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Published:July 3rd, 2010 11:19 EST
Africa - In a Child's Words (A Review of Speak Swahili Dammit by James Penhaligon)

Africa - In a Child's Words (A Review of Speak Swahili Dammit by James Penhaligon)

By Juliet Maruru

James Penhaligon sent me a copy of his book, and I must admit I was somewhat anxious, in case it turned out to be a long boring book. Speak Swahili Dammit! does sound rather formidable. I saw visions of me gagging, as I tried to gauge whether to be brutally honest or just smile and say it was a "nice` book.

About 4 weeks after he initially posted it from the UK, the book arrived. I had only gone through a few pages when my mother and my friend pretty much climbed into my bed to read it with me. Apparently, I had laughed out loud several times, and because I`d been depressed from a few rough patches of a Lupus flare out, they were more than curious at my laughter.

I had to wait for them to catch up so we could read it together. Well, for that night at least. After that, it was like some kid`s "finders keepers` game. Competitions on who gets to the book first every day.

Then one Saturday night, I was reading the part where Jimu`s dad dies of a malaria attack. I wept so hard, everyone got worried.  And then they read that part and we all got into a huge discussion about the things we tell kids when someone in the family dies.

That`s not the only thing that has been a raging topic in my house sparked by Speak Swahili Dammit! We`ve gone through expletives. I grew up in Mtwapa, and the expletives used by the watu in Jimu`s book are very similar to the ones I knew as a child in Mtwapa. There is a line said by the watu wa bara about the waswahili: They will describe your genitals and talk about sex as if it is a greeting.

That is not the only thing that I found endearing about Jimu`s story. It brought up memories of my own childhood, although my childhood came so much later that Jimu`s. I had my core entourage too, and the sideliners. We had our own nation, which had many of the features of a real nation. My mother used to call me General Zeiber, because I wanted to rule in our games, and rule with a military fist. Suffice to say that I have had difficulties letting go of my military rule characteristics with my own teams.

We even had an old car, engine long dead and sold as scrap, and tires replaced by huge rocks. And yeah, we even had a few incidents with snakes.

Like Jimu and his beautiful Greta, I also had a massive one-sided love affair with the Golden Boy, previously mentioned in my blog.

And like Jimu, my heart rebelled when I had to go off to boarding school. I even had a big bully, just like Jimu`s, who went on to become his friend. My bully didn`t die, so that is one heartache Jimu suffered that I escaped.

But my heart did break when I had to leave my childhood town to come to the big city under the sun. I still have not gone back, but Like Jimu`s Geita, my Mtwapa remains close to my heart.

James Penhaligon has one over me, because he has succeeded in telling his childhood in a way that reaches out to your heart, and makes you go through every experience as if it was your own.

One other thing he has done very well is describe the "white African` in a truly special way. My black African friends always have a hard time understanding how a white person can think of Africa as their home. It is much easier to classify them as colonialists and "send them home`. But Jimu`s story shows how possible it is, and has been, for children born with the colour of their skin placing them in Europe or wherever, but who love this land and its people, because it is their home, and their people.

Jimu`s book is wonderful, colourful, entertaining and very enlightening. You should read it, too!

See what other people have said about Speak Swahili Dammit!


When Dr. James Penhaligon contacted me and asked me to review his latest book "Speak Swahili Dammit!" I was very much perplexed. Firstly, because I have never done a book review before, and secondly because it`s been a while since I last read a title that`s not business or personal development oriented. I guess I have become too much of a corporate guy such that reading books for leisure has almost become a waste of time for me. I read books such as Stephen Covey`s "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and "The 8th habit: from effectiveness to greatness", "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill, "Your best life now" by Joel Osteen, "The Law of Attraction" and "Ask and It Is Given" by Esther & Jerry Hicks, and similar titles.

      From the name of the book I thought it must be one of those books by some white man out to paint a wrong picture about the Swahili people. It sounded to me as though the guy was saying he was forced to speak Swahili because the Swahili people cannot speak English or something to that effect. And why was he swearing? For this reason, I held a bit of reservation towards it. However, when the book arrived in my office, the cover started telling a different story from what I had in mind, and I was compelled to open it. When I did that open, I could not close it.

