CIRCA 1969: THE DEATH OF THE ‘ENGLISH DEPARTMENT’
Part 2: An Open Letter To Philip Ochieng from Taban lo Liyong
I was in Nairobi a few months ago and presented a paper on “Major Indigenous Gods and Religions of Africa and their Areas of Worship”, using evidences gleaned from Professor Dr. Rev. John Samuel Mbiti on African religions and Harry Johnston on Bantu and Sub-Bantu languages of Africa. Though the evidences were mainly from those two, I discovered a trove of useful information hidden in them to establish my thesis. And that is that there are distinct African Gods and their related Religions. Because Africans have migrated far they have also taken these Gods and their observances along with them. But the names have slightly changed as African languages became dialects of the original languages.
By identifying the dialectal relationship, one can trace the migratory relationship between African ideas, beliefs and peoples as well as draw a map of the relationship. After making this original discovery I thought other scholars would now go ahead and study each God/Religion autonomously. As well as find out what their individual characteristics of Gods and Religions are, as well as their dialectal changes or transmutations.
The above, in the main, was the new knowledge I was bringing to the attention of the scholars. But one senior staff member of the Department of Linguistics and African Languages who had not even read the paper was so furious with me for having wasted his time re-presenting published materials, which he was glad I had failed to take to Spain where they had been destined for a conference.
I did not know whether to feel sorry for myself or for him. For, though the paper’s presentation was unorthodox, and I had said so, the theses, major and minor – were strewn throughout the paper. Besides, I had a map of Africa specially drawn to illustrate the areas and the peoples where these Gods and Religious are found. Since some of them like Onyame/Zambi, Mungu/Mulungu, Jok/Juok are worshipped by millions of Africans and cover many areas and nations, I thought they qualify to be called world religions. And should be respected, and studied anonymously as different entities in their own right.
In that paper, as well as another on the names of numerals in African languages, I realized that knowledge from linguistics and African languages hold the keys to the study of Africa – its history, its religions, its philosophies, its agriculture, its approaches to the environment, in short all its major ideas on everything. But I also realized during the exchanges in that lecture that the linguist, as a purely language technician, would have had no catch-all basket to have studied these pieces of information from. The more reason why the Humanities taught in the American Liberal Arts Education bring out more knowledgeable undergraduates than the products of continental European and English Universities. For, the variety of courses I took in my undergraduate studies in America put me in a better stead than most students brought up under the English system which were exported to the colonies and under which our Eastern African students were labouring. It was some of those shortcomings we had set out to correct in our revolution of 1969.
Now then Philip, what do we say? We could say the Revolution of Literary Studies has had some success. It has introduced new topics, and new subjects, but it has not, unfortunately, produced the scholarship and scholars to sufficiently justify it. (Most of us, especially the primary movers, were creative writers and people with creative minds. The students we taught should have sat in front of the few scholars in the department:
Prof. Andrew Gurr was a Shakespearean scholar. Prof. Adrian Roscoe was an ‘Africanist scholar’. There was also Ms Margaret Marshment. Dr. Angus Calder was more popularistic and journalistic than a solid literarily scholar. That was about all! Scatterbrained Jimmy had the professor’s characteristics without being a professor. But he added spice and variety to our life. And then those of our products who later got recruited into the various university literature departments all over East Africa, almost to a man or woman at one time or other, tried their hands at creative writing. Or editing - the most glamorous things, then going.
But, without having taken courses in creative writing, or enrolled in creative writing courses by correspondence how could they hope to rise above the also-wrote! Perhaps they thought it was easy, instead of self-educating themselves as many a self-motivated or committed writer or artist has done over the ages and the world over. To the extent that a naturally gifted and also self-taught creative writer from Kenya - Samuel Kahiga -- has produced the best novel by a Kenyan – the life story of Dedan Kimathi, after Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat. Other ‘new’ books which need serious study by the budding writer who wants styles to follow are Nervous Conditions by the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangaremba. It is well-crafted, evenly paced, intellectually and creatively satisfying. He/She who wants to write a serious quality novel is well-advised to emulate this book. Otherwise they would continue to churn out novellas and narratives as we used to do at the dawn of Eastern Africa’s literary creativity.
The system inherited from Britain’s, could not have been expected to produce any better products in Africa. Only an American system of Undergraduate and Post-graduate programme, the type that produced me, could have done the revolution justice. For, we succeeded in putting together that document mainly with the background knowledge I had gathered from my American Undergraduate and Post-Graduate studies. And Simon Gikandi seems to have added to his meager Nairobi University stock from the highly competitive fruits of studying and teaching in American universities.
