Of Ben Mkapa and writing of English language in Tanzania

Former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa, who died on July 24, 2020 in Dar es-Salaam. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The late President Mkapa was buried in July at his natal village of Lupaso near Ndanda township in Masasi District.
  • The famous medium Kinjikitile Ngwale preached that water made warriors impenetrable to colonial bullets.
  • Growing up in Dar in the heady Nyerere days, Vassanji has vivid reminisces of politics in socialist Tanzania.

It is interesting how life narratives are connected in East Africa. Indeed, we live in a regional community. The recent demise of the third president of Tanzania, Mr Benjamin William Mkapa, reminded me of literary circuits of interconnectedness that enmesh the East African region.

The late President Mkapa was buried in July at his natal village of Lupaso near Ndanda township in Masasi District. His Makua people and related to the Makonde who live here.

This district is in the hilly southern Tanzania province of Mtwara, near Mozambique. The great River Ruvuma forms the natural border between the two countries. A sizeable group of Kenyans work in Mtwara — most are tutors at the Stella Maris University College. It is a constituent college of the largest private university in Tanzania known as Saint Augustine University.

Lupaso, Ndanda, Masasi. Mtwara. Nachingwea are magical names that conjure fond memories to many literary enthusiasts of this region. They name the areas where, 95 years ago, Tanzanians ignited the Maji Maji Rebellion against the German colonial rule.

The famous medium Kinjekitile Ngwale preached that water made warriors impenetrable to colonial bullets. This nascent act of colonial resistance in our region is immortalised in a 1970 play, Kinjeketile, by Ebrahim Hussein, the revered Tanzanian playwright.


In mid 2012, I had the privilege of travelling across this historic birth district of the late president. I was a literary companion to Mr M. G. Vassanji, a famous Canada-based writer, as he researched for material for two of his books.

One is a novel, The Magic of Saida (2012), and a memoir, And Home was Kariokoo, which he published in 2014. He truly surprised me by dedicating this memoir to me in an anterior page.

Born in Nairobi in 1950 but raised in Tanzania, Vassanji has penned many texts, treating the experiences of East Africa Asians. I wrote a monograph 16 years ago on his early fiction based on post-graduate research.

Along the way, we became acquainted and forged enduring literary amity. We have crisscrossed the vast land of Tanzania with him twice in the past decade.

It is in Ndanda, on the road from the medieval coastal town of Lindi to Masasi, that we encountered a broken bridge in 2012. The region was awash with long rains. Our intention was to hunt for colonial bomas of Germans in Masasi and circuitously reach Mtwara town via Newala — not far from the village of Harmonize, formerly of Wasafi Records.

As we waited for means to ferry us to the other bank, Vassanji pointed out to me casually that President Mkapa hailed from this township of Ndanda. Growing up in Dar in the heady Nyerere days, Vassanji has vivid reminisces of politics in socialist Tanzania.

Once, in flashback, he recollected effortlessly his times in the national youth service in Dodoma at Makutabora in the 1970s in the wake of Ujamaa.

Our chat drifted from Ndanda to the unsung literary background of its celebrated son, Mkapa. I became aware the late president studied English at Makerere University in its heydays. He was a contemporary of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. They graduated together in 1962 and share the same year of birth: 1938.

The two classmates cut their literary teeth in Uganda where they wrote and published literary juvenilia in college magazines called The Makererean and Penpoint. Later, their more advanced literary offerings would appear in bigger journals such as East African Journal, Busara and ZUKA. Had he not ventured into politics and diplomacy, I bet Mkapa would have blazed the literary landscape as has his peerless peer.

Those who penned elegies and eulogies for Ndugu Mkapa in July agreed that his command of the English language was admirable and amazing. It is this gift of the gab and his stellar literary experience in journalism coupled with his 1963 International Affairs postgraduate degree from Columbia University that made Mkapa a consummate diplomat.

Post-election violence

He would later play a plethora of roles in African affairs including as Mwalimu Nyerere’s ambassador to Nigeria after the Biafran War (1967-1970), which killed the famous poet Christopher Okigbo. Tanzania had supported the secession of eastern Nigeria and when the cause was lost, Mkapa mended the wounds between Dar-es-Salaam and Lagos. Like a medium, he united Kenyans after the post-election violence of 2007-2008.

Vassanji’s childhood friend, Mzee Walter Bgoya, is a leading East African publisher. Together with his son, Mkuki and daughter Nyota, he owns and heads Mkuki na Nyota Publishers in Dar-es-Salaam. Last year in January, he published Mkapa’s riveting memoirs, My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers. The book is a hot sale. Yet I note desolately in its breadth how it tackles childhood, formation, politics and diplomacy but leaves out the literary roots of the late leader.

Tanzanian critics argue that he should have written it in Kiswahili, yet to me Mkapa’s authorial manger is old Makerere. In choosing English for his principal literary work, his memoirs, he did two things at once.

Firstly, he invoked his literary pedigree as part of that golden Makerere generation of Ngugi, which includes William D. Kamera and Gabriel Ruhumbika, his fellow countrymen and college peers. Both are revered Tanzanian professors of literature.

Memorable inspiration

Secondly, he reignited the debate on the place of English as a literary medium in post-colonial Tanzania. Even with the hegemony of Kiswahili and Swahili literature, Anglophone Tanzanian writing continues to march on against all odds. Ruhumbika published the second Tanzanian novel in English in 1969 titled A Village in Uhuru. The first one titled Dying in the Sun had been published by Peter Palangyo in 1968.

These pioneer Anglophone Tanzanian novels are part of the Heinemann African Writers Series. The founding series editor was Chinua Achebe. In 1968, Palangyo, as the principal of Aga Khan Secondary School in Dar-es-Salaam invited Achebe. He gave a talk on African literature to Palangyo’s students, including Vassanji.

Remarkably this event, and the legacy of Mkapa’s golden generation from Makerere University Department of English, has been a memorable inspiration to M.G. Vassanji – arguably considered today as the foremost author in Tanzanian literature in English.

Justus Kizito Siboe Makokha, Ph.D. is a Association of Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS) Member, International Advisory Board Member, and lectures at the Department of Literature, Linguistics and Foreign Languages at Kenyatta University


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