Kabaji: How can you teach writing if you don’t write?
Egara Kabaji is a literary gentle giant and is best remembered for such epic radio and TV shows as ‘Books and Bookmen’ and ‘Culture Talk’.
I first interacted with Prof Kabaji through his books, which include When the Dead Met the Living and Jomo Kenyatta: Father of Harambee. Thereafter, I got absorbed in his works and closely followed him in the Literary Discourse pages of the Saturday Nation, where he co-hosted the Writer’s Clinic with John Mwazemba.
Though we’ve in the past shared pleasantries on literary matters, it was at the launch of Francis Imbuga’s memoir, The Cherished Footprints, in 2019 at Kenyatta University, that I came up close with the literary doyen.
“Professor, our Saturday Nation literary enthusiasts have been pestering me for a literary sit-down with you,” I said to him.
“Let’s fix a date for the sit-down,” he offered.
He later sent me a single music rendition he had penned in his native language - Maragoli.
“This is my first solo ever written and performed in my father-tongue,” he texted.
I later rang him and we met the following day at the Nairobi National Museum.
“First things first, where did your love affair with children's literature start as you’ve published more than 30 works of fiction under this genre?” I posit.
“I have experimented with almost all the genres of literature. I have written poetry not only for children but also for adults,” he explained. “I got fascinated with children's literature for a number of reasons. First, I have an innate ability to visualise things in a certain peculiar way, which is common with youngsters. If we were to develop a reading culture as a country, our main focus should shift to children. It’s also my responsibility to inculcate morals in our minors through my writings.”
“And still on children's literature, Ezekiel Alembi; did he in any way persuade you to write for this cohort?” I inquire.
“Alembi is my literary contemporary. We started writing as undergraduates and continued during our postgraduate days.”
I interrupt him and ask, “Who sharpened whom?”
“We inspired each other with our writings. We would critique each other’s manuscripts as both of us were passionate about children literature,” he adds.
“In your book, The Crying Stone, you’re so passionate about Kaliyesa, the greatest woman who ever lived among the Maragoli of Western Kenya. Do you believe in myths?”
“The myth talked about in the book is not societal but my creation. I created the character of Kaliyesa to carry the aspiration of women not to be oppressed by their male counterparts. Myths are a vital component of any morally upright society as they define our values and worldview.”
“During Francis Imbuga’s biography’s launch, your demeanour was that of one who lost a bosom friend. When did your friendship with Imbuga begin?” I further probe.
“Imbuga discovered me as an undergraduate student. I had just read Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind and the literary fire directed me to translate Imbuga’s play, Betrayal in the City to Maragoli. When I presented to him the manuscript, he marvelled. We later drove to his residence at Kahawa Wendani, a few miles from Kenyatta University’s Main Campus, where he taught, to celebrate the draft.
“Our friendship grew in leaps and bounds. When he moved to Kigali Institute of Education in Rwanda, I accompanied him. Imbuga had a way of making one work extremely hard. Upon leaving Kigali after two years, I had 20 complete manuscripts. This launched me into the mucky world of writing,” he adds.
“Talking about Imbuga, between him and John Ruganda, who’s your biggest East African playwright?” I posed.
“Francis Imbuga is so far the greatest playwright Eastern and Central Africa has ever produced. Ruganda comes close after him. Look at the volume of writings he’s created. In fact, he went beyond one genre and even wrote epic stories for children.”
He continues, “If you long to read a good story, pick The Miracle of Remera, a novel he wrote during our stay in Kigali. Tell me, which work of Ruganda can rival Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City?”
“We only hear a few robust literary voices from the University of Nairobi, Moi University and your voice from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology in our newspapers. Why the deafening silence from other ‘vibrant’ literature departments?” I probe further.
He responds: “We have killed writing at our universities. If one teaches feature or opinion writing without scripting any feature story, I wouldn’t trust such a don with my son. Let me ask you, how do you teach creative writing without ever penning any work of art?”
He adds, “As a university professor, I have the noble task of being a gatekeeper of academic standards and allowing such tutors to lecture in our literature departments would be suicidal.”
Asked what makes him stand out in the literary field, he says: “I’m the Vice President of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA). We’re based in Accra, Ghana. As a penman, I fully make use of my God-given ability to contribute to literature through the pen. I’ve penned more than 30 children’s books and I’m currently working on close to 10 manuscripts.
“I term this decade a season of harvest as I have already submitted several manuscripts to different publishers for scrutiny. As an association of Kenyan writers, we’re also at the homestretch of publishing an anthology of short stories.”
“What’s the place of residencies in writing?” I press on.
“Lack of residencies tells it all. We have little interest in creative writing. Our universities, especially the literature departments, should create writing internships to nurture creative writing amongst the populace.”
To the budding writers, he says: “Writing is not an easy task. You can never be a good writer if you don’t write daily. It’s laughable that some only write one draft and expect that it’ll get the publisher’s nod. Up-and-coming writers shouldn’t also be in a quick chase for the shilling. Let them write first without thinking about money.”
The writer is the author of Rotten Apples, a play. [email protected]