January 23 - 30, 1998


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Coastweek - - Ali Jamaadar (1925-2006), Swahili story teller and teacher, was born in Mombasa on 5 January 1925, the son of Jamaadar Amir mKilindini, fisherman and fishmonger, and his wife Maryam Juma.

He was educated at the Arab School, Serani, after which he qualified as a primary school teacher at the government teacher training college in Zanzibar.

Returning to the Kenya Protectorate he taught many generations of young people, first at his old school and then at Khadija Primary School, Kisauni.

As a correspondent to Coastweek has already mentioned, Mu'allim Jamaadar did indeed help to maintain the observation of the Swahili New Year in Mombasa.

Traditionally, the Swahili people have three annual holidays, of which two are Islamic and follow the lunar year.

Coastweek - -
Ali Jamaadar

The third is Siku ya Mwaka (the Swahili New Year), the date of which is calculated according to the solar year.

Formerly Siku ya Mwaka was celebrated throughout the entire length of Swahililand, including Zanzibar and Pemba, and beyond to Ngazija (Grand Comore).

Today only a few Swahili towns observe the holiday.

Here in Mombasa the annual celebrations continue, due in part to Mu'allim Jamaadar's efforts.

The activities begin at dawn, at the reputed grave of the founder of the town, Shee Mvita.

In the past, Siku ya Mwaka was important for all the people of the town, farmers, sailors, fishermen, chuo pupils and their teachers.

For, on this day the waMiji (the native inhabitants of Mombasa) beseech the Almighty for his favour and protection during the year ahead.

The waMiji constituted the overwhelming majority of the town's population until the end of the nineteenth century, when the British began building the port at Kilindini and the Uganda Railway.

The Siku ya Mwaka is less a replica of the Iranian (Persian) New Year, as has been assumed by some; rather is it a home-grown product evolved by the Swahili themselves over uncountable generations.

Many of the customs relating to Kibunzi (New Year's Eve) and to Siku ya Mwaka have been discontinued during the past century.

For example, the dawn procession no longer wends its way from Ngomeni (Fort Jesus) along Ndia Kuu to Kwa Shee Mvita.

However the core ceremonies remain.

Thanks to the successful efforts of Mu'allim Jamaadar and others today's young people in Swahili Mombasa have the opportunity to hand on these traditions to the next generation.

Towards the end of the Siku ya Mwaka rites and ceremonies the gungu (a dance for men) is performed on the greensward.

I retain fond memories of Mu'allim Jamaadar participating in this dance with skill and elegance, to the obvious enjoyment of several hundred onlookers.

As far as language is concerned Mu'allim Jamaadar was a staunch promoter of his beloved Swahili.

Several years ago, already in the wheelchair which was a consequence of his diabetes, he was involved in a land case at the (new) Mombasa law courts.

He began to address the court in kiSwahili, but was soon interrupted by a young advocate who told him in an exceedingly rude manner that the court should not be addressed in kiSwahili but in English.

Mu'allim Jamaadar replied that he preferred to employ his mother tongue.

At this point the magistrate intervened and compelled the advocate to apologize for his rudeness.

The apology was made, and Mu'allim Jamaadar continued to hold forth - in kiSwahili.

It is for his storybooks, however, that Mu'allim Jamaadar will be best remembered, the fruit of his teaching years.

Nahodha Fikirini (1971);

Hadithi zenye mafunzo (1973);

Mui huwa mema (1978), with which is associated Alamin M. Mazrui's Mwongozo wa 'Mui huwa mema' (1981);

Hadith za wahenga (1982).

There is also a set of three language primers Msingi wa Kiswahili (with Aboud Mchangamwe).

These storybooks reveal the man, for they possess charm, simplicity and a distinctive Swahili flavour.

Countless students have read, and continue to read, these publications with profit and pleasure.

Inevitably, perhaps, they do not reflect the speech of mother-tongue speakers, but employ the standardized language as taught in schools.

Mu'allim Jamaadar died at home in Mwembeni, Mombasa Island aged eighty-one, and was buried amongst the waTangana of the three tribes (the miji mitatu of Swahili Mombasa).

He was twice married and is survived by three sons from his second marriage.

Mu'allim Jamaadar's life-long efforts to promote the Swahili language and to keep alive the customs and traditions of his people should be gratefully remembered.

P.J.L.F., Mombasa Island.



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