Kenya needs more thinkers, less looters.
By Silas Gisiora Nyanchwani
On Sunday Ngugi wa Thiongâ€™o was in Harlem, not too far from school, for “Revolution Books and the Emancipation of Humanity” gig. I missed out because I was on a filming assignment, jumping from train to train, following this drummer kid.
I love Ngugi. To me he is a national treasure. I always question how come we donâ€™t have a Ngugi wa Thiongâ€™o library, theatre or building in any of our universities, more so at University of Nairobi, where he helped found the department of Literature. Ngugi’s presence in Harlem was a symbolic gesture and a big honour.
A few things about Harlem. You probably know it as the worldâ€™s largest ghetto. It is no longer a ghetto. In the 1970s, as Bobby Womack said in his soundtrack to the movie Across 110th Street “it was one hell of a tester.” You all should listen to the song, the guitar so much reminds me of Obokano. The song paints out the picture of Harlem then. Womack sings,
â€œIn every city you find the same thing going down
Harlem is the capital of every ghetto townâ€
It was a Mecca of the black race.
In the last decade, a wave of gentrification has swept through the neighborhood. It is no longer an exclusively black neighborhood it used to be. (There is a Spanish Harlem on the Eastern part of Harlem). From 2001, the population of blacks is down from 90 to 60 per cent, and likely to go down as rent becomes scandalously overpriced, typical of Manhattan. The black folks canâ€™t afford and they have to move elsewhere.
It is a far cry from the past. In the days after the civil rights struggle, with Martin Luther King Jnr and Malcolm X dead, Harlem became a cesspit of drugs, crime and urban squalor, constantly reminding the world how ruthlessly unforgiving capitalism can be. I mean, Manhattan is perhaps one of the richest parts of the world. And to have the historic ghetto in the same borough was the mother of all contrasts.
Despite everything, Harlem has retained its historic significance to the black race. The main streets and building are named mostly after the civil rights movement leader and of course, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This is the neighbourhood Ngugi was.
And Ngugi is much more appreciated here. It wasnâ€™t until this year that Ngugi was given a deserved welcome to Kenya and openly embraced both by the ruling class and the opposition. Some people have accused Ngugi of being a Kikuyu nationalist. Which to me is a truckload of bullshit. There is nothing wrong about Ngugi sharing literature from his background. I’m one of those Kenyans who believe that i can be a Kisii and Kenyan at the same time.
Ngugi is an institution unto himself and a thinker as good as they come. His literature, while ethnically Kikuyu, it speaks to all of us. And since he is Kikuyu and was adversely affected by colonialism, you donâ€™t expect him to write from your imaginary idealistic vacuum. Writers tell their experiences, period.
I enjoy reading books on three levels. One is the witty, humourous and satire level. Two, the intellectual and philosophical level and thirdly is the emotional level. Ngugi appeals to the latter two, and at a very subtle level, his novels and short stories, especially those that tackle betrayal in the humanity, can be humorous. The Marty comes to mind. There is a poignancy about Ngugiâ€™s prose that makes you feel the evils of colonialism, their dispossessing people their land (the subsequent repossession of the land back by the home guards went on to screw the country) and how the British changed Kenya, both for good and for worse.
Ngugiâ€™s essays, notably Decolonizing the Mind should be read by every kid in their first week in college. His quest for us to use our mother tongues may sound impractical but it is a good idea. Africa lost so much when we were dispossessed of our languages and made to believe that speaking our languages was a sign of backwardness. Anytime I remember of those discs, I’m livid. Are kids still forced to speak only in Swahili and English, that will be a terrible abuse of human rights. It is not uncommon to measure our childrenâ€™s intelligence by their ability to speak proper English like the queen.
Granted, English is a good compromise for a continent with a million languages, in other places such as Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania, local languages have thrived. Even literature and newspaper in local languages thrives. Uganda, especially does better. Don’t you enjoy their music? In the end, you see their music and artistic production outshining ours by far. Even though the DJs are letdowns, there is a reason they play more Nigerian and Tanzanian music. Language is cultural force and that is why all the leading economies in the world do everything to fiercely protect their languages.
I really hoped that Kenya can get more thinkers, like Ngugi. They need not be 100% right, but they can give us a framework upon which we can anchor our national aspirations. Currently,the astonishing stupidity and corruption displayed by politicians is bad for the country. We need people to remind us, that life is not about mansions, big cars when there others who cannot afford a meal, children and mothers dying and those eyesores called slums.