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Author: Richard Lepine
Title: Representations of the printed text and of electronic media artforms in Swahili popular fiction
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Representations of the printed text and of electronic media artforms in Swahili popular fiction
Richard Lepine

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 8, pp. 5-6, 1994
Issue title: Institute for Advanced Study and Research in the African Humanities: Media, Popular Culture, and 'the Public' in Africa
Author Biography: Richard Lepine is Director of the Program of African & Asian Languages and Swahili Lecturer at Northwestern University.

Representations of the Printed Text and of Electronic Media Artforms in Swahili Popular Fiction


It is a most ordinary of reading—never mind critical—practices to choose to be aware of the structuredness of a fictional text, and to seek to appreciate the formal beauties of a narrative as an artistic construct. Though a writer—particularly one trying to reach a mass audience—may seek to create, and a reader of popular literature expect to experience, an imaginary world whose mimetic qualities are such that s/he is lulled into a temporary suspension of consciousness of the text as artifact, often the text will contain, deliberately or not on the part of the author, the loose threads and seams that will allow that reader who is inclined to do so, both the motivation and the ability to unravel the pattern as a part of the reading process.

While "deconstruction" of the text might seem to be a very (post-)modern type of reading practice, perhaps that impression is a result of widespread awareness of the strategy as something currently emphasized by scholars and critics, or as a hot topic of recent public debate about the business of scholarship and teaching in the academy. Certainly this type of approach is brought to bear on the most ancient of texts, on the widest variety of narratives and other artistic works, not to mention other verbal and non-verbal discourses or artifacts of communication which are not even privileged with the label of "art." Whether profitable or not, the fact that the practice goes forward because the threads and seams are there to be unraveled in all kinds of texts, suggests that this practice has always been available as part of the dynamics of performance, of the interplay between artist and audience.

The signals of constructedness in the narrative, of which the artifactually-preoccupied reader becomes aware—if not actively seeks out—may be deliberately sent by the creator or performer of the text. This is true even of what could ordinarily be typed as a mass-audience or popular narrative, where the presumption might be greater that both author and reader have an aesthetic interest in maintaining an aura of seamlessness in the fictional universe which is portrayed and then entered. Not only may this signaling be a feature of artistic style, that is, an effect valued aesthetically and used creatively by the tale-teller, but it may also be part of the "economy" of the artform in social context.

Though the Swahili proverb says "Chema chajiuza, kibaya chajitembeza" ("A good thing sells all by itself, a bad thing walks itself around [offering itself for sale]"), this is not necessarily always the case for the work of art. The artistic text, in ordinary, everyday life, as a facet of every human culture and society everywhere throughout time, does always offer an already-assumed potential for a range of pleasures and useful information (if "pleasure" must be distinguished from "information"; the assumption here is that pleasure is always "useful"). Yet in spite of this expectation, it is still not much of a surprise to encounter the most profound of texts "advertising" itself, "justifying" itself as an absolutely crucial "service" or "commodity" or artist-audience activity; one amongst all the other possible activities in which members of society may choose to participate, one to choose from a whole range of "goods" that might be acquired and "consumed."

Perhaps a proof that such a phenomenon is neither a matter of critical fad in discovery, nor strictly "modernist" style in original composition, is the fact that the self-reflective text—the text "conscious" of itself as an artifact or at least of its mode of production—is readily apparent in the oral traditions of a number of cultures. The epic of Son-Jara (Sunjata), [1] for example, from its line-by-line call-and-response format of an apprentice "naamu-sayer" responding to the bard's performance, to the presence of the jeli or bard as a character in the story line itself, [2] strongly reinforces the institution of the bard as an individual, and of the jeli caste, in Mandekan-speaking societies. Among other (and more artistic-traditional) motivations, there is an obvious pragmatic, economic interest in maintaining the role of this cultural specialist and bolstering its importance in society.

