Though not quite on cloud nine, I have been in a singularly buoyant mood most of this week. We should not take for granted such states of elation in these dreary and uncertain times, and we should be grateful for them. We should also appreciate and thank the people who cause or contribute to them.
In my case, the three main contributors to my emotional uplift are a friend we call “Tall Tree”, a girl named Faith Mumo and my teacher and indefatigable author, Mzee Ngugi wa Thiong’o, with his latest offering, The Perfect Nine. I will tell you a little about each of these characters and their adventures, which I hope will make you share my cheer.
Mti-Mle, which I freely rendered as “Tall Tree” above, is the lakabu (nickname or pen name) of the Swahili poet Boukheit Amana, author of the well-known and much-loved mashairi collection, Malenga wa Vumba. I have been friends with Boukheit Amana since we first met in the early 1980s. I was an instant admirer of his elegant language and his command of the conventional shairi verse form, and I always looked forward to reading more from him.
So, I was lifted quite high up (the tall tree) by the news that Mti-Mle had come out with a new edition of his diwani (poetic work), Malenga wa Vumba. I am yet to see what is new in this latest offering of his, as the lockdowns have made it difficult to access the outlets. But news of the publication touched me on a few fronts, apart from our friendship and anticipation of the literary beauty of Mti-Mle’s verse.
I find it inspiring to see senior writers, like Boukheit Amana or Ngugi wa Thiong’o, coming out with publications. Many of us elders seem to just have grown tired, or distracted by other concerns, and stopped producing imaginative, informative and educative writing, to the dismay of our readers, who rightly expect a lot from our rich stores of experience.
Boukheit Amana’s Vumba connections also brought back many dear memories to me. Ki-Vumba is a recognised dialect of Kiswahili, spoken mainly on the islands off the South Coast, near Shimoni. I once had several friends in Shimoni, including Ma’Juma, a wonderful storyteller, who inspired my “Nguva” or mermaid stories.
Back to Boukheit Amana, he does not write in Ki-Vumba, but mostly in Standard Kiswahili, with a few Ki-Mvita embellishments. He admits, however, that his poetic and, especially, his singing careers were strongly influenced by his mother, a native Ki-Vumba speaker, who was also a manju, a lead singer of a performing troupe. Amana makes these revelations in two lively “sema nami” interviews, still available on YouTube, with our dear departed Ken Walibora, whose first anniversary in ancestor-land we commemorate this month.
Talk of leading women brings us to Faith Kawee Mumo, the Kari Mwailu Primary School star scholar, who led the whole of Kenya in the 2020 KCPE examinations. I cannot hide my pride over the fact that this super performer comes from my Kenyan “home” region. When I was growing up in Ukambani, in the 1970s, I was told that “Mumo” means “God’s grace” or, more specifically, “a season of plenty”.
We say hongera, congratulations to Faith Mumo, for bringing us this abundance of joy, and boosting our faith in the strength, intelligence and power of the Kenyan woman. Faith’s dazzling success is exceptional in view of the extremely trying circumstances under which it came. You may remember, for example, that only some months ago, we were lamenting the fate of thousands of girls, who had fallen by the wayside, in one Ukambani county alone, owing mainly to the coronavirus disruptions.
I noted, however, that Faith Kawee Mumo’s triumph was a cooperative effort, as she herself revealed. The constant presence of Mum and Dad in her life and the care and support of her teacher, Mwalimu Nancy Kyalo, made a significant contribution to her success. I heard Faith speak, after the news of her results, and I was left in no doubt that my faith in Kenyan women’s future leadership is well-placed. I was also deeply touched by Faith’s revelation that Conjestina Achieng, a brave boxer who has fallen on hard times, inspires the young scholar’s desire to study medicine.
Strong women are also the reason for my teacher Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s being in the news again, and bringing me close to cloud nine. The Perfect Nine, Ngugi’s own translation of his Kenda Muiyuru, has been nominated for one of the Booker Prizes, the most prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world. I do not want to speculate on how it will fare. But it matters that our literature and orature should gain international recognition.
Most importantly, The Perfect Nine, as you know is a narrative dramatisation of the creation myth that depicts a paradisiac society where gender relations are a matter of negotiated choice, and primary identity depends on descent from the mother. The lineages belong to the nine daughters of Mumbi and Gikuyu. If this is not a negation of the presumptions of patriarchy, it is at least a reprimand or caution to men not to ride roughshod over their female partners.
Stories comparable to the Gikuyu one are common across East Africa and the continent at large. The Kiganda foundation one, for example, depicts Nambi, the woman, as the heaven-born one, who finds Kintu (the thing), the earth born male, and declares him to be a “muntu” (human). Matrilineal societies were also not uncommon along our Coast.
My own take on the matter is not that we should have either matriarchal or patriarchal but equitable and inclusive societies. Human ability and merit should be the criteria for recognition and leadership. Since gender inequalities dominate most of our societies, affirmative action is urgent.
But with the rise of players like Faith Mumo, maybe we should be going beyond affirmative action into assertive action.