Abdilatif Abdalla: Poet and Political Activist

Abdilatif Abdalla (author’s photograph)

Abdilatif Abdalla, who will be visiting MESAAS and the Institute of African Studies at Columbia on November 12th and 13th, is one of the most renowned living Swahili poets. Mixing poetry and politics has been a feature of Swahili society for a long time, and classic historical Swahili poets, like Fumo Liyongo and Muyaka bin Haji, were engaged in local politics as well as in writing. Like these Swahili intellectuals before him, Abdalla has been living among his people – or separated from them, through long years of prison and exile – as the gifted and critical voice in society that Swahili poets are seen as: particularly knowledgeable people with a duty to speak up on behalf of their community.

As a poet, Abdalla became well-known only after his term in prison (1969-1972), to which he was sentenced as the author of ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ (Kenya: where are we going?). He earned his first literary recognition with a didactic poem on the Qur’anic story of Adam and Eve, but it was the publication of Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) in 1973, a collection of poems he had written secretly on toilet paper while in prison, that made him famous. Using traditional genres of Swahili verse, Sauti ya Dhiki covered a broad range of critical topics with remarkable depth and originality: the perils of colonialism, racism, material greed, and social injustice. But also the loneliness felt in prison, the persistence of his political struggle, and a plea against abortion from the perspective of an unborn child. Readers were awed by the force and scope of his verbal artistry.

From Africa Events, September 1995.
From Africa Events, September 1995.

His writings also include lectures on the role of the poet in society and editorial work on collected poetry. In addition, Abdalla produced important Swahili translations, including Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1975; orig. 1969) and Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslims, Bad Muslims (orig. 2004; in progress). All of this shows him as an influential intellectual from and within the Swahili region. His poetry epitomizes the ongoing currency of classic form and language, while he also invested much effort into two-way mediatory work between (simply put) ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, ‘trans-national’ and ‘local’ perspectives, making old and new voices of Swahili poetry as well as important Anglophone literature and political commentary accessible to a wider readership in East Africa.

Born in Mombasa in 1946, Abdalla was raised by his great-uncle, Ahmad Basheikh who was a prominent teacher, Qur’an reciter, and poet, who also presented his own compositions in popular weekly broadcasts on Sauti ya Mvita (Voice of Mombasa) radio station. At a young age, Abdalla read his great-uncle’s poems before they were aired and built up a substantial understanding of Swahili poetry. Living and travelling with his great-uncle, Abdalla grew up in a wide-ranged Swahili-speaking area: between Mombasa and the Iringa region in Tanganyika; Faza, on Pate Island in the Lamu archipelago; and Takaungu, an hour’s drive north of Mombasa. He uses Kimvita, the Mombasan dialect of Kiswahili, for his poetry, and is well-versed in other dialects.

Abdalla belongs to an established Swahili family clan (on his mother’s side), the Kilindini group of Mombasa’s ‘Twelve Tribes’, and further relatives include Islamic scholars, poets, and healers. Well-known in the region are his two brothers, Sheikh Abdilahi Nassir, a prominent Shii Islamic scholar and a former publisher and coastal politician, and Ustadh Ahmad Nassir Juma Bhalo, a famous poet and sought-after healer. Thus Abdalla grew up nurturing typical intellectual skills of the region, influenced by a number of local intellectuals.

In terms of building a political consciousness, Abdalla was fascinated by stories about the anti-colonial Mau Mau liberation movement and the detained Jomo Kenyatta. At his primary school in Takaungu, ‘God save the Queen’ had to be sung by all during the flag-raising ceremony each morning. Abdilatif defied this and quietly sang ‘God save Kenyatta’, urging on the national liberation cause. This act of anti-colonial defiance by a then twelve-year-old provides an early taste of how Abdalla was to resist the authoritarian regimes of Kenyatta (from Mombasa) and Moi (from exile in London). It is somewhat ironic that this bold-minded young opposition supporter, the same person who had as a child sung and prayed for Kenyatta’s release to liberate Kenya from British colonialism, was to be detained by Kenyatta’s regime. And it is even more ironic that about two years after his release from prison, Abdilatif Abdalla was to be awarded the newly founded national ‘Kenyatta Prize for Literature’ in 1974, for ‘Sauti ya Dhiki’, the poems written secretly during his imprisonment, for writing ‘Kenya: Twendapi?’ against Kenyatta.

Abdilatif Abdalla spent over five years in exile in Tanzania (at the University of Dar es Salaam) and over fifteen years in exile in London fighting the Moi regime that followed Kenyatta, with author Ngugi wa Thiong’o and others. He has been living and working in Germany (mostly at the University of Leipzig) since 1995.

Note: this piece draws from a longer article in the making by the author.

About Kai Kresse

Kai Kresse, an Associate Professor in MESAAS, is an anthropologist and philosopher with an area specialization in East Africa and the Swahili coast. His publications include the monograph 'Philosophising in Mombasa: Knowledge, Islam and intellectual practice on the Swahili coast', which was shortlisted for the Herskovits Prize, and a number of co-edited volumes and academic articles.