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Shakespeare gave East Africa more than comedy, tragedy

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Shakespeare in Swahililand

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $26.

Imagine the Gikuyu of the Kenyan uplands reading Shakespeare — the same Shakespeare that would be read by other groups in neighboring Tanzania, Uganda and Zanzibar. Imagine Shakespeare’s words and stories becoming the social and political lingua franca of the countries of equatorial East Africa.

It is not imaginary that these disparate groups of people from different countries read the works of England’s most famous and enduring writer. The ideas gleaned from Shakespeare’s works were made available because of the language of the region — Swahili.

This sharing of another country’s culture, or more specifically the universal ideas presented in the plays of a European, would help the indigenous Africans to bring an end to European colonialism and facilitate the emergence of free nations governed by African leaders who used the lesson of Shakespeare as a foundation of their work in the mid-20th century.

The fascinating tale of how this all came about is told by Edward Wilson-Lee in his new book, “Shakespeare in Swahililand.” Wilson-Lee is lecturer in Shakespeare at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University. He is also a native of Kenya where he was raised near Nairobi by his English parents while his father was a conservationist in the colonial service.

Wilson-Lee has crafted a travelogue of sorts beginning in Zanzibar and moving through Mombasa to Nairobi and on to Kampala, Dar es Salaam and Addis Ababa. As he moves through the geography of East Africa, we learn how the works of Shakespeare influenced people in those countries and ultimately led to independence, and helped influence leaders through the Cold War, revolution and reconstruction.

As a background on the introduction of Shakespeare to Central Africa, Wilson-Lee recounts the safaris of Sir Richard Burton, Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone and Theodore Roosevelt. A prominent feature of each of these forays into unknown (to Europeans and Americans) lands was the “Works” of Shakespeare.

Wilson-Lee begins his story on the island of Zanzibar with Edward Steere, who had established his headquarters for missionary work on the African mainland, a task he never quite started. What he did accomplish was the translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” into a Swahili textbook for children titled “Hadithi za Kingereza” (“Tales from the English”).

It was with this text that the bishop of Zanzibar made the children of East Africa aware of Shakespeare. Some of those children — educated at (British) government schools — went on to Oxford and Cambridge and other universities where they would develop the skills they would later use to replace colonial rule with self-rule.

A combination of government employees from the homeland and civil servants from India (a colony of Great Britain) introduced the British way of life to native peoples in Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda and the lakes region in general. It was the Indian contingent that began producing Shakespeare’s plays for a Swahili audience — a sort of pre-cinema version of Bollywood.

Wilson-Lee reminds the reader that while Shakespeare was widely read and performances of his plays were popular, not everyone understood the text the same way. One poignant example involved Baroness Karen von Blixen and her Somali house servant, Farah, discussing the predicament in “The Merchant of Venice” (in Swahili, “The Story of the Flesh of the Thigh”).

Blixen explains to Farah her interpretation of why Shylock was prevented from taking a pound of flesh from Antonio. Farah had a more practical approach: “He could have used a red hot knife. That brings out no blood”

Blixen reminds Farah that Shylock can take no more or less than a pound of flesh. His reply: “He might have taken little bits at a time, with a small scale at hand to weigh in on. … He could have done that man a lot of harm, even long time before he had got that one pound of flesh.”

Blixen noted that native Africans do not take sides in a tale; “ the interest for them lies in the ingeniousness of the plot itself.”

So the Shakespeare expert from Cambridge illustrates what he observes throughout his research: When two people experience the writing of Shakespeare, there will likely be two interpretations of the work.

It was that different perspective that allowed “Julius Caesar,” a play involving regicide, to be performed in the presence of Ethiopia’s strongman Emperor Haile Selassie I. The assassination scene was performed behind a curtain, but there was no censorship.

Shakespeare survived the independence movement and the pan-African turn to things African. Shakespeare fell out of favor for a while until Kenya’s second president, Daniel Moi, demanded teaching the Bard be reinstated, in English.

So Wilson-Lee demonstrates the universality of Shakespeare by providing a rich story of the changes that affected Victorian and then 20th century East Africa. His thesis is reinforced by the seminal work of Jewish scholar Erich Auerbach who was exiled from Hitler’s Germany, and while in Turkey produced “Mimesis,” the benchmark history of European literature.

Auerbach believed that Shakespeare stood out from other writers because of his realism which is “godlike in its non-partisan objectivity” and lays the groundwork for what Wilson-Lee calls a “variety of interpretation found in the East African history … because his writings never turn aside from the messy mixture of life … his works open themselves up as varied a reaction as life does.”

By the end of this book, you will have met — again — Karen Blixen, Evelyn Waugh, Booker T. Washington, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere and a host of other interesting people whose lives impacted, and were impacted by, East Africa. In addition to references to Washington, local readers will be reminded that one of Roanoke’s sister cities, Kisumu, Kenya, lies on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, just west of “Sheba’s breasts,” Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“Shakespeare in Swahililand” is an enjoyable story full of history and valuable insight into the work of England’s preeminent playwright and poet, told by a man whose prose is so well crafted that the reader will feel as if he/she was on the road with Edward Wilson-Lee while he was doing his research.

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