We wanted to make Kenya our literary base from which to engage with the world.
Adapted from speeches delivered at Kenyatta University and the University of Nairobi in Kenya in June 2015.
In 1969 Gacamba, a bicycle repairer in Nyeri, a town about a hundred miles from Nairobi, discovered some kind of engine, a scooter engine, and, using the scrap metal he could find in his backyard, made an aeroplane that he called Kenya One. The plane flew for a few miles or so, but on landing it crashed into some trees. Charles Njonjo, then the attorney general of the recently independent Republic of Kenya, barred Gacamba from ever flying his plane without an aviation license: his primitive plane obviously did not meet the standards set by those of the planes made in Europe.
I am less interested in the fact that Njonjo stopped Gacamba from flying than in the symbolism of the two men, in their attitudes toward their native land. Gacamba probably had not gone beyond secondary school, but Njonjo had graduated from Fort Hare University in South Africa and Lincoln’s Inn, London, which made him a British barrister, and one of the most highly educated Kenyans of his time.
Njonjo knew the English language so well that he could even speak it through the nose, as we used to say of the European settlers. Gacamba on the other hand was not as fluent in English, but he was probably more fluent in Gĩkũyũ. The point is this: while Gacamba, the Gĩkũyũ-speaking metalworker, the Jua Kali or roadside artisan, said that we can make airplanes in Kenya and actually produced one to prove it, the educated, English-speaking attorney said we could not. Gacamba wanted to dream his dream; Njonjo gloried in the dreams dreamt by others. Gacamba wanted to rescue the possible from the impossible. The educated Kenyan with a perfect British accent said, “Don’t you even try.”
Here were two conflicting visions of Kenya: Gacamba’s vision says, Africa can make things. Njonjo’s says, Leave that to Europe. Instead of the capable, traveled Kenyan coming to the aid of a man with raw talent who’d never left Kenya, Njonjo crashed Gacamba’s dream. The result, whether intended or not, was that Gacamba’s invention would no longer function as a model and vision of what could be done within Kenya by ordinary Kenyans.
We were not calling for the abolition of English literature but rather for the reordering of its relationship to our realities.
Gacamba’s venture and the fate it met remind me of another story of the sixties. Again it was 1969. It was not long after I had joined the English Department of the University of Nairobi. English national literature from Spencer to Spender, or Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot, was the core of the syllabus. Why should English national literature serve as the core at a University in Kenya, Owuor Anyumba, Taban lo Liyong, and I asked. We called for the abolition of the English Department.
In reality we were not calling for the abolition of English literature but rather for the reordering of its relationship to our realities: Do we start from There and move to Here—a colonial process, a self-negating process—or move from Here to There—the anti-colonial, the self-affirmative, the progressive process?
We wanted to make Kenya our literary base from which to engage with the world. We aimed to replace the Department of English National Literature with a Department of Literature, centering on Kenyan, East African, African, Caribbean, and Afro-American literatures, and then the literatures of Asia, Latin America, and then Europe, in that order, roughly. The English Department at that time sought to confine literature within the English language; we sought to free literature from the confinement of English and to connect with the rest of the globe. The debate that followed, the great Nairobi debate, would generate, in Africa and elsewhere, what is now known as postcolonial theory.
Our department produced students who have become leading intellectuals in the world: Simon Gikandi, now professor of English at Princeton University; James Ogude, professor at Pretoria, in South Africa; and Gĩtahi Gĩtiti, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, to mention just a few who have made their names abroad. But there are many others within the country: Henry Chakava, Chris Wanjala, Wanjikũ Mũkabi, Kĩmani Njogu. Their national and international visibility is rooted in their base in Kenya.
In 1974 the now famous literature department put forth an approach to the teaching of literature in our schools that would focus first on Kenya, then Africa, then the rest of the world. This would have meant that a child graduating even from a primary school would have knowledge of literary texts from Kenya and their relationship to texts from Asia and Europe. It would have thus produced global literary citizens with their feet firmly rooted in Kenya. But the Moi regime crashed the syllabus by the simple act of cutting the literature curriculum altogether. In the regime’s view, English had to be protected from contamination by a world literature that begins in Kenya; the English linguistic prison had to be guarded by all means necessary, so that the Kenyan cultural prisoners within could not escape into freedom.
