Euphrase Kezilahabi, one of the foremost writers in the Swahili language, and our alumnus, passed away on January 9, 2020 in Dar es Salaam. He was 75 years old.
His path-breaking oeuvre included poetry, novels, a play, and scholarly works. There are even a few short skits he wrote for First and Second Year Swahili students in Madison.
Kezilahabi was born on April 13, 1944 in Namagondo, a village on Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria. He studied at the Catholic Seminary in Nyegezi, then enrolled at the University of East Africa (Dar es Salaam) and earned his B.A. in 1970 and his M.A. at the newly constituted University of Dar es Salaam in 1971. He taught at several secondary schools before joining the faculty in the Department of Kiswahili of the University of Dar es Salaam.
In 1979 further graduate work followed in the United States in what was then the Department of African Languages and Literature (now the Department of African Cultural Studies) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his (second) MA in 1983 (with a thesis titled The Concept of the Hero in African Literature) and PhD in 1985 (with a dissertation titled African Philosophy and the Problem of Literary Interpretation), with a doctoral minor in Comparative Literature.
Upon receiving his PhD Kezilahabi returned to the faculty of the University of Dar es Salaam. Ten years later he accepted a position in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Botswana, his last professional home.
Kezilahabi loved Ukerewe and Namagondo. They were the setting for his novels and poetry. He sang about Namagondo in his poems throughout his life, in free verse. Writing Swahili poetry in free verse is one of his groundbreaking contributions to Swahili literature. Here are the first four stanzas of “Namagondo” (1974).
Nakumbuka Namagondo mahali nilipozaliwa.
Yako wapi tena mawele, mawele tuliyopiga
Leo hapa, kesho pale, kesho kutwa kwa jirani?
Viko wapi viazi vitamu vilivyowashinda walaji
Shambani vikajiozea kwa kutokuwa na bei?
Nalililia Namagondo kijiji nilipozaliwa.
Iko wapi tena pamba tuliyovuna kwa wingi
Vyumba vikajaa, watu tukavihama!
Nawakumbuka wanawake wenye nyingi shanga,
Karibu na barabara wakikoga kisimani.
Na hapa pembeni, watu wanavuna mpunga.
Uko wapi tena mpunga uliokitajirisha watu?
Hapa kwa mzee Mbura, pale kwa mzee Mfunzi
Jiraniye ni Kahunda, pale mzee Magoma
Karibu yake, mzee Nabange, pale mzee Lugina
Sasa wote wamekwenda walioongoza kijiji.
Miji mingine imevunjika, watoto wajihamia
Wameanza kufarakana kwa kujijengea miji!
Yaliyobaki, sasa ni yao makaburi
Huko mbali mwituni au karibu na barabara;
Katika kaburi la Misioni, kwenye vichuguu vingi
Na pale walipolala twaogopa kupita usiku!
Nalilia Namagondo mahali nilipozaliwa
Mahali nilipozaliwa kati ya ardhi na mbingu.
I remember Namagondo, the place where I was born.
Where is the millet we pounded,
today here, next day there, the day after at the neighbors’ house?
Where are the sweet potatoes so delicious they stunned their eaters,
that spoiled on the farm, fetching no price then.
I cry for Namagondo, the village where I was born.
Where is the cotton we harvested in plenty?
Rooms filled with it, and people had to move out.
I remember women wearing an abundance of beads
bathing at the spring near the road.
And here to the side people are harvesting rice.
Where is the rice that made people wealthy?
Here is Mr. Mbura’s place, there Mr. Mfunzi’s –
his neighbor is Kahunda – there Mr. Magoma’s
and near him Mr. Nabange, over there Mr. Lugina’s place.
Now they’ve all gone, who used to lead the village.
Some compounds are derelict; the children have moved.
They’ve begun to estrange themselves, building their own places.
What remains now are their graves,
far off in the forest or close to the road;
in the mission’s mausoleum, among the many termite mounds.
And where they sleep we’re afraid to pass at night.
I cry for Namagondo, where I was born,
where I was born between earth and sky.
(Translation by Annmarie S. Drury, http://www.warscapes.com/poetry/four-poems-euphrase-kezilahabi, accessed 1/13/14.)
Until Kezilahabi, Swahili poems observed strictly defined prosodies, in which rhyme, number of syllables in a line or half-line, and so on, followed age-old patterns. To him, this approach to poetry was a straight jacket; he looked for freedom. In the introduction to his first poetry collection Kichomi (Spasm, 1971), he explains that to use the language of common people, the way they speak, is a legitimate way to compose poetry: “Kuna njia nyingi za kwenda bustanini.” (“There are many ways to go to the garden.”) Some applauded him; many criticized him. But free verse became part of Swahili poetic expression.
