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Shakespeare in Swahililand - Adventures with the ever living poet

Volume 13, Issue 2  | 
Published 30/11/2016

Author: Edward Wilson-Lee
Publ: Harper Collins
Reviewer: Ramnik Shah

The title alone should excite the reader`s interest.  Add to it the fact that the author, son of expatriate wildlife conservationists, who is a Cambridge academic teaching historical literature, grew up in Kenya and has retained an attachment to his childhood home and is fluent in Swahili.

The book`s theme of `Adventures with the ever-living poet` encapsulates its essence.  We are indeed taken on a journey of discovery and imagination, where the past and the present, the personal, the poetic and the political, are seamlessly threaded together to form a fascinating narrative of the impact of Shakespeare on the East African hinterland, both metaphorically and geographically.

As the author says in the Prelude, `What I discovered during the momentous travels that followed, through Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan, was a hidden history that brought both Shakespeare and the land I thought familiar into richer focus than I had ever known them`. The “hidden history” is in fact multiplied manifold in the pages of the book. He describes how the 19th century British imperial adventurers (Burton, Speke, Stanley, et al) who traversed the lake region of East Africa carried Shakespeare with them as a comforting talisman of Englishness on their many expeditions, `[just] as I read my own Complete Works travelling through East Africa in their tracks`!

What had led him to embark on this project was a chance discovery that one of the first books printed in Swahili was a slim volume of the Bard`s stories, published as Hadithi za Kiingereza (`English Tales`). The Hadithi`s compiler Edward Steere had arrived in Zanzibar as a missionary in 1864.  Zanzibar is also the starting point of the whole saga, throughout which we are treated to a stream of glimpses into the author`s own trajectory and encounters with locals of all varieties, including officials and historians, interspersed with his discursive analysis of a wide spectrum of Shakespearean texts and comparative literary references.  From here, the author`s travels took him to Mombasa, Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Addis Ababa and Juba in a circuitous trail.

Even to readers of AwaaZ, however, it will come as a revelation that Shakespeare was performed in Mombasa circa WWI by various companies of Indian migrants. The author gives details of the different productions (at least 43 during 1915-16) in a range of Indian languages, Hindustani and Gujarati in particular, with several of them under original English titles (The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Hamlet).  Their full list as licensed by the colonial authorities is reproduced in an Appendix.  

In the more sophisticated environs of Nairobi we find echoes of Shakespeare in the writings of Karen Blixen, Evelyn Waugh and Peter Abrahams, and in the privileged life-styles of its inhabitants, past and present. But it is in Kampala that we get the full measure of Shakespeare in the sombre setting of Makerere from 1940 onwards.  Here were to be found some future African leaders, writers and others engaging in public readings and performances of plays (such as Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet) which, after female students were admitted in 1945, included both men and women.

Back to the coast, in Dar es Salaam, the author is fulsome in his praise for Julius Nyerere for translating Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili in his spare evening moments as he steered the country towards independence.  He also finds a Shakespearean angle in the short period of exile that Che Guevara apparently spent holed up in the Cuban Embassy there in 1965/66, of which `Nyerere was probably not even aware`!

Next to Ethiopia, which though technically not part of Swahililand, is a useful detour because of its unique past and rich traditions. Here the author examines, with heart-warming anecdotal insights, the many Shakespearean parallels underlying Ethiopia`s recent history, especially with reference to the `translations of Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet by the Ethiopian poet laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin forming a backdrop to the decadent reign and violent overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I`.

The final two chapters, `PanAfrica: Shakespeare in the Cold War` and `Juba: Shakespeare, Civil War and Reconstruction` bring us starkly face to face with contemporary African realities, first back in Nairobi and then in the eponymous capital of the newly born breakaway state of South Sudan.  In Kenya, the author traces how the fictional politics of Shakespeare played into local politics under President Moi, but lack of space prevents me from summarising this and the Juba diversion here.  Suffice it to say that his critique of the place of Shakespeare in the cultural dynamics of post-colonial Kenya is thought-provoking.

What else?  A fine collection of pictures, illustrations and other material will bring Shakespeare alive: among them a monochrome plate of Milton Obote in the title role of the 1948 production of Julius Caesar at Makerere, a set of black and white pictures of a production of Coriolanus also at Makerere in 1951 and, surely to readers of AwaaZ, a series of photos provided by Neera Kapur-Dromson about a production of Khoon ka Khoon (a translation of Hamlet) featuring her grandfather Hiralal Kapur and a publicity procession through the streets of Nairobi circa 1930.  Equally striking is the author`s high regard for my fellow columnist John Sibi-Okumu, whom he lauds as a `great Shakespearean actor`! 

Indeed the entire book is replete with references to a galaxy of luminaries and their use of Shakespearean analogies in furtherance of the cause of African freedom and dignity - among them Eliud Mathu and Ngugi wa Thiongo, whose enthusiastic endorsement of the book actually features prominently in the author`s own website at

In short, `Shakespeare in Swahililand` is a literary travelogue par excellence, of his writings through time and space, and of their universal significance.  It is a timely and topical publication during this 400th year of the poet`s passing. There is a great deal more packed into the book.  (Adapted from an extended review at

Ramnik Shah ©2016