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Ebrahim Hussein
Born 1943 (age 80–81)
Tanganyika Territory
Occupation Playwright, poet

Ebrahim Hussein (born 1943) is a Tanzanian playwright and poet. His first play, Kinjeketile (1969), written in Swahili, and based on the life of Kinjikitile Ngwale, a leader of the Maji Maji Rebellion, is considered "a landmark of Tanzanian theater". The play soon became one of the standard subjects for examinations in the Swahili language in Tanzania and Kenya. By 1981, it had been reprinted six times.

Other plays written by Hussein include Mashetani (1971), an overtly political play, Jogoo Kijijini (1976), an experiment in dramatic performance, and Arusi (1980), in which Hussein expresses disillusionment with the Tanzanian political theory "ujamaa". Short plays of his include Wakati Ukuta (1967).

Works and importance for Swahili theatre

Hussein was educated at the Aga Khan Secondary School in Dar es Salaam and at the University of Eastern Africa's campus in the same city, where he studied French literature and theatre arts. There he wrote some of his first short plays, such as Wakati Ukuta (Time is a Wall) and Alikiona - Consequences. These early works often focus on tensions between the old and new generations and the tensions resulting from European colonialism. Although he accepted elements of the European notions of a "well-made play" in the tradition of Aristotle, like the picture-frame stage, he was also interested in traditional African forms of theatre and expectations of the audience. Some of his early plays, like Alikiona, incorporate elements of kichekesho, which is a comical interlude found in the middle of many taarab performances.

During the early 1970s, Hussein studied at the Humboldt University in East Berlin and wrote his PhD dissertation "On the development of theatre in East Africa". Starting with Kinjeketile, he also employed elements of epic theatre as developed by the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Later, he published Jogoo Kijini and Ngao ya Jadi, two texts for a single actor, where he used Swahili traditions of storytelling (hadithi). Therefore, his plays have been characterized as a "dramaturgy [that] appears to fuse or blend received European models of an intimate theatre with non-Aristotelian and entirely unique techniques of his own".

In his study on Hussein's importance for Swahili theatre, the French scholar of African literature Alain Ricard wrote, "Ebrahim Hussein is the best known Swahili playwright, and Tanzania's most complex literary personality. Known first and foremost as a dramatist, he is also a theorist whose dissertation on the theatre in Tanzania remains the standard reference work. His plays are a corpus of theatrical material with great significance to an understanding of Tanzania's political and social development in relation to the Swahili/Islamic coastal culture, of which he is a part."

List of works

Ngao ya Jadi - The Shield of Tradition

Hussein's text for one actor, Ngao ya Judi, has been summarized as follows: Sesota, a serpent, terrorizes a village, so a young peasant is called upon to defeat Sesota. The peasant succeeds and the village rejoices. Over time, the evil the serpent brought grows again, causing the village to become more and more depraved. Eventually, Sesota returns, with no one to challenge him.

This text is a retelling of a Swahili folk story in which Sesota is defeated by being trapped in a pot rather than killed and eventually returns. In Hussein's version, Sesota represents colonialism that the "peasant" desperately tries to fight. Hussein speaks about how the remnants of colonialism still remain and that any amount of Western influence on African culture brings back that evil. Through this, the retelling also shows that there is no "good vs. evil" like in traditional stories, but that the world is rather morally grey. One significant moment is when the village is celebrating after Sesota's death; names of a variety of famous African writers and artists are listed. Here, Hussein seems to be criticizing his fellow artists, saying that their work only comes during moments of joy, rather than being used to combat oppression.

Ebrahim Hussein's thesis

While Hussein focused on research at the Humboldt University in East Berlin for his PhD thesis from 1970 to 1973, the first scholarly study of his work, Drama and National Culture: a Marxist Study of Ebrahim Hussein by Robert Philipson was published in 1989. Hussein wanted to develop Swahili literature that regarded the crisis of East Africa, specifically in the 1970s. At a conference on the meta-languages of literary studies, he published a study on the Greek philosopher Aristotle (1980). Many of his colleagues began studies on his oeuvre after this publication, which focused on Kenyan and Tanzanian literary criticism expressed in Kiswahili.

Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize

The Ebrahim Hussein Poetry prize is an honor awarded annually since 2014 to the winner of the poetry contest under the same name. The contest was created by Safarani Seushi in line with the wish of the late Canadian filmmaker, Gerald Belkin (1940-2012). Belkin was in the process of creating this award, to be named after "his friend and renowned filmmaker and playwright, Professor Ebrahim Hussein", when he died. His goal in establishing the award and prize fund was to foster the careers of Swahili literary authors. The selected poems were published as Diwani ya tunzo ya ushairi ya Ebrahim Hussein (Anthology of Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize) in 2017.

Ebrahim Hussein Fellowship

The Ebrahim Hussein Endowment for research in African expressive cultures was established in the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2003, thanks to the generosity of Robert M. Philipson, an alumnus of the college(PhD, 1989). The college awards up to $7,500 each year to one or more full-time graduate students in there to carry out research on African expressive cultures and/or archives outside of the United States. Winners of the fellowship include Vincent Ogoti, a Kenyan playwright.

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