Shaaban Robert (1909-1962) is considered by many to be the greatest author to have written in the Swahili language.
Shaaban bin ("son of") Robert was born January 1, 1909, in the tiny village of Vibamba south of the town of Tanga in northeastern Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in East Africa. Not much is known of his parents or of the actual details of his early life. It has been asserted that his parents came from a clan of Yao witchdoctors, but this has been disputed. The surname Robert is most likely a name his father was given when he went to primary school. Shaaban himself for a time wrote it Roberts rather than Robert. Whatever his parental origin, Shaaban Robert never referred to himself as Yao and was one of the earliest to call himself a Swahili person.
From 1922 to 1926 he was educated in Dar es Salaam (the capital of Tanzania), coming in second in a class of 11 to receive the School Leaving Certificate under the then British colonial educational system in Tanganyika. He married three times and was widowed twice. His first wife, Amina, died as a young woman and is the subject of one of his best known poems, which he named for her. He had ten children; five were still living at the time of his death.
After receiving the school certificate Shaaban worked at various posts as a colonial government civil servant. From 1926 to 1944 he was a customs official at different locations throughout the territory. From 1944 to 1946 he worked for the Game Department. From 1946 to 1952 he worked in the Tanga District Office, and from 1952 to 1960 he was in the Survey Office there. Many of his civil service experiences are woven into his writings. Shaaban Robert died on June 22, 1962, and is buried in the town of Machui near his birthplace. During his lifetime he received the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize for writing and was honored by the British government as a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.).
Shaaban Robert has been called both the "poet laureate of Swahili" and the "Father of Swahili" for his work as a literary figure and champion of the Swahili language. Much of what we know of his life comes from a two-part autobiographical work published in Swahili in 1958: Maisha Yangu na Baada ya Miaka Hamsini (My Life and After Fifty Years). Part One, My Life, is the work for which he received the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize. He also wrote about his childhood, but this was a handwritten piece in one copy which he mailed in to a writing competition and never saw again!
In his autobiographical writing Shaaban Robert incorporated a number of poems written as reflections upon particular times of his life. Among the best known are Amina, Utenzi wa Hati ("Poem for Hati"), Utenzi wa Adili ("Poem for Adili"), and Ujane ("Widowhood"). His literary talents extended from poetry and autobiography to biography, fiction, and essay writing. He is known for having written the biography of the noted Zanzibari popular singer Siti binti Saad (Siti daughter of Saad), who was famous throughout East Africa and as far away as India. A striking feature of Shaaban's biography of Siti is his sensitivity to the singer's struggle as a woman in a nontraditional role in a male-dominated Islamic society. Shaaban extols Siti's virtue, successes, and determination as a model for women to follow in countries such as his own emerging from a colonial past and developing self-reliance.
Shaaban himself gained a wide reputation for his literary endeavors. His background as a civil servant, his education, and his tendency to philosophize combined to give his works a broader base than other East African Muslim writers before him. He was the first Swahili writer to try his hand at popular biography and fantasy. His approach to literature was modern and humane; his words appeal to those interested in new ways of thinking and seeing the world.
His short fictional allegory Adili na Nduguze ("Adili 'the Just' and His Brothers") is set in a make-believe land peopled by characters representing and named for distinct human qualities. The tale is told in the person of Adili in the process of recounting events before the king and in the presence of two baboons Adili has been accused of abusing. We are taken back in time to when Adili's brothers, Hasidi ("spite") and Mwivu ("envy"), coveted his beloved Mwelekevu ("instructress"). The rulers of the spirit world punished the brothers by turning them into baboons and ordering Adili to beat them nightly. Thus, Adili tells the king, he is not really abusing baboons but doing the will of the spirit world. The king (Rai, "Prudence") then takes justice into his own hands and restores the brothers to their human forms. In the end Adili is reunited with Mwelekevu and each brother (having been suitably punished) finds a suitable lover of his own.
