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The enduring spirit of Ngugi

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Ngugi wa Thiongo’s very own life itself, just like his works, continues to intrigue the silent observer. During the first week of June 2023, it was reported by Carey Baraka of The Guardian Newspaper that Africa and Kenya’s foremost literature giant, Ngũgĩ, is going through “a bitter divorce” from his second wife, Njeeri, at a time when he is also ailing in the US.

Kenyan writer and journalist, Carey Baraka, had travelled to California in October 2022 to spend some time with Ngugi. “The plan had been to write a profile, taking the measure of this legendary author, who is now 84 and entering the final phase of his life.” On the 5th of January 2023, Ngugi turned 85 with the additional great news that he was still writing. Since 2002, Ngugi has been a professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Carey Baraka himself is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya who writes about literary culture, food, sports, and politics, among other things.

In this recent report in question, Baraka ascribes Achebe, Soyinka and Ngugi three distinct positions in the literary scene of Africa in the 1950’s and 60’s: “If Achebe was the prime mover who captured the deep feeling of displacement that colonisation had wreaked, and Soyinka the witty, guileful intellectual who tried to make sense of the collision between African tradition and western ideas of freedom, then Ngũgĩ was the unabashed militant. His writing was direct and cutting, his books a weapon – first against the colonial state, and later against the failures and corruption of Kenya’s post-independence ruling elite…”

On getting to California Baraka finds Ngugi in a morning dress and their relationship, from the report, appears natural and friendly. As you read, it turns out that Ngugi stays alone with the aid of a health aide. Ngugi has suffered many maladies in recent years and he has gone through various major medical operations and he has had to constantly visit medical centres for routine check-ups.

Baraka makes what I think up to now is the most elaborate ever description of the great writer’s physical appearance and mannerisms: “Ngũgĩ has a slow, slightly croaky voice. He talks in a Gĩkũyũ accent mixed with traces of the English one he picked up while living in England, often stressing the last word in a sentence. He peppers his sentences with ‘oh my God’, which he uses to register incredulity at opinions he takes to be absurd. He has a way of being dismissive without being rude, taking a strong stance without quite silencing you. He is quick to laugh, and when he laughs at something he finds ridiculous, he buries his face in his hands, while shaking his head and saying, “Oh my God.” When he laughs at something he finds funny, he lifts his hand to the top of his head – bald except for grey tufts of hair above his ears – but then winces, for that movement can be painful for him. Sometimes, the laugh can descend into a hacking cough, which exacerbates the pain of the incisions he has in his belly from multiple surgeries…”

And finally the gauntlet falls: “Ngũgĩ seemed to sense that an explanation of some kind was needed because he said, unprompted, “I know I look like a bachelor, but I’m not.” He and his wife were going through a divorce. Before the two of them separated, they lived in University Hills, a part of Irvine where a lot of university faculty stay, near the beach.”

And that above is the saddest part of Baraka’s write up because it draws a picture of Ngugi as a lonely and ailing old man. Apparently Ngugi married in 1961. Over the next 17 years his first wife, Nyambura, gave birth to six children. His second wife, Njeeri wa Ngugi, he met in 1987 and they have two children.

On my own part, Ngugi has always been an immense inspiration. It was in my early high school days in Centenary District, Northern Zimbabwe when I first came into contact with the Kenyan writer through his iconic novel, The River Between. My soul was immediately touched.

Our teacher of English, may his soul rest in peace, used Ngugi’s book as supplementary reading but for me, it went beyond all that. My imagination was fired. The hills, the rivers, the elders in Ngugi’s Kenya were reminiscent of nearly everything in the northern part of my country.

My teacher held The River Between and read from it, pacing up and down the classroom. The opening chapters were especially tickling:
“The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator.”

My teacher read on, excited, “A river flowed through the valley of life. If there had been no bush and no forest trees covering the slopes, you could have seen the river when you stood on top of either Kameno or Makuyu. Now you had to come down. Even then you could not see the whole extent of the river as it gracefully, and without any apparent haste, wound its way down the valley. like a snake. The river was called Honia, which meant cure, or bring back-to-life. Honia River never dried: it seemed to posses a strong will to live, scorning droughts and weather changes. And it went on in the same way, never hurrying, never hesitating. People saw this and were happy.”

