Kiswahili literature’s big role in preserving East Africa’s history

Mrs Mukami Kimathi

Mrs Mukami Kimathi, wife to freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi waves during 47th Jamhuri Day celebrations at Nyayo National Stadium on December 12, 2010, the first following the promulagation of the new constitution.

Photo credit: File

On May 6, 2023, the widow of arguably one of the most celebrated freedom fighters in Kenya, Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, Mrs. Mukami Kimathi, 93, took a final bow.

Unfortunately, Mrs Kimathi died without knowing where the veteran freedom fighter was buried. The last information from both the Kenyan and British governments was that Dedan Kimathi’s grave was somewhere in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison where he was detained after his arrest.

Interestingly, Kiswahili literature is awash with creative works that are founded on major historical events that took place in East Africa in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods.

For instance, the events of the Zanzibar revolution which occurred on January 12, 1964, are well captured by Shafi Adam Shafi’s novels, Kasri ya Mwinyi Fuad (Mwinyi Fuad’s Castle), Kuli (Coolie), and Haini (traitor).

Said Ahmed Mohamed’s novels – Dunia Mti Mkavu (The world is a dry tree), Asali Chungu (Bitter Honey) Kiza Katika Nuru (Light in Darkness), and Utengano (Separation) were also inspired by the revolution.

Another Zanzibari writer whose works are based on the kernel of the Zanzibar revolution is Mohamed Suleiman Mohamed. His two novels – Kiu (Thirst) and Nyota ya Rehema (Rehema’s Star) aptly capture how the Sultan of Zanzibar was overthrown, by the island’s majority Black African population. Zanzibar was an ethnically diverse state consisting of a number of islands off the east coast of Tanganyika.

Other Kiswahili literary works founded on historical events include Peter Munuhe Kareithi’s novel, Kaburi Bila Msalaba (East African Publishing House, 1969) which I review in this article.

In the play genre, we have Ebrahim Hussein’s Kinjeketile (Oxford University Press), Mukwava wa Uhehe (M.M.Mulokozi), and Sundiata (E.Mbogo). Hussein’s play – Kinjeketile, for example, is based on the Maji Maji Resistance War (1904 -1909).

This historical confrontation between the people of Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) and German colonizers that took place at the turn of the nineteenth century is vividly remembered because thousands of Africans were killed.

Kaburi Bila Msalaba: Hadithi ya Vita vya Mau Mau (Unmarked Grave: A Story of the Mau Mau War) as noted earlier, is a historical novel. In this story, Kareithi narrates tersely and simply the Mau Mau story, its trajectory, and its aftermath.

The Mau Mau rebellion got its impetus from the brutal colonial rule and the land question. The author claims that his story is an account that he personally witnessed during the emergency – before Kenya attained her independence from British rule.

The novel describes the experiences of the Mau Mau freedom fighters and the challenges they faced in the struggle to emancipate Kenya from the colonial yoke. Among the hindrances was betrayal from within. The chiefs, for example, would aid the colonial administration and mistreat their fellow Kikuyus.

The story focuses on Mumbi, who is arrested and detained by the chief time and again for denying that she had taken the Mau Mau oath. She later dies on the way to the hospital after being manhandled, sexually assaulted trapped, and impregnated by the chief. Similarly, her boyfriend, Maina Maciira, who administered the Mau Mau oath to Mumbi and several others, dies in fighting in the forest.

The story ends on a very sad note. Kareithi writes: “Hii ndiyo iliyokuwa mara ya mwisho kwa meja Blue kuona watu wake. Ilikuwa mara ya mwisho kuona nchi yake aliyoipigania kwa miaka miwili […] Meja Blue ambaye ndiye aliyekuwa mkuu wa magaidi huko pande za Mathera alihukumiwa kunyongwa.” (This was the last time Meja Blue saw his people. It was his last time to see his country that he had so gallantly fought for in two years. Meja Blue, who was the leader of other rebels in Mathera had been sentenced to hang.’’

The author further states that among those who last saw Meja Blue was a fellow Mau Mau convict at Nyeri prison – because he was among the people who buried him. To date, no one knows where Meja Blue’s grave is.

This ending paints very sad images about patriots such as Dedan Kimathi – who, despite fighting so hard for Kenya’s independence, nobody in the true sense, in my view, valued their contribution.

The title of Kareithi’s novel – ‘Kaburi Bila Msalaba’ (Unmarked Grave/A Grave without an epitaph) is some kind of betrayal meted on Mau Mau heroes and heroines who shed their blood and lost their lives to secure Kenya’s freedom.

Most of the Mau Mau fighters have since died poor. Till today, there are many Mau Mau heroes and heroines whose ‘graves are unmarked’ because their contributions in Kenya are neither recognized nor appreciated.

The author of this classical novel – Peter Munuhe Kareithi, was born in Mbari-ya-Hwai village, present-day Nyeri County in 1931. He was educated at Tumutumu High School and Kagumo TTC, from where he graduated and became a primary school teacher in 1954.

He later went for higher education at Makerere and the University of Kent, Ohio, in the USA. He died in a road accident in 1977. Although Mr. P.M. Kareithi wrote other works such as Majuto ni Mjukuu and Hadithi za Jioni, Kaburi Bila Msalaba remains his most known work. It has been translated into English by Prof Chege Githiora – under the title Unmarked Grave: A Story of the Mau Mau War (Phoenix, 2017).

- Enock Matundura, translator of Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series (Oxford University Press) teaches Kiswahili literature at Chuka University. [email protected]