It would be rare if not impossible to find an oral tale performance that would appear "seamless," but in at least one tradition, that of the Tabwa of what are now Zambia and Zaïre as described by Robert Cancel, [3] the narrator, as part of performance dynamics, will interrupt the narrative flow with an interrogative pause, eliciting an audience participation in the creation of the narrative itself. Cancel emphasizes the use of this stylistic strategy as a way of ensuring audience attention, but from a slightly different—maybe more "economics-oriented"—angle, it's also an example of a situation in which, by highlighting the process of production, and making explicit the constructedness of the artifact from a body of imaging and plotting possibilities which are mutually known to and understood by artist and audience, the necessary communal input—in this tradition's oral narrative performance aesthetic, anyway—is elicited.

It is conceivable that a text's "reflection of itself" may have been motivated originally—consciously, anyway—purely and simply by the composer's felt need for verisimilitude in imaging and plotting. That is—to return to the example of Son-Jara, for instance—it is entirely to be anticipated that one will encounter bards as important characters within the story line of that epic, because the bard and his or her audience (the latter including translated-text-version readers) bring to the narrative the culturally-informed expectation that a Mande king will have his own personal jeli among his aides and advisors. The implication of such a bard-composer viewpoint is that, depending on the degree of emphasis on "constructedness" the performer chooses to foreground in the composition, the issue of intentionality behind such a feature can be ambiguous. The concern here, then, is more with a strategy of "reading" than of "composing"—to the extent that those two are commonly distinguished from each other.

That is, analogous to the way the Tabwa audience-participants find themselves actively, and vocally, "filling in" the performer's deliberate gaps in the narration, the "reader" of a printed text also plays a role, however small it may be in relation to other participants, in the production-consumption cycle of that text. For purposes of the present study, the whole complex of that cycle is the truer representation of the nature of the artistic "artifact" or "product." From such a point of view, a book, for instance, is not truly a book until it is being read. The proposition, then, is that it is a potentially enriching reading project to search for instances of the printed fictional text portraying elements of the production-consumption cycle of the book or other printed artform. The portrayal of a narrative character as a reader reading, for instance, may have a number of interesting implications for the understanding of the whole story as the imaging of that scene is deliberately scrutinized.

As an illustration of these possibilities, one might consider the following passage from the novel Kikulacho Ki Nguoni Mwako ("What Eats You Is in Your Clothes"—a proverb cited in the context of betrayal by an intimate), by Peter Ngare. [4] The story is set during the time of the independence struggle in Kenya, the "Emergency," focusing in particular on the guerrilla war conducted by the Land and Freedom Army, more widely known as Mau Mau. At a time in the story line before actual fighting takes place, two major protagonists, Mwai and Manga, have just had an encounter with an Asian shopkeeper who has offered (as an espionage ploy) to sell them weapons. Manga is western-educated: he had done medical studies in England, but on returning home decided not to take work in a colonial hospital, but rather to put his education to use in an independent local primary school he and his hometown folks build together. He has just been drafted as leader of the local cell of freedom fighters. Now the two are on their way home:

Walipofika nyumbani Mwai akachukua jembe akaenda shambani na Manga akasema kwamba, kwa vile yeye hakuwa amelala mahali pazuri angependa kupumzika nyumbani. Akachukua kitabu kilichokuwa kimeandikwa na mtu aliyepigana katika vita vya Burma na kuanza kukisoma huku amejilaza kitandani. Alifungua ile sehemu ya vita vya msituni. Hakumaliza akapatwa na usingizi. (Ngare 1975:80-81)

When they arrived home, Mwai got his hoe and went to the fields, and Manga said that since he hadn't been able to get a comfortable place to sleep lately, he'd stay home and get some rest. He then went and got a book that had been written by someone who had fought in the Battle of Burma, and he began to read it while lying in bed. He opened it up to the part about the war in the jungle/forest. He hadn't finished when sleep overtook him.

On one level, this is a characterization that establishes Manga as educated, a reader; he is safely asleep at home while Mwai, out in the fields, gets rounded up in an anti-subversion sweep by the colonial authorities.

