Senior scholars in Kenya need to invest more in Memoirs
By Maurice N. Amutabi
Autobiographies are becoming a popular genre in the world, and some publishers such as East African Educational Publishers under Henry Chakava are encouraging this. They need manuscripts by people in public, to tell us how they lived, what they did well and if they have any regrets in doing things the way they did them. When is the right time to write one’s memoirs and reflections about life struggles and challenges? Very few Kenyan scholars have given us autobiographies, despite many promises of delivering them. Autobiographies play an important role, in reminding us through direct voice, how life was in the past, from which we draw lessons.
In the past few months, I have been surprised to read articles by senior scholars such as Prof. Austin Bukenya, Prof. Chris Wanjala and Prof. Henry Indangasi, many of which have been nothing but nostalgia and reminiscences about the glorious past. My argument is these articles belong to memoirs and we should not waste useful newspaper space on the things that will not improve the present status, and seek to change the quality of life of our people. I was a little bit frustrated particularly with Prof. Bukenya’s preoccupation with flying in East Africa in the 1960s. I was shocked because to me that is small talk, to villagers, at funeral fires in the night and not to a public forum like a national newspaper. I thought that this type of stuff belongs to youthful exuberance and should be erased after the maiden flight and be replaced by bigger issues and bigger ideas.
That Prof. Bukenya spent over 1000 explaining how it was like to fly in the 1960s and suggesting that female crew were more beautiful than today, really riled. There is no big deal in spending in the same hotel with airline crews, and even that should really excite a scholar who has been all over the world, fifty years later. I noticed the same excitement about Machakos of the 1960s and 1970s at Machakos Teachers College and Machakos High School. There is nothing wrong with such reminiscences but they belong to memoirs and not in public newspaper papers, where people are interested in issues that are of immediate concern and relevance to us. I am sure Kenya Airways will not even be interested in how East African Airlines functioned and who patronised it, and Machakos is now thinking to big and too post modern and its attendance affluent to be reminded and taken back to the 1970s school festivals and drama. From Uganda, John Ruganda is perhaps one of the writers that influenced me most, besides Semakula Kiwanuka. Ruganda’s books such as The Burdens and, The Floods evolved around ordinary plots, with ordinary people, spaces and sites. We nicknamed one of our teachers Kaija, and the name remained.
The article by Prof. Wanjala was perhaps the most problematic because he went on and on about his many publications, many of which are unknown and which have not enjoyed wide readership. He avoided some of the public confrontations he has had with his contemporaries and which have been embarrassing, instead choosing to focus on only his strong points and good times. Prof. Wanjala is among few scholars who believe that only those who hold PhD degrees should write for University audiences. He was known to loudly dismiss the works of people like Meja Mwangi, Cyprian Ekwenzi, David Mailu, among others because they did not have PhDs. For the record, I liked Going Down River Road, Kill Me Quick and The Cockroach Dance by Meja Mwangi. I also read some of the books by David Mailu, when growing up, alongside James Hadley chases.
In 1989 at Education Theatre II at the University of Nairobi, Prof. Wanjala took on Cyprian Ekwenzi who was giving a talk about popular literature. I was at the time, a master’s degree student and was keen to listen to academic heavyweights such as Cyprian Ekwenzi. We had been informed that Ekwenzi did not have a PhD and was teaching at University and that he was going to be lynched by our professors. After Ekwenzi had completed his presentation, during question time, we saw Chris Lukorito Wanjala rise up, smiling, with his mischievous trade mark smile, and we knew he was spoiling for war. He asked Ekwenzi’s opinion on people who do not hold PhDs writing for university audiences and if it was proper for them to teach at the University. It seemed like Ekwenzi had been expecting this question and was really prepared for it, to our total excitement. Ekwenzi jumped at it and went on to extol the popularity of his books, especially Jagua Nana and People of the City. Many people had read these two books as well as Burning Grass. Ekwenzi had just released two books in 1987 and was coming to launch them to the East African audience, these were Jagua Nana’s Daughter (1987) a sequel to Jagua Nana, and Behind the Convent Wall (1987). Ekwenzi was exciting as a speaker and explained why popular literature cannot be left in the hands of people like Chris Wanjala. He explained how when it came out, Jagua Nana was on the dashboard of every taxi in Lagos and other town in Nigeria, how it was shared by school boys and schools girls in Nigeria, some reading it under their blankets with a torch. Jagua Nana was translated into 12 languages and ranked second to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in times of copies sold. That was how popular his books were. Although the audience felt that Prof. Wanjala had lost the battle, he went on to insist that he cannot recommend Jagua Nana to his students because it is uncritical and is based on uncomplicated plot that will not stretch the imagination and mind of a university student.
I have always admired Prof. Henry Indangasi for his simplicity and unassuming attitude. He has always come across as simple and approachable. I had serious misgivings about his recent article in the Daily Nation, which was a reflective peace, reminiscences on his encounter with the Great Chinua Achebe. He wrote about how he was impressed with Chinua Achebe’s simplicity and how he was moved to be the one to introduce the great scholar to the audience of the University of Nairobi, when he visited Kenya. This is clearly material for memoirs and not for a national audience grappling with many issues of development. This is not the time to tell Kenyans about your little impressions about Chinua Achebe, but rather how the country can get out of the present problems of cohesion and integration and dealing with Islamic radicalization and terrorism threats. In this article, Indangasi came out as a hero worshipper and one who loves power, authority and influence. He was boasting about how he sat close to Chinua Achebe and thereby implying that he is also a literary great in his own right. Unfortunately, I have not come across any of the works of Indangasi apart from the article he presented at Jacaranda Hotel in 1989 at a colloquium organised by my teacher Prof. Mwangi wa Githumo at which I made my maiden conference presentation. In the article, Indangasi spends a lot of time on his times as a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He laments about many things, including how there was no African literature. I would recommend he commits many of those old ideas to paper, as part of his memoirs.
There are certain reminiscences that are exciting, such as those one comes across in William Ochieng’s narratives, on growing up in Yimbo, or when E.S Atieno-Odhiambo tells us about Liganua, his village and how they made starch from cassava. I have always got some attention when I discuss my growing up in Ebunangwe. I have always received appreciation from my undergraduate students when I explain to them ethno-weather, telling them how to read the skies and behaviour of winds and how I am more accurate in predicting rain than their so-called weather experts on TV and radio. They get excited to hear how we were taught how to trap moles by grandfather, and many youth get amused when I catch the moles, for they learn a new skill. Those are the type of stories I would like to tell when I become grandpa, not about defunct East African Airlines, or how I greeted Chinua Achebe in 1989.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs), Kisii University. Amutabi@yahoo.com