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A Conversation with Micere Mugo & Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This is what happens to books when you love them. You want to read and eat them at the same time! Times are economically hard and even more so for sparing time to indulge in luxury writing. The recently concluded Kwani? Literary Festival provided the much needed impetus and encouragement for writers to continue putting pen to paper and fingers to keyboard. The above statement was by Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo when I met him at the festival and requested him to autograph for me my first edition 1975 copy of Orange AWS Series Secret Lives and Other Stories authored by none other than his erstwhile self. His reaction was due to the fact that the book cover looks like it has been bitten off in some sections! To say the professor was startled as he stared at the old book with a tattered cover is an understatement but one which I cherish. I had managed to corner him during the course of the festival held here in Nairobi whose theme was Writers in Conversation Tell us what Happened. To me the Lit Fest was all about memories and asking questions. It was about conversations and dialogues. It was more about an exchange not being talked at. Though I missed out on the first few days as I was in a neighboring country researching on my upcoming novel, I at least ensured that I caught Professor Micere Mugos homecoming lecture titled Reflections and Lessons held on December 13 at the University of Nairobis 8-4-4 building. and Ngugi wa Thiongos public lecture at the University of Nairobis Taifa Hall on December 15 titled Ngugi wa Thiongo: A 50-Year Literary Journey - two writers regarded as vanguards of Kenyan literature. Professor Micere Mugos public lecture was the first in her country of birth after two decades of exile. The homecoming and lecture has been seen as a rare gift to the academia. Professor Mugos diminutive stature belies the tough lady that she is. Prof Micere Mugo one of the pioneer Post-Independence Kenyan literary intellectuals narrated to the captive audience how she was forced into exile after the attempted coup dtat of August 1982. Immediately, the political leadership in Nairobi intensified a man-hunt on students and dons deemed to be critical of the government. Prof Micere Mugo, an outspoken academic and feminist who could not stand a myopic political class betray a people, was an obvious target. Fortunately she survived the stint in detention. She fled the country, leaving behind two young girls aged five and seven, and was subsequently stripped of her Kenyan citizenship. She was embraced and given a Zimbabwean citizenship. Her lecture that night was pegged on poetry as a theoretical module that she uses to understand herself as a writer, or as functioning to conscientise the mind; and orature, as a skill and tool of development. And she said that orature is an important site of knowledge that should stand in

direct opposition to Empire Cultures. She said that whereas Empire Cultures are known to dominate and silence other cultures, it is tragic when Africans, or the other, retreat into selfimposed amnesia. I was reminded of feminism on this evening by an anecdote by Professor Micere Mugo during her lecture on how some white people would call the university where she teaches abroad and insist on talking to Mr. Mugo not believing that she is a lady and head of the department which they are calling. She weaved the cultural and literary trajectories of post-colonial moments while emphasising the need to always remember history if we expect the country to offer a better life for all. That is what we encounter in her anthology My Mothers Poem And Other Songs. Both Micere and Ngugis lectures reminded us once more why upcoming writers should never thrash our canons or ancestor authors as some younger writers refer to older writers. On the other hand, since Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo was launched into literary consciousness in 1964 by the 'infantile' masterpiece, Weep Not Child, he has matured in his craft, growing from 'singular' to 'plurimental' heroism. Just as his Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), in which he wrote, "The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was a means of spiritual subjugation," Ngugi pointed out, since English and other Europhone languages like French, Dutch and Portuguese became the official languages of education and communication in the continent, indigenous languages have become amputated. Ngugi, who questioned the gulf between African intellectuals and their audience, and resolving to write in his own tongue, Gikuyu, said linguistic and cultural feudalism is the view, consciously or unconsciously held, that some languages, between and even within nations, are of a higher order than others; that they constitute an aristocracy while others, in a descending order of being, occupy lesser positions, different degrees of minion age. The novelist at one time said that, "Many African states don't have a national language policy in a multilingual situation, meaning African languages. Whatever we may say of colonial states, they, through literature bureaus, often came up with some sort of policies. Far from helping, some post-colonial governments have even shown active hostility to African languages. Governments have to create an enabling environment in terms of policies and resources." His public lecture on this December evening still proves that Professor Ngugi thinks art is underestimated as a tool for change. He remembered how in 1967, while lecturing at the University of Nairobi's English Department, he pushed for it to be replaced by a literature department that would cover not just English Literature, but also the new African and world literature.

He regaled his earlier life to a captive audience. His arrest and detention at Kamiti Maximum came only after he began to write in Gikuyu instead of English, thereby reaching a far greater number of ordinary Kenyans, a development that the authorities found threatening. While there, he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the cross, on toilet paper.

****** I have a story. Would you like to have a look at it? This was Ngugi who had at one time approached a professor (If I heard correctly I think it was writer Kariara) who replied that he would indeed love to have a look at it. The problem was that the young Ngugi didnt have any story written. He had to rush and draft something! This draft later became the bestseller, The River Between. He recalled how in the mid-20th, a group of prominent writers from Africa met at Ugandas Makerere University. Among the subjects of debate was the question of, What is African Literature? Professor Ngugi narrated that in 1962 this group of writers who were to shape the future of African literature gathered in Kampala, Uganda. Those present included Wole Soyinka, Lewis Nkosi, Kofi Awoonor, and from across the Atlantic, Langston Hughes. One evening, an undergraduate approached one of the delegates with a draft manuscript. The student was a young Ngugi, the participant Chinua Achebe, and the manuscript, Weep Not Child, was published two years later as the first new novel in the paperback African Writers Series. Centuries later the question of what is African literature still comes up for debate in literary circles. At this lecture Ngugi rekindled this debate by remembering how he renounced writing in English in July 1977 at the Nairobi launch of Petals of Blood, saying that he wished to express himself in a language that his mother and ordinary people could understand. The announcement didn't come out of the blue. He had previously campaigned to change the name of his academic home at the University of Nairobi from the "department of English" to the "department of literature" a deeply political move still relevant, inspiring and indeed uncomfortable for literature scholars around the world today. And yet behind this all is a serious albeit at times salient point. The very issue of what is African literature. It is a reminder to us all of Ngugis resistance to the hegemony of European languages. Ngugi said the Kwani? Lit Fest was about important explorations, reconnections and connections. He said that we must never ever get afraid of defending our cultures when they are threatened. Just to give an example of this he laced his lecture with a few interesting anecdotes. Last year when he was following up with issues at immigration with his son Mukoma a man came panting up to him and introduced himself as a literature teacher. The man said that he was happy that someone had pointed out this Nigerian professor and writer to him. He referred to Ngugi as

