Afrikanische Handschriften, II: Islamische Handschriften aus Äthiopien by Ewald Wagner, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner 1997, pp. xix + 200 and facsimiles.
These two volumes appear in the series, Verzeichnis der Orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland, being vols. xxiv/1 and 2 respectively of a series that aims to describe all the non-European manuscripts held in German collections. The two books here represent a very significant first in African studies, but a somewhat ambiguous one that raises a number of questions.
Ernst Damman and Ewald Wagner present detailed catalogueswith full Orientalist apparati criticiof the manuscripts that can be found in German libraries from Ethiopia and the East African coast respectivly; primarily in Harari and Swahili. They are the first such catalogues to record in lavish, not to say sumptuous format, the literary remains of two African cultures. From a technical point of view, they cannot be faulted. All that a researcher would want to know about where the manuscript is to be found, what it is, its physical condition and so on, will be found in these volumes. As such, Professors Damman and Wagner are both to be congratulated on the appearance of these volumes and, despite the criticisms that follow, this congratulation is sincerely meant.
Both volumes also describe various miscellaneous works from Ethiopia and other parts of Africa in a variety of African languages. Most of these latter works arise from the activities of German Christian missionaries.
Wagner describes 88 manuscripts containing 199 works, mostly to be found in Berlin. A significant part of the collection was made by the German Orientalist and diplomat, Hans Martin Schlobies. Wagner provides an authoritative introduction to the history of Harari studies from the time Sir Richard Burton on and situates each work in its context, referring the reader to his own various publications of most of the significant works. All in all, it is a work of the most admirable scholarship, stamped on every page with the authority of a scholar who has devoted a lifetime to the understanding of Harari culture.
Damman's volume describes the collection of Swahili manuscripts, about 500 items again mostly now located in Berlin, that he has assembled from the 1930s onwards in one of the longest and most extraordinarily productive careers in African studies. Damman's scholarship and mastery of the intricacies of Swahili poetics has to be admired.
A general criticism that can be made is to raise the question, for whom are these volumes intended? Their price, and the language in which they are written, suggests that they are directed more or less exclusively to a specialised German (or European) audience. This, in the late 1990s, seems anachronistic, to put it no more strongly. No concessions are made towards the African audience. In the case of the Wagner volume, it may well be argued that the number of scholars concerned with Harari studies is so limited that they will have mastered German if only in order to read Wagner's many other writings. Damman's volume raises more general concerns. Swahili is estimated to be a language spoken by some 80 million people, comparable thus to French in numbers. It is also the only African language which has a written literature going back to the mid-sevententh century. There is a growing concern within Swahili studies over the hiatus between, for want of a better term, `classical' Swahili literature, that is the poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Swahili as a `national' language, pre-eminently in Tanzania. Modern scholars of Swahili, Tanzanian, Kenyan and others, are rightly preoccupied with the modernization (in terms of producing dictionaries, etc.) of the language to serve national needs. This latter concern tends to submerge Swahili's linguistic and cultural heritage. The result, ironically, is both an impoverishment of `modern' Swahili in its national role and a rupture with Swahili culture in its wider sense. Damman's catalogue must be saluted for what it is, an extraordinary contribution to our understanding of a remarkably rich African Islamic culture. It is a pity that it will not be easily accessible to modern Swahili speakers.
© The author and Sudanic Africa. Archived 23.6.98