MISSUE NO. 3625 

June 21 - 27, 2013


 Coastweek   Kenya

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Shihabuddin Chiraghdin Was A Classic ‘Product’ Of This Swahili Society

The book traces the growth, education and working career
of “Shihab”, as he was fondly known to family and friends


Coastweek-- The East African coast has for centuries interested, fascinated and attracted to its shores visitors, traders and invaders from beyond – both from the East and from the West.

And most of them left their imprint be it small or large, on the littoral.

The result of centuries of interaction between locals and visitors is the emergence and development of the unique Swahili society with its rich culture, traditions and language that is spoken today by millions in Eastern and Central Africa and researched and studied in scores of centers of higher learning worldwide.

The subject of this book Shihabuddin Chiraghdin is a classic “product” of this Swahili society.

His Mother, Mama Iya, belonged to a prominent Swahili tribe of Mombasa.

Latifa S. Chiraghdin | Coastweek

Coastweek-- Latifa S. Chiraghdin

His Father was Chiraghdin Nathaldin, an Asian from a town near Lahore, in present day Pakistan, who was among thousands of labourers brought to Mombasa by the British to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway, late in the 19th century.

The marriage took place in 1905.

The off springs of this union “were all raised and grew up with their cousins in a predominantly Swahili surrounding, where people of different backgrounds such as Indians, Arabs, Baluchis, etc, lived.”

The book takes off from this lineage background to trace the growth, education and working career of “Shihab”, as he was fondly known to family and friends.

It gives the reader a vivid and detailed insight into the growth and acceptance of western education among the Arab-Swahili community in the period after the Second World War, leading to the emergence of the first graduates within the community among whom was Shihab.

He graduated with honors from Makerere University College in Kampala in 1955, after which he dedicated his life to teaching and researching in Kiswahili and publishing his writings in the form of articles and textbooks. 

Thus, the book is fundamentally a biography of Shihab.

The author draws a sympathetic picture of her father’s as she knew him and as he was seen by those close to him – family members, relatives, friends and former pupils and teaching colleagues.

This reviewer, having been privileged to study at the same schools as Shihab and, to later, share with him the experience of teaching at one of these schools (Arab Secondary School, now known as Khamis Secondary School) is amazed by the degree of accuracy of the portrait of the man and the socio-cultural environment he grew up and worked in, given that she was only aged about fifteen when he died on 27th April 1976.

It is testimony to the admirable research she was able to carry out among members of the family, the community and former colleagues of her father.

Shihab was indeed a Swahili icon, highly respected by fellow scholars in the field of Kiswahili, as shown by his publications and by his membership of various Kiswahili committees active not only in Kenya, but also in other East African countries.

He also played a major role at home, in Mombasa in sensitizing, reviving and promoting Swahili Cultural events and traditions such as Twari la Ndia, Diriji, Kibunzi, etc.

These cultural festivities were at their height during his active days.

Alas with time, they were allowed to decline in the face of socio– economic and political changes that took place on the Kenyan Swahili coast.

The predominant theme of the book is of course, Shihab as a teacher.

He taught in three different schools, the first being Arab Secondary School in Tudor area of Mombasa.

This teaching career and its achievements for him, almost equals his pursuits of research and writings on Kiswahili.

The details given on his work as teacher and a mentor of his pupils is amazing.

He was not your ordinary or average teacher.

He was extraordinary.

This is not a subjective view of an adoring daughter or admiring colleague.

The author has collected an impressive amount of data and tributes from scores of former pupils and colleagues of Shihab, which taken, together, present a portrait of an extraordinary teacher who enlightened, “saved” and inspired so many young men and women who sat in his classrooms.

This reviewer found himself figuratively nodding in agreement with the assessment of these former pupils of Shihab, many of whom ended up as teachers, doctors, scientists, and some as ambassadors of this country.

Shihab went beyond the confines of the classroom to teach and guide his “wards”.

I remember several trips he arranged for us as fellow teachers to visit villages to the north of Mombasa to speak to parents about their children’s education, long before the notion of parents-teachers association was mooted.

Individual “naughty” pupils who would otherwise have been expelled for their misbehavior were targeted by him for “reform”; some of them ended up becoming civic leaders or successful in other ways, thanks to his intervention and guidance.

It is clear from this book that Shihab lived a full, indeed an intense life, doing what he liked or wanted best to do: teach, inspire, guide, help, research, write and leave behind enlightenment and knowledge.

In that he has succeeded admirably.

To quote Sasha Azevedo, who is quoted by the author:

“When you love people and have the desire to make a profound impact upon the world, then you have accomplished the meaning to live.”

Conscious of this wise saying or not, Shihab did accomplish the meaning to live.

He has left an impact and a legacy behind to inspire others, including this reviewer.

His life, alas, was cut short by a heart condition discovered as early as his years as a student at Makerere in 1955.

But he achieved a lot between then and April 27th, 1976 when he passed on, while undergoing heart surgery in London.

Latifa has succeeded in giving us an inspirational story of her father’s life journey.

I recommend this book highly to those interested in Arab-Swahili history and culture; to those interested in the history of the emergence and growth of western education on the Coast; to those wishing to know about the growth of a western- educated elite or intelligentsia from among whom coastal leaders, both civic and national, emerged, as well as those who became the first Arab-Swahili doctors, dentists, scientists, university dons, media personalities and ambassadors for Kenya in foreign lands.

Lastly, the book is a little gem. If it is to be reprinted, it can do with some polishing and more meticulous editing to improve it for that reprinting.

Scholars or lovers of Kiswahili and Swahili culture need to have it on the their bookshelf to read the inspiring story of a great Kiswahili expert and the extremely moving and beautiful poems in his praise and memory by the renowned Swahili poets with whom he interacted throughout his life: Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, Ahmed Nassir bin Juma Bhalo and Shariff A. Sagaaf Alwy.


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