When he came to the river, my teacher’s voice became deeper: “Honia was the soul of Kameno and Makuyu. It joined them. And men, cattle, wild beasts and trees, were all united by this life-stream.

When you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life. They became antagonists. You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.”

I felt like I was in that Kenyan terrain myself, seeing the similar valleys and ridges of our land through the classroom window. The familiarity was exhilarating. Listening to the African Gikuyu names; Kameno and Makuyu rang a bell because Gikuyu strangely felt like Shona, my mother tongue.

My classmates and I were mesmerised too by the proverb: “Kagutui kamucii gatihakago ageni”-the oil skin of the house is not for rubbing onto the skin of strangers. We sang out the proverb in the titillating Gikuyu in the school yard at breaktime, just for the fun of it!

We were simply happy to have discovered a writer who came from a far away place that, nevertheless, felt and smelt like ours. Little did I know that I had unconsciously been led to realise that the names of men and women in my community could also be made to appear in serious pieces of writing! I would write about my people as they are!

Apparently Ngugi looked up to Achebe. Ngugi’s actual words are, “I first met Chinua Achebe in 1961 at Makerere University in Kampala. His (Achebe’s) novel, Things Fall Apart, had come out, two years before.” More shocking is the revelation that Ngugi was then only a second year student, almost with no published work to his name, except one story, Mugumo published in Penpoint, the literary magazine of the English Department at Makerere!

In 1961, Achebe was 31 and Ngugi only 23. We often do not notice that our heroes are people, from very humble beginnings like us.

At Ngugi’s request, Achebe looked at Ngugi’s short story and Ngugi says Achebe made some encouraging remarks. What Ngugi did not tell Achebe was that he was in the middle of his first novel for a writing competition organised by the East African Literature Bureau; a novel that would later be published as The River Between.

In The River Between, Ngugi writes about the struggles of a young leader, Waiyaki, to unite the two villages of Kameno and Makuyu through sacrifice and pain. The novel is set during the colonial period, when white settlers arrived in Kenya’s “White Highlands” and has a mountainuos setting.

Ngugi says his second encounter with Achebe was a year later at the same Makerere at the now famous 1962 conference of writers of English expression. The African writers and critics who gathered at Makerere in Uganda in June 1962 at a conference called “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression” faced the fundamental question of determining who qualified as an African writer and what qualified as African writing.

Was African Literature only the literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or south of the Sahara, or just black Africa? Should African Literature be only literature in indigenous African languages or should it include literature in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?

Ngugi says about this encounter, “My next encounter was more dramatic, for my part, at least, and would impact my life and literary career, profoundly.” He says that Chinua Achebe was among other literary luminaries of Africa, that included Wole Soyinka, J P Clark, the late Eski’a Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane and others. The East African contingent consisted of Grace Ogot, Jonathan Kariara, John Nagenda and Ngugi.

Ngugi’s invitation was on the strength of his short stories published in Penpoint and in Transition. Ngugi says Achebe was so prominent that the novel most discussed in the conference as a model of literary restraint and excellence was Things Fall Apart.

In his recent report, Carey Baraka is privileged to hear Ngugi talk about his differences with Achebe who which were based on their different sides on the language debate: “Some years later, however, the friendship between Ngũgĩ and Achebe soured as Ngũgĩ shifted towards Wali’s position on language. In Decolonising the Mind, he included Achebe among the African writers he criticised for writing in European languages. “Achebe said English was a gift. I disagreed,” Ngũgĩ told me. “But I wasn’t attacking him in a personal way, because I admired him as a person and as a writer, what he was doing with his novels. I realised he was angry at me, because in the first edition of one of his books, he had quoted me at length, but in the second he removed me completely.”

But Ngugi continues to maintain his stance on the language debate: “The question of English continues to haunt Ngũgĩ. “I can never think of my first novels without thinking of the language issue,” he told me. “How could I have these African characters and have them all speaking perfect English?

