I have had the privilege of knowing Issa Shivji, one of the greatest academics Africa has produced, my parents’ comrade and our great family friend, all my life. Discovering Issa bin Mariam, the poet, has been overwhelmingly humbling. His poems have gradually enabled me to re-engage with a world that I had at times lost sight of and, at times, taken for granted.
Issa’s poetry, often presented in ordinary Swahili, brings forth the reality of a world view that is fundamental in understanding humanity, rights, freedom, political power, the nation and many other concepts that we face today. The poems can be understood by all but are also deceptively simple. A closer reading unveils nuances that need our imagination to be pushed a little for us to truly appreciate what has been created.
One poem that is superficially simple is ‘Uniimbie’ – ‘Sing for me’. I read this poem as a rejection of what may be considered as ‘the norm’ in Issa’s society. Issa does not want to hear the traditional tenzi and its praises, he wants to hear about the raw feelings of those that he calls ‘the penniless’. He yearns for a life where electricity, perceived as a basic need all over the world, is no longer a luxury in his homeland. He wants to see the cockroaches scatter. In translation, I had to bring across the poet’s rejection of the familiar, make the global citizen reading this poem understand that, ‘feeding the meter’ is a daily struggle and reality, that human dignity is not a given. And the hope is that we will all ask ourselves, who are those cockroaches that the poet prays will scatter.
Implicit in translation is the assumption that something is lost when a text is carried across from one language, one culture, one reality into another. This has happened. Puns and rhymes were often very hard to bring across. This is why footnotes have been used. In the poem ‘barua kwa wapenzi wanafiki’ – ‘A letter to beloved hypocrites’ – there are some powerful paradoxes or figures of speech and rhymes that get lost.
Nawaachia jamii ya waastarabu-wanafiki
Mundelee kurubuni mazuzu wastahiki
Kwa heri za kuonana, wakarimu
Kwa heri za kuoneana, wadhalimu.”
I leave you with this society of the civilised-hypocrites
So they may continue to swindle the deserving
Farewell till we meet again, the benignant
Farewell till you ill-treat again, the draconian
Translating culture specific items and concepts has always been a significant process in translation. Translators would normally need to foreignize, where the reader is introduced to the non-familiar, or they may domesticate where the content is familiar for the reader. Historically, the latter strategy has been the preferred one for translations into Swahili. In this translation, both strategies have been applied. There are terminologies such as ‘togwa’, a fermented sorghum drink, the soda equivalent for the working class, culturally loaded, which are left as they are in Swahili. Another term, ‘Kijiweni’, which means ‘at the corner stone’, has been translated as ‘Rockhood’. This has been purposefully done to preserve the idea of a ‘stone- rock’ as well the fact that the meeting place is in a given neighbourhood.
It is my hope that Poems for the Penniless will challenge us all to think about the world around us, how we live and what we are capable of.
London, March 9, 2019