Muhamadi bin Abu Bakari aka Kijuma. This is the name of a man who is Kenya’s answer to Leonardo da Vinci, the legendary Italian polymath, a person who is skilled in many things. Leonardo was a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, cartographer, botanist, historian and writer.
Like Leonardo, Kijuma could do it all. He could sing in a clear, melodic voice as he played the kibangala stringed instrument; write analytically on different topics like religion and Swahili culture; draw letters that seemed to dance like Lamu’s coconut trees; recite mashairi (poetry) effortlessly; dance like the waves that slammed Lamu’s shores every moment and carve wood as if he could touch the soul of trees.
Born in Lamu Island around 1850, his mama nicknamed him Kijuma. As she thanked God for a son and held him in her hands, she couldn’t have known that she was holding a legend.
She couldn’t have known that the little baby with his tiny eyes closed as he slept peacefully after suckling, would open the eyes of the world to Swahili art and culture in its spoken, written and carved form.
Kijuma believed that the Swahili culture was so precious that it should be preserved for future generations and the world to benefit from it. Armed with this belief, his songs, poetry and carvings were not just for entertainment but also for preservation.
But have we preserved Kijuma’s memory and legacy fully? Do we celebrate him as our very own legend?
I remember when I visited Uffizi Gallery in Florence Italy, one of my main motivations was to see original paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, I only got to know that a town named Florence existed when I read that that Leonardo was born there.
When I finally entered Uffizi Gallery, my heart beat faster than sukuti drums as I stood before Adorazione del magi, one of Leonardo’s paintings. It features a baby in the delicate, protective arms of a young woman with a chubby face.
She is gazing at the baby lovingly and is surrounded by a crowd of people whose big brown beards and flowing robes are accentuated by the gentle hues of the painter’s brush. The more I looked at the painting, the more I began to notice things that are not visible at first glances. To the extreme left are horses that seem to be flowing into and out of the crowd of people.
What an incredible painting.
I exclaimed when an aide at the Gallery told me that Leonardo had been dead for almost five hundred years.
Then how come everyone talks about him and his paintings look totally fresh?
Just like Leonardo Kijuma was talented in many, many ways. He could sing in a clear, melodic voice as he played the kibangala stringed instrument; write analytically on different topics like religion and Swahili culture; draw letters that seemed to dance like Lamu’s coconut trees; recite mashairi (poetry) effortlessly; dance like the waves that slammed Lamu’s shores every moment and carve wood as if he could touch the soul of trees.
He was true to his Muslim faith and travelled to Mecca four times. But he also embraced people of other faiths, races and cultures. Some of his closest friends were the European Christians who travelled thousands of miles to come and learn from him. They include Ernst Damman, a German scholar who was a close friend of his.
Just as I travelled all the way to Florence Italy, with the main motivation being to see Leonardo da Vinci’s birth town and feast on his original paintings, what would happen if someone travelled from Italy to Lamu to see Kijuma’s birth place and feast on his artistic works?
Would that person be able to listen to the music that he played? Maybe not the actual music but an example of that music.
Would that person be able to see the doors that he carved, not in a photo but live and easily?
Would that person be able to read some of Kijuma’s writings and even see original copies?
The Lamu museum has done a good job of sharing some information about Kijuma. But more can be done to remember and celebrate him. Almost everyone celebrates the skills of Messi and Ronaldo because they are consistently reminded of these skills most weekends through live football games.
Similarly, Lamu needs constant and well organized reminders of Kijuma’s genius and indeed, all other heroes of this great island.
Remembering Kijuma doesn’t mean exalting him above others because it is God who gives talents. All the more reason why Kijuma’s talents should be celebrated as they remind us of the great potential that God has placed in each one of us.