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Rocha Chimerah: No language is incapable of addressing global issues

rocha chimerahAbenea Ndago: Talking of Siri Sirini…what is the status of the translation to English?

Rocha Chimerah: Those who decided to do the translation keep on assuring me that the final work is around the corner.  They know best what the real status is, but I have no reason to doubt them.

Abenea Ndago: Local languages have many constraints. There are fewer publishers looking to publish literature in indigenous languages than European ones. Does this reality often cloud your mind as you set out to write in Kiswahili?

Rocha Chimerah: No, that “reality”, the way you put it, does not cloud my mind at all.  You know I can write in this European language known as English.  And not only can I write in the language, but I can do so very very well, and that’s the honest truth.  Nevertheless, I’m very much aware that when you talk about writers in the English language, names that prop up in your mind are Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Harper Lee and even Richard Wright, James Baldwin, George Lamming, James Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Dafore and the like, but not including Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka (regardless of the fact that he won the Literature Nobel Prize for his works written in the English language). These categorizations must account for something surely?

On the other hand, when you think of writers in Kiswahili, Shaaban Robert and other East African writers spring to your mind and I’m proud to be right there among them.  Now, just google Amazon and you will find that my books are read by those who can read literature in Kiswahili all the way to the USA in the African studies classes.  Something is going on, somehow. And concerning the many constraints local languages have…?  We are dealing with those.  Tarakilishi (computer) and tovuti (website) are not the only words that I have created in my resolve to develop Kiswahili.  Did you know that toxin is takasumu in Kiswahili?  All languages get deliberately developed sometime, somehow, somewhat; English included.

Abenea Ndago: One of the truths about translation is that texts lose their initial meanings. To what extent does this view hold true, when you personally interact with portions of the translated version of Siri Sirini?

Rocha Chimerah: There is some truth in that (i.e. when texts get translated, some initial meanings are lost). However, it is not the whole truth, so help me God!  Otherwise, enjoying great literary giants such as Tolstoy, Tugenev, Maxim Gorky (did you enjoy reading Gorky’s Mother by the way?)  Fydor Dostoyevsky (Russian) Thomas Mann (German), Albert Camus, Emile Zola, Honore Balzac, Stendhal Maupassant, Jean Paul Sartre (French) and even Lenin, would have been impossible.  Isn’t it obvious translations are godsend?  With Siri Sirini, do not worry yourself much.  I intend to personally edit the final version.  It’s good to have    a good grasp of both languages when it comes to that.  Did you know that Ngugi translates some of his works from Gikuyu to English?  I’m told he did exactly that with Caitani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross). If we must do that, then we’ll do it for sure.

Abenea Ndago: Help me understand something… You write a book in Swahili because you want to promote and preserve the language. Then you translate it into English, supposedly to expand its audience, but isn’t that undercutting your original goal? Why not leave it in Swahili to encourage people eager to read it to make the effort to understand the language?

Rocha Chimerah: No, it’s not undercutting my original goal at all!  Like I said, there is East Africa, Africa and the World at large.  The audiences are different, more often than not.  Consider Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross for example.  I first read that work in Kiswahili and enjoyed it a lot. However, when I read it in English afterwards, I once again enjoyed it, tremendously, I would say.  How come?  Remember what Mikhail Bakhtin said… that when you read a book for the second time, third time, it’s like you are reading a different book.  You enjoy it differently.  You appreciate it differently in comparison to the last time you read it.  You find it different even in the same language.  Now think of reading the same work in another language!  There is nothing with which to compare that experience.  Just consider: the idioms are different, the sayings are different, even the imageries painted with different brushes and colour.  How just profound! This is like discovering a vastly new and different universe!  The best reader, the most privileged in this case, is the bilingual one, believe you me.

Abenea Ndago: There have been questions on the ability of indigenous languages to grasp the contemporary, technological world. What is your reaction to the unending view in in this debate, where the scope of African languages is perceived to be incapable of addressing global issues?

