Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o Ignited passion in the Audience at Kisii University
By Maurice N. Amutabi
Kisii University enjoyed one of the most high voltage academic activities on August 31, 2015 which has never been witnessed before on campus. They came in their thousands to listen to Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o at Kisii University on August 1, 2015 at the Main Library. The place was crowded and one could feel the academic ‘Holy Spirit’ in the air, as the audience waited for the arrival of Kenya’s most famous public intellectual. There was tremendous amount of expectation as academic staff, students and the general public came out in large numbers to listen to this great icon and famous author. Ngugi did not disappoint. He was introduced by Vice Chancellor Prof. John S. Akama and his lecture covered three important issues – one, the need for Africans to love and promote their languages; two, the need to recognise our heroes such as Otenyo and Koitalel arap Samoei; third, need for decolonization, calling on intellectuals to actively engage in research that promotes African values while at the same time engaging the state in matters of development in order to hold the state accountable.
Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was very passionate about language issues in Africa, which has appeared in many of his intellectual works in the past. He was in his true elements when he stood up to address the audience. In what many scholars know, Ngugi revisited his pet subject on language. Ngugi revisited the language question, asking Kenyans not to forget their local languages. He pointed out that many civilizations that endured for many generations often preserved their cultures through their own languages. He faulted the current lack of commitment and passion for African languages. He encouraged the use of African languages as a way of promoting our cultures. He said promoting local languages would not necessarily promote negative ethnicity. The chief executive officer of East African Educational Publishers Kiarie Kamau listed many books which Ngugi has published in Agikuyu language.
Despite having lived abroad for many years, Ngugi remains passionate about Kenyan nationalism and his patriotic side was obvious. Ngugi ignited passion in the audience, by his demand for the return of the head of Otenyo, the leader of Abagusii resistance who was beheaded by the colonial DC of Kisii District Mr. Northcott in 1908. Ngugi was not amused by the fact that Kenyans have not been loud enough in demanding for the return of the heads of resistance heroes such as Otenyo and Koitalel Arap Samoei which remain in Britain many years after independence. How far have we gone in demanding for the head of Otenyo? He said Otenyo was a national hero and should be honoured alongside Dedan Kimathi and others who stood firm against colonial oppression.
Ngugi was witty and critical as he talked about his life in detention and how his only friend behind bars was ‘imagination’ which his jailers could not take away. He told us how he used prison toilet paper to write two books which were published soon after he was released. Ngugi has published 40 books, two of which are based on his experiences in detention. He said that his friendship with Raila Odinga was made closer by the visit he received from Jaramogi Oginga Odinga soon after he was released from detention at Kamiirithu. He was pleasantly surprised by the visit and forever realized that despite the incarceration, there were some friends who did not forsake him.
One of the surprise guests at the public lecture was Raila Amolo Odinga, the leader of opposition in Kenya, who shared many jokes about his history with Ngugi wa Thiong’o going back to their days at the University of Nairobi where he briefly taught in the 1970s. He referred to Ngugi and himself as holding a ‘degree’ called PG or Prison Graduates. He said that Ngugi’s prison diary, Detained made him to survive detention. Raila shared with Ngugi wa Thiong’o the need to recognise local languages and both thought that it would be interesting to have Members of County Assembles (MCAs) debate in their local languages in County Assemblies. The problem with this suggestion is that not all counties in Kenya have single ethnic groups residing in them and MCAs come from different ethnic groups.
The discussants of Ngugi wa Thiong’o were his former students, Prof. Chris Wanjala of the University of Nairobi and Prof. Peter Amuka of Moi University. They did good commentaries on Ngugi’s lecture but were not critical enough. We realized too late that it was not easy for students to critique their teacher. The two were clearly mesmerised for meeting their lecturer after many years and ended up taking the audience through memory lane, occasionally lapsing into nostalgia, about the good old days. Wanjala talked about how Ngugi was the only African lecturer in the Department of English studies at the University of Nairobi when he joined the institution as an undergraduate in the 1960s. He shared with the audience the changes that Ngugi brought about in the curriculum of Literature, and created new courses that were very Afro-centric replacing the Euro-centric curriculum, besides changing the name of the department. Wanjala’s came across as flat because his usual punch lines, academic arrogance and vibrancy were lacking. Instead we saw and heard a forlorn figure, praising the hero.
