Tanzanian law sage enters poetry scene

He adds to tradition in the region where academics and creativity are Siamese twins

In Summary

• While Issa Shivji insists he is not a poet, his brilliant collection 'sharply disagrees'

Book cover
Book cover

Issa Shivji, Poems for the Penniless. Toronto: Daraja Press (Fasihi Imprint), 2019. Pp 199

The nexus between academic scholarship and literary creative excellence is one of the features of our postcolonial cultural heritage in East Africa. Most of the leading pioneers of cultural studies and purveyors of cultural discourses in this region double up as creative writers of note.

Led by Ngugi wa Thiong’o of Kenya, Austin Bukenya of Uganda and various leading lights of Swahili literature in Tanzania, these cultural workers occupy domains inside and outside our academic institutions. They teach and practise the arts, be they scriptural, oral or the performed.


Their dualistic contributions, both inside and outside the classroom, have helped shape the intellectual landscapes and debates of East Africa across various epochs. This is the context in which readers should appraise the new turn towards poetry by one of the leading intellectuals of the region, the Tanzanian law professor Issa Shivji.

His newest book is not in law or political science like his earlier renowned publications since the 1970s. Rather, it is a book of poetry entitled, Poems for the Penniless. This impeccable bilingual offering bears political poems published simultaneously in Kiswahili and English. The epigram that precedes the poems advises us to think not of the breath that is in life but the life that occupies each breath.

With this mark of wisdom, the book opens up poems arranged in six sections, each mapping the evolution of Shivji as a sage in the world of letters and academia here in Africa.

The over 66 poems are written in the two languages, without indicating which pieces are original or translations. They celebrate the polyglot muse of East African bards who cherish English and Kiswahili as equal avenues for literary ejaculation. The poems address issues of inequalities, inequities, injustices and their antonyms using lucid language and vivid accounts laden with symbols of resistance.

They celebrate icons such as Nyerere, Ngugi, Mandela, Chachage and the Lamu poet Abdulatif Abdalla with metaphors and metonymy that invite our conscience. Poems of the Penniless exhibits anthems to the liberation struggles of our nations. Most of the poems are inspired by personal recollections of the poet but uphold the truth that inspirational stories of our lives are the building bricks of our national histories. 

Tanzanian author Issa Shivji
Tanzanian author Issa Shivji

Shivji was born in 1946 in the Morogoro region of Tanzania that was for a long time the home of South African exiles fighting against Apartheid. Now professor emeritus but trained in Tanzania and at the London School of Economics, he is an influential figurehead in media and land rights in Tanzania, where rights groups have raised the red flag in the wake of the hotly contested recent Tanzanian General Election.

His distinguished career cuts across public, academic and international domains of service. His academic awakening is rooted in the heady days of Ujamaa, where he was trained by among others the fiery pan Africanist Walter Rodney of Guyana.


Shivji’s poetry personas speak with accents aware of class struggle in the context of neocolonialism and negative forces of the global capitalist economy. This awareness is sharpened by his keen pan Africanism beliefs that are rooted in his natal and intellectual roots cited above.

Poems for the Penniless bears a foreword by Prof Madelaine Micere Mugo, who also penned one, a decade ago, for my debut book of poems, Nest of Stones: Kenyan Narratives in Verse (2010). A distinguished scholar in her own right, Micere has stood up for the freedoms of the masses and the arts for decades and paid heavily with her citizenship as a political exile from Kenya of the 1980s.

Micere tells us that Shivji, “a lawyer by training, insists that he is not a poet; but this brilliant and enticing collection of poetry and poetic prose sharply disagrees. The pieces are a powerhouse – at once compelling, fascinating and engaging”. Her endorsement echoes that of her compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

A champion of African languages, Ngugi in Kiswahili on the blurb of Poems of the Penniless expresses the aesthetic gravity of this rare poetry. To him, Shivji’s new poems go beyond form and content matrix to animate our souls with candles of enlightenment. “Mashairi ya Issa bin Mariamu (Issa Shivji) si maandishi yanayojifanya kuwa mashairi, ni mashairi yanayotufanya tufikirie roho ya maisha yetu na njia ya kipekee.”

In the past, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere discovered his talent in literary translation after reading Shakespeare. Political scientist sage Ali Mazuri wrote a play and today in Poems of the Penniless, Prof Issa Shivji invokes the same versatile creative spirit of East Africa. His book adds to the tradition in the region where academics and creativity are Siamese twins with a long history. The book is available from major bookstores in Nairobi and the region.

Dr Makokha teaches literature at Kenyatta University. [email protected]