Finding the Meaning of Culture: A Dialogue with Hassan Kassim
Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan creative non-fiction writer and Kiswahili literary translator based in Mombasa, Kenya. In 2020, he was longlisted for the Toyin Fálọlá Prize. His publication credits include or are forthcoming in the WSA anthology, Twaweza, Lolwe, the anthology for the Toyin Fálọlá Prize, among others. Find him on twitter: @Hasaan_Kassim
BY TOM PATRICK NZABONIMPA
This conversation took place between the cloudy Gikondo, somewhere in Africa’s cleanest city, Kigali, and one of the oldest cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mombasa, via WhatsApp and email.
Tom: Good morning Hassan. First of all, I would like to wish you a belated Eid Mubarak. I hope that you enjoyed it.
Hassan: Good morning Patrick. Thank you so much for having me, and for those warm wishes. I did enjoy, and I am still keeping up with the festivities. How has your week been?
Tom: My week has been splendid. Talking about splendid things, I would like to commend you on your creative non-fiction piece, “Maybe it’s Time to Let the Old Ways Die”, which was published in the Twaweza anthology. Congratulations!
I loved its title; it persuaded me to read it. How do you come up with such an intriguing title, and what inspired you to write this story?
Hassan: Well, thank you again. Full disclosure: I was really nervous about this story. Even now, I look at it and I am like, “They should not have published this.” The fact that someone out there liked it puts me at ease.
So, about the inception of this story, let us see… At the Pen-Pen African Writer’s Residency that birthed this anthology, I was talking to this brilliant writer, Dismas, and he was saying how nervous he was since this would be his first publication ever, perhaps putting him on the literary map. So it had to be impeccable and of equally great substance. I had not thought of it that way—this initiation to being recognized by writers as one of them—and admittedly, just hearing that from him put me in panic mode. I couldn’t write; ten days to submission, nine, eight, seven, six, five, and that’s when I decided to not take myself that seriously. I gave myself the proverbial permission to ‘write badly.’ This was a themed personal essay on how my culture interlocks with innovation. I realized that I would set myself to fail from the beginning, thinking of innovation simply in terms of technology when it’s so much broader than that.
When I began seeing innovation as this phenomenon of ‘the new’ clashing it out with what has always been, it made all the difference. I began hearing the exchanges between me and my grandmother which form the fabric of this story. So, “The Notes of a Swahili Son” would also have been a decent title for this piece. The challenge was to fit as much as I could of possibly one of the oldest and richest cultures from Sub-Saharan Africa and the revolutions it underwent in 3500 characters (laughs). Crazy, I know, but I was desperate to tell our story and also, the deadline was approaching. I struggled with where to find my jumping-in point and it was not until I decided to pay tribute to the residency when the story began to take shape. We had been on an excursion at the National Museum of Nairobi that weekend and I mentioned an incident from that in the beginning. My first sense of recognition of a relic from my people; that feeling of transference, in this place that is not connected deeply to us. I spiraled from there; drawing the dichotomy between my grandmother; a fading world; a repository of culture that was and I, who due to societal confluences am divorcing myself from my predecessors, bearing no resemblance to them. I was trying to juxtapose the future and the past and might say that it was even successful to a very minor degree. There was just so much ground.
I am always scared that we will alienate ourselves so much that even our ethnic lines will one day be blurred, and I was not looking at ethnicity as a thing that divides us but as a way that has us accepting and celebrating our histories. I was not sure where I was going with it and globalization being this infinity war that we cannot ignore, I thought that maybe it is time to bring in that sense of acceptance of the rapidity at how as people we are all merging into one with more an inclination to our colonizers and maybe that is not purely bad. Perhaps culture was not set in stone and the duty of every generation is to decide what the word means for them. We are the ‘dictators’ of our culture and not the other way round and that means we should not be suffocated by guilt of abandoning the old ways, instead, should learn them, never forget them and hold them. We should salvage them as much as we can, as for what we cannot, maybe just once in a while browse through them (which calls for preservation) and immerse ourselves in what life was like once in a while. In the end, I make the proposition, which in the real sense is a question: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die”. A line borrowed, now that I think of it, from the motion picture A Star is Born.
