Euphrase Kezilahabi’s poetry appeals to me because it records a poet thinking. Kezilahbi’s poems make meaning by engaging in a process of figuring out. Seldom—even when they gesture towards past experience—do they make sense of any world by delivering knowledge the poet holds beforehand. Through the images they use for thinking, the poems signal the provisionality of any answer—of any idea reached as a kind of solution—and suggest that the value of answers lies precisely in and through that provisionality. To me, Kezilahabi’s poems communicate that any understanding achieved has meaning exactly because it is temporary, idiosyncratic, and subject to change.
Kezilahabi’s poetry usually develops through imagery rather than through explicit, discursive connections, and here, too, it proposes an aesthetics of flexibility and possibility. This poet knows that readers may apprehend and interpret his images differently; indeed, the poems signal in subtle ways that they depend on this possibility for difference in readerly understanding. At the same time, the poems trust readers to move along a line of thought that is roughly parallel to the poet’s own. Thus Kezilahabi’s poems impart to readers a process of discovery that (I can only imagine) is like the process the poet experiences in writing. In this gesture of trust and generosity, a gesture his poems make again and again, I find the deep appeal of this work.
To a translator, I think, Kezilahabi’s poems impart a special pleasure; the task of holding with his thought in pictures and of rendering the drift of idea and feeling within a given poem is like slowly opening a meticulously wrapped gift. Experiencing ideas about what one might see is as satisfying as finding the “thing itself.” If the finished poem in English is the gift unwrapped, the process of finding one’s way is the experience one craves. It is the thing that brings one back, as a translator, for more.
Kezilahabi has been a polemical figure in Swahili poetry since he published his first collection of verse in 1974. Titled Kichomi (roughly, “stabbing pain”), it was carefully introduced with two eloquent prefaces, one by the poet himself, that defended his use of free verse. These essays were successful only insofar as they cannily anticipated the nature and the depth of the resistance that Kezilahabi’s poems would meet among “traditional” Swahili poets—that is, poets writing and publishing in the centuries-old forms common in the language. This resistance has been energetic and sustained. When I interviewed traditional poets across Tanzania in the mid-1990s, Kezilahabi was frequently mentioned as a problematic figure: a turncoat, an enemy of poetic craft. Among other readers, however, both in East Africa and abroad, he is understood as a key figure of modernization and democratization, a renovator of the Swahili literary tradition who has transformed Swahili poetry by infusing it with the language of ordinary speech. The complexity of Kezilahabi’s rhetorical and historical position—as a pioneer who knows and respects, yet rejects, the poetic tradition dominant in his culture; as a child of post-independence Tanzania dismayed at how African institutions and practices fail Africans; as a campaigner for accessibility in literature who weaves his own, new complexity of image, syntax, and allusion—makes his voice engaging and unique.