“When I wrote my first book, I wrote it in a language my mother couldn’t access. I rewarded her for taking me to school by writing in a language she can’t read or write.”
His voice went soft. “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just wrong about the language issue.” He paused. “No, I don’t think I’m wrong.”

Altogether Ngugi’s sons-Tee Ngugi, Nducu wa Ngugi, Mukoma wa Ngugi and his daughter Wanjiku wa Ngugi are all published authors, showing the father’s influence on his family.

Ngugi continues to be the talking point across the African continent even in his advanced age. His never-die spirit and endurance is the other great lesson which he is giving us.

Memory Chirere

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We need a coordinated approach on youth challenges

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For a number of good reasons, all of us are concerned about problems that face Lesotho’s young people, particularly youth unemployment, and the increasing tendency towards anti-social behaviour among sections of Lesotho youth including their increasing admiration for criminality.

Not only do members of such groups admire criminality and actually commit crimes but they commit crimes without much care as to the harm and other costs that their actions inflict on immediate victims and on society-at-large.

Evidence of public concern about these problems includes the fact that within society individuals, groups and public and private institutions have all expressed concerns over problems facing the youth, with some of these parties making attempts to come up with ideas and measures to assist.

However, a number of problems seem to be emerging on, at least, three fronts. Firstly, a seeming lack of coordination in addressing problems that face young people. Secondly, lack of clarity on questions of whether (a) parties that seek to assist are basing their interventions on credibly identified sources of problems that face young people; and (b) whether any credible assessments are made to ensure that interventions such parties are proposing and implementing have potential to solve problems that face Lesotho’s young people.

There are many examples of what may seem to us, members of the general public, to be lack of coordination in approaches to solve problems facing young people. One such example may be sufficient. On January 8, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast a statement in which the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) authorities announced establishment of some army facility where Basotho young people would be taught some values, including patriotism.

The very next day, on January 9, 2024, Lesotho TV broadcast another statement, this time by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) authorities, announcing the LMPS’s plan to establish a police facility at which young people would be taught anti-crime and other values. In their essence, the LMPS’s plan sounded not totally dissimilar to LDF’s.
Apart from the LDF and LMPS’s plans for Lesotho’s youth, there are also public and private sector initiatives to nurture and support entrepreneurial talents of Lesotho’s youth with a view, among others, to fight youth unemployment and develop the country’s private sector.

Politicians have also been seen to sponsor football games for young people in their constituencies with a view, they say, to keep young people from crime and narcotics. These events cannot be criticised too much but given that they are one, or two-day events that take place during specific times, they look more like publicity stunts.

National sports federations are now complaining that politicians who sponsor these events put too much stress on sports as a means to fight crime. What federations want is that, if politicians want to help, they should stress the importance of sports as careers, and sponsor young people to develop their sporting talents accordingly.

Amidst expressions of concerns and various parties’ attempts to address problems facing Lesotho youth, public authorities that we have not heard from, or from who we do not hear enough, are those charged with responsibilities over precisely problems facing young people; that is, authorities at the Ministry of Youth.

Admittedly, we do not know if the initiatives of the LDF, LMPS, and others are carried out in consultation with or with the blessing of the Ministry of Youth.

The worry ought to be not only whether interventions of the LDF, LMPS, and others have the blessings of the Ministry of Youth. Instead, the worry should extend to the question of whether the Ministry has any national plan to address problems facing young people. And, if such a plan exists, we would expect that it identifies the LDF and LMPS as places where young place can be coached; and initiatives of these and other institutions would align with such a plan.

Without an identification of the army and the police as implementing agencies of the Ministry’s plan, and without the army and police’s initiatives alignment with the Ministry’s plan, at least two things are likely to result: duplication of effort — as seems to be the case with the LDF and LPMS plans; or, at worst, LDF and LMPS plans might contradict and undermine national plans entrusted to the Ministry of Youth.

In the worst case scenario that a national plan does not exist, we face the danger that anybody wishing to address problems facing Lesotho’s young people can do so, basing herself, or himself on a personal or group perception, and implementing plans and solutions based on such perception.

