Abdilatif Abdalla was born in Mombasa, Kenya, in 1946 to a renowned literary family and began composing poetry as a teenager. After publishing a political pamphlet questioning the direction in which Jomo Kenyatta was guiding the country, he was imprisoned for three years. Upon his release from prison in 1972 he left Kenya and worked at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Swahili Service of the BBC in London. He later held academic appointments teaching Swahili at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and, most recently, the University of Leipzig in Germany. He retired in 2011.