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  • Utenzi, War Poems, and the German Conquest of East Africa: Swahili Poetry as Historical Source
  • Nina Berman
Utenzi, War Poems, and the German Conquest of East Africa: Swahili Poetry as Historical Source. By Jose Arturo Saavedra Casco. Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 2007. xvi + 323 pp. ISBN 1-59221-378-2 paper.

José Arturo Saavedra Casco's erudite study amounts to an essential intervention into debates regarding the relevance of Swahili narrative poetry. He argues convincingly that the narrative poetry composed between 1889 and 1907 contains valuable sociopolitical and cultural information and provides a route of access to comprehending crucial dimensions of historical events uprooting East African societies at the time. Casco's study is ground-breaking in that it introduces methodological and theoretical innovation to a scholarly debate that has often undervalued this rich corpus of literary material. The re-evaluation of Swahili narrative poetry sheds light on texts that comment on historical events "from the perspective of the Swahili people" (1). The study refines our understanding of the sociopolitical relevance of poetry and narrative, an aspect already established by studies of, for example, South African praise poetry and the oral epic traditions of the West African Mande and Hausa.

In the introduction, Casco reviews the scholarly debate of the material, paying particular attention to the reasons that have motivated scholars to underestimate the sociopolitical value of this type of narrative poetry, and, from another, but highly consequential angle, the cultural significance of poetry written in traditional genres. He also identifies scholars who, regardless of some areas of disagreement, prepared the ground for a more complex understanding of the material, such as M. M. Mulokozi and Ann Biersteker. Casco briefly reviews his methodology and then provides a detailed overview of the study.

Chapter one is devoted to an in-depth review of the history and debates concerning the characteristics and genres of Swahili poetry. Casco proposes a new approach toward the classification of narrative poetry that is based on the [End Page 241] content of the poems, rather than the strictly formal features. The chapter also considers the relevance of Islam and Islamic and Arabic intellectual traditions on the evolution of the poetic genres in various historical and geographical contexts. Casco provides information regarding the beginning of European scholarship on Swahili poetry, which emerged with colonization, recounts the regrettable loss of a large number of manuscripts, and concludes the chapter with further methodological considerations. Chapter two focuses on Utenzi wa Vita vya Wadachi Kutamalaki Mrima (Poem of the German war for the conquest of the Mrima coast), the outstanding work of Hemedi bin Abdallah el Buhry. The poem is a rich source about the coastal peoples' perception of and commentary on German colonization. Chapter three analyzes poems that were collected by Carl Velten and Hans Zache. The fact that these poems were recorded in collaboration with German scholars led some critics to assess the texts as unreliable. Casco successfully challenges these reductive appraisals and distills from the poems essential insights about the historical events. Chapter four focuses again on one central text, the Utenzi wa Vita vya Maji (Poem of the Maji Maji war), which is said to be the work of Abdul Karim Jamaliddini. The text sheds light on the complex relationship between different East African societies, as the coastal people more generally did not support the rebellion that was led by the inhabitants of the hinterland. The conclusion briefly reviews the absence of the utenzi genre in the period following German rule and its reappearance beginning in the 1960s.

Casco's study is based on extensive fieldwork in Tanzania and archival work in Tanzania, Germany, and London. A primary achievement of the study lies in the fact that Casco draws on unpublished poems, letters to editors and publishers of the war poetry, and diverse historical documents housed in the various archives he consulted. The study is a welcome contribution to scholarship on the colonial period in East Africa. The richness of the material and sophisticated analysis of the study make the few minor mistakes negligible (e.g., sharairi is not derived from the Arabid word shahr, which means "month," but rather shi'r, which is...


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