Charles Njonjo

Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo during an interview at his Westlands office on May 15, 2015. He died on January 2, 2022.

| File | Nation Media Group

Charles Njonjo: The dangers of normalised abnormality

What you need to know:

  • The best example of normalised abnormality is what Charles Njonjo did to Gacamba, the Jua Kali inventor from Nyeri.
  • Njonjo knew the English language so well that he could even speak it “through the nose”, as we used to say of the European settlers.

I have never met Charles Njonjo. But more than the fact he helped shut down Kamĩrĩthũ Community Cultural and Education Centre and led me to Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison, I have always remembered the day in Parliament when he mocked the fact that I had dropped the European name, James, and published books under the African name, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. He mocked those who dropped the good normal Christian names like Charles and adopted ‘Wa’, instead.

I am not personally bitter against him. I have always thought he exemplified a larger problem in the European language speaking African elite, their normalisation of the abnormality of the colonial mindset, which assumes Europe is the beginning of our being. The best example of normalised abnormality is what Charles Njonjo did to Gacamba, the Jua Kali inventor from Nyeri.

In 1969 Gacamba, retrieved some kind of engine, a scooter engine, I believe, and, using the scrap metal he could find in his backyard, made an airplane which he named Kenya One. The plane flew for a few miles or so, but on landing, it crashed into some trees. Charles Njonjo, then the Attorney General of the recently independent Republic of Kenya, barred Gacamba from ever flying his plane without an aviation licence: his primitive plane obviously did not meet the standards set by those of the planes made in Europe.

I am less interested in the fact that Njonjo stopped Gacamba from flying than in the symbolism of the two men, in their attitudes toward their native land. Gacamba probably had not gone beyond secondary school, but Njonjo had graduated from Fort Hare University in South Africa and Lincoln’s Inn, London, which made him a British barrister, and one of the most highly educated Kenyans of his time.

Two conflicting visions

Njonjo knew the English language so well that he could even speak it “through the nose”, as we used to say of the European settlers. Gacamba on the other hand was not as fluent in English, but he was probably very fluent in Gĩkũyũ. The point is this: while Gacamba, the Gĩkũyũ-speaking metalworker, the Jua Kali inventor, said that we can make airplanes in Kenya and actually produced one to prove it, the educated, English-speaking attorney said we could not. Gacamba wanted to dream his dream; Njonjo gloried in the dreams dreamt by others. Gacamba wanted to rescue the possible from the impossible. The educated Njonjo with a perfect British accent said, “Possible from the Impossible, and for an African, Don’t you even try.”

Here were two conflicting visions of Kenya: Gacamba’s vision says, Africa can make things. Njonjo’s says, Leave that to Europe: Africa is a user of things made in Europe.” Instead of the capable, travelled and highly educated gentleman coming to the aid of a man with raw talent who had never left Kenya, Njonjo crashed Gacamba’s dream. The result, whether intended or not, was that Gacamba’s invention would no longer function as a model and vision of what could be done within Kenya by Kenyans.

Gacamba’s venture and the fate it met reminds me of another story of the sixties. Again it was 1969. It was not long after I had joined the English Department of the University of Nairobi. English national literature from Spencer to Spender, or Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot, was the core of the syllabus. We called for the abolition of the English Department.

We wanted to make Kenya our literary base from which to engage with the world. We aimed to replace the Department of English National Literature with a Department of Literature, centering on Kenyan, East African, African, Caribbean, and Afro-American literatures, and then the literatures of Asia, Latin America, and then Europe, in that order, roughly. The English Department at that time sought to confine literature within the English language; we sought to free literature from the confinement of English and to connect with the rest of the globe.

Gacamba’s mentality

In 1974 the now famous literature department put forth an approach to the teaching of literature in our schools that would focus first on Kenya, then Africa, then the rest of the world. But the Moi regime crashed the syllabus by the simple act of abolishing literature as a standalone subject altogether.

There was also the Kamĩrĩthũ story which said we can use our languages to know ourselves in the world. But on November 11, 1977, Ngaahika Ndeenda was banned, and I, a co-author of the play, was sent to a maximum security prison for a year. African languages were our beginning, said Kamĩrĩthũ. English is our beginning, said those who imprisoned me. Again, Charles Njonjo was the legal mind behind the ban.

Njonjo and his English accent were not an accident, nor were his acts those of a lone wolf. Is the Njonjo mentality any different than that of Kenyans who now run schools which promote British National Curriculum? Or those Kenyans who licensed Mitumba industry of used clothes from Europe? We exchanged “the made in Kenya” spirit for used in Europe. Gacamba’s mentality was in the we-can-do-it-spirit of the soldiers of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army who made weapons in their mobile factories in the forest.

It is not enough to mock ‘Duke’ Charles Njonjo. The only way of fighting Njonjoism is to reject the ruling Mitumba culture and reconnect ourselves to the we-can-do-it spirit of Gacamba and Kenyan people.


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