Meet the new researcher: Annachiara Raia

Annachiara Raia recently started as a university lecturer and researcher, dividing her time between the African Studies Centre Leiden and the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS). We interviewed her about her fascination for Swahili literature where the Islamic influence is very prominent.

What has been the focus of your research?
My interest lies in the entanglement of African Studies and Arabic Studies from a literary and comparative perspective. I did my BA at the University of Naples L’Orientale in languages and cultures of Asia and Africa, and my MA in languages, history and cultures of the Arab world. My PhD was in the framework of a cotutelle (joint supervision) programme between Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies (BIGSAS) and the University of Naples L’Orientale. The first excels in African Studies, the second is one of the oldest school of Sinology and Oriental Studies, founded in 1732. A perfect combination for my academic training!

Where do the two studies meet?
In Swahili literature, where the Islamic influence from the Arabic world is very prominent. Stories that already existed in Islamic tradition were re-invented in Swahili literature, mainly poetry. It is often said that African literature does not have a written tradition, but that is not true for Swahili, to name but an example. It has a huge writerly culture since the 19th century - earliest from 1882, as the poem Hamziya attests. For my PhD I focused on the story of the prophet Yusuf - or Joseph, the son of Jacob - as narrated in the Bible and in Islam. I looked at Islamic tradition through Swahili manuscripts in utenzi form, and compared the Swahili poem with the story as it is attested in the Koran, Sura 12 and in the Qisas al-anbiya’ (‘Stories of Prophets’) where the story of Yusuf is told in prose form and Arabic language. How has the story arrived at the Eastern African coast from the Arabic world and how was it then re-written in Swahili? What has been added to the original text? It is likely that in Swahili there was one ‘master’ text that has been copied several times by other scribes, ending up with a real network of copies of the same poem. The provenance of this Swahili poem has to be traced back to the Lamu archipelago and island, on the so-called northern Swahili coast of Kenya.

How did you go about your research? Did you do fieldwork?
Definitely! When I travelled to Lamu, I met the poet and imam Mahmoud Ahmed Abdulkadir. With me I took manuscripts that, ironically, are kept in libraries in Germany and in the UK. We proceeded through readings aloud and deciphering the Swahili manuscripts written down in Arabic script and carrying many features of the Kiamu dialect. 700 Stanzas… I made an English translation on which I based my PhD thesis. I defended it in January 2018 and it will be published later this year. I went on to do further research on Mahmoud Ahmed Abdulkadir, he writes and composes Swahili poems in Arabic script, he also writes on commission for special occasions, like weddings. Most of his poems have been performed and recorded on tape cassettes and CDs. So, here we see the reverse: from a written script to an oral delivery. We are translating and working on his poetry in order to publish an anthology.

What are your research plans in Leiden?
My general plan is to work on travelling texts and book trade from across the African continent with a particular interest in East Africa and its networks of people and texts within Egypt and across the Indian Ocean. In the Leiden University Libraries I found a special collection of 900 printed books from Eastern Africa (Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Mombasa), mostly on Islamic doctrines. 60% of these books are in Swahili, 30% in Arabic, 10% in English. The original texts were written for example in Urdu or Arabic, and were published in Teheran, Oman, Cairo. They have been translated mainly into Swahili and republished by local publishing houses in Kenya or Tanzania. This collection is a real gem. It was bought in 2000 by Gerard van de Bruinhorst, currently working at the ASCL Library but then still a PhD student. He bought the books in Kenya and Tanzania. When I found out about them, I thought: How beautiful! The questions I am interested in are: Who wrote the original texts, how have these texts travelled? What was printed where and why? Who was translating what? What was important where? It is relevant also to see the ongoing process of book market and core curriculum in East Africa nowadays, what is still on market and available everywhere, and what isn't anymore?

You are dividing your time between the ASCL and LUCAS. How is that?
I can benefit from the two institutions! With LUCAS I am among people who are very much into literature, and at the ASCL I am close to my passion for Africa. But I also hope there will be more communication and synergy between the two institutions: at the ASCL the challenge is to better understand developments in society in Africa through the lens of African-language literatures. And the other way round: I hope that African literatures will not remain a niche at LUCAS, but that they will be compared with other literary traditions in the world. How have ‘the classics’ been translated in Africa, and how have African classics been translated in the rest of the world? That’s fascinating research material.


2019. Annachiara, Raia. “Angaliya baharini, mai yaliyoko pwani. The presence of the ocean in Mahmoud Ahmed Abdulakadir’s Poetry”, In: Aiello, F. & Gaudioso, R. Festschrift (Eds.) Lugha na Fasihi in honour of Elena Bertoncini-Zubkova, Napoli: DAAM, Series Minor.

2018. Annachiara, Raia. “A Mosaic of Scripts: Arabic Script in Africa from a comparative perspective”. In: Quaderni di studi arabi QSA n.s. 12 (2017), pp. 207-218 Istituto per l’Oriente C.A. Nallino, Roma

2016. Annachiara, Raia. “Innesti culturali. La riscrittura creativa della storia di Yusuf in   poesia Swahili”. In: Smerilliana luogo di civiltà poetiche. Enrico D’Angelo (a cura di) Vol. 19:425-454, The Writer Edizioni, Marano Principato (CS).

2014. Annachiara, Raia. “Remarks on Swahili - manuscripts in Arabic script: layout and orthography of the Utendi wa Yusuf”. In: Current Researches in African Studies. Szlenk, L. K. and B. Wòjtowicz (ed./eds.). Warsaw: Dom. Wydawniczy Elipsa. 313-330.


March 2019 - current: University Lecturer, African Literature. Joint appointment LUCAS and ASCL, Leiden University

April  2017 - February 2019: Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin in Literaturen in Afrikanische Sprachen, University of Bayreuth  (Germany)  

October 2013 - March 2017: Double PhD programme in African Languages and Literatures. University of Naples L’Orientale (Italy) - University of Bayreuth, BIGSAS (Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies, Germany).

Nov. 2010 - May 2013: Master in Science of Languages, History and Cultures of Mediterranean and Islamic Countries. Degree Class LM-36, University of Naples L’Orientale (Italy).

Oct. 2007 - Nov. 2010: Bachelor in Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa.  Degree Class LM-11, curriculum Africa: Arabic and Swahili Language and Literature. University of Naples L’Orientale, (Italy)

Earlier this year we interviewed other newly started researchers:

Lidewyde Berckmoes, Assistant Professor in Regional Conflict in Contemporary Africa.

Rahmane Idrissa: Assistant Professor in Islam in Contemporary Africa