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Swahili literature course: one month in

I’m now a month into my Swahili literature course at university. I’ve got some answers to the questions I had after my first week. For example, I know that Aristotle was only briefly mentioned in that lecture because there was more coming up on him, including some quite extensive readings. I can also confirm that my original estimate of 100 students in the class was way off. It’s more like 200.

Here are some more observations:

  • Lectures contain a bit of dictation. This is possibly related to there being no handout/outline for each lecture. The main points are given verbally and repeated so students have a chance to write them down. For someone who is working on listening comprehension, this is excellent!
  • It is fine to copy notes from someone else. Especially in the dictation if you didn’t catch what the lecturer said, just lean over and see what your neighbour’s got. People have even tried to copy from me!
  • The lecture also involves some discussion. I haven’t yet seen a student disagree with the lecturer but some have offered alternative views to be evaluated by others. Several students have felt the need to explain to me that having discussion in the lecture is something both they and the teacher like and that it helps them to learn. This is a new feature for me. My experience in Australia was that lecturers had little regard for whether students were keeping up or had questions; they just barrelled on with what they wanted to say.
  • This is a first year course and the students really are fresh from their home contexts. In a lecture on classicism, our lecturer had to stop and spend several minutes explaining what the terms BC and AD mean (or KK and BK in Swahili) and how to count them. Interacting with western literature means being exposed to a completely different world. For example, the readings for romanticism began with an explanation that this was a literary period distinct from the idea of the romance genre, which appeared in the literature in the 12th century. This increases my respect for the students – I know what it is to feel culturally out of your depth on things that seem so basic to others!
  • One thing we have observed in sermons and other public speaking has been the use of imitation and role play. This happens in the lecture too and often provides amusement!
  • References to English language writers in Swahili can be amusing. For example, John Bunyan is pronounced Jonny Booniyani!
  • By the end of a 2 hour lecture in Swahili, my attention span is shot to pieces!

A major contention of the course has been for the inclusion of Swahili literature in the body of literary criticism more generally. Literary theories are seen as abstract constructions that can be applied to both in the west and to Swahili literature. For example, an early lecture argued that ‘Classicism’ is not limited to Greek and Roman literature. Classicism exists in Swahili literature at well. This gets especially interesting with literary theories that arose in the context of others. Critics look for parallels in historical periods. If there was Swahili classicism, were there Swahili ‘dark ages’ and was there Swahili neo-classicism? The argument is not that Swahili literature mirrors the west but that particular literary theories are not limited to the west. This approach can look like doing literary theory on the west’s terms but critics of Swahili literature would argue against this – literary theories are neutral and can be applied to any culture. I’m not sure where I come down on this one but it’s a fascinating discussion!


Categories: Tanzania Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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