Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka na Ntulanalwo na Bulihwali: by Aniceti Kitereza: (completed on 13th. February, 1945): pp.617: Tanzania Publishing House, Dar es Salaam, 1980: hard cover shs.115, paper back in two volumes, shs.35 each.
When Mzee Aniceti Kitereza died on 20th. April, 1981, at the age of 85, few people in Tanzania and fewer still outside Tanzania had ever heard of him. The local media did not even mention the incident. He had lived and died an ordinary man. On the surface his life had been no different from that of hundreds of other German educated contemporaries. He had been a teacher, catechist, petty trader, building clerk, cooperative officer and finally, in his old age, peasant.
Yet this apparent ‘ordinariness’ was deceptive. The practical matter-of-fact worker was also the passionate thinker, educator, philosopher and scholar. He was a walking encyclopaedia of the ways and customs of the Bakerebe and, above all, a lively, unique, confident and highly talented novelist.
Kitereza probably hardly realised what an inestimable ‘offspring’ he has bequeathed mankind in the form of his 618 page, two volume novel, Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka na Ntulanalwo na Bulihwali (henceforth Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka…).
In his long life, Kitereza had more than his rightful share of life’s tragedies. In many ways the tragic streak in his life is paralleled in the lives of his major characters, Bwana Myombekere and his wife Bibi Bugonoka. They, like Kitereza, are obsessed by a desire for offspring. It is true that they do get two children. But the first child is prematurely stillborn and the second child, also born prematurely, lives for only one day. Thereafter Bugonoka has no more pregnancies and as a result becomes increasingly despised and alienated from her husband’s relatives. Only Myombekere loves and tolerates her, all the while struggling to find a cure for her ‘barrenness’.
Matters reach a head when Bugonoka’s parents, Namwero and his wife Nkwanzi, hearing of their daughter’s maltreatment, decide to take her back, leaving Myombekere without a wife. Thus to the shame of barrenness (for a shame it is in this pre-colonial Kerebe society) is added that of bachelorhood and the accompanying loneliness and distress. Myombekere has to decide whether to marry another woman, or to bring back Bugonoka. His half-hearted attempts to woo another woman prove futile. He ends up prostrating again before the father-in-law, begging for forgiveness and the return of his wife.
Thus begins the story of the adventures of this unhappy Kerebe family that is supposed to have lived sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. It revolves around the twin poles of production and reproduction, creation and procreation. Through production, within the framework of his clan, his village, his kingdom and the accompanying traditions, beliefs, customs and taboos, Kerebe man produces wealth in order to build his eka (or Kaya, or household) and hence realise his humanity and his manhood. This he can achieve by interacting and cooperating with fellow humans, obeying the common law, not daring to go beyond the limits sanctioned by society in whatever he does.
Society in turn protects and helps him to realise his possibilities, to build his eka. Man is not only a social animal, he is the working animal; he is not so much homo sapiens as he is homo faber.
Yet work, labour, is only one leg of the myombekere (the means and conditions of building and consolidating the eka). In order for the household to stand on its two feet, production ought to be accompanied by reproduction. For man is both the agency and the purpose of the myombekere. Man builds for man, the older generation builds for the younger generation, the old ones wither away so that the young ones may flower. By their death, they achieve immortality through the lives of their living offsprings for generations to come. Hence, Myombekere’s kinsmen tell him:
“Wewe ni ndugu yetu, sasa unakubali kweli kukaa na mke wako huyu akiwa mgumba hivi, uzuri wako huu wote uishie chini! Hivi wewe unadhani kufufuka kwa watu hapa duniani ni nini? Si kuzaana kuacha mbegu yako ikiwa hai ndiyo maendeleo ya ukoo wetu?”
(You are our kinsman. Are you really willing to live with this wife of yours, barren as she is, and let all your fine character be buried with you! What, indeed, do you take the resurrection of the dead in this world to mean? Isn’t bearing children and leaving behind your living seed the way to perpetuate our clan?)
