Shaaban Robert's grand-daughter, Amina Wazir, collects award for her genius grand-dad from Mr Frederick Sumaye. On the right, seated is His Excellency High Commissioner of Tanzania, Hon. Peter Kallaghe.
Pic by Jestina George
The writer Shaaban Robert, who died aged 53, in June 1962 was a very “popular read” during the 1960s and early 1970s. Somewhere along the line, he was almost forgotten. Early 1990s, the newly launched Mkuki na Nyota revived this eminent Kiswahili genius, and thanks to the hard work of its founder Walter Bgoya, many of Shaaban Robert’s masterpieces are readily available in bookshops across East Africa today. For those unfamiliar with the author, I would recommend “Maisha Yangu Na Baada ya Miaka Hamsini” (My Life After 50). The book sums most of the Tanga born thinker’s qualities: essays, personal recollections, poetry, thoughts on life, racism in Tanganyika of the 1930s and 1940s, TANU and Nyerere, duty to society, role of writers, etc.
Kusadikika, his most famous novel which is said to have partially inspired late President Nyerere's Ujamaa policies.
Best thing about “Maisha Yangu” is the fact that even with brief, grim, somber, sometimes sad, personal family stories he offers profound and deep meaning. Take an example of his daughter passing standard four to what was then called middle school in 1940s colonial era. Back then girls getting education was rare. Since there were no middle schools in Mpwapwa where Shaaban Robert was employed, he fought to get a transfer so as to be in a town with schools. Eventually he was moved to Tanga. He did not want his daughter to end up uneducated like her grandmother- who although - managed to educate him (Shaaban), could not read, write or do maths. He quips:
“During my mother’s childhood, institutions of education in Africa did not exist. It was totally unknown. So we cannot blame her parents for her ignorance.”
Throughout the book, Shaaban Robert’s major belief is progress and good, respectful character. These traits are also found in the long poems he composed for his two children (Utenzi wa Hati and Utenzi wa Adili), after the death of their mother, his first wife. At the height of Tanzania’s Ujamaa policies and Education for Self Reliance, it was often said TANU and Mwalimu Nyerere were inspired by Shaaban Robert’s novels especially Kusadikika and Kufikirika- utopian novels about an ideal society.
When I spoke to two of his London grand children, both remember him as a wise elder. 1957 born, Aisha, recalls a charming, “tall like Mandela” and very immaculate, incredible Mzee. “He loved children and his room was full of books. Beside the books were bottles of ink, you know those days folks used fountain pens, there were no computers or ball pens. He loved books and read us stories all the time.”
Extraordinary revelation. Although these days we have computers and books it is seldom seeing parents reading stories to their children or grand children.
Amina who was too little to remember much about the legendary writer just recalls a very tall, dark man. It was her who collected the Tanzania Diaspora Achievement Award 2013 given posthumously to her grandfather in London last month. Organized by New Deal Africa, the award is for language and education enhancement – two of the dearest values promoted by her maternal grandfather. Amina is a respected and active member of the community she lives; for years she has been running Kiswahili classes in the city.
New Deal Africa also issued awards to notable overseas based Tanzanians, i.e. Aseri Katanga whose “Computer 4 Africa” project is a UK technology charity striving to improve education on the continent by sending computers; TV presenter Sporah Show, Mariam Kilumanga (of Tanzanian women organization- TAWA), designer Dida Fashion (based in Birmingham); a humble and much loved Dr Hamza Hassan; Reading based “Building Bridges” keen to help Tanzanians who want to invest back home, etc.
In his life time Shaaban Robert’s was hardly known internationally. Late Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe once wrote that when they met there was not much to speak about since the Tanzanian writer’s work was in Kiswahili. Despite this lack of translation, Shaaban Robert was awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) and Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for his literary contribution.
During the Second World War, Robert wrote passionate poetry against Nazism. He said that he was slightly worried that had the Germans won the conflict he would have been in serious trouble, yet did not mind. Although most of his contemporaries claimed he was wasting time condemning the war, he saw it as a duty to report what was going on “for the benefit of future generations.”
This was a man who knew his role as a writer and duty to society. When Mwalimu Nyerere and TANU were campaigning for independence it was dangerous to attend meetings, but Shaaban Robert did not fear. He said he admired the way Mwalimu united people of all colour, religion and class. His name is a conjoin of Muslim (Shaaban) and Christian (Robert)- to express his lack of religious bias- so widespread today. Quite a visionary individual. It is about time we created a Shaaban Robert Museum- a place where people would visit and learn more about our history, heroes and role models.
Also published in Citizen Tanzania