Intellectuals lost their way, and the nation is bleeding

Saturday January 11 2014

Prof Ali Mazrui, foremost scholar reknown in fields of History and Economics globally.  Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Mazrui are examples of the best brains Africa has lost to the West. The current intellectuals will have to guide Kenya in formulating policies on how to build on existing successes.  PHOTO/ANTHONY KAMAU/FILE

Prof Ali Mazrui, foremost scholar reknown in fields of History and Economics globally. Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Mazrui are examples of the best brains Africa has lost to the West. The current intellectuals will have to guide Kenya in formulating policies on how to build on existing successes. PHOTO/ANTHONY KAMAU/FILE 


Our national failure to pause and evaluate post-independence shortcomings and triumphs has clearly led to the omission and regrettable repression of collective histories and memories. Yet what is repressed always returns to haunt, as it did in tragic ways in 2007.

It should be the work of Kenyan intellectuals to guide the nation in debating and understanding these issues, translating Kenyans to other Kenyans.

In our post-colonial history, our intellectuals have tended to forget or failed to ask upsetting questions, predisposing the nation to repeat previous mistakes while destroying its success stories.

There is a sinister link between our post-independence politics and intellectual history. I am struck when searching the archives to find that almost all members of our first Parliament had nationalistic credentials. Politics was associated with national service. By the time we elected the third Parliament, we had collectively lost sight of what politicians do. Some of our most gifted intellectuals abandoned sites of knowledge and cultural production and joined politics.

We had stopped asking what kind of politicians we needed. The bathos of our first decade of independence was mixed with dreams of opportunities offered by decolonisation and disillusionment of unfulfilled promises of political independence.

We then started building our national history, incorporating these occluding narratives, legitimised by state apparatus such as the ministry of Education. The consequences have been colossal, stunting subsequent generations in their understanding of history.

In our history lessons, we have failed to identify destructive mistakes committed by the founders of our nation, especially because this was the mandate of decolonisation: to forgive and to forget.

This history was articulated using the grammar and vocabulary of the ruling class, and continues, unfortunately, to be regurgitated by our students as Kenya’s history.

There is something profoundly wrong when one of the most epic stories of our nation’s history, the Mau Mau struggles and triumphs, is taught through the lens of causality — land was seized and violence ensued — rather than as a complexity of conflicts and controversies, terror and horror, sacrifices and surrenders, debates and desires, dereliction and death, space and spirituality, and tensions and triumphs.

Paradoxically, many intellectuals who emerged after independence were simultaneously products of a privileged colonial education as well as victims of colonial violence. During the decolonisation moment, these intellectuals searched for ways to guide citizens grappling with the idea of a nation called Kenya; of Kenya’s identity. There were hopes and anxieties, expectations and tensions. Ngugi wa Thiong’o captures this complex tension in his novel, Weep Not, Child; a sad novel, whose plot is wrapped in expectations of new beginnings and melancholic anxieties.


Our intellectuals, most of them graduating from Makerere University, responded to issues affecting the entire East African region. This was a period when presidents also wanted to be intellectuals.

We had Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote engaging in intellectual debates, and their arguments with scholars such as Prof Ali Mazrui, were published in academic journals and newspapers. While the list of post-independence intellectuals is long, Prof Ali Mazrui and Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o — the subjects of two documentary films I am working on — will illustrate my argument.

By engaging politicians, Mazrui served as a model of what intellectuals should do; that intellectuals have a duty to ask questions that shape public debates. He referred to Nkrumah as a great African, but not a great Ghanaian. For him, Nyerere was an original but not an independent thinker. In Julius Nyerere: Africa’s Titan on a Global Stage, Mazrui writes: “Ngugi and I wanted to become literary biographers of Kenyatta. When Daniel arap Moi was still Vice-President, I was considered as a possible speechwriter. I never played that role.”

In Uganda, Obote wondered whether Mazrui knew the difference between a politician and a political scientist. It is a political event, the Biafran war, which made Mazrui turn to literature, writing his only novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo.

