Celebrating power of language with Wangui Goro – and Betty Murungi

Betty Murungi. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • My long-time friend, Wangui wa Goro, who translated Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early Gikuyu books into English, has just been appointed Professor of Practice in Translation at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
  • I have told you of my being in Mwalimu Abdulaziz’s inaugural class after he returned from the SOAS, and his plunging me into Kiswahili by getting me to read Muyaka’s verse.

So, I was uplifted by the recent news of the exceptional academic attainments of two of my dear Kenyan sisters.

Occasions for celebration do not come fast or easy in these troubled times. Indeed, when one arises, it hits you as a specially sweet and pleasant surprise.

So, I was thoroughly uplifted by the recent news of the exceptional academic attainments of two of my dear Kenyan sisters. Rejoice with me, then, good neighbours.

My long-time friend, Wangui wa Goro, who translated Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early Gikuyu books into English, has just been appointed Professor of Practice in Translation at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

This is alongside her high school comrade, Kaari Betty Murungi, who will also soon take up a Professorship of Practice in Law at the Centre in Gender Studies at the same august institution.

PRESTIGIOUS PEERS

I use the term “august” advisedly because that is just what the SOAS is. It ranks way high up there with its prestigious peers and neighbours, like the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the London School of Economics (LSE), Mwai Kibaki’s alma mater.

Mzee Jomo Kenyatta is also listed as an LSE graduate, but his course in social anthropology under the legendary Bronislaw Malinowski, resulting in Mzee’s monumental Facing Mount Kenya, would today fall under the SOAS.

Incidentally, Malinowski also taught my own first linguistics teacher at Dar es Salaam, the famous Kiswahili scholar Wilfred H. Whiteley, who subsequently served as a professor at the SOAS until his death in 1971. You can see I have no difficulty establishing my SOAS pedigree.

In any case, those who took over from Whiteley the gargantuan task of panel-beating me into a passable “linguist, my beloved Profs Mohamed H. Abdulaziz and Farouk Topan, are dyed-in-the-wool SOAS men, both being alumni of the school and spending considerable teaching spells there after they had dealt with me in Dar.

I have told you of my being in Mwalimu Abdulaziz’s inaugural class after he returned from the SOAS, and his plunging me into Kiswahili by getting me to read Muyaka’s verse.

Prof Topan made me a warm welcome to the SOAS in the early 2000s, when I, too, had the opportunity to work briefly there as a visiting researcher and scholar. He already held a professorship there, from which he only recently retired to take up the directorship of the Swahili Centre at the Aga Khan University.

EXCITEMENT

You can thus understand my joy and excitement at the news that my sisters are taking up professorship at this ultimate destination of research and scholarship in African and Asian studies in the English-speaking world. Our close and long-time links to it are an added bonus.

I recently told a friend and ardent reader of this column that the problem with us Kenyans is that we do not know how to boast. You will note that I am not dwelling on the biographies or curricula vitae of our new SOAS professors. We assume that our sisters have what it takes, and we do not make a song or dance about it.

That said, however, we should realise that the SOAS, as a centre of international excellence, takes only the best in any of its disciplines. Its appointment of Profs Wangui wa Goro and Kaari Murungi to the top posts just goes to show that Kenya produces and has the best in many fields. That is not boasting. It is recognising and appreciating facts.

My only regret is that we cannot afford to keep and use all this expertise at home. The simple fact is that we desperately need the talent, learning, training, experience and passionate professional commitment of our people, like Profs Wangui and Kaari, right here, especially today. They would contribute to the solution of the multitude of problems that beset us.

Take my sister Wangui, for example, who is in my language and literature field. Although best-known here for translating Ngugi, her career spans decades of scholarship and practical work across a host of languages in Europe, Britain and America. In her humble sharing with us on her SOAS professorial appointment, she made the following enlightening observation.

LANGUAGE COMPETENCE

“For now, I can only say in this difficult hour of history, that the role of translators and translation will be required to come to the fore and will be in greater demand for humanity and for a humane and just world. This includes translating ideas, meaning and sense making, even within a language, and of course literature which is my base, and all forms of artistic expression, including scholarship.”

 I have been clamouring for years now for adequate language competence and management for the survival and development of our societies. To meet this need, we need to educate (teach and train) our people in the appropriate and productive use of language at every level of our social and professional operation.

It is unrealistic to assume that this competence is achievable within the patchy exposure of a bare twelve levels, as advocated in our so-called CBC and STEM-oriented programmes.

Language and communication education should be a life-long process, especially in multilingual societies like ours, and we need the guidance of experts and visionaries like Prof Wangui wa Goro to advise and direct us in these crucial endeavours.

Only last week, we were discussing here the role of the “dirty” lyrics of our home language pop songs in the teenage pregnancy epidemic among us.    

It happens that, towards the end of May, another friend and reader of mine, had asked me to write something about a necessary “euphemism” in these very songs. Euphemism is the principle of using soft, neat words instead of crude, brutal ones to avoid offending, embarrassing or shocking your listener.

The question is how much training and sensitising have those barbarians who bark out the obscene lyrics been given in their home languages, or in any language?

Anyway, I will leave the last word to, Professor-designate Wangui wa Goro.

“I have learnt,” she says, “that translation is the language of solidarity.”

Congratulations.

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