The Francophonia Chronicles: 2 writers to watch

As literature lovers interested in contemporary writing from Africa, it’s already hard enough keeping up with all the exciting content coming out every month in English. What of the francophone scene? Here is a selection of news items you may have missed recently.

Benin’s 8th Plume Dorées Prize

Eva Natacha Fanou is the winner of the 2015 Plumes Dorées prize for her short story ‘La Tranchée’ (the trench). She is the first woman to receive this prize, which is awarded every year to a Beninois writer.

As part of Plumes Dorées, a short story anthology is being published, bearing the name of the winning story ‘La Tranchée’. It will also include the 9 shortlisted stories by Yves Biaou, Annette Bonou, Mylène Flicka, Mireille Gandebagni, Michel Henri Hlihe, Fiacre Kakpo, Jordy Hounhoui, Jovencio Kpehounsi, and Djamile Mama Gao.

Next year’s prize will be awarded to a novelist.

Aminata Sow Fall wins the Francophonie Prize


In June 2015, Aminata Sow Fall received the Grand Prix de la Francophonie for her literary work in French. With 10 novels to her name, the Senegalese author is no newcomer to the literary world. Her most famous novel “La grève des battu” (1979) was translated into English by Dorothy S. Blair as The beggars’ strike”.

Francophone Manuscript Day coming up

On 24th October, UNESCO will host the 3rd edition of francophone manuscript day (#JDMF2015), during which hundreds of new writers will have their books published for free. 30 shortlisted manuscripts will be distributed commercially in partner bookshops.

Manuscript submissions are open until 30th September.

Photo Credits:

Aminata Sow Fall” by may! from New York City – IMG_1159. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.


(South) African languages in Ekow Duker’s novel ‘White wahala’

The title of Ekow Duker‘s novel grabbed my attention : the plot is set in South Africa, but could there be a link to Nigeria somehow ? On Zukiswa Wanner’s recommendation, I read the book and found several other points of interest related to African langages in White wahala.

Wahala : the word that travelled

My curiosity wasn’t really satisfied as to the origin of the title. Or rather, I was left to my own imaginary devices to find out how the term got to Constance’s lips. Wahala is a word meaning ‘trouble’ or ‘problem’ in Yoruba – and I was told by my lecturer that it’s a loan word from Hausa. I’ve heard it used in Pidgin Nigerian English as well so one could safely say it’s a nigerian word.

The first occurrence of the word in ‘White wahala’ – other than in the title – is found in chapter 26 :

‘I am going now, madam,’ said Constance nervously. She edged towards the door. This was white-man wahala and had nothing to do with her. The Zambian gardener, Elisha, had taught her that word. She rolled it on her tongue, relishing the way it stumbled about in her mouth like a half-sucked sweet. She even said it out loud, ‘White wahala‘.

‘What did you say?’ Agatha gave Constance a sharp look. ‘I told you never to mutter in Zulu when you’re in this house’

‘I’m sorry,’ Constance said, with not quite enough deference. (emphasis mine)

And how did the Zambian gardener Elisha come across this word then? The answer isn’t provided in the novel but I’ll offer some hypotheses : Elisha watches a staple of Nollywood movies and ended up adopting the word. Or maybe he used to have Nigerian neighbours, whether in Johannesburg or in his hometown in Zambia. Who knows, what if Elisha were very well-travelled and multilingual ? He might have been to Nigeria before moving to South Africa.
Well, I probably need to ask Ekow Duker himself…

Edit: I did ask and here is what the author had to say:

Zulu and Sesotho, familiarity and struggle

Ekow Duker’s writing is nothing like the weaved bilingual prose of Junot Diaz, but langage issues are ever lurking in the background, as you can tell from the quoted passage above.

In the few instances where it is mentioned, Zulu is charged with emotional undertones: it is the langage people use to get close to someone, to express familiarity. When the plumber (chap 32) comes to beg Cash Tshabalala to lend him money, it is Zulu he uses to appeal to the loan shark to respect his privacy and to not have him expose his money woes in front of Cash’s white girlfriend. It’s interesting to note that in two instances where a character does not understand an utterance and feels left out, they wrongly assume the langage to be Zulu (Agatha in chapter 26 and a prison guard in chapter 27 who mistakes Sesotho for Zulu).

