Euphrase Kezilahabi (b. 1944) is a major Swahili author, a pioneer both in fiction – where his works move from social realism into post-modernism – and in poetry, where from the early 1970s he was an originator of Swahili free verse. Born on Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria, in Tanzania (then Tanganyika), he grew up in the fishing village of Namagondo and came of age in post-independence Tanzania. His poetry often seeks figures for the task of post-colonial nation building and its conundrums. The complex imagery of his poems, and their inventive use of the image as an organizing principle, was something new in Swahili poetry, as early readers of Kezilahabi understood. Yet even as these poems jettison the constraints of “traditional” Swahili forms, their deep investment in metaphor echoes a strategy crucial in “traditional” Swahili poetics, and their imagistic structures draw on other modes of representation indigenous to Africa. A professor in the department of African Languages and Literatures at the University of Botswana, Kezilahabi teaches courses in African aesthetics, philosophy, and folklore. He is an avid scholar and student of folklore who when not in the classroom might be found gathering material from storytellers around the Kalahari and elsewhere, driving his battered white pick-up truck.
In many of Kezilahabi’s poems, exploration of personal loss coincides with representation of disappointed expectations on a national scale. Kezilahabi excels at this articulate merging of spheres, which he has long practiced, and we find it in the three village elegies here – “Namagondo” (1974), “Namagondo II” (1988), and “Namagondo III” (2008) – which span his three volumes of poetry. I am not certain of the degree to which Kezilahabi experienced these as a consciously linked sequence. But of the enduring, transformative, and transforming significance of this poet’s home for him there is no doubt. The first poem dilates on personages, games, and scenes from childhood that endure in memory and the second on an unsettling return home. Both poems convey the sense of a community undone by forces and agents that are incapable even of quite recognizing it. “Namagondo III” imagines village and poet sharing a lifespan, extending the loss pondered by poems I and II to include the speaker’s departure from his own life nyuma, “back there.”
“The Word” (1988) meditates on the poet’s task of preserving truth in language. Here we come upon the feminine figure of Nagona, who is central to the poet’s novel of that name (1990). This cryptic woman signals possibilities for personal and national renewal. Soccer imagery, which circulates engagingly in Kezilahabi’s poems, operates in the final stanza’s envisioning of a beribboned poet who is fundamentally too light of foot for the “rough players.”
A pervasive challenge in translating Kezilahabi’s poetry lies in re-creating the metaphor so central to his poetics: the images themselves, of course, but also, within and around them, the patterns of suggestion they enact: how much is implied where, and by what means exactly. Across the history of Swahili poetry, metaphor operates as a crucial vehicle for political discussion and debate, and as many translators soon learn, the workings of a figure such as metaphor – sitiari in Swahili – are simply not the same from one language to another.
Yet in this group of poems, that particular difficulty is unusually minimal. Instead, a translator becomes preoccupied in “The Word” with the problem of the personal pronoun, for as anyone with experience of Swahili knows, pronouns in the language are ungendered, and in English translation this presents complications. No gender is assigned to the poet in “The Word” – what the grammar does fundamentally indicate, through the noun-class system governing Swahili, is that the poet is human – but in English a choice must be made between he, she, or something awkwardly either/neither. This problem vexes especially because Kezilahabi’s oeuvre is itself so very attuned to issues of gender. Another kind of challenge arises in “Namagondo I,” where the account of games and activities reminds one of the idiosyncrasies of children’s vocabularies from place to place, even regionally within a single language – and makes one think about how childhood experience might be said, for each of us, to create a unique idiom.
I remember Namagondo, the place I was born.
Where is the millet we pounded,
today here, next day there, the day after at the neighbors’ house?
Where are the sweet potatoes so delicious they stunned their eaters,
that spoiled on the farm, fetching no price then.
I cry for Namagondo, the village where I was born.
Where is the cotton we harvested in plenty?
Rooms filled with it, and people had to move out.
I remember women wearing an abundance of beads
bathing at the spring near the road.
And here to the side people are harvesting rice.
Where is the rice that made people wealthy?
Here is Mr. Mbura’s place, there Mr. Mfunzi’s —
his neighbor is Kahunda — there Mr. Magoma’s
and near him Mr. Nabange, over there Mr. Lugina’s place.
Now they’ve all gone, who used to lead the village.
Some compounds are derelict; the children have moved.
They’ve begun to estrange themselves, building their own places.
What remains now are their graves,
far off in the forest or close to the road;
in the mission’s mausoleum, among the many termite mounds.
And where they slept we’re afraid to pass at night.
I cry for Namagondo, where I was born,
where I was born between earth and sky.
Where are the disciples of Muganga Gholita, the poet,
and where are our great dance competitions?
What remains now is Mbugutu, the dance of drunkenness.
Where is the Nabili River, then so full
that people couldn’t cross until its currents settled?
It’s drying up now and spreading sickness.