Rocha Chimerah: No language is incapable of grasping any human communication.  If we understand the technology, really understand it, do you expect us not to be able to communicate its intricacies using our languages?  Have you asked yourself where English got all its sophistication?  Of course, it got that sophistication from the people that its native speakers interacted with either as the ruled or rulers throughout their modern history.  Fact of the matter is, more than 70% of the language’s current vocabulary is derived from Latin.  You will remember that the English people were ruled directly by the Romans during the reign of Emperor Claudius of Rome (the one who took over from Augustus Caesar). Centuries later, they were once again ruled by outsiders, the Norman French, to be precise, whose native tongue is a core Latin dialect.  During the rule of the Normans, the Latin culture dominated every facet of the day-to-day lives of the ordinary English people.  To the extent that the upper classes of the then English society dressed in the manner of their French overlords, imitated the table manners of the rulers, spoke French, and politeness and cultural behaviour was all manifested in accordance with standards set by the French     people.  In addition to all these pervasive influences, the religion of the English French subjects at the time was Roman Catholicism, which used Latin as the language of the religious discourse, culture, education, law and government (much as Moslems use Arabic).  It is any wonder then, that the English language was overwhelmingly infused with so many Latin words and idioms that threatened to blur its very authenticity?

After a passage of the centuries, the English people, or the British if you will, became overloads over many parts of the world, hence ruling so many diverse peoples.  In all these parts, they imposed their language on the people they ruled, in some cases almost decimating some weaker languages that they came across in the process.  However, their language was, on the other hand, influenced by the languages of the peoples they ruled out there so that today, English has words from Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Malay, Arabic, Iranian, Chinese, Nigerian and even Swahili (e.g. safari, panga, pang, toto, tot, etc).  Much later, American English filled the gap left by the British dialect and continued the onslaught, while also being influenced by native American languages and those of other peoples around the world.  This is how English became so sophisticated.  And that is how any language can become as sophisticated, for languages are communication tools that people use to interact.  They are not relevant to only certain ethnic peoples who must be begged to allow non-natives to use them.  They are in this world for the entire human race.  To be precise there is no language that is incapable of addressing global issues. It all depends on the needs of the speakers of the given language, any language for that matter.  You must understand that the original Germanic English is so weak, it would not be used to express anything in today’s advanced and still advancing technologically sophisticated world.

Abenea Ndago: Let us turn to Kenyan Literature. There is the annual US$15,000 Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, founded by Mabati Rolling Mills company in Kenya, with the help of Cornell University in New York, which prize recognises writing in African languages. I remember that the prize was launched at the Ake Arts & Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria, in 2014. What, in your view, may have prevented it from being launched in Mombasa or Dar es Salaam for instance?

Rocha Chimerah: The prize was meant to honour and celebrate writing in African languages, and so it could be launched anywhere in Africa.  So far, Nigeria is the richest region in African writing.  Plus, that is where Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, among other African greats, come from.  However, much of the writing has been in Kiswahili, and the winners of the first, second and third prizes have been East Africans writing in Kiswahili.  As for when the prizes were given, well, first time two years ago, it was done in Nairobi.  Second round, this happened in Dar es Salaam.  The African award for writing and publishing before the Mabati one was a highly prestigious one, the Noma Award, which ran for decades before Koichi Noma’s daughter lost interest in it and consequently abandoned the whole venture a few years after her father’s death.  The winners of that award were mostly Nigerians, South Africans and French West Africans beginning with Mariama Ba of Senegal for her work So Long a Letter.

Abenea Ndago: There are very loud grumbles that the way our literature is formulated is flawed. There are those who say white writers such as Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen, and Robert Ruark should be included. Arguments to the effect that Kiswahili writing from the previous centuries – names such as Muyaka wa Haji, Fumo Liyongo, and Mwana Kupona Binti Mshamu – has been ignored in our theorising still endure, albeit silently. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Rocha Chimerah: If white writers such as the ones you have mentioned here have been ignored, this must be because of underlying racial, or even racist overtones noted in the course of analysing their works.  These overtones were not viewed as liberating to the African who just recently regained independence and racial pride alongside that independence.  These writers did not put the African person at the centre of their writing.  Rather s/he was always at the periphery of the major humanizing events, to be viewed as an anecdote of humanity at large.  This literature was at best patronizing to the African, and at its worst openly racist.