Destroying the literature curriculum was not enough to keep the prison guards busy. There was also the Kamĩrĩthũ story. I already have written much about this, so I will be brief. In the Kamĩrĩthũ initiative, intellectuals from the University of Nairobi worked hand in hand with factory and plantation workers, the landless, the jobless, to produce an outstanding performance of Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want).
The play was probably the first in postcolonial Kenya to be written in Gĩkũyũ language for the rural dwellers of the village of Kamĩrĩthũ, about forty kilometers from Nairobi. The basic idea behind it was very simple: if you believe that people are the subject and object of development, then you work with them, you work in the language they speak and use. The play was performed to hundreds in the village before it met the same fate as the literature curriculum. On November 11, 1977, Ngaahika Ndeenda was closed, and I, a co-author of the play, was sent to a maximum security prison for a year.
African languages were our beginning, said Kamĩrĩthũ. English is our beginning, said those who imprisoned me.
And with this, we are back to Gacamba’s airplane. In each of these stories, we have the negation of a national initiative in favor of that which comes from outside. That which draws from Kenyan soil is suspect; that which comes from abroad—from Europe, particularly—is uncritically welcome.
Is this an accident?
The question brings me to a fourth story. It takes place in the colonial era. It involves a Kenyan called Mbiyu Koinange, who had studied at Alliance High School in Kenya, then Virginia Hampton Institute in the USA, and finally graduated from Columbia University, USA, with a master’s degree in education. He returned to Kenya in 1938. His father, so proud of him and his achievements, wanted to build him a stone house. The son pleaded with his father, Let us use these stones to lay the foundation of Gĩthũngũri Teachers College, the first institute of higher learning ever in colonial Kenya.
Koinange’s vision of a higher institute of education was inspired by the vision of self-reliance that Booker T. Washington advocated. Washington was himself a graduate of Virginia Hampton Institute and the founder of Tuskegee Institute. His social vision may have been suspect, but his economic vision earned respect and inspired Koinange. Gĩthũngũri was built by ordinary Kenyan men and women, not the colonial state.
The symbol of Kenyan African self-reliance had to be turned into one of shame, humiliation, and defeat.
The college was designed to produce teachers for the independent schools run by Africans. The Karĩng’a and independent school movement was itself a phenomenon, inspired by the Garveyite call for self-reliance (derived also from Washington) and the slogan “Africa for the African, at home and abroad.” Whenever the committee leaders of any of the schools met, the first order of business was to take out of their pockets whatever they could afford to part with and put it on the table. Gĩthũngũri was built on the same principle: ordinary men and women giving whatever they could, small or big. In short, the founders of Gĩthũngũri and the entire independent school movement dared to dream what had not been dreamt before. We Kenyans can do it, said the Kenyans. We shall not let you do it, said the colonial state.
In 1952, the state closed Gĩthũngũri and all independent African schools. It also banned all African-language newspapers, sending some of the editors to prison and forcing others into exile. It hauled African-language poets like Gakaara wa Wanjaũ and Stanley Kagĩka into concentration camps. Does that sound familiar? But to crown the humiliation, the colonial state turned Gĩthũngũri into a prison where Soldiers of the Land and Freedom, which the state renamed the Mau Mau, were hanged. The symbol of Kenyan African self-reliance had to be turned into one of shame, humiliation, and defeat.
The closure of these Kenya-centered African-run educational institutions was followed by the systematic production of an English-speaking elite, but one deracinated from African languages. And that was how, after 1952, it came about that no matter how brilliantly one was doing in mathematics, physics, chemistry, history—no matter if one answered all the questions in the English language—one could not go on to the next class without passing English. English became equated with education, universal knowledge, and brilliance. The Ominde Commission on Education, set up by the newly independent African government of Kenya in 1964, nationalized this mindset by calling for the eradication of African languages as a means of education from pre-elementary to university, and requiring their replacement by English.