I remember the boxing game we played, all of us
cheering when our captives’ heads touched the ground.
We played bali and gambling games.
We set bulls fighting and made tremendous noise.
When we were sweaty, we swam in the Nabili.
What remains now are stories to tell children.
Fellow villagers, listen to the voice of today:
Our stars are going out,
and the sun shines weakly now.
Your lucky water pot faces downwards,
suffering the lack of your rich soil.
Colonists enjoyed it in days long past.
Listen to the experts who were brought to you.
Forget that old song.
Consider matters of fertilizer, of socialism in the villages.
I remember Namagondo, the place I was born.
I cry for the village, the place I was born,
where I was born under sun and stars.
Translation by Annmarie S. Drury (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Euphrase Kezilahabi’s “Namagondo” (1974)
What remained were stories to tell children.
The immense trees have gone down:
not a trunk escaped this new fire.
The path we cleared long ago is nearly grown over.
In just a little while I’ll claim my spot.
Children are old now, the girls fully grown women.
The alleyways I knew between the houses are filled.
I’ve become a stranger in the village of my birth.
At night spirits fan out, murmuring deliriously:
I forgot my coat here, ah!
Here I was caught in adultery, ah!
And here the pregnancy was lost, ah!
Some mutter about children who flouted their dying wishes:
I told them to cut down the tree, to dig up the roots
and burn them. They didn’t do it.
They poison themselves with the sweetness of the fruits, ah!
I told them to grab the lion with their hands.
They couldn’t make sense of the metaphor. He’ll wipe out the whole generation, ah!
Only old people attend to their whispers.
I no longer see clusters of cows in the evening
coming back from pasture as the calves cry for them —
hear only snores of the drunks
and the ruckus of the card-players arguing.
Everywhere I look, the new generation questions me:
all these years of independence have brought what, Namagondo!
I can’t return that hard shot.
Like a snail dried of its slipperiness
I shrivel painfully in my shell.
Here a child cries, and over there an old man grows angry
about a dog that bit a goat and killed it.
The young man approaching beat his wife last night.
She was late back from the well.
Far off, I see children coming from school, singing:
We’ll light a torch and set it on Mount Kilimanjaro.
Translation by Annmarie S. Drury (email@example.com) of Euphrase Kezilahabi’s “Namagondo II” (1988)
I know I inhaled my first breath here
and maybe here I’ll exhale my last.
My spirit will have worn out its shoes
that trampled many places —
on thorns, mud, flames, and rugs —
until the day I found an unfamiliar thief awaiting them.
I’ll finish drinking my tea
hand over my cup
and say: goodbye Nabili.
Goodbye trees; siblings, cousins, friends
and children goodbye.
I’ve already petitioned for my little space.
Elders, I come without a pen;
won’t you make room in the circle.
Back there, the earth will kiss my cheeks
until I wear that smile of the ages.
Translation by Annmarie S. Drury (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Euphrase Kezilahabi’s “Namagondo III” (2008)
Poets guard the door, intractable ones,
over there where that woman Nagona* sits.
They are champions of illumination; their work
is to catch hold of a hard word
so it can be molded into meaning.
They stand in its path
if a hard word greets them from behind the door.
Here comes a king of religion
with his knowledge of the word,
arriving directly from a massive new cooking pot,
assisted by experts.
He’d like the door to stand open
so that he can close it easily, without dexterity,
and triumph in bearing in “Lord.”
Now a president takes his turn,
approaching with all the powers of government,
assisted by his prime minister.
He doesn’t want trouble with anyone.
He’d like three words to pass —
“Equality,” “Freedom,” and “Justice” —
which he enunciates masterfully.
A chief justice comes in
with his knowledge of the rules of the game,
assisted by various judges.
He’d like “Justice”
to be the last word.
The situation is this:
the poet can’t be dodged
and he’s not thrown off by feints, by lightness of foot.
Rough players fear him,
for he takes the word from their very heads.
He puts the word into his heart
then composes a poem
easing, smoothing the way.
Indeed this is when he wears his diadem
and his shoulders are brushed by its ribbons.
* Translator’s note: a figure in Kezilahabi’s novel by that title.
Translation by Annmarie S. Drury (email@example.com) of Euphrase Kezilahabi’s “Neno”
Annmarie Drury is a poet and translator who grew up in West Virginia and attended Yale, the University of London, and the University of Houston. As a translator, she specializes in Swahili poetry, which she studied with poets in Tanzania and Kenya, and at SOAS, London. She received an award from the PEN Translation Fund for her translations of poems by the Tanzanian writer Euphrase Kezilahabi. Many of her own poems have appeared in Raritan, The Paris Review, and Western Humanities Review, and her translations of Kezilahabi appear in publications including Modern Poetry in Translation, Raritan, and Warscapes. She teaches at Queens College, CUNY, where she is a scholar of Victorian literature and nineteenth-century translation.