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Ebrahim Hussein
Born Tanzania

Ebrahim Hussein (born 1943) is a Tanzanian playwright and poet. His first play, Kinjeketile (1969), written in Swahili, and focussing on a leader of the Maji Maji Rebellion, is considered "a landmark of Tanzanian theater." The play soon became one of the standard subjects for Swahili exams 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 University of Eastern Africa in Kenya, 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. He was taught about the European structure of a "well made play", but became more interested in traditional African forms of theatre. Some of his early plays, like Alikiona, incorporate elements of kichekesho, which is a comical interlude found in the middle of many taarab performances.

In his study on Ebrahim Hussein's importance for Swahili theatre, 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

Collection of Poems

  • Diwani ya tunzo ya ushairi ya Ebrahim Hussein, 2016

Ebrahim's Thesis

While Ebrahim Hussein focused on research for his own 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 70s. At a conference on the meta-languages of literary studies, he published a study on 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 to the winner of the poetry contest under the same name. The contest was created by Safarani Seushi as per 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 passed away. Belkin's goal in establishing this award and prize fund was to foster the careers of Swahili literary authors.

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, alumnus of the College of Letters and Science (PhD’89). The College awards up to $7500 each year to one or more full-time graduate students in L&S to carry out research on African expressive cultures and/or archives outside of the United States. Recent winners of the fellowship include Vincent Ogoti, a Kenyan playwright.

The Shield of Tradition

Summary: 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. Analysis: This is a retelling of a Swahili folk story, where Sesota is defeated by being trapped in a pot rather than killed and eventually returning. In the retelling, Sesota represents colonialism that the "peasant" desperately tries to fight. Hussein is speaking to 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's no "good vs. evil" like in traditional stories, but that the world is far more 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. 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.

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