Swahili tag

I’ve often told people that if I one day am to tell my story in a crowd of thousands, hundreds or tens even, I’m bound to leave a whole lot of them disappointed. Despite being African, I haven’t had to trek hours for purposes of my learning, never been to bed hungry, slay wildebeests or anything that dramatic. To sauce it up, I’ve had the most supportive parents and by world standards, a middle-class lifestyle. No rough seas for this sailor and yet here I am, 3.am-bound by the stereotypes, riddled with self-doubt of what I have to become. A debt I’m owed for an unshackled generation.

The days start the same wherever I go; in a pigeonhole. With time, I’ve learnt to skip the exercise of beating myself up. I freshen up, singing that today will be different only to dress into the stereotypes already laid out for me. The fabric is what they see, where I was cut out from, dismissing these new patterns telling a varying narration. I take some condescension to start my day, washing them down with the usual, belittlement and off I am to work, to prove them all wrong.

I’m a hammer because I know what being a nail feels like. I strike with all I got even when nothing seems to stir. For I believe with a turbulent hope circling in me, there are ripples replicated in the system and I’m always one hammer away from revealing its fault lines. Maybe someday, breakthrough.

When you fall victim to a single-story, your story isn’t just yours. It’s for the kid you were and the kids who will be you at some point. The goal for our working hard is to be reference points. So that one day when they try to put a kid like you in a box, reminding them of what they cannot do because of where they are from, they get to counter proudly with you as the reference “Of course I can, look at so and so, they are just like me. And if they managed to make something out of themselves, boy am I going to follow suit.” That’s the tree we’re watering.

The advantage of wearing the ‘coasterian’ tag is that the expectations from you range from low to almost nothing. You lot hardly amount to anything after all. Traveling upcountry, they call you ‘mcoasty’ mockingly, ‘mswahili’ to mean conniving. They even use ‘uswahili’ to stand for some of the most distasteful attributes humanly possible. The biggest boldest word in that cloud being lazy, coupled by untimely, amongst many.

I was recently talking to a friend about a book I will never recommend. I honestly can’t stand the books written about us at the moment. The author is a white explorer and of his discoveries were that the two things a ‘Swahili’ likes most are ‘safari’ and ‘kulala.’ In that any time you tell a Swahili to accompany you somewhere, they’re ever ready. That’s the safari part. The latter being the love of sleep.

I laughed at that as much as the next person but the fact that that’s the birthmark expected to be engraved on all our foreheads just makes me livid. Sometimes I can’t help but tolerate the thought though. If only one person was propagating this story, it would have been an easy thing to dismiss. But when the whole world is pointing the finger, maybe it’s time we re-examine our fathers who got us here.

And if upon discovery, the factual to these “stories” is established, maybe instead of walking on eggshells around what we are, we wore our history like armour, juxtapose it to the present to show progress, flaunting qualities redeemable. Like yes, there’s a lot we have to do but we aren’t procrastinating this time. We’ve already begun.

The stories we tell ourselves are self-fulfilling prophecies. Loops we never can escape unless we tell newer, better stories. About us; by us.

I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but I can often be heard saying that a lot needs to be done in just this one lifetime. And it’s upon us as a collective. This is why I’m proud that a celebration like the ongoing “Swahili literary festival’ is happening.

It pains me that I have to miss it, but pains it even more scrolling through twitter and seeing how not packed the halls are. Here’s to hoping more people find their way there and be part of the renaissance. Reclaim our identity and tell better stories about the Swahili coast.

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Hekaya, identity, Mombasa, swahili, Swahili literary festival


Hassan Kassim

Hassan Kassim is a Mombasa-based Creative non-fiction writer, recently longlisted for the Toyin Falola prize, blogger and translator of Kiswahili work. A beneficiary of the Penpen program by African Writers Development Trust(AWDT) commissioned by Culture at Work Africa and the European Union(E.U), and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Maritime Management. Hassan writes about the ill-documented Communities of Coastal Kenya. His work has appeared in Writers Space Africa; his 2 non-fiction stories published in the anthology 'Twaweza,' a collaborative effort of 12 African writers on the African identity and set to appear in the forthcoming anthology for the Toyin Falola prize.

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