Yet, despite the language being mentioned in several places, there is only one sentence in Zulu in the dialogues (Uya ngidinisa :she annoys me, she makes me tired). It is pronounced by Solly, Agatha Nicholson’s lawyer, to complain about his rich client’s attitude and create an atmosphere of familiarity with the hospital receptionist. But Agatha knows enough Zulu to get offended by this !

Hawu ! A ubiquitous interjections

I was bit quick in saying there was only one Zulu sentence in the whole novel. As a matter of fact, the Zulu interjection Hawu ! Is used so frequently that I had to look it up. translates it as ‘oh my, eish, wow, good heavens’. According to White Zulu, depending on the tone pattern (falling or rising, to put it simply), hawu! can express pained surprise/strong disapproval or joyful surprise.

I found examples of both types in the novel, which you have to understand from context :

Joyful surprise :

‘Comrades !’ roared Elvis. ‘Your oppressor is on his knees!’

‘Hawu! Hawu! Hawu!’ chorused the crowd. (chap 22)

Strong disapproval :

Elisha snorted in disgust. ‘Hawu! That one? She is like a snake that suns itself on top of a wall at midday’ (chap 35)

Anyone familliar with the linguistic landscape of South Africa? Drop your insights below!

P.S. I read the novel in Kindle format so I can’t provide page numbers but each chapter is not very long. You should be able to find the relevant passages easily on your own copy.

Blogger Christian Bwaya: “Swahili is a sign of my africanness”

We speak with our guest, blogger Christian Bwaya  (@BwayaCN)!

Christian Bwaya

Christian Bwaya : ‘I don’t only inform people by the way I think; I also learn from my readers’

Christian has been a blogger since 2005, running the Swahili blog Jielewe. He is also a volunteer translator and editor for the Swahili edition of Global Voices.

He teaches Social Studies and Biology in Moshi while still pursuing his higher education. He is married with one child.

This interview was originally published on this blog in Swahili.

You started blogging in 2005. How did you decide to get involved with online writing?

I remember that, as a student, I was a keen follower of Ndesanjo Macha‘s, a famous writer who is now editor of Global Voices for Sub-Saharan Africa.

He was the first Swahili-language blogger [I knew]. And, to say the truth, I was very impressed by his style of writing, the debates he was engaging in on his blog as well as his mastery of the language. Thus, my motivation to blog stemmed from Ndesanjo Macha’s blog.

I viewed my blog as a good opportunity to easily debate on issues I understood well: cognitive science and science in general. There, I thought it would be easy to get a platform to exchange ideas with people without any sort of hindrance and without having to meet them in person.

I do not only inform people by the way I think, I also learn from my readers. This interaction is hard to find through newspapers and other mainstream media. So this freedom to say what I think was an important motivation for me to start a blog in 2005, while I was a student.

Even now [that I work], I still make an effort to plan my schedule well so as to be able to be a more prolific blogger.

You like to say that you are a ‘Swahili lover’. What does this language mean to you?

Kiswahili is my language. I consider it as a gift from God to me and my community. I respect it as a mark of my culture.

You know, we Africans are very unlucky in that we do not care for what is ours. As far as I am concerned, Kiswahili is a sign of my africanness. It is the vehicle through which I can easily express my ideas to my community. It is my measure of understanding; what I mean is that if I cannot explain a given concept in Kiswahili, then I consider that I haven’t understood it yet.

Kiswahili is a safeguard of education. It is a legacy. This is the reason why I am among those who believe that the decision to use foreign languages as a medium of instruction for our pupils is one of the biggest issues facing our education system, here in Tanzania.

Despite its imperfections, Kiswahili can still be of great assistance in improving understanding by our students, from the early stages of schooling up to university. This is possible, unless we are people who do not love their own culture but instead admire that of others, who themselves might not love ours.

Do you speak other languages, apart from Kiswahili?

