A Kiswahili Kalevala for an end of month treat: It’s a love story

Sibelius monument

Children wave flags at the Sibelius monument during the visit of the Nordic heads of state in Helsinki on June 1, 2017.


Photo credit: Lehtikuva Roni Rekomaa | AFP

You may want to find out from the Finnish Embassy in Nairobi how they are celebrating Kalevala Day tomorrow, February 28. Despite the suggestively “oriental” echoes of the name, the Kalevala, called Utenzi wa Kalevala in Kisiwahili, is actually the national epic of Finland, that fascinating Nordic country that never fails to make the top list of the happiest, best-organised and best-educated states in the world.

I keep hearing that teachers in Finland are the best-paid public servants on this planet. That in itself should be enough to interest me in Finnish affairs, even beyond the proverbial impecuniousness of my mwalimu species. Obviously, the country with the best-treated teachers must have the best-taught and best-educated people, and, consequently, the best-organised and happiest-living citizens.

I learnt a bit about epic mainly from my friend and colleague, Prof Mlinzi Mugyabuso Mulokozi of the Institute of Kiswahili Studies (TATAKI) of Dar es Salaam University. According to “Mulo” (or MMM), as his friends call him, an epic is usually a major composition, assembly and performance of the most valued creations of a cultural community.

The events, characters, feelings, both real and imagined, are remembered and celebrated because they reflect and reinforce the origins, struggles and aspirations of the performing communities.

You can thus understand the usefulness of our paying attention to what the Finns celebrate in their Kalevala. Indeed, Kalevala Day marks observance of not only the epic but also the whole of the culture.

Appreciating and emulating some of the experiments and aspirations that have distinguished our Finnish friends as a respectful and respectable community in the world would be a positive contribution to all of humanity.

Brief love

Before I get on to the purely Swahili side of the Kalevala, I should share with you a few more of my personal soft spots the Finns and their land. Did you knowa that I once studied at a Finnish university, and all for free? Back in the early 1990s, I was struggling to find a scholarly grounding for my study of violence in the Ugandan novel.

My Swedish friend Raul Granquist, then at Umea University in Sweden, suggested the Abo Akademi at Vasa in Finland, where they were running a vigorous and dynamic Literary Pragmatics project.

That is how, under the distant but steady and warm correspondence between me and Prof D. Sell and his Abo colleagues, my study, An Idiom of Blood, came to find its theoretical framework.

I still owe the Akademi a copy of my final text, but the brief love and care that I enjoyed from the scholars there left me permanently envying those, like my friend Selemani Sewanji, the computer programme specialist, had had the privilege of studying full time in that generous country. Prof Sewanji, like Mulokozi, mentioned earlier, is also a former Director of TATAKI/(TUKI).

Back in December 2019 I heard from Helsinki that the top six cabinet posts in the Finnish coalition government formed at the time were all held by their party bosses. They were all women, and all aged below 40, with their Prime Minister, Ms Sanna Marin, aged 34 at the time!

I would call that news of epic proportions, and if you think that I should be too old to be impressed by such developments, you are yet to grasp how much I care about women and the future of the world.

But let us get back to the Kiswahili Utenzi wa Kalevala, the scholarly reason for our chat today. It, too, is a love story of sorts. To begin with, as we hinted, the Kalevala is the “origin” story of the Vala or Finnish people. It is, just like many of these stories, not one, logical continuous narrative but an assortment of well-loved tales, aesthetically held together by associations.

The Kalevala is a compendium of some fifty poetic pieces around a master craftsman struggling to forge a perfect creative mould as part of a task to enable him to win the hand of the woman he loves.

But the real love tale of the Utenzi wa Kalevala for me lies in the physical artefact of the book itself. The book was translated from the Finnish (presumably through English) by Jan Knappert, who prefaced it with his own poetic introduction (ushairi wa mfasiri). To those fairly conversant with Kiswahili studies that should be just about enough.

Poems from Zanzibar

Dutch-born Jan Knappert (1927-2005) was, and remains, one of the most internationally recognised Kiswahili scholars of modern times. Totally immersed in its lands, history and cultures, Knappert was not only a Kiswahili language expert but also an author and poet in his own right. Many of his scholarly works, like Four Centuries of Swahili Verse, are still the ultimate and most authoritative references in the field. My most endearing memory of him is his Chaguo la Maua/A Choice of Flowers, his elegantly-edited and annotated love poems from Zanzibar.

Published in 1992, Utenzi wa Kalevala, was at the height of Knappert’s highest scholarly and creative powers and seems to reflect all the best that the Mzee knew about Kiswahili, verse and cross-cultural communication. Reading Utenzi wa Kalevala and looking at the elegant Afro-inspired illustrations by Robino Ntila, I feel strongly that Marehemu Knappert’s main purpose behind this translation was to share with his Waswahili kinsfolk the essential human values embedded in the Finnish Kalevala epic.

Yet the sharing does not stop there. The publication was itself a harambee effort among Finnish institutions, like their Ministry of Education, the Finnish Literary Society and the Dar es Salam University’s Institute of Kiswahili Research (TUKI/IKR), as it was then known. I see in the whole global collaborative effort, the fulfilment of Knappert’s concluding line of the Kalevala: “Nchi yenu ipendeni, mwe pamwe na amani” (Loving your world, and staying together in peace).

Knappert will be much more than the “mfasiri fakiri aandikaye mashairi” (the poor versifying translator) that he saw himself as, if we can get together one of these days and perform the Utenzi wa Kalevala live.

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