By David Matende
A while back, a local newspaper published an article written by Tee Ngugi, in which he criticised writer Wole Soyinka’s generation of intellectuals for propagating a flawed nationalistic ideology for Africa.
The ideology entailed revitalising African traditional values and making them the basis for Africa’s future social, political and economic development, as opposed to the values imposed on Africans by Europeans.
According to the writer, this attempt at “decolonisng the mind”, promoted by intellectuals, who include writers of the “Makerere generation“, has come to a futile end half a century later.
I assume that on Tee’s list is his famous father, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, perhaps the most prominent writer of the “Makerere generation”.
I, too, have beef with some writers of that generation, particularly Prof wa Thiong’o. But my grouse is of a different kind.
If their belief that Africa would prosper only on the foundation of African traditional values ended up being an exercise in futility, the belief by some of them that Africa’s future could only be secured through revolutionary socialist ideology has equally been proven wrong.
Prof wa Thiong’o must look back at the seventies and the eighties with a sense of remorse, his vision of a socialist revolution for Kenya having become an illusion.
Let me clarify. The professor is, without a doubt, a giant of not only African, but also world literature – his works speak for themselves.
Most of us fell in love with his prose the first time we read The River Between in my formative years; some of us went ahead to study him at the University of Nairobi’s Literature Department, where we were students of his student, Prof Chris Wanjala.
However, after years of fidelity to wa Thiong’o’s political philosophy, we came to the rude realisation that we were either converts of a false prophet, prophesying a false religion, or we had misinterpreted the prophet’s message.
Like the followers of Jehovah Wanyonyi, who were under the false impression that their leader was immortal – only for him to die – the disappointment was overwhelming.
I think our young, impressionable minds should never have been introduced to Petals of Blood, Caitani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross), Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will Marry When I Want), Matigari Ma Njirungi and the writer’s political and cultural philosophies in the Barrel of the Pen, Detained – A Writer’s Prison Diary, and Decolonizing the Mind.
If our teachers had been more discerning, they would have stopped us at Weep Not Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat. The professor’s revolutionary fiction should have been left to the more mature, discriminating minds.
Through his later works, wa Thiong’o sought to inspire his readers to rise against an African leadership that had simply carried on from where the colonialists had left, and in fact done a worse job of it. His vision? Establishment of a progressive, socialist society in Kenya.
He went ahead to start a community theatre in Kamirithu, Limuru, where he tried to stir political consciousness among peasants through the use of drama, a project that landed him in trouble with the government. Needless to say, the dream of a socialist revolution in Kenya turned out to be, well, futile.
Of course literature is fiction; it is not reality. Unlike history, which records what has happened, literature simply tells us what could possibly happen. So, it is not being suggested here that the writer should have been accurate in his prediction of Kenya’s future. He was merely engaged in a creative exercise.
Prof wa Thiong’o is in the category of what we used to call committed writers – writers who use literature to campaign for a social-political ideal. Because of this, his critics branded him a socialist propagandist, not a writer. They argued that A Grain of Wheat was his last true work of fiction.
In the 1980s, scholars in literature departments in local universities did not agree on whether or not to allow students to study fiction that seemed not to fit their definition of literature.
Some argued that literature should serve art (art for art’s sake), not as propaganda for social or political change. Of course, the literature departments at the University of Nairobi and Kenyatta University had already been cleaned of “radical” lecturers, but their shadows still lingered in Education Building.
As students, most of us admired, and actually believed, not only in the committed writers, but also in the proponents of committed writing. Our young minds believed that sooner rather than later, there was going to be a socialist revolution in Kenya that would sweep away the rapacious bourgeoisies class that was ruining Kenya. Well, we are still waiting, thirty years later.
We should have known better, poor idealists that were then. That the Berlin Walls came tumbling down the same year some us graduated (1989) should have served as an ominous sign for the socialist revolution we dreamed of! Thereafter, building of democracy, not socialism, became the focus in Africa.
Today, literature students of that time, now in their fifties, realise that wa Thiong’o and those of his ilk may have been wrong about Kenya’s future reality, a reality that students in other disciplines, such as law and history, seem to have had a much better grasp of.
Quite a number, though, are unable to adjust to the fact that a socialist or equitable society will never be built in Kenya, and that the average Kenyan is a self-seeking person waiting for his or her “Josephine Kabura” moment. The bottle provides the much-needed solace to such.
Of course, I could be mistaken. Unlike most people who comment on literature in this and other mass publications, I am nobody’s academic; I am just a BA. I wonder what my former classmates such as Dr Goro wa Kamau (this year’s winner of the Burt Awards), Adalo Moga and Adrian Onyando, or even Nairobi Law Monthly columnist, Dr Tom Odhiambo – all esteemed members of the academy – think about my musings.