Rocha Chimerah received his B. Ed and M. Ed degrees from the University of Nairobi and his PhD in Linguistics and Language Education from Ohio University in the USA. A professor of Kiswahili Linguistics, Language and Literature at Pwani University, Kilifi, Coastal Kenya, Chimerah joined the University when it was still a university college campus of Kenyatta University in 2009. Before that, he taught in different universities, worked as Country Director of Population Media Center, an NGO, and was Chair of the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Egerton University. The author of several works of fiction in Kiswahili, including the acclaimed Siri Sirini series (2013/2014), had his first novel published in 1995 (Nyongo Mkalia Ini). His play, Mnara Wawaka Moto, was published in 1989. Kiswahili: Past, Present and Future Horizons, a celebration of Kiswahili language and literature, hit bookshelves in 1998. In 1999, Chimerah co-authored Ufundishaji wa Fasihi, Nadharia na Mbinu (a book on literary theory and criticism including the teaching of Swahili literature), with Kimani Njogu, with whom he shared the prestigious Noma Award for writing and publishing in Africa in 2000. The recipient of several other awards has many articles in referred Journals on the subjects of Kiswahili Linguistics, Language and Literature in both Kiswahili and English languages.
This interview was conducted by Abenea Ndago.
Abenea Ndago: Let us begin with the hotter end. Mid last year you were widely reported in the Kenyan daily media to have told off President Uhuru Kenyatta regarding his attacks on a certain Kenyan politician. That was brave. Please give us a brief context, and why you felt passionate about the issue.
Rocha Chimerah: If you must put it that way, then so be it. It makes some dramatic reading and may thus be “newsworthy”. However, the fact of the matter is, I cannot tell off a president in regard to anything leave alone in defence of a politician or the next. I must therefore have been commenting on the one-to-one exchange going on between the president and some politicians, which seems to have been his preferred style at some given time during his evolution as an aspiring statesman. This style was not appropriate given his stature, as it tended to downsize him in the eyes of the public and at the same time catapult the ones he happened to be quarrelling with to sudden national prominence, sometimes quite undeservedly, if not unnecessary.
You did not fear for your life?
Rocha Chimerah: Fear for my life? Why? I was neither attacking the president nor ridiculing him or any politician in any way for that matter. What impact can a writer make in scenarios such as this? Mine was just a social commentary, like all writers always feel called upon to make. You may want to refer to Ngugi, Soyinka and Shafi Adam Shafi, for example. Otherwise the president has a duty to lead Kenyans to a more comfortable life now and, moreover, expect a better future to boot, as mandated by the electorate. Politicians more often than not make a lot of noise, and when they do, the people get a raw deal inasmuch as their expectations of the good life are jeopardised instead of being enhanced. You will agree with me that politicians can be messy if left to their own whims.
Abenea Ndago: Many people have often watched with sadness and regret, the explosive land question in Kenya’s Coast – which is where you come from – and how the state cashes in on it for political mileage. We saw mid last year, when the government issued identification cards to the 60, 000-plus Kauma community just months to the 2017 elections. The whole issue is entangled with historical pacts, such as the agreement made between the British and the representative of the Sultan of Zanzibar centuries ago, to the effect that a part of the Coastal Strip should have reverted to Tanzania after some time. Yet the fact is that many, many indigenous Coastal people today have no land, no title deeds, when other Kenyans from the mainland do. The Kauma themselves are said to have come from Malawi in the 1950s. That brings us to the emergence of Coast-based ‘militias’ such as Kaya Bombo, the over-politicised Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), and the Al-Shabaab problem at the Coast. We read that huge chunks of land were grabbed by wealthy individuals in the Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi, and Mwai Kibaki regimes. I would like to know what the ideal solution for addressing the land situation at the Kenyan Coast would be, at least from the point of view of a Coast-bred Kenyan writer like you.