siri siriniOtherwise I agree with you that there were great artists before the British colonized the East African Coast who wrote in Kiswahili.  The ones you have mentioned here are just a few names representing so many others, some of whose works were recognized by literature enthusiasts whose origin was England; people such as Lambert who composed his own poems in Kiswahili … oh yes, and his anthology Diwani ya Sheikh Lambert earned him the title of “Sheikh” in recognition to his great contribution to Swahili literature by Swahilis themselves.  And then there was William Hitchens who collected the works of the greatest poet from Mombasa who lived between 1776 and 1944, Mukaya wa Muhaji (aka Mukaya bin Hajji). Hitchens not only collected Muyaka’s works, he also published one of this great poet’s anthologies, in South Africa, thus preserving the great man’s compositions for posterity; i.e. ourselves and those who will come after us.  Furthermore, this mzungu was so impressed by the high calibre of the poecy of Sayyid Abdallah Ali bin Nasir’s poem, Al-Inkishafi that he compared the piece to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, exclaiming that Nasir’s composition reflects the apex of composition in Kiswahili comparing favourably with compositions of giants in Western literature and maybe even surpassing them in sophistication.

So, if such compositions have been ignored in our theorising, we have entirely ourselves to blame.  This is not to say that I do not recognize the damage done by the colonialists who ignored everything emanating from the African mind and imagination, but the colonialists left us to chart our own paths and destiny so many decades ago.  What have we done to correct these false impressions and perceptions?  We have entrenched in them even further instead.  Why?  Because they trained us to marvel at their achievements and recoil at our own!  Just think of Mwanakupona wa Mshamu, whose work has been seriously studied in Britain, Germany and the USA, but which is ignored here at home, where she was born and lived, in north coastal Kenya.  Are we normal really?

Abenea Ndago: Let me take you back briefly to your Noma Award of 2000, which you shared with Kimani Njogu for Ufundishaji wa Fasihi: Nadharia na Mbinu (1999). The Noma in Africa is defunct now, but it was such an important award while it lasted, particularly because it embraced writing in any African language. How significant was this attribute of the Noma, in your view?

Rocha Chimerah: It was extremely significant; and Koichi Noma, a Japanese man of ordinary means, did a great thing to recognize African talent and reward it in the manner he did.  That it was left to die a natural death a few years after his own demise is shameful.  We have all these dollar billionaires in Africa today.  Why hasn’t a single one taken it upon himself to fill the gap left by Mr. Noma by continuing to give the yearly prize to deserving African artists in the manner of Mo Ebrahim rewarding former presidents who ruled well and left the scene unblemished?!  Or is it the case of it being wonderful to reward politicians but anathema rewarding artists?  What is this? Confounded priorities or what?  This was a great award, which Kimani and I were privileged enough to be the year 2000 winners.  What follows?

Abenea Ndago: Looking back at the trajectory of your writing and academics from the receipt of the Noma, can you speak to any impact it had on your career? Do we need more prizes like the Noma?

Rocha Chimerah: We certainly do need more prizes like the Noma.  This was Africa’s Nobel Prize and now we have nothing since Koichi Noma died, while we still have everything intact more than a century, I believe, after Alfred Nobel died.  It gave artists something to hope for in life and encouraged them to compose fine works.  Can you imagine that only two years after receiving the Noma award in Egypt (the year 2001) I went to South Africa (Cape Town) and thereafter proceeded to Harare, Zimbabwe, to receive yet another Africa-wide award for my book Kiswahili: Past, Present and Future Horizons?  With incentives such as these anyone has the potential to do better.  It worked for me.  It can work for anyone, I am convinced.

Abenea Ndago: Writers who write in multiple languages often speak warmly of the local colour, rhythms and such, as being inherent in one’s chosen language of expression. Do you consciously pull a mental lever to situate yourself in the language of a specific piece of writing?

Rocha Chimerah: The work determines the language you choose.  The choice of language does certainly have an impact on the work you end up with.  I have already told you that choosing Kiswahili to write Ufundishaji ended with the Noma Award for me and my co-author Kimani wa Njogu.  On the other hand, using English to write Kiswahili: Past, Present and Future Horizons put that work in the highly prestigious list of 100 best African books of the 20th Century, a list that included the works of Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka among other African giants.  I strongly believe that.  I’m referring to the choice of language.

Abenea Ndago: Before we end, it is now a cliché that the best writers are those who are the most widely travelled. You worked in Rwanda for some time. Is there a way in which certain Rwandan experiences influence your writing?