      Speak Swahili Dammit! is an exhilarating book, a marvel. A story worth retelling! It is a true description of life in the bushes of Tanganyika in the 1950`s, in the eyes of a small white kid who grew up in Tanganyika and fell in love with its people, its rich culture, and lifestyle. Jimu, the author and main character himself, is an articulate story teller, who tells it as it is. This is confirmed as Jimu goes on openly and vividly describing his recollections, without hiding or altering events which many would have found too shameful to share or associate themselves with, like catching farts, peeping at the corps of an old man in a dead bodies` house, his anger and attempt at shooting God, and his dislike and mistrust of the white man, etc!

      The spelling of Swahili words as they are pronounced is a telling fact that he did not know how to read or write in Swahili, yet the rich vocabulary of Swahili words, idioms, taboos and jokes confirm that Jimu is a true mswahili who belongs to the watu.  A black man in a white man`s body.

      The book has a rich account of some of the world`s most historical moments and events such as the World War 1 & II, Tanzania`s Independence Day, times of colonialism, and more. All told to the author by people with first-hand experience of those events.

      You will want to read the book quietly alone, as it is with novel reading, but you will soon be itching to share the fun with someone else. It is guaranteed to drive you through a rollercoaster of emotions as the author takes you through the good times and the most horrifying experiences of life. Moving you from anger to fear, panic to laughter, then back again to panic, then laughter, then anxiety starts building,  suddenly you realize your eyes are wetting with tears, and on and on your emotions keep changing in an almost random, yet very balanced manner, to the last paragraph.

      It`s a childishly hilarious tale at times, yet a  very serious and sad one at others. It`s a thriller, a drama, a love soapy, a comedy, an adventure, all these in one.  The book is so engrossing and touching that you don`t only read the story, but became part of it. I became Lutoli, then Umali, then the mad-man Mlozi,  Dieti, then poor Iwe, who gets arrested every day, then Marais, Matwiga, the bully-boxer Roper, Kalebu, and then Steveni.... as I observed this small white "black man" in great amazement!

      This is the first novel I ever read and wished for the end to never come. The more I read, the more I wanted. The fewer the pages on the right-hand-side became, the more I wished they would miraculously multiply.

     Since I`m told everything has to have its shortfalls, the shortfall of the Speak Swahili Dammit!, if I`m to conjure it, is that it makes you want to meet Gretchen, the beauty Jimu fell in love with, while knowing it was practically impossible. Seriously, I still want to know what happened to her and Jimu. Did Jimu marry her? And if not, could he possibly dare to marry someone else? Otherwise, you will fail to find anything to fault the Speak Swahili Dammit! from the cover to the time when Jimu returns home " the bushes of Tanganyika in the Republic of Kichoncho!

By the way, immediately after I finished I rushed to give the book to my colleague to read it? Yup, that`s because I could not just keep this jewellery to rot in my jewellery box, it`s the kind of jewellery you want to sashay all over. Of course when I get it back I will keep it somewhere very safe as a souvenir for my children and grand children to read!

A must read for everyone, and I mean EVERYONE!  Beda Biswalo


The book is a thriller. Every sentence is interesting. Speak Swahili, Dammit!  is a moving and thrilling book. I can relate to the story.  One cannot put it down. William Lobulu, of the Arusha Times,  in Arusha, Tanzania


A lovely book, with wonderful descriptions. It raises the same questions as Jane Austin in Pride and Prejudice " what happened after the wild events of such a rebellious childhood? There is so much lurking between the lines " a discussion in a book-reading circle could go on for months. The writer reminds me in many ways of Nigel Kennedy. One factor is without doubt " both Kennedy and Jimu have the advantage of being extremely bright. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The reader will want to know what happens next, and how Jimu changed and made a success of his life. A sequel is required, and an epilogue too.  John Catton, Editor of `Rhino-Link`, the journal of the King`s African Rifles & East African Forces Association,  in Hertfordshire, UK


Speak Swahili, Dammit!  is a brilliant book. It needs to be made into a film! And I hope there`s going to be a sequel. Jean Gaiser, of Bond Literary Agents & Specialized Services, South Africa.


