In lieu of an Introduction

Issa G Shivji

These poems were written at different times in different circumstances but at all times giving vent to personal anguish and political anger. Where prose curtails, poem liberates. Freedom has always a way of expressing herself.  At times she may lie low; at other times she may surge but at all times she is restless—never submitting to restraint. If she can’t politely conceal herself in prose, she will burst forth in poem.

Prose tells us personal is political. Poem reminds us that in personal anguish sits political anger. Such has been the state of the writer in writing poems of valediction of his departed comrades or valour of living ones. Such has been the state of the writer in times of ideological sophistry and political vulgarity. Prose hides coercion in the language of consent; poem exposes its nakedness in the song of sentiment—sentiment of freedom. Let no prose deceive you. At all times, human quest for freedom is emotional, sentimental, romantic, spiritually sacred, materially exhilarating.

The preceding two paragraphs adumbrate the state of the author’s emotions as he penned these poems in circumstances not always politically propitious or personally ameliorating. A poet by definition is a public intellectual. As such he is constantly under pressure—subtle but substantive—of well-meaning friends and family to cool down, to “play safe”, not to tempt the wrath of wielders of power, for a critical public intellectual committed to speaking truth to power places herself/himself in the firing line. The first instinct of the powers-that-be is to fire first and think later, if at all. So is life; so is struggle. Indeed, so is the tension between freedom and unfreedom. The choice is the poet’s: to exercise his freedom to expose the unfreedom of others, or to secure his at the expense of the others’.

Shairi Shairi
Shairi Njoo
Hisia kolea
Uongo komea

Poem Poem
Welcome poem
Stir emotion
Stop deception

Poems are clustered under several headings to provide a context. The majority of the poems were written originally in Kiswahili. The Kiswahili originals are followed by English translations . The few poems in English have, however, not been translated into Kiswahili.

During his political life of some five decades, the author forged political and personal bonds with some fine comrades and friends. Laws of nature have no respect for the vagaries of life resulting in the author losing a dozen or so of his close comrades. In the first section, he combines personal agony at the loss while taking stock of his comrades’ contribution. In paying tribute to a departed comrade, I guess, one is reminding oneself and others of the tasks ahead.  In the same vein, there are a few poems communicating the sentiments of love and affection with living friends expressing nostalgia over the days bygone.

The second section They have robbed us, is indeed about the robberies of the freedom, resources and dignity of the people as the country transitioned from the nationalist to the neo-liberal phase. History has taught us over and over again that no foreign pirates across the oceans can perpetrate their plunder without the collaboration of local accessories, before and after the fact. Given the author’s legal training, a few poems muse over the so-called temples of “justice” where the rights of the rich triumph and those of the poor slumber.

Hopes and Fears is a collection of short poems tweeted over the contemporary period of five or so years, now throwing up hands in despair, often betraying fear and occasionally expressing hope in the immanent human capacity to struggle for freedom.

Between September and November 2018, the author and his partner spent a couple of months living in a posh area of Cape Town called Sea Point. This was a first hand experience of the death of (racist) apartheid and its reincarnation in the form of (classist) neo-apartheid. Exhilarating though was the persistence of the townships that often flooded the streets in a relentless struggle against shameless oppression and wanton exploitation summed up at the time in the expressive phrase zupta. (At that time “honourable” Zuma was the president of the republic and the scandalous dealings of the Gupta family were reported daily in the press.)

Finally I must pay my debts. It is never pleasant to pay one’s debts in a capitalist society yet friendship is, hopefully, one area where voracious capital has not yet penetrated. It is therefore a great pleasure to pay one’s debts. In Ida Hadjivayanis I had a passionate and an amiable translator. I was doubly happy when Ida agreed to translate my poems because I had the pleasure of receiving her when she was born to my close comrades Salha and George.

My friend Firoze[1] was the first one to suggest that I publish my poems and that he would do it. It was never on my mind when I was writing them nor did I think they were publishable. But Firoze is not averse to risk-taking! I hope this time around the publication of The Penniless would turn out to be a worthy risk.

I deeply appreciate my friends, Ndimara Tegambwage, Nizar Visram, Ng’wanza Kamata and Demere Kitunga who responded to some of my poems and readily agreed to have them published in this book.

My gratitude to my partner Parin is eternal. Without her critical and strategic support I could not have done what I have over the last four decades of our lives together. My daughter Natasha and my son Amil have never flinched in their support, advice and encouragement. Theirs has always been a ray of hope during those dark days, which no living being can avoid.

Issa G Shivji
Dar es Salaam
March 2019


  1. Firoze Manji is publisher of Daraja Press.

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Poems for the Penniless Copyright © 2019 by Issa G Shivji. All Rights Reserved.

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