CREATIVE: Poetry as preservation

Saturday November 30 2019

Alycia Pirmohamed,

Alycia Pirmohamed, the English winner of this year’s Sawti poetry prize. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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Founded by Dutch born Somalian Sumia Jaama, Sawti took off after receiving a grant from the British Council under its “New Art, New Audiences” call for 18 to 35-year-old artists, art organisations and collectives.

The project ran a poetry competition that started in July, with prizes for three poems, in Kiswahili, English and Arabic, open to applicants from East Africa and East Africans living in the UK.

The results were announced earlier this month: Tanzanian Ngollo Mlengeya scooped the Kiswahili poetry prize and Alycia Pirmohamed won the English poetry prize (she was raised in Canada but her parents have roots in Tanzania and she is a student). Sudanese Basheer Abusan took the Arabic poetry prize.

The theme was “Poetry as Preservation”, and the competition drew 513 entries.

Pirmohamed is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, studying figurative homelands in poetry written by second-generation immigrant writers.

Her course gave her an advantage in the competition, as she studies poems by people whose culture in their current home is rare and could be lost.


“The poems I look at are so personal and intimate, and I appreciate each experience of reading them, of experiencing the uniqueness of their spirituality. Sometimes that experience is joyous and thriving, and other times it might be more political, more questioning, complex and difficult. In all cases, these poems are powerful and really show how poetry works as preservation and resilience,” she said.

Mlengeya writes about an introspective journey into surrender. “You have to know what you can control and what you can’t. For the things you can’t, it’s time to let go,” she said of her poem.

Sudanese poet Abushan talked about what his poems mean in preserving the memories and lives of his people: “For the past 30 years, the ruling political system in our country has adopted ideological attitudes that significantly reduced our recognition as a people of Africa.

“My generation got rid of the attitude with a peaceful popular revolution, so most of my poems come with this spirit and the longing for peace, freedom and justice. One of the poems I entered, Mosdar, which comes from a popular Sudanese word associated with poetry by itinerant shepherds and people living outside the cities. In the poem, I speak of the journey of our loss in Sudan and our social fluctuations. My winning entry, For a Sad Singer, questions identity through folklore, while talking about our revolution and its future.”

To galvanise applicants for its debut poetry competition, Sawti held workshops in Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Khartoum and London.

The facilitators included award-winning poet Sumia Jaama, who is the winner of FourHubs’ 2018 Poetry Prize, a Barbican Young Poet Alumni and a recent graduate of the Creative Writing and Education MA at Goldsmith.

Another facilitator was Danish-born Somali photographer and poet Amaal Said, who is based in London.

Her photographs have been featured in Vogue, The Guardian and The New York Times.

She won Wasafiri magazine’s New Writing Prize for poetry in 2015, is a member of Octavia poetry collective for women of colour, and is a former Barbican Young Poet.

Nancy Lazaro from Tanzania, another facilitator, ran the workshops in Dar es Salaam. She is a youth development advocate, a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow, (the Young African Leaders Initiative by former US president Barack Obama) and a 2016 Global Citizen Youth Advocate.

She worked as a volunteer in the UNHCR project “Echoes of Pain”, where she taught poetry to refugees from Sudan, who were based in Salloum camp in western Egypt.

In 2012, she co-founded La Poetista, also known as Poetry Tanzania, and is part of the steering committee for the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize.

“I was really impressed with the dialogues that came from the workshops and the number of entries we received. It served us to open the prize with more than one language; we saw how these three languages influence each other while occupying different regions.

“That, in itself, opens the scope of how East Africans identify. The politics of what does a ‘national’ language mean and who does it serve was also great to uncover. This has prompted us to think that in future iterations of the prize we can open submissions in even more languages,” Jaama said.

The prize was judged by three experts: Safia Elhillo for English, Neema Komba for Kiswahili and Marwa Babiker for Arabic.

Elhillo has a 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and is an incoming 2019-2021 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She is a co-editor of the anthology Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books, 2019).

Komba is the 2014 winner of the Etisalat Prize for Literature in the Flash Fiction category and the author of Mektildis Kapinga: A Silent Hero, and See Through the Complicated, a poetry collection.

Her short stories have been featured in Payback and Other Stories: An Anthology for African and African Diaspora Short Stories, Adda Stories and Index on Censorship. She is a steering committee member for the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize.

Currently, she is a doctoral student in Entrepreneurship at Hanken School of Economics.

Babiker is a Sudanese doctor, neuroscientist, and poet who was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She is currently working toward her PhD degree in Neuroscience at the University of Connecticut.

Her Facebook poetry page Baqaya Qaseeda (which translates to “Remains of a poem”) caught global attention.

She used her poetry to spread positive messages and support the country’s demands for freedom, peace, and justice during the revolution. She was named “a modern griot” by Vogue magazine that highlighted her role as a poet and social media influencer.

Marwa’s poems have been featured in news channels such as BBC Arabic and Aljazeera.

Despite their stellar credentials, having one judge per language for poetry isn’t ideal.

“I agree that having more judges per language would have served the entrants better. However, as it was the first year of the prize and we wanted to serve more than one language, we were only able to budget for one judge per prize.

“I think the judges did an excellent job despite this, particularly as detailed reports were submitted on how the selection was made. Having a shortlist also helped with the judging,” Jaama said.

The winners received £500 and will be published in a magazine early next year. When I asked them how they felt about winning, they were all inspired to see their craft as a valid career.