Chinua Achebe! He further said that his students would be so excited that he had met Achebe. Ngugi then pointed out Mukoma to the man and told him that Mukoma was Chinua. Participants in Taifa Hall erupted into laughter. Prof Ngugi then went on to say that he was amazed at the mans enthusiasm to be meeting a writer from a different region and country when we should also reserve the same enthusiasm for our local writers. He also talked of the reading culture that really needs to be nurtured. Reading is conventional and not an act he said and noted how impressed he was at the launch of his memoir Dreams in a Time of War - A Childhood Memoir in Nairobi a couple of months when the guest of honor KACC Director PLO Lumumba effortlessly quoted all proverbs off-head from one of Chinuas books. Whenever Ngugi is mentioned it is inevitable that the issue of language will arise. Another anecdote was in the offing. When he arrived in the country for the Kwani? Lit Fest he attended a flurry of publicity events and one of this was a visit to a media house for an interview accompanied by his son Mukoma and Billy Kahora the Managing Editor of Kwani? It just so happened that Billy mentioned that Kwani? was thinking of the possibility of translating Kizuizini the detention memoir published by Kwani? in Swahili by John Muthee into English. Ngugi was surprised that Kwani? were thinking of a Swahili translation while a Kikuyu one was not even in the pipeline yet the author had been taped talking in Kikuyu as the book was being written! Why leave the Kikuyu version in tapes instead of publishing it in Kikuyu first? Ngugi further went on to say as an example of the above anecdote that when you deny yours you become possessive of others. He reminded us that when we start by doubting our own languages how then can we move forward? He said, "To know one's language, whatever that language is, and add others to it, is empowerment. But to know all the other languages while ignorant of one's own is mental slavery. I hope that Africa will choose empowerment." He reminded Kenyans that even English kids spend time learning other languages. To set an example he said that he himself has recently started consciously to learn proper Swahili via the internet, reading more Swahili books and other mediums. He even touched a bit on how when they were young they used to be punished when caught speaking an African language in the school compound. I remember how he has brought it out in his recent memoir. They were humiliated by being made to carry a piece of wood and sometimes metal called 'Monitor' around their necks, literally stating that they were stupid. Thus humiliation and negativity were attached to African languages in the learning process. A good performance in English on the other hand was greeted with acclaim. Two things were taking place in the cognitive process: positive affirmation of English as a means of intellectual production; and criminalisation of African languages as means of knowledge production. With English, went pride: with African languages, shame. He further reminded us that the death of any language is the loss of knowledge contained in that language. The weakening of any language is the weakening of its knowledge-producing potential.

It is a human loss. Each language no matter how small contains the best knowledge of its immediate environment. Ngugi conducted a short exercise to demonstrate our lack of appreciation of our own languages. He asked how many people in the audience had spent 1 year or more studying their mother tongue intensely of the jam-packed hall only four hands were raised. 1 month only 2 hands were raised. I day no hands were raised. How many were fluent in English almost all hands in the auditorium were raised! A question from the floor on an incident in a San Francisco hotel a few years back took the professor down memory lane on issues of racial profiling. He had been relaxing near the porch of the hotel where he was staying when a white security guard approached him and told him that the place was for only those staying in the hotel, Ngugi had wondered aloud how the guard came to the conclusion that he wasnt a guest in the hotel. Nevertheless, the incident had ended up in the media with Ngugi moving out of the hotel. He reminisced further on how sometimes when he takes a taxi home the drivers once arriving at his palatial home ask him if he is a cook or gardener there. He answers in the affirmative leaving them non-the-wiser. Another time strolling near the university where he teaches a cop on routine beat approached and asked him where he was going and what he does for a living. He told him that he is a professor out on a stroll and pointed at the university saying that he teaches there. The cop laughed and called his colleague to come and look at this person who says that he is a professor at the university. The short of Ngugis anecdotes was that there are challenges out there for writers and teachers of color. The above scenarios and the entire Kwani? Litfest recast the debate on the value of literature to the society, and what future there is for writing and publishing in Kenya and Africa. Can young, unknown and struggling authors really make a mark on the literary landscape? Being a writer I can testify to the fact that writing is a lonely, tedious and back-breaking job and that is why as a closing to this article I would like to quote Ngugis parting shot to aspiring and upcoming writers Write, write and write again and you will get it right! He further added that without imagination we are nothing as human beings. He said that he spent 7 years writing Murogi was Kagogo On questions from the audience on spirituality and writing Ngugi said that food and water is essential to our bodies but we are different from animals as we have spiritual dimensions. As Tom Odhiambo recently put it in one article, Ngugis lecture was a challenge to all who care about Africa, its people and their cultures to reassess their commitment and renew them. Professor Ngugi as a close to his conversation with us said that writers and artistes roles in Africa is ore specific and his challenge to us as Kenyans was, Let us dare to dare. Let us dare to dream of the actualization of an Africa that is reflected in diversity.