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‘How Kenya’s ‘King’ of Swahili Writing Inspired Me’: Author Ken Walibora

The Kenyan author Ken Walibora who was buried last week left behind a generation of fans who read his books in Swahili classes, including the BBC’s Basillioh Mutahi.

Prof Walibora was renowned for promoting Swahili, the national language he used in writing his books.

In 2018 he expressed concern that some schools in Kenya had notices reading: “This is an English-speaking zone”.

He asked the ministry of education why it would allow students to be barred from speaking in Swahili, when it was a national language.

The author said this was a sign of brainwashing and neo-colonialism. You would not find another country that would choose a foreign language over the language of its people, he said.

Swahili - a quick guide. [ 50 to 100 million estimated speakers ],[ Arabic has lent many words - including Swahili, Arabic for coast ],[ Four countries speak it most: DR Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda ],[ African Union has adopted it as one of six official languages ],[ Written Swahili used to use Arabic script before switching to Latin alphabet ], Source: Source: Culture Trip, Image: Dhow

His most prominent book was his first novel Siku Njema which was later translated to English as A Good Day. It was used as a set book in high schools around the country for many years.

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Many Kenyans who read it in school have spoken about how the novel, a tale of triumph over adversity, helped them love Swahili literature – which is something Kenyans often find difficult to do.

Our neighbours in Tanzania are supposed to be the most proficient speakers of this language used as a lingua franca by around 100 million people across East Africa.

Prolific writer

Prof Austin Bukenya, one of the pioneering African scholars of English and literature in East Africa, from Uganda, argued that Prof Walibora was the “king” of Kenyan Swahili literature.

Who was Ken Walibora?

  • Born on 6 January 1965 as Kennedy Waliaula in Baraki, Bungoma county, in western Kenya
  • Later changed his identity to Walibora, the latter part of his surname which means “better” in Swahili. He also shortened his first name to Ken
  • Worked as a teacher and a probation officer before he became a journalist. He has also served as a professor of the Kiswahili language in the US and Kenya
  • Died on 10 April after he was hit by a bus in downtown Nairobi, the police initially reported
  • He had been reported missing for five days when his body was found at the mortuary of Kenya’s main referral hospital, the Kenyatta National Hospital
  • The police’s homicide department have since taken over investigations into his death after a post-mortem by the government pathologist revealed he had a knife wound on the space between his thumb and the index finger
  • Buried on 21 April at his home in western Kenya in a funeral attended by not more than 15 people, due to the regulations imposed to stop the spread of coronavirus
  • His widow and two children did not attend as they could not leave the US, where they live, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions

He was a prolific writer- between 1996, when Siku Njema was published, and the day he died, he had more than 40 books to his name in varied genres – novels, short stories, plays and poetry.

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Written by How Africa

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