Swahili Literary Festival 2020: Identity Politics on the Swahili Coast

The Swahili Literary Festival, an annual event entering its second year, is a celebration of the rich intellectual, cultural and literary history on the Swahili coast. The festival is largely driven by the need to bring the Swahili community together in acknowledging and celebrating its heroes and intellectual history.

The 2020 edition of the festival  which will be hosted at SwahiliPot Hub, Mombasa County, is heavily informed by the 2019 edition whose theme was “Celebrating Achievement”. The post-festival conversations we had with different scholars on the issue of “Swahiliness” indicated the need to talk about identity politics on the Swahili coast.

Why identity?

Swahili identity is something that has been grossly misunderstood, especially in post-colonial Kenya which was rising along ethnic lines created by the mainly colonial-instigated term “tribe”, a method to easily govern the natives. The Waswahili found themselves almost without an identity, with the hinterland perception of them being a people of Arab ancestry while the Arabs viewed them as Africans, hence inferior.

In a very modernized, culturally diverse setting, the term Swahili, especially to some of the young Waswahili who haven’t been exposed to Swahili heritage narrative, is still not considered an authentic term of identity, perhaps because it carries with it a whole lot of stereotypical connotations. Yet, in all this confusion, the young Waswahili really want to understand their heritage, and the festival curates a theatre where both young and old, classic and contemporary come together to have this conversation.

Understanding Swahili identity is crucial to shaping thoughts and building a generation of culturally informed thinkers who will aggressively defend and preserve Swahili cultural heritage in the same manner that those before us did. It is this lack of cultural knowledge and aggressiveness that may have seen the gross misappropriation of authentic Swahili artefacts and spaces like Kilindini WaterFront.

The 2020 edition, running from 4th to 8th March 2020 will have the following programs:

  • A schools program which will run in conjunction with AFECOD (African Education Community Development) targeting pupils from Grade 3 to 8 in spelling bee competitions in Arabic, Kiswahili & English.
  • A discourse “Je, Waswahili Ni Nani?” which will bring together the Swahili community and scholars talking about the history of the Waswahili, complemented by talks on building a culture of documentation and a presentation on The Golden Age of The Swahili.
  • A Down River Road session on “Writing The Coast & The Question of Identities”.
  • Launch of the book “Kas Kazi”, Hekaya Initiative’s publishing project which won the AWT Seed Fund last year.
  • Celebrating heroes. The 2020 edition seeks to celebrate the life, influence and contribution of the late Maalim Ali Abubakr (1919-1984), the first Swahili to attend Makerere University. Maalim influenced scholars like Prof Mohamed Hyder, Prof Ahmed Mohiddin, Sheikh Abdillahi Nassir, the late Ali Mazrui and a whole lot of others from the same generation.

The idea of building an archival space (physical and digital) is crucial to carrying on cultural knowledge for future generations, and if we do not celebrate these contributions and the exemplary individuals behind them, we stand the risk of losing a huge chunk of our heritage, leaving very little for the future. This archiving is our attempt at telling our story properly, ensuring future generations get authentic knowledge on our history.





Wed 4th March


Spelling bee: English


Thursday 5th March


Spelling bee: Kiswahili


Friday 6th March


Spelling bee: Arabic



Opening ceremony with Shairi recitations and speech “Building a culture of documentation”

Madam Sumayya Hassan Uthman


Kas Kazi Book Launch, break for prayers.



Presentation “The Golden Age of The Swahili”

Judy Aldrick

Saturday 7th March


Meeting with invited scholars, cultural & literary mediators in the coast.



Panel discussion “Je, Waswahili Ni Nani?”

Prof Rayya Timmamy (UON)

Prof Ahmed Mohideen

Prof Mohamed Hyder


Awarding ceremony for participating schools



“Writing The Coast & The Question of Identities”

A down River Road session with Khadija Ali Bajaber, M.K Angwenyi, Clifton Gachagua. Moderated by Frankline Sunday.

Sunday 8th March


Celebration of the life, contribution and influence of Maalim Abubakr

Sheikh Abdillahi Nassir

Prof Khalil Timammy

Prof Hyder

Jamshed Abubakr



Festival officially closes




Arab, Colonial, Down River Road, Identity, Makerere, swahili, Swahili Literary Festival, Tribe

Hekaya Initiative

Writing the East African Coast.

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