Yes. I speak Kinyaturu fluently. This is my mother’s language and she made every effort to ensure that we communicate in Kinyaturu. It belongs to our small community, the Wanyaturu, whose traditional homelands are in central Tanzania. I hold it in high esteem.

I speak English as well, since I know it is the dominant language of education and I really love to read. But it is not close to my heart nor is it a source of pride for me.

As a blogger, what is your take on the importance of using African languages?

Internet has become the library of information. If we use Kiswahili, we will help preserve our language and give it an opportunity to be a medium of information for the Swahili-speaking community.

It is very important for those who are able to use the Internet, to share information online in Kiswahili. In so doing, we will help increase access to technology amongst our communities since our people won’t be forced to know foreign languages to learn and get information on the Web.

The world is changing. It would be a shame if our language, which has millions of speakers, failed to take its rightful place online and one day came to be among the endangered languages.

Let each of us do his or her part. This is why I decided to participate in the Swahili Lingua project. I am proud to contribute to the online knowledge bank in my own language. I know that by providing content in Swahili, I facilitate access to knowledge and information for people who do not speak foreign languages.


Have you got a message you’d like to pass on to our readers?

There is no greater dignity than knowing where you came from. I call upon fellow Africans to get to know and value their own culture. One of the manifestations of this self-knowledge is the way we value and develop our native languages.

This interview was originally published on this blog in Swahili.

Translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen.

Mwanablogu Christian Bwaya: “Kiswahili ni alama ya Uafrika wangu.”

Tunazungumza na mgeni wetu, mwanablogu Christian Bwaya (@BwayaCN)!

Christian Bwaya.

Christian Bwaya : ‘Si tu ninaelimisha kama ninavyofikiri, lakini ninaelimishwa na wasomaji wangu.’

Christian ni mwanablogu wa Kiswahili ambaye ameendesha blogu itwayo Jielewe kwanzia mwaka 2005. Pia ni mfasiri na mhariri wa kujitolea katika ukurasa wa Kiswahili wa Global Voices.

Anafanya kazi Moshi kama mwalimu wa Saikologia na Elimu ya Viumbe (Biolojia) wakati mwenyewe anaendelea na masomo yake. Ameoa na ana mtoto mmoja.

Ulianza kuandika blogu mwaka 2005. Uliamuaje kushiriki katika mtandao wa Internet namna hii?

Nakumbuka nikiwa mwanafunzi nilikuwa mfuatialiaji mzuri wa makala za mwandishi maarufu, Ndesanjo Macha (ambaye sasa ni Mhariri wa Global Voices eneo la Kusini mwa Jangwa la Sahara).

Yeye ni mwanablogu wa kwanza wa Kiswahili. Na kwa kweli niilivutiwa sana na aina yake ya uandishi, mijadala aliyokuwa akiiendesha kwenye blogu yake pamoja na matumizi mazuri ya lugha. Kwa hiyo hamasa ya kublogu ilitokana na blogu yake.

Blogu kwangu niliiona kama fursa nzuri na rahisi ya kujadili masuala ninayoyaelewa vizuri ya kiutambuzi na sayansi. Mule niliona ingekuwa rahisi kupata jukwaa la kubadilishana mawazo na watu bila kikwazo chochote na pia pasipo kulazimika kuonana nao.

Si tu ninaelimisha kama ninavyofikiri, lakini ninaelimishwa na wasomaji wangu. Jambo hili ni gumu kupitia magazeti na vyombo vingine vikuu vya habari. Kwa hiyo uhuru wa kusema ninachokifikiri ulikuwa ni hamasa muhimu ya kuanza kublogu mwaka 2005, nikiwa mwanafunzi.

Kwa sasa bado nafanya juhudi za kupangilia ratiba yangu vizuri ili niweze kublogu kwa ufanisi zaidi.

Unapenda kusema kwamba wewe ni mpenzi wa Kiswahili. Hii lugha, ina maana gani kwako?

Kiswahili ni lugha yangu. Naichukulia kama zawadi ya Mungu kwangu na jamii yangu. Nakiheshimu kama utambulisho wa utamaduni wangu.

