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Prof Kezilahabi: ‘Rebel’ who pushed boundaries of Kiswahili literature

by kenya-tribune

Euphrase Kezilahabi is arguably the foremost Kiswahili existentialist novelist and poet. He has had a rich and fruitful life in creative writing and academia.

Extremely humorous and playful, Prof Kezilahabi was deeply reflective as he disrupted the Kiswahili literary scene by drawing on Western philosophy and the oral tradition in the Lake Victoria region.

His literary contribution is a consequence of his life experiences and encounters.

Born on April 13, 1944 in Namagondo village, Ukerewe Island, Tanzania, Prof Kezilahabi passed away on January 9, 2020. In 1957, he joined the Catholic Seminary at Nyegezi, where he studied until 1966. A year later, he joined the University of Dar es Salaam to study literature and education. After graduating in 1970, he became a high schoolteacher in Mzumbe, Morogoro, and later in Mkwawa, Iringa, in southern Tanzania. In 1971, he rejoined the University of Dar es Salaam for a Master’s degree in literature.

It is during those early days of graduate studies and teaching Kiswahili literature that his literary philosophy started emerging. In his creative and critical works, he started questioning the essence of life and of ‘being’. These reflections were further sharpened during his PhD studies at the University of Wisconsin, in the United States, where he wrote a thesis on African philosophy and the problem of literary interpretation. His last position was that of professor of African literature at the University of Botswana.


Reflecting on Kezilahabi, Professor Alamin Mazrui says, “ … if Shaaban Robert was the greatest inspirational figure in the emergence of Swahili prose fiction, it was his national compatriot Euphrase Kezilahabi who raised it to greater heights of artistic achievement.” It is, indeed, Kezilahabi who introduced existentialism in Kiswahili literature. He was also critical in debates around form and content in Kiswahili poetry.

My first encounter with his ideas was through his first realist and readable novel Rosa Mistika (Mystique Rose, 1971) which addresses the sexual abuse of schoolgirls by their teachers. The issues he raised about the educational system in East Africa over three decades ago are as relevant now as they were then. His other works shift the boundaries of cultural and artistic censorship, raising big questions about humanity. They are grounded in existential philosophy, a critique of religion and the disillusionment with the Ujamaa ideology espoused by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in the 1970s. Quite often, he would draw on his Catholicism to provide a critique of society and its interpretation of morality.

This critical perspective is quite evident in Kichwa Maji (The Hypdrocephalic, 1974), Dunia Uwanja wa Fujo (The World is a Stage of Chaos, 1975), Gamba la Nyoka (The Skin of a Snake, 1979), Nagona (The Insight, 1987) and Mzingile (The Labyrinth, 1991). He is also the author of the controversial books of poetry Kichomi (Sharp Pain, 1974), Karibu Ndani (Welcome) and Dhifa (The Banquet), written in free verse. He also wrote the play Kaputula la Marx, a critique of Marxism as a political and economic ideology. Nagona and Mzingile specifically are a deep reflection on the effects of globalisation, imperialism and individualism and their destruction of humanity. 

In the collection of poetry, he employs ushairi huru (free verse) and imbues it with content that looks internally into the Kiswahili poetic tradition. He questions its fixation with rhyme and meter arguing, controversially, that it ‘limits’ the poet’s imagination by emphasising form over content. He seeks to break the chains of ‘poetic fixity’. 

The publication of Kichomi in the early 1970s created a fiery debate in Tanzania and Kenya on poetry as ‘conservationists’ and ‘liberalists’ argued over whether or not free verse poetry is ‘Swahili poetry’. Among some conservationists, Kiswahili poetry needed to follow the classical tradition of Muyaka wa Haji and earlier poets such as Mwana Kupona Binti Mshamu whose influence could be seen in the compositions of Kaluta Amri Abedi, Mwalimu Hassan Mwalimu Mbega, Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, Abdilatif Abdalla and Ahmed Nassir.

It was expected that Kiswahili poetry would be replete with archaisms, dialectal variants, coastal symbolism, allegory and imagery. It would have to be derived from Swahili culture as experienced on the coastal strip. According to Tigiti Sengo, for example, Kiswahili poetry is that derived from the Waswahili community. He argued that free verse cannot be accepted as Swahili poetry. These are the views that Kezilahabi, as a member of the liberalist poets, alongside Mugybuso Mulokozi and Kuliyokela Kahigi, sought to disrupt through ushairi huru. In the liberalists’ view, art and culture are responsive to economic relations of production and a rupture with forms that appear to be aesthetically tied to feudalism was necessary if Kiswahili literature was to be freed. 

The assumption by the liberalist school is that the prosodic tradition as received from the Waswahili was ill-equipped to address complex thematic concerns. In reality, however, the imaginative terrain need not be constrained by form. It is free to wander as it will. Abdilatif Abdalla, Gora Haji Gora and Ahmed Nassir writing within the Swahili poetic tradition, are philosophically engaged as poets composing in free verse, if not more. 

Creative writers located in upcountry East Africa will write while drawing from their immediate cultural, artistic, economic and political environment. Equally, coastal writers will be inspired by the influences of their past and present encounters. Indeed, it may be claimed that it is the exposure to free verse in English literature at the University of Dar es Salaam and the liberative thrust of the Ujamaa philosophy that injected the perspective so strongly expressed by the liberal school against the Kiswahili poetic tradition of rhyme and meter. 

While his contemporaries, such as Said Ahmed Mohamed, have been inspired by critical and socialist realism, Kezilahabi has looked to German philosophers, notably Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, for inspiration. He has blended their questioning of the Western worldview and its intersection with freedom and morality with his own disillusionment with the constraints of artistic and cultural containment on individual choice and imagination. His hermeneutics is a dialogic rewriting and reinterpretation of Heidegger on ‘Being’ and Nietzsche on the linearity and circularity of ‘Time,’ through the lens of the Wakerewe in the Lake Victoria region. 

Drawing on these philosophies, Kezilahabi questions the essence of life, social tensions and the challenges faced by individuals as they seek integration in a society characterised by sharp social and political contradictions. His creative writings revolve around pain, death, life, existence, silence, and time. Viewed by many critics as a pessimist, Kezilahabi will be credited for pushing the boundaries of the Kiswahili literary scene not only through his thematic interests and utilisation of orature and allegory but also his choice of style and treatment of characterisation. 

Prof Kimani Njogu is a Kiswahili and cultural scholar based at Twaweza Communications; [email protected]

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