Commentary: Yusuf O. Kassam’s MAJI MAJI poem in Relation to Today

Capturing a significant event in Africa’s history is Yusuf O. Kassam’s poem titled, Maji Maji and remorsefully described from the painful recollections of an old man. A common mistake is to interpret the message by restricting it to history, to Tanzania (or Tanganyika as was called), to the seeming ridiculousness of religion, or the absurdity of primitive African war methods. However, the lessons and messages expressed traverse decades, race, borders, time, and relate to even the minutest aspects of daily human interactions regardless of what societies we live in.

A brief excerpt (from an unnamed anthology) is shared below focusing on lines of particular interest and focus for this commentary.

“His dim grey eyes quiveringly stared into the distance
And with a faint faltering voice he spoke

Of the men who talked of deliverance and freedom.
And of the warriors who pledged to fight

He pointed to the distant hills on his right:
‘For many days,
They resounded with drum-beats and frenzied cries;
Then with the spirits of alien ancestors

‘They fired bullets, not water, no, not water’
He looked up, with a face crumpled with agony
And with an unsteady swing of his arm, he said,
‘Dead, we all lay dead.’
While the mzee paused, still and silent.
His listeners gravely looked at each other
Seeming to echo his last words in chorus.
Finally, exhausted, he sighed,
‘The Germans came and went,
And for many long years
No drums beat again.’

The old man in the poem clearly is not proud of the outcome of the rebellion and is disappointed, almost ashamed, of the thinking that guided the methods of his fellow countrymen who lost the battle, were imprisoned or died.

The bigger picture and reasons why
The warriors mentioned were fighting for everyone and everything and not just themselves. The same way we have activists and advocates for different causes representing the interests of minorities and groups that may not be in position to speak up for themselves or effect significant change on their own. The warriors fought to defend their dignity and freedom above all else—very noble causes that usually manifest themselves in different ways for each person, home, society and nation.


Personal struggles and natural survival instincts
At a personal level, we all have struggles—things and uncomfortable circumstances we hope to change in any way we can. And when peaceful or rational efforts fail or our success seems close to impossible, we turn to what some may regard as “desperate situations call for desperate measures”. The same way, the proverb states that “a drowning man will grab at a straw”. Just because a person is physically weak, financially constrained or inadequately educated does not mean they can’t or should not stand up for themselves and what they believe in especially in the face of bullies of whatever sort. It is worse when a man, like in the case of a scared cat, feels trapped and helpless. Here we have seen tragic headlines of situations that could have turned out differently if only the circumstances had been more favourable.


Approach to problem solving
It is not only the old man who feels disappointed or ashamed, each one of us has at one time believed in a cause, a promising politician, a new invention, a relationship, a business idea, something that ended up in disaster, plunged us into self-loathing or scarred us for life. In his book, History of East Africa for Advanced Level Paper Six P210/6” page 85, Sekasi states that the rebellion “…started after Kinjikitire’s prophecy that the waters of river Rufiji was its self-magic and if it was mixed with maize flour and sprinkled on the faces of African fighters could act as bullet proof.” As ridiculous as this sort of thinking might have been, we constantly witness ourselves and others, advocacy groups and nations make decisions based on uninformed or poorly informed thinking which later result in utter failure knowing we could have done better if only we had known better.


Yusuf’s poem offers more lessons for us to reference on frequently so as to appreciate the experiences of others and learn from their successes and failures in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes and to enable us forge ahead with accurately and adequately informed decisions. It teaches us to always be mindful of those who believe in or support our cause so that we do all we can not to let down those who have placed their undying faith in us as we might need their support a few or more times in the future. We learn not to hurriedly bury our failures and setbacks for fear of shame but to have them somewhere convenient enough to easily access them whenever we need to compare notes, strategies and approaches. We learn to consider more than just what’s presented to us—read between the lines and reflect on the bigger picture.