Searching for Swahili Jane

Annmarie Drury is an Associate Professor at Queens College, City University of New York, USA. Her research and teaching focus on Victorian literature and culture, especially poetry, and also nineteenth-century literary translation. In this post, she explores Jane Eyre’s dissemination into Swahili.

Although Jane Eyre has travelled widely, it is hard to find in the languages of sub-Saharan Africa. Copies of the Amharic translation published in Addis Ababa in 1981 (titled Žénʻéyer in Roman transliteration) are difficult to locate, and I have not been able to ascertain the translator’s name. Besides this, there seems to be only a drastically abridged Afrikaans translation published in 2005 (translated and edited by Antoinette Stimie, published by Oxford University Press). When I started to think about the relative absence of Jane Eyre from the languages of sub-Saharan Africa, I soon realized I did not want to think in terms of absence: what about the abundant fiction that does exist in those languages? I wondered how and where Swahili literature, the African-language literature I know best, might point towards the possibility of a Swahili Jane Eyre. What literature in Swahili would we talk about in the same breath as a Swahili Jane Eyre, were a translation to exist?

I think there is a thought shared by a meditation early in Chapter Twelve of Jane Eyre and a scene from a now classic work in Swahili literature, Rosa Mistika (1971), a novel focused on the inequity and abuse experienced by girls in East Africa’s educational system by the Tanzanian writer Euphrase Kezilahabi. In Brontë’s passage, Jane, having remarked on her own discontent, considers the unhappy situation of women universally:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.

Associatively, I connect Jane’s musings here with Kezilahabi’s depiction of a domestic space where his main character, Rosa, and her friends congregate. This place, the women’s compound – mji wa wanawake in Swahili – becomes in Kezilahabi’s representation a site of profound vulnerability. In this passage, from early in Chapter Three, Rosa and her friends gather companionably while Rosa’s friend Bigeyeo gives Rosa a haircut. Then a hawk comes, revealing the powerlessness of the girls. Here is the passage in Swahili and then in my English translation:

Walipofika nyumbani [Rosa na Flora] walimkuta Bigeyeo akiwangojea, kwani Rosa alikuwa amemwambia aje amnyoe.

Walikuwa wamekaa kivulini chini ya mchungwa. Regina alikuwa akifua nguo za Rosa. Mkasi ulilia, ‘Kacha kacha, kachu’ juu ya kichwa cha Rosa. Rosa alikuwa akijitazama ndani ya kioo kila wakati, alimwongoza Bigeyo asijekata sana nywele zake za mbele karibu na uso. Stella aliona kitu fulani kinashuka kasi sana. Alipiga kelele hali akitupa mikono juu.

‘Swa! Swa! Swa!’

Wengine pia waliamka na kupiga kelele. Kazi bure. Kifaranga kimoja kilikwenda kinaning’inia kati ya kucha za mwewe. Walibakia kuhesabu vilivyosalia.

‘Vilikuwa kumi. Sasa vimebaki vitatu!’ Flora alishangaa. Rosa alikaa tena kunyolewa. Muda si mrefu mwewe alirudi. Safari hii Honorata ndiye alikuwa wa kwanza kumwona.

‘Swa! Swa! Swa!’ alitupa mikono juu, ‘Swa!’ Mwewe alikuwa amekwisha chukua kifaranga kingine. Zamu hii hakuenda mbali. Alitua juu ya mti karibu na mji. Wasichana walianza kumtupia mawe lakini hayakumfikia. Mwewe alikula kifaranga bila kujali. Alipomaliza aliruka kwa raha ya shibe. Vifaranga vilibaki viwili. Ilionekena kama kwamba hata mwewe alifahamu kwamba huu ulikuwa mji wa wanawake.  

When they [Rosa and Flora] reached home, they found Bigeyeo waiting for them, as Rosa had told her to come cut her hair.

They were sitting in the shade of an orange tree. Regina was washing Rosa’s clothes. The scissors snipped, ‘Kacha kacha, kachu,’ over Rosa’s head. Rosa was looking at herself in the mirror constantly, directing Bigeyo not to cut too much around her face. Stella saw something descending at great speed. She shouted, throwing up her arms.

‘Swa! Swa! Swa!’

The others, too, started and shouted. But it was useless. One chick went, dangling from the claws of the hawk. The girls were left to count the remaining ones.

‘There were ten. Now there are three!’ Flora exclaimed. Rosa sat back down for her haircut. Soon the hawk returned. This time Honorata was the first to spot it.

‘Swa! Swa! Swa!’ she threw up her arms, ‘Swa!’ The hawk had already snatched another chick. This time it didn’t go far. It alighted on a tree near the compound. The girls threw stones at it, but their throws fell short. The hawk ate the chick unconcernedly. When it finished, it leaped about with the delight of a full stomach. Two chicks remained. It seemed even the hawk understood that this was a women’s compound.

The schoolgirls in Kezilahabi’s novel seek to ‘learn more’ – to borrow the words of Jane – but in doing so in a patriarchal society unprepared to support their aspirations, they meet with failure and tragedy. This early scene in the women’s compound foreshadows that loss. The theme of education, I think – including all the tensions and problems associated with acquiring an education, questions about what good education is and how social structures promote or deny access to it – was a preoccupation of Kezilahabi, who died in January of this year, as it was of Brontë.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.