Dancing a few language steps with Ngugi and exciting young writers

Lawrence Njagi chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association and Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o Award winning Kenyan writer. PHOTO JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The maestro himself graciously contributes a few of his own pieces to the volume.
  • Owuor delicately weaves handfuls of strands into one beautiful, mkeka-like story.
  • The forte of Matei’s novel is its elegantly powerful language.

“Cutting a caper”, that is what the English call dancing a few delighted or delightful steps. That, indeed, seemed to be what we were doing last week at the USIU-A Main Campus in Kasarani, as we launched the book Ngugi: Reflections on His Life of Writing.

The book, edited by US-based Professors Simon Gikandi and Ndirangu Wachanga, is both by him and on him. Compiled to celebrate our legendary author’s hitting the 80-year old mark, last year, it is a collection, in different genres, of scholarly and personal impressions of and responses to Ngugi and his work.


The maestro himself graciously contributes a few of his own pieces to the volume. My own paper, “Language à la Ngugi (language according to Ngugi)”, was supposed to be in there but it somehow missed the train. But what delighted me most about the launch of the book was that Mzee Ngugi was back in Kenya within the space of just a few months.

I did not get to meet Prof Ngugi when he was here in February, but one event that stuck in my mind from that visit was his launching, in Kisii, of Ekegusii Nekiya (Ekegusii Is Good) by Jane Bosibori Obuchi.

I noted, from media reports, that the Prof enthusiastically congratulated Ms Obuchi on her contribution to the growth and promotion of local languages and urged her to carry on with the good work.

Well, it appears that this lady needed little urging. Already, I understand, she is working on several texts in Ekegusii, including a dictionary, collections of short stories and a linguistic study of naming systems among her people.


She has even translated one of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s own stories into Ekegusii.

But what struck me was that, even as Ngugi was, appropriately, praising Jane Obuchi’s work in Ekegusii, many of us were reading and enjoying her scrumptious English “narrative”, Latest Diary of a Kenyan. I mentioned to you that the Diary was one of the three women’s books I was reading around International Women’s Day, the other two being Yvonne Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea and Assumpta Matei’s Kiswahili novel, Chozi la Heri.

It would be a bit of overkill to comment further on The Dragonfly Sea, which is already well on its meteoric flight to international fame.

Anyway, different dancers, different steps. Owuor delicately weaves handfuls of strands into one beautiful, mkeka-like story.

Obuchi, on the other hand, in Latest Diary, strategically adopts the diary form and free-fleeting main characters that move from situation to situation revealing not only themselves but also the heart and soul of their society.


Obuchi’s leading character and first-person narrator, Lucy Nyambuche Nyabusero, and her grandmother and sidekick, Sigara, relentlessly sweep us through hilarious encounters with artful dodgers who never repay those little loans they cadge from you.

We bump into rogue politicians who break their promises even as they make them, and even outrageous entrepreneurs planning to set up day care centres for those 'boy child' husbands who need constant supervision and care to prevent them from straying.

My literary friends, like Profs Busolo Wegesa, Iribe Mwangi and Ken Walibora, who obviously enjoyed reading Jane Obuchi’s book, seem to agree that she is emerging as a dominant satirical voice, at least in the prose genre.

Yet as in all good satire, there is, beneath all the banter and the wit, an underlying criticism and denunciation of the real evils eating at the heart of our society, like ethnic chauvinism, petty egotism and political opportunism.


Concern with similar evils is also evident in Assumpta Matei’s Chozi la Heri (a tear of blessing), though in a considerably heavier tone than Obuchi’s. Chozi, which is currently a prescribed book on Kenya’s secondary school Kiswahili syllabus, is the story of a wide range of characters, mainly young people, from different backgrounds, joined together in one strong bond of suffering brought about by social, political and economic delinquency.

The blessing amid the tears is, apparently, the existence of a few truly good-hearted people who are willing and prepared to rescue and assist the victims.

The forte of Matei’s novel is its elegantly powerful language. The book is a real stylistic feat, and feast, in idiomatic, modern standard Kiswahili. Matei writes with such a melodious fluency that even when, as with many of us, you come across an unfamiliar turn of phrase, you will feel motivated to check it out in order to enhance your reading pleasure.


Speaking of Kiswahili writing, however, reminds me that Jane Obuchi, with whom we started, also writes and publishes in Kiswahili as well. One of her short stories, for example, called “Kamba Ghali” (a costly rope), is included in the collection Vazi la Mhudumu (the garb of the minister), edited by my colleagues and friends, Iribemwangi and Hamisi Babusa, and also recommended by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) for study on some Kiswahili syllabi.

This brings me to the most important point I wanted to make about Mzee Ngugi and his unbounded enthusiasm for writing in our home languages. I fully support the enterprise and, indeed, like Jane Obuchi, I write in all three of my major languages, Luganda, English and Kiswahili.

But I differ with him regarding the assumption that we should privilege, in creative endeavours, any of the languages in which we live.


I cannot fail to celebrate Yvonne Owuor and her colleagues just because they write in English. Nor can I be indifferent to Assumpta Matei’s novel because it is in Kiswahili, our veritable goldmine, and a home language to boot, towards which Mzee Ngugi appears to be guardedly cool.

Similarly, it would be a pity if our appreciation of Jane Obuchi’s writings in Ekegusii should blind us to the irrepressible humour and biting satire of her writings in Kiswahili and English.

I would prefer to have it all and devour it all, as best I can, whether in English, Dholuo, Kikamba, Kiswahili, Ekegusii or Sheng.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]