Friday, March 31, 2017

A Discussion on Kitereza at the University of Minnesota

Today, at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Charlotte (Shoonie) Hartwig and I discussed Aniceti Kitereza, a distinguished writer who is, however, not well known. Shoonie has been writing a book, and the presentation today centered on this project.

Kitereza was born in 1896 on Ukerewe Island in the Tanzanian part of Lake Victoria. As he grew up he became passionate about recording the traditions and culture of his people. As part of this process, he wrote a great novel in Kerebe, his mother tongue, completing it in early 1945. It is a detailed account of the traditional Kerebe way of life which Kitereza chose to present in fictional form in order to make it interesting to read.

After a protracted and fruitless search for a publisher, and following the advice of his American friends, Kitereza translated his novel into Swahili. Still, he waited many years before the novel was published in 1980 as Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka na Ntulanalwo na Buliwhali.

Shoonie is uniquely qualified to talk about Kitereza since she and her husband, the late Dr. Gerald Hartwig, knew him well, having first met him in 1968 in Ukerewe. They had extensive correspondence with him to the end of his life. Kitereza was a prolific letter writer. In today's presentation, Shoonie shared an overview of Kitereza's life and work, illustrated with slides. She stated that Kitereza worked tirelessly to preserve the traditions of his people, guided by a question that he himself posed: "What must we teach our children?"

I gave a brief overview of Kitereza's work from my perspective as a literary scholar and folklorist. I highlighted several key issues that feature in discussions of African literature, especially writing in African languages and translation. I noted how Bwana Myombekere might affect the way we conceptualize the evolution of the African novel and how Bwana Myombekere might be seen in relation to the work of writers like Daniel O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola of Nigeria, Gakaara wa Wanjau of Kenya, and Shaaban Robert of Tanzania. This would be a study in comparative literature.

I have read Kitereza's Swahili translation of his novel. His Swahili, though different from standard Swahili, has the flavour of oral storytelling in a Bantu language such as my own Matengo. I liked it for this reason. Kitereza's novel has been translated into French and German, but according to Professor Gabriel Ruhumbika, a native Kerebe speaker and well-known translator, those translations have unnecessary deficiencies.

Professor Ruhumbika has translated Kitereza's original Kerebe novel into English and published it as Mr. Myombekere and His Wife Bugonoka, Their Son Ntulanalwo and Daughter Buliwhali. Having read it, I find it as engaging as Kitereza's Swahili translation. It deserves to be widely read. I will say the same thing about Shoonie's forthcoming book, a personal account laden with information hitherto not available to the world.

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