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Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o: The Compass



  1. S. Mothibi

When an old man teaches, it is the responsibility of the young to listen, and when he preaches, it is wise for the young to pray for the wisdom to discern the full meanings of the message he is delivering. I have for a long time refrained from speaking or commenting on an old man due to the foolishness of youth; a foolishness of the modern kind where the young man and the novice hold the unfounded notion that they know better than the aged and the experienced.

This is the sort of stupidity that believes with a cocky sort of bravado that the ones who have been longer on the road of life are possessive of brains as worn out as the soles of their shoes, the soles that have been abraded by the tarmac and the road less travelled; and therefore, this youthful sort of stupidity contends: the words of the old are not to be given the full attention, they deserve a half ear because their meanings are only meaningful in the archaic, and not relevant in the current, present or contemporary scenario.

I used to think the politics of the old literary African writer were Pan-Africanist in their approach, that they were not relevant in the post 1994 period and the new spirit or influence of tolerance as taught by such great Africans as Nelson Mandela; the old African writer sounded like the voice of a prophet shouting in a wilderness of an age long gone, and it sounded as though it was not meant for the ears of ‘the born frees’: I was very foolish in my stupidity and was loquacious in the defence of my unfounded opinion. This sort of numskull obstinacy went on until I was presented with a ‘Eureka!’ kind of revelation at a conference on the significance of indigenous languages in translation, human interaction and interrelation.

The old man I am to type on this day sounded like an old voice to me despite the fact that he is one of the pioneers in African literature, and his texts are studied the world over due to the depth of their analysis on the relation of man and language; he is a well from which foolish young men and women that have forgotten their roots as founded in their mother tongue can find fulfilment in the form of wisdom.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru in Kiambu district, Kenya, of Kikuyu descent, and baptised James Ngũgĩ on the 5th of January 1938. His family was caught up in the Mau Mau War; his half-brother Mwangi was actively involved in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, and his mother was tortured at Kamiriithu homeguard post.

He is the most respected Kenyan writer, formerly working in English (which he considers the language of colonialism modern day writers in Africa should avoid using in their literature) and is currently working in Gikuyu. His large body of work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature.

He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri. In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be “the general bourgeois education system”, by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances.

His project sought to ‘demystify’, that is, to make theatre more accessible to all members of the audience or people involved in its spectacle.

The theatrical process, in African society in particular, has always been an affair where the actors and the audience interacted, that is, theatre of the African kind is not made up of a hall where the actors on stage and the audience are demarcated by the proscenium, but all are involved unlike in the formal western kind where the audience merely watches and its members are only there as the watchers and the applauders of what is going on in the performance of a play. By demystifying theatrical performance Ngũgĩ sought to avoid what he calls:

The process of alienation that produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers

This process of spectacular or theatrical alienation according to Ngũgĩ encourages passivity in ‘ordinary people’ who should in every essence be involved to fully grasp the gist of the message in the performance on the stage; so that they can find its relevance in their day to day living activities in society, politics, religion, and other aspects of life. Although Ngaahika Ndeenda (published in 1980 and translated into English as I Will Marry When I Want which I deem one of his best and most incisive perspectives into theatre as an interactive tool of communication between the audience and the actors) was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.

Ngũgĩ was subsequently imprisoned for over a year (1977 to 1978) at the behest of the government’s policy makers. He was adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was released from prison, and fled Kenya for United States, where he taught at Yale University for some years.

He left Yale for a chair at New York University, with a dual professorship in Comparative Literature and Performance Studies, and at the University of California, Irvine. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature due to his contribution to the development of African literature and the Human Rights issues he discusses in his work.

His son is the author Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ (which leads one to concluding that the master has passed the baton on to the next generation; a necessary point of action which seems to lack in our societies). From the brief biographies on the story of this giant of the literary word in Africa, one realises that the role of literature is not limited to only providing entertaining pieces for the masses to enjoy and to read; literature is also the main tool in addressing the problems posed by the injustices and malaises of character one finds in the political, religious, and social spheres of the African individual.

They are not merely words per se; they are guides that the new generation of writers can choose to follow if their work is to have a truly positive impact on the improvement of relations between man and man, man and woman, man, woman, and the children who are in all essences the future of the human race.