Ngugi engraved his role as a public intellectual in 1975 when he published a powerful essay for the Weekly Review after the assassination of J.M. Kariuki. In the essay, Ngugi’s argument was that “contrary to the public’s perception, Kariuki’s assassination was not a senseless and irrational political act. On the contrary, given Kariuki’s history and experience as a product of anti-colonial resistance in a post-colonial landscape dominated by infamous supporters of the colonial regime, he posed a real threat to the post-colonial state,” writes Prof Simon Gikandi.

But who killed JM Kariuki? For Ngugi, “it was we, we who have kept silent and propped up an unjust oppressive system.”

Because Ngugi and Mazrui are products of colonialism and its cultural and educational institutions, they understand Europe very well, and are able to articulate issues rooted in Africanity. They have played the role of a translator of Africa to Europe, powerfully challenging dominant European ideas and images of Africa.

Ngugi’s writings, for example, were central in transforming and displacing European centres from African scholarship. He was behind the curriculum revolution at the University of Nairobi when he published the 1968 document called ‘the abolition of the English department,’ which became a model for re-thinking the institutions of literary education.

When Mazrui’s world was disintegrating in Uganda in the early 1970s, he sought employment at the University of Nairobi. The then Vice-Chancellor, Dr Josephat Karanja, took him for lunch at the Norfolk Hotel, and told him he could not be hired because he was simply too outspoken.

He left for Palo Alto, California, then Ann Arbor, Michigan, and finally settled in Binghamton, New York. Ngugi was detained in 1977, and released in 1978. He was forced into exile in 1982.

By the early 1980s, the space occupied by intellectuals had been polluted by politics. Universities were swiftly losing their moral authority. Informers sat with students in lecture halls. Some lecturers would throw away their lecture notes after class, fearing their contents would be considered seditious. Other lecturers were tossed into waiting police Land Rovers in the glaring presence of their students. Others were detained. Others disappeared. Others were co-opted by the state.

While the consequences were numerous, most damaging was the loss of autonomy to ask questions in a protected academic zone.

Some who remained served as youth wingers for the ruling party; others were hired to either write political manifestos or to design pseudo-philosophies, which were pushed into our educational curriculum.

“Some of the junior scholars who remained lacked senior scholars to mentor them. It was a loss,” says Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, one intellectual hurled into detention.

I spent considerable time with Prof Katama Mkangi before his passing in 2004. He was distressed by the fact that gifted scholars had been co-opted by the authoritarian state. One evening, following his return from the University of Dar es Salaam, where he served as an external examiner, he was picked up and detained. From the loneliness of ‘the freezer’, he learned about the death of his mother and his brother.

Upon release, he couldn’t get a job in any of our universities. He became a peasant farmer. It is Dr Mutunga who gave him a place to live in Nairobi. It is from that house he wrote his novel Walenisi.
This was a moment of collective suffering, and if nations emerge out of common suffering, we have had a lot of suffering in this country. But it doesn’t become common suffering until we understand where that suffering is coming from.

The sacred intellectual space of the university had been violated. A vacuum was created, which was filled by NGOs and other non-intellectual programmes. And because NGOs are not intellectual organisations, those funding them determined their pseudo-intellectual agenda.

With the departure of these scholars came the brain-drain debate. Ngugi and Mazrui became examples of the best brains Africa has lost to the West. Their biographies, therefore, need to be examined because they allow us to question the role of Kenyan intellectuals at home and in the diaspora.

It is also important to ask whether diaspora questions should always be reduced to conversations about monetary remittances, lamentations about brain-drain, and attempts to rationalise brain-gain. These are complex but inevitable questions.

In both Ngugi’s and Mazrui’s scholarship, African debates are made relevant in global debates. In a millennium marked by a clash of values and cultures, we cannot ignore the question of language as advocated by Ngugi, neither can we wish away the question of Islam as articulated by Mazrui.

But it is also important to call attention to our numerous achievements: Discursive spaces that have opened up, allowing conversations with the potential of disrupting the existing top-down model.

Ordinary Kenyans are interacting in ways that signify existing horizontal relationships; not entirely defined by ethnic extraction.

As we reflect on the past and the future of our country, one can only hope our intellectuals will guide this nation in formulating policies on how to build on existing successes.

Wachanga Ndirangu is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. [email protected]