Why all of us are right in this great literary debate

Friday December 29 2017

The literary war between Dr Godwin Siundu ( left) and Prof Henry Indangasi (right) is about the differences between form and content in literature. PHOTOS| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

The literary war between Dr Godwin Siundu ( left) and Prof Henry Indangasi (right) is about the differences between form and content in literature. PHOTOS| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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There is a debate in the literary columns of the Saturday Nation and in the corridors of Literature Departments in Kenya’s universities regarding the teaching of literature, researching on literature, and writing on literature.

The debate shows that literature is one of the cultural subjects in the academy which is studied in terms of its content and its form.

Scholars who are conventionally trained and tested in different departments and countries before they are hired to teach at university level are hot under their collars to demonstrate their individual perspectives on how to study and teach the subject, reflecting their diverse backgrounds.

The example of the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi makes this point very clear.

We have a sizeable number in that department who were trained at the University of Nairobi from their undergraduate to doctoral level.

They reflect the journey of the teaching of literature from the time the department was under expatriate professors — mainly from England and Scotland — to the time indigenous scholars took over the department in the 1970s.

The prototypes of the department have interacted with secondary school teachers in conferences and followed them up as their students at the university.

There is a crop of scholars in the department who were trained and reared in other campuses in different universities until they joined the teaching staff at the University of Nairobi.

This lot has a lot to do to adjust to the academic ethos of the department and oftentimes want to sneer at the literary traditions of the University of Nairobi, or totally ignore the whole revolutionary transformation of the department from colonial time to the present and look at the discourse about the abolition of the English Department as sheer rigmarole.


These different perspectives on the teaching of literature in our times and the university should not be a problem. They should, instead, show a richness rather than poverty.

I am saying this because the literary war between Dr Godwin Siundu and Prof Henry Indangasi is about the differences between form and content in literature. Whilst Dr Siundu wants literary criticism to become a social science that deals with all issues that are handled in politics, philosophy, religion, political science, geography, history and population studies, Prof Indangasi is saying “No!” Literature is about speaking and writing well and it must remain so.

Without even telling us which content literature should carry, Dr Siundu says that literature should forget about hindsight and the past and deal with foresight and the future. He is even telling us that literature should be relevant to Vision 2040 without giving us trends in literature towards that.

Indangasi is seen as conservative and reactionary because he has remained a hardnosed pedagogue worshipping at the cathedral of style and form in literature and pouring scorn on any forms of content that led to the decolonisation of literature in East Africa to liberate African literature from English Letters. He shelters under the umbrella of teaching language and art, which he shares with the people in Linguistics.

But this is all fine. My point of departure from the two belligerents is that all the people who teach at the university were hired to teach different subjects and different courses, if not units. When a new scholar arrives for an interview to teach and conduct research at university level, they are asked: “What is your area of competence? What contributions to knowledge will you make?”

Literary scholars specialise on genres like fiction, poetry, drama, the essay and/or rhetoric. They teach literature according to genre, period, and oftentimes geographical region. When we were drawing the literature syllabus under Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Dr Eddah W. Gachukiah, who is an accomplished teacher of English and with the background of drawing curricular at the Kenya Institute of Education, made a major contribution by saying that despite the changes we wanted to make in content, we should not forget stylistics and language use.

These are components in our syllabus which she herself taught, and were taken over by Henry Indangasi and Hellen Mwanzi. These remained their forte and we have respected the role of those two courses not only at the University of Nairobi, but in all public universities.

But the question is, there are other courses in the department which other lecturers have to teach. The lecturers who teach and guide students in other units have an equally important contribution to make. Prof Indangasi and lecturers who are bent towards form and style should not lord over those lecturers whose stress is on content and say they are not following the correct occurrences of sentences in their various courses. Those lecturers will pursue content and themes and other features like characterisation in such a way that students will gain from them according to their ability and competence.

A colleague who is on a research trip over the entire festive season even rang me and said I should mediate between Prof Indangasi and his younger colleagues in the literary academy because there is a danger that the participants in the debate may fail to use words in their exchanges and resort to a fist-fight. The subject has become so hot that the students we teach at the university and those who have passed through our hands have become spectators and cheer leaders.

Prof Ciarunji Chesaina and I have seen the way older colleagues like Prof Indangasi are harassing our younger colleagues at the Department of Literature, and I have a feeling that we, the old guards in the academia, should treat our younger colleagues with some modicum of care and respect. Let us teach our younger colleagues the hypocrisy of  the English tradition of letters where liberal scholars working in Africa used to tell us with one side of the mouth that they and us had “shared humanity” and that there was some “overarching human identity” in their literature that they shared with us, while with the other side of the mouth they said that we were born inferior and born to serve them, and that even the Bible said so.

This, of course, was nonsense, and they used these platitudes to oppress us. They protested when we wanted change in the syllabus. People like Prof David John Cook claimed that Africanising the syllabus would lead to some “unmitigated disaster.” It is only the strong stand that Professors Pio Zirimu and Augustine Bukenya took on the need to introduce a syllabus which included the teaching of Orature which forced Cook cave in. Why does Indangasi want to take us to those dark days?


Some of us who have been in the discipline for some time know that the arguments between Dr Siundu and Prof Indangasi are not unusual.

There was a time in the Department of Literature when Okot p’Bitek and Taban lo Liyong would argue so vehemently over their different approaches to the study of literature that you would think that they would not eat from the same table again. I learnt later that Taban lo Liyong was Okot p’Bitek’s pupil at Samuel Baker Secondary School in Gullu.

So irreverent was Taban to Okot that I was felt that they must have been great enemies, but with years I learnt that their differences came from their theoretical perspectives on literature. Taban lo Liyong’s iconoclastic approaches to the study of culture came from his academic upbringing in the US where classics and rebellious thought of Nietzsche dominated.

Okot p’Bitek’s backround, on the other hand, was anthropology. He studied oral literature at the feet of Oxford scholars. He saw traditional artists in their societal roles and sought to study oral literature in terms of values and the message it carried. He was very much unlike Henry Owuour Anyumba, who disaggregated literary artefacts and looked into their structures.

This brings me to Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who wrote on works of literature in terms of how they explained the historical transformation of societies towards freedom and self-determinism.

Prof Indangasi should not take over from David Cook, who did not want young Ugandans to take over the Department of English at Makerere and Africanise it. He admires the late Dr Waigwa’s ability to enunciate words almost for its own sake. He talks about the need for writing good sentences in English without telling us the value that those sentences should carry. It is one thing to write good English, but it is even better to write a good sentence stating the issues that plague us. There are scholars like Peter O. Amuka who seem to be swallowing isms from the West without making them relevant to our situation. This type of scholar is as irrelevant to us as their counterparts who urge us to speak English through the nose like white people.


Professor Chris Wanjala teaches Literature at the University of Nairobi