But Ngare is also able to convey in this brief scene an "advertisement" for the book that the (Kenyan?) Swahili literate of any time might receive as perhaps the ultimate argument of its potential power: that it can sometimes be a tool with life and death import. Presumably, Manga could learn readily applicable information about forest fighting from what his book has to say about the jungle war in Burma during World War II, some crucial information that could help make the difference in terms of physical survival and political success in an armed guerrilla struggle. Any reader could be reminded of such books "out there," available to inspire and give advice on the practical aspects of such an uprising.

Historical connections are also made: in addition to readers like Manga who could obtain, second-hand via these accounts, potentially valuable guerrilla freedom-fighting information there were some Kenyans who had themselves fought in Burma as part of the British war effort, and now had returned home with both the psychological effect of participating in a war started by the Europeans fighting amongst themselves, as well as the physical training and experience in combat on terrain much like their own homeland. In the next chapter after this passage, Manga debates with his students—who are also the fighters he is to lead—about the merits of diplomacy over fighting, with Manga arguing in favor of negotiation. At this stage in the story line, the reader of forest-fighting technique is still a leader interested in a peaceful solution to the independence struggle with the British. If Manga and other fictional heroes of the independence war got part of their inspiration and instruction from books, perhaps the current reader of Manga's story also receives a certain inspiration; at least the alternative of armed struggle is conjured once again.

This forest-fighting example is just an extreme one offered to illustrate the idea of the book reflecting itself, offering its own justification for existence in the act of reading. Certainly any time literacy is portrayed within the book as a useful survival tool, or as a means of prospering beyond the survival level, the book functions to advertise itself. In the next scene of Kikulacho, Manga is still struggling with the responsibility of taking up arms; he eventually addresses the group of young men he's been chosen to lead with his misgivings:

Hakuamini kwamba utumizi wa nguvu ndio njia ya pekee ya kudai uhuru.

"Katika vitabu ambavyo nimesoma," aliwaambia vijana siku moja, "sijapata kuona vita ambavyo humalizika kwenye uwanja wa mapigano. Vita vyote humalizikia mezani. Watu wanazungumza na kutafuta suluhisho." (Ngare 1975:82)

He didn't believe that the use of force was really the only way of claiming independence.

"In the books I've read," he told the young men one day, "I've never seen a war that finished on the battlefield. All wars end at the table. People talk to each other and search for a resolution."

This is an ordinary writing strategy and reading experience. Whether it is a matter of offering itself, like these examples, as an "information storage device" from within the narrative, or whether it is the more familiar or commonplace choice to portray the struggle of the writer to write, the book often has a self-reflective aspect.

Further, if the portrayal of the act of reading as part of the narrative line offers interesting implications, depictions of the consumption of other media-forms would perhaps offer similar possibilities of enriching a reading. They would also—if in a backhanded way—offer "support" or "advertisement" for the printed-text reading choice. For one thing, in the book's process of offering images and plot sequences involving production and consumption of popular art forms in other media, it offers a context—in the fictional world, at least—where the printed text (whether it appears in that particular image or plot sequence or not) "makes sense," as another potential source of socially-useful information and aesthetic pleasure within a range of such options. Another way of putting it is that, still in a self-reflective mode, the book or magazine portrays itself as an information source among other ones, inevitably eliciting comparison and contrast between the media options which can be quite profitable and enriching.

