Why Ngugi should have rejected Catalonia prize

Ngugi wa Thiong'o speaks at the University of Bayreuth on May 5, 2014.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The Catalonians were taking advantage of a well-known African to internationalise their tribalism and parochialism; and unfortunately Ngugi took the bait.
  • In the 1970s, Somalia attacked Ethiopia in an attempt to gain control of its Ogaden Province and to make it part of Greater Somalia

If I were Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I would have politely but categorically and unequivocally turned down the Catalonia International Literary Prize. The $10,000 that went with it is a hefty sum of money, but it is dirty money.

The Catalonians were using our famous writer to advance their narrow, separatist agenda. They were taking advantage of a well-known African to internationalise their tribalism and parochialism; and unfortunately Ngugi took the bait.

In my international travels, I have met with a number of Catalonian nationalists; and I have never stopped wondering why, in a continent that is trying to come together under the auspices of the European Union, you would have people in a tiny part of Spain trying to split from Madrid. What will the Catalonians do that they can’t do now?

When I was growing up in 1950s, our British colonial masters used to brag that they had created an empire on which the sun never set. Now, without any sense of history, without any sense of irony, the same Britons have argued for and voted for some nationalist and separatist idea called Brexit.

The people who relished the idea that so many nationalities were part of their empire couldn’t stomach being part of a larger formation called the European Union.

Separatist movements

In accepting the prize and the money, Ngugi might have forgotten the painful history of separatist movements in Africa. Soon after independence, Kenya was caught up in the so called Shifta War in which Somali separatists wanted the former North-Eastern Province to secede and become part of Somalia. Kenyans, including many innocent Somali compatriots, died in the fight for our country’s territorial integrity.

In the Congo, Katanga Province tried unsuccessfully to secede, again with tragic consequences. The civil war in Nigeria was caused by Biafra’s secessionist ambitions.

It was a bitter war in which millions of people on both sides lost their lives. Fortunately, in both countries, the separatists failed to achieve their narrow, nationalist goals.

In the 1970s, Somalia attacked Ethiopia in an attempt to gain control of its Ogaden Province and to make it part of Greater Somalia. Somalia took advantage of the fact that Ogaden is occupied by ethnic Somalis.

And this war involved the then Cold War superpowers, with America supporting Somalia and the Soviet Union on the side of Ethiopia. Ethiopia won, but many people had lost their lives.

To my knowledge, the only separatist movements that have succeeded are South Sudan and Eritrea; but as we know, these two nations are yet to get their act together. And they are a constant reminder that separatism is a vicious circle, it can go on and on till doomsday.

Let me now move to the definition of the word “nation.” It has always surprised me that so many educated people, my colleague Dr. Godwin Siundu included, have embraced Benedict Anderson’s nonsensical definition of the term “nation.”

My grandparents, who came into this world in the late nineteenth century, were not born in a country called Kenya. But in 1920, they were told they were now living in a British colony called Kenya. Some of their children and later their grandchildren were born in colonial Kenya.

On December 12, 1964, we were told we were now citizens of the independent Republic of Kenya. So, contrary to what Anderson might want us to believe, Kenya is not an “imagined community.” My grandparents, their children, and grandchildren did not “imagine” Kenya into existence.

People of my generation were taught English by native speakers who told us that a nation was a historical entity occupying a specific geographical territory ruled by a given political dispensation. Karl Marx would later call it a class dictatorship. A toddler who can barely speak is deemed to be part of this power arrangement.

Fertile imagination

With this definition in mind, I wish to urge my fellow Kenyans to steer clear of the loose and inaccurate usage in which they talk of the Luhya nation, the Luo nation, the Kalenjin nation, the Kikuyu nation and so on. These so-called nations only exist in our fertile imagination and the application runs counter to correct English diction.

Which then brings me to the meaning of the word “nationalism.” This word has negative connotations; it is a dirty word. If you look up its synonyms in the thesaurus, you find words like “chauvinism,”  “xenophobia,” “jingoism,” and “ethnocentrism.” When people talk of white nationalists or white supremacists, they are talking of bad and dangerous people. Patriotism is the love of your nation; nationalism is the hatred of other nations and nationalities.

 The French president Emmanuel Macron was blunt about it. In an interview with journalists in America, he said nationalism was war. He was referring to the two World Wars which were caused by nationalism. But many educated Kenyans talk of nationalism as if it has positive associations.

Ngugi was my teacher at my undergraduate level at the University of Nairobi. When I returned from America in 1977 and joined the Department of Literature, he was my boss. I know bosses don’t like being told what to do by their juniors.

However, I want to advise the celebrated novelist to stop the melodrama of addressing international audiences in his mother tongue Gikuyu. When he famously did this in London in the 1980s, Lewis Nkosi, the South African writer, asked him a question in his mother tongue, and they could only stare at each other. The point Nkosi was dramatising was that to communicate with one another, we need a common language. I have two sons-in-law, one a Luhya, the other a Kikuyu. Whenever we have family gatherings, we use a common language, either Kiswahili or English.

To be fair, here in Kenya, Ngugi has never addressed a national audience in his mother tongue. But the day he will do so, I promise to ask him a question in Kiluhya; then we will stare at each other.

So, back to the Catalonian separatists and the literary prize they gave to Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I want to end this piece by asking him: would he have accepted a similar prize from our fellow Kenyans who say “Pwani si Kenya?”

Henry Indangasi is a Professor of Literature at the University of Nairobi.