As in the case of too many people stirring the same cooking pot without coordination, undesirable consequences can be expected from a situation where just about anybody can apply a solution to a public problem.

As hinted above, a good national plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people would have two characteristics, at least. First, it would be based on our assertion of the kind of society we want to be; an investigation of problems that stand in the way of achieving such a society; how such problems can be overcome, say, through school curricula; and how, in general, from Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), young people can be brought up and socialised in ways that ensure they will be useful members of a society we wish to be.

Any action that is not based on an investigation of the problems that stand in the way of achieving a society we want to be has little chances of success. Such action would be based on some understanding that the young who are anti-social, unpatriotic and criminals are naturally bad people.

It is, of course, not as simple as that. For example, one possible explanation for the absence of patriotism among young people may have something to do with socio-economic inequality in Lesotho: those who are closed out of, and excluded from, benefiting from Lesotho’s wealth and power cannot be expected to be patriots.

A second characteristic of a plan aimed at addressing problems that face Lesotho’s young people is that, such a plan should identify and/or establish institutions designed — and with appropriate skills — to implement ideas and proposals that come out of credible investigations.

It is unclear whether the LDF and LMPS plans have resulted from something like considerations suggested above. While it is admitted that these institutions’ initiatives are limited to addressing problems of lack of patriotism and criminality among the young people, one clear problem with their plans and solutions is that, it might be the case that they are catching young people a little late, when schooling and general socialisation have already entrenched anti-social values that we see among sections of young people; namely, individualism and the inability to think of others.

In one word, these institutions catch these young people when tendencies towards criminality, anti-social behaviour, and lack of patriotism might have already hardened.
Perhaps the biggest hope we should have is that the army and the police will have full complement of resources necessary for providing full and wholesome mentoring to young people who undergo army and police mentoring.

Short of adequate resources necessary for achieving what the army and the police have in mind, we might end up with cohorts of young people with a faulty army and police culture that may come back to haunt us. Inserting a faulty army culture among a section of young people brought us bitter results in the 1970s and 1980s that should not be repeated.

To conclude, no one can argue against all of us being concerned with problems of youth unemployment; increasing tendencies of young people’s admiration of criminality and their participation in crime. And no one can argue against all of us coming up with ideas and proposals of how to address these problems.

However, our concerns and proposals ought to be based on:
a nationally-agreed assertion of society we want to be;
a credible investigation of difficulties that stand in the way of us becoming society we want to be;

and coordination of proposals and ideas aimed at becoming society we want to be.

As with other specific instances of socio-economic development in Lesotho, problems facing the country’s young people cry out for the long-neglected establishment of the National Planning Board, as prescribed in Section 105 of the Constitution of Lesotho.

Prof Motlatsi Thabane

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Call that a muffin?

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In Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) one of the characters says about the British, “We have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” Between American English and British English there are many, many differences. Which is not to say that either American or British English are standardised; there are multiple varieties within each. As a south-western Brit I can find it difficult to fully understand what someone from Liverpool or Newcastle is saying.

I remember one year during the NUL’s International Theatre for Development project we had a student from the islands of Scotland. She was brilliant and hard-working and full of good ideas — if only one could understand the ideas when she introduced them. The NUL students grouped together and asked me: “Chris, can you translate what Kirsty is saying for us?” and I replied: “I’m as lost as you are.”

Between American and British English it’s not just a matter of pronunciation but also of vocabulary (I’ll be coming to muffins — see the title of this piece — in a while) and spelling.
In the biographical film Prick Up Your Ears British, dramatist Joe Orton shares a room with Ken Halliwell and they decide to write a novel together. Ken asks Joe “can you spell?” and Joe replies “yes, but not accurately.”

This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s a Brit. The American spelling system is far more regular and rational than the British. (Readers with laptops will have noticed that your spell-check gives the option of British or American spelling, but that doesn’t help you as in Lesotho the British system is used, so for the time being you’re stuck with it).

