Translator's notes

Chief Crocodile

By Gĩtahĩ Gĩtĩtĩ

Gĩkũyũ (Kikuyu) is one of the many languages of Kenya. It has a significant body of published literature, among them the longest novel in an African language written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and translated by himself as The Wizard of the Crow. But not much more Gĩkũyũ literature has been translated into western languages. This is the first time, and with his collaboration, that Gĩtahi’s poetry (marebeta) can be enjoyed in English. Reflecting on life, society, culture and politics, he voices the thoughts of many at home in Africa, and in the Diaspora. In one of the translated poems, ‘Where I was born’ he vividly captures nostalgia and the yearning for ‘home’. Gĩtahi is ever preoccupied with the importance of preserving African languages by writing in them, and teaching them to African children. Yet Gĩtahi is not just longing for a lost past, his masterly use of language through deployment of metaphor, word play and humour links his work to traditional oral artistry of the Gĩkũyũ people, such as the dialogic poetry form known as Gĩcandĩ. His poetry and short stories are laden with humour, imagery, metaphor and linguistic innovations which all serve to enrich the Gĩkũyũ language’s literary bank. A note on the translation of the poem ‘Chief Crocodile’ is necessary. Chiefs in Kenya were created to enforce colonial rule and exploitation at the grassroots, for example, by forcibly recruiting labour to work on European farms. They wielded brutal power in a manner befitting the values of the system that created them, thus they became a focus of resentment by the colonised population. The chiefs’ roles did not change much in the post-colony, and they continue to be regarded by some as agents of oppressive authority and corruption.

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