Rocha Chimerah: Certainly, Rwandan experiences did influence the writing of Siri Sirini in terms of the themes I handled and some of the characters I was able to create.  That work wouldn’t be what it is if I hadn’t lived in Rwanda at the time I did.  As a matter of fact, I wrote down a lot of the notes I later used to write the series on my way as I travelled by road to and from Rwanda.

Abenea Ndago: Let us be a bit more specific than that. I am aware that Rwanda is a very welcoming place, but a friend told me that there is an intriguing concept called ‘nyamaswa’ in that country’s socio-historical space. He pointed out that the idea is derived from the proto-Bantu word for ‘animal’ (mnyama). Hence ‘nyamaswa’ translates to ‘animalness’, if you will. My friend told me that it is a very common occurrence to have someone whom you helped yesterday turn against you overnight (‘like an animal’) as if they had never known you at all. Is it true? Which of the two faces of Rwanda welcomed you in the years you worked there?

Rocha Chimerah: The part about nyamaswa is correct and your English translation also correct.  Nevertheless, the part about ‘animalness’ is not entirely correct.  The word in Kinyarwanda is “ubunyamaswa”.  This, call it ‘behavior’, is not unique to the Banyarwanda; rather it is a human trait.  I’m not trying to wiggle out of an uncomfortable trap I may feel you’ve set up for me here.  So, the straight answer to your question is: Yes, I experienced instances of ubunyamaswa (unyama in Kiswahili) in Rwanda and yes, I came across a number of nyamaswa there.  What I have to tell you is that these were not entirely novel experiences to me.  I have experienced the greatest of instances of “ubunyamaswa” right here in “Kenya yetu hakuna matata”.  Perhaps when people face trying moments and situations such as those we experienced in 2007-2008, we should be prepared to experience ugly instances of “ubunyamaswa”.  Compare that with the 100 days of hell and back that the Banyarwanda went through sometime from April 1994 where more than a million lives were lost for nothing … utterly nothing!  In regard to the human being of any tribe, nation, race or creed, the nyamaswa in us is just skin deep.  Provoke it and it will come out with its fangs and claws bared.  At least the Banyarwanda do acknowledge such a thing exists as revealed in their language.  There are those peoples around the world who always refer to themselves and their behaviour as civilized, but behave just like the nyamaswa they are in reality.

Otherwise as a people, the Banyarwanda are very welcoming.  They welcomed me wonderfully well, ending up in giving me their daughter’s hand in holy matrimony.  How about that?  What do you think of the Banyarwanda now?

Abenea Ndago: Lastly, I know that you will win the next time you enter Kinango Constituency, or even Mombasa County politics. When will that be?

Rocha Chimerah: Politics have changed a lot my friend, here in Kenya. The goals have changed so significantly in such an ugly way.  Now it’s no longer about serving people; it’s about being served by the people.  These days you go after the money, not after serving fellow Kenyans and improving their lot.  Let the wretched remain wretched while you prosper at their expense, seems to be the overriding concern.  The people have come to be convinced that all you want is the ill-gotten money at the end of the campaigns, and especially after you succeed.  So, they want you to pay up now… Yes, pay for their vote.  This attitude has made vote hunting to be such an expensive affair.  You have to use a lot of money first to bribe the party stalwarts and then the voters.  I do not have money at all, let alone that kind of money.  I have, in fact, lost interest in the kind of politics and politicking we’ve been cursed with in Kenya these unfortunate times.  No thanks. It’s okay to be a professor, period.  I should be satisfied with that.

So “when will that be?”  It will never be if instead of changing direction before it’s too late,   we are further condemned to live with the curse for ever and evermore.  I stand for change.  Real change, not cosmetic.  I have always stood for that ideal, so help me God.

About the author

Abenea Ndago

Ndago Abenea, a Kenyan writer, is the author of Voices, a novel. An essayist, short fiction writer, and social critic, he also teaches Literature at Kenyatta University.

1 Comment

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  • Prof you are an established scholar,The language is so polished .i like the interview.i have learnt a lot from that interview.All along i have been having the notion that makondes are marginalized of which is not the case.
    good work our Noam Chomsky of Kenya