Rocha Chimerah: The hard question at Kenya’s Coast is, indeed, explosive just as you have aptly put it. If you will remember, it made it squarely into the all-important Agenda Four proposed by the Kofi Annan-led team to be addressed urgently. Well, it has not been addressed, so many years after the fires died down, even after the 2008 brokerage. Apparently, this issue has been permanently postponed, among others; sensitive ones active below the surface, like a festering wound, and so it remains explosive. Needless to say, so many coastal communities have been disenfranchised as these explosive issues have remained unaddressed. By the way, the community you are referring to is Makonde, not Kauma. The Kauma community is one among the nine marginalized Mijikenda peoples. And the pact was between the then Kenyan Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta, and his Zanzibar counterpart, Mohammed Shamte (The Sultan of Zanzibar at that time, 1963, was Jamshid). The Kenyan coastal strip was ruled as a protectorate by the British on behalf of the Sultan in the same manner most of Uganda was on behalf of the African kingdoms there. The bottom line is, both territories were, as a matter of fact, just colonies of Britain and were treated as such.
The uniqueness of the Coast is that over the centuries, it has gone through several layers of colonization, each with its pacts; pacts that were honoured, not ignored, by succeeding colonists. Think of the Portuguese, the Arabs, the British… they all had their pacts and most of these were later honoured by the African government that took over from the British at independence. The pacts were not dismantled; instead, they were further strengthened and used to the advantage of the new bosses in town. This failure to address the centuries of marginalization may relate directly to the formation of some of the Kenyan coastal militias you’ve referred to; not Al-Shabab. The latter is based in Somalia, and it addresses religious issues and not entirely political ones.
Abenea Ndago: I discovered that, like everywhere else in Kenya, a lot of ethnic gossip goes on at the Kenyan Coast: “Ah, the Kauma are Malawians…Ah, the Duruma came from Mozambique…Ah, the Chonyi and Bajuni…” Is this an unconscious expression of our general unwillingness to form a nation?
Rocha Chimerah: I like the way you put it: ‘an unconscious expression of our general unwillingness to form a nation’. I’d like to remind you of what the late Bamahriz, born in Jomvu, coastal Kenya, told then president Daniel arap Moi when the latter claimed that the fiery political activist should be deported to Yemen, where his forefathers came from – Bamahiriz famously retorted: “Fine, I’m ready and willing to trace my forefathers’ footsteps back to Yemen. And you? Shouldn’t we board the same plane, so that when it lands in Sudan to refuel, you disembark and go ahead to reclaim your forefathers’ heritage there?
Why is this an issue here? True, the Bajuni and the other Swahilis, together with the Mijikenda, the Pokomo, the Ameru and the Kikuyu, among other Bantu peoples, once resided at a place in southern Somalia known as Shungwaya. But this was centuries before the very idea of Kenya as a country ever crossed any human being’s mind. Are we thinking about nations like the USA, Australia, New Zealand and even Britain at all? All these were founded and established by immigrants who more often than not dispossessed the natives. Here at home no native was dispossessed in a similar manner, but there have been historical injustices that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. When finally addressed this question of permanent solutions to these historical injustices must include those peoples who came from Malawi, such as the freed slaves, those who came from Mozambique, such as the Makonde, those who came from other areas in Southern Africa, and those who came from other locales, such as Yemen, Oman, India, Europe, etc. There must be no excuse!
Abenea Ndago: Talking of which, the issue brings us to the problematic relationship between Literature and Politics, not only in Africa, but over the world. The late Okot p’Bitek regularly told off the Ugandan state. I do not know how many times Achebe rejected state honours in Nigeria – right to his death. Soyinka has never rested in spite of his age. Kenyan writers used to run the same race. In your view, what may have changed in Kenya?
Rocha Chimerah: Nothing has really changed. Writers still criticise their states when they feel that the people are being led in the wrong direction and thus short-changed. In fact, this could be the most appropriate answer to your first question. Like I said, I was not really telling off anyone; I was just reacting, as a concerned citizen and writer, to what was going on at that time. However, due to the unprecedented expanding of the democratic space, wananchi feel freer to respond to unsavoury situations and issues directly instead of through employment of sayings. One does not feel he is stepping on a dangerous ground when advising a fellow citizen who happens to be in leadership that he is taking a wrong direction and leading innocent compatriots, who have chosen to trust him, there. Times have changed, and embracing constructive criticism, given honestly, ought to be the trend. The way of dialogue is the right way. This must not be viewed as potentially disruptive. Remember the heated but friendly exchanges between Ali Mazrui and President Milton Obote? They did not end in Uganda collapsing, did they? They, instead, brought maturity to local scholarship as well as the state. Literature is rightly in the domain of humanities. It does truly humanize.
