Generations of students studied his epic novel Kusadikika, an allegorical work of an imaginary state in which injustices are perpetrated against all notions of justice, law and humanity.
Its beginning lines: “Kusadikika ni nchi ambayo kuweko kwake hufikirika kwa mawazo tu …” (Kusadikika is a country that only exists in our imagination) are some of the most recited lines in literature.
Yet Sheikh Shaaban Bin Robert was a humble primary school dropout, who worked his way to the high table of Swahili literature and culture.
Variously described as the poet laureate, father and Shakespeare of Kiswahili, so enamoured of his works was Tanzania’s founding President Julius Nyerere, that he took it upon himself to popularise them.
Indeed, it is widely believed that Shaaban’s humanistic philosophy of love, peace and brotherhood could have influenced Nyerere to adopt Ujamaa (African socialism) with the Arusha Declaration of 1967.
A striking feature of Shaaban’s works is the meticulous choice and use of names, not only of people, but also of places to signify meaning.
He selects and invents names with exuberance unparalleled in Swahili literature.
An example of his short fictional allegory Adili na Nduguze (Adili — the Just — and His Brothers), a class reader in primary school for many years, will suffice.
It is the story of Adili in the process of recounting events before the king and in the presence of the two baboons Adili has been accused of abusing.
We are taken back in time to when Adili’s brothers, Hasidi (‘the evil one’) and Mwivu (‘the envious one’), coveted his beloved Mwelekevu (‘the upright one’). The rulers of the spirit world punished the brothers by turning them into baboons and ordering Adili to beat them nightly.
Thus, Adili tells the king, he is not really abusing baboons, but doing the will of the spirit world. The king (Rai, ‘Prudence’) then takes justice into his own hands and restores the brothers to their human forms.
In the biography Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad (Siti daughter of Saad), the noted Zanzibari popular singer who was famous throughout East Africa and as far away as India, Shaaban’s sensitivity to the singer’s struggle as a woman in a non-traditional role in a male-dominated Islamic society established him as one of the earliest feminists on the African continent.
In defence of Siti, who was successful despite her plain looks, he wrote that it was not beauty, but intelligence, which made one important:
Si hoja uzuri, na sura jamali/ Kuwa mtukufu, na jadi kubeli/ Hasara ya mtu, kukosa akili
In his epic poem Utenzi wa Adili, Shaaban extols the virtues of education:
‘Maisha bila elimu/ Hayafai mwanadamu/ Sababu mambo magumu/ Mengi sana mbelee/ ‘Milango wazi adimu/ Kwa asiye elimu/ Kwa mwenye nayo gumu/ Hujifungua wenyewe.’
Thirty-five of his poems are published in a collection entitled Pambo la Lugha (The Adornment of Language).
On the Jubilee commemoration of the pioneer writer who died on June 22, 1962, Swahili scholars, thinkers and lovers remembered Shaaban as one of the greatest moral writers to emerge on the Kiswahili literary scene.
Swahili novelist and scholar Ken Walibora said anyone who has studied Kiswahili owes Shaaban Robert a lot.
“It is he who put Kiswahili where it is today.
“This is our Shakespeare in Kiswahili as you cannot talk of Kiswahili without him,” Prof Walibora told Saturday Nation.
Swahili editor and chief executive of Target Publications, Simon Sossion, said Shaaban’s legendary Kusadikika — which satirises blind and rigid autocratic political and social formations — is as relevant today as it was in 1951 when it was first published.
“Karama, the protagonist of Kusadikika is representative of the messengers of hope that intolerant societies have not hesitated to lynch (since the days of Jesus Christ) in a futile attempt to silence them,” said Mr Sossion, the vice-chairman of Kenya Publishers Association.
Shaaban is regarded as the philosopher king and founder of modern literature in Swahili who connects centuries-old traditions of Swahili oral literature and written literature with the demands of modern times.
A pioneer in many respects, Shaaban the essayist, was the first scholar to write about Swahili literature as a genre with his Kielezo cha Insha (A Comment on the Essays”).
But Shaaban’s service to Swahili went beyond his literary works into advocacy. In a speech delivered at Makerere College a few months before he died, he passionately argued for the adoption of Swahili as the lingua franca of East Africa.
“A Mganda with Luganda in the illustrious Uganda, A Kikuyu with Gikuyu in the renowned Kenya, and the Sukuma with Kisukuma in the humble Tanganyika can be proud of their respective lan guages, but none of them could be used everywhere, even in the lands of their origins, leave alone in the whole of East Africa,” he asserted in a speech published in the Swahili journal of The East African Swahili Committee Volume 33, published in 1963.
Then he went ahead to address the charge, prevalent in those early days, that Swahili was the vehicle of slave traffic.
“I do not think the Swahilis or non-Swahilis who happened to live in those dark and accursed ages could be blamed for a purchase of something offered in the open markets.”
A reader of this passionate defence of the Swahili people of the East African Coast as slave-mongers will be forgiven for thinking Shaaban was a Swahili.
But the son of Robert Selemani Ufukwe, a Yao tribesman from Tanga in North Eastern Tanzania, never referred to himself as such and was one of the earliest East Africans to call himself a Swahili.
Shaaban, who was three times married and twice divorced in his life, was celebrated as far afield as Russia, where his books won recognition because of his humanistic ideals.
Andrei Zhukove, a leading Russian scholar, has compared Shaaban to Shakespeare.
“He (Shaaban) can be compared to Alexander Pushkin in the Russian, Goethe in the German and Shakespeare in the English cultures,” writes Zhukove in an article ‘Shaaban Robert in the Russian Language’.
Russian was the first European language into which his works were translated beginning with Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad, which was translated in 1963.
Shaaban’s two-part autobiographical work published in Swahili in 1958: Maisha Yangu na Baada ya Miaka Hamsini (My Life and After Fifty Years) earned him the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize.
Much of his childhood is, however, unknown as a handwritten piece on the subject, which he sent to a writing competition, was never published nor returned.
Educated in Dar es Salaam, Shaaban’s known educational qualification was a school leaving certificate he studied for from 1922 to 1926 in Dar es Salaam.
After receiving the school certificate, Shaaban worked as a colonial government civil servant in various departments, including customs, land and wildlife.
In most of his books and poems, Shaaban attempted to come to grips with the challenging reality of uhuru (independence), the prospects of building a new, just and prosperous society against a legacy of poverty, urbanisation and class contradictions.