ART CHECK

Euphrase Kezilahabi: The existential voice of East African literature

Kezilahabi’s works have been translated into more than six different languages across the world. He died last week on January 9 at the age of 75 (1944 – 2020) after a long illness

In Summary

• Using novels that elucidate existentialism as a philosophy of art and life, he carved his niche in the ecology of East African prose

• It is him who opened the doorway for other famous existentialist and absurdist writers from Tanzania using Kiswahili in contemporary times

Euphrase Kezilahabi gives a talk at the University of Nairobi next to Kithaka wa Mberia
Euphrase Kezilahabi gives a talk at the University of Nairobi next to Kithaka wa Mberia
Image: JUSTUS MAKOKHA

Seven years ago, Kenya celebrated its 50th anniversary, from 1963 to 2013. One of the highlights of the momentous milestone in the long journey into Independence was the inauguration of a new regional conference series to cultivate critical discourse on literature, culture and the performing arts.

The inaugural conference was held at the University of Nairobi and was themed, East Africa at 50: A Celebration of Histories and Futures. It was organised by the Department of Literature in general and specifically by Tom Odhiambo and his committee of experts.

This conference has been held in a biannual manner ever since and rotates across the region’s member states, including Uganda in 2015, Tanzania in 2017 and Ethiopia in 2019. The event brings together enthusiasts and experts in the literatures of eastern Africa and the Horn from across the region and its diasporas.

It is at the inaugural conference, held in September 2013 at the University of Nairobi, that critics and pundits will recall the last public appearance in the country by the recently demised Prof Euphrase Kezilahabi. The famous Tanzanian doyen of Swahili literature passed on last week on January 9 at the age of 75.

He died after a long illness that he bore stoically as he taught in Botswana after leaving his natal home, disenchanted with the discourse and practice of African socialism after Independence. He was one of the international scholars who delivered the keynote lectures at the debut East African literature series conference in 2013.

Kezilahabi is revered as one of the foremost Tanzanian writers of all times. Using novels that elucidate existentialism as a philosophy of art and life, he carved his niche in the ecology of East African prose. It is him who opened the doorway for other famous existentialist and absurdist writers from Tanzania using Kiswahili in contemporary times, such as Said Ahmed Mohamed, a household literary name among Kenyan high school graduates.

In his literary oeuvre that span decades, Kezilahabi engaged in deep philosophical reflections on societal themes at the heart of our modern lives. He quested for authenticity in terms of approaches to life and interpersonal relations. Absurdity to him was the hallmark of modernities unfolding precariously in Africa.

Using a kaleidoscopic lens and with his theological background, he gave insightful narratives that will remain with us for generations as a rich legacy of both the soft-spoken sage and his inquisitive mind.

Here in Kenya, his Rosa Mistika (1988) will remain a key text, which many Kenyans who grew up in the 1990s are familiar with from secondary school experience. Other works include: Nagona (1990) and Dunia Uwanja wa Fujo (2007), among many others literary works dexterously crafted of form and content.

His works have been translated into more than six different languages across the world. He was not a novelist only. He wrote credible poetry and remains the only Tanzanian writer to have ever attended the prestigious International Poetry Festival of Medellin. It is a major annual extravaganza of poetry and poets that is held in the second largest city of the Latin American country of Colombia since 1991.

As words desert the palate with the Swahiliphone world observing magisterial moments of silence in honour of the great wordsmith, below I pen a few lines to echo his sudden departure.

 

Kiwiliwili cha Giza

Mwanga ni wako mwendazake

Mwalimu Kezilahabi ninakuaga

Toka Tanga upitie pia Namanga

Zimekubalika sauti zako za ziwani

Ukerewe ukazaliwa, pokea buriani

Umefia ughaibuni ila moyoni upo

Maneno uliyatamka kwetu sasa kiapo

Tumeamka sasa tutazame makaratasi

Daftari za hekima zako sasa ni zetu nafsi

Ghafla jua linauliza maswali kwenye giza

Uko wapi tuje, giza tuiachie kiwiliwili chake?

---------

Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University