I first noticed Attilio Tagalile in September 1981 – 40 years ago!
I wore (and still do wear) two hats – writer and musician. Attilio was young, eager, did not talk too much. He asked questions, and his eyes had that inquisitive glint which gifted journalists possess like a well fitting, dashing suit. Our then unknown band, Sayari Troupe, performed at the Goethe Institute, then the most welcoming hub for innovative Tanzanian artists in the 1970s and 1980s, under German director Hans Schley. Those days, artists were dubbed machizi (mad people), marijuana smokers, and many other horrible, derogatory terms.
Most reporters turned a blind eye to talented artists, concentrating instead on football and politicians.
Tagalile’s review of the Sayari gig in the Daily News was catchy – with photographs, which encouraged us, immensely. We played in several places across the country and three years later, were invited to international festivals in Scandinavian countries.
My other Sayari colleagues, Chiku Ali, Nasibu Mwanukuzi and George Chioko, kept Tagalile’s cutting for ages. We felt appreciated. At a when time your average news-jotter just reported nightclub music, nothing new, unusual, unique or different.
Sayari was avant-garde. We dramatised poetry, music played on a variety of modern and traditional instruments, and sang in various languages. As a classic, sharp journalist, Attilio Tagalile saw that.
In 2011, someone published a list of 25 celebrated Tanzania Mainland writers on JamiiForums. Critics were unhappy that Tagalile’s name had not been included (as were most Zanzibar writers).
Tagalile penned an endearing obituary upon Adam Lusekelo’s passing in April 2011. Lusekelo was a giant, and London’s Guardian published a tribute via Ruth Evans, who appreciated Adam’s sense of humour. Tagalile’s piece about Lusekelo was not just profound, but also detailed. Tagalile was a master of detailed writing.
When we say “detailed” writing, we do not mean a million facts in hundreds of pages. It means being able to summarise information in each sentence. Journalism is mostly about clear, condensed information.
Let us observe a typical Tagalile line. He is writing about the former Ugandan leader Idi Amin.
“He told the bespectacled and Afro-haired Ugandan minister who also happened to have been General Amin’s brother-in-law not to seek forceful repatriation of Ugandan refugees from Tanzania “ because tomorrow you may also become a refugee”.
Here there is a physical description, a laidback quote and facts (ie, names, political positions, family connections) in one effortless, relaxed sentence.
He was a rich, gifted writer, and with his typical glasses, resembled what the English call a nerd.
Nerds are serious people. How can you not be serious to continue writing for over 40 years?
Last Friday, photojournalist and blogger Maggid Mjengwa announced Attilio Tagalile’s death on Instagram.
Maggid recalled being directed towards Tagalile by another veteran reporter, Wilson Kaigarula. Mjengwa says Tagalile’s advice on becoming a professional journalist was reading.
“Maggid, if you want to become a good writer, read books. If possible one book per month.”
Speaking of books.
The final conversation I had with Attilio in 2020 was about publishing. He wanted to know how to get his books online. He had already done one. Former The Citizen journalist Abdi Sultan, who now writes weekly columns in this newspaper, informed me that Tagalile left at least two unpublished manuscripts. This is the song of our times.
When I googled Attilio Tagalile there was not much apart from his blog, which fortunately, contains brilliant articles.
Tanzanian authors tend to write in either Swahili or English. A few manage both, but most specialise in one lingo. Jenerali Ulimwengu, Maggid Mjengwa, London-based Ahmed Rajab and the late Prof Chachage S. Chachage have been writing in both languages for years. Then there are those who do English only, to which Attilio Tagalile belonged. Others were the late Adam Lusekelo (died April 2011) and Mike Sikawa (2008), for example. Swahili users are many, and this says a lot about the tools we use in our communication. We have big names like Adam Shafi, whose 1998 prize winner Vuta Nkuvutehas been turned into a film.
I have always argued it is important for us East Africans to use BOTH Kiswahili and English as our readers tend to be as diverse as they are interested.
Esteemed novelist and academic Ngugi wa Thiong’o has pushed for us to use our indigenous languages.
How much do we value our writers, journalists and documentarists? How loud do we applaud and award them?
How will future generations know and learn what we have been through without writers and broadcasters?
History always relies on contributions of journalists for the progress of communities and nations. And for this Attilio Tagalile, born in 1950 – God Bless His Soul – was a valuable thread.