Edward Wilson-Lee, ‘Shakespeare in Swahililand’

Today is 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, so here’s my contribution to the celebrations. Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand is an account of the wide range of influences Shakespeare has had in East Africa from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Mixing travel writing with history and literary criticism, Wilson-Lee tells a story which starts with Victorian adventurers and ends with new translations of Shakespeare in Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

“The most convincing signs of life I see in Nigeria are connected to the practice of the arts. […] Each time I am sure that, in returning to Lagos, I have inadvertently wandered into a region of hell, something else emerges to give me hope. A reader, an orchestra, the friendship of some powerful swimmers against the tide.”
Teju Cole, Every Day Is for the Thief

Teju Cole is pretty sceptical about development aid. The novelist and critic gained  fame back in 2012 by describing the aid industry as the ‘white saviour industrial complex’. But he seems to see hope in the arts; at least, his narrator in Every Day Is for the Thief does. The book tells the story of a Nigerian-American who returns to Lagos after an absence of more than 10 years. He is troubled and confused by the corruption, the violence, and citizens’ apparent lack of interest in the country’s history. One of his major concerns is the sense that nobody is in control, no one is taking responsibility for what is happening in the country. But those involved in the arts seem to be an exception: they are some of the only people in Nigeria who are engaged in what he calls “the creative inner life of a society.”

Why am I bringing up Teju Cole in a discussion of Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand? Because Cole makes such a persuasive case for the role the arts can play in ‘development’ – in the political, social and economic life of a country. Working in development agencies, it is tempting to see arts and culture as nice-to-haves but not essential, something that can be left until all people have enough to eat (in fact effective altruists often tend to make this argument). But Cole shows how in a context where everyone is involved in fictionalising – governments, political parties, churches, NGOs, development agencies – sometimes fiction can be the only way to get to the truth. Artists can capture what is happening to a country in a way that ordinary people can relate to, without statistics and graphs, and without the need to find a ‘good news story’ or win funding.

If the arts have an important role to play in the life of a developing country, what is the role of a British poet like Shakespeare? Wilson-Lee’s book attempts to answer this question through a mix of travel writing, history, and literary criticism. He provides a sweeping tour through several East African countries – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan – at the same time giving an account of the reception and use of Shakespeare in these countries through history. First up are the nineteenth-century explorers, such as Richard Burton and Henry Morton Stanley, who took Shakespeare with them on their expeditions with a sense that they were ‘escorting a treasure into the unknown’; for them, Shakespeare was a token of their difference and cultural superiority to the ‘savages’ they encountered. The following chapters tell of the first translations of Shakespeare into Swahili in 1867 by Edward Steere, the Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar; performances of Shakespeare’s plays in Indian languages in Mombasa in the early twentieth century, put on for the labourers on the Uganda railway; how Karen Blixen (of Out of Africa fame) compared the Gikuyu people to King Lear; Shakespeare performances in Makerere University in Uganda, including by future independence leaders such as Milton Obote; Julius Nyerere, first President of Tanzania, translating Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili in his spare time during his first five years in office; and some politically explosive translations of Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet by Ethiopian playwright Tsegaye Gebre Medhin in the 1960s and 70s. The story ends with a reflective chapter about how interest in Shakespeare dramatically decreased after the end of the Cold War in 1989, and a coda about the South Sudanese production of Cymbeline at the Globe Theatre in London in 2012.

The book is an easy and entertaining read but I found myself uncomfortable at times, especially in the early chapters. Anybody writing about Shakespeare in East Africa (as in many other parts of the world) has to confront the fact that his works were introduced by a colonising power, and that they were supposed to represent the supreme cultural achievement of that power. From the time of the explorers onwards, Shakespeare was seen as the pinnacle of British culture: Indians had to have a knowledge of Shakespeare to gain access to the highest places in the Indian civil service; Karen Blixen judged incoming settlers by their devotion to the works of the bard; and Shakespeare was dominant in elite school and university curricula throughout the colonial period. While all this is mentioned by Wilson-Lee, in my view these early chapters still see through the eyes of the colonialists to a great extent; any resistance to the colonial worldview is sought in Shakespeare’s own texts and there’s little emphasis on ‘reading between the lines’ to try to guess at what East Africans really thought of this cultural totem. Western travel narratives by people like Evelyn Waugh are quoted in detail while critical works by East Africans which engage with Shakespeare, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, are referred to only briefly and in passing. Ngũgĩ’s assertion that Shakespeare’s writing “even at its most humane and universal, necessarily reflected the European experience of history” seems like a view worth mentioning.

The later chapters on Nyerere in Tanzania and Tsegaye in Ethiopia are more encouraging examples of writers transforming Shakespeare in a way that makes him speak to people with a completely different cultural background and history. Also, the chapter on the collapse of interest in Shakespeare after 1989 gives a fair account of the role Cold War politics, and even secret funding from the CIA, played in promoting the use of Shakespeare in East Africa. In the end, Wilson-Lee admits, “[Shakespeare’s] global celebrity can never be fully extricated from the political history which produced it.”

I agree with Teju Cole’s narrator that writers and artists can play an important role in understanding and reflecting on what ‘development’ means for a country. From Chinua Achebe’s accounts of Nigeria in the 1960s to David Foster Wallace’s of the US in the 1990s, artists can help to crystallise what is happening to a country and even move their readers to engage in its history. A writer of such consummate brilliance as Shakespeare offers people the world over a wealth of material for inspiration, from the dilemmas of autocratic rule to the heartbreak of love across a cultural divide – not to mention the extraordinary beauty of his words. But ultimately Shakespeare is more likely to inspire critical thinking and cultural exchange if we get away from the idea of him as supreme, unique world-poet and recognise him for what he was: a brilliant poet from a particular time and place, who deserves our admiration alongside other poets from other times and places. Shakespeare, for all his genius, was not “a lad unparallel’d.”*


* Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii


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