It is not as if the colonial authorities stumbled upon these policies that produced an anti-Kenyan, anti-African mindset in the Kenyan and the African. In his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney quotes Pierre Foncin, a founder of the Alliance Française, as stating, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that it was “necessary to attach the colonies to the metropole by a very solid psychological bond, against the day when their progressive emancipation ends in a form of federation as is probable—that they be and they remain French in language, thought and spirit.”
When African languages became outlawed in the educational institutions, their speakers were turned into criminals to be hunted down. Children caught speaking African languages in schools were made to carry smelly skins in their pockets, or simply carry placards reading I am stupid. Animals are tamed in the same way: associate the undesired behavior with pain and the desired behavior with pleasure. Later, obeisance to this system of rewards and punishments is passed on to the offspring as normal behavior, so that the sound of English makes us salivate with desire and the sound of an African word makes us dry up with disgust.
Njonjo and his English accent were not an accident, nor were his acts those of a lone wolf. The fact is that there is a Njonjo in the minds of the educated African middle class. Njonjoism is still the problem of Africa. Europe gave Africa the resources of its accent; Africa gave Europe access to the resources of the continent. It is true that the sword won Europe the right of access—but the accent sealed conquest by ensuring acquiescence from a section of the conquered.
If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or that of your culture, that is enslavement.
I was very pleased to see, on my most recent visit last year, that the University of Nairobi is making things: Royal Satima mineral water, and the university yogurt. I ate their yogurt, drank their water, both made in Kenya, and it felt good. In Germany, where I traveled to receive my tenth honorary doctorate, the team from Moi University gave me the gift of cloth they had produced. It was the best gift I have had in years: a shirt made in Kenya from a cloth made in Kenya. What if government agencies put in orders with these nascent Kenya-owned industries? What if Njonjo said, Make me another airplane?
That’s the way it should be. The answer is already within us. My friends, let’s go the way of Nairobi University and Moi University in making things. But why stop at cloth, yogurt, and bottling mineral waters? Why not bicycles? Why not electric cars? Why not airplanes, why not our own defense weapons? Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The one you depend on today to arm you may want to disarm you tomorrow. The one who feeds you today may withdraw his food tomorrow. Every nation has a right to first feed itself, clothe itself, house itself, and defend itself. It must have those capacities, at the very least.
Let us strive for independence, originality, and excellence, and not dependance, imitation, and begging. This has to become our culture, has to inform how we look at Kenya and Africa, the choices we make at academies and economies, at planning and even assessing what we send out and what we receive. It has to be a way of life, part of our character as a nation, who we are as Kenyans. Let us banish the culture of dependence, imitation, and begging.
An imitator is always a follower and is driven by lack of faith in self, which begins with language. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or that of your culture, that is enslavement. If you know your mother tongue or the language of your culture and add all the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment.
We should learn from those who ran independent African schools and built Gĩthũngũri Teachers College. They took from their pockets and gave to the public good and welfare. Today we take from the collective table for the private good and welfare. For them, leadership was a public trust. For us today, political office is a private trust. Even though they were under colonial rule, they looked at Kenya as Kenyans and wanted to rescue their Kenya from the marauding outsider. Any time we view Kenya with the eyes of an outsider, we are betraying a vision fought for with the blood of the ordinary men and women of Kenya.
At the symposium to celebrate fifty years since the publication of my novel Weep Not Child, I saw a performance group reenact that history of sacrifice, a major theme in the book. The images they created with their bodies registered the pain and the pride of struggle. They dramatized the aesthetic of resistance. And they sang: Teach me to be me. If you teach me to be me then you will see me. If you teach me to be me I will be free, or are you afraid of a free me?
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, playwright, and theorist of postcolonial literature and Distinguished Professor of the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. His books have been translated into more than thirty languages.
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