After listening to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s public lecture at the Kisii University on August 31 and his audience’s reactions, I concluded that he ranks among the most misunderstood Kenyan thinkers and writers.
Some of his fellow thinkers and opinion leaders at the Kisii gathering were very much like the same Kenyan brains that have, for many decades, failed to appreciate the worth of his thoughts and intellectual activism in and outside the country. Thus, it was that at the heavily attended lecture, a few well educated individuals missed the point when Ngugi highlighted the cultural and political significance of indigenous Kenyan languages.
Other patriotic thinkers insisted that Ekegusii, like other original Kenyan languages, is doomed to die in another 50 years or so. English would prevail because it is “eternal” and “universal”. My take was that they believed Ngugi was condemning Kenyans to learn and use essentially extinct languages. Yet the thrust of the lecture was that Kenyans should learn as many languages as possible but that the local ones must be still accorded prominence.
Nobody cheered or jeered when the professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, remarked that “a person who embraces a foreign language and abandons his mother-tongue is a slave”.
In a country where there is so much craze for anything foreign, I was not surprised by the muted response. Ngugi was addressing a crowd whose majority rejoiced in learning Chinese, French, English, German etc. rather than Ekegusii, Dholuo, Gikuyu, Kalenjin and the many others.
As a designated discussant, I stressed that language is a tool or object society uses or misuses depending on the motives of the users. I thought it was wrong-headed for anybody to argue that local languages would, if embedded in national cultural policy and practice, divide and set the 42 ethnic groups against one another. For if that was true, then one national language would have saved Somalia from gory degeneration into the failed state it is today.
UNITED IN TONGUE
I also cited Rwanda where nearly one million people were slaughtered in 1994 in the name of ethnic cleansing. One needs not overstate that Rwandese extremists addressed Tutsis and moderate Hutus as “cockroaches” to be eliminated and did it all in a mutually intelligible national language.
And from the onset, Ngugi was determined to highlight the rich innocent beauty of Kenyan languages. In a practical illustration, he invited the crowd to join him in singing a lullaby in Ekegusii. Not everybody did because this was a multiethnic group. But even for locals, the response and participation was not as spontaneous: Ekegusii was like a foreign language in their English and anglicized psyche.
I told the gathering that Jonathan Kariara once started off a poetry class at Moi University by singing a lullaby in Gikuyu. This was also a multiethnic class. The difference though was that Kariara ensured I and the rest sang the melodious tune for some five or so minutes before getting other Kenyan language tunes on board.
At the end of the class, students got convinced their various cultures and languages were intimately, intricately and joyfully intertwined with the poetry course they dreaded so much. They, in deed, proceeded to perform very well in the course. My argument was that using examples from various languages did not interfere with or prevent learning and passing poetry in the English language. I was at pains to ensure nobody mistook Ngugi for being averse to foreign languages. His stand was culture must have an identity or multiple identities as platforms from which to interact with foreign tongues.
Lead discussant, Prof Chris Wanjala, highlighted the historical milestone in Kenya’s cultural development and transformation when Ngugi and Henry Owuor Anyumba engineered abolition of the Department of English and replaced it with a Department of Literature. In came Afrocentric Literatures including oral literatures of Kenya researched in original languages and communicated in English in the final form.
It is instructive that Ngugi did not cite the body blow he and others did to the domination of literary studies by English. Wanjala mentioned it for him as one of the first student-beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution.
Ngugi’s mind was focused on the language issue in current Kenya and Africa. Thus whilst taking refreshments, I reminded Ngugi that he made me take the oral literature option for my second year MA project in the mid-1970s because a study of Tolstoy’s fiction would have been too abstract and far-removed from the Kenya’s realities. All this after he had taught me Russian literature with utmost passion! His answer: that’s the right way, beginning from home and the local language. “Then you can interact with other literatures authoritatively.”
The brief moment of nostalgia reawakened the painful past when I thought Ngugi did not want me to appreciate the great art of the Russian novel. In retrospect, I think Ngugi meant to convince all that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Gorgy, Goncharov, Turgenev, Pushkin, Sholokhov and others penned literary masterpieces because they used their own Russian mother-tongue. Although nobody asked questions about his novel Wizard of the Crow, I am convinced that the story flows naturally because it was first composed in Gikuyu.
As the post-lecture discussion drew to a close, I started receiving text messages and emails from mainly former students at Moi University. Somebody in the audience noted I was seated next to Ngugi and feeling great.
I certainly felt great interacting with him after many decades. I would have felt even greater had I sat next to him but could not because I and other ordinary mortals had to give way to gate-crashing politicians including overawed MCAs.
Apart from the allegation that I was nursing illusions of grandeur, other students told me that they too would one day become great writers and join him in a hall of fame. I told him all this and more but not all: some wanted to know how they can write like him, why he isn’t keen to come and settle in his birthplace; many were concerned that I never invited him to Moi University. He answered all with a smile.
The truth is Ngugi has become a legend almost every other student would love to be associated with. Thus Kisii University and the East African Educational Publishers had brought literary shrine to the southern zone of western Kenya. Those schooled and initiated in criticism know that such shrines are not meant to be battered by criticism for the sake of it. There were such in Kisii but there were also the uninitiated who were convinced that only English or Kiswahili had a future and that the so-called global village had no space for Wanjiku’s own authentic language.
Later, on September 19, I got lots of mail asking about Ngugi’s social life because Prof Maurice Amutabi, the principal host and convener of the event, wrote that as “students, they often took rides in Ngugi’s Peugeot 404 and would go to his house in Kamiriithu to drink muratina”. I know that the professor and close friend pens fiction but this one-sentence piece doesn’t wash.
I never saw Ngugi drink alcohol let alone imbibe muratina publicly. And I don’t know if he does it privately. I also know that I don’t and have never drank alcohol in my long life. I believe it is dishonourable to tell the world that a venerable character like Ngugi could go on drinking sprees with his students in his own house of all places. I went to Kamiriithu a few times in Ngugi’s car. At the house, the late Nyambura served many mugs of richly-milked Kenyan tea, not muratina. This alcohol fiction dampens a great end-of-August event graced by one of the greatest Kenyan thinkers ever.