Tom: Wow! I am not surprised that the derivation of this story is interesting too. You also remind me of the residency and the day of the excursion at the museums. I learned a lot about Kenya and its people; the moments I never forget.
I like this: “The duty of every generation is to decide what culture means for them.”
Speaking about culture, in the story you bring up the term “culture defaulter”. What do you mean by this? Are you sort of one (laughs) or does someone, maybe from your region, call you one?
Hassan: Good times! There is an abundance of thank yous littering this conversation, but thank you! (Laughs). A culture defaulter, in this context, is a vagabond sailing against their tradition. Modernity means exactly that; dropping our subconsciously deemed inferior or inconvenient traditions. The modern man earns his title for doing exactly that. We use the two interchangeably; culture and tradition; so in the real sense they are inseparable. This phrase just came to me as I was in search of the word to capture the core of what I—what we—have become. In reality, are we not all defaulters of this old establishment of our ancestors? The things that as kids we were to just follow and branded bad manners to question, let alone go against, and the elders in our families smite us with “kids these days” when we aren’t claimants of understanding to some of them, the tidbits that are soon lost and there is always that carried guilt that I am moving on a different script than the ‘perfect’ one outlined by my people since birth. In essence, the modern man is a defaulter of his culture.
“Perhaps culture was not set in stone and the duty of every generation is to decide what the word means for them. We are the ‘dictators’ of our culture and not the other way round and that means we should not be suffocated by guilt of abandoning the old ways, instead, should learn them, never forget them and hold them.“
Tom: Oh, Hassan! Bearing in mind what you say, I am officially a culture defaulter. (Laughs).
You have just reminded me of one particular moment with my father, when he called me “ikiburamuco”, which means ‘someone who does not have culture’. It was only when I spilled milk over the table and yelled, “ndayamennye” instead of “ndayabogoye” which in Kinyarwanda is the right word to address milk when spilled. He was even about to slap my cheeks that were big at the time (laughs). In our tradition and culture, the cows and everything related to them are highly valued. There are specific terms to refer to them.
So, Hassan, how much do you know about your own culture, Swahili culture to be specific? What do you think is interesting about your culture?
Hassan: (Laughs) Oh! The old you could not even speak your language correctly. Welcome to the club.
Regarding how much I know of my culture, I cannot really say that I know much. There is a lot that I am striving to understand of my personal accord; finding access to Swahili historians, to the elders in my society, locating them, despite how that societal hierarchy has been fractured at the moment and gaining access to some of the writings about this place, and reading from initiatives aimed at conserving Swahili history and culture like Hiistoriya and Hekaya Arts Initiative. There is a great deal I find out I don’t know every day. So I would say, I do not know as much of my culture as I’d have loved to—we do not have those sit-downs these days as the adults are busy running around, providing—but we have started where we are at.
The most interesting thing about Swahili culture though is that there is not just one. Being this melting pot that amalgamates influences from the Portuguese occupation, the Indian Ocean trade, among many things, drawing heavily from Islam, Bantu traditions and the Middle East, India, Portuguese, and as more people embrace it, more practices get assimilated to the point that we are now having conversations on who a ‘Swahili’ is. Swahili culture though accepted as one varies by virtue of place, even in language, the dialects and the words vary. Let’s say someone like me, from Mombasa, where we speak Kimvita, might find the variant Kibajuni spoken in Lamu inaccessible though there is so much we share that can be easily abridged through more exposure to it.
So all these influences in dressing, food, architecture, rituals, customs that are woven into the Swahili fabric form this one whole which is just beautiful and fills me with so much pride of how much Kiswahili and “uswahili” has been embraced by the wider world. The musicality in the language, our inclination to poetry are all just fascinating. There is not one aspect I find uninteresting and it’s a whole system governing our lives.
Tom: Wow! This is nice. I like the fact that you see your culture as interesting, and I urge you to explore it as much as you can. The feelings are mutual.
Talking about exploring culture, do you find it easy? Are there enough resources that help you explore your own culture and traditions?
