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First English literary translation of Abdilatif Abadalla’s influential Voice of Agony

Table of contents

Editor’s Introduction by Annmarie Drury
Preface to the Translation by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Translator’s Introduction by Ken Walibora Waliaula 
Voice of Agony | Sauti ya Dhiki Translated by Ken Walibora Waliaula
I Won’t Compromise | N’shishiyelo ni Lilo
Go and Console Him | Kamliwaze
Worry Not | Tuza Moyo
The Boil | Jipu
I’ll Never Let Go | Siwati
Crocodile | Mamba
I Remember You | Nakukumbuka
Human Perfection | Ukamilifu wa Mja
What Has Offended You? | Lilokuudhi ni Lipi?
Coconut Palm: A Tug-of-War | Mnazi: Vuta N’kuvute
This Speaking Out | Kuno Kunena
Slipperiness | Telezi
Speak Out, You Who Dare | Semani Wenye Kusema 
Even a Clever Guy Can’t Shave His Own Head | Muwerevu Hajinyowi
It Will End | Yatakoma
Alas, My Friend! | Ah! Mwenzangu
Be Gone, Anxiety | Wasiwasi Enda Zako
What a Bad Fellow! | Mja Si Mwema
What Will Happen? | Lipi Litakalokuwa?
Our Mother Africa | Mamaetu Afrika
Yesterday and Today and Tomorrow | Jana na Leo na Kesho
A Precious Thing Can’t Last | Chema Hakudumu
Be Patient, My Heart | Moyo Iwa Na Subira
Don’t Kill Me! | Usiniuwe!
Things Have Their Own Ways | Mambo Yana Mambo Yake
Don’t Listen to Them | Watiliye Pamba
Pampering | Tendekezo
I Wouldn’t Be Here Today | Leo N’singekuwako
Cockadoodle-do! | Kokoiko!
Don’t Cling to Silence | ’Sikakawane na Kimya
Travelers, Let’s Wake Up | Wasafiri Tuamkeni
Come to Your Senses | Zindukani
Goodbye | Kwa Heri
The Town Cockerel and the Country One | La Mjini na La Shamba
Wash Him | Muosheni
I’m Coming | Naja
Crossroads | Ndiya Panda
A Thing Can’t Be Human | Kichu Hakiwi Ni Uchu
Tit for Tat | Kutendana
I’m Back | N’sharudi
Critical Perspectives
Sauti ya Dhiki: Its Place in Swahili Literature and                                                               
East African Literature by Ann Biersteker
Abdilatif and I: Reflections on Comparative Experiences by Alamin Mazrui
Rhymed, Metrical Translations of Four Poems by Meg Arenberg                                    
      This is What I Hold Fast | N’shishiyelo ni Lilo
      Crocodile | Mamba
      I Remember You | Nakukumbuka
     Which Will It Be? | Lipi Litakalokuwa?
Textual Backgrounds: Voice of Agony in Its Historical Moment
Kenya: Twendapi? | Kenya: Where Are We Heading? by Abdilatif Abdalla, Translated by Kai Kresse                                                                                            
Introduction to the 1973 edition by Shihabuddin Chiraghdin, Translated by Ann Biersteker                                                                                     
Author’s Preface to the 1973 edition by Abdilatif Abdalla, Translated by Ann Biersteker                                                                                    
Notes on Contributors


The extraordinary Swahili poetry collection Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) is a collection of prison poems composed by Abdilatif Abdalla between 1969 and 1972. He originally wrote the poems while incarcerated by the government of Jomo Kenyatta for sedition as a result of his political activism and smuggled them out of prison on scraps of paper. Imaginative Vision is the first complete literary translation into English—translated by the late Kenyan novelist and scholar Ken Walibora Waliaula and edited by Annmarie Drury—of one of the most esteemed and influential collections of Swahili poetry of the twentieth century. 

Yet, Imaginative Vision is also something more. Even as it centers on a literary translation of a singularly beautiful and influential book of poetry, it tells English-language readers the story of that book. Supporting materials illuminate the circumstances of its inception when Abdilatif, aged 22, was arrested and tried. They explore what the volume meant to its first readers and its affiliations with subsequent extraordinary works of prison literature by Alamin Mazrui and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. They trace its links to literary art of the past, including the nineteenth-century poet Muyaka bin Haji, and to writing that followed. And they explain social and historical aspects of the Swahili coastal world that nurtured Abdilatif’s political engagement and stunning verbal art. Under the editorship of scholar, translator, and poet Annmarie Drury, contributors bring insights from their diverse backgrounds to present contextualizing material that illuminates the poems at the heart of this book.

Abdilatif Abdalla is a celebrated Kenyan poet and political activist.
Annmarie Drury is Associate Professor of English, Queens College, City University of New York. 

“This important book finally presents us with a translation of the poetry anthology by the Swahili poet Abdilatif Abdalla, the first political prisoner of independent Kenya. Through the fine translations by Ken Walibora Waliaula and Annmarie Drury we can hear the ever-changing voices of his poetry. With rare expertise, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Alamin Mazrui, Ann Biersteker, Meg Arenberg and Kai Kresse offer a global readership a prism through which to explore the many ‘imaginative visions’, in which the sociopolitical and the lyrical are so deeply intertwined.”

- Clarissa Vierke, Universität Bayreuth

“The publication of an English translation of Abdilatif Abdalla’s Sauti ya Dhiki (Voice of Agony) will revolutionize our conception of African literature and its cultural politics. This book puts Swahili poetry at the center of debates about world literature and displays the capacity of translation to expand the boundaries of writing in African languages.”

- Simon Gikandi, Class of 1943 University Professor of English, Princeton University

“‘Listen’ – begins the first poem in this collection, and imperatives keep tolling throughout: ‘look’, ‘be tough’, ‘be fully alert’, ‘feel sorrow’, ‘be merciful’ and, above all, ‘speak up’. Writing from his prison cell, Abdilatif Abdalla conjures into being a community of readers – of listeners – where speech is free, critical, cunning, wry, and finally transformative. Thanks to this exemplary book of translation, anglophone readers can now hear his voice, and feel its challenge.”

- Matthew Reynolds, University of Oxford

"Prof. Drury has left an indelible mark in giving a voice to minority literature, particularly through translation. . . . by rendering Sauti ya Dhiki into English, Ken Wilibora expands the scope of readership of Abdilatif Abdalla's poetry beyond East Africa."

- Enock Matundura, Daily Nation

"The significance of Voice of Agony in preserving Abdilatif Abdalla’s legacy and advancing the study of East African literature and history cannot be overemphasised. It stands as an indispensable resource, showcasing the enduring power of poetry as a tool for resistance and emancipation."

- The Muslim News, Ahmed Rajab

Read: Review in The Muslim Times | March 1, 2024