Shaaban is best known for his poetry and for its versatility. He wrote tendi (or tenzi:sq. utenzi) which are poems in verses of four lines, the first three rhyming together internally and the fourth forming an end rhyme throughout. These are written in a narrative didactic style and may be as long as 3,000 lines in length. Shaaban was an innovator in writing Swahili poetry using the roman alphabet rather than the traditional Arabic script. Thirty-five of his poems are published in a collection entitled Pambo la Lugha ((The Adornment of Language). In addition to tendi, Shaaban was a master of writing guni (known by some as "defective" rhyme) in which final verse lines do not rhyme as they do in the non-defective tendi. Shaaban also employed the poetic form takhmis, a modern form in six lines (12 half lines or vipande).
Using the essay as his medium of expression, Shaaban Robert wrote of poetry as a universal phenomenon occurring in nature as well as in culture. One distinction between Swahili and Western poetry is that Swahili poems are composed to be sung. As writing alters this poetic essence, rhyme (as an evocation of tune) is all important. In his essays Robert emerged as the first person to write about Swahili literature as a genre. His Kielezo cha Insha ("A Comment on the Essay") is an essay on essay-writing for people wanting to learn to write well using Swahili.
Though most of Shaaban Robert's writing is in Swahili, he did translate at least one of his poems into English with the assistance of the African literature scholar Gerald Moore. This poem appears in English as "Our Frame" and has to do with the implications of human bodily impermanence:
… at the time of death when life fails
A grave keeps us
To cover rottenness—our bad smells
It is not human custom
To dwell in purity—whatever one's internal state may be.
Shaaban wrote this when he was turned down for an insurance policy because of the frailty of his own health.
Shaaban's life spanned the time of German rule in East Africa through independence from British colonial rule in Tanganyika. His works reveal the process of developing both individual and national self-reliance in an ever-changing cultural context. Perhaps what he himself considered to be his magnum opuswas a work published posthumously—his Utenzi wa Vita ya Uhuru ("Epic on the War of Freedom"). This consisted of 3,000 rhyming stanzas dealing with World War II and the effects Shaaban perceived it to have on Africa.
One feature of Shaaban Robert's Swahili writing is that it seems to translate well into English without losing its charm and metaphor (maybe because he was at home in an English speaking world to a great extent).
Shaaban Robert was a Swahili writer writing for Swahili people. Unfortunately the audience for whom he intended his works is limited so far by the fact that only a small number of people are yet literate in Swahili in the Roman script. In this vein, Shaaban is also remembered for his work to standardize the Swahili language and for his service on the Language Board of Tanzania, on the East African Swahili Committee, and with the East African Literature Bureau. These endeavors contributed greatly to Swahili having been chosen as the national language of Tanzania and as a national and official language in Kenya. Today the language is being taught and used as a medium of instruction in both countries. As a member of the Tanga Town Council in Tanzania, Shaaban was also committed to the idea of nation-building and to the role of Swahili in that process. For his work with the language as well as for his literary output in it, Shaaban Robert is revered as "Mr. Swahili."
His lasting influence on East Africa may be seen in the fact of a population rapidly becoming literate in the language and in an emerging regional literature. Authors in East Africa seem to have opted for Swahili (and other vernacular languages) instead of English as their literary means of expression, in contrast to authors in West Africa, who have largely chosen French.
Further Reading on Shaaban Robert
There is little written about Shaaban Robert in English. Another Swahili author, Salim Kombo, is said to have a biography in progress. What we now know of his life comes mostly from his own autobiographical writing and from the notes to the Nelson editions of his works written in Swahili by the late Swahili scholar J.W.T. Allen. Readers interested in Swahili literature in general and in achieving a sense of Shaaban Robert's place in its growth and development might read Lyndon Harries' Swahili Poetry (Oxford, 1962) or Jan Knappert's Traditional Swahili Poetry (Mouton, The Hague, 1968). Edgar C. Polome (in Swahili Language Handbook, 1967) and Wilfred H. Whiteley (in Swahili: The Rise of a National Language, 1969) both mention Shaaban Robert's role in the growth of Swahili language use and literary output in East Africa. The journal Research in African Literatures, which publishes scholarly articles about literature throughout Africa, from time to time publishes articles of interest to people who wish to know more about the history of Swahili literature and language and the role of Shaaban Robert.