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Long walk to decolonising the mind

Saturday June 6 2015

Renown literature scholar Ngugi wa Thiong'o in Nairobi on June 2, 2015. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI

Renown literature scholar Ngugi wa Thiong'o in Nairobi on June 2, 2015. PHOTO | BILLY MUTAI  

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There has been a lot of critical response to your writings generally, and to Weep Not, Child, particularly. Do you think they have put a finger on the essential message that you had in mind when you wrote the novel or it is the case of the elephant where everyone is saying what they have touched?

Literature is like an elephant and we, as interpreters, can only touch the various parts. We can only keep discovering it. When you touch that elephant today, when your hands are cold or wet or sticky or whatever, then a year or two or 10 years later you may touch them when your hands are trembling. What I meant to say is that you’ve got a very good image of what literature is. Literature is that elephant. We can only keep on discovering new things about it. So, in essence, I appreciate various aspects as they are picked on. As the author of Weep Not, Child, I appreciate very much. One thing I appreciate isn’t that my work is good or bad, but whenever people say to me that my work impacted them in a specific way.

One interesting question at the end of Weep Not, Child is that of ethical responsibility of one to other humans. In a world with so much violence and death, what would you say about how we, as Kenyans, would really deal with this shadow of anti-humanity?

There is a phrase which I like very much. The Mau Mau fighters would sing it, but I first heard it sang by men, women and children who had been moved from Olenguruone in Nakuru during the colonial era. They would pass near Limuru in a convoy. And the refrain was, “much love I found there, of women, children and men. When a morsel fell to the ground, it was divided amongst us”. It was a very powerful image.

There is another image in connection with that. I think it was in 1964, when there were floods in Nyando, Nyanza. I was with the Nation at the time, and I was assigned a story in Gatundu, President Kenyatta’s home. Whom did we find? President Kenyatta and his VP, Oginga Odinga.

Ordinary folk from Murang’a had gathered whatever they had to bring it to Gatundu so Jaramogi would take it to Kano in solidarity with the people of Nyando. This struck me as something that talks of the Kenyan spirit then.

The notion that Kenya is for us all. If you are given something public, you should feel a higher morality to care for it. We must not see Kenya as a looters paradise. We will be in trouble if we do that.

Many schools, particularly when I went to Mang’u, were run by African Independent School Movements. Interestingly, the first thing the founders of the schools did when they met was to put money on the table. They donated in every meeting.

We’ve done it before and can do it again. I would like to see a thriving of cultural performances here, more plays being done in African languages and this being valued not only by ordinary people but also the State creating an environment where that is done.

And when you create an environment, it doesn’t mean it’s only viable when it praises you.

The whole essence of culture is celebrating different opinions and outlooks. You don’t learn anything from one who agrees with you. Of course, you’ll feel good but what will you have learnt from that? Yet you always learn from someone who doesn’t agree with you.

The reason we ask this question is that people today talk of economic progress as if it has no cultural basis.

There is a lecture I want to give, and I hope I can. It’s called: Njonjo and Gicamba. (Former Attorney-General Charles) Njonjo is a graduate of Alliance, the best the Kenyan education system could offer then, then Fort Hare in South Africa and a great law school in London, a most highly legally educated person you could think of. Gicamba was a bicycle maker, a jua kali artisan in Nyeri or somewhere. Now this Gicamba made an airplane, what we called Kenya One. He didn’t even have secondary school education, but he made an airplane which flew, not as far as London, but at least it flew. But what did Njonjo do? He banned it, instead of commending it. So Gicamba couldn’t fly it and he became the butt of jokes in Parliament. So here you have a graduate of London who doesn’t believe Kenya has anything to offer. He couldn’t even allow a trial because they make better airplanes in London. We denigrated Gicamba’s effort, terming it a joke. At that point we made two symbolic choices in Njonjo and Gicamba. One said from Kenya we can make things, even if awkward, we can improve on them. Another says, you can’t make things, we have those who can make better planes. We are negating our cultural basis. And by that I don’t mean dressing the way we dressed in the 18th century. We are forgetting that our ancestors were dressed with the best available material at the time.

Four of your children are now published authors. But in a larger sense you are also the father of modern Kenyan literature. Can we speak of the “Ngugi children” the same way we refer to the “Achebe children” in the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?  How is the broader Kenyan literary scene now?