Prof. Amuka also shared with the audience about the good old days, when as students they often took rides in Ngugi’s Peugeot 404 and time and again went to his house in Kamiriithu to drink muratina. Prof. Amuka reminded the audience about Ngugi’s generosity to him as a student, and how Ngugi prevailed upon him to drop Russian literature to African literature, asking him to start at home first. He mentioned many academic heavyweights in Kenya who went through the hands of Ngugi. Like Prof. Wanjala, we did not see Amuka fire academic missiles the Ngugi way as he is always know to do. The two scholars were timid and did little criticism but pay homage to their hero, and we understand this. I can imagine myself discussing the work of my teachers at the University of Nairobi Prof. Godfrey Muriuki, Prof. Henry Mutoro, Prof. Mwangi wa Githumo, Prof. V. G Simiyu, Prof. Korwa Adar, among others. I would probably be very generous to them and remind them about our good old days.
I thought that Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o came out as a little bit casual in the manner in which he examined the language question, especially his recommendation. He suggested that we go back to our local languages, paradoxically stating so in English. I know Ngugi tried this and wrote some of his books in Agikuyu language which did not make it to the best seller lists until they were translated to English. My thinking is that if we would like to have our own African impact on global language stage, we can promote the use of one African language such as Kiswahili, Zulu, Luganda or Chichewa, or Twi or Joloff or any other that the African Union can agree on. We are living in a global world in which we must speak global languages in order to compete globally. Children can be taught in their local languages, but must also be taught global languages and I don’t think the two are mutually exlusive.
As a historian, I am not so emotional and wedded to the idea of recovering and reviving dying languages because there are more languages which died in the past than those in the world today. Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, Ethiopian Ge’ez (world’s first written language), Latin and others are referred to as ‘dead’ languages because they remain only in academic realms. They have been replaced by new languages. That is just how history is. I don’t think I would spend sleepless nights because my kids cannot speak Luhya, my mother tongue with the fluency in which I speak it. They are global citizens with much bigger environment to operate in compared to my world in the 1970s while growing up in Western Kenya. I find them more fluent in English and Kiswahili than me and for obvious reasons. I was weaned in River Mumboko, where I drank and bathed in cold unprocessed water, ate white ants, raw cassava and sweet potatoes, wild fruits and leaves for lunch, which if they tried they might have all kinds of aches.
If a language is dying, it means it has no speakers and recovering it adds no value. There are many MCAs who speak their local languages but there are some who cannot speak them. I have colleagues who cannot speak their languages but can speak Kiswahili and English and are comfortable about it. Why would I force them to speak a local language, spoken by 2000 people in some remote village in Kenya? Kiswahili is spoken by 500 million people in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, D R Congo, Zambia, Somalia, Mauritius, Seychelles, Aden, Oman and South Sudan, while English is spoken by 3.5 billion people.
On the demand for the return of the heads of Otenyo and Koitalel Samoei to Kenya, Ngugi was spot on and I totally support the idea because it has a symbolic meaning and nationalistic appeal. These are our heroes as Kenyans because they made the colonisers know that Kenya had its owners. In 1994 President Nelson Mandela initiated the demand for the return of the remains of Sarah Bartman, the Khoikhoi girl who had been captured by Europeans at the age of 18, taken to Europe in 1895 because of her unique posterior and big breasts. She was displayed in cages in shows and exhibitions in Paris and London where men touched her posterior and genitalia for curiosity and died at the 26. Her genitalia was cut off and preserved in a jar. Her body was returned to a hero’s welcome in South Africa in 1994 and given state burial.
In Ethiopia, the giant iron obelisk stolen by Benito Mussolini’s forces when they invaded Ethiopia in 1936 was returned in 2005 after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi demanded for it. We should demand return of heads, our artefacts and heritage. I saw more artefacts on Africa at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in 2000 than any African museum I have visited. It is a shame that we have not taken care of the Joseph Murumbi collections which now lie in waste at the Kenyan National Archives. Our children should be able to see our rich past of indigenous grinding stones, thistles and pestles, guards, pots, dishes and culinary tastes, clothes and other artefacts in order to stimulate their imagination and drive for invention and discovery.
The question and answer session was interesting and Ngugi wa Thiong’o was asked many questions by the audience. Members in the audience asked him about his previous and present positions on issues such as using vernacular and not English in intellectual debates and if this was not fatalistic. He was asked if he was rich as a result of his many books. Others asked him why he “killed” Muthoni the cultural heroine in his novel The River Between, and not Nyambura the cultural traitor, while one asked him why many of his novels ended in suspense. Ngugi responded to the questions quite eloquently to the satisfaction of the audience. Kisii University will be holding its annual international conference in Nairobi from June 24-27, 20016 and Ngugi was approached to provide keynote address. Kisii University community promised never to look back and carry on the intellectual fire that was lit by Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and Students’ Affairs) at Kisii University, Kenya. Amutabi@yahoo.com