Friday, 22 January 2016


 I first met Zanzibar novelist, Adam Shafi in 1979.
He had just popped into then Tanzania Publishing House along Samora Avenue, downtown Dar es Salaam. His new book, Kuli, excited every Swahili reader and lover of literature. Kuli is a classic. Phenomenal. It is based on historical incidents during the colonial era in 1948. Port workers stage a strike that eventually contributes to Uhuru struggles for Zanzibar and Tanganyika (the older name of Tanzania) independence. 
Adam Shafi- pic by Mohammed Ghassani
 Adam Shafi was quick on his feet and we saluted him. When I say “saluted”, I mean young people regarded him (and still regard him) as a literary hero.  Before Kuli (coolie) he had penned “Kasri ya Mwinyi Fuad” (TPH, 1978) - recently translated into German and French. Twenty years later the man published the intense love story “Vuta N’kuvute” (winner of 1998 award) then Haini (about the aftermath of Karume assassination in Zanzibar, 1972). Haini is a powerful book which I may gladly compare to big international reality  narratives like the gripping French novel “Papillon” (Butterfly), by  Henri Charriere (Laffont, 1969).
  Longhorn publishers in Nairobi who released Haini (traitor) are audacious.  Rarely discussed in African literature imprisonment of political prisoners is Haini’s theme. In fact, all Adam Shafi’s books tackle tough subjects and are uncomfortable, enjoyable, entertaining and informative. His language is equally impeccable.  A master of Kiswahili literature: still alive; still with us.  Ambitious, innovative East African filmmakers searching for tenacious stories should knock Mzee Shafi’s door.
I encountered Adam Shafi again in Milton Keynes in 2007. Reeling from the success of Haini, he was labouring on the autobiographical “Mbali na Nyumbani”- subject of this article.
Adam Shafi working on "Mbali Na Nyumbani" in Milton Keynes, 2007. Pic by F Macha

Born in 1940 the tireless genius showed me carefully handwritten, manuscript notes. Six years later the meal was ready. I chatted to the author recently after slogging through 500 pages of “Mbali na Nyumbani “(Far from Home).   Reviewing it upon release in 2013, Kenya’s writer Professor Ken Walibora said, “Frankly, Shafi’s autobiography might be the most courageous and well crafted, more than any other Kiswahili literary work, to date.”
 Seeking education overseas is the centre of the tale. 

Narrated in frank, entertaining, descriptive language, Shafi’s very difficult journey from Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan to Egypt in early 1960s is a parallel to the way immigrants from Africa and the Middle East are trying to cross to Europe in recent years. Most writers remain in one country. His is a Pan Africanist trek during colonial times.
 Two months ago, Adam Shafi clarified to me:
“In novels one must have a story. If the story is based in one nation, the writer cannot jump overseas. Mbali Na Nyumbani is a travel tale; therefore, the traveller goes through several countries. Consequently, the writer must tell where he has been in his journeys. In doing so, the writer not only entertains but also informs and educates. He is thus doing his duty...”  

I threw other questions to the author about Kiswahili language. Usually his vocabulary is rich with idioms, proverbs, poetry and descriptive words. I gave an example on page 179 where he describes one of his characters as having “teeth as white as an egrets’ (yange yange) and black like ebony (mpingo).”
I asked him about Thesaurus and Swahili speakers benefitting from dictionaries of synonyms.
Shafi: “We already have such dictionaries. There is a Swahili synonyms dictionary (“Visawe”) co-written by Professors Said Ahmed and the late Mohammed Abdalla. There are also dictionaries of sayings, idioms and riddles such as one by Shaaban Saleh Farsi and the next generation of writers i.e. Professor Wamitila Kyallo Wadi. Nevertheless, it is true Swahili still needs various types of dictionaries. There is a time Professor Mohammed Abdalla told me he was working on Swahili Encyclopaedia but I do not know where he had reached with the project at the time of his death.”
 Professor Abdalla (who died aged 63 in 2012) was a hardworking Swahili giant who was also working on the Swahili dictionary of antonyms (“Kamusi ya Vinyume”).
We have a multitude of authors and thinkers in Swahili yes.
Author with Adam Shafi in 2007- pic by Hawa Yaxley

But how many African writers or celebrities have documented their personal lives for future generations?  Nelson Mandela, Jomo Kenyatta, Miriam Makeba and Tom Mboya did publish autobiographies. But we need more.
“Mbali Na Nyumbani” can be found in Longhorn Publishers bookshops across Kampala, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Search, read and enjoy it as I did.

Published in  Informer East Africa , January 2016.

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