As Kiswahili spreads, London crowns Farouk Topan

Friday November 9 2018

Freddy Macha

Freddy Macha 

When I was at Mzumbe Sec School in the 1970s I read a very significant article by Dr Farouk Topan. Judging solely from how his name sounded, I thought he was from Mombasa. We associated significant Swahili writings especially poetry with Taarab, Juma Bhalo, the Mombasa star singer. Moreover the East coast Kenyan writer, Abdilatif Abdala, had just published a collection of poetry - Sauti ya Dhiki (The Voice of Agony, 1973), composed in prison...

Generally, we linked rich Kiswahili literature with Mombasa, Lamu, Malindi, alongside Tanga (Shaaban Robert), Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam...just a psychological thing- romantic, almost.

Similar to how we might see traditional music through Wagogo, Wamakonde and organic meat through Wamaasai. Maasai are naturalists, aren’t they?

So, folks, during that period, i.e. from 1971 to -when TANU changed its name to CCM, in 1977- Tanzania was undergoing key changes : activities, discussions; both national and international, and Mwalimu Nyerere (with TANU ) led it all- aided by the Mwongozo dictum, an historical catalyst.

To recall a few episodes.

Two leaders, assassinated. Zanzibar president, Sheikh Abeid Karume (1972) and Dr Wilbert Kleruu (1971), Iringa Regional Commissioner - shot by a farmer, Saidi Mwamindi, later, executed following a court ruling.

In 1971-73 students and workers were matching against bossy leaders, managers and teachers. Thanks to Ibara 15 of the TANU Mwongozo –which supported fair leadership.

In 1976 Fimbo ya Mnyonge the first serious Swahili film- released featuring Tanzanian actors and the folkloric, unique guitar music of John Ondolo- as its sound track.

Speaking of music we had the fantastic, Mbaraka Mwinshehe - sound of the nation- reminding us of Dr Kleruu and the 1970 Osaka Japan global trade fair...

So then emerged Kichomi, a Swahili free verse (Guni) book defying rules and by Euphrase Kezilahabi, already a popular novelist (his Rosa Mistika, published 1971), it was NEWS. I read Kichomi, and lo and behold, its introduction- penned by none other than Dr Farouk Topan. As a free verse poet myself I loved it. Topan’s defence of the genre made us, listen. Key in establishing the Kiswahili department at University of Dar es Salaam and his name was often whispered among Swahili scholars.

One of his celebrated students was the dramatist Ebrahim Hussein. Hussein’s play, Kinjeketile (1969), about the Maji- Maji war of resistance against German colonialists (1905-07), is a Swahili classic. Dr Topan, had also taught Kezilahabi, and here you may see how productive this Swahili scholar was becoming....

I never heard much about the man until I arrived in London. Now teaching at the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS). Many Swahili students would mention Dr Topan. His name mentioned in reverence. Dr Topan wrote fiction too. For example the play, Aliyeonja Pepo (1973).... Yes, Swahili scholars across the world know Topan.

But still... We, Tanzanians, have a habit, of not recognising and singing praise to our heroes, especially those whose works have nothing to do with popular culture, e.g. football, music, political controversy etc.

We, Africans, love drama- but small talk drama. Good and Bad.

Last Saturday, I sat and watched speakers from all over the world heaping praise on Dr Farouk Topan. One Kenyan attendee- whispered later.

“You Tanzanians are so humble. I could not believe watching this man. He has done so much, yet he has no airs...”

Dr Farouk Topan was included in the BARAZA conference’s theme- organised by East African lecturers at SOAS, Dr Ida Hadjivayanis (Tanzania) and Chege Githiora (Kenya) ...

Notable thinkers of Italian, Chinese, German, descent, Swahili fluent spoke. Such as Emiliano Mirneba. Minerba has only learnt Swahili for five years and conducted a whole Swahili interview with me. The Chinese Swahili student, with a Swahili name, Jabari, was equally, fascinating. I took a pic of him getting his “Aliyeonja Pepo” copy signed by none other than Dr. Farouk Topan.

Legendary Swahilist, Abdilatif Abdala, teaching in Germany, for years, here too. Mr Abdala made a brilliant speech, all Swahili (NO SWANGLISH, ladies and gentlemen), praising Topan, for being an honest, genuine person, a proponent of Kiswahili from his heart and soul. Abdilatif’s words were the most revealing.

And by the time Dr Topan stood up to say thanks and tell us how he had first arrived in London in 1962, we were enchanted.

Born in 1940 in Zanzibar, this unassuming soft spoken thinker has waved the Kiswahili flag for over fifty years and still running. It is, indeed people like Dr Topan who offer hope to the arts and culture of a nation. Let us cheer them while they are still alive. Another Swahili conference is due on 12 and 13 December in Zanzibar.