Indangasi’s scorn for Ngugi and facts on our meeting

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o speaks at the University of Bayreuth on May 5, 2014. The renowned writer arrived in Nairobi on Monday night for two weeks of celebrations to mark 50 years since his first novel was published. PHOTO | COURTESY | PETER KOLB

Prof Henry Indangasi begins his article, Of Ngugi, myths and facts as literature department turns 50’ (Saturday Nation, December 11, 2020) with a fictitious account of his conversations with me. I wish to present facts to replace the myth that he has constructed.

When I arrived in Kenya in April 1987, I applied for a research permit, having been advised to do so by the cultural attache at the American embassy. Because of the dictatorship, in writing my research proposal I had to obscure my real purpose – to research the historical background of Ngugi’s writing and said that I was generally interested in Anglophone Kenyan literature.

Prof Indangasi, who understood my focus on Ngugi, cordially accepted to be my “sponsor … providing … material support,” as required by the application form, and asked his department staff to type up my proposal. My interviewees asked if I had a research permit, and all but one were satisfied that I had applied for one.

I interviewed Prof Indangasi himself. Dressed in an elegant three-piece suit, he poured scorn on Ngugi for having commuted to the university from Kamiriithu by matatu, arriving dusty in casual clothes and sandals. Perhaps Indangasi had intuited that future danger lurked in Kamiriithu, where Ngugi and colleagues, including villagers, later developed a play in Gikuyu.

This play, a political satire translated into English as 'I Will Marry When I Want', sent Ngugi to detention for a year without charges being brought. Plays could be dangerous in those days. Prof Indangasi told me that he had assisted with unsuccessful government efforts in 1984 to suppress a London production of another of Ngugi’s plays, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.

On September 24, 1987, the government of Kenya wrote that my application had been approved; on October 30 that my sponsor had not completed Affiliation Form C (“Prof Indangasi signed the research form … indicating support of affiliation”); and December 18 that “the proposed research”, which I had already done, “should not be undertaken”. The University of Nairobi Library, where I had done some of the research, declined to accept my gift of the resulting book, Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel: A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance, because it was seen as risky; rather oddly, it later bought several copies with grant money.

Having earned exactly enough in royalties to buy my husband a round-trip ticket to Nairobi, I returned in 1995 to do research in Nairobi and see more of the country in my husband’s company. Before leaving for the Coast, I introduced him to Prof Indangasi.

Within minutes, Indangasi asked me not to tell anyone that he had signed my research application, lest someone find this damning document in a file in the Office of the President. To enforce his point, he mentioned a foreign tourist who had criticised the government in a Mombasa bar and had been arrested. Was I next?

Given this history, I ought not to have been surprised that Prof Indangasi, in his recent article, should give a false account of a conversation he claims to have had with me in 1995. I was then interested in the “revolution” in the University of Nairobi literature curriculum that was heralded in what Indangasi refers to as a “letter” from Ngugi and two colleagues. The authors of this document called it “a comment” on a 1968 paper by the Acting Head of the English Department (James E. Stewart) that was circulated among members of the department. Ngugi later published this comment, “On the Abolition of the English Department,” in his first book of essays, Homecoming.

In 1995, I had hoped to get access to related documents in university files, but this proved impossible. Prof Indangasi’s claim that when he “offered to assist (me) in reading through those dusty old minutes, I knew I was going to work for free” reproduces the relationship between Africans and British colonial overlords a century ago. I am appalled to be presented as a colonial master.

My notes of my interviews with Indangasi in February 1995 tell a different story. On February 16, he said I would need permission from the VC to read the documents. A week later, he told me that he had been unable to reach the VC. In his article, he writes that the VC had replied: “We have nothing to hide, and your friend should feel free to look at them.”

That wasn’t true. What Indangasi had told me, according to my notes, is that I should write a formal letter on Literature Department stationery to Indangasi himself, requesting the documents. If the VC approved, then I’d receive photocopies. The issue, he said, was whether I would “embarrass the university”. I was by then so exasperated that I answered: “It’s bad news if you’re embarrassed by your own curriculum.”

That was the end of any pretense of cooperation, as I made plain in ‘Revolutionizing the Literature Curriculum at the University of East Africa: Literature and the Soul of the Nation’ (Research in African Literatures, 1998). My sources in this article included, as Indangasi indicates, interviews in 1988 and 1995 with Andrew Gurr and Angus Calder, British academics who had taught at the University of Nairobi as the “revolution” was unfolding. They also included articles and letters on the controversy in the Nation. When Calder returned to Scotland, he took with him seemingly every piece of paper that had lain on his desk in Nairobi, and he donated everything to the National Library of Scotland. It was in Edinburgh, not Nairobi, where I read those “dusty old minutes”.

Neither Calder nor Gurr told me that Indangasi or any other student had been a “guinea pig”, as he claims I had said. The “ironical smile” that Indangasi remembers on my face as I allegedly spoke of guinea pigs never existed. I was not in a smiling mood.

Indangasi’s own account of the curricular “revolution” lacks any documentation, being a personal narrative. As an undergraduate, he says, he “never got the impression that some upheaval had happened”, although Gacheche Waruinge told me that undergraduates were well aware of the debate (interview, February 24, 1995).

Indangasi correctly says that the British academics who dominated the English Department had laid the groundwork for the curricular change advocated by Ngugi and his allies.

As for the rest of his article, any challenges or endorsements must come from Kenyan academics on the ground.


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