Ann Biersteker and others who truly loved and love Kiswahili
What you need to know:
- Ann picked up the basics of Kiswahili and developed an interest in the languages of the Mount Kenya region (Gikuyu, Kiembu and Kimeru).
- She returned to the US and pursued further studies, earning a master’s degree in Librarianship from the University of Minnesota in 1971 and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1984.
- She had her greatest impact on African Studies, and on Kiswahili in particular, during her 25-year tenure at the prestigious Yale University, Obama’s alma mater.
A woman’s love can make miracles happen, they say.
I understand “woman’s love” here to mean an active choice of and commitment to a person or a cause.
Professor Ann Biersteker is one woman whose love for Kenyan languages has done marvels for their promotion, both in Kenya and overseas.
Before I tell you more about this dear friend of mine, however, let me invoke a tradition.
It is a common practice that when an important International Day falls within a particular month, we celebrate the whole month under the theme of that day.
Thus, for example, we mark March women’s month because March 8, is International Women’s Day.
This is my explanation to those of you who might be irked by my dwelling this month almost exclusively on matters of language, and especially Kiswahili.
The United Nations’ Kiswahili Language International Day, which we marked for the first time on Thursday, July 7, is such a momentous development that we can assume it will from now on distinguish July as Kiswahili Language Month.
Another reason why I am revisiting the language theme is your tremendous response to our chat last week, about Professor Clara Momanyi’s warning that Kiswahili could be hijacked by foreign interests.
Your feedback revealed to me your genuine realization that none of us can afford to be mere onlookers.
That said, however, I feel obliged to balance the argument by pointing out that not all outsiders are predators.
We have many friends outside Uswahilini (East Africa) who genuinely love our languages and are willing to work with us for their development.
This, indeed, has been the case since the earliest times of our contact with the outside world.
In the case of Kiswahili, the international status that it enjoys today would have been unimaginable without the input of such scholars, teachers, writers and activists as the Catholic Frenchman Charles Sacleux and the British missionaries John Taylor and Fredrick Johnson.
On Kenya’s North Coast, the Rabai evangelist Johannes Rebmann gave us the first Kiswahili Bible in sonorous Kimvita.
Alice Werner produced one of the earliest English translations of the classic Lamu poem, Utendi wa Mwana Kupona.
European and American scholars close to our times include Lyndon Harries, Jan Knappert, Joan Maw and my teacher in Dar es Salaam, Wilfred Whiteley.
Whiteley, the author of Swahili: the Rise of a National Language, was the founder of the Linguistics Department at Dar es Salaam University (UDSM) and the Institute of Kiswahili Research (TUKI) in the mid-1960s.
TUKI played a vital role in the development and standardization of contemporary Kiswahili terminology, especially in formal and technical contexts.
Ann Biersteker belongs to my generation. She caught the Kiswahili and African languages bug when she came to teach at the then-Kenyatta College (now Kenyatta University), after her BA degree from Lawrence University in 1968.
During her stint at the Kahawa campus, Ann picked up the basics of Kiswahili and developed an interest in the languages of the Mount Kenya region (Gikuyu, Kiembu and Kimeru).
She returned to the US and pursued further studies, earning a master’s degree in Librarianship from the University of Minnesota in 1971 and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1984.
It was a tough struggle up the academic ladder.
For her doctorate, she had wanted to study and research either Yoruba or Kiswahili poetry but no adviser for Yoruba was available, and the Kiswahili expert she consulted told her there was nothing new to say about Kiswahili poetry.
In a depressing male chauvinistic taunt, the Kiswahili scholar told Ann to forget about graduate school and concentrate on finding herself a husband while she was still “young enough and attractive enough”.
But Anne Biersteker did not give up. She got herself another advisor, Prof Patrick Bennett, who was an expert on the Mount Kenya languages and eventually successfully defended her dissertation on tense and aspect in Kiembu narratives.
During her research, she interacted with numerous Kiembu and Gikuyu speakers and writers, including the famous Gakaara wa Wanjau of Karatina.
But her heart remained in Kiswahili. She had continued studying it privately all along and teaching it, building on the foundation laid during her stay in Kenya.
With the completion of her studies and subsequent employment at various prestigious institutions, she was free to pursue her interest.
She immersed herself in reading, researching and teaching Kiswahili.
She frequently visited Tanzania and, especially, Kenya, striking close partnerships and friendships with practically every leading Kiswahili authority and scholar in the country.
Among those she mentioned to me are Profs Mohamed Abdulaziz, Mohamed Bakari, Rose Lugano and Rocha Chimerah, and our dear departed Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany, Jay Kitsao and Kadenge Kazungu.
“I have been so privileged,” she says, “to have had the best team of Swahili teachers imaginable. I have learned so much from them.”
She had her greatest impact on African Studies, and on Kiswahili in particular, during her 25-year tenure at the prestigious Yale University, Obama’s alma mater.
As Professor and Chair of the African Studies Council, she made her mark not only through teaching and publications but also by getting African scholars to visit and study at Yale.
She invited me twice, in 1992 and in 2008, to talk about my work.
Among those who took their doctorates at Yale with Prof Biersteker’s assistance or encouragement are our prominent Kiswahili scholars and public personalities, Prof Chacha Nyaigotti Chacha and Prof Kimani Njogu.
A gem of her activities was the “Study Abroad Program”, in which every summer she brought American students of Kiswahili and African Studies to Kenya.
They attended lectures by African scholars, visited places of interest and interacted with ordinary African people.
These American students, Prof Kimani Njogu pointed out to me, were instrumental in propagating empathetic information about Africa and Kiswahili in their communities.
Some of them, indeed, ended up becoming teachers of African Studies and Kiswahili.
Prof Ann Biersteker’s love for Kiswahili continues spreading the good news far and wide.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]