Saturday, 10 July 2010


In October 1986, hunting for books in Nairobi, I wandered into a store on Kimathi Street that had clearly seen better days. There, on its dusty and understocked shelves, my eyes alighted on a rare work that I’d seen references to but hadn’t previously been able to get my hands on: William Frank’s Habari na Desturi za Waribe (“History and Customs of the Ribe people of the Coast Province of Kenya”), published in London in 1953. Better still, I was looking at a pile of ten or eleven copies of this slim volume, an ethno-book collector’s treasure-trove that was evidently of little value to the failing shopkeeper. The price was cheap and I bought the whole lot, reasoning that they’d otherwise be lost to scholarship when this dismal shop was closed down (as it subsequently was).

The Swahili and English title pages of the booklet emphasised that William Frank was himself a Ribe (the autonym is arihe, singular murihe). A couple of months later I came across a quite different book by him, a collection of Swahili poems entitled Diwani Yangu (“My Anthology”). Frank’s preface was dated July 1975, but he died the following year and the collection wasn’t published until 1979. The back cover summarises his life and work:

The late William Frank was born in 1922 in Kilifi District on the Kenya coast. In 1949 he joined the publishing department of the East African High Commission and worked there until his death in 1976. When he was there he composed many poems which were published in [the newspapers] ‘Taifa Leo’ and ‘Baraza’ and he won a number of prizes for his poetry. In addition he translated ‘Emil na Wapelelezi’ [Erich Kästner’s 1929 novel, originally published as Emil und die Detektive] and parts of ‘Kenya Farmer’ [Journal of the Agricultural Society of Kenya]. He also wrote ‘Juma Mtoto Yatima’ [“Juma the Orphan-child”, a fiction published in 1974 under the pseudonym Tonge Nyama]. (my translation of the Swahili blurb)

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the very different character of his later work, Frank’s study of his own ethnic group isn’t mentioned in this bio. He went to work at the East African Literature Bureau soon after it was founded, and his Ribe booklet was published in the series of ethnoethnographies and ethnohistories that the EALB itself initiated and organised: Masimulizi na Desturi ya Afrika ya Mashariki – Customs and Traditions in East Africa. When I first read it in 1986 I was disappointed by the relative blandness of Frank’s text and absence of detail about Ribe history and ethnography. But now I wonder more about the circumstances of its production. Was Frank simply making the most an opportunity presented to him at work? To what extent was he influenced by or responding to Ronald Ngala’s Nchi na Desturi za Wagiriama (“The Country and Customs of the Giriama”) published earlier in the same series? What were his own political views?

Like other works of its kind (cf. Maddox 1995; Topan 1997; Geider 2002), Frank’s ethnographic text dangles awkwardly between the conservative and divisive agenda of its colonial sponsors (the promotion of “tribal unity”) and the promise of a more inclusive future (the “detribalised” political consciousness that the British were intent on countering). It was, we should remember, published during the Mau Mau Emergency. Whereas his editors seemed keen to emphasise his Ribe-ness, Frank himself made a point of referring to the generalised “Swahili” or coastal identity of the Ribe and their Mijikenda relatives (“Wote hawa ni Waswahili maana wanaishi pwani”, p.vii). In his later Swahili poetry, published by the EALB’s successor, the Kenya Literature Bureau, Frank eulogised both Ngala and Kenyatta, demonstrating his nationalist credentials. There’s little here that would lead you to identify the author as a Ribe scribe.


Frank, William 1953. Habari na Desturi za Waribe (Desturi na Masimulizi ya Afrika ya Mashariki). London: Sheldon Press.

Frank, William 1979. Diwani Yangu (Johari za Kiswahili 19). Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Geider, Thomas 2002. The Paper Memory of East Africa: Ethnohistories and Biographies Written in Swahili. In Axel Harneit-Sievers (ed.) A Place in the World: New Local Historiographies from Africa and South Asia. Leiden: Brill. 255-288.

Kästner, Erich 1973. Emil na Wapelelezi (translated by William Frank). Kampala: East African Literature Bureau.

Maddox, Gregory H. 1995. Introduction: The Ironies of Historia, Mila na Desturi za Wagogo. In Mathias E. Mnyampala, The Gogo: History, Customs, and Traditions (translated, introduced and edited by Gregory H. Maddox). Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe. 1-34.

Ngala, Ronald G. 1949. Nchi na Desturi za Wagiriama. Nairobi: The Eagle Press.

Nyama, Tonge [William Frank] 1974. Juma Mtoto Yatima. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Topan, Farouk 1997. Biography Writing in Swahili. History in Africa 24: 299-307.

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