East African Literature
East African Literature
the literature of the peoples of East Africa who speak the Swahili language and live in Kenya, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Malawi and on the island of Mafia. These peoples have long maintained trade and cultural relations with Arabia, India, Iran, and Indonesia, so that the influence exerted by the cultures of these latter countries on Swahili literature is appreciable. There is a rich Swahili-language folklore, the spiritual heritage of all Africans speaking that language. Twentieth-century Swahili-language literature has become fragmented because of the rise in national consciousness and the formation of independent states in East Africa.
The oldest forms of folklore include mashaira songs, now firmly established in the literature. Folk stories combine African motifs, motifs from the Arabian “Thousand and One Nights” tales, and motifs from the Panchatantra legends in an intriguing way. The earliest known literary productions in Swahili are the Liongo songs (dating to the ninth through 14th centuries; Liongo was a hero from the Lamu region, a historical personage). Later historical chronicles (habari) and epic poems with a historical and religious content (tenzi) have been preserved in fragmentary form. Poems of a religious nature are associated with the propagation of Islam in East Africa. The early 20th century saw the appearance of the poem “Majimaji” by Abdel-Kerim bin Jamaldini, centered on an episode in the resistance of the African peoples to European colonizers.
The first newspapers, Habari and Kiongozi, appeared in the early 20th century. The periodicals Tazama and Mambo leo appeared in East Africa after World War II as vehicles for translated and original literature. Hadisi fupi (short stories) and hadisi ndefu (tales) are among the most popular genres in original literature. Works in these genres attest to a lack of professionalism in East African literature. The usual short-story plot has two people in love, elements of the detective story, and sometimes religious moralizing. One characteristic tendency is to remain within the scope of minor topics and intimate life experiences. A special place is reserved in Swahili literature for sketches and travel notes compiled by individual African travelers—for example, Swahili Travels, notes of three natives of Dar es Salaam providing detailed information on the customs and mores of inland tribes. There are also works in larger genres in Swahili that depict life realistically—for example, Liberation of Slaves, a novel by James Mbotela. Poetic works still preserve forms characteristic of folklore. Both narrative poems and short poetry are written in accentual verse with an equal number of accented syllables. Versification exhibits the ghazal structure.
I. P. IAKOVLEVA