A post-graduate student looking forward to the ultimate, a professorship, in a Kenyan university, phoned me, aghast at Enock Matundura, Stephen Oluoch and Maurice Amutabiâ€™s responses to Prof William Ochiengâ€™s face-to-face interview.
â€œIs this the way varsity lecturers argue in the senior common rooms, seminars or conferences and other interactive fora?â€ she asked, not disguising her disappointment.
I told her from the onset that the quality of knowledge did not depend on the volume or number of books and papers.
One short paper can be 100 times more valuable than thousands of pages. And yellow notes may be as good as very recent ones.
Moreover, the Socratic Method that predates the birth of Christ is so old (yellow?) and not the only one and there are too many teaching methods in higher education to cover.
I also questioned the argument that Ochiengâ€™s â€œwordâ€ titles were necessarily derived from Taban: too many others have written last words before Taban.
I hazarded other answers which were far from conclusive and satisfactory. I chose to follow up with a longer written version if this could help.
NO CONFIDENCE IN MAZRUI
I started with Matunduraâ€™s claim that Ochiengâ€™ lacked the confidence to face Ali Mazrui in a public discussion in 1992.
With the knowledge that they were operating in a literate society, it was perfectly in order for Ochiengâ€™ to reject the invitation.
In any case, what is more public than written and published material?
Which material, if properly packaged, should elicit written retorts and not public outbursts from the discerning reader?
Which leads me to the question: Must every thinker, student or scholar who disagrees with counterparts meet in a public contest to sort out differences? I do not think so.
Peter Nazareth, the critic who found content and style in The Trial of Christopher Okigbo horribly wanting, did not need to meet Mazrui to incisively critique the novel in the essay The Trial of a Juggler.
In this essay, Nazareth proves that even a wordsmith of Mazruiâ€™s stature is capable of stylistic disasters.
Examples of Mazruiâ€™s detractors abound with perhaps the most famous being Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.
In a magazine article entitled Triple Tropes of Trickery; he called Mazrui an intellectual â€œAyatollahâ€ bent on cleverly hoodwinking the world into believing that Islam is closer than Christianity to African belief systems while at the same time displaying superficial knowledge of those religions (African).
He was giving his opinion on Mazruiâ€™s film/book, The Triple Heritage. I know Mazrui rebutted Soyinka in writing and published the piece.
There was no need for a rally or public competition over who was the better thinker or speaker. Their thoughts were captured in written words.
Perhaps the best way for readers to benefit from Matundura is for him to study Mazrui closely and critique his works (in writing) rather than gloat over or imagine somebody elseâ€™s lack of courage to lock horns in public verbal and intellectual jousting with another.
I have deliberately picked on seeming negative criticism of Mazrui to confirm that, as an intellectual, he is famous but human.
And like all humans, he too has a soft underbelly that can be pierced.
He can be deified but then there are those who do not for their own good reasons. Taking sides is an entitlement we cannot wish away.
LOG IN OWN EYE
But most Kenyans, including the most highly educated, have a very soft spot for heroes and dare not see or tolerate the minutest tragic flaws in their characters once they believe in them. They particularly adore live ones.
That is why thousands of shillings were once wasted looking for famed Mau Mau general Stanley Mathenge.
The search ended up with a Mr Lema Ayanu who was lavishly hosted in Nairobi but could speak neither Gikuyu nor Kiswahili as was expected.
In his own right, Mazrui is a living intellectual Kenyan hero holed-up somewhere in Americaâ€™s New York state. That, however, does not make him more global than Amutabi, Ochiengâ€™ or the other scholars.
To the best of my understanding, every village and homestead in the world is part of the globe (and therefore global).
It is the history of Yimbo and Kadinmo routhdoms that, along with every other kingdom, queendom, nation-state and whatever else add up to the inter(nation)al community.
New York is thus not more global than tiny Ndere or Liganwa villages that historian Atieno Odhiambo wrote lucid essays about at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
He went further to use such essays in history classes so many thousands of kilometres away from Kenya. Need I add that he also used Ochiengâ€™s pieces on Kadimo etc?
I do not want to overstretch the argument that every tiny piece of earth is global whether it is the unknown Ondiri in Homa Bay or Kikuyu in Kiambu. Ochiengâ€™ thus has as much global reach as Amutabi attributes to Mazrui and Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Let me quickly and briefly add that my five years of studentship in comparative literature in the United States exposed me to many disciplines in the humanities.
I found Ochiengâ€™ very highly regarded in the seminal construction of Kenyan historiography. Professor Alpers was surprised that Ngugi poohpoohed Ogot, Muriuki, Were and Ochiengâ€™s attempts to reconstruct Kenyaâ€™s past in Petals of Blood.
He asked what Ngugi had contributed to historical scholarship in the country.
