Swahili Literature Through the Centuries

This exhibit highlights representative works of Swahili literature from the collection of the University of Kansas Libraries.  It features examples of various literary genres that comprise the most notable items in the Swahili collection.  These include biographical and autobiographical works, drama, fiction, poetry, and works translated into Swahili.  Also featured are the writings of Shaaban Robert (1909-1962), Tanzania’s most well-known literary figure, and examples of the interconnections between language and politics.

This exhibit will continue to be available for viewing at Watson Library, fifth floor, until September 30th, 2013.

Kanga writings


Nyimbo za Liyongo / zimekusanywa na kuhaririwa na Jopo la Utafitl kuhusu Liyongo = Liyongo songs: poems attributed to Fumo Liyongo

The earliest Swahili poet of note whose works have survived to the present day is Fumo Liyongo. Dating his life and work, and hence dating the emergence of the Swahili language itself from its Arabic origins, have been a matter of considerable contestation. Scholars relying on written sources have estimated Liyongo to have lived 400-500 years ago, while those relying on the oral tradition of the Swahili people have dated him several centuries earlier. At any rate, it can be ascertained that the origin of the Swahili poetic tradition predated the colonial period by several centuries.

The work exhibited here is a collection of various poetic selections either attributed to Liyongo himself as author or celebrating his place as a folk hero of the coastal Swahili people.

Call Number: PL8704.Z95 E57 2006


Dar es Salaam: Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili, Chuo Kikuu cha Dar es Salaam, 2006.

Nguzo mama [Mother-pillar]

Written with many features taken from the oral tradition, this play is about the attempts of women to heave the “mother- pillar,” which symbolizes peace and prosperity for women. Their attempts fail due to lack of unity and tenacity.

Call Number: PL8704.M78 N46 1982


Dar es Salaam: Dar es Salaam University Press, 1982.

Barua za Shaaban Robert, 1931-1958, zilikusanywa na kuhifadhiwa na Yusuf Ulenge

This work consists of correspondence written by Shaaban Robert to his half-brother, Yusuf Ulenge. The letters were collected and published posthumously, over forty years after Robert’s death. As stated in the note of the KU catalog record, the letters were published “because of their historical value in studying the development of written Swahili literature.”—KU online catalog bibliographic record.

Call Number: PL8704.R6 A3 2003


Dar es Salaam: Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili, Chuo Kikuu cha Dar es Salaam, 2003.

Babu alipofufuka [Grandpa’s resurrection]

This novel deals with the question of African identity in a rapidly changing world. Babu, the grandfather, who is both dead and alive, tries to point the way by transporting the main character into the past, yet pointing him to the future.

Call Number: PL8704.M5895 B238 2001


Nairobi: Jomo Kenyatta Foundation, 2001.

Shamba la wanyama [Animal farm]

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is quite possibly the most politicized text to be translated into the Swahili language. The text first appeared in 1967, the same year as the ujamaa socialist scheme was introduced in Tanzania. It was meant by the translator to be a red flag warning his country about the evils of communism. Its publication, interestingly enough, was financially underwritten by the United States Information Service.

While it was first received with acclaim in the decidedly pro-capitalist politics of Kenya, the reverberations of its political message were felt equally as strongly as leftist leaning forces espoused its political message.

Call Number: PR6029.R8 A6319 1967


Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1967.

Maisha yangu gerezani (2001-2007) au Simulizi la siku elfu moja na mia nane themanini na nane za mateso [My life in prison: or, a narrative of 1,888 days of tribulation]

It seems relevant in the context of Swahili language and politics to draw attention to Kamara Kusupa’s recently published prison memoir recounting his experience as political detainee in a Tanzanian prison.

Call Number: DT448.25.K87 A3 2011


Dar es Salaam: Karljamer Print Technology 2011.

For decades the Libraries have partnered with KU International Area Studies programs and language departments to assemble truly unique and diverse international collections that support the teaching and research needs of the University.