Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o lectures at the Kenyatta University

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o gave a lecture at Kenyatta University last Wednesday afternoon to a very large audience of students, faculty, and groupies. As you can imagine, this blogger falls squarely in the “groupies” category. It was an inspired lecture. Friendly warning: unlike previous blogs this one is a bit lengthy.

The lecture was done in a large room at Kenyatta University which was sad as they had a free amphitheater and the crowds that wanted to see Kenya’s most famous author were in their hundreds. It’s an opportunity that was sorely wasted where that Thika Road-based university is concerned.

The lecture started with the usual niceties. It started with a word of prayer with someone blessing the event in Jesus’ name; one had to wonder if perhaps as a national public university, they would have considered perhaps that not everyone professes the Christian faith. Perhaps they should have been a bit more sensitive about it especially now that our nation is in a fix where religion is concerned.

The proceedings went on with the introduction of a senior academic at the university who was speaking on behalf of the vice chancellor Olive Mugendi who was on assignment in Rwanda. Also speaking was the director of the Institute of African Studies Professor Catherine Ndungo. With the preliminaries out of the way, we could get to the lecture from the great man himself Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

Ngugi is a very engaging speaker who made the crowd laugh and smile and think about big things and small and how they affect us as a people. He gave little stories from his observations over the years.

He started with the story of Gachamba and Charles Njonjo. Gachamba was a fellow with very little education who was able with some rudimentary equipment to fashion a plane that flew for a short distance. Njonjo on the other hand was one of the most educated men in the country having a university education at the Fort Hare in South Africa as well as in England. His reaction to the flying contraption, when he was the Attorney General, was to laugh it off and then ban it.

He then gave the story of how he and his African colleagues at the University of Nairobi initially including Taban Lo Liyong advocated and ensured that there was a change in the way that they conducted instruction there. They started the tradition of starting their instruction first from Kenya, to East Africa, to the rest of Africa, to the Caribbean, and then to the rest of the world. It was a revolution at the time as before it started in Europe and then ended here and they were at the forefront of post-colonial studies at the time.

First forward to him and his colleagues working on a play with villagers from Kamirithu in Limuru called Ndahika ndiida (I will marry when I want). It was an attempt to move the university away from being the ivory tower that it was and connect with the masses. The play, which he co-wrote with the late Ngugi Wa Mirii, became very popular as it connected with the ordinary Kenyan. Its fame went far and wide until he was arrested and put in detention at the Kamiti Maximum Prison. He gave a dramatic tale of being arrested at his home with three police vans full of cops while he was with his family.

After telling these experiences, he explains the importance of languages. He gives examples of how the English subjugated their Irish brothers by killing Irish. He talks about how the English decided to make Indians with an Indian body but with an English mind who would be the go-betweens to their subjects. He speaks of the founders of the Alliance Francaise who ensured that the French language was out there. It was a brilliant explanation of how a conquering nation uses language as a tool to subjugate its subjects and I was very happy to hear the old man giving us his invaluable insights.

I learnt that Africans had given Europeans their resources and all the Europeans had given in return were “accents.” We were hard at work trying to learn to pronounce European languages in the right accent while the European was busy robbing us blind.

I also learnt that there was something called the Asmara Declaration on African languages that advocates our languages. I will be reading more about this document and reporting about it in due course.

He gave a few remedies for this malady of language. No school should punish a child for speaking in its mother tongue on its premises. Punishing a child for this should in fact be criminalised.

He also recommended that we start writing in all our languages. Except Sheng. When someone asked him if they should adopt it he was quick to explain that there were already functioning languages to fall back on. There is no need to use one which is still in the formation stage like Sheng.

During the lecture, he was joined by his kids, Nducu, Mukoma, Njoki, Bjorn, and Wanjiku. As we were languagising he allowed Mukoma Wa Ngugi to tell people about the biggest prize for Swahili the Mabati Cornell Prize for Literature which we all appreciate as it supports an African language.


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