There has been typical social media outrage over the fact that Ngugi wa Thiongo did not win the Nobel Prize for literature. More to the point that it went to a musician and lyricist. Bob Dylan writes some good music man. The fact that Nobel has tried contacting him without avail is besides the point. I wanna weigh in with my perspective from early 21st Century Kenya. Let us hope that it does not sound like “Those grapes! They were so full of wrath!” lol
The source of art is conflict, whether internal or external. Someone once said a comparison of Swiss and Italian art reveals this dichotomy. The Swiss had peace for 500 years and it produced Swiss watches and chocolate. The Italians had 30 years of murder, warfare and violence and it produced Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance. On this basis, Chimamanda Adichie once rightly asked why we dont have Kenyan stories about the Mau Mau rebellion. Half of a Yellow Sun, arguably her magnum opus, is her candid perspective of the Biafran war. That is a portion of Nigerian history which is hard to resolve and which few people can revisit while accurately splitting hairs the way they need to be split. The same is true of the Mau Mau rebellion. The unfortunate truth of the matter is that history is written by conquerors. And out here, I still feel like it’s the home guards in power. In my opinion this is what has muzzled art on this topic. It takes an atypical personality type to produce art on this matter without attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Ngugi wa Thiongo is arguably Kenya’s most notable writer, either him or Prof. Ali Mazrui. I respect them. For goodness’ sake I have never written a short story, let alone a novel. So I doff my hat to him. The problem is his rendering of the Mau Mau rebellion is a bit too socialist. And I mean socialist in the sense that it emphasises ‘the movement’ over the individuals. In so doing it fails to capture the individual lives, the pathos, the dire straits and essentially the heroism of the Struggle for Independence. These were men and women who walked into forests with sticks and a sense of oppression. When they re-emerged they had handmade guns and a feeling of freedom. These were men and women who forfeited their comfort and lives to live in dark caves. They strategised, regimented, planned raids, procured resources, dealt with snitches, harried their enemy and basically conducted a war on wholly unfamiliar terms. They fought for their land, for their loved ones and for liberty among other high ideals. Shortly afterwards a State of Emergency was being declared here in Kenya and troops were being shipped in from places on and off the continent to contain the insurrection. It was not contained. Eventually the Union Jack was lowered and the Kenyan flag flew free for the first time – a new dawn for a new nation.
Now, a lot can be said about the fact that World War 2 was demographically draining for British society; that after losing the colonial crown jewel named India, there were no more resources left to run the other colonies; that America pressed for the liberation of the colonies. But let the signal not be lost in the noise, let the facts above see the light of day. Let it be known that those men and women who fought for Kenya’s independence were real heroes. Once when Idi Amin wanted to extend his coasts to Lake Naivasha one of those generals offered Mzee Jomo to go and deal with the man. They had sand, gravitas and character. In startup parlance they got stuff done. We have just come out of Mashujaa Day, or Heroes Day in English. That heroism is part of our national history and heritage. The ideals for which they fought must be striven for. It is this elevation of the best in the human spirit, the highlighting of the evils and the glories of human struggle that literature on the Mau Mau must capture. It is these notes which Ngugi wa Thiongo failed to hit in The River Between and Weep Not Child. And it is for this reason that I don’t think he deserves that Nobel prize. Yes he has kinky black (now grey) hair and all, yes I identify with him but… this is my opinion.
Which brings us to a footnote on this home guard business. Kenya emerged in 2013 from a bruising electoral cycle with a few unresolved strands, the monster of tribalism rearing its ugly head and some home guards back in the driving seat. Frankly speaking I did not vote for the current government and for a considerable while I was highly critical of it. Actually I still am. But after observing alternatives societies for long enough, I am convinced that we actually don’t have it that bad. Yes, our system is very uniquely flawed but it is not yet broken. And as the saying goes “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is not to condone mediocrity, corruption or the hundred and one things that ail our country. No, a hundred times no. We may think that we have it rough but there are places that have it much worse off. The main reason I say this is because we have an example to look to a bit further north, which is Libya. It may be an extreme example, but it fits the bill. Gadaffi may have been a bit off-kilter, and seriously unpopular in certain quarters of his country, but Libya under Gadaffi was orders of magnitude better than Libya today. Word on the streets is that housing was in order, water was not a problem (in that dry land!) and education was provided for. I hear refrigeration for newly-weds was also taken care of but that may be a bit of a stretch. Granted, we are not sitting on motherlodes of oil to facilitate such largesse but besides the social net they had peace.
The point that Libya’s history makes is that in situations where there is a 55%-45% split and the very legitimacy of a government comes into question, the presidency is a unifying figure. Mark I said the presidency, not necessarily the president. We laughed at the new Thai king in a tank top (watu wa 80’s ndio sisi) and carrying a poodle being saluted by generals, but I think we need to doff our hats off for the generals saluting him at attention. If ever there was a lesson in there for us it is this; respect the seat, even if you didn’t root for its occupant. I think the point that must be raised in honour of those generals is this; of the leaders among that splintered 45% in Libya, who is unifying the country now? This is a hard gospel to take, and I say this with utmost respect for the opposition here in Kenya, based on gaining the new constitution and toppling Citizen Moi. We haven’t dealt with our African eminent personalities homework and so we still have too much steam in the system. We must tread carefully and practise how to live together as many peoples in one nation.
The story is told by Paulo Coelho of two brothers who lived in Ancient Rome in the time of Emperor Tiberius. One was a poet and the other a soldier. The poet achieved instant fame because he wrote delightful poems acceptable to the day and the times. The other brother was a soldier, a toughie who fought wars in distant lands. One night the father of the two sons had a dream in which an angel appeared to him and told him that the words of one of his sons would be learned and repeated throughout the world for all generations to come. Later he asked which of the sons that was and the angel told him it was not the poet, but rather the soldier. And the soldier’s words were “My Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only speak a word and my servant will be healed.” The point made by that story is that everyone plays a central role in history yet normally does not know it.
Time is ephemeral. History has sides. Let us tread on the right side of history.