Hassan: It is not easy, but it is necessary. I see this exploration of our cultures as key to our decolonization. However, we must realize that there’s a lot that was stripped away from us that we cannot reconcile and get back because we lack knowledge on even what we are missing. There is also a lot of reconciling to be done in terms of inaccuracies, the evolution of customs, whether some of these were only dated or only for a certain standing in society, or are they the building blocks that were applicable to everyone at any point in time. I am grateful for the ongoing initiatives carrying out the dissemination of accurate cultural knowledge. There are resources; some documented and also a growing directory of contacts to these repositories of oral tradition; the old men and women that are hard to come by and they had firsthand experience or had first-contact with those who experienced our traditions in practice unencumbered by the West. I am eternally grateful and commend the work of Hiistoriya, Hekaya and Stambuli Abdillahi Nassir for being at the frontlines of this. I am hoping to be one to contribute to it someday. These people are resources but there is a lot of work to do; sourcing documents and doubling efforts on translation.
Tom: I agree. I have realized that this is identical in most African countries. We still need more information about our cultures for they hold treasure. Moreover, our pre-colonial narratives are interesting too.
So, Hassan, I have noticed that in your story you have used some vernacular words. What do you think is the importance of this? Do you find it easy to tell a story about your culture in English?
Hassan: (Laughs). Yes, I do that mostly for the dialogue and it is more a matter of choice and not difficulty. But it also could be a guilty conscience because I do not write in Kiswahili and think that the least I could do is sneak some of it in my stories. I began writing because I love language, but it feels inauthentic conveying the way we speak without capturing the shifts in rhythm and tonality and I realized I cannot achieve that without littering the crumbs of my vernacular. I was also discovering rotten English by then; how we can invent through our own vernacular new Englishes that the world is in search of. I couldn’t do it, so sprinkling a few words here and there was the extent I could go to leave bits of myself there.
And you asked if I see the necessity to use vernacular, right? Well, when going full blown, English compromises the story you are telling in terms of authenticity. I think you owe it to yourself to forgo some rules of usage. There are instances where words do not translate like you would like to in English and doing that means ending up with a poor word choice that does not capture or is far in proximity from the original word. To avoid jumping the shark, it necessitates that conjunction. Sometimes you just want to put as much of yourself in a story as possible, and who is to tell you that you cannot do that?
I am guessing this question is of keen interest to you, having read your interview with the incredible Edith Knight Magak, and you were saying how you think in vernacular then write in translation. I cannot say I do that, but that is something I understand because of people like you. I find the use of vernacular important.
Tom: I totally understand what you are saying, it has applied to me as well as I import vernacular in my creative non-fiction stories. This makes my stories have that Rwandan flair that even when I read them, they sound more authentic.
Hassan, in your story you talked about the names that were given to girls in Swahili tradition and they would hide their real names. I found this interesting! Why were they hiding them? Do you find it significant? What about that naming culture in today’s Swahili community?
Hassan: A huge player in some of the rites governing the Swahili communities is superstition. Plausible ones with elaborate lore surrounding them. So, the evil eye is big amongst the Swahili and fear lurks with regards to a sort of transference of bad energy from someone who does not intend good for the baby, which might cause it even death. Let us say you have a baby that cries at night, clearly that’s a bother to your neighbors. If the neighbors are to mouth the baby’s name in frustration, like let’s say ‘akh, that Tom…’ it was feared that just saying that, could harm the baby, even kill it. So, babies could be given a cover-up name to prevent them from being harmed and when the baby is mentioned on the negative since the said name won’t be the baby’s real name, the bad energy does not get to the baby. In other cases, your father’s side and your mother’s side might call you by different names and in others, at the edge of adolescence, you have the liberty to pick the name you want. You could say, “From today I am no longer Patrick, I am something else,” and it was not unheard of. Names were not fixed. Sometimes, a name you are given could stick more than your real name to the point that your real name disappears. I love the idea that the name you were given was not absolute. Fast forward to today, with birth certificates, a tradition like that cannot be maintained. The advent of documentation for personal identification ensures that one has one official identity except for maybe nicknames which cannot reach the same standing as the names given at birth.