The purpose of labour is to build the eka, the purpose of marriage is to consolidate that eka by supplying it with offsprings who will both protect and perpetuate the eka and, through the eka, the clan and ultimately the species. Hence the need for interaction and exchange, both human and material, between different eka, different clans.
And this is where lies the central problem of this story, for Myombekere and Bugonoka fail to get children. Without children, what basis is there for him and Bugonoka to remain united in marriage? Can love alone sustain marriage in a society where offsprings come before everything else, where barrenness is a social stigma? More seriously, can Myombekere and Bugonoka build their eka without offsprings? How, and what for? Can life have any meaning without children?
A modern reader, living in a highly competitive urbanised society, schooled in the best traditions of family planning, may see these issues differently. Indeed, he might consider barrenness a non-tragedy, if not a blessing in disguise. But not so the Kerebe peasant society in this novel, for whom abundance of manpower is the precondition for material abundance, security of life and, indeed, survival itself. Hence, Myombekere must get back his wife and, what’s more, get her to conceive and bear living children.
Detailed descriptions of his endeavours to this end take up the best part of Volume 1. They include successive trips to his in-laws to retrieve his wife, his efforts to get the fine (which includes six pots of banana beer) to pay for her return, his perennial search for a muganga who can cure his and his wife’s barrenness and finally, the treatment itself and how his struggles are eventually crowned with some success.
Volume 2 begins with the birth of Myombekere’s son, Ntulanalwo. He survives, but at great cost to his parents, for he is constantly in need of medicaments, protective charms, close care and attention. As one misfortune after another assails him, we are reminded that (Obunaku) bugonoka – misfortune comes unexpectedly, without warning. It has befallen the family through Bugonoka’s failure to have children. Now, misfortune’s twin brother, death, seems to be bent on wiping out the family. The reader cannot but feel, like Myombekere, that (Olufu) ntulanalwo (I always live with death). It is only after he is transferred to his maternal grandfather’s that Ntulanalwo begins to enjoy some health.
While wondering whether their sorrow and suffering will ever come to an end, Myombekere and Bugonoka are blessed with another child, this time a daughter. In sceptical optimism, they name her Bulihwali (when will sorrow end in this world?) hoping that their sorrow would now cease. Life for them now begins to have some meaning.
The rest of Volume 2 is really the story of Ntulanalwo and Bulihwali – how they grew up, married, had numerous offsprings and, after the death of their parents, became quite prosperous. The story ends with their death.
The story is of course much richer than the above skeleton may lead one to believe. It is not only confined to the lives of Myombekere and Bugonoka and their children, but deals rather with the life of the Kerebe society of the time, seen through the life, actions, problems and aspirations of the family of Myombekere. Myombekere represents Kerebe manhood just as Bugonoka represents Kerebe womanhood. Their quest is the perennial quest of their society; for they are expressing and enacting the dominant values of that society. As their lives unfold before us, we are gradually introduced to a tapestry of the Kerebe world – the culture, customs, beliefs, practices, human relations, productive activities; the geographical environment, the flora and fauna, the months and the seasons; the sciences, the oral literature, the arts and crafts.
The story takes place against a background of the rich flora and fauna that is the feature of the island of Ukerewe. This land, situated in Lake Victoria some few miles from Mwanza, is a beautiful, evergreen island, very fertile, heavily populated and potentially very wealthy. Its forests and grasslands had, until early this century, plenty of useful trees and wild animals, which were hunted for their meat and fur. The trees were felled for house building and boat construction (Ntulanalwo is in fact a great hunter and carver of canoes).
Along the extensive coastline fishing is a regular preoccupation of some men, so is the hunting of hippopotamuses. Indeed the life and culture of the Bakerebe as depicted in this book is to a large extent based on fishing and agriculture. The lake is the second shamba to the Bakerebe, its products supplement their agricultural diet. Its waters form a natural highway in addition to serving most domestic needs. No wonder the lake looms large in this novel, and numerous types of fish are mentioned and their properties minutely described.
