Coming home to Kenya with two objectives in mind, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o fulfilled them both on Thursday at the United States International University.
USIU is where the award-winning poet, playwright, novelist and social critic belatedly celebrated his 80th birthday.
But equally important was his attending the launch of Ngugi: Reflections on his Life of Writing’, the brand-new anthology, compiled and edited by Professor Simon Gikandi of Princeton University in the US and Dr Ndirangu Wachanga, a visiting lecturer at USIU.
Prof Gikandi, who had been Ngugi’s student in the 1970s at University of Nairobi and published a definitive work on Ngugi in 2000, explained the initial concept of the anthology was to commemorate and celebrate his former professor’s becoming an octogenarian.
But then he and Wachanga realized they had opened up an opportunity for a multitude of friends, former colleagues and students of Ngugi to write about the impact he had made on their lives.
The stories, essays and poetry of more than 30 writers, critics, publishers and activists included in their book present a multifaceted picture of East Africa’s most acclaimed writer and the man described as “one of the world’s greatest writers” by USIU’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Paul Zeleza.
Several of those contributors attended the book launch and took part in a panel where they each described various ways in which Ngugi had influenced their lives.
Among those on the panel were the former Chief Justice, Dr Willy Mutunga, former chairman of East African Education Publishers, Dr Henry Chakava, CEO of Twaweza Communications, Dr Kimani Njogu, literary scholar Dr Garnette Oluoch-Olunya, and the anthology’s editors, Prof Gikandi, the Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton and archivist, journalist and lecturer at University of Wisconsin, Dr Wachanga.
Among the most moving panelists was Dr Chakava who recalled the way Ngugi, once released from detention in the late 1970s had been refused re-employment at University of Nairobi.
“I gave him a desk at our [EAEP] offices, and it was there that Ngugi swore he would never write another novel in English, which he hasn’t,” Chakava said.
But following the panel, it was Ngugi who described how his publisher had risked his life when he agreed to publish ‘Devil on the Cross’ in Kikuyu. Chakava was nearly kidnapped and received numerous death threats.
Nonetheless, he went on to publish several other of Ngugi’s novels, including Matagari (which the Kenya Government under President Moi banned) and Murogi wa Kagogo or Wizard of the Crow.
It was Dr Gikandi however who inumbrated several more spheres in which Ngugi had made an impact. While he and Dr Wachanga were compiling the book, he said they found Ngugi’s influence everywhere from literary culture, specifically post-colonial criticism to Kenya’s curriculum, publishing, diplomatic relations, politics and even Kenyan law.
Ngugi’s influence on the role of language and its relationship to literature and culture was introduced early in the afternoon when several USIU students recited Ngugi’s poem ‘The Riddle of Love’ in Kikuyu, Amharic, Chinese and English.
When Ngugi lastly spoke, he underscored the point that “languages are like musical instruments. No instrument is ‘better’ than the other. Each has its own musicality. In the same way, no language is better than the other.”
He further noted that there’s nothing wrong with learning countless foreign languages, but if one isn’t conversant in their mother tongue, they are essentially cut off from their history, identity and culture.
Ngugi announced he is in the process of registering a foundation which will aim at promoting the writing in African languages.
He was accompanied by his wife Njeeri who like Ngugi, is on the faculty of University of California, Irvine.