Ms Amira Said Msellem during an interview at her home in Old Town in Mombasa County.

| Jurgen Nambeka | Nation Media Group

Meet Amira, a school dropout behind the success of Swahili scholars

In a world where formal education is key and valued by many, the learned rarely seek the advice of those who have not completed their studies.

Yet in the world of Swahili literature, scholars from various universities acknowledge that Ms Amira Said Msellem is a force to be reckoned with.

Ms Msellem, a resident of Old Town in Mombasa County, has earned the respect of many Swahili scholars despite dropping out of school in Grade Seven.

The 63-year-old explains that the knowledge she uses to teach Swahili literature was inherited from the late Professor Ahmed Nabhany, a legendary scholar of Swahili poetry, literature, language and history.

According to her, Prof Nabhany was her mentor from the age of 15.

She used to accompany the renowned scholar wherever he went, including when he was assisting other local and foreign scholars in their research on Kiswahili.

"Prof Nabhany loved my charisma, my understanding of Swahili and my poetic voice. I remember him coming to my home to seek my parents' permission to take over as my guardian," Msellem says.

Although she finished her studies in Grade Seven at Mbaraki Primary School in Mombasa, she once immersed herself in martial arts. As a young girl, she took part in karate and boxing, as well as nurturing her love of literature.

"I cannot stand properly now, but I used to be a deadly fighter who did a lot of exercise. I have never been a choosy woman; I even worked in a garage as a mechanic," Msellem says.

According to scholars interviewed by the Nation, the guru has a vast knowledge of Swahili literature and history. The inheritance she received from her guardian has enabled her to sit and discuss Kiswahili with many of them from different universities.

Prof Tom Olali, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, praised Ms Msellem, saying she had played a key role in the success of many scholars.

"There are many scholars who passed through the hands of Mama Amira and were successful. My research on 'Hamzia', the story of the birth of the Prophet Mohamed, has made a name for me in the country," said Prof Olali, mentioning one of the researches in which she involved Ms Msellem.

Prof Olali explains that Ms Msellem's contribution is not only to scholars from within Kenya, but also to researchers from Europe and other parts of the world.

Prof Rocha Chimera, who teaches at Pwani University, describes Ms Msellem as a hardworking individual who was very curious and asked a lot of questions whenever she was with Prof Nabhany.

According to him, he was introduced to Ms Msellem by the late Prof Nabhany when he was doing his research on Swahili language and history. "I saw how Mama Amira got a lot of knowledge from him. She was very sharp and could grasp everything Prof Nabhany taught or said," Prof Chimera explains.

For her part, Prof Clara Momanyi of the Catholic University of East Africa (CUEA) agrees that Ms Msellem has played a huge role in education, especially research, as far as Kiswahili is concerned. However, Prof Momanyi lamented that Ms Msellem's life at the moment could not reflect her contribution to the Swahili language.

Ms Msellem's current lifestyle is an example of how the community neglects individuals who have made immense contributions in various fields.Today, she lives in poverty and suffers from age-related ailments.

"My legs hurt, I can no longer walk. Many people have benefited from my work, but there is nothing I can do about it. That is the way of the world," says Ms Msellem.

In 2012, Ms Msellem wrote a biography of Prof Nabhany, entitled 'Waswifu wa Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany', detailing the life and times of the legendary researcher.