The (typically paperback, staple-bound) book, the magazine proper, the newspaper proper, the newsprint-tabloid "magazine"—all familiar print-medium forms of Swahili narrative texts in East Africa—don't exist in isolation from other media forms that also offer narrative. One of the media forms which is of concern for the present study, in fact, may be seen as a hybrid: the cartoon text. While ultimately a phenomenon of the print/publishing apparatus, such a publication offers a visual component through its illustrations that really are a proper genre or distinctive medium form in themselves. [5] And even when it is not obviously a "comic" or cartoon text, the presence and quality of illustration is a potentially interesting target of research. The paperbacks, characteristic of Swahili popular or mass-audience literature, are sometimes vividly and profusely illustrated, as are newspaper short and serial stories. It might be interesting to make a comparison between the amount and kind of pictoral-visual material that accompanies print in the Kenyan or Tanzanian mass-audience publishing scene and that of other societies, like the U.S.A. and Japan, for instance, that are more widely known for exhibiting a strong presence of this form of cartoon narrative within the realm of publishing. The question here, though, is whether it is useful to see the cartoon narrative not only as a genre in itself, or as a subgenre of published narrative, but also as a bridge form between non-print media—like video and film—and print media. In any case, the Swahili publication that is all cartoon (comic book) or has a significant component of such writing-and-picture narrative is a thriving and relatively abundant form in East Africa.

The cartoon itself is an ancient form, certainly not a product of writing (it precedes writing in human culture, probably gives rise to it) or of film; rather, the cartoon can be seen as the "narrative milieu," a reinforcing situation where different media forms exist in connection with each other, and are informed and enriched by each other. Movies aren't a necessity for the proliferation of "magazines" (some are just crudely-printed, newsprint stock, much closer to "underground" comics or "alternative 'zines" in modern U.S. pop culture than to glossy, high-quality, paper stock publications), but they certainly can help drive them.

Films may also drive print-narrative texts as sources of images and plots. The following is a quote from the master source for information on modern Standard Swahili fiction and drama publishing for the English literate, Elena Zúbková Bertoncini's Outline of Swahili Literature: Prose Fiction and Drama: [6]

Two distinct literary currents can be distinguished at present: popular writing and élite literature, though some intellectual writers wanting to reach the people present serious problems disguised in a popular form such as a detective thriller (Mukajanga, Kitanda cha Mauti, Mvungi, Hana Hatia). In fact, a third of all published fiction titles are spy and detective thrillers that are often carbon copies of US films.

This comment may have been meant pejoratively; in any case, it is provocative. If true, it is not necessarily shameful from a "media" point of view. (Maybe it's shameful from a "cultural imperialism" standpoint.) But as far as inter-media "copying" is concerned, it is a central assumption of the present thesis that the interplay between artforms in different genres and different media is natural, has always occurred, and is the heart and soul of the creative process. No art exists in a vacuum; neither the artist nor the audience can escape the tradition which frames the artifact, gives it meaning, as well as provides the variety of necessary sources for the "new" artistic offering. Bertoncini's statement is provocative because the possibility of borrowing or appropriating imaging and plotting from the medium of film into that of print (or possibly a hybrid printed-text-and-illustration form, in the case of some of the texts to which she refers) would take quite an effort to investigate.

The researcher would want a survey of the authors to see what film sources would be remembered and acknowledged. For Kenyan Swahili texts, television could be a source, as it could be on Zanzibar as well, because both places have broadcast TV. But in mainland Tanzania, at least up to the period covered, broadcast television, with its mostly imported and some domestic narratives, would be accessible only to those near enough to receive the Kenyan signal. Another "cinematic" source in all East African Swahili-text-consuming areas would of course be films shown in theaters, but also the variety of theatrical films available in videotape format for VCR play, and other video narrative sources not originally created for theaters. A scan of the theatrical film showings in a given area and time period would be interesting and helpful in completing the project of verifying Bertoncini's statement, but would not be sufficient to account for possible cinematic sources for more recent times—when a significant portion of the fiction she surveys was published—with the advent of the VCR and the videotape purchase and rental industry in East African cities.

In any event, the crossing of media boundaries and the natural process of artistic appropriation is more than enough to mitigate any pejorative sense of the term "copying" as a description of going from western cinema in a European language to Swahili print or print-and-picture popular artforms, however obvious such an appropriation might prove to be. If anything, Bertoncini's cinematic "copying" source needs opening up to include all the potential film and video narratives available and circulating in East Africa: not just U.S. productions, but also European (especially U.K.) and Asian (the huge Indian film industry's releases, with a strong and long-term presence in East Africa; also, the multitude of East Asian films and videos, especially "martial arts" narratives).

