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Modern Poetry in African Languages

Modern Poetry in African Languages. Comparison and Aesthetics in approaching changes in Shona and Swahili Poetry (DAAD, PRIME program)

Investigator: Roberto Gaudioso

Mentors and Partner University: Clarissa Vierke (University of Bayreuth), Aldin Kai Mutembei (University of Dar es Salaam), Shani Omari (University of Dar es Salaam) & Elizabeth Gunner (University of Johannesburg)                  

Term of the project: June 2023 – November 2024

Financing: DAAD (PRIME program)

In the last century, Africa has witnessed many changes and challenges in the face of colonization, independence and the creation of national states. Literature started to react creatively to colonization. Poetry especially, the genre with the longest tradition in Africa, produced very innovative poets such as Shaaban Robert in Tanzania and Benedict Vilakazi in South Africa, who were active already in the 1930s. From the late 1950s, poetry grew into a major field in which to write and imagine a new Africa. The dawn of independence (during the 1960s) stirred vivid debates about modernity in Africa, and how culture and arts could be forged in continuity with the past and with respect to African forms of identity. In this milieu, poetry came to serve as a primary art form through which to imagine a new departure in conceptions of African identity. Many African intellectuals wrote poetry, and the question of how to write “new” poetry emerged as a major concern. Orality was taken as a symbol of continuity with the past, and it played a significant role in both the aesthetics of poets and debates on poetry. What made poetry the focus of attention and an arena of discussion in the debates of the 1970s and 1980s, in addition to its long tradition, was the material from which it is composed: language. Language is an element at the centre of thinking on African decolonisation. Much literature written in African languages started to emerge at this time, prompting discussions about the identity of literature in relation to the new modern state and the origins of oral literature. In the 1970s, a group of Tanzanian poets were experimenting with free verse and gave rise to a debate about Swahili poetry. Their style was criticized by the ‘traditionalists’ who did not consider their art ‘authentic’. Zimbabwe too witnessed very similar poetic developments from as early as the 1950s, but here it was the Shona poets who used metric patterns that came under attack. These changes happened over the course of a few decades. Now, almost a half-century later, it is time to analyse these poems and these debates with new lenses, to liberate the term orality from its fixity and ideology, and to advance a comparative study between these innovative writers and their oral traditions. My aim is to analyse how poetry in African languages shapes modernity and how oral verbal art influences written, modern poetry. 

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