What you need to know:
- Prof Wanjala exited the scene when he was called up yonder on October 15, 2018, leaving his nascent group to carry on the project.
- The final section of the three-part Unfurling: Stories and Poems is dedicated to Wanjala with poetic tributes.
Should I be reviewing Unfurling: Stories and Poems? That is the thought that struck me after I took possession of the book from a messenger and read the dedication: “In memory of Prof Chris Lukorito Wanjala”.
Reviewing Unfurling was a task I wished to avoid because of my long association with the professor of Literature, who was a tutorial fellow at the University of Nairobi in the early 1970s, when I first joined the institution.
But then it occurred to me that I was not critiquing my mentor — he sowed the seeds of editing in me when he introduced me to the Reverend Horace Etemesi — the then manager of Uzima Press. The Sh300 Rev Etemesi (later Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Butere) paid me whenever I edited a book went a long way to boost my finances consisting mainly of ‘boom’.
Those were the days students were given an allowance — nicknamed ‘boom’ by the students, many of them from humble backgrounds.
Many years later, it fell upon Prof Wanjala and Prof Mohamed Hassan Abdulaziz to supervise the revision of my Master’s thesis, which had fallen victim to the usual UoN shenanigans.
But enough of the preambles. Suffice it to state that when I was asked to review Unfurling, I had qualms about performing the task with impartiality... until it occurred to me that it was not Wanjala’s work I was reviewing but a tribute to him.
There is a reason the 230-page book is dedicated to Wanjala, one of Kenya’s foremost literary critics. The three-part book with contributions by 19 writers is a production of Pen Adventures — “one of the marketplace ministries under the Ministry Identification and Leadership Development Department of Parklands Baptist Church”, writes the Rev Simon Mwangi in a foreword. The writers — 14 of them women — include one of the book’s editors, Fredrick Kimotho.
The idea of Pen Adventures, “under the leadership of Professor Chris Wanjala,” hit Rev Mwangi during a visit to the USA to address the dearth of African books out there. “I entered a few libraries and bookshops, only to find scant or no publications on Africa,” he writes. Then I thought, “Can’t we also develop African writers?”
Alas, Wanjala exited the scene when he was called up yonder on October 15, 2018, leaving his nascent group to carry on the project.
The final section of the three-part book is dedicated to Wanjala with poetic tributes by Melvin D’lima (‘A City in Anguish’), Christine D’Costa (‘Letter to My Professor’), Lalin Benet (‘Our Pen”) and Susanna Kabathi-Muriuki (“The Music of the Pen”).
Kabathi-Muriuki’s tribute sums up in the first verse the all-round character that was Chris Wanjala.
“A maestro he was/His craft the written word/His mind a treasure trove of knowledge/His heart a treasury of humour, wit and mischief/“Our Proof” we called him”.
Wanjala's final moments
D’lima’s moving poem captures the professor’s final moments. He writes in the third stanza of his tribute: “He left this transient city for a last glimpse/ of Mount Elgon, as he approached eternity/ His work done, his memoires dusted/ his critical thought and pen forever stilled.”
Wanjala was laid to rest in his Luandeti home in Kakamega County amid a torrential storm — a phenomenon his Luyia community associate with kings. By today’s standards, his death at 74 was untimely, and most probably hastened by his passion for work that saw him ignore the onset of diabetes, and which was only discovered during post-mortem.
Back to the main body of Unfurling, the stories, which occupy the king of place in the book, run from page 2 to 162 — a good 160 pages — leaving some 50 pages for poems.
Although a good number of stories are based on biblical narratives such as the Prodigal son, they are adapted to modern readership.
Presence of a good number of Goans among the authors provides a peek into the lives of members of one of Kenya’s minority tribes, Indians, among whom the Goans belong, having been declared Kenya’s 44th tribe by President Kenyatta in July 2017.
The value for community is captured in D’lima’s story, Boxing Day at the Club, with all its humour and irony. The main character of the story, John, is a recent widower, whose resident ‘family’ is the Goan community, because he and his family sent their children to study abroad — where they decided to settle.
The author takes the reader through what widowhood entails. Inasmuch as John’s wife was a nag, he finds himself missing her — and especially her culinary skills.
Kelvin Maiyo pens a powerful story Dream Deferred, which captures parents’ eternal ‘folly’, if you please, of trying to dictate their children’s career. The main character, Kalwa, has a calling to fine art, which his mother won’t hear of. “All he wanted was to matriculate to his dream school and perhaps end up being a celebrated artist in Paris or Milan,” writes Maiyo.
“His mother would hear none of it. Her words, as she declared with finality that he was going to join the National University of Lumanda to study medicine, remained” — words that will resonate with many an artist.
In Kalwa’s case, the son of a single parent, whose father had walked away on them when his mother gave birth to a child with Down’s syndrome, fares much worse. The village chief associates artists with miscreants and terrorists, throws him in jail, forfeiting a chance he had won to pursue the arts abroad, where he serves a year in solitary confinement.
The story has a happy ending when Kalwa’s mother succumbs to his wish upon his release.
Ms Kweyu is a consultant revise editor with the Daily Nation. email@example.com