Swahili poet speaks about works written during imprisonment


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Photo by Fatima Farhat |

Swahili poet Abdilatif Abdella described his time in Kenyan prison and his political beliefs about the future of Kenya yesterday at Tillet Hall on Livingston campus. 


During the three years Abdilatif Abdalla spent in a Kenyan prison, his sole possessions were a single plastic mug and a chamber pot. The only way he could stop himself from going insane was by writing poetry.

Abdalla, a distinguished poet and dedicated political activist from Mombasa, Kenya, gave a lecture in Tillett Hall on Livingston campus yesterday titled, “Poetry and Society in the Swahili Experience.”

Abdalla discussed the different types of Swahili poetry during his talk.

Shairi is a popular form of Swahili poetry, indigenous to the Kenyan people, that expresses daily issues in less than 15 lines, Abdalla said. 

Utenzi is the other form of poetry used for expressing important historical events, he said. It is an epic poem with thousands of verses and was influenced by Arabic poetry.

“Poets are considered at a high position in Kenya because of [their] intrinsic value and the range of topics addressed,” he said. “From the cradle to the grave, you can find any topic in Swahili poetry.”

Swahili poetry, originally an oral art form, has a history of being an outlet for political dissatisfaction. Abdalla said the poetry has been used to resist occupation by foreign invaders during many different time periods, from the Portuguese in the 15th century to the Germans in the 19th century.

Kenyan newspapers often devote one full page to poetry, in which everything from local issues to problems beyond geographical borders are addressed, he said.

Abdalla delved into the political activism that led to his imprisonment and social confinement from 1968 to 1971.

He was imprisoned by the Kenyatta regime, led by former Kenyan president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta from 1964 to 1978, after he distributed political pamphlets. The pamphlets, entitled, “Kenya: Where Are We Heading To?” criticized the regime and questioned the direction in which the country was heading.

“I never regretted speaking out,” he said. “I would do it again if the situation presented itself.”

While Abdalla was in prison, he was not allowed to have visitors and was forced to write his poetry on the 18 rolls of toilet paper he was given each week. He was not allowed to see his family or talk to the guards. 

Abdalla read some of the poetry he wrote in prison aloud at the event. He first read the original Swahili version and then the English translation. 

“Reading a poem in translation is like kissing someone whose face is covered,” he said. “You don’t get the real thing.”

The poetry dealt with political turmoil in Kenya at the time, interwoven with Abdalla’s own experience in Kenya. Though the poems discussed the same political situation, each had a different underlying message, he said. 

The first poem featured lines in which the writer questioned whether he should give up on speaking out against the government. 

The second poem Abdalla read, in which he stated he would never abandon his political convictions, answered the doubt conveyed in the first poem.

One of the poems dealt with three types of exploitation in Kenya: the exploitation of Kenyan land by international corporations, the exploitation by leaders in power and the exploitation of women by men. 

Chioma Onwumelu, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said even though she does not understand Swahili, she enjoyed the original translation.

Hearing the poem read in its original language allows the audience to feel the emotions the author felt when writing it, she said.

Abdalla’s reading ended with a poem originally written in English entitled, “Peace, Love, and Unity: For Whom?” In the poem, he addressed the president of Kenya and questioned the political system in place.

Joyanna Karuga, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, questioned whether the system still exists in Kenya today. She addressed the fact that Kenyatta’s son is currently the president of Kenya.

“I come from Kenya, “she said. “So this is close to me.”

Though people are now free to criticize the government, Abdalla said the economy is still lacking and people are still starving. 

“Struggles take decades to really change,” he said.


Avalon Zoppo

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