Unajua tuna bahati mbaya sana sisi Waafrika hatujali vitu vyetu wenyewe. Kwangu mimi Kiswahili ni alama ya Uafrika wangu. Ni nyenzo ya kuwasilisha kwa urahisi sana mawazo yangu kwa jamii yangu. Ni kipimo cha uelewa wangu kwa maana kwamba kama siwezi kueleza dhana fulani kwa Kiswahili, basi najichukulia kama sijaielewa bado.

Kiswahili ni hifadhi ya elimu. Ni urithi. Na ndio maana mimi ni kati watu wanaoamini kwamba kati ya matatizo makubwa yanayoukabili mfumo wa elimu nchini mwangu [Tanzania] ni uamuzi wa kutumia lugha za kigeni kuwafundishia wanafunzi wetu.

Pamoja na mapungufu yake, bado Kiswahili kinaweza kusaidia sana kuongeza uelewa wa wanafunzi wetu kuanzia ngazi za chini mpaka Chuo Kikuu. Inawezekana isipokuwa tu kama sisi ni aina ya watu wasiopenda vya kwao  tunaong’ang’ania vya watu ambao nao hatuna hakika kama wanapenda vyetu.

Je, unaongea lugha zingine, isipokuwa Kiswahili?

Ndio. Naongea Kinyaturu kwa ufasaha. Hii ni lugha ya mama yangu na amekuwa na jitihada za kuhakikisha tunawasiliana kwa lugha hii. Ni utambulisho wa jamii yetu ndogo ya wanyaturu, wenyeji wa eneo la katikati ya nchi. Nakiheshimu.

Vilevile naongea Kiingereza kwa kuwa tu najua kimetawala ustaarabu wa vitabu na mimi ni mpenzi mkubwa wa kusoma. Ila sikipendi na wala sijivunii nacho.

Kama mwanablogu, unaonaje kuhusu umuhimu wa kutumia lugha za kiafrika?

Mtandao wa intaneti umekuwa ni maktaba ya maarifa. Tukitumia Kiswahili tutakuwa tumesaidia kuhifadhi lugha yetu na kuipa nafasi ya kuwa nyenzo ya maarifa kwa jamii ya wasemao Kiswahili.

Ni muhimu sana sisi wenye fursa ya kutumia mtandao tukachangia maarifa haya mtandaoni kwa Kiswahili. Kufanya hivyo kutasaidia kuongeza matumizi ya teknolojia katika jamii zetu maana watu wetu hawatalazimika kujua lugha za kigeni ili kujifunza na kuhabarishwa mtandaoni.

Dunia inabadilika. Itakuwa ni aibu kwa lugha yetu yenye mamilioni ya wasemaji kukosa nafasi inayostahili mtandaoni na siku moja tukajikuta tumo kwenye kundi la lugha zinazopotea.

Kila mmoja wetu achangie. Na hii ndiyo sababu niliamua kushiriki mradi wa Swahili Lingua. Ninajivunia kuchangia benki ya maarifa na habari mtandaoni kwa kutumia lugha yangu mwenyewe. Najua ninawarahisisha wasiojua lugha za kigeni kupata maarifa na habari hizo kwa lugha yao wenyewe.


Je, una ujumbe wa kutuma kwa wasomaji wetu?

Hakuna heshima kubwa kama kutambua asili yako. Natoa wito kwa sisi Waafrika kujielewa na kuthamini utamaduni wetu. Kati ya vielelezo vya kujielewa ni namna tunavyothamini na kukuza lugha zetu tulizozaliwa nazo.

Tuesday update #3: ‘Oral literature in Africa’ available for free download

Ruth Finnegan, anthropologist and emeritus professor of sociology at England’s Open University, agreed to digitalise her seminal book ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ under a CC-BY license. This allows students of African studies, academics and interested readers, to download the e-book for free, thus broadening access to this remarkable piece of scholarship.

Oral Literature in Africa

First published in 1970, ‘Oral Literature in Africa’ had since gone out of print and was only available at some selected libraries. Even when ordering a physical copy was still an option, the price was so prohibitive that Ruth Finnegan’s book hardly made it into the hands of scholars on the African continent.

