Shafi’s memoir blows fresh breath to Swahili literature
Adam Shafi. His dexterity and mastery of Swahili language make him a wordsmith, imbuing his life story with unforgettable vivaciousness.
By KEN WALIBORA Posted Sunday, January 27 2013 at 02:00
Title: Mbali na Nyumbani
Author: Adam Shafi
Publisher: Longhorn (K) Ltd (2012)
Reviewer: KEN WALIBORA
The past decade has witnessed an upsurge in the publication of Swahili fictional works, particularly in Kenya. Both seasoned and upcoming authors have had their works published on a scale unprecedented in the Swahili literary history.
This increase in Swahili titles is presumably attributable to publishers’ rather belated discovery of the lucrative Swahili market as the language continues to gain popularity globally and in the East and Central Africa region in particular.
This is not to suggest that Swahili is now at par with English in terms of the quantity and quality of literary publications. If Swahili has had the audacity to compete reasonably well with English in fictional works published in Eastern Africa, it hasn’t fared very well in nonfiction.
Since the doyen of Swahili letters Shaaban bin Robert penned Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad, the biography of a famous taarab female songbird, as well as his own memoir, Maisha Yangu na Baada ya Miaka Hamsini, there has been little in the way of Swahili life writing.
It is therefore enthralling to witness the recent publication of Adam Shafi’s memoir, Mbali na Nyumbani. Shafi’s memoir is probably the most artfully crafted and candid piece of life writing in the Swahili literary corpus. Anchored on the themes of exile, youthful adventure, the quest for education and the journey motif, Shafi’s Mbali na Nyumbani is a page-turner that is bound to revolutionise life writing in Swahili.
For once, a reader would encounter a highly intricate and humorous life narrative that is not interested in vain self-glorification or deliberate glossing over one’s weaknesses.
Neither is the memoir a dry presentation of dates, facts and figures within a trite self-congratulatory frame, as is so often the case with inept autobiographical works that grace the bookshelves the world over. Mbali na Nyumbani exhibits great aesthetic beauty.
But perhaps the greatest virtue of this exilic life narrative lies in its ability to shed light on the human condition and to edify without pontificating.
Shafi needs no introduction. He has authored four powerful novels, namely; Kuli, Kasri ya Mwinyi Fuad, Haini, and Vuta N’kuvute. The semi-autobiographical Haini and the revolutionary Vute N’kuvute are the probably most acclaimed literary pieces of his literary oeuvre.
But in Mbali na Nyumbani it is his ability to put to use his astute literary skills to carve out a public image of himself from his private life that makes his memoir an abounding work of life writing. His dexterity and mastery of Swahili language make him a wordsmith, imbuing his life story with unforgettable vivaciousness and novelty.
But even more enthusing is the way the memoirist plays with the thin line between fiction and fact.
His account is full of dramatic events and near-death situations, including reminiscence of his life as bus conductor for Mawingo Bus that operated between Bungoma and Kisumu and his dalliance with at least two women in Bungoma and Khartoum, his detention in northern Uganda, etc.
It is interesting how the journey gravitates towards an anticlimax as Shafi ends up being recruited into a secret military training camp in Egypt aimed at unseating the colonialists in Zanzibar, instead of pursuing university education as he had anticipated. But Zanzibar attains its independence before he puts his new skills to use.
Overall, the author writes about his misdeeds and missteps with astonishing candor. His account of having casual sexual encounters with women while being hosted at the mosque is a case in point.