BY TABAN LO LIYONG
Kenyan intellectuals have never been kind to foreigners of more superlative endowments and achievements. In the early 1960s Ezekiel (Es’kia) Mphahlele came here and established Chemchemi Cultural Centre. A leading Kenyan daily editor and a leading Kenyan editor for a foreign publishing house managed to frustrate him and send him packing. The best artist from South Africa, Selvon Mvusi, with great ideas for the development of art died in West Africa where he had gone for a conference. His office was broken open and all his papers confiscated by the head of department. Had they been presented to his family, perhaps they would have been donated to the university. Instead an individual grabbed them. And they disappeared. Used up selfishly. John Ruganda, upon his return from Canada, with a PhD on how Francis Imbuga tells the truth laughingly, was thrown out of Kenya through the machinations, largely, of one Chris Wanjala. The ground for the action was that he had no work permit to stage a play in Kenya. What was wrong with going to get him a work-permit so that he could train and employ Kenyan actors and actresses? So that he could help develop theatre in Kenya? Sometime in 1973 or 1974, Okot p’Bitek and I used to be feted by the Goethe Institute, Paa ya Paa Art Gallery, the USIS, British Council, etc.
A NASTY ENCOUNTER
One day after we had read our poems and were drinking the whisky or Tusker with which Franz Nagel entertained us and our followers after work, four of our young Kenyan followers turned nationalistically nasty. They demanded to know why we were so popular in the cultural circuit of Nairobi. Why should we Ugandans monopolise these houses? Why were they (Kenyans) being shunned? Why don’t we go back to our country? Okot started driving to Kisumu that very night in his Jaguar. In reverse! After I had installed Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the head of literature department and realising that my presence was an interference I left for Papua New Guinea and headed a literature department there. Okot also left for Makerere where he was appointed professor of creative writing. Of the four Kenyans who gave us our marching orders that night, there was Wanjala, Robert Angira Otieno, Aloo Ojuka, Atieno Odhiambo, and perhaps Robert William Ochieng. (If I got any name wrong, Wanjala can set the record right. He had barked the most that night.)
WHAT WAS THE POINT?
Whenever I pass through Nairobi and find that scholarly publications on literature are increasing in Kiswahili only, I ask myself were we foreigners sent back to our countries because mediocre Kenyan scholars in English literature wanted to perpetrate the literary barrenness? I do not agree that there are no intellectuals in South Sudan. There is the lawyer, anthropologist, ethnologist and novelist Francis Mading Deng. There is the international jurist Abel Alier. There is the young autobiographer Steven Wondu and up and coming economist Bure Yongo. I defy anybody who says The Last Word, Meditations of Taban lo Liyong, Corps Lovers and Corps Haters, Words that Move a Mountain; Ballads of Underdevelopment, Carrying Knowledge up a Palm Tree, Homage to Onyame, an African God, Culture is Rutan, are not intellectually leading products from me in the field of essay-writing, post-modernist novel writing and poetry writing in the whole of Africa. Meditations ranks among the world’s best 50 post-modernist novels. In the field of essay writing I would rank high, among the world’s first writers, mostly Americans, if any five best essays are rated in communication, persuasion and exploration of new ideas. I have been modest too long among non-readers, non-experts on literature and writers of students’ guides for secondary schools who call themselves professors. When Kenyan universities start to insist on published critical works as ground for appointment to associate professorships and professorships then we shall know that the universities have come of age. But that will not happen when so-called professors gather their shillings from parallel students. Do they lie on top of them, parallel? Or sideways, parallelly?
RWANDA IN THE LEAD
As far as intellectual progress is concerned, I bet on Rwanda giving eastern Africa a lead. Banda Academy did produce exemplary Malawian intellectuals. The leading economist among them is Prof Thandiwe Mkandawire, the economist who was like me, an African Scholarship Programme of American Universities – scholar, then an American MA and finally an American PhD. Okot p’Biket is Okot p’Bitek. Taban lo Liyong is Taban lo Liyong. To say “Taban is not as deep as Okot p’Bitek” is no criticism. Has Ochieng read and understood my books? A critic who is at the same time an intellectual would read them to find out what they are all about. If he still has time he would then read Okot p’Bitek’s books to find out what each is about. If there is any reason, or need, for comparison or contrast then he could do that on the strength of the corpuses of the two authors. When I find myself at the age of 77 showing directions about how the scholars should approach my writings to those I had associated within my first year in Nairobi University’s Institute of African Studies, and when I say I am frustrated, then younger scholars laugh at me and my frustrations, as if it is an individual thing, I know that our salvation is still far.
WHO IS READ?
For Ngugi is neither read nor critiqued, Meja Mwangi is not read and assessed; David Mailu is just read; Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino was just read; Okello Oculli is not dismissed, Susan Kiguli is not read nor made a subject of weekend seminars; Tim Wangusa in not read; Imbuga is read as a secondary school textbook. John Nagenda is not read, Peter Nazareth is not read, Elvania Zirimu is not read, Margaret Ogola is read as a textbook, and Marjorie Oludhe is read as a textbook. I am only known as the loud mouth who claimed that East Africa is a literary desert! The article in question is NEVER READ. The text is out of context. My books do not fit in the secondary school curriculum. The university students are not brought up to the standard that would make them feel at home in the intellectual word that we share with Ayi Kwei Armah, Kwame Nkrumah, Mkandawire, especially about the nature of the western world, and the world. I am bemoaning all the books that are not read. What texts do our MA and PhD students study so that they produce unpublishable books? I do not know what specialisations the lecturers have for appointments, and promotions. In this regard, I may be excused if I say university appointment and promotion boards are barren of criteria for selecting the best teachers for Kenyan graduate students.
UNIVERSITIES AND THEIR LOW STANDARDS
So, as an old “prefect” for scholarship, made so by my appointment by VC Arthur Porter in 1969, I am here again to say it is the universities that are maintaining low standards in Kenya (and Uganda, leave alone South Sudan). Why not, for the next 10 years appoint professor of literature from America, Europe and a few West Africans? If, like the elephant, I repeat the same stuff, it is because the old stuff keeps on presenting itself before me. The profit motive, when publishers have fallen prey to profits that killed the Heinemann African Writers series, so that the books that sell the most were produced, those that were not ‘popular’ were discontinued, then be sure Taban’s works would not be republished. I have asked a reputable East African publisher to reproduce The Last Word. After over 20 years, I have given up. I have brought from London Rex Collings Publishers a copy of Meditations of Taban lo Liyong, he has it by his bedside. He has had it for more than six months. Why don’t these our publishers, for every 10 titles that become school textbooks, publish one title to enhance intellectual development in East Africa? Or why don’t authors and publishers jointly talk to the Ministry of Education to underwite classics to enhance intellectualism in Eastern Africa?
AN INTELLECTUAL LITERARY BREAKTHROUGH
Finally, it may be asked, why am I insisting on making the literary intellectual breakthrough in Kenya? The simple answer is: Because I invested much intellect in producing intellectual Kenyans, using my best seven years, 1968–1975. And because, somewhere in my mind I suspect the breakthrough in intellectual self-sufficiency as far as East Africa is concerned will be made in Kenya. When it is made in Kenya, Uganda will follow, Rwanda will follow, and South Sudan will follow! At times, instead of behaving like the addressed audiences, the Kenyan hearers seem to think they are interlopers. Sometimes other Eastern Africans instead of reading themselves into my writings, think I am addressing Ugandans, or Kenyans only; without disciple, I am reduced to throwing my arms in the air and saying those with ears, let then ear.