What you need to know:
- Indagasi waters down Ngugi’s academic achievements and his role in the establishment of the Literature department at the University of Nairobi.
- Ngugi’s activism also cannot be doubted as Indagasi has attempted to do in his article.
For the past three weeks on these pages, we have been treated to a very hot debate between Prof Henry Indagasi and Carol Sicherman concerning their 1995 encounter and the involved research on the role of Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the establishment of the Literature department at the University of Nairobi.
Being a post-graduate student in this department that Indagasi is a senior professor and considering that I am very junior in Literature scholarship compared to Sicherman, I can only offer a worm’s eye view in this altercation of giants.
Though Indagasi’s arguments about Ngugi and Sicherman have been dismissed by some as ad hominem attacks on the two, I will consider his approach as biographical and counter it through an objective textual analysis of his first article that has elicited the debate.
In this article, “Of Ngugi, Myths and facts as Literature Department Turns 50” that appeared in the Saturday Nation of December 11, 2020, Indagasi seriously waters down Ngugi’s academic achievements and his role in the establishment of the Literature department at the University of Nairobi.
As a worm in this duel of giants, I ought to avoid the politics surrounding the PhD in Literature and the supremacy battles between the critics and the creative writers, but I can state that if indeed Ngugi didn’t have a Masters or a PhD degree as claimed by Indagasi in his article, then, just like Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers of yore, he should be celebrated for emerging from academic obscurity and like Colossus bestriding the African literature landscape leaving marks that will forever glow in the sands of times despite attempts to erase them by the likes of Indagasi.
Whether he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature or not, Ngugi will always be to Eastern Africa what Chinua Achebe is to West Africa. (It is good to note that Indagasi does not regard Chinua highly, too.
Having already written and published novels like Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967) and plays like The Rebels (1961), The Black Hermit (1958) and many other works, Ngugi was already trailblazing in Eastern Africa.
With all these outstanding literature works already under his belt, he had already made a name and staked “a claim in the academic cosmos”. No wonder he chose to write A Grain of Wheat instead of concentrating in his Masters course at Leeds University.
Ngugi’s activism also cannot be doubted as Indagasi has attempted to do in his article. His involvement with the peasants of Kamirithu village in the establishment of a community theatre and his fight to reclaim the African languages and theatre spaces have been internationally acclaimed.
This involvement of peasants in theatre and the taking of the University to the people of Kamirithu later earned him and his colleagues not only a publication titled Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want) but also a detention without trial and exile later.
The English version of this play is very popular in secondary schools and universities a fact that cannot have escaped Indagasi.
Additionally, although I agree with him that the teaching of Literature in English and English translation had already been institutionalised by the time the change of the department’s name campaign began, Indagasi should have at least credited Ngugi and his fellow rebels for the introduction of the African oral literature into the University and later secondary school curriculum. He and his colleague Owuor Anyumba began the systematic field work study of Kenyan Oral Literature.
One’s academic papers aside, Indagasi is well aware that the core mandate of any university lecturer is teaching, publishing and community outreach and Ngugi was exemplary in all of these.
Many of the students he taught at the University of Nairobi, including Indagasi himself, are now professors in the same and other universities.