Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Pole Who Loved Somali Poetry

An interview with the wife of late Prof. Bogumil Witalis Andrzejewski, Lecturer, Reader in Cushitic Languages School of Oriental and African Studies 1952-80, Professor of Cushitic Languages and Literature 1980-82.

B. W. Andrzejewski was the leading authority in the world on the languages and oral literature of the Somali people and their Oromo neighbours in the Horn of Africa. As well as being a distinguished and innovative linguist in a technical sense, "Goosh" Andrzejewski believed passionately in studying and analysing language in its actual, living socio-cultural context. He thus became the leading Western exponent of Somali and Oromo oral culture, introducing the remarkable poetry of these bellicose nomads to world literature, where their brilliance is now securely established. In this endeavour (in which I collaborated with him in the collection Somali Poetry, 1964, as more recently did his wife, Sheila, in An Anthology of Somali Poetry, 1993), Andrzejewski was strongly influenced by his own widely recognised talents as a contemporary Polish poet.

Andrzejewski possessed an amazing command of Somali (and to a lesser extent of Oromo), with a formidable repertoire of proverbs, jokes, folktales and poetry which enabled him to hold his own with traditional clan elders as easily as with westernised intellectuals. Andrzejewski also played a crucial role in the development of a phonetically accurate (and convenient) Roman script for the previously unwritten Somali language. This work began in 1949 when, with Colonial Development and Welfare funds, Andrzejewski was recruited by the Education Department of the British Somaliland Protectorate - in association with the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. In the course of this research (which later formed the basis of his PhD), Andrezejewski began his very fruitful collaboration with the famous Somali poet and folklorist Muse H.I. Galal. Because of opposition from religious leaders in this prickly Muslim society to Andrzejewski's Latin script (they punningly called it "la-diin", i.e. "no religion") it was not until 1972 that national literacy was introduced.

The interview can be read on Wardheernews.com

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