I spent over 60 minutes with Kenyan writer, Swahili promoter and lecturer, now retired; grandfather of twelve grand-children, Mr Abdilatif Abdalla. We walked along Camden Town in northern- west London, had tea; and hardly a moment passed without laughter. Abdilatif is one of those gifted humans that find fun and amusement and meaning in very simple things.
At 67 years his mind is sharp and his senses possess charisma which the Oxford English dictionary defines as: magnetism, appeal, allure, presence, strength of character. A hundred years ago, famous American novelist, Jack London wrote: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.”
Two ouststanding Swahili pundits : Award winning journalist Ahmed Rajab (left ,seated) with Abdilatif Abdalla...pic by Mohammed Said.
During my life I have met or interviewed many interesting people: in fact, I believe every human being is unique or has something relevant to offer. Like Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher, declared many centuries back: “Other people are bright.”
Those I have shook hands with include musicians James Brown (USA), Miriam Makeba (South Africa), Fela Kuti (Nigeria), Remmy Ongala( Congo-Tanzania), Kenya’s Fadhil William (credited for composing the famous tune, Malaika), Francis Bebey (Cameroon), the two superstar Brazilian musicians, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. I have chatted to presidents: Mwalimu Nyerere, Robert Mugabe and Jakaya Kikwete; Jamaican poets Mutabaruka and Linton Kwesi Johnson; Kenya’s eminent author, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Zanzibar’s Swahili novelist Adam Shafi and now, Abdilatif Abdalla from Mombasa.
Whether you are fond of their values and ideas or not, they all possess one thing in common: charisma. It underlies deep intelligence; a sense of purpose, a mission to enrich humanity.
In 2009, Kenya’s prolific scholar and writer, Professor Ken Walibora, hailed Mr Abdilatif Abdalla as “one of the most talented 20th century poets.”
Historian, writer, musician and researcher, Mohammed Said holds a copy of the treasured Abdilatif book when he visited the author in Hamburg in 2011.
Abdilatif Abdalla was sent to jail when he was only 22 old for writing a Swahili pamphlet that asked “Where is Kenya heading to?” Having spread the material in several cities in 1968, the then young rebel was imprisoned for three years accused of sedition in the era of Jomo Kenyatta. While incarcerated he managed to scribble poems in toilet papers and in 1973 the collection “Sauti ya Dhiki” (Voice of Agony) was published by Oxford University Press.
The following year Sauti ya Dhiki, ironically, won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Although Mr Abdalla has written numerous articles, another collection (Utenzi wa Adam na Hawaa, 1971) and edited poems from last century (“Kale ya Washairi wa Pemba”, by Mkuki Na Nyota), Sauti ya Dhiki is his most known book.
Exiled in Tanzania from 1972 to 1979- he worked in the Swahili Department of the University of Dar es Salaam, then, BBC Swahili (1979-1985) thereafter teaching Swahili in London and Leipzig till retirement.
Why so few books, I wondered.
Abdilatif:” It is better to write little and be read rather than a lot and not be read.”
Over several decades I have enjoyed Sauti ya Dhiki. The thirty plus poems reflect on love, life and society; generally weaving and embellishing the Kiswahili language in a variety of dialogues, lullabies and rich prose. Genuine, classic.
Dhiki’s significant aspect is it’s dialect as Mr Abdalla speaks Kimvita one of several Swahili types. Others include Kingazija (Comoro Islands), Kingwana (Congo), Kimrima (Dar es Salaam), Kilamu (Mombasa), Kibajuni (South Somalia), etc. Sauti ya Dhiki is considered to have contributed to the many facets of the Swahili language and growth. No wonder a quote on its first page is from the iconic Swahili writer Muyaka bin Haji who died in 1840.
In his preface to the collection in May 1973, the late respected scholar Shihabuddin Chiraghdin eulogised:” All his poems do not have any traces of foreign elements; his thoughts are rooted in Swahili and African roots.”
The book has been reissued by the same Oxford University Press...
For those who don’t read Swahili poetry or speak Swahili, Abdilatif Abdalla could just be a statistic in East African literature. But you may have used modern Kiswahili dictionaries. Abdilatif has in the past been strongly involved in the development of Kiswahili dictionaries. You have certainly heard of individuals who work hard to preserve nuances, nerves and character of our speech- be it French, Lingala, Sandawi, Wolof, Hindi, German, Zulu, Mandarin. Abdilatif Abdullah is talented for speaking fluent Kiswahili in such a beautiful way that last year, students at the University of Dar es Salaam marvelled at how he could deliver a lecture and speak for hours without throwing one single English word in his Swahili delivery like some of our leaders and elite tend to do these days. Suffice to say those who continue to highlight so called “Swanglish” forget that they are developing neither Swahili nor English. The standard of both languages continues to drop because of this mish-mash. They need to heed, learn, read and listen to our living elders, like Abdilatif Abdalla.
Author with Abdilatif Abdalla in Camden Town, September 2013.
-Published in Citizen Tanzania 20 th September, 2013