Tom: Oh, such an interesting tradition. It is more about protection than just naming.
This gets me back to traditions. In pre-colonial Rwanda, we had this painful tradition where a girl who would unluckily get impregnated in whichever way, would get dumped in the river. Society believed that she was a shame and curse to them and so, she was seen as someone with no right to live with them. This was abysmal and I wish that it never happened.
So, Hassan, which tradition do you wish never took place in Swahili culture? If it’s there, what is it about?
Hassan: That is so unfortunate Patrick. The world truly is a bleak place, more so when you are a woman. Perhaps, it is the bliss of my ignorance or that I am yet to explore the darker corners of my heritage, but I am yet to uncover practices that give me reasons for shame. I mean, on what you have talked about, there are re-iterations on such injustices where I am from. Of girl’s families finding it better to have their daughters married to the same people who raped them than have society find out about their daughters being raped.
But it is highly unlikely for me to attribute the actions of a small minority and brand them long-standing traditions. I am guessing that is a big problem also. We cannot really call out the bad about a group of people because they will always swing back with ‘those are the actions of a few bad apples.’ I hadn’t thought of that.
If there is something I do not like about Swahili cultural beliefs, it is that being a Muslim majority, the lines with which kids get taught religion and tradition are blurred. Sometimes, as a kid, you carry the guilt that you did something against God, only to find out you are going against one of your ancestors who was probably the village fool. It is the small superstitions like an owl landing on your house prophesies a death in it, and you are ready to pick arms against anyone calling a belief like that stupid, because inside, you believe it was laid out by God. That border between culture and religion is almost nonexistent when you do not take the liberty to learn for yourself and religion is only a thing you inherit. Do you see how that can be problematic?
Tom: Yes, that is problematic. Most religions were inherited, and it is unfortunate that as kids we were forced to learn about them. When we grow up and explore them, we end up questioning them broadly.
Hassan: I think you got me wrong there. I do find religion complementary to my culture, and very much essential to the nourishment of our souls. What I am against is the peddling of culture as ‘religion’ to disarm anyone with contrary opinions since that would then be considered blasphemy. It is a control tool administered by elders to maintain a following of the ignorant and avoid justification of some probably dated skewed practices.
Tom: I now understand what you meant.
Another thing I noticed in your story is the Khanga culture. This reminded me of my mother. As far as I can remember, in 2009, she, like most of the women in my neighborhood here in Kigali, loved Khanga kitenges, but nowadays they are rarely found on the market. Is this connected to the art of Khangas that is passing away? How is this art nowadays?
Hassan: Khanga is a physical embodiment of the culture of the Swahili; portraying the colorfulness and wordsmithery at its most playful. I am sorry to hear about their unavailability in Rwanda but the art of khanga still thrives here due to its cultural significance. I would like you to read this article that talks about its role as a preserver of culture.
The fact that the demand for Khangas exists outside us shows that it is not dying anytime soon.
Tom: I love this article. It is remarkable that Khangas are still being produced. The fact that they still conserve Swahili culture is exceptionally rewarding. It is like the imikenyero dresses for women in Rwanda. They showcase our culture.
As you mentioned earlier, your grandmother is the fabric of your story. I do not know if you lived with her for a long time, or if you conversed occasionally. How did those moments with her influence you? Did she contribute to the person you are today?
Hassan: Imekenyenyo. Wow! I need to google what those look like.
My grandmother was one of the strictest and principled people I knew. I did not live with her but we have a running gag in the family where we give ourselves the moral high ground by saying, “you think everyone else was raised by our grandmother.” We know the moral stands she had and with even a generation between us, feel the effect of how well she raised our parents on us. She has always been a good reference point to how life could be lived and how well to live with others. Even though my earliest memories with her are just me receiving a beating on so many occasions, the later years I see her more stoic and the family flocking to her for counsel. We did have a lot of exchanges and she did contribute a lot to the person I am. I imagine everyone feels the same about their grandparents. Do you not? How was your grandmother?
Tom: You are right, Hassan. I feel the same. My grandmother is the one who educated me about culture, traditions and taboos. Growing up living with her was awesome. She contributed much to the person I am today and I am grateful.