A masterpiece!  More artistic and entertaining than many books in similar vein by renowned authors. The excellent descriptions and metaphors makes one smell, visualise, hear and feel equatorial Africa in the mid 1950`s. This book is poetic, and lends for easy reading. I LOVE IT! It needs to be made into a movie, filmed on location, in Tanzania! Dr Stephen Stanton-Read,MD,  Physician, Fairport, NY, USA


 Truly a masterpiece. It makes me both laugh and cry. As I neared the end, I dreaded coming to the last page. A film in the making! Lynn Rowe, Artist, of Bodmin, Cornwall, UK


My mother and I are reading the book together. I have never seen such delight on her face while reading a book before! Our reviewer is going to love this, but I`m tempted to do the review myself. I`m sure the reviewer at the `East African Standard` is going to feel the same. Juliet Maruru of Princess Project, Nairobi, Kenya



This is one of those books that you simply cannot put down. It is a gripping and compelling story, beautifully written. The author "Jimu" is the son of a British family driven by necessity to migrate into the deepest East African bush so that his father, a WWII veteran can try to earn a living managing a mechanical ropeway on a gold mine. As a very young child Jimu is looked after by the local "Ayahs" or woman-nannies. Jimu grows up with the local children and "goes native" learning to speak Swahili before he can speak English. As a result, he also learns to see the world through the eyes of the locals, and yet finds himself also amongst the local white community and expected by them to abide by their rules and etiquette. Jimu loves his local friends, especially Umali, his parents` household assistant, who becomes an important influence in his life.


From the outset Jimu is a rebellious character and has little respect for authority. He describes a wild and colourful childhood full of adventure, adversity and humour too. It is an emotional tale in which life is full of surprises and sadly there are some very tragic moments in his early life. It is hard to believe in fact how many and frequent are the challenges that life throws at Jimu, and yet, miraculously at times, he survives these hurdles and triumphs, learning from his experiences. The author is very skilled at evoking emotion in his reader and I have found myself laughing out loud frequently whilst reading this book, and also brought to tears.


I would unreservedly recommend this book to anyone. It is one of those rare gems, a true story worth telling, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.  Ms. Sophie D. Edwards


 Africa through a Child`s Eyes - Speak Swahili, Dammit! By James Penhaligon

      ALL over the world, people are seizing the chance to get into print. Yes, even if we aren`t all going to have that quarter-hour of fame, we can all tell our stories. You won`t have read one like this though. The pseudonymous Penhaligon, a doctor formerly of this parish, grew up in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in the 1950s and `60s. His remarkable experiences shine throughout this lengthy memoir, undimmed by the passing of 50 years or the acquisition of a British perspective.

      A fascinating collection of Europeans gathered in this former colonial outpost after the Second World War, Penhaligon`s family among them. But the little boy grew up as an African and spoke Swahili before he learned English. Fittingly, the natives (as we would once have called them) star alongside the author throughout. You can almost see the twinkle in the eye of Umali, a guiding light for the young James. Childhood partner-in-crime Lutoli stands out, too.

      The loss of Penhaligon`s father at five runs deep, as does his departure for a distant boarding school less than three years later. Add poverty, illness, fire and bullying to the pot and you have a strong stock.

      This is no misery memoir mind you. While the many setbacks are dealt with at length, Penhaligon`s direct, muscular prose moves the tale along briskly and there`s plenty of comedy.

      As expansive as the continent that begat it, yet intensely personal too, this is a life`s tale like no other.

Verdict: An epic memoir.

Simon Steele, Leamington Courier.


This true story is a beautiful book, written in the first person by the author himself. Having read many books about the formative years in peoples` lives, some by renowned authors, I believe I can say that Mr Penhaligon has written the most honest and entertaining of all.

It is an account of the first 16 years of his life in Tanzania.

Richly descriptive, one can feel, smell, hear and visualize small-town life in Tanzania in the 1950`s.

This is a must-read, important novel.

It begs a sequel, that the author alludes to, and, for which I can hardly wait.

Susan E Stanton-Reid & Stephen J Stanton-Reid MD. Director of The Laser Center of Perinton, Fairport, Upstate NY.


I couldn`t put it down, and I didn`t. I`ll read it again. I`m going to recommend the book to my friends, telling them where they can purchase a copy. Why not spread the joy? Perhaps it was the writing of 4 fiction books that established James`s wonderful style and enabled him to write so crisply, neatly, and also charmingly, about his first 16 years. I plan to tell all my friends to buy this book. Everyone I know who reads will love this book. A gem like this is rare, and should be widely read. Virginia S Jones. Author of "Strong women - Four Generations".  Iowa, USA


A stunning piece of work. There is an amazing depth, breadth and grace of fine writing in this book. It will reside permanently in my memory. No one should dare say `Africa` without reading it.  Rudiger Vogs, in Germany, who is called Dieter in the book, and grew up with me in Geita.