Ngeli ya Ju-Kwa!

Swahili poetry

Thursday began with a two hour session of Swahili poetry with Ahmed Nassir, Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, Amira S. Msellem, Mahmoud Mau and Abdilatif Abdalla.

Abdilatif Abdala- lecturer in Kiswahili Language and Literature at the Institute for African Studies, University of Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Jerry Riley

Abdilatif Abdalla- lecturer in Kiswahili Language and Literature at the Institute for African Studies, University of Leipzig, Germany. Photo by Jerry Riley


Appreciation of poetry and perhaps, of the classical form of Swahili poetry in particular, depends on the mindset of the listener. You must appreciate the Swahili culture to appreciate the classical form of Swahili poetry. The tone in Swahili poetry provides the setting for what can be described as an intricate approach to storytelling. Amira S. Msellem said, “shairi ni fumbo, si wimbo”; Swahili poetry is consists of enigmatic verses. The poet speaks in metaphorical phases and it is up to the listener to decipher the true meaning. Swahili poems, she says, are not songs.

Abdilatif Abdalla was the last Swahili poet for the day and his is an interesting story. He was a member of the Kenya People’s Union which was an opposition party in the 1960s. In 1969 he was arrested and charged with sedition for his publication entitled “Kenya Twendapi?”, which loosely translated means, which way is Kenya headed? While in prison at Kamiti, he wrote on toilet paper to begin a collection of poetry, which would later be published as “Sauti ya Dhiki”.

Asked about the three years spent in solitary confinement, Abdilatif said that they only strengthened his resolve in what he believed in; that he needed to be a voice in the fight against corruption and dictatorship of African leaders. Unfortunately he says, this unacceptable style of leadership has haunted Africa for years as history continues to repeat itself.

I salute Abdilatif and other Swahili poets who use this art to teach and highlight our history and society. But as Abdilatif says, we need to learn our history and then learn from it. History he says, only repeats itself because we did not hear it the first time.

The unveiling

Uzinduzi or ‘Unveiling’ is a play by Vaclav Havel. The translation was done by Alena Retova and Abdilatif Abdalla. I take my hat off to Alena Retova who is a Czech national teaching Kiswahili at the University of London. Swahili is not an easy language to learn; I tried for close to twelve years and now I can barely put together a coherent sentence. My use of the language rarely goes beyond trying to get a loaf of bread at the kiosk. So much for the 8-4-4 system; but that’s another blog post.

The play was directed by Guy Lenoir assisted by Sammy Mwangi. It was performed in Kiswahili by Caroline Tharau, Victor Ber and Ken Waudo from Heartstrings Kenya.

The organisers paid attention to detail and included music by Juma Tutu and Rahab Said as well as costumes by John Kaveke. I remember Juma Tutu from that comedy show with that guy from the radio. John Kaveke is a leading clothes designer and watching Vera prancing around the Jukwaa in his design eventually won me over.

The play highlights how people deprived of their right to political expression and life in freedom, tend to cocoon themselves within a family environment and resort to gathering possessions, often resulting in erosion of human identity and values. Talk about effective use of irony and satire!

I loved the play. It is a true representation of our society and the pressure to keep up with societal standards. We lose sight of our own individuality in a fight to keep up with acceptable values. We are afraid to break out of the mould and shape our individualities because it is unacceptable and will likely cause ripples, which we feel ill-equipped to deal with.

The acting was awesome. It was definitely better than what I have seen before. I thought Kenyan theatre was dead but turns out I was hanging out in the graveyard. There is hope for us yet! Amen!

So this play written by a playwright from the Czech Republic is translated into Swahili and suddenly becomes very relevant to us in our society. Amazing. The crowd was in stitches from start to finish but we laughed at ourselves. We saw ourselves in Vera and Michael’s characters; needy and pretentious. We are Ferdinand bound by societal standards; insecure; unwilling to break barriers. And when all is said and done, we all just get caught up in a rat race, shuffling along with the lost in a complacent, unforgiving world; idolising material wealth and obsessed with public perception of our lives.

Slam dunk
What a way to cap off the night! Vina na Misamiati. Slam poetry battles and free-style battles. The energy was amazing. Even though I had no idea what Dalibor Markovic was going on about, I just wanted him to keep going. The ambience created was intense; almost trance like.
The battles were battles to the death. Only the strong survived.

I have to say, I was impressed and I am excited about what the rest of this festival has to offer. Storytelling, poetry and free verse tomorrow.

See some of the free style clips i took here.

Read more about Jukwaani! here, here and here.

Jukwaani! Festival for performance literature

href=”http://www.goethe.de/ins/ke/nai/prj/juk/enindex.htm”>Jukwaani! is a festival of performance literature running from Thursday, 17th September, 2009 to Sunday, 20th September 2009 at the Goethe-Institut.

geothe-institut by Jerry Riley

geothe-institut by Jerry Riley

Jukwaani! Is a project by Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française in association with the Kenya Cultural Center. It is a joint initiative supported by the special fund for cultural projects established by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of both France and Germany created on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty sealing reconciliation and friendship between the two countries. The festival is held in conjunction with the conference “Swahili poetry in performance” organized by Bordeaux and Bayreuth universities and IFRA at IFRA-BIEA.

Some of the hottest poets, story tellers, dancers, actors and hip hop acts.

There is something contagious about the words and actions used to express the wisdom in presentations. They radiate vibrancy and honesty and courage. And when you immerse yourself in the glow of the truth to be had you have to change the way you think, act and even speak.