Hassan, you conclude your story telling of how we are moving on with time, and your Grandma has this fear that you might end up forgetting your roots. In Kinyarwanda, there is a proverb that says, “Agahugu katagira umuco karacika” which means “a nation without culture comes to be forgotten.” Do you have this fear too? And what do you think needs to be done to conserve one’s culture?
Hassan: Of course. That is a valid fear. Looking at kids these days, it is not easy to miss why. There is a lot of work cut out for us which needs to start from the family unit. Having the conversations with our young ones does not end with ‘kids these days’ but turns moments like those into teaching moments. More culture-centered conversations need to be had and not assume that people will arrive at valuing their cultures by virtue of being born into it. One of the biggest identity crises is going on right now with this incoming generation. With the internet, they are assimilating whatever ideals they can find out there. Effort needs to be redoubled on documentation of our cultures with us at the center of it—to do them justice, and not end up explaining customs whose occurrence is very justified at their core as barbaric due to the policing of the western eye.
Tom: I totally agree with you. We need this.
Lastly, you also write short fiction and have gained some recognition in this genre. How do you find it different compared to creative non-fiction? Do you find it easy for you?
Also, tell me about the Pen-Pen African Writers Residency that birthed this story, how did it influence your writing? How else did you benefit from it?
Hassan: Thank you. The first question on the difference between writing fiction and creative non-fiction… As someone who is new to the writing scene, I find it necessary to test out everything and not confine myself to just one. Even though I find creative non-fiction comes most naturally to me. I feel that it is the closest relationship you can have with your reader. They come in with their whole being not having to suspend any part of them. And I echo my inadequacies, my skewed worldview, so skewed but so honest that it can only demand respect. I treat fiction with the same respect; it is more of an honesty of the feel. Though the characters are invented, I take my time to know them and have them narrate by themselves. And in some instances, I beat them to submission where they just refuse to move. I am more inclined to creative non-fiction though because of the personal gains from it. It’s more enriching and you get to revisit these memories more objectively, as a tourist. It can get heavy, but comes with it so much self-awareness.
And then the Pen-Pen African Writers Residency; I think it was the first time I was introduced to the world of writers. I had a community behind me through the bond I made with fellow residents, the instructors, the organizers and after with Writers Space Africa fraternity. I must say, I felt validated just by being there for I was the one with the least experience in writing. I was more of a reader then and for the first time, it hit me that I could fully transition—that I could maybe do this. I left the residency with more confidence in submitting my work, better relationships with the writers I was with as we ran our writing past each other, and threw in book recommendations. The influence the residency had is to overhaul what I should be focusing on. The theme of it was ‘The African Identity’ and since then with every writing I’m trying to fill as much of who my people are—who I am—as I can. That is the only way to bridge these islands. As Rudyard Kipling once said, ‘We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.’
Tom: I feel you. The feelings are mutual about the residency. I also like the fact that you take your time to know your characters and let them narrate by themselves. That is amazing.
Hassan, what are you working on nowadays? Are there any new works?
Hassan: There is a manuscript I am editing for someone else. I have a piece forthcoming in Lolwe; we are in the editing phase. I am translating a short story by a Swahili writer who I deeply admire, Fatma Shafi, for a small press in San Francisco, and I am really enjoying that. I want to work more on making Swahili literature more accessible to the world out there. Exciting stuff.
Tom: I am so excited for this! Please let me know when these stories are published.
Moreover, thank you so much for making this conversation vibrant. Keep flying higher, brother!
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Tom Patrick Nzabonimpa is a writer from Kigali. He writes creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and screenplays. He was a resident at the 2020 Pen Pen African Writers Residency, second edition in Nairobi, and has won the 2020 Empower Africa Now Writing Contest in the short story category. Tom’s works have appeared and are forthcoming in Twaweza Anthology, African Autograph, HQAfrica, and WSA Magazine among other places. He is the Country Coordinator of Writers Space Africa, Rwanda Chapter (WSA-Rwanda) and is working on his debut novel. When he is not writing, you can find him handling telecommunication network issues or drinking chai.