It was a family affair at “Writers in Conversation,” organised by Kwani? for this year’s Litfest.
The event brought together two generations of litterateurs, with Caine Prize winner Binyavanga Wainaina in conversation with his aunt Rebeka Njau, veteran Kenyan playwright and novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in conversation with his son Mukoma wa Ngugi, author of the detective novel Nairobi Heat.
The theme of this year’s Kwani? Litfest, held from December 12-17, was “Tell Us What Happened” – a journey through literature on the continent over the past five decades, with the aim of providing a platform where today’s younger writers can engage with literary luminaries who began their careers in the 1950s and 60s, and appreciate how events of the past have shaped the continent’s literary landscape.
Rebeka Njau, who wrote the prize-winning play The Scar in 1960 while at Makerere University, described colonial Kenya under the Emergency.
When she was at Makerere, she recalled, two home guards from Kenya were sent to Uganda to interrogate the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru students there, to make certain none of them were Mau Mau sympathisers.
This was necessary because the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth was due to visit Uganda, and the colonial authorities were doing all they could to keep any undesirable elements away from Her Majesty.
“The home guards put me in a room,” said Njau, “and asked if I had ever taken any oath. I said I had not, and they asked why not. Without thinking, I replied that I hadn’t found anyone to give the oath to me. They then asked me to take a few hours to think about what I had just said.”
Rebeka’s file was classified “grey” by the home guards, meaning she was suspected of having Mau Mau inclinations.
Under the classification, white meant that one was cleared of any suspicion, and black meant detention or trial. Needless to say, she did not get the chance to see the Queen that day, but she went on to be the founding headmistress of Nairobi Girls School, which would later be known as Moi Nairobi Girls School.
She was also one of the founders of Paa Ya Paa Art Gallery in 1965.
Binyavanga remembered visiting the gallery as a child.
“Paa ya Paa was very much a hotspot; it was more a cultural centre than a gallery,” he said. “It was the hub of literary circles at the time, though as a child, its significance was lost on me.”
Thespian, playwright and schoolteacher John Sibi-Okumu then hosted an animated conversation that pitted father against son, and examined the change in literary attitudes across those two generations.
Ngugi examined the significance of writing in local languages, and described the production and storage of ideas in a language that is largely inaccessible to the masses, such as English, French and Portuguese, as an “intellectual betrayal.”
“The circulation of ideas by a whole intellectual stratum in languages that ordinary people do not speak is troubling,” he says. “No society has been developed using a language that is not their native language. Look at China, Japan, Germany, all these countries circulate ideas in their own language.”
The younger Ngugi admits that he struggles to write in Gikuyu, as he feels that he still lacks the necessary literary flair.
“English is still the language of education and upward social mobility,” Mukoma said.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o then pointed out the urgent need to reject the notion of hierarchy of languages.
Instead, languages should be networked with one another on a level platform, where all languages are valued for their intrinsic worth.
Mukoma explained that it was at school that he realised his father “was somebody,” when he began to see his father through other people’s eyes.
“When we read Ngugi books in literature class, my classmates would look at me expecting that I knew the answers,” he recalled.
Mukoma’s favourite Ngugi book is A Grain of Wheat, as according to him, it captures the soul of the country then.
Mukoma was disdainful of the distinction between popular fiction and literary fiction, when asked how he compared his work with his father’s.
“It’s unfortunate that works that lack so-called literary quality are looked down upon,” he said. “I wrote Nairobi Heat as a book to be enjoyed by readers.”