This elemental need for freedom is apparent in all of Kezilahabi’s works. He had little respect for political and government restrictions, and his caustic criticism of post-independence policies and leaders comes through in his work. It brought him more than once into conflict with the authorities. His first short novel (novella, really) Rosa Mistika (the name of the main character, ‘Mysterious Rose’ in Latin, 1971) was banned when parts of it were found unacceptable. Episodes of sex, including government leaders abusing their positions by seducing schoolgirls, disrupted the “party line.” Years later the ban was revoked, and Rosa Mistika became part of high school curricula in Tanzania and in Kenya and was reprinted several times.
This densely written book of some one hundred pages presents so clearly and succinctly social problems that persist in East Africa to this day, that I decided to make Rosa Mistika the basis of an online Swahili language and culture course that is still in use today among UW-Madison’s Swahili learners.
Kezilahabi’s novels brought incisive criticism of Tanzanian society, including its two decades of a socialist (ujamaa) period that started in 1967. Kezilahabi describes the harsh implementation of ujamaa, like collectivization of farming, its disastrous economic results, and the disruption of social patterns it brought. Gamba la Nyoka (Snake’s Skin, 1979) and Dunia Uwanja wa Fujo (The world is a messy place, 1975) are situated in this period, on Ukerewe Island.
Kezilahabi was a deep thinker, inclined sometimes towards the negative in life, and some of his writing seems pessimistic. Several of his chief characters commit suicide, ending lives of disillusion and iniquity. Yet Kezilahabi had a keen sense of humor. A scene from Gamba la Nyoka describes Mama Tinda’s inner dialogue with God, as she kneels in church:
“Yesu! Wewe ni Mungu. Ulizaliwa na mwanamke kama mimi. Mimi ni mama yako.” Alisita; hakuwa na uhakika kama Yesu angefurahi kusikia maneno hayo. (2)
“Jesus! You are God. You were born of a woman like myself. I am your mother.” She hesitated; she wasn’t sure if Jesus would be pleased to hear these words.
In another scene, an adult education instructor invites one of the old pupils to describe the people’s suffering under German colonialism. The old man talks at length about the painful punishments inflicted by the Germans, concluding, “Those were real men!” (“hao walikuwa wanaume!”) (91).
Kezilahabi incorporates the original Kerewe language songs and sayings in his novels. Even the Kerewe-inflected Swahili has its place, like old Chilongo’s ‘chichwa’ for the Swahili ‘kichwa’ (‘head’).
The years spent in the United States mark a divide in Kezilahabi’s narrative style and content. His last novellas Nagona and Mzingile are a departure from the realistic and straightforward style of his previous novels. In these two a clear link emerges to Western philosophy and thought. Nagona, for example, introduces a trinity type of character that consists of Ego, Id, and Superego, with the Latin/English terms used within the Swahili text. Elements of magic realism, too, mix with Kerewe culture in fantasy landscapes.
Kezilahabi was a scholar by profession. His research was concerned with Swahili and African literature, folklore and philosophy. His scholarly output consists of books, essays, papers, conference presentations, and research reports, some of which were written in Swahili, some in English.
Kezilahabi’s literary works have been translated into many languages, including Czech, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Slovak, and others. It is significant that Kezilahabi wrote his literary works consistently in Swahili, even during a period of time when other authors chose English, like Ngugi wa Thiong’o. And unlike many Africans, he never changed his first name, despite disliking it as a remnant of Tanzania’s colonial past. You will always find only its initial, ‘E,’ whenever Kezilahabi signed his name.
Kezilahabi’s published scholarly books include:
1973 Ushairi wa Shaaban Robert (Shaaban Robert’s poetry)
1984 Shaaban Robert: Mwandishi wa Riwaya (Shaaban Robert: a novelist). Written in 1974.
1983 The Concept of the Hero in African Literature
1985 African Philosophy and the Problem of Literary Interpretation
Kezilahabi’s published works of literature:
1971 Rosa Mistika (Mysterious Rose), novella
1974 Kichomi (Spasm), poetry
1974 Kichwamaji (Dimwit), novel
1975 Dunia Uwanja wa Fujo (The world is a messy place), novel
1979 Gamba la Nyoka (The snake’s skin), novel
1987 Nagona (proper name), novella
1988 Karibu Ndani (Come in), poetry
1991 Mzingile (Labyrinth), novella
1999 Kaptula la Marx (Marx’s shorts), play. Written in 1978.
2008 Dhifa (The banquet), poetry
Many tributes are being paid to Professor Euphrase Kezilahabi, Swahili writer, teacher, and scholar of Swahili and African literature and culture.
“Mungu amweke mahali pema peponi.” May God put him in a good place in heaven.