Shakespeare 400 – how the Bard influenced Africa

New book from University of Cambridge academic considers how Shakespeare became a powerful presence from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar

March 10, 2016
Shakespeare wearing safari hat (illustration)

There will be many books published to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

Few will be bolder than Shakespeare in Swahililand: Adventures with the Ever-Living Poet, in which Edward Wilson-Lee gets out of the seminar room and treks through Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan to discover how Shakespeare has been constantly reinvented in Africa.

Dr Wilson-Lee is now fellow in English at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, but he was born into a family of conservationists and brought up in Kenya.

He was inspired to embark on the book, he writes, when he found out that a slim volume of Shakespearean stories, published in Zanzibar in the 1860s, ranks “among the earliest physical relics of Swahili, a language spoken today by over a hundred million people in eastern Africa”.

He decided to travel there to examine how this happened, starting with the “first contacts between the British and East Africa, and the strange story of how Shakespeare became an indispensable bit of safari kit in the 19th century”.

As he followed in the footsteps of the early explorers, his own edition of the Complete Works became increasingly disfigured “by sweat from the daytime and at night by winged insects drawn to the lamplight and trapped between the pages as they turned”.

He eventually reached Ethiopia, where “translations of Othello, Macbeth and Hamlet by the Ethiopian poet laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin form[ed] a backdrop to the decadent reign and violent overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I”.

Shakespeare in Swahililand traces the whole development of Shakespeare’s surprising importance in East Africa, “first as something kept from the natives, then a test through which they could prove their allegiance to their colonial masters, then as something they could take over and make their own, and finally as something to be cast off, as the final and most internalized form of colonial power”.

But just as Dr Wilson-Lee is beginning to wonder whether the whole African love affair with Shakespeare was solely a product of cultural imperialism and the Cold War, he discovers how South Sudan, the world’s newest country, adopted English as its official language partly because Brigadier General Awur Malual, “the man charged with making English the working language of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which formed the backbone of the fledgling state, had himself fallen in love with English and with Shakespeare while fighting the guerrilla independence war in the bush”.

Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand: Adventures with the Ever-Living Poet is published this week by William Collins.

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