Mrisho Mpoto: The poetic conscience of Tanzania

Saturday August 10 2019

Mrisho Mpoto: As a prolific poet who performs

Mrisho Mpoto: As a prolific poet who performs in Swahili commenting on social and political issues, he is considered the father of Tanzanian theatre performance. PHOTO | COURTESY 

PETER MUTHAMIA
By PETER MUTHAMIA
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Mrisho Mpoto, who goes by the stage name Mjoba, recently released a wedding song titled Nimwage Radhi in collaboration with Bongo Flava artiste Harmonize.
Mpoto is one of, if not the most prolific poet in Tanzania, who uses his mastery of the Swahili language to compose and recite strong political and social messages.

His poetry has been the hallmark of Tanzania’s theatre arts for the past two decades.

He has used poetry to condemn the haphazard 1990s privatisation of national agencies in his song Waite (call them) and to generally condemn the plunder of Africa’s natural resources through neo-colonialism in exchange for fake democracy.

“I am not just a poet. I am a theatre artiste and song and dance are part of my work. My poetry addresses pertinent issues affecting the average Tanzanian. We are often told that Tanzania is arguably one of the richest countries in Africa, yet, most Tanzanians are poor. This is unacceptable. I am the voice of the voiceless,” he said.

Mpoto has collaborated with a number of Bongo Flava singers including Diamond Platinumz and Banana Zoro.

Based in Dar es Salaam, Mposho is a poet, actor, director and a storyteller who also works with corporate clients in media campaigns by the government and advertising agencies.

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In a country ruled by Bongo Flava and Taarab, Mpoto wields a lot of influence among Tanzanians as a poet of conscience. His brand of poetry is keeping theatre arts alive.

His signature baritone and expressive face and well-articulated poetry in perfect Kiswahili sets him apart from other performers.

“Historically, traditional African poetry was accompanied by music,” says Mposho. He keeps with the tradition.

During his interview, he stressed the need to revive and maintain the national virtues extolled by Tanzania’s founding father Julius Nyerere.

He also explained that; “My choice to walk barefoot is spiritual. One needs to connect with mother earth while still alive because even when we die, we return to the earth. It follows therefore that when you walk barefoot, you reconnect with the source of life,” he added.

His poetry acknowledges Africa’s complicated past but also maintains hope.

Mpoto has presented TV programmes starting with Parapanda and later Bongo Dar Es Salaam, before setting up Mpoto Arts Production, which folded and gave rise to Mpoto Gallery Theatre.

The latter still exists, specialising in traditional art, music, drama and Bongo Flava that is often mixed with traditional poetry.

Left to die

Mpoto was born Mrisho Issa Hussein Mpoto on October 27 in 1978 in Songea, Ruvuma Region being the 36th child in the polygamous family of Mzee Issa Hussein Mpoto. His mother, Mwanaisha Athuman, was the 12th wife.

He cheated death as an infant when his mother left him in the bush to die because she didn't want a child. She later changed her mind, and ran away to bring him up in Mshomoro in Namtumbo and later in Dar es Salaam.

Mpoto’s aptitude for drama, music, writing and reciting poetry was apparent to the school authorities at Ilala Boma Primary School, Dar es Salaam.

Lack of fees saw him miss out on secondary education but working as a children’s programme presenter for ITV opened avenues for him.

Wealth of exposure

His lack of a secondary education notwithstanding, through One Hand Five Fingers, a theatre mentoring short courses he has travelled to some of the world’s famous universities.

The programme covered Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, the US and Poland and though it he got to attend short courses at New York University, Hanover and Warsaw universities. In 2008, he was the winner of the Reunion Slum Poetry Championship for Africa and was third worldwide.