Elimu Yetu | by Yusuph Mkangara

Posted on Posted in Haikus

Hesabu lugha
ya dunia. Shairi
ni ya mkiwa.

I wrote my first Swahili Haiku when I was in Tanzania and I had decided to challenge myself to write Haikus. Swahili is technically my native tongue, however, because of my immigrant status, I actually speak English better and with more confidence. I worried about what my Swahili poem would turn out like because of this. Language is a funny thing when you have to confront it with great unfamiliarity. You can see my hofu, my fear or apprehension, in how my haikus become essentially a simple sentence structure: a sort of “call and response”. Living in America, I actually don’t have a lot of exposure to Swahili poetry so perhaps this “call and response” structure is very common in Swahili poetry. I know trucks and dalalas of Tanzania are known for the cultural proverbs that often mirror this structure. One example that I happen to have been able to find on my phone, “Filisika ujue tabia ya mkeo”. The call is “filisika” or “go bankrupt” (as per Google translate, don’t have my Swahili dictionary on hand!). The response is the rest, “[and] know your wife’s behavior”.
In some sense, Swahili Haikus, when they are defined as 5-7-5 syllables, feel as if they are destined to be like these proverbs (methali). Perhaps I am limited in multiple ways, my lack of mastery of the language and my lack of cultural knowledge, and that’s why I can’t seem to get beyond my current poetry structure. That’s what makes the field so open. If it means modifying Haikus (For instance, what effect would it have to double the syllables, 10-14-10, because Swahili words are significantly more syllabic in nature? I’m assuming Nyerere’s Shakespeare translations totally butchered the meter, but I haven’t read it for myself so it’s hard to say definitively), then I encourage new and inventive ways to approach Haikus using Swahili. This is only meant to be a springboard into such ventures. Should this spark a renaissance of written Swahili and African language poetry, all the better. I know poetry is often spoken and rapped; this is wonderful. I want to encourage building a library of such literature for kids like myself who are fortunate to study in America, but who then lose such a critical connection to the world of Swahili speakers. How wonderful it would be in this digital age to be able to read to children, collections of “renaissance” Swahili poetry on e-books all over the world. The next time you hear from me, I will have hopefully pushed the field further if only a tiny bit. I hope comments on this post (of suggested readings or experimental ideas) will be inspirational in all of our quests!

Editor’s Note
We will be hosting Yusuph’s Swahili Haikus every Tuesday throughout the month of February and into March.

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