Crowdfunding campaign

Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign led by the start-up, the book was not only saved from oblivion but propelled to near universal accessibility. It is now downloadable for free in mobi, epub and pdf format, thus enabling anyone with an Internet connexion to enjoy its content.

Under the CC-BY Creative Commons license, Finnegan’s work can be shared, reproduced, translated, quoted – the only condition being to give the author due attribution. She is convinced that this choice is completely in line with her mission as an academic…of the modern age:

Yet it seems to me that open access represents the future for academic publication. It is a form of free knowledge-dissemination, using the new opportunities afforded by the web, and is very much in keeping with the open and democratising spirit of The Open University.

And the e-book version is not without its perks – besides being free and accessible to all online. This new edition of ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, which is also the first title of the World Oral Literature Series, has been livened up by a new introduction as well as extra media, including photographs and original recordings collected in Sierra Leone in the 1960s. These precious appendices could not have been part of the book in 1970 due to obvious technical limitations at the time, and had thus far remained unpublished.

An ode to literary creativity

In ‘Oral Literature in Africa’, Ruth Finnegan explores themes common to anthropology, linguistics and sociology, debunking commonly held conceptions of the time and reestablishing the relevance of studying the oral arts of Africa with as much rigour as any other form of artistic expression. The author certainly was and remains committed to doing so.

Even though it is not per se part of the central argument, literary creation is placed against the particular linguistic background of Africa. In the introductory section of the book, Finnegan outlines the range of literary devices afforded by African languages, taking the Bantu group as an example.

For anyone who has ever juggled with multiple noun classes and verbal derivatives, it is illuminating to see these language parts coming together to aid literary creation. We enter a world where personification is only a prefix away, where verb gymnastics transform the mood of a scene, and where a whole story hides in a name.

But the scope for creative expression does not end there. One of the most striking features of Bantu languages is their generous use of ideophones in story-telling. Ideophones are words – most often interjections – whose sound brings to life an idea. Used to add texture and intensity to the tale, they can portray sounds but also, more surprinsingly, the rhythm of an action, colour, smell, character etc.

Here are my favourite examples of ideophones from the Shona language, as presented p. 66-67:

k’we—sound of striking a match.

nyiri nyiri nyiri nyiri—flickering of light on a cinema screen.

go, go, go, ngondo ngondo ngondo, pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka pxaka—the chopping down of a tree, its fall, and the splintering of the branches. (Fortune, 1962)

…and some Zulu ideophones:

khwi—turning around suddenly.

dwi—dawning, coming consciousness, returning sobriety, easing of pain, relief.

ntrr—birds flying high with upward sweep; aeroplane or missile flying.

bekebe—flickering faintly and disappearing.

khwibishi—sudden recoil, forceful springing back.

fafalazi—doing a thing, carelessly or superficially.

ya—perfection, completion            (Fivaz 1963)

The poetic potential of Bantu languages is exposed with such delicate eloquence that the thought kept me awake at night, murmuring bits of poems I had memorised from the book.

Beyond orality

Forty years after the book that essentially pioneered the field of ethnography of language, Ruth Finnegan published ‘The oral and beyond: doing things with words in Africa’. She looks back at almost half a century of research on orality, reviewing the intellectual debates taking place since the 1960s and opening up new perspectives for the study of orality, notably by questioning the long-held perception of Africa as the ‘oral continent’.

If you want to help unglue more books, have a look at the active campaigns and consider supporting the digitalization of a book under Creative Commons.

Photo credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Raymond Yee

Legendary Somali poet Hadraawi at #Kwanilitfest in Nairobi

Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame, or Hadraawi, is a prominent Somali poet and songwriter hailing from Toghdeer in former British Somaliland. Hadraawi, whose stage name means ‘the master of speech’, is not  only revered for his fabulous word-smithery but also for his courage and dedication in advocating for peace in Somalia.

In the poet’s own words:

I use poetry to fight society’s evil. I do that because it is just my destiny.

Hadraawi performed last Sunday at Kwani Lit Fest in Nairobi alongside Warsan Shire and El Poet. He also participated in a discussion with Said Jama Hussein on his art and struggle for peace in the Horn of Africa.

