What you need to know:
Ngugi wa Thiong’o confesses he is not a politician and simply fights his battles with the pen, hence the barrel of the pen.
The words in his novels, short stories, biographies, plays, polemics and speeches do the shooting.
In a way, therefore, his absence in America is given a powerful presence in Kenya in whichever language he communicates.
- Maximum patriotism is in the value of the content rather than the language used in framing it.
Round about the time Ngugi wa Thiong’o visited Kenya recently to launch the book written and edited in honour of his lifetime achievement as the country’s best and foremost creative writer, I came across a research paper proposal entitled ‘Patriometrics and Kenyan Literature’. He coined the tongue twisting part of the title from the word patriot.
Having ploughed through Kenya’s main newspapers from the 1980s to the late 1990s before chancing upon journal articles, the literary historian was fascinated by the consistent belligerence, accusations and counteraccusations about Kenyans’ quantities of love or hate for their country Kenya.
POLITICS & CULTURE
In one of the readings, he came across a suggestion by a self-declared patriotic professor that if Ngugi really loves his country then he should return home because there was ample democratic space for him to think and write freely. Anybody who kept away from Kenya after the end of the one-party state and rule in Kenya hated his motherland. The professor said Ngugi, as the elder, should take the lead in the homeward exodus so that his juniors like Jared Angira and Simon Gikandi could follow suit.
Thus after Ngugi’s visit, I decided to indulge in what the historian called “patriometrics”. This loosely translated as a study of hate or love for one’s homeland. And that is how on the morning of June 29, 2019, I found myself browsing through Godwin Siundu’s Saturday Nation review of ‘Ngugi: Reflections on his life of writing’ before someone suddenly shouted over my head “that man is not a patriot; he hates his motherland.”
The intruder then pulled a seat to share a table at an Eldoret hotel.
Without formal introduction, he argued passionately that the likes of Ngugi had no business lecturing Kenyans on what to do with their languages and cultures after moving from their country for foreign lands and languages.
Being a believer in the substance rather than the form of language, I steered the conversation away from the issue of which language Kenyans should use and reached back in history to an episode that touched Ngugi’s name.
I narrated how I almost failed an interview for a job in the 1980s because my prospective and eventual employer thought I was not patriotic enough. He argued that my having read and studied the writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jonathan Kariara and Francis Imbuga meant I did not care for Kenya and the cardinal values underpinning the country’s politics and culture.
Every interviewer fired a salvo at the writers. I was seated before a panel of very prominent Kenyans whose declarations of unshakeable loyalty to the President and the sole ruling political party dominated the mass media. They hurled accusations at real and imagined enemies of the state in order to impress the President. In the case of Jonathan Kariara, they avoided the poetry and focused on his sexual orientation.
If it had not been an interview in which I was seeking a job, I would have said that sane Kenyan adults should not bother about what other equally sane adults do between bed sheets. I knew there was a lot of morality and artistry in Kariara’s poetry but dared not contradict my potential source of livelihood. Nor did I see any betrayal of country in Imbuga’s drama that broadly criticises negative governance. Job interviews are games in which the interviewee must contrive any number of winning tactics, one of which is to listen to lectures and admonitions in silence as if one agrees all the way. That is what I did until Ngugi’s name popped up just when I thought the lecture-interview was over.
One interviewer, who had not asked a question or made a comment, suddenly said hello. He accused me of being “lost and unpatriotic”.
Waving my thin curriculum vitae between his fingers, he drew attention to the title of my dissertation and the “unwelcome” presence of Ngugi, Imbuga and Kariara’s names in it. He argued that I had been studying evil and anti-state propaganda and may extend this into the lecture room and “infect” Kenyan youngsters. I lied I would not betray our President who was hailed the world over as the prince and architect of peace.
At this point of my narrative, the intruder rudely interrupted me and resumed the haranguing of Ngugi. “You didn’t have to go so far down memory lane, nearly 30 years ago. Ngugi is right here with you and still preaching unsavoury stuff in this newspaper.” He did not let me respond.
Citing a scene in Ngugi’s Petals of Blood, where a character, Nyakinyua, unleashes and deposits a huge mound of stool in teacher Munira’s compound, my hitherto unnamed companion condemned Ngugi for portraying Kenya too negatively. “He hates his home. Like V.S. Naipaul on India, he draws a picture of Kenya that looks like a huge red carpet of human dung”.
No doubt, he meant that Ngugi and those who associate with him are less patriotic than himself. I retorted with the example of a Congolese musician who sings that in order to avoid embarrassment, foe or friend must be informed by the artist if their trousers are torn anywhere, including the backside. “Ngugi exposes the murky side of Kenya’s being because he loves the country and prays for the dirt to be removed.”
The swift curt comment was that “one either loves or hates. The two cannot be mixed. You cannot love and hate your mother at the same time. You are either patriotic or not. You cannot be both.” He intoned as if reciting a sacred script.
Somehow he returned to the language problem I thought I had buried. He appeared incensed about the suggestion that local Kenyan languages be given prominence.
As a parting shot, he remarked that President Jomo Kenyatta created and baptised Kenya in the English language in the late 1930s when he faced the country and penned Facing Mount Kenya. That was also about the period Ngugi was born. Over 80 years later, he continues to hold the attention of the world because of his creative output in the language Kenyatta bequeathed him. “Ngugi cannot claim to be a Kenyan patriot and still fight against what the founding father and his childhood idol addressed the world in: English.”
He was alluding to Ngugi’s Barrel of the Pen. In the book, the novelist confesses he is not a politician and simply fights his battles with the pen, hence the barrel of the pen. The words in his novels, short stories, biographies, plays, polemics and speeches do the shooting. In a way, therefore, his absence in America is given a powerful presence in Kenya in whichever language he communicates. Maximum patriotism is in the value of the content rather than the language used in framing it. I didn’t have time to explain that an evolving Kenyan English will one day replace Ngugi and Jomo Kenyatta’s English as the national mother tongue.
Prof Amuka teaches literature at Moi University. E-mail petera- [email protected]