Research in African Literatures 30.4 (1999) 226-227
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Ebrahim Hussein: Théâtre swahili et nationalisme tanzanien, by Alain Ricard. Paris: Karthala, 1998. 187 pp. ISBN 2-86537-834-9.
Ebrahim Hussein is a hard sell. He is, after Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard, the most interesting and gifted dramatist that Africa has produced, yet his name is rarely mentioned in criticism of African literature written in European languages. Alain Ricard's book is the first extended study of Hussein to be published in any language. The reason for this is simple: Hussein writes in Swahili, and his dramatic oeuvre, with the exception of Kinjeketile, remains untranslated into a language of the West.
Swahili literature represents the Bhutan of African literature. Few are the non-natives who undertake the arduous linguistic preparation for the journey to a rich and remote territory. Tanzanians and Kenyans have insufficient clout with Western publishers to focus Western attention on Swahili literature, and the lively discussion of Swahili literature taking place in East Africa doesn't make its way out of the provinces. British colonialism, through the institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies, fostered a serious philological approach to Swahili literature as a classical phenomenon, but it has shown itself to be uninterested in or incapable of dealing with the plays, novels, and poems of the post-Independence period. Thus, Ricard's book, regardless of its merits, represents a landmark of Western scholarship.
Unlike the SOAS scholars, who basically took up residence in East Africa, Ricard is a tourist. But he is the best prepared and most conscientious of tourists. He spent several years learning Swahili before making his field trips to Tanzania in 1995 and 1997; he studied up on East African history and culture; and in his acknowledgments he thanks the most prominent [End Page 226] European scholars familiar with Hussein's works. In fact, Ricard's study, complete with journal entries and descriptions of promenades through Dar es Salaam, has the advantages of good travel writing: the prose is lively; he imparts much information in an entertaining manner; in short, the book is interesting. For that alone, we should be grateful. Furthermore, Ricard brings to his travels his considerable knowledge of theater and African literature. He is at his best when discussing Hussein's oeuvre, both as literature and within its cultural context. He has also looked at the Swahili criticism of Hussein's work and takes it seriously enough to criticize, quite rightly, its narrowness of vision. He is suggestive in his discussion of various East African authors in terms of a symbolic geography of mountains, forests, lakes, and coast.
The book also shares some drawbacks of travel writing. Though familiar with the literary theory, Ricard mostly avoids it outside of criticizing the vulgar Marxism practiced by the East African intellectuals of the '70s and '80s. Furthermore, some of his assertions flatten the complex cultural and historical realities of East Africa. His résumé of Swahili history (104-05), for example, seems to ignore the centuries of development discussed by Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear (The Swahili: Reconstructing the History and Language of an African Society, 800-1500, Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1985). Similarly, I came away confused about the relationship that the violent revolution in Zanzibar had to the paternalistically imposed socialism of Tanganyika. Finally, I wish that Ricard had published a complete version of Arusi (or any of Hussein's untranslated plays) in the appendix rather than devoting valuable pages to Hussein's unremarkable discursive prose. Still, these are minor flaws. As the first book-length study of a modern Swahili writer, Ricard's book is a fine achievement on its own. Hopefully it will encourage others to make the strenuous journey. Hongera!
Robert Philipson received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin. He wrote his dissertation on Ebrahim Hussein.