Now to conclude. To begin with the mastery and usage of the English tongue. Are we Eastern Africans in the category of those who ended our vocabulary gathering and sentence pattern development as far back as the O. Level? (In my encounters with West and Southern Africans with the same educational levels as East Africans, I found their usage and understanding of English to be more fluent and advanced compared with East Africans. Sorry boys. Sorry girls.) For when you write for those with A. Level vocabulary and sentence pattern, and then if your writings fall into the hands of graduates of literature , are they not likely to find them too low and insipid, or boring, for their tastes? Since at the dawn of Africa's creative writing Oluwole Soyinka, was already there with his large vocabulary and complex sentence patterns, what has caused the linguistic regress? Why have we clung to our Michael Wests and not climbed to the Advanced Oxford, Cambridge and London Dictionaries and Thesauruses?
But wait till we see some young Nigerians who have despaired of attaining Soyinka's standards. Let them go socialist and say: "Off with their heads! Off with the heads of Africans with large vocabulary and who do not pander to our socialist cause. From now onwards it is the common man and his tastes which must be satisfied." Then darkness will have descended all over Africa.
(Please do not get me wrong. I understand the fervour with which the young turks went about fighting the war on behalf of the common man. But perhaps they should have given other people room to perch on the same tree as well. They should not have appropriated for themselves the title: We are the righteous ones; the only righteous ones. That partisan role which young socialism/communism appropriated for itself, is as dictatorial and easy to manipulate for the wrong reason as the dictatorial position the state regimes had appropriated for themselves. Live and let live, that is all I beg of searchers for the way to save the Africans who need saving, meaning most of us. Whilst the workers in the department of ‘salvation now’ are busy, the forward planners for Africa’s future greatness should be left alone to do so. Even in ivory towers specially created for them. We need islands of excellence. (Kamuzu Banda was good at this.) Not every professor should be subjected to the indignity of teaching parallel students. Establish ‘University moderns’ for them.)
Chinua Achebe had created a very safe midway house between popular literature and serious literature. Thanks to the Irish writer, Joyce Cary, he wrote to depose. Achebe is the most accessible of the major African writers. Especially in the secondary school texts: Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People. Luckily No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God are slightly more complex. They give us a more complex dimension of his mind.
The call to worship the god of mediocrity started from Nigerian Universities: Ibadan, Ile-Ife and Nsuka. Dar es Salaam answered it. Nairobi imported it. It went to Rimuruti from where started the backlash at literature and all that is creative. Perhaps I am simplifying a complex story, but when the story is truly told one day we shall know the truth. Perhaps Ngugi who started the revolution also became the instrument of its demise! When you plan for an institution do not think you will have control of the process after you have handed over the plan. But between Ngugi’s regime in the Literature Department and Daniel Arap Moi’s repressive national regime, development in literary studies in Kenya ground to a halt. (Perhaps there were also some ‘collateral’ damages.) A position it has been in ever since. Perhaps literary progress is now rising out of it. But the progress is now being made outside the confines of Kenya’s departments of literature.
Our Nobel Literature laureates Wole Soyinka and the West Indian Derek Walcott have earned their accolades. They mastered their chosen language of creativity, English. In the writing of symbolic novels, here too the Nobel Literature Committee chose well: Nadine Gordimer and J.M.Coetzee - both writers coming from South Africa. No doubt White South Africa’s artistic creativity is an enclave of European creativity. But when you go to the Olympics and line up to run, do you plead for the Africans only session? If you do not want to go the whole hog, perhaps you have already known your limitations. And you have already eliminated yourself from the contest. Good for you. At least you are honest. But if you do participate and are defeated do not come crying: "Off with their heads those who write symbolic novels! Did not even the grand teacher Jesus say; say teach some lessons so that even your own disciples would not understand them? Or understand them first time round? Or understand them only with the help of interpreters?
Clearly speaking then, good teaching is like hiding the sweetest part of the fruit of knowledge in the centre of the hardest kernel. So one needs hard teeth to crack it; one takes time to go round it. Simply put you do not take prose speakers to discuss marriage proposals to the chief’s home. (Apples as fruits of knowledge are too soft for hiding African wisdom.) Many important matters cannot be simplified and represented in ordinary language. The message demands a higher language to present it in. Serious wisdom is to be presented above the understanding even of the apostles so that they too would seek for the services of interpreters – the prophets who understand the present state of affairs before them, and can render them in so clear a language that they become accessible to the ordinary hearers. (Have you read and understood The Interpreters?) Or understood what that Southern U.S. writer, Emily Dickinson, said about writing: Say it. But say it aslant!
