After reading two brilliant essays on the lives and times of two departed notables whose professional lives touched on the study of literature in Kenya, I find it appropriate to reflect and comment on the history and status of the discipline. As we mourn Waigwa Wachira and Okoth Okombo, I fear for literary scholarship in Kenya.
Are we at par with the rest of the world or are we stuck in some historical moment we are unable to move beyond?
Take the case of Professor Henry Indangasi’s very appropriate praise of Dr Wachira for not “spouting those pedantic platitudes about post-modernism and post-colonialism that characterise other scholars who come from abroad.” Such a statement, coming from a leading scholar and thinker, and easily one of the best prose writers anywhere, speaks volumes about literature as a discipline at war with itself.
Or better still, the discipline is at war with its history. Otherwise Indangasi, an elder among the literati, would not be lifting a finger against the intellectual cargo his juniors may have carried from studies abroad.
Such a gesture seems to assume that there is some sacrosanct and immutable approach to the study of literature that is peculiarly and originally Kenyan.
The truth is that the literature curriculum was imposed on the country by the British coloniser.
Thus from well before independence to date Kenya cannot logically claim to have fashioned out anything particularly special and different from what Britain left over.
We continue to be guided by the colonial heritage. Well after Owuor Anyumba, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Taban lo Loyong had spearheaded the change of name and curriculum in the English Department at the University of Nairobi, we persisted in seeking literary education in foreign lands.
The new Department of Literature was a revolutionary postcolonial creation but studies were still and continued to be conducted in English language in the country and beyond.
Many Kenyans still frown upon any little abuse of Queen’s English.
The 40 or so languages have no place in the classroom and are unashamedly intended to die without ever determining the texture and content of literary study. Nay, they are already dead in the world of literary scholarship.
It therefore does not matter whether one studies at home or abroad. Wherever the case, one remains beholden to what the British called their Great Tradition.
And that is why, I think, Prof Indangasi and some like-minded individuals are uneasy with the new and fresh terminologies in post-colonial and postmodernist discourses that do not conform to British requirements and limitations.
Yet the terms are not that new. The French, for example, have been using them and their variations for decades but Kenyans were safely shielded from them by their British mentors and keepers.
We largely remain a protected British literary territory preaching the doctrine of non-interference.
I did not, for example, hear anything about Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and others until I reached the United States of America in the 1980s, away from the Queen’s English literary tradition.
Despite the lofty intentions of Kenya Writers Association and Kenya Oral Literature Association to nurture and promote Kenyan literature and literary study, the associations are either dead or panting for life.
One hears very little of them or their activities as much as used to be the case when the likes of Professor Wanjiku Kabira, Masheti Masinjila and Professor Peter Wasamba were at the helm and attempted to reach every nook and cranny of the country. Not anymore.
Are we betraying the Ngugi-Anyumba-Taban revolution? The answer is yes.
We are becoming more British than the British by taking up arms against “foreign” invasions like postmodernism. We are reverting to pre-independence times in search of a pure English tradition that is long dead.
All this despite the fact that the British have long opened up to new intellectual forces and currents engulfing the world.
One thing that is common to the two essays on Waigwa Wachira and Okoth Okombo is the mention of Noam Chomsky, easily the greatest linguist in recent times.
Because Wachira, an independent thinker, insisted on the “correct” pronunciation of English, Indangasi appears wrong in arguing that he did not owe allegiance to any “herd”.
He belonged to the herd of purists who would rather not recognise that their cultures and thinking exist in between many others and not in isolation.
Okoth Okombo easily comes in to play here because the media once called him the language police. He was certainly bent on maintaining certain standards but not unaware of the existence of variations and deviations. The bottom line was that he, too, was a purist amply aware of the numerous contradictions and challenges Kenyan cultures and indigenous languages posed against English.
Like Waigwa, he was in between. The difference is that he went out of his way as a linguist to espouse the use of local languages and ethnomethodologies to study oral literature.
Many Kenyans, including Professor Egara Kabaji, have emulated him.
In a way, Okombo was more of a Chomsky because he crossed disciplinary boundaries and tolerated differences in the academy and the attendant varieties of scholarship.
Two years ago, I interacted with Okombo at the University of Nairobi’s Senior Common Room and argued briefly about the “post” in modernism and colonial.
As usual, he insisted that term was as local as it was foreign. He said it had been domesticated in Kenya. The clincher, for me, was that English was both foreign and Kenyan and that many other literary and critical terms were in circulation and being used as if they were homegrown and processed in order to describe and critique local experiences.
He could not be, nay, he refused to be herded in to one camp against another.
The Waigwa Wachira I met and fed some years ago at Leisure Lodge, because Parkinsons Disease could not let him handle food with ease, struck me as a tolerant personality able to accommodate differences even if he didn’t agree with one’s ideology.
Moments of mourning are moments to reflect on the life and times of the dead and the communities and pursuits they lived for. My reading of the lives of Okoth and Wachira is that they tolerated the various approaches in the production of knowledge in literature and related disciplines.
They allowed opposites to face and engage one another creatively rather than repel one another and condemn literary study in to the grave of sterility.
Those living, teaching and researching should let differences cohabit and reproduce rather than divorce them.
Peter Amuka is a professor of literature at Moi University. Email [email protected]