- Swahili Beyond the Boundaries: Literature, Language, and Identity, and: Utenzi, War Poems, and the German Conquest of East Africa: Swahili Poetry as Historical Source
Swahili literature, especially poetry, has received some notable academic attention in the past decades and these two books offer two additional dimensions to this existing scholarship—a nuanced reinterpretation of Swahili literature, identity, and history. In Swahili Beyond the Boundaries, Alamin Mazrui provides an overview of Swahili literature from its poetry and history to new works by non-ethnic Swahili writers. Through a careful analysis of various schools of thought on Swahili identity, Mazrui challenges the longstanding claim of Swahili identity as dependent on ethnicity and historical specificity; instead, he shows the hybrid, multicultural, and transnational nature of Swahili identity. For instance, he convincingly argues that Tanzania developed Swahili as a national identity even though Kenya is the [End Page 220] core of Swahili literature. By contrast, Saavedra Casco’s argument is more specific: Utenzi, War Poems, and the German Conquest of East Africa shows the value of poetry as a historical source, revealing the multiplicity of Swahili interpretations of the German conquest of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.
Mazrui’s book has an introduction, four short chapters, and a conclusion. As he states in the introduction, much of the text includes pieces that were published earlier; but even readers familiar with Mazrui’s scholarship will appreciate reading his arguments in continuous sequence. He contextualizes his main argument through the idea of hybridity in Swahili identity. While this is not new in defining Swahili identity, Mazrui shows this in direct fashion: in the underlying cross-current between non-ethnic Swahili, who see Swahili identity as transethnic, and ethnic Swahili, who cling to an essentialist Swahili identity. Recognizing such competing perspectives is especially important today, when global flows of people and ideas may threaten those who have no political or economic clout in a world dominated by “outsiders.” In such circumstances, ethnic identity becomes the only asset a people may be able to lay legitimate claim to, and even try to control and manipulate. The analysis poses Swahili verse aesthetics, religion, and translation as pivotal locations for this argument on identity, contested from both the inside and outside.
Casco’s book is quite different: as a product of his graduate research it tends to read like a dissertation. Readers familiar with doctoral dissertations that seek to cover every possible aspect of a topic would be forgiven for faulting Casco’s long titles and chapters. Like Mazrui’s work, it too includes an introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion; but these are much longer: the first chapter, for instance, is 121 pages long and covers seven subtopics, detailing Swahili poetry’s origin and development. The next chapters focus on specific poems, providing contexts and historical analyses of their themes and messages—including the famed Hehe and Maji Maji wars. Despite the length, the book gives voice to Swahili poets as producers and shapers of their own history while also providing new perspectives on poetry as history.
Taken together, these two authors provide a welcome contribution to the scholarship on Swahili literature and identity, in ways that converge with current interpretations of identity as contested, hybrid, and fluid. Yet the two differ markedly in their own identities as scholars, in their approaches, and in their interpretations. Mazrui, a scholar of Swahili literature and Africana studies, and raised within Swahili culture, speaks from both insider and outsider perspectives. Casco, by contrast, a scholar of Swahili history and literature, writes from an outsider’s perspective; this may explain why his work is more tentative in its conclusions. Casco states, for instance, that “the Suaheli-Gedichte collection can contribute to a better understanding of relations between coastal...