Hadraawi reminded the audience that ‘[his] poetry does not come from the sky. It is directly linked to the realities that prevail’. On Twitter, @missmbithe commented on ‘the beauty of the words inspired by witnessing war’, thus saluting the profound resilience of  artists who manage to translate harsh realities into pieces of art.

For poetry fans, the good vibes are nowhere near waning, as @PoetryTranslate announced on Twitter their upcoming publication of a volume of Hadraawi’s poems:

Even though Somali poetry is traditionally chanted and committed to memory to be passed down orally, more and more poems are being put down on paper. The Poetry Translation Centre is spearheading exciting translation work that enable English speakers to access selected works by Somali poets. You will, for example, be treated to a brilliant translation of the poem ‘Daalacan’, presented alongside the original Somali version as well as background notes.

More on Somali poetry: Introduction to Somali poetry by Martin Orwin

Interview with linguist Oliver Stegen

Today, we speak with Oliver Stegen the man behind the Swahili translation of Bilbo’s Aragorn poem !

Oliver Stegen was born and grew up in rural Northern Germany where he found his calling at the age of 14: he was to be a linguist. After completing his M.A., he moved to Tanzania together with his family to work with the international organisation SIL. For ten years, they lived and worked in Kondoa District among the Rangi people, first learning Swahili, and then the Rangi language. In May 2011, he successfully defended his thesis “In search of a vernacular writing style for the Rangi of Tanzania: Assumptions, challenges, processes”. He currently advises linguistically a number of SIL’s language projects in Northern Tanzania and Uganda.

Despite devoting a lot of his time to his work at SIL and to editing Swahili Wikipedia, Oliver Stegen has participated in several other projects, among which :

  • Google’s “Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge” and “HealthSpeaks”
  • The Kenyan Wikimedia Chapter which he co-founded
  • The Institute for Natural Church Development (World Summit in Johannesburg, 2004)
  • SACHES (Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society), as affiliated member of their executive committee 2005-2008
  • NewTactics, as featured resource practitioner at their November 2011 online dialogue on “Using citizen media tools to promote under-represented languages”
  • ANLoc (the African Network for Localization)
  • Translators Without Borders

You are a linguist at heart. What do you find most exciting about your work?      

My linguistic interests have certainly changed over the years. It may be symptomatic that my MA was in theoretical linguistics whereas my PhD (almost 20 years later) was in applied linguistics. I started out being fascinated by language structures like sound correspondences between related languages. However, once I had worked in an actual minority language and seen the impact of literacy on mother tongue speakers, I was sold on the development of literature (both original and translated) and of vernacular writing style. Among the most exciting highlights of my work must be those moments when a newly published vernacular book reaches the hands of someone who sees his or her mother tongue in print for the first time. Very rewarding that!

How did you come to choose East Africa as your base?       

Ha! My wife and I had originally wanted to work in Siberia (we both had learned Russian in our teens and were interested in the changes of socialist societies after the Berlin Wall had fallen; we actually grew up on different sides of it). But when that door closed (we simply couldn’t get any positions there, merely being young linguists fresh out of college), we were contemplating Anglophone Africa, both for cultural and linguistic reasons. SIL, the organisation we work for, had a number of openings in Tanzania, and the Rangi language project appealed to us. After ten years in rural Tanzania, our family of five has now been living in Nairobi since 2007 – which is an easier location for our children’s education and for travel to the various language projects in East Africa which I am advising linguistically now.

Could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Rangi language documentation and expansion of language use?

As I believe in participatory research, i.e. involving mother tongue speakers in the research itself right from the start, I spent a lot of time visiting Rangi villages and talking to elders, government officials and school teachers. Then, our family lived for two years in the village of Mʉnéen’ya (Mnenia in Swahili spelling) in order to learn the Rangi language. Initially, the focus was on helping those small groups of interested Rangi speakers to devise an orthography and to publish literacy materials.

After a few years of very humble beginnings (which saw the production of an alphabet chart, of a primer and of a story booklet), a couple of Rangi speakers joined us full-time – two as literacy supervisors and two as Bible translators under an affiliated interdenominational Bible translation project. This meant that the focus shifted to training our Rangi colleagues in topics ranging from literacy teaching to discourse analysis. On the academic side, I endeavoured to document and publish the results of our linguistic research (the academic publications can be found here).

