The SOAS Library in London houses the largest collection of Swahili manuscripts in the UK. It is time for the library to consider renaming collections to reflect their history, returning valuable manuscripts for exhibition in East Africa and finding better ways to share its digital collections, says Angelica Baschiera.
The School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) Library’s Special Collections and Archives house 950 Swahili manuscripts from East Africa, dating from 1790 to 1980 and held in eight separate collections named after those who collected them.
These invaluable manuscripts range from Islamic and secular poetry, transcribed oral literature, historical documents and chronicles, to linguistic material about the Swahili language. This primary source material has supported work on the Swahili language, culture and history from the 19th century to the present day.
The collections come from the Swahili coast and archipelago – from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique – including the adjacent islands.
There are other important collections of Swahili manuscripts in East Africa, namely the Africana collection of the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and the one held at Kenya Heritage Institute in Mombasa, as well as private collections. The second-largest European collection is the Dammann Collection at the Berlin University Archives in Germany.
Addressing the issues
The earliest manuscripts held by SOAS were collected in Mombasa by the scholar and Church Missionary Society member, Reverend William Taylor, who worked closely with local Islamic religious leaders such as Mwalimu Sikujua, Sir Mbarak Hinawy and Mohammed Kijumwa, the sources of Rev Taylor’s manuscripts.
It is important to emphasise there is often a misrepresentation in the ownership of the collections, especially when they are named after the European collector only, and not the collectors in East Africa who provided the manuscripts.
A first step in redressing this issue would be to rename the collections to include the names of the East African scholars and religious leaders who effectively built them.
Secondly, we need to assess the possibility of repatriating some of the oldest and more valuable items for exhibition in East African museums. Currently, the only form of ‘repatriation’ has been enabling digital access to manuscripts in the SOAS digital library.
The Centre of Manuscripts in Hamburg, Germany, has provided funding to digitise the entire JWT Allen collection – which includes the largest concentration of manuscripts of Swahili Islamic poetry – and given full free access to the University of Dar-es-Salaam. This was a joint project between the two institutions and a welcome opportunity for collaborative research.
Swahili popular literature
As well as religious literary works, primarily in Arabic scripts, Dr Alice Werner, lecturer in Bantu Languages at SOAS in the 1920s, began collecting songs and poems by Fumo Liyongo, a famous Swahili mythical hero, who many scholars have compared to Don Quixote.
Liyongo’s poems and songs were originally transmitted orally. Dr Werner, Mohammed Kijumwa and other local Swahili scholars recorded many of them for the SOAS Archives.
While Dr Werner was in East Africa, she worked closely with the collector William Hichens, a colonial administrator who had a great interest in Swahili popular literature and compiled one of the first anthologies of it, which he planned to release through his publishing house, Azania Press.
While we have no record of the actual publication, the original manuscript is well preserved in the SOAS Archives. Reading through the Hichens papers, we get a sense of the lively intellectual network of the time, as Hichens collected correspondence with many of the authors he was hoping to publish in his anthology.
The Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar Collection
In 2000, the Swahili manuscripts project team at SOAS, of which I was part, created the Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar Collection. Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar was a Swahili scholar from Mombasa, but based in the UK from the 1970s to his death in 2008.
He was known as a ‘walking encyclopedia’ because of his knowledge of Swahili language, Swahili Islamic literature and history, and having the rare expertise to read the Arabic scripts of the northern Swahili dialects. This collection is symbolic as it is the only one, within our Swahili holdings, named after an East African scholar.
It is time to address the renaming of the other collections, the return of the oldest manuscripts that are effectively artefacts, and explore how the digital collections can be better shared with the people and institutions of East Africa, especially Kenya and Tanzania.
Angelica Baschiera is Manager, Regional Centres and Institutes, Africa, Asia & Middle East, at SOAS.
About the Return of African Icons 2020 special report
This article forms part of the Return of African Icons 2020 special report in the August/September 2020 edition of New African magazine.
The colonial period led to the wholesale plundering of African icons, many of which still languish in Western museums and other heritage sites. It is time they were brought back home to help close another painful chapter. This report has been compiled in collaboration with the African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), which has been one of the leading campaigners for the return of African icons and restitution for past wrongs. It lays out the current state of play and the growing momentum for this noble cause.
Click to view more articles from the Return of the Icons 2020 special report.