What you need to know:
- “Tusambiane uwongo” is a love poem, literally meaning “let us not tell each other lies”.
- The speaker in the poem pleads with his or her partner that they should always tell each other the truth.
One of my best-loved poems is called “Tusambiane Uwongo” (Let’s not deceive each other). It appears in a collection of Kiswahili lyrical poems by the 19th century Mombasa poet, Muyaka bin Haji al Ghassiny.
Edited, translated and presented in parallel Kiswahili-English text by my beloved teacher, mentor and role model, Prof Mohamed H. Abdulaziz, the collection is appropriately titled Muyaka.
With its generous introduction and ample notes, the book is a treasure-trove of information on the language and culture of the Waswahili in general and the Wamvita of Mombasa Island in particular.
This is why I think that a new edition of it is long overdue for publication. It was last issued in 1994, as far as I am aware. We should never allow a classic of this stature to go out of print.
As you can surmise, however, I am not an impartial judge. Did I tell you that I actually read this “book” before it was published, and it was one of the reasons why I fell in love with Kiswahili, especially the literary variety of it?
Prof Abdulaziz himself let me have a glance at an early draft of his text in the form of a dissertation he had presented to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
I was among his first students when he came to teach Linguistics at Dar, and I called on him one evening to discuss some Persian verse texts that I was reading in translation. (I knew of his expertise in the Iranian/”shiraz” cultures). After our discussion, he casually asked me if I would like to read some Kiswahili verse.
Too shy to confess that my Kiswahili was practically nil at the time, I said “yes” and he lent me his “Muyaka” typescript. The rest, as they say is history.
Lying to one another
So, if you hear some “Mvitaisms” slip into my Kiswahili every now and then, do not think of them as affectations or attribute them to my later romantic sojourns on the magic Island. The story goes much further back and deeper down Ndia Kuu into Mji wa Kale.
Back to our verse, “Tusambiane uwongo” is a love poem, literally meaning “let us not tell each other lies”. The speaker in the poem pleads with his or her partner that they should always tell each other the truth, for the survival and blossoming of their relationship.
“La kweli tuambiane,” pleads the lover, “zitakate zetu nia” (let us tell each other the truth so that our intentions may be clean).
I depart here, with apologies, from my Mwalimu Abdulaziz’s translation and go for a literal rendering. In fact, I have often considered the possibility of discussing with Prof the whole concept of alternative English readings of Muyaka’s verse. But there are lots of tasks to attend to, and neither my Mwalimu nor I are getting any younger.
Fortunately, we have enough academic descendants between us to attend to such matters.
Anyway, what brought Muyaka’s poem back to my mind was what transpired Wednesday last week, January 20, 2021. This was the bizarre but very welcome ending of the surrealistic four years of unprecedented and routinely unverified claims of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, “witch hunts”, conspiracy theories and a “hostile press”. This has affected all of us, regardless of where it actually happened.
Whether in love, in business or in politics, human society runs on trust. We assume that what we share is true, based on objective facts. Yet it is surprising how frequently we, as individuals, deviate from this simple but vital principle. “Kudanganyana si kwema” (lying to one another is not good), avers Muyaka in his poem. His Wamvita people also have a saying, “Kweli ingawa tungu, sinifite” (don’t hide the truth from me, even if it’s bitter).
Hiding the truth
Most of us humans, however, do not only hide the truth at one time or another but we also ply patent untruths. The emergence of a character of international stature who persists in calling “fake news” whatever he does not want to hear is a grotesque illustration of how much some of us dread the truth. There is also the deliberate vice of repeating our lies so insistently and persistently that they become “truths” to some of our audiences.
I think it was Napoleon Bonaparte who said that repetition is “the strongest figure of speech”, in the sense of rhetorical device. A person who keeps lamenting that he was “robbed” of this or that, or that his underwear was “stolen”, without producing a shred of evidence of the robbery or theft, is counting on the power of repetition to deceive his gullible audience, as we will remember from the events of January 6, 2021.
This, on a happier note, reminds me of the elegantly bubbling poem, “The Hill We Climb”, that our sister Amanda Gorman performed at Joe Biden’s Inauguration at Capitol Hill on January 20th.
Incidentally, did you know that, since John F. Kennedy invited Robert Kennedy to perform a poem at his Inauguration in 1961, every Democratic President has invited a poet to perform at their ceremonies? That will be our learning point for today.
About Amanda Gorman, what particularly struck me was that she looked so much like one of our own mtaa (neighbourhood) friends. I once told you, a long time ago, of how we called Serena Williams “Akinyi Nyaseme” when she came to play tennis in Kenya and endow some of our schools in Ukambani. We do have a lot of relatives, known and unknown, in that “great” country, which we hope will be made decent again, by a gentle return to the truth.
For some homework from Mwalimu, (ironically since nearly all work is home work these days), why don’t you entertain yourself with reading and, in the case of Amanda Gorman, listening to the two poems mentioned in our chat?
Do also keep thinking and caring about the truth. “Tusambiane uwongo.”
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; firstname.lastname@example.org