'Hussein Literature' or Literature by Hussein?

Topics: Dar es Salaam, Colonialism, Tanzania Pages: 32 (10339 words) Published: May 13, 2013

Alex Macbeth


“Hussein Literature or literature by Hussein? A 21st Century re-analysis of the Swahili dramatist Ebrahim Hussein’s works, with specific emphasis on Mashetani (Demons), and their relevance today. ”


“Hussein Literature or literature by Hussein? A 21st Century re-analysis of the Swahili dramatist Ebrahim Hussein’s works, with specific emphasis on Mashetani (Demons), and their relevance today. ”

You speak about my language, and say that even in my prose I am a poet. But if my language sometimes goes beyond what is appropriate in a story, you can’t blame me for that, for I had to create my Bengali prose myself. My language was not there, heaped up and ready made…I had to create the prose of my stories as I went along. You often speak of Maupassant and other foreign writers: their language was already made for them. If they had had to create their language as they wrote, I wonder how they would have fared. (Tagore 1991: 27)


Ebrahim Hussein, the Tanzanian dramatist, remains one of the most controversial, ambiguous and misunderstood figures in Swahili literature. Widely regarded as a recluse in recent years, he has not published since 1988, his last published work being Kwenye Ukingo wa Thim (At the Edges of Thim). No other figure in the canon of 20th Century Swahili literature has fallen so dramatically from the sublime to national oblivion; while his plays in the late sixties and seventies were hailed as intricate to the birth of a new, modern Swahili drama, today they are unpublished in the playwright’s home nation, Tanzania. Once the founder of The Department of Performing Arts in Dar es Salaam, he is now not involved in the development of theatre in Tanzania in any way.

Several academics and theatre professionals have attributed Hussein’s decline in popularity to recent changes in Tanzanian politics and theatre, but primarily to the author’s own withdrawal from the literary scene. While Hussein wrote, to great acclaim, the first ever Tanzanian historical play (Kinjeketile: 1969), history has hardly reserved a footnote for one of Africa’s most prolific indigenous language writers.

For outsiders, the whole problematic of African language writing seems to revolve around Ngugi (Wa Thiong’o) and the remarkably successful Tanzanian experience is overlooked (Ricard 1991:177)

Hussein is indeed little known abroad, the only two translations of his work Kinjeketile (English and German) being out of print. There is a further translation of Kwenye Ukingo wa Thim (At the Edge of Thim), translated by Kimani Njogu and published by OUP in Kenya. An Italian translation of Samaki Mdogo Mweusi (The Little Black Fish/Il Piccolo Pesce Nero), by Natalia Tornecello, remains unpublished. There is also a French edition of this book published by Le Chardon Bleu (Ricard 2000). However The Little Black Fish is not a work by Hussein, but one that he translated from the original Farsi edition. While his plays are still taught at The University of Dar Es Salaam, The University of Nairobi and even The University of London, very few of his plays remain in circulation (but a few devoted libraries have copies). Inevitably, the author’s own personal motivations are a large factor in the decreasing prominence of his works and his theory of theatre. However the major changes in Tanzanian publishing, the Tanzanian curriculum and Tanzania’s switch from a socialist to a free-market economy and the accompanying social phenomena have devastatingly affected one of East Africa’s greatest playwrights. The Tanzanian theatre scene has suffered as a consequence.

Hussein’s journey as a writer and theorist begins in Kilwa and runs synchronised with that of his nation. It is not possible to talk of Hussein the writer without looking at different phases of his works that correspond to different socio-political and economic eras in Tanzania. However,...
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