Tanga's Forgotten Hero

 
THE DOYEN OF KISWAHILI LITERATURE

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SHAABAN ROBERT,   TANGA'S FORGOTTEN HERO

KISWAHILI Literature, without Mzee Shaaban Robert (pictured, above), is unimaginable. The contribution to Kiswahili language and literature by this prolific writer has been of great value. His many works have taken the language to newer depths and added to its richness. Every school-going Tanzanian, past and present, has read his works. His name is familiar throughout the country, and indeed, among the Kiswahili speaking diaspora.

The Father of the Nation, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, is known to have admired and promoted Shaaban Robert‘s works and to give him his appropriate place in the history of our nation.

 The road leading to the State House in Dar es Salaam and passing by the National Museum is named after Shaaban Robert. This road is one of the very few in the city that is known for its tranquillity and pleasantness resulting from the neat row of trees planted on both sides of the road. No doubt, a fitting honour for a great son of the land.

 Shaaban Robert was born at Vibambani village near Machui, 10 km south of Tanga town, on New Year’s day of the year 1909. His parents were of the Mganga clan of the Wayao tribe from southern parts of the country. He, however, never considered himself a Yao preferring to simply be one among the Waswahili.

 There is confusion on how he obtained the name Robert, a European Christian name, completely alien to his African Islamic background. One past record indicates that it was the name of his father while another states that it was not his father’s name.

He received his education at Msimbazi School in Dar es Salaam between 1922 and 1926. He did well in school and was awarded the School Leaving Certificate. He started work with the Colonial Civil Service as a clerk at the customs department in Pangani in 1926. He remained at this department for eighteen years till 1944. During this time he produced many of his literary works.

 For two years, from 1944 to 1946, he worked with the wildlife department, and from 1946 to 1952, he was at the Tanga Provincial Commisionar’s Office. He moved to the Tanga Planning Office in 1952.

 During the course of his life, he was also a member of the East Africa Swahili Committee, the East Africa Literature Bureau, the Tanganyika Languages Board and the Tanga Township Authority (later, the Town Council).

 As recognition of his contribution to Kiswahili literature, he was awarded the Margaret Wrong Memorial Prize, a literary prize and was given the title, Member of the British Empire, MBE, by Her Royal Highness the Queen of England.

 In total, Shaaban Robert wrote 22 books of prose, essays and poems. Some of his works have become standard material in Kiswahili literature classes. His books have been translated into English, Russian and Chinese.

 He died on the 22nd of June 1962 and was buried at Machui, near his birthplace. He was married thrice and had ten children.

 Sadly, today, his grave lies in a state of deterioration, unmarked and without easy access. It is completely unfitting for a person who has made such a significant contribution to our national language and holds a high place in the annals of our history. 

 

At present, there are no indications from the authorities concerned of any plans to maintain the grave and the surrounding areas or to establish a memorial in Tanga.

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Shaaban Robert's burial place at Machui, near his birthplace Vibambani. Standing by the grave Mzee Kituru Musa (left) and Jafari Mhunzi (right) of Vibambani village who directed the Urithi team to the grave at Machui and assisted in clearing the overgrown grass and bushes that had covered the grave. 

We note, with sadness, the lack of recognition and remembrance from the current generation for a great son of Tanga, the late Mzee Shaaban Robert.

 Shaaban Robert spent all his life in Tanga, working as a middle-ranking officer in the British Colonial Civil Service in Pangani and Tanga town. He lived an ordinary and humble life.

 The contribution of Shaaban Robert to Kiswahili literature is immense. As a prolific writer of prose and poems his works have intrigued, influenced and inspired countless Kiswahili speakers and readers.

 A Kiswahili literature class in Tanzania, or for that matter any such class in any part of the world, would not be complete without the inclusion of Shaaban Robert’s great works such as Kusadikika, Wasifu wa Siti binti Saad and Maisha Yangu.

 His ability to use his language to create such literary richness sets him aside from other Kiswahili literary figures.

 Although his published works are many, unfortunately, they are not easily available. For one reason or another, no body seems keen to publish and make his books continuously available. Could this be the reason then for the current generation to fail to appreciate the contribution of this literary giant?

 We have been informed that the typewriter on which he typed many of his manuscripts has been preserved in Pangani. The room where he worked from is maintained as well. Those interested to visit the room and see the typewriter are shown around. The person responsible is the Pangani District Cultural Officer, Mr. Sekibaha. This is good news. We salute Mr. Sekibaha for his initiative and efforts. It is only through such efforts that memories of great persons like Shaaban Robert are kept alive for the present and future generations.

 However, this great man of letters lies buried in a decrepit grave (photograph on page 5), in an obscure area without easy access near his home village, some ten kilometres south of Tanga town. Outsiders, who come to Tanga to pay homage to Shaaban Robert, find it difficult to comprehend how we, the people of Tanga, show such disrespect and have no regard for him.

 And yes, many of us in Tanga find it almost impossible to explain why Mzee Shaaban Robert is not given the due respect fitting to his status as a national hero.

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