Abenea Ndago: You participated in the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) Party parliamentary nominations for Kinango Constituency in 2007 but lost to a worthy competitor. Do you not think your writing would have taken an eternal beating had you won?
Rocha Chimerah: I was in Shirikisho Party in 2007. Not surprising since we are talking about the marginalization of the Coast by all the African regimes since independence in 1963. I was later pushed out of this coast-based party by stalwarts of the ruling party who pretended to strengthen Shirikisho while their real intention was to kill it, as it had captured the imagination of the greatest percentage of the coastal electorate at that time. This was seen as a threat, so it was decided it must be nipped in the bud. Towards that goal, people such as Gonzi Rai (then Kinango MP), Chirau Ali Mwakwere (once a respected Cabinet Minister) and Anania Mwaboza (at one time an establishment Assistant Minister) were sent to the Coast from the centre to do the destructive bidding. They succeeded, absolutely. This was a great disservice to the coastal course in a nation where tribe rules, and at a time when the party was even toying with the idea of its endorsing its own presidential candidate, I, me and myself (read the papers of that time for confirmation). I was never in ODM. I had been blocked from joining that prestigious party.
Do I think my writing would have taken an eternal beating? The answer is yes. You must know that this was before my series, Siri Sirini had been written, not to mention published. It would never have been written in the first place.
Abenea Ndago: This is not to mock you in any way, but please tell us how it feels when a writer loses in the thoroughly public domain that politics is, and as happened to you in the elections of 2007. I am talking about how your readers view you afterwards. Did you want to write an epic about a character like yourself, in way of explanation to your readers?
Rocha Chimerah: Readers read literature, not politics. We still read Senghor’s works and enjoy them despite the fact of his deep involvement in politics. And he is not the only one in this category but one among many. Those who lost are many too, but their works retained their validity as sophisticated literary pieces. Besides, I’m afraid you are thinking of the Kenyan readership only. My works are read outside Kenya too. Last year, I attended two conferences in Zanzibar and was sweetly surprised to find that there are people out there in Tanzania who have been reading my works all the while and were happy to interact one-on-one with the author. I autographed quite a number of my works for them. These readers are not even aware that I was once involved in politics in my country. Let me ask you a question? Do you think if Ngugi seeks an elective post in Limuru and loses, readers, even Kenyan readers, are going to stop reading his works?! As to your last question, the answer is no. I didn’t want to write an epic about a character like myself. In any case, I wasn’t planning to lose in order to be able to create such a character.
Abenea Ndago: Let us talk about your theorising on language and African Literature, particularly in regards to Kiswahili as the most widely spoken African language. Of course, you make your point very clear in your seminal text, Kiswahili: Past, Present, and Future Horizons (1998). I am referring to your PhD thesis, which revolves around the same theme. My question is this, and it relates to the findings of your thesis: Are African writers genuine when they say that African Literature must be rendered in African languages?
Rocha Chimerah: My PhD thesis is entitled: “The implications of the selected works of Ngugi in the educational thinking and practises of Kenya”. Date of award of degree: 1989; Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA. So, it’s mostly about Ngugi’s works and particularly zeroing in on the theme of education. All said and done, yes, I did focus on African writers rendering their literature in African languages since, as you already know, that is Ngugi’s be-all-and-end-all stance. That notwithstanding, I also criticise Kenya’s most prominent writer for not promoting Kiswahili in his writing as he does his native Gikuyu in that work. You know, being unequivocal the way Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer is, I mean. After all Kiswahili is Kenya’s national language, and hence Ngugi’s.
Now mine is not blind criticism. I’m very much aware that criticising Ngugi is this manner with regard to Kiswahili is somehow unfair. Ngugi went to school during the (British) colonial era. Certainly, the British did not want their Africans to be proud of their heritage, including Kiswahili; the East African lingua franca, even at that time. They wanted their own language – English – to be the language of their African subjects and they promoted it at the expense of African languages. And while it is true that I started my schooling during the colonial era (1959), we regained our independence in 1963 when I was still in primary school. By that time, Ngugi was at the University of East Africa at Makerere campus in Uganda and had already cut his teeth as a writer in the English language. Why was he able to write so extremely well in Gikuyu and not in Kiswahili afterwards? Find out from the Christian missions responsible for his education. They were at home with the languages of the various ethnic groups and not Kiswahili, which they considered an African language with a heavy dose of Arabic that as such, was a natural tool of Islam and not Christianity. Such distortions were quite unfortunate and harmful, for they distorted our view of our own heritage and ourselves even.
