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In defence of Ngugi and his battles

Friday May 7 2010


The article by William Ochieng that appeared in last week’s Sunday Nation titled ‘Ngugi fighting losing battle’ cannot go unchallenged.

The author has in the past stated that he doesn’t read Ngugi any more. This is indeed a very sad statement to come from a scholar.

If he was saying that he doesn’t read any other wannabe writer, this would be okay. But here we are talking of one of the most distinguished literary scholars from Africa.

If he doesn’t read his work, can he authoritatively critique them? If he reads Ngugi just to find how far he has ‘shifted ground’ then he has no business reading him at all.

We all read Wole Soyinka despite his obscurism. We read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness despite his dark view of Africa.

We pored over David Maillu’s 1970s bestsellers like After 4.30 despite their graphic bedroom scenes and banal language. You don’t throw a book into the dustbin just because of its style or content.


It’s only by reading that we can have intercourse with other minds. Thus the fact that the good history professor can pen an article on Ngugi is a contradiction.

Ochieng accuses Ngugi of preaching politics in many of his works. It’s true that his books have been accused of being overly socialist.

In fact Petals of Blood has been compared to Richard Wright’s Native Son which reads like a socialist treatise. In Writers in Politics Ngugi authoritatively argues that a writer cannot write in a vacuum.

He has to take sides when he comments on what Achebe calls ‘burning issues of the day’. As the history professor knows too well most of Ngugi’s earlier works were shaped by the capitalism- socialism ideological battles that characterised the 1960s and 1970s.

As a keen student of Ngugi I have noted his consistency in advocating the use of African languages as away of countering Western cultural imperialism and keeping African cultures alive. But Ngugi doesn’t urge use to regress into the past.

Rather he calls for a synthesis of our culture with modernity. In the globalisation train into the future our ‘atirinis’, ‘nang’os’ and ‘habari yakos’ should be heard above the din of the engines but the spears and shields should be replaced with laptops as they serve no purpose.

As yet Ngugi has not won the battle but it is worth noting that various strides have been made in making our languages more popular. Today, more than ever before, we have several FM stations broadcasting entirely in Dholuo, Ekegusii, Kikuyu and Kimeru just to name but a few.

Kiswahili is being taught and spoken in far-flung places like China and Germany. The African youth that Ochieng says are not with Ngugi are busy in the studios churning out bongo, kapungala and genge hits in Kiswahili, sheng or their mother tongues.

This clearly illustrates that to us the youth, using our languages is a ‘viable option’ and not a regression into the past as Ochieng puts it. Ngugi may not take all credit for the renaissance of these indigenous languages but at least we can see that his ideas aren’t utopian.

History is shaped by dreamers, revolutionaries and non-conformists like Ngugi who don’t shy away from penning ideas that go against the grain and seem outlandish at first.

Whether he wins this battle or not is not his concern. He has already done his duty: to nudge the society into reality from its slumber. Hopefully, to use the words of another revolutionary, Fidel Castro, history will absolve Ngugi.