Marvel of Shaaban, a literary paradox who traversed the genres with style

A market scene at darajani, Zanzibar.
You must be envied if you have not read Shaaban Bin Robert’s Wasifu wa Siti Binti Saad.

Beautiful soul raising and mind opening reading awaits you. Ustadh Shaaban Bin Robert was, of course, one of the first two East Africans to get published when, in 1952, Kielezo Cha Insha rolled off the press. It was the same year that Jomo Kenyatta published Facing Mount Kenya, making them pioneers of modern East African writing.  

Of course, before Shabaan and Jomo, there had been Fumo Liyongo – who is placed somewhere between the 9th and 13th Centuries AD. But that is a separate story.

Moreover, Fumo Liyongo did not get published in the present understanding of publishing. Shaaban and Kenyatta were to East Africa what Daniel Fagunwa was to West Africa.

Fagunwa’s arrived on the literary scene with a Yoruba narrative in 1938. Literature Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka would many years later translate the Yoruba tale into English as The Forest of One Thousand Demons. Now Wasifu Wa Siti Binti Saad is a rare eye opener. It is the true-life story of East Africa’s pioneering crooner of Taarab, who hit the world charts when the world was still asleep. Shaaban recalls that Siti was born in Fumba Village in Unguja, Zanzibar in 1880.

She was a poor girl who had a great appointment with destiny. In her life, however, she would rise to become the most famous singer in East Africa. Binti Saad met Shaaban in the late 1940s and shared with him the story of her life, which he went on to render in sprightly Swahili idiom in the famous riwaya that continues to defy time.

Shaaban’s story on Binti Saad is not just the work of a grand storyteller, it is a hugely inspirational book that starts bringing home the message on the role of literature in our lives. When you first encounter Binti Saad, her story reads like a simple beautiful piece of creative writing.

You may indeed emerge out of the story without realising it is not fiction. For, Siti’s story was a marvel. Born and raised in a very poor home, as we have said, she went on not only to become a famous Taarab star, she was also the first person in East Africa whose music was recorded and sold commercially in contemporary western formats.

Her first production was in 1938. She would go on to be a superstar in the exclusive Columbia and His Master’s Voice labels.

Ahead of pioneers

In this, she went ahead of even pioneering maestros of rhumba in the Congo. In the gem titled Rumba on the River, Gary Stewart traces production of recorded rhumba to Henri Bowane and Antoine Wendo Kolosoyi in the period 1946-1950.

The rumba stars on the big river were rising just as Binti Saad was making her final bow at the coast in July 1950. The Tabu Osusa led Ketabul Music Project, of 2016, said this of Binti Saad and Taarab, “A Zanzibar woman who was a descendant of slaves is generally credited with bringing Swahili influences to the genre and popularising it as a form of entertainment for all strata of coastal people. Siti Binti Saad, as this woman came to be known, was active as a performer and recording artist from the 1920s until her death in 1950.”

The marvel that was Binti Saad, she revolutionised sales of musical records from a few hundred discs a year to upwards of 70,000 (yes, seventy thousand) annually, at the apogee of her career.

Her producers had to build a production studio in Zanzibar, to keep pace with the demand for her work. What shall we say of this great African matriarch of art, who moved from making and selling clay pots in remote villages to a globally travelled celebrity?

Artistic limelight

Shall we say she brought Zanzibar into fresh artistic limelight? She also brought focus on Kiswahili as the preeminent language in East Africa. Besides, she bestrode the human rights domain way before most men did. Critically, she was in her own right a feminist who vehemently opposed oppression against women as she did colonial oppression. Reading about her in Shaaban’s slim book, as we said, sounds like fiction, yet she was real.  

Shaaban Bin Robert was himself a grand literary paradox who traversed the genres with the agility of a rarely gifted artist.

With very little formal education, he was at once an essayist, a poet, a novelist and a literary critic. When not writing about the beauty of language and poetry, he would be writing about his own life or about others, like Binti Saad. Away from that, he would be in his element rendering into fiction every day life. Without a doubt, the Kiswahili novel titled Kusadikika is easily the most relevant African work of art of all times.

Kusadikika is an eponymous dystopia. It is the story of countries such as Africans have lived in since the dawn of independence, where misrule and abuse of people and their rights is the order of the day. In Kusadikika (a country that is believable) right is wrong and wrong is right. Shaaban rendered the main thematic focus and thrust in the tradition of such Western giants as Henrik Ibsen of An Enemy of the People fame and Robert Bolt of A Man for All Seasons.

The good man who stands alone in an unprincipled wicked world is the enemy of the people. Such is the nature of dystopias, where you must choose between standing up for what is right, or selling your soul to wickedness.  

Notions like wickedness are given life in Shaaban’s allegorical writings. Hence you may have uprightness of character personified in Rai, while values and principles may be presented in a character who takes the name Adili. Wickedness may be concentrated in a character who takes the name Mwovu, while an upright person may be presented in a character called Mwelekevu.

Away from biographical work such as Wasifu Wa Siti Binti Saad, literature will use other stylistic devices to frame our reality and invite us to look at it with fresh eyes.

From the very start of modern writing in East Africa, the pioneers justified the place of literature. Jomo Kenyatta gave us the Kikuyu cosmology in Facing Mount Kenya. Shaaban traversed all genres in literature that will remain relevant forever.  

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Marvel of ShaabanUstadh Shaaban Bin RobertKielezo Cha InshaWasifu wa Siti Binti Saad