May 24, 2014

Speak Swahili Dammit (Book Review)

James Penhaligon. Speak Swahili Dammit! Trevelyan Publishers. Falmouth, Cornwall, 2012.

James Penhaligon is a doctor who grew up on a remote gold mining town in colonial Tanganyika. The book is a memoir of childhood, told through a child's narration. The resulting narrative is rich in affect and Penhaligon exploits the hilarity of a child's point of view with great skill and relish. Penhaligon, whose father dies at the beginning of the book, grows up between two worlds--the white colonial world of the wazungus, whom he hates, and the African world of the watu.
Jim is gradually (and reluctantly) incorporated into wazungu society through his boarding school experience, though he hates every minute of it, and rebels by running away several times. He describes the sense of "double-consciousness" he feels as someone straddling both worlds, and how people around him call him a social chameleon. The book ends with the closing of the mine after Tanganyikan independence.

Penhaligon has a gift for vivid description, and succeeds in both skewering the provincial racism and insularity of the white colonials, while also showing some of its internal diversity--Germans, Italians, Greeks, Scots, and Austrian Jews, survivors of the Nazi death camps. He portrays a rich tapestry of life choices that bring people to Geita, the mining town. There are surprisingly perceptive observations on the elaborate internal social hierarchies that pervade the town.
The book is also rich with Swahili vocabulary, although it is obvious from the many oddly spelled Swahili words and strange grammatical constructions that the author is remembering a language he picked up orally and then likely stopped speaking for many years. As someone who learned Swahili in a formal setting, I cringed each time Penhaligon quoted people using the word kuja to command someone to come. (The imperative command for come in Swahili is, in fact, njoo; kuja is the infinitive form of the verb). But I am also not familiar with how Swahili was spoken in the 1950s around Lake Victoria; perhaps my "Kiunguja" snobbishness has got the better of me!

As a boy, Jim loves nothing more than running and playing in the bush, creating imaginary kingdoms with his best friend Lutoli, harassing the "night soil" man (who comes during the day and is called in Swahili, machula) and listening to war veterans from the first and second world wars recount their exploits.

As a historian, these stories were one of the most interesting parts of the book. I learned about General Paul Von Lettow Vorbek, the enterprising German general whose military genius during the first World War routed superior British forces time and time again, and who was only forced to surrender by the German declaration of surrender. I also learned about the local askaris, trained by Germans, who carried themselves with pride and dignity as members of an elite fighting force. Through Jim's inquisitiveness, we also learn snatches of the experience of the Africans who were brought to Burma to fight agains the Japanese, and the impact of this experience on their consciousness.

The other part of the book that particularly interested me was the author's recounting of the Zanzibar Revolution, through an Indian clerk who works with his mother at the store. Here is Amil Mistree, the Indian clerk's account, as described by Penhaligon:

"At Bagamoyo, Amil and his relatives are woken in the small hours by the distant sound of explosions and gunfire. Zanzibar is only four miles away. They're alarmed. Later that morning, towards noon, bodies began to float up onto the beach below his cousin's house. Many have chunks bitten off by sharks. Flies carpet the rest. Panic-stricken, Amil takes his wife and children and flees the coast. Three days later, exhausted, dusty and terrified,, he arrives back at the mine. His is the first news of the massacre to reach Geita. Until then all that's known is that the 'corrupt' sultan has been overthrown by 'valiant freedom forces' on Zanzibar."

The passage is remarkable. I do not believe that Bagamoyo and Unguja were close enough to actually hear gunfire from the island on the mainland. And certainly Unguja is further than four miles offshore from Zanzibar! This is the first account I have read of mainlanders actually seeing corpses from Zanzibar float to the mainland. Finally is the death toll, which Penhaligon quotes (without attribution) as 17,000, claiming this figure was only admitted to years later (by who, he does not say). This is almost double the traditionally cited figure of 10,000. (Although during field research in Muscat I heard people quote figures as high as 30,000). It made me wonder if perhaps there are other accounts that reproduce these stories, as a kind of rumor, expressing something of the bloody terror that overran Zanzibar in the wake of the revolution.
Overall, this is a great book to pass time with. I do not know how much pedagogical value it has, and I remain skeptical of some of the Swahili reconstructions, but it is filled with hilarious and poignant stories.


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