Mama Rahma and Said Ahmed, colossus of Kiswahili literature

Said Ahmed

Prof Said Ahmed Mohamed Khamis.

Photo credit: Courtesy

What you need to know:

  • I find it appropriate to highlight Bi. Rahma and her central role in the colossal task of putting Kiswahili literature on the world map.
  • I have been one of the many Swahili-seekers who have observed the Rahma-Said love affair at close quarters.

Bi. Rahma Seif, Mama Najma, is the wife of Prof Said Ahmed Mohamed Khamis. Said Ahmed Mohamed is the one I am calling the colossus or giant of Kiswahili literature. This is no exaggeration, as indeed, Prof Said “bestrides the world” of Kiswahili studies “like a colossus”, to quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Juliasi Kaizari).

This being Mother’s Day weekend, however, I find it appropriate to highlight “Mama”, Bi. Rahma, and her central role in the colossal task of putting Kiswahili literature on the world map. The heart of the matter is the open “secret” that Bi. Rahma and Prof Said are deeply in love, and have been so as long as most of us have known them. I know this is not a literary or scholarly statement, but I stand by it.

I have been one of the many Swahili-seekers who have observed the Rahma-Said love affair at close quarters, and greatly benefited from it. I can assert with conviction that Rahma’s contribution to Said Ahmed Mohamed’s monumental achievement may be different but by no means inferior to that of Mwalimu’s fiercely wielded pen. I will not indulge in the “behind every successful man” truism, but I fully agree with my friend, Hezekiel Gikambi, that we have to acknowledge the role of spouses, and especially women, in the making of the legends of our cultural topflight achievers.

Gikambi, a Kiswahili scholar and communications specialist with a penchant for ICT, was indeed the man behind the event that triggered my thoughts about Rahma and Said. Late last week, Gikambi invited us to a virtual session to honour and express our appreciation of Said Ahmed Mohamed (kikao cha kumuenzi). He later told me that this session had been inspired by a similar event that the Waswahili had earlier held in memory of the late Ken Walibora.

The difference here was that Said Ahmed Mohamed is, mercifully, still with us, though ailing and unable to join us fully in the session, held on the evening of Saturday, April 30. Despite the rather short notice, however, the attendance was awe-inspiring and reflected the unrivalled esteem in which Said Ahmed Mohamed is held in Kiswahili scholarly and creative circles. The session, eventually recognised as a “hafla” (special function), impressed not only with the number of the participants and the superb quality of their contributions but also with the variety of their backgrounds and their distinctions in “Swahilology”.

Beauty of the language

Speaking of the Swahili logos (word), one of the most stimulating experiences of the session was the mellifluous beauty of the language in which the contributions were delivered from different corners of the globe. Apart from us East Africans, we had scholars and devotees from as far apart as Japan, Italy, Germany and the US, all united in a strikingly fluent Kiswahili conversation. Kiswahili has truly arrived as an international language.

Regarding the distinguished company in which we found ourselves, it was arguably a who-is-who in our language and literary studies. Mentioning names is invidious, but I could not fail to notice such legends as Prof Abdilatif Abdallah, of Sauti ya Dhiki fame, the reigning Nobel Literature laureate, Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah, both close friends and associates of Said Ahmed Mohamed. Do you remember my suggesting a few months ago how glad we would be if Said Ahmed won the Nobel?

A particularly striking feature of the hafla was its intergenerational composition. First I noted us elderly and largely retired predecessors of Said, including a few of his teachers at Dar, like Profs Fikeni Senkoro and Farouk Topan. Then there was a large contingent of senior professors, now mostly in charge of our scholarly programmes, many of them former students of Said in his long teaching career in East Africa, Japan and Europe. These included Profs Kimani Njogu of Twaweza, who gave us an illuminating introduction to the work of Said Ahmed Mohamed, and Leonard Muaka, the President of the Global Association for the Promotion of Kiswahili (CHAUKIDU), who chaired the session. Another former student of Said, Prof Iribe Mwangi of UoN, led us through most of the discourse.

But the most exciting group of participants, for me, was the crop of young scholars, like Prof Pendo Malangwa of UDSM, Bitugi Matundura of Chuka University and Hezekiel Gikambi, whom I mentioned earlier. These, and many others like them, brought a lot of fresh insights into the work of this unique author, who I think is always young at heart.

Sense of familyhood

I was also particularly touched by the realisation of what a close-knit community we Kiswahili lovers are. The speed and smoothness with which Gikambi, Prof Mwangi and his Association of Kiswahili Authors (CHAWAKI) teamed up with the Global Association (CHAUKIDU) and Said’s family, led by his daughter Najma, to get us together is testimony to this cohesion. Then, practically everyone who spoke at the function had a personal story of Said Ahmed Mohamed to tell, especially, as in my case, of his and Rahma’s generosity and hospitality.

This, however, brings us back to where we started. We cannot properly tell Said Ahmed’s story, or seriously evaluate his work without appreciating the strong sense of “familyhood” that runs through it. 

Incidentally, have you noticed how much of his work is directly concerned with the condition and status (hali na hadi) of the woman in our society? Have another look through his texts, from his earliest (Asali Chungu, Utengano), to his latest (Nyuso za Mwanamke and Wenye Meno) and come and tell me.

But I should leave the last word to a woman of Said’s own household. Towards the end of our session, Najma Said Ahmed, a professional media practitioner, was clearly emotional thanking the team. With tears in her eyes, she noted that even as we honoured her father, we mentioned her mother, Rahma, over 10 times. ''Rahma and Said are like twins. They are always together,” said Najma.

That, I think, is a love story that not even Said Ahmed Mohamed could have written better.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]

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