October 31 - November 06, 2008


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Mu'allim Yahya Ali Omar


Coastweek - - Sheikh Yahya Ali Omar [left] Swahili language
scholar and renowned Assistant researcher at the School of
Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London
seen in conversation with the late BBC Swahili Service
presentor Nasor Malik.


an honoured member of the waMiji
(the native inhabitant of Mombasa)

Coastweek - - The death of Mu'allim Yahya Ali Omar aged 84 has occurred at his London home on the 11/10/08.

He was buried on the 14/10/08 at the Garden of Peace cemetery in East London.

His death has robbed the Waswahili community from East Africa and the Waswahili in Diaspora, his friends around the world, and above all his extended family, of a great and unique Swahili scholar.

Mu'allim (teacher) Yahya Ali Omar was an honoured member of the waMiji (the native inhabitant of Mombasa).

A renowned, retired Assistant researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, who was 

Coastweek - - Swahili proverb in Arabic script: 'Subira huvuta kheri' (Patience brings blessings). Design by Mu’allim
Yahya Ali Omar.

dedicated in his teaching profession, and who has passionately promoted the teaching of Islamic studies and advanced the research of the Waswahili cultural heritage in East Africa.

His vibrant work will continue to enlighten many people, and to bring about greater understanding of the Islamic religion, as well as an awareness of the Waswahili ethnic identity internationally.

Both of these subjects were very dear to his heart.

 Mu'allim Yahya went to Koranic school in Mombasa at the Anisa mosque.

Later he attended Madrasa Ghazali Muslim School in the same town.

He was taught by the famous religious scholars such as Sheikh al-Amin bin Ali Mazrui - the well known scholar of Islamic Religious science, and the former Chief Kadhi of Kenya, and also by Sayyid Ali Badawi, and Sheikh Bereki among others.

Having a strong Islamic upbringing and Islamic education enabled Mu'allim Yahya to be a role model to his people, it was the source of his zeal and endeavours to preserve and enhance the Islamic and cultural character of the (original) Swahili language and of its peoples.

His contribution to bringing about awareness of the Waswahili ethnic identity was enormous.

Without a doubt, he contributed a great deal to Swahili Scholarship, a contribution which was both unique and unequalled.

His work can be considered to be of a very high academic excellence.

After completing his religious education in Mombasa, Mu'allim Yahya started teaching Arabic and the Qur'an at the Arab Boys Primary School in Mombasa.

The late Mu'allim Ali Jamaadar, and the late Mu'allim Bwanatumu, were among his colleagues in the teaching staff.  Mu'allim Yahya always spoke highly of his colleagues at the Arab Boys Primary School, and often with great sadness, that most of them are already dead.

Mu'allim Yahya has taught many generations of Kenyans and non-Kenyan students.

The author of this obituary is also one of the many students who benefited from his teaching in the 1950s at the Muslim School Changamwe in Mombasa.

Prior to Kenyan independence Mu'allim Yahya, signed and presented a petition to the Robertson Commission, appointed by the British Government.

This petition demanded the respect of Muslim minority rights after independence, these included:

• the continuation of the Kadhi Courts,

• the preservation of Muslim educational Institutions, and

• protecting Waswahili land rights and their cultural heritage.

A guarantee was given in 1961 at the Lancaster House Agreement by the incoming Kenya Government to respect Muslim minority rights.

But Mu'allim Yahya always expressed great disappointment that after independence, the Kenya Government had acted in bad faith, and in breach of the Lancaster House Agreement, and at the same time the British Government, as guarantor, had done nothing to ensure the enforcement of the Agreement.

Before coming to London in the 1960s, Mu'allim Yahya worked for the Islamic Foundation in Nairobi where he translated a book by Sayyid Abul A'la Maududi entitled, in Swahili -'Mpango wa Maisha katika Uislamu' (1076) - or in English The Islamic Way of Life.

He also edited the translation of the holy Qur'an done by the former Chief Kadhi of Kenya Sheikh Abdalla Saleh Farsy.

During this time he also wrote two publications which were widely read and these were: 'A Tour of Paradise' Matembezi ya P'eponi' and A Tour of Hell' Matembezi ya Motoni.

These publications are all written in kiMvita, which is the traditional Swahili of Mombasa.

They were also broadcast by the most popular broadcasting service in Mombasa at the time - Mvita Voice or known in Swahili (Sauti ya Mvita).

Mu'allim Yahya was also a regular contributor to many of its programmes.

The closure of Sauti Ya Mvita by the Kenya Government just after independence, according to Mu'allim Yahya was discriminatory and totally unjustifiable.

In the same period, he also worked for the Arab League branch in Nairobi as translator.

In 1970 he came to London to work at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) with the support of Professor Wilfred Whiteley.

In SOAS he worked together with many Swahili scholars, a few of whom are Jan Knappert, Joan Maw, Torben Anderson.

