When Ngugi wa Thiong’o turned 80 last year, Kenyan scholars Simon Gikandi and Ndirangu Wachanga, whose intellectual projects on Ngugi’s oeuvre are unmatched, mobilised other intellectuals from all over the world to share their insights into Ngugi’s life and writings.
That led to Ngugi: Reflections on his Life of Writing, edited by Gikandi and Wachanga and published by James Currey. The book was launched on June 13, at the United States International University’s auditorium in Nairobi in the presence of some distinguished scholars, students of literature and the general population.
Perhaps Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s introductory remarks summarised both the contents in the book and the pronouncements made by all other speakers on the occasion: Ngugi is one of the world’s, not just Kenya’s or Africa’s, leading intellectuals, whose influence traverses countries, languages, and disciplines.
This influence, as various contributors to the book show, was mainly in pioneering and sustaining debates in various domains of Kenyan publics; in publishing and the wider education sector, politics and the business of governance, as well as in Kenya’s struggles with its histories.
These and other pointers at Ngugi’s contribution to the world of knowledge and its politics were summed up by panellists — who were also contributors to the book — at the launch; Henry Chakava of the East African Educational Publishers, former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a scholar, activist and lawyer who once defended Ngugi in court, and Garnette Oluoch-Olunya, a literary critic and university lecturer of long and respectable standing.
Others were Kimani Njogu of Twaweza Publications, Ndirangu Wachanga, and Simon Gikandi, both of who need no introductions.
Of these panellists, Chakava’s and Gikandi’s remarks, whose extended versions are published in the book, summarised the dynamics that inform(ed) the publishing industry in Kenya of the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi eras, the rise of the regional literary canon, and the tenacious grit of Ngugi, who defied systemic persecutions to emerge as the most venerated institutional monument of Kenyan literature.
At the risk of losing his life, Chakava decided to publish Ngugi’s works, Caitani Mũtharabaini (Devil on the Cross) and Ngahika Ndenda (I Will Marry When I Want), whose themes extended Ngugi’s concerns with capital-driven, class-based exploitation of the worker in a neocolonial political economy that made nonsense of our claims of political independence.
For me, what emerged from the launch was not so much a chronicle of these issues and Ngugi’s role in them, but their implications in the changing world of an ongoing digital revolution, the spread of artificial intelligence and its ramifications to human relations, the seeming unassailability of neoliberal capitalist ideologies, and their manifestations in a resurgent wave of racial and ethnic right-wing nationalisms.
For this reason, Ngugi’s inauguration of the language debate as a fundamental basis of engagement for Africans and other peoples of the world is relevant now as it was over 30 years ago. It was a literary, political, and philosophical staging of a broad-based critique of artificial hierarchies of racial and linguistic identities, with corresponding inequalities, all of which it has been Ngugi’s agenda to dismantle.
But time is running out. As Prof Kimani Njogu noted in his remarks at the launch, the need to preserve and grow content in African languages goes beyond meeting our ethnic or racial identity needs as a people; it includes the creation of fodder for the technologies of the now ubiquitous artificial intelligence that seem set to mediate human interactions from now on.
Should our dreary lip service to the growth and use of African languages fall behind the spread of artificial intelligence, Africans’ voices in global discourses will go silent, forever.
It is this dreadful prospect that overwhelmed me when I saw the grand old man of Kenyan letters take to the stage at the USIU’s auditorium. Donning a tweed flat cap that gave a charming finish to his gait, Ngugi began his remarks by reflecting on the intrigues that dominated the publication of his works during and after his detention without trial.
Nearly 40 years after publishing Devil on the Cross and I Will Marry When I Want, Ngugi is still worried about the global economics of exploitation and the role of language in this.
Europe, according to Ngugi, has given Africa resources to access Europe’s accents, while Africa continues to give Europe access to our resources, thereby extending the global imbalance of power.
The ensuing discourse, packaged in Europhone grammars, engineers protracted crises of identities for Africans, who are compelled to “wrap the shame of their mother tongue’s languages under their tongues” à la Grace Musila. In her reflections on Ngugi’s contributions, Musila thus describes the contemporary legacies of the colonialist obsession with Englishness that Ngugi waged war against since the 1960s.
For Ngugi, the tendency by Europe to provincialise the African is nowhere more evident than in the way social institutions of advanced human organisation are named, ascribed or withheld. For instance, in global news circles, Iceland, with a mere 340,000 people, is considered a nation; while the 40-million-strong Yoruba of Nigeria are considered an ethnic group.
Similarly, speakers of French or English are, respectively, called Frenchmen (and women) and Englishmen (and women); but the Gikuyu and Dholuo speakers are, well, Gikuyu tribesmen or Luo tribesmen.
These limited courtesies extended to Africans derive from, and have a bearing on, language — which, therefore, remains the most effective tool for Africans’ liberation and centring in global discourses.
By problematising the role of language in literature and society in general, Ngugi altered the direction of the global humanities generally, and contributed in tailoring the cloak of global respectability for African literature, under the rubric of postcolonial discourse.
One only needs to look around to see how the lexicon of ‘decolonising’ — as a wish for and gesture of transformation — has travelled, especially in the humanistic and social scientific debates in the Global South.
Yet, as many other contributors in Ngugi: Reflections on his Life of Writing show, Ngugi’s influence went way beyond the language of literatures, to shape the existing philosophies of justice (Willy Mutunga) and international geopolitical ties (Levin Opiyo Odhiambo).
For Mutunga, it was his encounter with the radical intellectualism of Ngugi in the early 1970s that exposed him to notions of justice and fairness beyond Black’s Law Dictionary.
Mutunga’s days at the University of Nairobi — where he encountered a vibrant Department of Literature and its equally active Free Travelling Theatre — were moments of a moral awakening that was sparked by his reading of Ngugi’s works, especially those steeped in the class-based, Marxist, reading of societal struggles.
If Mutunga is a beacon of progressive jurisprudence, it is because of his encounter with Ngugi’s writings; their thematic development and generic rendition that pushed Mutunga and — by his admission in the essay, others such as Kivutha Kibwana — who developed an understanding of the law as an ideologically laden structure that can both be a shield and a weapon, depending on who needs it at what point.
It is this instrumentalisation of the law, especially in the realm of international diplomacy, that Levin Opiyo discusses in his reading of Ngugi’s tribulations during the early years of the Moi presidency.
Propelled by his own paranoia of the masses and sheer pettiness, Moi leveraged on Britain’s goodwill to him in the mid-1980s to demand that Britain expel Ngugi, who was allegedly spreading propaganda against other students, and working on forming a communist party.
Why, Moi wondered, was Ngugi living and working freely in London when Gideon, Moi’s son and current senator for Baringo, “needed a visa to stay in London for even a day”!
That Ngugi’s presence in Britain at the time even became a diplomatic issue shows the vulnerabilities that Ngugi exposed himself to as he chose the conscientious path of being a public and organic intellectual.
Contributions to this book are many and varied in their concerns, all about Ngugi; it is perhaps unnecessary or even unhelpful to enumerate all of them here, except to note that they variously acknowledge and celebrate Ngugi’s contributions to our discipline and to our sense of national and racial identities.
Ngugi’s contributions and influence, the essays show, have been at a terrible cost to him, his family, and his psychosocial security. Surviving all these to attain the age of 80, while living to tell the tale, as Gabriel García Márquez would put it, is perhaps the biggest reason to celebrate Ngugi, now 81.
This is what Simon Gikandi and Kimani Wachanga, while mobilising many other scholars on Ngugi, tell us in Ngugi: Reflections on his Life of Writing, which should interest anyone interested in national and literary histories of Kenya.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.