By way of conclusion, a lengthy excerpt from the opening of the popular novel, Kitanda cha Mauti (Bed of Death), by Kajubi Mukajanga, [7] cited as an example by Bertoncini in the aforementioned quote, can serve to offer a text-specific example of some of the implications of the print narrative text which is reflective of its own presence in the (fictional?) world being portrayed, and which is also reflective of the presence of other narrative media:

Bi. Diana Kiboko anaketi pale kochini, jarida la mitindo ya mavazi toka Ufaransa mikononi. Hajui Kifaransa, lakini hilo kwake si muhimu. Moja ya mambo anayoyapenda sana ni kuvaa. Chumbani kwake kuna majarida mengi kama hilo la Kifaransa, Kijerumani, Kiitaliano, Kihindi na Kiingereza, japo yeye anajua lugha mbili tu—Kiswahili na Kiingereza. Pia Diana ni hodari wa kubuni na kuchora mitindo yeye mwenyewe. Hupenda pia kusoma riwaya za kila aina: toka za ujambazi na upelelezi hadi za vita na maafa, toka za mapenzi hadi za majini na mashetani. Kwa Diana Kiboko, hata Biblia ni andiko zuri sana, si kwa kuwa yu mshika dini, bali hasa kwa kuwa masimulizi yake, hususan ya Agano la Kale, humvutia na kumsisimua sana.

Kwa kiasi fulani, Diana pia hupenda kwenda sinema; lakini pamoja na kufuatilia hadithi inayosimuliwa, yeye huwa makini na mwenye mvuto mkubwa kwenye mavazi ya hao wachezaji.

Mwanamke huyu ni mrembo, ni mnywaji asiyelewa kirahisi, na ni mchezaji mahiri wa muziki. (Mukajanga 1982:3)

Ms. Diana Kiboko✶ sits there on the couch, a French fashion magazine in her hands. She doesn't know French, but that's not important to her. One of the things she loves to do is dressing up. In her room there are a number of magazines like that French one—German, Italian, Indian and English—though she knows just two languages, Swahili and English. Diana is good too at imitating and drawing fashion styles herself. She also loves to read novels of every kind: from crime and detection to ones about war and disasters, from romances to ones about genies and evil spirits. For Diana Kiboko, even the Bible is a very good text, not because she is religious, but most particularly for its storytelling, especially in the Old Testament, which interests and stimulates her a lot.

To a certain extent, Diana also likes to go to the movies; but along with following the story being told, she usually stays attentive to and is very interested in the clothing of the actors.

This woman is beautiful, she's someone who can hold her liquor, and is an expert dancer. [hippopotamus; whip]

Figure 1

As can be seen in the accompanying reproduction of this opening chapter (Figure 1), there is a facing illustration of a woman with a dagger poised to strike a sleeping man, providing a visual representation of the title of the novel. The woman, seen from behind, is in western dress, jeans, so there is enough of a pictorial hint to match Mukajanga's description of the fashion-conscious Diana Kiboko to suggest that she is the woman with the knife. It is in fact Diana, and the novel tells her sad story of seduction as a young girl, and her eventual betrayal that ultimately leads to the tragedies plotted out in this romance novel.