First, my three sons: Mukoma, Nduchu and Tee, have been published alongside Wanjiku. So we literally have five writers. So you can talk of the Ngugi family of writers within which is an inter-generational gap or connection.

You can project that and say that, indeed, there is a Kenyan family of writers. There isn’t just a new generation but an ever newer generation. And I’m really happy about it. There was a time I would go to places and they would talk of Nigerians and mention a whole list of names, then my name. I’m not one who is particularly proud of being the exception, I would like to feel like part of a tradition. So in this case I’m very happy that since Weep Not, Child we’ve had not one, but several generations of writers from Kenya.

There is a view that most of your works are driven by an ideological slant that is now out of touch with the socio-economic global dynamics.

I’m driven by the power of the ordinary person. I saw it in Kamirithu. I saw it in Mau Mau. I saw it in the independent school movement. The first college of higher education in Kenya and probably in East Africa wasn’t the Royal College (now the University of Nairobi), but Githunguri Teachers College, which was built by the efforts from ordinary Kenyans, who used the age-set system to collect a certain amount. It was based on the spirit of self-reliance. To be fair to Mbiyu Koinange, this was his idea and I’ll tell you where it came from. He was a graduate of Columbia University, and his father wanted to build him a stone house. But he said he should instead contribute those stones to Githunguri Teachers College, and for a while he lived in a hut. When African schools were banned, the colonialist turned the Githunguri Teachers building into a prison for hanging Mau Mau warriors. They destroyed a symbol of possibility. Koinange had been to Virginia Hampton Institute, where Booker T. Washington was educated.

What do you think is the literary merit of your later works like Murogi wa Kagogo as compared to the earlier ones?

The way I look at my books is this. I like Weep Not, Child and The River Between, especially for what they have inspired and because I wrote them as a student. I was reading for my degree in English honours at Makerere, as well as writing a column for the Nation. Between 1961 and 1963, I wrote about 60 pieces of journalism. I produced the play, The Black Hermit. I wrote short stories. I was doing something, which even professors thought was unexpected, but not because I was special. I only believed it could be done. So I’m very proud of the books that came out in that period. But if you ask me to choose between my children, I would prefer Devil on The Cross and I Will Marry When I Want. I am very proud of Matigari and I am extremely proud of The Wizard of the Crow, because I wrote them in Gikuyu and from there they were translated into other languages. The Wizard of the Crow won the California Gold Medal, which was first awarded to John Steinbeck (author of The Grapes of Wrath) in early 1920s.

I am proud of these latter works not because they are better novels than, for example, Petals of Blood, but because I wrote them in a Kenyan language. African languages can do it. There isn’t a mystery about it. So I’m proud of them for very different reasons. I can announce that I’ve just finished what I call Kenda Muiyuru: Rigano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi). It’s 120 pages long. It’s based on the nine daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi. Very little is known about them. What I’m hoping is that we can have great Kenyan communities’ stories of their origins, how they came to be. I would like writers in Kenya to actually read the Greek mythologies, the Homeric poems. They inspired all playwrights who came after. Even Latin writers like Virgil. His epic on the founding of Rome was an offshoot of the Greek mythologies. We have mythologies in Kenya, I want to see writers working on them. Then we can share these mythologies, to form a collective inheritance, just like the Greek mythologies became part of the collective inheritance of European culture.

The subject of your coming back. It won’t go away. It has been a while since Kenya returned to a democracy. Do you think that the democratic culture is now well entrenched in the country to warrant your return?

When I came from the airport, the first thing I showed the journalists was my Kenyan passport, I’m very proud of it. The only time I ever travelled with a foreign passport was a Ghanaian one, because I couldn’t have gotten one here during the Moi era.  I value the opening up of the democratic space here. It’s an integral part of development, because it creates opportunities. A culture that tolerates difference is a good thing. I would like to be part of that. So I’ll come back, but I have a job now to do in California. But when UoN offers me a job here, I’m going to move. Honestly, I would like to do anything I can, whether abroad or here, to contribute to this other Kenya which we now have.

An endowment? A Ngugi Institution?

I would like to have some kind of archives. Archives are the riches of a country. American universities buy archives, because they know that tomorrow you Kenyans will go there. I would like to do a ‘Ngugi Archive’, and a foundation to promote the performances in African languages.