The pamphlet Kenya: Twendapi? (Kenya: Where are we heading?) is a text often referred to but rarely read or analysed. Abdilatif Abdalla wrote it as a twenty-two-year-old political activist of the KPU opposition as a critique of the dictatorial tendencies of Jomo Kenyatta and his KANU government in 1968, and consequently suffered three years of isolation in prison. Many (at least on the East African political and literary scene) know about Kenya: Twendapi? but few seem to have read it – indeed, it seems almost unavailable to read.
This contribution to Africa‘s Local Intellectuals series provides a summary reconstruction of its main points and arguments, and a contextual discussion of the text. This is combined with the first published English translation (overseen by Abdalla himself) and a reprint of the original Swahili text, an important but almost inaccessible document.
The article proceeds with a perspective first on the political context in Kenya at the time – an early turning point in postcolonial politics – and second on the work and life of its author, Abdilatif Abdalla who had been trained as a Swahili poet by elder family members who were poets. As most students of Swahili literature know, Abdalla’s collection of poetry Sauti ya Dhiki (1973) originated in the prison cell but they know little about the pamphlet Kenya: Twendapi?, nor the circumstances of its authorship.
Part of my wider point for discussion is that Abdalla, as an engaged poet and political activist, can be usefully understood as a local intellectual who transcended the local from early on – topically and through global references and comparisons, but also through his experience in prison and exile. Concerns about Kenyan politics and Swahili literature have remained central to his life. This reflects Abdalla’s continued and overarching connectedness to the Swahili-speaking region. Abdalla wrote in Swahili and was deeply familar with local Swahili genres and discursive conventions, language and verbal specifications (of critique, of emotions, of reflections) that use the whole range and depth of Kimvita, the Mombasan dialect of Kiswahili, as a reservoir of expression.
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