Early this week, the American city of New Haven, Connecticut, was downcast before a drizzle melted, as a crowd of 1,000 roared at the indoor arena to appreciate the eight elderly men and women about to be crowned.
That moment, now frozen in an official graduation picture that has been widely circulated, features two black men on either side of the front row, each clutching their graduation hat in their lap, posing for the cameras in solemn dignity.
The man on the left is John Lewis, the American Congressman and legendary civil rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jnr; the man on the right is Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the celebrated Kenyan writer and cultural theorist.
This was at Yale University, when the two joined a pantheon of six others to receive honorary doctorates in this year’s commencement. Other famous Americans in the line-up that Kenyans might be familiar with include megastar Stevie Wonder and former US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Wonder danced and sang along as the university band gave a rendition of his hit, I Wish, while Yale University president Peter Salovey used Wonder’s own lyrics in the citation: his degree was “signed, sealed, delivered, it’s yours.”
Ngugi’s citation read: “Author, playwright, activist, and scholar, you have shown us the power of words to change the world. You have written in English and in your Kenyan language, Gikuyu; you have worked in prison cells and in exile; and you have survived assassination attempts — all to bring attention to the plight of ordinary people in Kenya and around the world.
“Brave wordsmith, for breaking down barriers, for showing us the potential of literature to incite change and promote justice, for helping us decolonise our minds and open them to new ideas, we are privileged to award you this degree of Doctor of Letters.”
This is Ngugi’s 12th honorary doctorate — having received others from universities in the US, Europe and Africa. KCA University made history last year when it became the first Kenyan institution to accord the author with a similar honour.
“It was a particularly great honour because it came from home,” Ngugi said of the recognition from KCA.
The award from Yale, one of the top universities in the world, is somewhat bittersweet; it reminds of the scant praise that Ngugi receives from home, even though his pioneering work has been entrenched in Kenya and replicated elsewhere in the world.
Dubbed the Nairobi revolution, the campaign in late 1960s to situate the study of African literature and its diaspora at the core of what was then the Department of English at the University of Nairobi, is now a well-grounded literary theory in post-colonial studies.
Ngugi’s subsequent declaration in early 1980s that he would stop writing in English to embrace his first language, Gikuyu, has prompted indigenisation efforts from as far places as Hawaii and New Zealand and South Africa, where writers and cultural proponents are evaluating the legacies of oppression and segregation in knowledge production.
“Decolonisation is a message that’s resonating with many people across Africa,” Ngugi said in a recent conversation, revealing that some 2,500 people showed up for a lecture in Johannesburg South Africa in March.
South African universities have been grappling with the legacy of Apartheid, with some organising protests against what they see as symbols of their oppressive past.
During last month’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Ngugi was asked by the American critic, Rebecca Carroll, whether he had managed to “decolonise” himself, invoking the title of his treatise: Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.
“I’m still trying,” Ngugi admitted, no doubt weighed down by the recognition that he has not published often in Gikuyu, despite his earlier “farewell to English.” He appeared to modify this position in subsequent years when he explained that he’d retain English for his scholarly work, but use Gikuyu for his creative outputs.
Even this promise was not sustained; his last three memoirs — Dreams in a Time of War, In the House of the Interpreter and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening that revolve around his early years, up to his student days at Makerere, have been issued in English.
Ngugi modified his position further to acknowledge “translation” as the best pathway to lifting languages on the periphery to the core, but even this supposition is fraught with challenges.
In his famous essay, What Is World Literature, the American literary historian, David Damrosch, says literary trade remains uneven, and quotes Lawrence Venuti’s survey that confirmed this assertion. He gives the example of Brazilian publishers who brought out 1,500 translations of English-language books in 1987, yet only 14 Brazilian texts were issued in England or the United States in the same period.
Even those few texts that get translated into English, and so gesture towards “world literature,” have to meet certain limiting criteria, as Chinua Achebe once scoffed.
“I should like to see the word universal banned altogether from discussions of African literature until such a time people cease to use it as a synonym for the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe, until the horizon extends to include all the world,” Chinua Achebe writes in an essay in Morning Yet on Creation Day.
But this complexity does not in any way undercut the import of promoting African languages. Rather, it illustrates the need for investment in infrastructure that would support such an ecosystem.
Recent gains in that endeavour, for instance, which allow use of indigenous languages for instruction for lower primary schooling in Kenya, did not include resources that would facilitate texts that would be key to the overall experience.
By contrast, international donor agencies involved in the promotion of education have availed subsidies to the government on two conditions: that the texts produced are in English, while imposing technical specifications that would ensure such texts can only be produced outside this country.
Consequently, local publishers were squeezed out of business as they could not produce the expected quality, and could no longer sell books directly to schools since “free” texts were availed through donor money. What wasn’t always acknowledged was that the government had to match the amounts “donated,” so publishing those books in London or other European capitals, meant Kenyan jobs had been exported.
While Kiswahili was adopted as the official language for the African Union in 2004, no tangible investments have been to promote its usage across the continent. The language is widely used in East and Central Africa.
Which is why Ngugi’s lifelong commitment to the promotion of African languages must not only be applauded, but also emulated. The timing of his switch to Gikuyu was instructive: he was at the peak of his writing career, and so stood to reap many more rewards from Western institutions, not to mention a broader network of readers of English. He rejected all that to return to his roots.
The phenomenal success recently enjoyed by Ngugi’s short story, Rugano Rwa Murungaru (The Upright Revolution), a fable about how man learnt to walk, attests to the potential that Ngugi believes is still locked in African languages.
Thanks to an online arts collective, Jalada, the short story has been translated into 65 languages and counting — most of them African.
“They have been able to do what I have been trying to do all my life,” Ngugi chuckles about the outfit led by Moses Kilolo. “And the fact that it is young people doing it gives me hope.”
Dr Kimani is the author of Dance of the Jakaranda, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. He teaches journalism at Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications in Nairobi.