This year a remarkable Kiswahili novel has been published by the Tanzania Publishing House. It is called ‘Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka na Ntulanalwo na Bulihwali’. The writer, who died last year, was Aniceti Kitereza, a Sese of the Silanga clan, grandson of Machunda, the omukama or chief of the Sese, who ruled between about 1835 and 1869. Kitereza himself was born in 1896 on Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria a year or two after the first appearance on the island of the white man in the shape of the White Fathers as missionaries. At the time of his birth and for some years afterwards the White Fathers represented the sole European influence, but from 1906 the Fathers began’ to cooperate with the German colonial administration in establishing the cultivation’ of cotton as a cash crop, shortly followed by rice. But the predominant influence in Kitereza’s early life was that of the traditional Kerebe society virtually unadulterated by European values and practices.
Kitereza was first educated at Kagunguli primary school attached to the White Fathers’ mission, which he entered in 1905, but after five years he was sent by the Fathers to their seminary in Bukoba, where he remained until 1918. There he showed a gift for languages and mastered Kiswahili, German, French and Latin. After the war he taught himself English with the help of a German dictionary, but never became proficient in this language. Returning to Ukerewe in 1919, he served briefly as a teacher, but then took up employment as a clerk to an Italian trader, Bunoni, acting as buying agent for rice, and remained with him until Bunoni was repatriated on the outbreak of the Second World War. He then became clerk to Father Simard, a French Canadian priest at the White Fathers’ mission.
Father Simard shared with Kitereza a deep interest in the folk lore, customs and history of the Kerebe. He also discovered Kitereza’s gift as a writer and encouraged him to develop this talent. Father Sinard urged Kitereza to record his knowledge of the traditions of his people, which the latter was more than willing to do and entered upon the work with enthusiasm. After a false start in an academic form of writing, Kitereza turned to the novel as a vehicle for his ideas and by 1944 had produced in Kikerebe the two-volume novel that has just appeared in Dar es Salaam.
Kitereza became a faithful Christian and came to terms with the European way of life, but he nevertheless retained a deep affection and respect for the customs and values of his forefathers and a concern to ensure that these values should not be lost. His writing was not, therefore, motivated by nostalgia, or anthropological curiosity, or intended for a readership of his own generation, but was purposely written for the present and future generations of children in the primary schools of Ukerewe, to bring alive to them the traditions of a bygone age and instil pride in this inheritance. There is, it seems, a strong affinity between the social values that Kitereza was trying to preserve and the communal aims of modern Tanzania.
The book was typed in three copies covering some 300 pages in single spacing. Father Simard was greatly excited by the character and importance of the novel and promised to translate it into French with a view to publication. He took a copy with him on leave, but lack of time prevented him carrying out his intention. On his next leave, he again promised to work on the manuscript, but died in 1952 and never returned to Ukerewe. In 1950, Father Simard had also corresponded with the East African Literature Bureau in Nairobi with a view to publication in Kikerebe, but the readership was considered too small to justify the costs involved. So the matter rested for the next 16 years. One copy of the novel remained in the safe keeping of a Dutch priest at the mission, Father van der Wee, a friend of Simard and Kitereza.
In 1968, Professor Gerald W. Hartwig and his wife Charlotte M. Hartwig arrived from Duke University in North Carolina to carry out historical research on the island. Professor Hartwig soon got to know Kitereza and through him he not only learned much about the history of the Kerebe people, but also learned of the existence of the novel. Realising the importance of this document and the impossibility of publication in Kikerebe, he persuaded Kitereza to translate the work into Kiswahili. Kitereza began this task in December, 1968, and completed it sixteen months later in March, 1970, covering 850 pages of foolscap in longhand. In October, 1970, after the manuscript had been photocopied, Professor Hartwig approached Heinemann Educational Books Limited in London, who referred the matter to Heinemann Educational Books (East Africa) Limited in Nairobi.
The managing director of the Nairobi firm, R.C. Markham, consulted the late John Allen, sometime of Makerere University in Uganda and a well-known Kiswahili expert. Allen advised that in his view the novel was ‘something quite out of the ordinary’ and added that, whereas sales in Kiswahili would be slow, he had not the slightest doubt that in English it would be ‘a winner, equally readable for fun as fiction, or seriously as an anthropological study’. Publication in Kikerebe he dismissed as impracticable owing to the tiny potential readership; in fact the language is understood now to be used only by the older people on the island. Allen offered to translate the book into English on a cost basis without a fee, as he enjoyed the work and had a high regard for the author. He would put his translation on tape and Heinemanns would arrange for transcription. He undertook to try to reduce the length to about 450 pages.
Markham was enthusiastic about these proposals and referred them to London for advice. Writing to Hartwig, Markham said that Heinemanns were very enthusiastic about the book, adding that ‘the author has a very sincere style and his story, brilliantly translated from Swahili, is extremely interesting and gives in novel form the ways of the Ukerewe people before the coming of the white man’. Markham pointed out that a subsidy would be needed to cover the costs of transcription and appealed to Hartwig for help, who wrote to Dr. Francis X. Sutton of the Ford. Foundation. The Foundation agreed to help if publication was decided upon.
On completion of Part I of the English manuscript personally edited by Markham, copies were sent to London, where an experienced reader was found, who advised rejection. A former Nairobi professor then at Leeds University gave half-hearted approval on the basis of a gamble with publication. Two African readers were then invited to read Part I and tore it to shreds. In view of these adverse reactions, the Board of Heinemanns (East Africa) decided against publication.
In April, 1974, Walter Bgoya, Managing Director of the Tanzania Publishing House, was approached. After studying the manuscript, he enthusiastically agreed to publish in Kiswahili. The manuscript was carefully edited to eliminate some old-fashioned and ‘up-country’ expressions not thought to be generally intelligible and to shorten the text by omitting unnecessary and repetitious material. The book was sent for printing in China in two volumes and the cost of printing was defrayed by the Ford Foundation.
It was with much sorrow that Walter Bgoya learned of the death of the author shortly before the arrival of the advance copies of the printed book, following by a year or two the death of Kitereza’s wife, with whom he had lived in great poverty, severely handicapped by arthritis. Their four children had all died in early childhood. He was 84. Professor Hartwig has written of him:
“Unlike many of his contemporaries, his writing voices no protest, fights no battles, is not defensive of his heritage, nor is it aimed at a white or European audience. His writing is simple, unsophisticated, extolling the virtues of earlier values and traditions; his intended readership- the young people of his community”.
J. Roger Carter