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Friday, April 29, 2011

Deep Language Crossing Borders with Abdilatif Abdalla: Culture in Political Activism/Resistance

“Deep Language” Crossing Borders: Exploring the Use of Culture as Resource in Political Activism and Resistance in Africa and Elsewhere

Symposium in Honor of Abdilatif Abdalla

5-6 May 2011, Leipzig

In March 1969, at the age of 22, Abdilatif Abdalla from Mombasa became the first political prisoner of independent Kenya. He was sentenced to three years solitary confinement on the grounds of having written and distributed a pamphlet Kenya: Twendapi – ‘Kenya, where are we going?’ against the criminalization of opposition parties, to which he belonged. In 1972, a collection of poems which he had written in prison was published as Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony), for which in 1974 the “Kenyatta Literary Award” was bestowed upon him. Ever since his release in 1972, he has lived in exile as a journalist and political activist, connected to Kenya and the world by transnational networks through which he musters international solidarity and takes influence on politics in his home country. However, he has not published in paper any more poems of his, and only some of the poems of his prison ‘diary’ have been translated from Swahili. In his further political commitment as a journalist and activist, however, he continued to use English. In Kenya he is still well known and regarded as an important and controversial poet and political activist.

From the point of view that language use is inseparable from cultural practice, since it is in and through speaking that symbolic orders are taken recourse to, reinvented and reproduced, this marked split of cultural practice, to which change of linguistic code (Swahili/English) is but the most audible, it can be made explicit that while in his political commitment he used either ‘blunt’ Swahili or English accessible for a wider public, in the agonized situation in prison Abdilatif Abdalla resorted to his traditional education as a Swahili patrician with a language which is very difficult to understand, even for contemporary Swahilists. Using his cultural and social background of belonging to the patrician elite of urban Swahili culture, of being a mwungwana, he was able to counter the assault on his personal and political integrity during solitary confinement: The knowledge of poetry, and the ability to condense thoughts and topics by means of the rigid principles of Swahili poetry, leading to what also known as lugha ya ndani – ‘deep language’, is one of the cornerstones of being Swahili. According to him, he used such language to veil the messages, as he expected that neither his prison warders, leave alone the political functionaries of the time, up to Jomo Kenyatta himself, would be able to make clear sense of his poetry*.

On the other hand, the intensive localization of political activism apparent in Abdilatif Abdalla’s writings before and during his imprisonment is perhaps also owed to the situation of underground opposition, where risks must be minimized, in this case by using language and the accompanying cultural practices (embodied for example in poetry) only understood by those very close to the underground group. However, the moment political repression has become manifest, the only possibility to raise solidarity and support lies in the ability of the repressed to reach international attention: for this the knowledge of ‘Western’? – international? gobally known? – modes of expression is crucial. It is in this situation that Abdilatif Abdalla and Ngugi wa Thion’go (amongst others) make up a very successful team in the “Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya” (1982), later on “United Movement for Democracy in Kenya” (from 1987 onwards).

Of course, his is but one in the many examples of persecuted intellectuals, writers, or film makers. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was an acclaimed writer before he, too, turned to Gikuyu and community theatre as a means to reach those who were excluded from political participation. He thus played on the difference between English and the local languages as means of control and subversion. This raised the fear of the then ruling elites that those excluded might start ‘speaking’ beyond their control. Ngugi, as is well known, was incarcerated for his activities and exiled later on. But while Ngugi could draw on his already existing reputation as a political writer in English to muster international solidarity, Abdilatif has always remained less visible. Ken Saro Wiwa, activist, playwright and author of fiction, chose to write in English. However, he also played with language, questioning the ‘meanings’ of English in his satirical novel Sozaboy. Nuruddin Farah, on the other hand, wrote one of the first novels in Somali in the alphabet which was invented and standardized under the regime of Siad Barre, only to have it banned. In order to still have his say, he changed his literary activities to English, which promised a much larger readership and political influence – albeit rather beyond Somalia than within. Again another example is Phaswane Mpe, a Sepedi writer from South Africa, who could not publish his novel in Sepedi, because, as his editor pointed out, he would not find a readership for his criticism in this community, since Sepedi was a medium rather for harmless ‘traditional’ stories than political topics. He, too, settled for a publication in English under the title “Welcome to our Hillbrow” (2001). In South Africa, contrary to the other examples, the assumed threat inherent in literature in African Languages is defused by a banalization of their value.
These few examples raise a central question about translation issues:

What are the conditions under which cultural expressions, used as a means for resistance, can become accessible to an international community? What kinds of transformation processes are required to make local or localized symbolic orders accessible to a globalised public sphere in order to address the international community and thus gain support?

Inherent in these questions is the assumption that it is those who are in need of support who have to overcome linguistic and cultural boundaries. While this seems to be a truism and a ‘fact of life’, it is exacerbated by the colonial heritage of a dependent language bias where it is felt that because ‘Africa’ constitutes ‘the other’ of the ‘West, expressions in African languages are, in fact, in need of ‘translation’. What, then, does it take, that the ‘subaltern can speak’, and even if the ‘subaltern speaks’, how far is the international community prepared to listen? How do other activists with different backgrounds choose to moderate this balancing act between the local of expression and the global of solidarity?

The exploration of the potential political meaning of cultural practices, amongst others language use, requires a reflection on the ways how and under which historical conditions of manifold hegemonial and counter-hegemonial interests different symbolic orders can be effectively connected in order to transgress or subvert politically determined boundaries: Abdilatif Abdalla has chosen to remain invisible from an international public as a poet, but not as a political activist. While he is needed in Kenya, precisely this international visibility makes him more vulnerable but also closer to ‘his people’. Ngugi, on the other hand, has tried to join the two modes, crossing linguistic and cultural borders back and forth. Are these individual differences, or are these differences in cultural background which deeply influence the situation and choices made in political activism?

* “… I doubt if they [the prison guards] will be able to make out the meaning of the poems. Even if they will, I have 1001 alternative interpretations for each one of them.” (The Star, Wednesday, October 6, 2010).

Source: Fakultät für Geschichte, Kunst- und Orientwissenschaften, Institut für Afrikanistik, Universität Leipzig

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