As a comparatist, my answer was that there existed a huge easily recognisable historical tissue in Ngugiâ€™s writing.
His treatment of the Mau Mau experience however riled Ochiengâ€™ and a few other scholars. I attended several public lectures and seminars and read Ochiengâ€™s critique of the way Ngugi fictionalises the movement without doing enough research.
He also reduced it to a mere Kikuyu event that the colonial government crashed before handing over uhuru constitutionally.
My take is that Mau Mau is a multiplicity of diverse opinions varying from individual to individual.
The colonial government believed that Kenyatta, who vehemently opposed Mau Mau, supported it.
While still chasing what Ochiengâ€™ christens â€œThe ghost of Jomo Kenyatta in Ngugiâ€™s fictionâ€, Ngugi treated him as a hero.
After his detention, he characterised him as an anti-hero. I think this change meant that Ngugi finally saw sense and redressed his shortcomings.
I also find myself agreeing with Atieno Odhiambo that Mau Mau is a discourse that attracts myriads of verbal and ideological contestants.
Does its concentration in Central among the Kikuyu however make it â€œtribalâ€? Does that also make Ngugi a tribal scholar? Was he a tribalist as chairman of the department of literature at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s.
While the first two questions depend on as many diverse perspectives as there are interested scholars, the last one interests me because I was directly involved as a student in the postgraduate training programme.
TRIBAL DISTRIBUTION OF SCHOLARSHIPS
I do not recall anything tribal in the distribution of MA or PhD scholarships.
I was a beneficiary at MA level despite being non-Kikuyu. Others were Dorothy Kweyu, David Amateshe, Mary Mkimbo, Mbatau wa Ngai and Waweru. D.H. Kiiru preceded us barely a year or two after Prof Andrew Gurr relinquished departmental leadership.
There was nothing tribal in the distribution of scholarships although eyebrows were raised when Mbatau and Waweru were preferred to Oluoch Oburu whose aggregate marks were far higher than Mbatauâ€™s.
Be that as it was, I think Ngugi was as human as Ali Mazrui and equally capable of erring.
What tribalism was, like Mau Mau, largely depended on which angle one viewed it and the resulting definitions were not always right or anywhere close to the truth.
But then even truth is constructed and the one about Ngugiâ€™s tribalism is historically indefensible.
Nor was he biased for the Kikuyu in the recruitment of staff: Eddah Gachuia, Chris Wanjala and Atthur Kemoli were pursuingÂ their doctoral studies in the 1970s and taught me as an undergraduate .
Arthur Luvai and Jane Nandwa tutored me even as they embarked on their MAs.
There is nothing Kikuyucentric in the distribution of jobs thus far. Even William Ochiengâ€™ can therefore make mistakes.
Let me hasten to add that I donâ€™t think there was any tribalism in the then Department of History that may have influenced Ngugi to be tribalistic to match as Oluoch Stephen implies.
As a first year undergraduate, Bethwel Ogot introduced me to history followed by Idha Salim, William Ochiengâ€™, G.S. Were, B.E. Kipkorir, Harris, Godfrey Muriuki and others.
SKIPPING MA: STRAIGHT TO PHD
Atieno Odhiambo was then a tutorial fellow but even his later elevation to the position of lecturer did not make the department Luocentric.
If Oluoch had conducted enough research, he would have known there was nothing Luo in Ochiengâ€™ and Atieno Odhiambo jumping the MA and proceeding to their PhD studies. Examples existed in other departments including Literature.
The problem with Kenyans is that many present and defend beliefs rather than researched facts.
That Ogot, Ochiengâ€™ and Odhiambo were in the History department did not make it predominantly Luo. Likewise for Literature: the presence of Kimani Gecan, Ngugi, Gacheche and Micere Mugo did not mean theirs was a Kikuyu-dominated department.
But suppose it was only one ethnic group that provided qualified staff (which was not the case), would the departments suspend teaching and await the production of teachers by the many groups in Kenya?
The answer is obviously No and your correspondentsÂ should know better.
To put it briefly, all allegations of tribalism are false and devoid of facts.
I have, for example, no recollection of meetings being conducted in Dholuo in the then Maseno University College: I attended as many as two a week (or more) as Moi University Senate Representative and can vouch for a near-face of Kenya in the institutionâ€™s meetings at the highest levels.
COUNTRY OF BELIEVERS
As I have argued, we are a country of believers and something (especially the negative) must exist whereÂ one believes it exists even if its absence is abundant.
We do not care that knowledge is produced by debating issues and reaching a consensus or having one side winning. Amutabi, Oluoch and Matundura are not for this: they want their opponents totally annihilated because of conquerable differences.
-Prof Amuka teaches at the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies at Moi University.Â Â Â