Sing for me


* electricity is a huge problem and these meters are seen as corrupt and hated.

Our translator, Ida Hadjivayanis, began by explaining that many in Tanzania are afraid to be seen to criticize the government, and that although Issa Shivji’s work may seem very simple on the surface, it is politically deep. We discovered this, as although the language here appears superficially plain we spent ninety minutes discussing its nuances. The first verse itself seems, as workshop participant Anne pointed out, to be a rejection of existing and familiar sets of words, urging the addressee to instead think and feel anew – Shivji’s work could be read as a meditation on Arendt’s observation: ‘Under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think’.

In the third verse, certainly, there seems to be an explicit rejection of political propaganda, which promises the ‘perfect life’ yet delivers so little that many in Tanzania don’t have electricity. Even the basic elements of life – like light – are being exploited for corrupt ends.

Three words we particularly agonised over – ‘odes’, ‘seeping’ and ‘scatter’. ‘Odes’ is our closest approximation to ‘utenzi’, which Ida originally translated as ‘prose poem’. It is a narrative form of Swahili poetry, often written in praise of heroes, and we also toyed with ‘eulogy’, ‘epic’ or ‘hymn’.

Clare Pollard, Poet-Facilitator

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