Beyond the coastline agriculture is predominant. All typical tropical crops – cassava, millet, bananas, beans, sweet potatoes, etc. grow effortlessly. The wealthier families have in addition some cattle from which they get milk, meat and manure. Cultivating is sometimes done individually and sometimes collectively (obuyobe). There is enough land for everybody and apparently everybody except the omukama (king) and the aristocrats works, or is expected to work. This is precolonial Kerebe land and society as it was and is depicted in Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka. It is an apparently healthy, peaceful, hard working society. True, it is superstitious and technologically not much developed, but it is far from being savage or primitive – as many anthropological works on pre-colonial Africa have led us to believe. While not defending its shortcomings, Kitereza, like Achebe (in Things Fall Apart) reasserts the values and achievements of his people.
This novel is, in short, a mine of ethnographical, historical and scientific information about precolonial Bukerebe and its people. Yet it is not history, nor is it strictly speaking a historical novel. All the characters are imaginary, all the incidents fictitious. There is no mention of the reigning kings, or appraisal of their historically known actions. There is very little about the political feuds and upheavals that characterised the Kerebe Kingdom in the 18th. and 19th. centuries. All this is beyond Kitereza’s intentions. His primary objective is to preserve the language, customs, practices and cultural traditions of the Bakerebe, seen from the point of view of the ordinary eighteenth century Kerebe, for the benefit of future generations. Bwana Myombekere na Bugonoka na Ntulanalwo na Bulihwali is primarily and deliberately a cultural novel.
It is not autobiographical, although anyone familiar with Kitereza’s own life cannot fail to see parallels between his personal problems and those of his protagonist, Myombekere. Like Myombekere, he lost all his children in childhood, yet, unlike Myombekere, he never tried to look for another wife and apparently never went to consult the traditional waganga. Kitereza, born at the crossroads between the past era and the present (colonial) era, is satisfied with merely serving as a bridge between the two eras, revealing the past to the youth of today, without much praise or censure, while personally remaining staunchly modern and progressive in outlook and in practice.
This novel is a great work indeed, not only because of its wealth of cultural information, but because Kitereza has put his whole personality, linguistic and artistic talent, knowledge, experience and meticulous care into its execution. This is much more obvious in the original unpublished Kerebe version. In the present Swahili translation something of the original is inevitably lost. One hopes that the Kerebe original will also one day find a publisher.
In the meantime, this work remains a classic of Swahili literature. It is the longest Swahili novel ever published, the most racy and the richest culturally. Without question it establishes Kitereza as a leading Swahili – nay, African novelist and the first and last one of his kind. For as there was only one Homer, one Shakespeare and one Tutuola, there can be only one Kitereza. Kitereza represents his age and generation and these two can never come back.
Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka is not only Kitereza’s masterpiece, it is his eka. His eka is his book, in which he placed his whole talent and aspirations. It is his only child, his only wealth (at the time of his death he was living a very poor man in a single room hut built for him by the Kangunguli Ujamaa villagers). His greatest desire, as he admitted to the present author, was to see his book in print before his death. How tragic that even this small wish never materialised, for he died while the advance copies of his novel were awaiting collection at the post office in Dar es Salaam.
Institute of Kiswahili Research
University of Dar es Salaam
Kitereza, A., “How Men and Women came to Live Together” (Edited and introduced by Charlotte and Gerald Hartwig): Natural History LXXIX (1970) pp.9-20.
Hartwig, G.W. and Charlotte M., “Aniceti Kitereza: a Kerebe Novelist”: Research in African Literature, Vol.3, No.3, (1972) pp.162-170.
J. Roger Carter, “Aniceti Kitereza- the Story of a Tanzanian Writer”: Bulletin of Tanzanian Affairs, No.14, January 1982.