I continue to take an interest in further expansion of the Rangi language. For example, last year we started a Rangi chatgroup on Facebook which now boasts well over 300 members with daily traffic predominantly in Rangi.

I gather that you are also very active in the online Swahili-speaking community. What have you learnt from this experience over the years?             

Well, my knowledge of the online Swahili-speaking community is actually restricted to the Swahili wikipedia community; I wouldn’t be familiar with, for example, the Swahili-speaking blogging scene. Still, my involvement with the Swahili wikipedia has shown me how much there is still to be done when it comes to the online representation of general information in languages other than English. And if Swahili is severely under-represented, even though it is spoken by tens of millions of people and is the national language of two major East African nations, what about the hundreds of smaller languages which are not officially recognised, yet whose speakers rely on their mother tongues as their major and often only medium of communication? These languages are needed just as much for the acquisition of education and for all kinds of literacy practices in everyday life. That is why I am promoting the use of regional and local languages as much as possible (unless I’m trying to reach an international audience like in this interview). There is much more room to use local languages on the web, from writing your Facebook status updates in local languages to building vernacular dictionaries on Wikimedia’s incubator or, as I said earlier, initiating local language chatgroups.

What are your current topics of interest?     

I am both a networker and an academic, so I love to bring people together who can mutually benefit from cooperation and exchange of information. Currently, I am investigating the opportunities connected with pro-bono translation – on the one hand, I am in contact with Translators Without Borders who are doing an excellent job and have just expanded into East African languages; on the other hand, I am learning Spanish via Duolingo with the hope of applying that approach to Swahili.

On the linguistic research front, I am working together with a colleague on functions of rhetorical questions in East African languages (particularly Swahili and a couple of local Tanzanian languages which we are familiar with; yes, Rangi is among them) and on the implications for translating rhetorical questions. Also, I am looking into the development of Swahili as an academic language (I have been sitting on a nice data corpus for a couple of years now which just waits to have a detailed discourse analysis conducted on it).

In addition to all of those responsibilities, activities and interests plus the megalomaniac project of translating Tolkien into Swahili (mentioned in your previous post), I am probably collecting enough projects for a very busy retirement – which, Mungu akipenda, won’t be due for another quarter of a century.

What is your favourite Rangi proverb? (with translation please!!) 

That’s easy, I even have it printed on a t-shirt: Mʉʉ́mba njʉlʉ adoma, mʉʉ́mba masáare akaarɨ afíindaa. Literally, “the creator of mountains went away, the creator of words is still sculpting.” This illustrates nicely that there are certain things in our environment which we cannot change but with words, we most certainly can continue to be creative.

Haya, tusonge mbele katika kuboresha dunia yetu; let’s get on with making our world a better place!


The poem is generally a story by a poor rural young person, criticizing the ‘They’. These are the learned elite who take pride in their origins and culture but blame the youth for abandoning their cultures without seeing their ‘motorcades’, ‘ironed suits’, ‘polished shoes’, ‘glittering watches’ and ‘foreign languages’. The poem silently bites at this habit which is quite common in Africa.

Brian Ngatia

[English translation below]



Mokire na mîtokaa mîkururanio
na thuti hûre bathi
na iratû njiru ta nduma
na thaa irametameta.

Magîtûkora tumîte ibarûa
na mathîna maitû ng’ong’o
ona mîatuka itû magûrûinî
Na ndangari iria tûîkîraga.

Makîîarîrîa na thiomi cia rûraya
magîtûorotaga ithuî andû ethî
makiuga ati mîthiîre itu
Ti ûmwe na ûndûire witû.



English translation (by the author).


They came in their motorcades
in ironed suits
Polished shoes,black like darkness
Their watches glittering.

They found us coming from our casual labours
with our problems on our backs
And cracks on our feet
in the tatters that we wear.

They talked in foreign languages
pointing at us the youth
Saying that our behaviours,
Were not reflective of our culture.