Dr. Farouk Topan shares deep insights into the power of Kiswahili, East Africa’s lingua franca, to transform the region

Ismailimail is pleased to share excerpts of Dr. Farouk Topan’s interview conducted by the Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper during the ‘Kiswahili Symposium and Colloquium on New Dynamics in Swahili Studies’ at the University of Bayreuth in Germany earlier this year.

Dr. Farouk Topan, the grandfather of the language in East Africa, pioneered the study of the region’s lingua franca at the University of Dar es Salaam and the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s and then settled in Europe, where he recently retired after many years of teaching.

Dr Farouk Topan during a Kiswahili conference at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. PHOTO | HEZEKIEL GIKAMBI
Dr Farouk Topan during a Kiswahili conference at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. PHOTO | HEZEKIEL GIKAMBI

Nation: Let’s go back to your early research. It is interesting that as you went to school, you always opted to study what I would call ‘native knowledge, cultures, traditions, intelligence and legacies’ at a time when we were just transiting from colonialism, yet colonialism had imprinted in people a culture of loving that which is not theirs. Are there young East Africans doing what you did; something that you would say you’re a pioneer in?

Dr. Topan: One, I’m proud that I started the Kiswahili literature programme in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi universities because the students who took that became renowned writers — playwrights like Hussein Ibrahim and John Habwe. So that’s the academic aspect, something we can be proud of by saying we started that …

Nation: Do you think that research in Swahili is given the attention it deserves in universities, especially in East Africa?

Dr. Topan: The study of Swahili should be expanded; not just in terms of language and literature. But even before getting to that stage. Some weeds should be removed because of some misperceptions. We shouldn’t be involved in defining who a Mswahili is and who is not.

We should expand Swahili to ask: How does Swahili relate to other disciplines – Geography, Social Sciences, etc., so that there is an understanding not only of the vocabulary, but also of the capacity of the language to deal with the other aspects of life; and of the people because Kiswahili started as a language of a particular people but is now the language of millions of people in East Africa.

  • What does it mean for a language to be a lingua franca for millions of people?
  • Do we simply use it the way we want or should there be an academy that puts boundaries or frameworks on its use?
  • Do we have a group of translators to keep translating books in Swahili?

Those are the questions we need to ask rather than going back to the identity issues; we’ve gone past the stage.

Nation: Do you see Kiswahili as the language that will actually unite eastern Africa?

Dr. Topan: I do, as long as there is a sense of national self-interest in the project. As long as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Congo feel they’ll be benefiting from this project, they’ll put money into it. The other way is the grassroots way where the people are beginning to see the language as that enabling them to communicate with others, then they’ll do it as well.

And it’s also wonderful and nice that people outside here are spending their time and lives researching Kiswahili. We should take off our hats to them because they’re doing our work.

Nation: There is a situation where a majority of scholars are looking for validation outside their own institutions and societies. What do you say on how we can overcome this?

Dr. Topan: You’ve hit it with that word “validation”. We feel incomplete until validated from outside and that’s the attitude we need to move away from. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere came close to it with his Ujamaa policy, which has unfortunately been misperceived mainly as an economic adventure yet it had an ethical, humanistic aspect.

That ethical side had the notion of human beings as people with dignity. If only Nyerere had focused on that and not tying it with villagisation and other discomforts, Tanzania, and largely East Africa, would have gone very far.

But Harambee and Nyayo were mainly just economic, pulling together to make Kenya economically better. My feeling is that if there is any betrayal, it’s by the politicians.

Read the complete interview at Daily Nation | Lifestyle | Topan: Here is the problem with East African Kiswahili


About Farouk Topan

Dr Topan, now retired, is among the pioneer lecturers in Kiswahili at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi.

He taught Kiswahili for many years and retired from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, in 2006, but continues to research and mentor students of Kiswahili at various institutions, most recently The Aga Khan University in London.

Dr Farouk Topan ISMC Newsletter
Dr Farouk Topan received his PhD from SOAS, University of London, where he held the position of Senior Lecturer until 2006. He was a Research Scholar and Head, Teacher Training Programme at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS), London from 1977 – 1993. He has published widely on various aspects of Swahili literature, religion, spirit possession and identity in East Africa.

>He is the editor, with Pat Caplan, of the volume Swahili Modernities. Culture, Politics and Identity on the East Coast of Africa (Africa World Press, 2004). Dr Topan has previously edited the Journal of African Languages and Cultures (JALC), published by Oxford University Press (Volume 10, 1997, Issues 1 and 2 with M. Mann and M. Orwin; Volume 11, 1998, Issue 1) and its successor, the Journal of African Cultural Studies, published by Carfax (Volume 11, 1998, Issue 2; Volume 12, 1999, Issue 1). He edited, with Martin Orwin, a special issue of the Journal of African Cultural Studies on ‘Islamic Religious Poetry in Africa’ (Volume 14, No.1, June 2001).

Via Aga Khan University | Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations | Dr Farouk Topan

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