So yes, African literature must be rendered in African languages even though we have many big challenges in that regard. We cannot forget that there is Africa and there is the world at large. It goes without saying that the world is larger than Africa. African literature will reach the much larger world stage through the much more developed languages, of the world, such as English. However, the initial writing should be in our own languages. Works written in these languages may then be translated in the so-called world languages. After all, we read all that great Russian literature, German literature, etc. in English. Surely Tolstoy did not write his seminal works (Anna Karenina, War and Peace and Resurrection) in English! That is the way to go then! We are Kenyans, but we read Ngugi’s most recent works originally written in Gikuyu, in Kiswahili or English, those of us who do not comprehend Gikuyu. What is wrong with that? In this regard, I wish to start with myself. The book you have referred to here, Kiswahili: Past, Present and Future Horizons was written in English. It was included in the list of 100 Best African Books of the 20th Century. Now, while it is true that Shaaban Robert’s Utenzi wa Vita vya Uhuru made it into that list, I’m not sure whether had mine been in Kiswahili, as was Shaaban Robert’s, it would have made it in the list even though Ufundishaji wa Fasihi: Nadharia na Mbinu, co-authored with Kimani Njogu, won us the coveted regional (African) Noma award two years earlier; and it was in Kiswahili!
Abenea Ndago: You also write in English but made a conscious choice to write in Swahili. Many African languages are dying for a variety of reasons, but especially because our young ones have imbibed/are overdosing on the Western imagination. Help us understand why a writer would want to write in a language clearly less read/appreciated?
Rocha Chimerah: When the great Western writers wrote their wonderful pieces, the languages they used to write those works in were then less read and appreciated. Think of Shakespeare. He is more widely read and appreciated the world-over today than he was during his time. Shakespeare died a poor man. His estate is today the richest anywhere. His works are read everywhere. Most of his readers read those works in translation though, not in the original language of the writer.
Back to your question, writing in our languages is like the proverbial beating of two birds with one stone. We are, first and foremost, communicating with ourselves in the languages closest to us and, at the same time, developing our own languages. Kiswahili, for example, is more developed now, thanks to younger, modern writers such as Said Ahmed Mohamed, Shafi Adam Shafi, Mkufya, John Hamu Habwe, Chacha Nyaigotti Chacha, W. K. Wamitila, Al-Amin Mazrui, Ken Walibora, Kiimani Njogu, Mandila and myself than it was during Shaaban Robert’s time (in the 1950s and 1960s). Centuries from now, the readership will have expanded and it will then no longer be “a language” that “clearly” is “less read/appreciated,” the way you’ve chosen to put it.
Abenea Ndago: Let us stay with Kiswahili still. When we interviewed you in 2009, your stress on the agonising difficulty of writing in Kiswahili left me aghast. How did you finally overcome that painstaking agony, to the point of giving us your acclaimed trilogy, Siri Sirini (2013)?
Rocha Chimerah: That agony comes of some specific training. Our educational system, which did not change much after our attaining independence in 1963, still does prepare the Kenyan learner to feel more at ease writing in English than doing the same in any African language, including the national language, Kiswahili. The situation is significantly different in Tanzania. Over there, people are much more at home expressing themselves in Kiswahili orally and even in writing. The fact is, we were ruled differently; Kenyans and Tanzanians, I mean. Even so, practice makes perfect, as they say. If you do not practice after being trained, you make very little progress. As for me, I have practiced a lot and continue doing so. The problem I faced in 2009 in regard to expressing myself writing in Kiswahili has been, so far, effectively dealt with. I can now proudly tell you that I have “finally overcome that painstaking agony”, and I am not trying to lie to you here. I will reveal to you that once I started writing the first pages of Siri Sirini, I just could not stop, and that is how come I ended with a trilogy instead of the originally planned short, single piece. I loved what I was writing, and in the language I was writing it in.