Maybe we should not make any fuss about New Year’s Day. The reason is that every day is a New Year’s Day of sorts. Just around now, for example, the mercurial Donald J. Trump will be starting a new year, his second, as “Potus” (President of the US).
Footballer George Weah, too, will soon have his New Year’s Day when he is inaugurated as the new Liberian President.
Closer to home, however, and to our hearts, the man of the year is our own living legend, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose glorious 80th year dawned on January 5.
I am earnestly hoping that the celebrations will go on throughout the year, not only because of my reverence for Ngugi but also because the extended festivities will redeem my slovenliness and enable me to contribute appropriately to the grandmaster’s tributes.
It is difficult, when you have been privileged to stand or sit in the presence of greatness, not to sound either boastful or belittling in talking about the experience.
I have, like my contemporaries, variously narrated to you my numerous encounters, in Makerere, York, Leeds, Nairobi and elsewhere, with this “weaver of tales”, dating back to 1966.
But my first “encounter” with Ngugi, memorable because it did not happen, was back in 1962, when his Black Hermit play was performed at the Uganda National Theatre as part of the country’s Independence celebrations. I was in an O-level class at a college only 10 miles out of Kampala and my classmates and I would have loved to go and see the play. But our British teachers would not let us go.
Apparently, neither Uganda’s uhuru nor plays by African undergraduates were of any importance to them.
For us, however, you can well understand our claim that Ngugi has been and remains part of all our adult lives.
It is from that perspective that we speak of him, to him and with him, with both pride, gratefulness and profound humility. Most importantly, we should take on the responsibility of pointing out to our people the significance of Ngugi wa Thiong’o to our society, our education our history.
A LITTLE PRETENTIOUS
I admit it is a little pretentious for a “bricoleur” (trial-and-error-man) like me to try and “explain” any point about a figure as eloquent and as prolific as Ngugi, who has cogently and lucidly stated his case since the earliest stages of his career. So, all I can do is to share with you just a few of my own personal impressions of Ngugi’s lasting value to African literature and society.
First and foremost, Ngugi fulfils for us the essential expectations of a writer: “To be tough, survive and write”. I think that formulation was by Earnest Hemingway, who, rather unfortunately, did not quite live up to it.
Ngugi has been tough and survived. We have only vague impressions of the rigours and tortures of detention, arbitrary dispossession and forced exile which have afflicted him. I clearly remember the fragile state he was in on arrival at Makerere when he was first forced out of UoN in the early 1970s.
Yet it was just at this time that he was working on Petals of Blood. Likewise, it was in the horrors of Kamiti Prison that he wrote, on toilet paper, Caitaani Mutharaba-ini, as he himself has narrated.
Does Ngugi find strength and energy in physical and other external adversity? That is toughness par excellence. Equally valid would be the assertion that the writing was itself an invigorating antidote to the physical and psychological misery.
An even more striking aspect of Ngugi’s toughness has been his intellectual and ideological resilience. Ngugi has always had very strong views about society and how it should be run.
He is, for example, keenly aware of the core values of African society and how these have been perverted, and continue to be perverted, by the invasion of colonialism and primitive capitalism and their aftermath. He thus seems to expect every conscientious African to fight for the liberation of our continent from these perversions.
Indeed, it was his determination to make a concrete contribution to this struggle that kept him getting into trouble with the politicians in his midlife. Forced into a life of permanent exile, Ngugi has had to keep examining and reformulating his convictions to enable him to continue the struggle realistically within the realities of his ever-changing environments.
HE IS STILL WRITING
Finally, Ngugi has written, and he is still writing. This might sound obvious, but there is more to it than first meets the eye or the ear. Few writers and would-be writers can compare with Ngugi wa Thiong’o in terms of sheer output.
The African “literary” world is populated by cosmetic amateurs and dilettantes who, on coughing up a little volume or two, spend the rest of their lives celebrating that meagre “achievement”, as I have said elsewhere.
Of course I should hasten to add that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. I feel thoroughly embarrassed at the thinness of my scribblings, in the face of the opus of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has had a much more troubled life and less settled existence than I.
Writing is more than a full-time occupation for those who take it seriously. I wonder if, in the six years remaining before I turn 80, I will be able to put before the reading public anything that would qualify me for undoing the strap of Ngugi’s sandal.
Above all, by writing and suffering for his writing, Ngugi has proved the point that writing and literature matter to society. Literature may be fun and entertainment, but it is also serious discourse. It is hypocritical of our leaders to pretend that literature does not matter when they are prepared to harass, persecute and imprison writers for what they produce. The razing and bulldozing of Ngugi’s Kamirithu Theatre, in the wake of Maitu Njugira, will remain a classic example of how seriously writing and performance matter, negatively, to society.
But the point is to make it matter positively.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]