This cartoon visual runs counter to what the opening text offers: Diana Kiboko's culturally interesting, if not appealing, life in the city with all its attractions, not least of which are its popular, mass-audience media forms like fashion photography, imported magazines, a range of popular narrative works, and films. The magazines are explicitly described as linguistically inaccessible, yet because of the nature of their pictorial medium, still a valuable source of information. The same linguistic observation would hold for some of the film sources Diana Kiboko would encounter in her fictional Dar es Salaam life. If she reads Indian fashion magazines and enjoys films for the costuming, she is likely the fictional counterpart of the many real East African women and men who watch Indian films in the theater or on videotape, although they are undubbed and unsubtitled. The text offers a realistic portrayal of the urban sophisticate, someone who on another night may be holding a novel of romantic tragedy in his or her hand, or going to the movies, or dancing to modern music, just like Mukajanga's "ideal reader" might be doing. So much socioeconomic and educational status is implied in this scene-setting; it gives text presence to an urban multimedia reality, and almost cinematically (by means of Akida Mbaruk's facing cartoon rather than a written narrative foreshadowing) begins the process of developing a sense of tragic loss when this world must disappear in the denouement of the story.

The preceding has been something of a theoretical proposal, an attempt to stimulate interest in both the thread of self-advertisement potential in the popular print text, and in the cross-media processes of stimulation and interdependence which could be apparent as a corollary of such a self-reflective strategy. Apart from the fact that the theoretical proposal could still use some refinement and specificity, the present study is only half of the originally-conceived project which proposes to research areas the theoretical concerns might open up. In summary, such research would involve interviewing some of the writers and independent producers. ("briefcase publishers" as they're known in Tanzania) of popular print and print-and-cartoon works, with an eye toward verifying and examining further their interests in "promoting the text via the text." Perhaps a greater multitude of examples of print's self-reflection or narrative media advertising would reveal patterns and insights not even conceived in the initial surveying done for this paper. Finally, a bibliography that contained tools that could yield access to more primary texts would be helpful. So much of the material under consideration here is inaccessible to its primary audience, much less to interested Swahili literates from outside East Africa. The production and distribution system is beset by economic and infrastructure difficulties. An audience capable of providing a market is probably not a problem, particularly not in Tanzania with its very impressive literacy (in Swahili!) campaign, though the question of a sufficiently broadly-spread leisure reading habit is still open; an obvious problem is that even when the very significant production hurdles are overcome, those costs of production and distribution may price the publications out of the reach of the average consumer, no matter how much he or she wants to purchase one of these texts. And the publications are so ephemeral. Newspapers in particular—a prime source of Swahili narrative fiction—are read one day and recycled the next; the researcher is dependent on some accessible archive to "recover" such texts. New Swahili newspapers, tabloids, newsprint "magazines" appear and disappear on the streets of Dar es Salaam (and maybe other urban centers with a Swahili readership—a possibility for more research!); more established periodicals for one reason or another go on production hiatus, or have a drastically limited run of a certain issue.

One is left fantasizing an all-seeing, all-buying, wonderfully-equipped local stringer for the worldwide net, busily acquiring a sample of everything that appears in the pop lit media, scanning these artifacts into an electronic form with infinite reproduction and distribution capability, in flawless digitally-rendered quality. And even then, this giant narrative "langue" would not be the same as the thousands of readerly "paroles" represented by the real East African Swahili literates who buy and read these publications when, how, and where they can.

1. Fa-Digi Sisòkò & John William Johnson, The Epic of Son-Jara ( Indiana University Press, 1992).

2. In this performance transcription, examples are Fa-Digi Sisòkò himself (l.749-770); the female bard Tumu Maniya who plays the crucial role in setting up Son-Jara's birth order and thus his right to succession (l.1063-1072 and Johnson's subsequent insert, p. 49-50), to the long episode about Son-Jara's jeli Dòka the Cat whom the antagonist Sumamuru "kidnaps" and eventually renames Bala Faseke Kuyaté_ (l.1718-1875).

3. Robert Cancel, Allegorical Speculation in an Oral Society [The Tabwa Narrative Tradition] (University of California Press, 1989).

4. Peter Ngare, Kikulacho Ki Nguoni Mwako (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1975).

5. An excellent theoretical introduction to the form is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Universal Art (Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993).

6. (Leiden: E J. Brill, 1989), p. 4.

7. (Dar es Salaam: Grand Arts Promotions, 1982 [reprinted 1984, 1988]).

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