It is now emerging that communities living on the Kenyan Coast may have had access to poetry written in Kiswahili over a century before the earliest known schools in Kenya even existed.
A poetry book written in 1728 in Kiswahili and only known as Utendi wa Tambuka or Book of Tambuka, already existed in present-day Pate Island ages before the Church Missionary Society (CMS) built the first known school at Rabai in 1846.
The Book of Tambuka, which is also known as ‘the Book of Heraclius’ or Utenzi wa Tambuka, is one of the earliest known documents written in the Swahili language. It is a handwritten book composed of 31 leaves of poetry in black and red ink on old thick paper.
What is a mystery though is how this book, full of accounts of the 6th-century to 15th-century Byzantine-Arab and Byzantine-Ottoman wars acquired its Kamba-like name, ‘Kyuo kya Hereḳali’.
History reveals that the original Swahili version was penned in the palace of the Sultan at Yunga in the old city of Pate under the commissioning of the Sultan himself. The king had asked that an account of the heroic deeds of the first followers of the Islamic prophet Muhammad be captured in this epic. Sultans were also regarded as kings and the Sultan of Pate, in this case, was the king of Yung.
Little is known about the author of the Book of Tambuka except that his name was Mwengo, son of Athumani (also Osman) and that at the time he was writing the book in 1728, he would have been seated at the court of the palace. He probably also would have been an old man at the time.
Somewhere in the middle of the 18th century, his son Abu Bakr bin Mwengo wrote an imitation of the epic. It is not clear why he did that. It is also not clear who did the translation known today under various English titles including ‘The Book of the Battle of Tambuka’. What is clear though is that it must have fascinated some English-speaking writer or writers to the point of translating it.
The book of Heraclius narrates, in a poem, a series of events that took place in the Byzantine empire, then under the rule of Emperor Flavius Heraclius Augustus and the ensuing bloody wars between Christians and Muslims.
The story covers a period from 628 (the Battle of Mu’tah) to 1453 (the Fall of Constantinople). Heraclius is remembered for introducing Greek as the Eastern Empire’s official language and for becoming the first Christian ruler to engage Muslims at war.
The book of Heraclius was written in a northern dialect of Swahili called Kiamu although some scholars note a touch of another northern dialect known as Kigunya. Others yet have caught traces of another ancient dialect still spoken in the coastal islands of Zanzibar called Kiunguja.
If there was a book riddled with mystery in Kenya today, it may be this one. Yet its discovery sheds spectacular evidence of a community of literate people, probably of Arabic descent, who could read and write and inspire western interest even to the extent of translating their works to English. This book is evidence that education in Kenya did not start with missionaries!