Ngugi is, no doubt, the father of the Kenyan novel. His influence on the growth of Kenyan literature is immense. His boldness to face the warriors of primitive capitalism that endeared me to books and literature. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH
Any time Ngugi wa Thiongo returns home, I always find myself remembering his 1965 short story ‘The Return’ in Origins of East Africa; an Anthology of Short Stories. In this story, he recounts the sad return of Kamau after years of incarceration in detention camps for his involvement in the struggle for independence. He arrives home to discover, to his delight, that River Honia, the source of life, still flows, but the village is no longer the same.
Karanja, his compatriot in detention, had misinformed his people that he had died in detention. The villagers look at him as a ghost. His agony is compounded by the fact that his expectation of a hero’s welcome is never realised.
To add insult to injury, his wife, Muthoni, had been taken away by Karanja. His homecoming becomes a moment of reflection and rededication to life and the future.
Why do I remember this story? Sometimes it mirrors Ngugi’s own life story. His numerous visits to Kenya have not lacked in variegated sense of spectacle. The worst was when he arrived home with his wife only to be viciously attacked. That was, indeed, sad and shameful.
Ngugi is, no doubt, the father of the Kenyan novel. His influence on the growth of Kenyan literature is immense. I have always admired him since I was a high school kid. It was his boldness to face the warriors of primitive capitalism that endeared me to books and literature.
His trilogy of Weep not, Child, A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood make bold statements about the struggle for independence and the aftermath. Apart from showing the effects of the war to ordinary villagers, Ngugi shows the destruction of family life and the unfulfilled expectations of Mau Mau fighters after the war.
In a strictly thematic sense, Mau Mau provides the core content of Ngugi’s fictional works. The progression from Weep not, Child through A Grain of Wheat, I will Marry when I Want, Devil on the Cross, Matigari to Wizard of the Crow can only be seen along lines of structure, style and depth.
Simply put, the works explore people’s unrealised hopes and the evil of the man-eat-man society that emerged after independence. We can almost say that Ngugi is fixated with the Mau Mau. Is Ngugi’s perception of Mau Mau’s role in Kenya’s history authentic?
With his return, I expected engagement of this subject once more. Are we building a society of hero worshippers who are not curious about discovering the hidden truth?
Fredric Cooper reminds me that Mau Mau is a politically charged topic and discussing it is a risky way of saying something about the present. The multiplicity of voices contesting the stated role of Mau Mau revolt in the struggle for independence have not only involved historians and creative writers, but also politicians and the general public.
There are two schools of thought on this subject. Some historians and creative writers have disagreed with Ngugi’s interpretation of the role of Dedan Kimathi and Mau Mau in the struggle for independence.
Ngugi, Maina wa Kinyati, and their disciples in one school of thought claim that Mau Mau was a radical nationalist challenge to both colonialism and neo-colonialism. Historians including E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, William Robert Ochieng, Henry Mwanzi and their adherents read ethnic chauvinism in the exaltation of Mau Mau.
E. S. Atieno Odhiambo charged that the Kikuyu, whether historian or members of the political elite, want to control Mau Mau, to determine what is to be remembered and use the role of their group in the revolt to make present political claims. These are serious claims that require serious interrogation and not the cheap talk I saw around Ngugi’s return.
Ngugi’s other controversial position is that on the language of African literature. He argues that the continued use of foreign languages means that the black man is mentally enslaved to western norms at the expense of his own consciousness. The outcome is that he is disoriented or alienated from his reality. This is what he calls linguistic colonisation. He further argues that speaking the language of the coloniser means existing for the coloniser. Obi Wali, a harsh critic who belongs to this school, has declared that African literature in European languages is only a minor appendage of European literature.
Another school of thought argues that African literature can use European languages to express African content. These scholars posit that African literature has to be written by Africans, use traditional themes from oral literature and African symbols. Many writers subscribe to this hybridization as a way of ensuring Africa’s literary identity and unique contribution to world literature.
These scholars hold the view that though imposed on Africans; English language is now an asset to Africa for helping to foster continental and national unity. They say “it offers Africans an opportunity to speak of their experiences in a world language”. Chinua Achebe belonged to this school of thought. Achebe and others who share this view argue that we should aim at fashioning out an English which is able to carry our peculiar experiences.
Here are two positions diametrically opposed to one another that should be debated.
Is writing in African languages the only way that will bring about a new beginning in African cultural social and economic life? Is modification of foreign languages the only way of producing African literature?
With these two questions, I part ways with these two schools. I think the literature we produce in whichever language must subscribe to certain standards and give hope and instill a revolutionary spirit for socio-economic development because our cultural diversity is a valuable asset and promote multilingualism.
We need not look at English as being synonymous with colonialism. We now have younger writers whose cultural orientation is informed by present day realities in post independence Africa. My children, who are Kenyans of Kiswahili expression, living in a multi-cultural urban set up and who do not share my mother tongue have a world of their own. I cannot impose mine on them. A number of them have now picked up Gikuyu language which is the dominant language in my Ruiru East Sub-county.
That is why I propose a new paradigm shift on the issue of language. We need to ask ourselves what the needs of the African people are rather than get fixated with colonial experience. We have to write about African experiences. We have to write in celebration of our diversity so that we can appreciate ourselves and others with which we share Africa. I am advocating for what I call ‘Critical Reconstructionism.’
This should be a new way of writing that takes cognisance of the reality of our African situation. It has to take into consideration the history of the African child and the conditions of living. Africa is a continent in a crisis. We cannot accept to remain in this crisis for ever. We have to act now and the literature we write has to be the literature of reconstruction. We have to fill African peoples with hope and skills to steer society to a new level. We have to help Africans reconstruct their lives and that of their society. Our literature should advocate for dialogue and critical consciousness.
Critical Reconstructionism, as a theory, should help us focus on our experiences and instill the urge to take social action on problems of hunger, international terrorism, inflation, discrimination, ethnicity and inequality. In a sense, our writings should inspire the reader to be an agent of change and reconstruct ideals destroyed by bad leadership. This can be done in any language at our disposal including Sheng. That is what I call Critical Reconstructionism.