For hundreds of years, the Swahili coast of East Africa was a center of linguistic and cultural exchange. The Kiswahili-speaking area was an important center for trade from at least the twelfth century, and it was influenced by Arabic, South Indian languages and Portuguese, as the author and literary activist Abu Amirah noted at a recent panel called “Against Disappearance.”
In the last hundred years, many of the traces of this history have vanished, and panel members discussed what could be done to better document and engage the Swahili coastal cities’ complex, shared history.
The panel featured Abu Amirah, who is based in Mombasa, and the Sudanese author and activist Hammour Ziada, in discussion with the British author and historian Marina Warner. The discussion, co-sponsored by the British Council and the Shubbak Festival, focused on “coastal cities [that] notably hold vestiges of both nourishing and deadly trades.” It was the second in a series of discussions about cultural heritage and contemporary culture.
“We’ve borrowed a lot from the Arabs, the Indians, and I’m sure that if we delve into history further, there is a lot that we borrowed from the Portuguese,” Abu Amirah said during the panel discussion. “One of the greatest things that Swahili, or Kiswahili, took into its fabric was the writing of poets.”
A Return of Arabized Kiswahili?
One aspect of this linguistic absorption, he said, was an Arabized Kiswahili that flourished along the Swahili coast. The Arabic script remained a part of the region’s written literature until the arrival of missionaries and colonial schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was missionaries in particular who insisted on a change, Abu Amirah said, under the assumption that writing Kiswahili in Latin script would promote Christianity and also suppress the region’s long connection to Islam.
This change didn’t sever the area’s connection to Islam. However, it “meant there’s a lot of manuscript history that was lost,” Abu Amirah said, adding that, “a huge chunk of history went with those manuscripts.”
“Where poets and writers used the Arabized Kiswahili, this also brought about the creation of new letters, because there are some letters you don’t find in Arabic text, but they are found in Arabized Kiswahili.”Abu Amirah
An author and literary activist
It was not only a part of the Swahili coastal cities heritage that disappeared, Abu Amirah said. It was also some of the region’s unique linguistic characteristics. “Where poets and writers used the Arabized Kiswahili, this also brought about the creation of new letters, because there are some letters you don’t find in Arabic text, but they are found in Arabized Kiswahili.”
There are still some who continue to write poetry in Arabized Kiswahili, he said. These were mostly on the more-isolated islands near Mombasa, such as Lamu Island. But Abu Amirah, who is founder of the Hekaya Initiative and its Swahili Literary Festival, said that this could change. As a contemporary cultural producer, he said, he would like to bring back writing in Arabized Kiswahili. “If we can have an institution to promote this, teach it to the young, then we can preserve this.”
Earlier this month, the Hekaya Initiative staged the third annual Swahili Literary Festival in Mombasa. Although that festival took place in person, there are other Kiswahili events and projects, such as “Afrolit Sans Frontieres—Kiswahili Version” that have been taking place online.
Warner, for her part, suggested that although English’s dominance has led to a reduction in cultural diversity, there might be ways that “the Internet has increased the portability, the reach of such literatures.” She wondered whether the Internet could be harnessed “to illuminate what is disappearing and what can reappear” and to resist the loss of cultural diversity.
Telling the Present, Telling the Past
Ziada said that when he looks at history of the region, he sees that it’s still “waiting to be written.”
Ziada’s work has particularly been animated by the ways in which slavery continues to affect Sudan. His acclaimed 2014 novel, The Longing of the Dervish, is set in nineteenth century Sudan, and it follows a man who was formerly a slave and is released from prison at the tail end of the Mahdist independence movement. (See two related articles, “Black Saudi Author Focuses on Neglected History of African Migration and Slavery” and “Scholars Confront a Silence About Blackness in Middle East Studies.”)
Ziada’s most recent novel, Drowning, takes place in the 1960s. However, it is also animated by the legacy of slavery. It centers on a 13-year-old girl’s suicide, the reason for which lies in local social structures that are still informed by slavery.
“It’s not legal slavery,” Ziada said at the panel, as slavery was officially abolished in Sudan in 1924. “But there’s a power relationship between the past owner and past slaves. Even today, history is living in the present. It’s not just about history, it’s about this moment.”
Ziada talked less about how the past might be disappearing and more about the need to illuminate past practices in order to understand the present.
“We are still prisoners in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth century. So when I start writing about anything, I can’t just forget about history. Even in my recent stories, I find myself going back to history to find why we are here now.”Hammour Ziada
A Sudanese author and activist
“We are still prisoners in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth century,” Ziada said. “So when I start writing about anything, I can’t just forget about history. Even in my recent stories, I find myself going back to history to find why we are here now.”
‘So Much That’s Been Left Out’
At a question about renaming streets, Ziada said he wanted to step away from the “evil circle” of renaming streets and rewriting history to suit new regimes. “Even the museums and the old buildings were locked down or closed for more than five or ten years” when Omar al-Bashir seized power in Sudan. That regime, he said, declared a war against history.
“Now, after the revolution, we’re trying to get involved with our African culture and make peace with it,” Ziada said. “I don’t know if we’re going to succeed, but we’re hoping.”
For Abu Amirah’s part, one of the reasons he founded the Hekaya Initiative was to tell the kinds of history that have not been documented. “The history that our children are learning at school, it’s history, yes. But there’s so much that’s been left out about the coast.”
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Abu Amirah wanted to build on the long manuscript history of the Swahili coast. In addition to building a platform where coastal stories could be told, he wanted to link contemporary writers with writers in the past. He was interested in creating both digital and physical archival spaces, as well as workshops for young writers to learn more about their past.
“We’re trying to use contemporary and new methods … to preserve the tradition,” Abu Amirah said. “I think we need collaboration and help from everyone.”