I apologise to Prof. Amuka and blame my aging ears
By Maurice N. Amutabi
In his remarks as a discussant at Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’os recent public lecture at Kisii University, I thought I heard Prof. Peter Amuka confessing that they drank muratina at Prof. Ngugi wa Thinog’o’os home at Kamirriithu, Limuru., but he says they drank tea instead. I was surprised when I was inundated by calls on the morning of Saturday September 26, 2015 telling me to read the Saturday Nation where Prof. Amuka had called me a liar. On page 34 of the Saturday Nation, I read the heading, “Of Great Ngugi Event and lots of Don’s lies,” with the catch line caption reading “Contrary to claims by Prof. Amutabi, we were served lots of tea at the author’s Kamiriithu home, not muratina.” This was inaccurate and erroneous. I would like to apologise to Prof. Peter Amuka, for my bad hearing and misreporting that as students, they drank muratina at Prof. Ngugi wa Thinog’o’os home. I did not hear properly and did not mean to embarrass or demean the great professor, but did not lie.
I am old, and when one gets to be half a century and older, our ears and eyes begin to fail us. It is therefore possible that I heard mutatina instead of tea, and would like to apologise most profusely to him, his friends and relatives. However, allow to wonder a bit, about the accuracy of Prof. Amuka’s reaction, because the caption talked of lies and I looked for other ‘lies’ that I had told and did not see any other mistake from my hearing. Perhaps saying that my reporting on this one thing was inaccurate would have been fair, but calling it lies is inaccurate and gross exaggeration. I know Prof. Amuka quite well as a teetotaller, having worked with him at Moi University for ten years in the 1990s, and was equally surprised by the apparent confession and that is why I found it curious, that he had imbibed muratina as a university student.
Now, allow me to state that my reportage on Ngugi’s public lecture was not just about this one sentence that Prof. Amuka decided to focus on. Yes, they drank tea and not muratina, but was that really important? Was that part of what Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o had shared in his public lecture? We expected the discussants to break down Ngugi’s presentation, deconstruct, locate and contextuaoise his presentation and not take us through memory lane, about the glorious days at hte University of Nairobi. That was indeed my point of contention. My contention was that 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. 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 instead of breaking down for the audience and therefore not creating the intense debate that many anticipated.
Prof. 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. The praising by both scholars went a little overboard, embellishing and sanitising Ngugi. Prof. Wanjala’s came across as flat, restrained, without his usual punch lines, academic arrogance and vibrancy. Instead we saw a laid back, conforming forlorn figure, praising the hero.
Prof. Amuka reminded the audience about Ngugi’s generosity to him as a student, and how Ngugi prevailed upon him to drop Russian literature instead pursue 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. I can imagine myself discussing the work of my teachers at the University of Nairobi such as 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 support celebration of African culture but I am not sold on the idea of embellishing local languages, and seeing them as panaceas to all our development problems. We know that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is famous for novels such as The River Between and A Grain of Wheat and Wizard of the Crow. The first two novels rank highly on the amazon book sellers list and Wizard of the Crow is the lowest. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is the most famous novel in Africa and was written in English and not Chinua Achebe’s Igbo language.
I do not blindly support indigenous languages for the sake of it. 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, drinking tea. I find them more fluent in English and Kiswahili than me and for obvious reasons and have no problem with it. 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 to humanity. There are many MCAs who speak their local languages but there are some who cannot speak them. I have colleagues who cannot speak their indigenous 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. Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o may need to revisit his ideas on language in view of the changing global linguistic dynamics where we are talking about one global language that will combine aspects of all languages.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and Students’ Affairs) at Kisii University, Kenya. Amutabi@yahoo.com