He also worked very closely with professors from the USA, notably Professors Carol Eastman, Carol Scotton and Professor Swartz M.J with whom he produced many publications, one of which is entitled - 'Relationship Terms and Cultural Conformity among the Swahili of Mombasa.'

Whether it is in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, Swhili studies or semantics all who came into contact with Mu'aalim Yahya are deeply indebted to his insight, analysis and wide ranging, and unparallel knowledge.

Without him many books would not have been written.

Mu'aalim Yahya has played a leading role in the field of advancing Swahili studies and research and the establishment of the data bank consisting of large collections of material on Waswahili culture, education, history, and Islamic education at SOAS.

He always expressed great admiration that British institutions have a good reputation in preserving public records, and he was able to use the researching facilities to promote his work.

Mu'allim Yahya has also done considerable research in collaboration with another British Swahili scholar and his very close friend P.J.L. Frankl.

Their best known publications include: The word for 'God' in Swahili, 'New Year's Day in Swahili-land' (Siku ya mwaka) with special reference to Mombasa, and 'The tailors of Mombasa', being a nineteenth-century satire from central Swahili-land (Shairi la washonao nguo wa Mombasa), and 'The observance of Ramadhan in Swahili-land with special reference to Mombasa'.

One of the areas in which Mu'allim Yahya strove to maintain and enhance the Islamic character of the Swahili language and its peoples were in his work in modifying the Arabic script for writing Swahili.

Being mindful of the missionaries' original intention to introduce the Roman script in order to de-Islamise the Swahili language, and being sceptical of the claims that the Romans script is 'a better linguistic vehicle' for communicating the Swahili language, he showed thorough analysis, originality of thought and innovation in his modification of the Arabic script to fully convey the whole range of sounds and meanings of the Swahili language.

And he was using his most convincing argument stating that, Arabic script is being used in places like Gambia, Hausa people in Nigeria, and Urdu in Hindustani, Malay language in Malaysia, then why the same toleration of teaching Swahili in Arabic script to the Muslims in Kenya has been suppressed with impunity.

Mu'allim Yahya did not rest after publishing his paper, but despite being no businessman, invested considerable time, money and energy in producing posters with Swahili sayings using his Arabic Swahili script.

One of such postal is shown below.

He was disappointed that these did not become popular and that greater interest was not shown in the script (except as an academic achievement).

Although Mu'allim Yahya worked with many academics on topics using Standard Swahili - he had no choice - he was not a proponent; rather he valued the grammatical and cultural essence and purity of the Swahili language as spoken by mother tongue speakers, the Waswahili.

He contended that one of the ways of preserving the cultural and Islamic character of the language was through the use of his Arabic script for Swahili language.

One of the challenges of his legacy to we, the Waswahili, is the take up and use of this script to preserve our linguistic heritage and culture.

Mu'allim Yahya is going to be missed by the Waswahili community, and by the non-Waswahilis.

He was a man with a great international reputation in his profession.

He was well known and well-loved and highly respected and valued by his students and his colleagues at SOAS.

He will also be missed by many scholars who have collaborated with him in the publication of books, articles and pamphlets.

But, as the famous Swahili proverb says - (kufa kufaana), meaning in English - "Death has its advantages too, i.e. it benefits those who inherit."

Therefore, what we have inherited from Mu'aalim Yahya is not material wealth at all but something more substantial.

It is now for us to continue his work, to implement his aspirations, and to accomplish his mission.

Mu'allim Yahya was very friendly, hospitable, and welcoming towards anyone visiting him at his London house.

He was always selfless, worrying and supporting the less able members of his extended family in Kenya and non-family members.

Furthermore, he respected his friends and treated them with great care and sensitivity.

He also showed great interest in learning about other cultures.

He tried to keep in touch with the news in Kenya, particularly about Muslim organisations and about any event taking place regarding Swahili culture.

Hon. Najib Balala MP for Mvita constituency in Mombasa, and a cabinet member of the Kenyan Government, while serving in his previous role as a Minister for Gender Sports culture and Social Services on his visit to London also had consultation meeting with Mu'allim Yahya regarding the progress of Swahili educational project.

Mu'allim Yahya was very pleased in meeting Hon. Najib Balala and found their meeting very positive and constructive.

Professor Mohamed Hyder from Kenya visited him at his house recently, and attended his funeral.

Mu'allim Yahya found this visit by an old friend, and another Swahili scholar also to be very useful in exchanging information about development in Kenya.

Mu'allim Yahya has left a great and rich legacy of knowledge on Islamic education and his work on the Waswahili cultural heritage.

He was harmless, and believed in the virtue of peace and humanity, a man of principle and great believer in promoting his work regardless of monetary gain, as one famous writer says:

"The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe."

Therefore, how many writers today believe in what they write ?

May Almighty Allah bless him in peace - Amin.

Bwantumu Mohamed Swaleh, Chairperson
The Waswahili Community Trust, London, U.K.




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