ‘well of dreams’.
However, even these miserable remnants of human race are to perish in the second, more symbolic (but arguably more drastic) catastrophe of human knowledge, allegorically shown as the day of Ngoma Kuu (The Main Dance) or Ungamo Kuu (The Great Confession).
Both names are, in fact, quite applicable for on that day, a certain Kizee Mwenye Fimbo (An Old Man with a Stick, as may be assumed, the Supreme Being) summons to a ceremonial dance groups of dancers, each being headed by a prominent figure in the history of human knowledge—from Aristotle and Freud to Karl Marx. The dance, however, turns into a wild orgy, which grows into the world collapse.
After the Main Dance very few people manage to stay alive, among them Mimi, who is now bound to take care of a little girl, born on the day of the Ngoma Kuu. This girl was supposed to be the long-awaited Second Saviour, but all her attempts to save the humankind, already revived, go in vain—she is killed, as her predecessor, and Mimi, is now supposed to find God, her father, and to bring him to his daughter’s funeral.
The hero finds God—the same Kizee Mwenye Fimbo—as a very weak old man, preparing to die. He refuses to leave his hut on the mountain, so the hero returns alone to the human world.
On his return, he discovers that during his absence several centuries have passed, the power on Earth had been taken by a certain totalitarian government, which once again drove the world to the catastrophe, this time nuclear one.
The main character, Mimi, decides to settle down among the ruins of his native village, and, to his surprise, finds in his demolished home the same Kizee, God Almighty—his hut on the mountain had also been burned—so he descended to die among the remnants of the human world.
The hero feeds him and treats him in every way; one day strong rain falls, the nature, nearly finished by the war, starts to revive, and the hero meets a magic girl, whom he marries (throughout the dilogy she is also featured as a supernatural creature called Nagona), and it appears that they are bound to become Adam and Eve of the new and better mankind. In the final scene of the book the God climbs back to his mountain, it may be supposed that the world will start anew.
Even this brief narration of the plot shows how complicated is the stylistic and generic palette of the dilogy. It is not a novel as such, or a parable, or a myth, but a certain synthetic whole, which some of the critics had almost immediately deemed as “Swahili postmodernism”.
The author himself made it clearer in an interview: “Although I read a lot about Western postmodernism, in my work I am more orientated towards Latin American literature, Marques and his followers, especially the way they use oral tradition… But anyway, I think that Swahili literature must change in order to cope with new tasks, especially in relation to these new theories.”
The importance of creation of the “new” novel by Kezilahabi can be compared only to the value of his introduction of free verse to Swahili poetry.
It also developed a substantial following – the “new” novel has been developed by such distinguished writers as Said Ahmed Mohamed, William Mkufya, Gabriel Ruhumbika, Kenyan authors Kyallo Wamitila, Tom Olali and Clara Momanyi.
“Literature must change” – this conviction appears to have guided Kezilahabi’s experiments and achievements throughout his long creative life, and modern Swahili writing owes its current development to a high – and maybe to the highest – extent to the findings of this great writer, scholar and innovator.
- The author is a Russian scholar.