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The story of Ngugi, Achebe

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When I went to school in the 1980’s, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiongo and other prominent African writers’ photographs and names were all over the place, on the wall in the school library and in the classrooms. Maybe that is why, somehow, we assumed that Ngugi and Achebe must be from the same place and that they met every day and told stories.


To us, Ngugi and Achebe were Africa’s two great authors and when you mentioned either writer or author, their Heinemann African Writers Series images tended to run across one’s mind. Titles like Things fall apart and The River Between were everywhere and often read aloud during English lessons.


As a result, I never thought a day would come when Ngugi Wa Thiong’o would talk about his first and second and even third time to meet Chinua Achebe, like he did in his Tribute to Chinua Achebe published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14) pp 52-53. Achebe died on 21 March 2013 in Boston, US, at the age of 82.


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 aged 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 that 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.


Things fall Apart, is a narrative about Africa’s cataclysmic encounter with Europe as it establishes a colonial presence on the continent. A wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior of Umuofia in the late 1800s, Things Fall Apart explores one man’s futile resistance to the devaluing of his Igbo traditions by British colonialists. Achebe Things Fall Apart, As we speak, this pioneering novel of Achebe is also estimated to have sold millions of copies.


In this tribute to Achebe, Ngugi writes intimately about the prospects of meeting Achebe at the Makerere conference, “But what most attracted me was not my being invited there as ‘writer’ but the fact that I would be able to show Achebe the manuscript of my second novel, what would later become Weep Not Child.”


Ngugi continues and says that it was very generous of Achebe to agree to look at the Weep Not Child manuscript because, Achebe was already busy then writing his other novel, Arrow of God. “Because of that and his involvement in the conference, Achebe could not read the whole manuscript, but he read enough to give some useful suggestions.”


More importantly, Ngugi says, Achebe talked about the Weep Not Child manuscript to his publishers, William Heinemann, represented at the conference by June Milne, who expressed an interest in the work. Weep Not Child would later be published by William Heinemann and the paperback by Heinemann education publishers, the fourth in the now famous African Writers Series, of which Achebe was the Editorial Adviser.


Weep Not Child is a moving novel about the effects of the Mau Mau uprising on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family particularly the brothers, Njoroge and Kamau.

Ngugi was working with the Nation newspapers when Weep Not Child eventually came out in April of 1964. It was Kenya’s first modern novel in English by a Kenyan African. Ngugi says that the novel was well publicised in the Kenyan newspapers, “with the Sunday Nation even carrying my interview by de Villiers, one of its senior feature writers. I assumed that every educated Kenyan would have heard about the novel.”Ngugi says that he was woken to reality “when I entered a club, the most frequented by the new African elite at the time, who all greeted me as their Kenyan author of Things Fall Apart.”


The third time that Ngugi encounters Achebe came years later at Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations at Bard College attended by Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka, among others. At that event, Ngugi told the story of how Achebe’s name had haunted his (Ngugi’s) life. “When Soyinka’s turn to speak came, he said that I had taken the story from his mouth: he had been similarly been mistaken for Chinua Achebe,” Ngugi adds.


Ngugi argues that Achebe became synonymous with the Heinemann African writers series and African writing as a whole. “There’s hardly any African writer of my generation who has not been mistaken for Chinua Achebe,” Ngugi repeats. “I have had a few such encounters. Every African novel became Things Fall Apart, and every writer some sort of Chinua Achebe. Even a protestation to the contrary was not always successful.”
Ngugi says the other such encounter he had with Achebe was not a real physical meeting. It was in 2010 at Jomo Kenyatta Airport.

Ngugi’s fourth son, Mukoma, the author of Nairobi Heat, and Ngugi had been invited for the Kwani festival whose theme was inter-generational dialogue. Mukoma fitted the bill perfectly. As Ngugi and Mukoma walked towards the immigration, Ngugi says a man came towards them. His hands were literally trembling as he identified himself as a professor of literature from Zambia.


“Excuse me Mr Achebe,” the man says to Ngugi, “somebody pointed you out to me. I have long wanted to meet you.”
“No, I am not the one,” Ngugi had said, “but here is Mr Achebe,” Ngugi jokingly added, pointing at his son, Mukoma WaNgugi.


Ngugi actually thought the obvious youth of his son, Mukoma, who was then only 39 years of age would easily tell the admirer that Ngugi was only joking! “But no, our Professor grabbed Mukoma’s hands, before Mukoma could protest, grateful that he had at last shaken hands with his hero. The case of mistaken identity as late as 2010 shows how Achebe had become a mythical figure, and rightly so.”


Ngugi says that Achebe was the single most important figure in the development of modern African literature as writer, editor, and quite simply a human being. Ngugi points out that Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is the most widely read novel in the history of African literature and that since its publication in 1958, it became an inspiring model.


“As the general editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, Achebe had a hand in the emergence of many other writers and their publication. As a human being, he embodied wisdom that comes from a commitment to the middle way between extremes. And of course courage in the face of personal tragedy!” Ngugi declares.


Ngugi says that the last time that he met face to face with Achebe was at Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations held at Bard College. With Ngugi was wife Njeeri, and their then five-year-old son Thiongo and six-year-old daughter, Mumbi. When Ngugi introduced James Currey, and mentioned that he had been Achebe’s publisher, he says the boy Thiongo decided to write his own novel on the spot. On a piece of paper, he made many marks, folded the piece, and handed the one page manuscript to James Currey. Ngugi says James politely accepted it. Within the next one hour Thiongo wrote several other one page novels and began rushing them to the publisher.

James Currey resorted to avoiding his new writer for the rest of the party. Mumbi reacted differently, drawing a portrait of Chinua Achebe, and gave it to him when Njeeri took them to be photographed with Uncle Chinua. Ngugi says Mumbi, now a second year college student, recalled that encounter and the line drawing, when I told her about Achebe’s passing on.

Ngugi says that Achebe bestrides generations and geographies. “Every country in the continent claims him as their author. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain a universal wisdom.” When Ngugi’s book, Dreams in a Time of War, was launched in Nairobi a year or so ago, the guest speaker PO Lumumba interspersed his speech with proverbs. They were all taken from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart! Ngugi says Achebe’s passing marks the beginning of the end of an epoch. “But his spirit lives on to continue inspiring yet more African writers and scholars of African literature the world over,” Ngugi said.


The academic and social activist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was born in Kenya in 1938 into a large peasant family. He was educated at Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain. He is recipient of seven Honorary Doctorates The Kenya of his birth and youth was a British settler colony (1895-1963). As an adolescent, he lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence (1952-1962), the central historical episode in the making of modern Kenya and a major theme in his early works.


One of the novels, Weep Not Child, was published to critical acclaim in 1964; followed by the second novel, The River Between (1965). His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works. In 1967, Ngugi became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi. He taught there until 1977 while, in-between, also serving as Fellow in Creative writing at Makerere (1969-1970), and as Visiting Associate Professor of English and African Studies at Northwestern University (1970-1971). In later years, he published other volumes of critical works including Writers in Politics (1981 and 1997); Decolonising the Mind (1986); Moving the Center (1994); and Penpoints Gunpoints and Dreams (1998).

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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Insight

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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