“The Swahili language belongs to the linguistic family of the Bantu languages, numbering well over a thousand languages and dialects which are spread over most of Africa south of the equator, reaching north of it in [Cameroon], Zaïre, Uganda and, sporadically, in Kenya.”
Despite having only 15 million native speakers worldwide today, Swahili can be traced back over 1500 years on Africa’s southeast coast. Jan Knappert’s Four Centuries of Swahili Verse: a literary history and anthology (1988) concentrates on works from the seventeenth century onwards, coinciding with the the emergence of Islam, the Portuguese invasion and numerous other political events that shaped Swahili verse. This concise history helps put the works of modern poets such as Shaaban Robert into a historical perspective.
Dr Jan Knappert (1927-2005) was a Dutch expert in Swahili language and a lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He was also a notable Esperantist – a speaker and enthusiast of the world’s most widely spoken constructed language, Esperanto, which was established in 1887 by Polish linguist Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof. Knappert began his Swahili poetry project in 1969, which took a total of seven years to complete using the selected materials that were previously collected in Kenya, Tanzania and the surrounding area.
In his Preface and Introduction, Knappert acknowledges the impossibility of piecing together a complete anthology of Swahili verse:
“We may hope that some more documentary material may still be discovered, shedding new light on the authors and their contemporaries, but the present author is not optimistic.”
In the past, Swahili poets had a strict devotion to Islam, which is partially blamed for the deterrence of Western academic interest, as even secular works contained religious imagery. 17-18th century Islamic Swahili verse used aspects of the Arabic language to further discourage linguists who did not have an understanding of the Quran and Islamic traditions. Also, the chosen texts use a much wider range of vocabulary compared to standard Swahili, making particular words and phrases extremely difficult to decipher. As he explains, there are many reasons for the lack of original manuscripts including southeast Africa’s humid weather, which caused irreversible damage to paper. However, despite all these setbacks, the book is a significant commemoration to Swahili verse, “which is known by few and admired by hardly anybody.”
From the seventeenth century onwards, Knappert looks at notable works that transpired from an array of historical events. In one instance, we are introduced to the former ruler of Siyu who was imprisoned for life in 1866 at Mombasa’s Fort Jesus. Muammaed Mwataka’s ‘A Poem from Prison’ imagines a conversation between himself and his faithful servant in the context of his imprisonment. It is believed that the poem’s transcript was either smuggled out or memorised by a fellow inmate who was later released.
Although Knappert takes a modest approach to Four Centuries of Swahili Verse, his work and commitment to the language have contributed to a modern understanding of the subject. The book contains hundreds of poems that are written in both their transliterated form and the English translation, accompanied by historical, literary and linguistic analyses by Knappert.