As far as playwriting in East Africa is concerned, Francis Imbuga and his friend John Ruganda have given us plays that entertain and also teach. That is, they make you laugh and also think. Besides, what did Francis say about drama in his studies in Iowa Writers Workshop? In response, what did John say about drama in his studies in the University of British Columbia? If we do not read and teach what our literary practitioners have said about their craft that are in the public domain, how do we hope to enlarge our knowledge, or use the shoulders of the veterans to stand on so we can see further and perform better than they?
Otherwise why teach Shakespeare, August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Sophocles, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Anton Chekov? Why teach them as if they practice different arts from our own aunties’ children? Or is it because other literary students have already produced explanations about their works? And we who have no understanding of literary works teach these ‘guides’?
Two questions are being posed here: How can we, as a race, go through life performing below par as if below par is where we are destined to be? As if we prefer to spend all our time and life in the present cultural comfort zone? We must break through that comfort zone and say: Yes, we can rise above ourselves. Secondly, with the few solid and promising beginnings that we now have, how can we ignore them and continue singing songs of Conrads, Shakespeares, etc. when we have Imbugas, Rugandas, Ngugis, Soyinkas around to teach us?
To branch off a little. The late Archie Mafeje did study the history of the Great Lakes region using library sources and did the speculative armchair scholarship in his Egyptian office and home and finally came up with a first class work. I recommend it to Great Lakes historians: both Bantu and non-Bantu. In the social sciences, the Malawian professor, Thandika Mkandawire, dribbles the lingo of economists in the discussion of the intricacies and complexities of world economics very well. His language is quite mature. He knows what goes on in the world of high economics. These two are exemplar scholars. In disciplines other than literature.
They operate at the high level in which the future Eastern African creative writers and literary discussants (as well as those in any other discipline) will have to operate. Though Archie has departed this life, the African Institute of South Africa in Pretoria has established fellowships in the Social Sciences in his name to promote the mission of: Yes We Can! in scholarship. If I am to stop singing my litany, then let the uplift happen in my life time.
In 1965 when I was an undergraduate, there was an article written decrying the literary barrenness of East Africa. Sure more products have now been produced. But during the same intervening period, East African sportsmen and sportswomen made so many strides and improved their performances to the extent that they are now world beaters. Is it a cliché to say that East Africa is still barren as far as high literary creativity is concerned? Can our professors of literature point to advances their departmental members have made in the cause of the growth of literary studies and creative writing?
It is taken for granted that they teach in the classrooms. But in what ways do they also ‘cheat’ the university by promoting literature and culture OUTSIDE the confines of the university? My buddy and I used to pride ourselves by boasting that ‘We cheat at the university!’ Little did we realize that that way we enhanced the standing and role of the university more outside its confines!
Let me offer an excuse for myself, perhaps a lame one. In my second year at college I was an up and rising pure elitist. But because I was bitten by the bug of teaching, I threw myself into it with passion, worked hard to simplify what was abstruse so that my brothers and sisters would understand them. I climbed down, perhaps hoping that that way I would rise up with them after they had been affected with the spirit. Some may have, others may not. When I look back to the 45 years that have passed since the ‘Literary Barrenness’ article was written I am not sure if I had made any impact. The more reason why I have kept on reiterating it.
One of my earlier admirers was so furious with me. It is a man who unfortunately is now not with us, the former graduate of Makerere University: Atieno Odhiambo. He berated me for producing Another Last Word. Atieno had thought it was going to be an advance on The Last Word, Another Nigger Dead and Meditations. He felt let down when he found that it contained my articles for teaching Kenyans how to publish books and magazines, how to become Olympics record setters, how literature students were to collect oral stories from their grandmothers, etc. Perhaps I should have taught a little and had more time for my advanced creativity? Perhaps I should have remained up the mountain and beckoned for those of my brothers and sisters who had the strength to climb up to me?
But will serious African writers emerge when they do not know the English language and literature? When they have not mastered American culture? When they do not know classical Greek literature and philosophy? When they do not know Indian religion and religious poetry or religious philosophy? Did T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound not do these things? Did W.B.Yeats not do these things? Has Derek Walcott not done these things? As for religiosity, I make no apology for saying that the serious writer is a religious person. Not a Moslem, a Christian, a Hindu, or Buddhist. But a person who understands what lies at the core of the world’ religions which they are grappling with, and has found his/her own niche in it and is carving it in his writings in order to help them fulfill their role to all humanity.
What I have now resolved is to retreat into myself and do what I can rather than to go on talking. Of course the products that are in the drawers will have their airings. But otherwise if I start to sound incomprehensible it is because I am retreating into where Atieno had thought I was destined.
Best wishes and Aluta Continua.
Taban lo Liyong, University of Juba, South Sudan, 14th July 2009