I mean, what can you say about a spelling system where “plough” rhymes with “now”, but “tough” rhymes with “stuff”– and “now” doesn’t rhyme with “low.” Yipes (as the Americans say). When I was lecturing in Lesotho and in Nigeria and marking assignments I was always very lenient over spelling, because I know what a mountain it is to climb (the latter word rhyming with “time”, of course).

Then there is the matter of vocabulary or denotation (a term I hope readers remember from a few weeks back). There are many examples of things that are denoted by different words in British and American English: lift / elevator; pavement / sidewalk; windscreen / windshield; petrol / gas; cinema / movie theater (and look at the American spelling of (Brit) “theatre”– a lot easier). And some of these reflect our different histories.

For example, there’s a vegetable, a kind of small marrow, the British call it a courgette (one of my favourite vegetables, in case any of you are planning to invite me for dinner). That’s a word that British English has borrowed directly from French — that is, a loan word (I’m not sure we plan to give it back).

The Americans on the other hand call it a zucchini, a loan word from Italian, which I guess reflects the size and influence of the Italian community in the USA. (Speaking of vegetables, I can’t give you an explanation for why the Brits call an aubergine an aubergine — another loan word from French — but the Americans call it an egg-plant).

Next week I’ll get around to muffins — a sore point — and I’ll move on to differences between English and French and between Sesotho and Setswana. Bet you can’t wait.

Chris Dunton is a former Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at the National University of Lesotho.

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Insight

Lessons from Israel: Part 3

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I shall round off my account of my 1995 trip to Israel by putting on my tour guide cap. Staying in Tel Aviv, most days were fully taken up by the conference, which was my reason for being there. Tel Aviv in July is scorchingly hot, so there were walks along the beach only before breakfast and after sunset. I did take a little time off to go with South African author Stephen Gray to an art gallery that had a painting he wanted to see (a portrait by Modigliani of Beatrice Hastings, whose biography Stephen was then writing).

I wasn’t especially keen on the hotel restaurant, where dinner comprised meat served by the ton (surprisingly little fish, given that we were on the coast. By contrast, I had always been surprised and happy that Maseru restaurants are so good on fish, despite the fact that Lesotho isn’t exactly maritime). But I discovered a little Russian Jewish restaurant that offered Beluga caviar at an amazingly cheap price. I suspect it had fallen off the back of a lorry, as we say in the UK — i.e. that it was contraband, acquired illegally. I just blinked innocently and enjoyed myself. I can’t think of a more delicious way of starting a meal than with caviar, freshly-made blinis and a large glass of deeply chilled Wyberowa vodka — no ice, please. (I only say all this to show you what a very cosmopolitan chap I am).

The conference ran to a packed schedule and we worked hard (no, really). Half-way through we were given a day off and taken to Jerusalem. On arrival I teamed up with an old Nigerian friend and a friend of his from Senegal and we took ourselves first to the Dome of the Rock, the main mosque, which is splendid and radiant (wow, the mosaics!) Then we saw the Wailing Wall.

Then we trudged up the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Via marks the route along which Christ was forced to carry his cross on the way to his crucifixion (dolorosa means something like “of miseries”). I had expected it to be lined with sculptures showing the Stations of the Cross (rather like the lovely ones at Fatima, near Ramabanta).

Instead it was one tourist gift shop after another. Here I came across one of the most repugnant things I’ve seen in my life. Proudly displayed for sale, a wall clock with the face adorned with the image of the head of Christ, the two clock hands protruding from his nose.

At the top of the Via Dolorosa, the fourth century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in the world for Christians, which is breathtakingly beautiful. The interior is (not visibly) divided into sections, the upkeep of each of which is the responsibility of one of the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Egyptian Coptic, and so on. I had had the impression this was an arrangement worked out under the colonial regime of British Palestine, but Google tells me it dates back to the Status Quo of 1757.

My companions had done their homework and suggested we head first for the roof, which had been allocated to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (dare one possibly suggest a tinge of racism in this marginalisation?). There we found a cluster of monkish cells, each inhabited by an elderly Ethiopian monk, at least two of whom spoke English or French. They were delighted to see us, and utterly sweet, hospitable, and in their accounts of their pastoral work spellbinding.

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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