The River Between (published 1965) is one work I had the fortune of studying in high school, and the wealth of knowledge one gets from this novel is without measure. The River Between focuses on the lost heritage of Eastern Africans (and to mention with reality, other Africans) through the characters of Waiyaki and his tribe. In this work and others, this giant attempts to correct Western literature’s image of Africa, by offsetting the perspective of writers such as Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness.

He was the first English-educated African writer to develop fiction portraying the Kikuyu view of the colonial war, the Mau Mau Emergency or Rebellion, which was a violent uprising by the Kikuyu people against British control. This event put the region in a state of emergency from 1952 to 1960.

The novel focuses on the conflict between Christian missionaries and the indigenous tribes. It also explores the long-lasting effects of colonialism and the consequences of struggling for independence. These are issues the modern day writer in his or her obsession with the number of followers on social media, and the number of hits his or her comments on the media walls get would consider as of no concern.

But upon a re-reading this novel, one soon realises that the indigenous mythology of the people, the customs and the traditions, the aboriginal language and the history of the African peoples are main points of departure from which one should base their knowledge as a literary writer, scientist, or philosopher. One has to retrace the path of their trajectory to know where they will end up in life, and Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o teaches one how to exactly do this in his many works.

One would think that the thorny issues of today are a new affair, but by doing this, they forget the paraphrased proverbial words of the Ecclesiast that what is once was and will go on to be in the future, that is, there is nothing new about the newness of what we consider as novel.

Women’s rights have always been addressed by male authors in Africa even before the 1994 Beijing Conference, even before feminists began ostracising men and portraying them as monsters bent on destroying the womankind. The tale of Muthoni and her circumcision in the 1965 novel, The River Between has become a main talking point in all female genital mutilation discussions across the globe. Ngũgĩ addresses its pains and disadvantages in his novel, and through this act becomes the pariah in the eyes of those hardliners and traditionalists whose view is that certain issues should be kept as silent as the Sicilian Mafia’s Omerta (a code of silence that orders the follower to keep secrets until death ignorant of their criminal or heinous nature).

One would be tempted to believe that any author who preaches adherence to native language and culture is hypocritical, if they reveal the inner workings of such delicate issues as customary rites or rituals of passage in their body of work.

But objective analysis soon reveals to the novice in me that the position a writer has to take, if they are to pass the true message on to the audience, is of one who chooses to be untainted by personal bias, emotion or interest; the message of peace and harmony needs to be passed on despite imminent threat to the life of the writer: that is the sole role of literature, that is, literature is meant to pass the message on no matter how caustic its speculation, sarcasm, wit, or humour may appear to be to the green critic.

The critic in me just had to grow up a bit, experience life a bit more to realise that he who was previously considered a contradiction in personal speculation, is actually a compass one can follow in their pursuit of truth and good literature.

In his speech given at the programme for the University of East Africa 50th anniversary celebrations on the 29th of June 2013, Main Hall, Makerere University, Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o addressed the issue that had bothered me for a number of years on the issue of the use of indigenous languages in African writing.

Taught in English, whipped into speaking at school, I must have become a ‘religious’ follower to the use of the English language, and anyone who came forward that writing in English is an abomination that automatically assumed the countenance of an enemy.

In short, I had become a protector of a language I did not fully understand. But the speech shows me that I can write in English, but that I have to husk it of the Englishness and start writing in a more African manner. He chose to focus on the use of the word, the selection of proper terms in writing as his speech thus shows:

The word is so tainted by its colonial usage that whatever cognitive scientific meaning it might once have had, has all been but subsumed under its pejorative colonial umbrella. The word has become a code. Once the readers see it, they assume that the actors are doing whatever they are, because of an inherent tribal mark in their character. In the process the real issues of governance, democracy, patterns of property ownership and economic control, uneven regional development, corruption, get lost. It is as if a particular person is corrupt because of his genetic pool, labelled tribe…

These are truths one hears in the exalted speeches of the priests, the politicians, and the activists and the picture one gets from the myriad of acronyms, expletives and utter mendacities spoken is of an Africa that will never progress unless we follow the words of the humble African who was at some stage incarcerated for his visionary words and acts. Fortunately, the vision he has birthed can be nurtured by the new generation of writers and thinkers if they read deeply enough into the words of this prophet of the letters.

Heed his word for it is our compass as a continent, adopt it as a language policy, and you shall soon realise that we are more common than we think. The continued metamorphosis of colonialism will annihilate our mother tongues if we do not take heed. So the professor of the word says.

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