Asali Chungu (Bitter Honey) by Said Ahmed Mohamed
Introduced by Ben Rawlence, author and journalist who lives near Hay
I came across Asali Chungu (Bitter Honey) when I studied Swahili literature at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. It is the first novel by one of the leading (and most prolific) writers publishing in Swahili, Said Ahmed Mohamed.
Although African literature in English is familiar to international audiences, popular literature written for sub-Saharan African audiences in vernacular languages is almost never translated. This is a tragedy on two fronts. Foreign conceptions of the region are poorer for a surfeit of literary representations from diaspora-based, often Western-educated, writers writing for English speaking audiences. Such works are no less valuable, but they often operate within a particular point of view with particular concerns unrelated to those of the mass of readers of Swahili, Lingala, Yoruba and so on. And secondly, it’s a tragedy because there are so many great Swahili novels! Asali Chungu is one of the best.
Published in 1976, Asali is set just before the controversial (and bloody) 1964 revolution in Zanzibar. The devilish plot twists and turns around themes of greed, racism and sexual licentiousness. Pre-revolutionary Zanzibar was a variant of a colonial plantation society with entrenched social stigma around skin colour and simmering with racial tensions. The anti-hero fathers a child through a rape. The unknown orphan picks up a rogue light-skinned gene and wreaks havoc with the social order marrying his step-sisters. The end is nail biting.
The novel is an imported form in Swahili literature. The dominant mode is formal epic poetry composed according to strict criteria of rhyme and metre. However, in the hands of Mohamed and other notable practitioners such as Mohammed Said Abdulla, over the last fifty years it has been adapted to the East African context. Dreams and superstition feature strongly as structural devices. The secret life of citizens is a central concern of the novel and we are plunged into the backstreets, bars and harems of Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
At the time of its writing and publication, Zanzibar was reeling from the fallout of the revolution: the massacre of tens of thousands and a policy of ‘Africanisation’ including forced marriage of Arab-looking women. Asali plays with notions of race to expose it for the fiction that it is. But beyond that, with its intimate focus on unruly characters whose trajectories confound and usurp political events it is intensely human, and therefore radical. It is a vision that privileges character, desire (and luck) over every other factor in a human life. The world is waiting to be made, Mohamed seems to be saying. There is no cynical social-determinism so familiar in much recent European literature.
Asali is a staple of the high school Swahili curriculum in Kenya and Tanzania and Said Ahmed Mohamed is a household name. There are dozens of other Swahili novelists and a feast of great novels in that language alone. For a truly different and refreshing insight into contemporary African life, how about crowd-funding a translation of a Swahili classic?
Ben’s latest book, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, is available to pre-order: