There has been a debate raging in these pages in the recent past about the literary scholarship in Kenya. For an outsider, the slanging match is exciting. Exciting because partly the writers revealed some truths that have hardly been public.
For insiders, the arguments sounded more tired than the political slogan of hustlers versus dynasties. For the neutrals, one imagines, the question ringing in their minds was: so what? But the debates were still worth the acres of pages that they occupied, mainly because they are an archive that researchers will (re)visit in future.
However, the debates also revealed a problem that should worry Kenyan scholars of literature. That question is: are we stuck in a theoretical and academic rut? Are we too beholden to the past such that the present is probably passing us by and we aren’t speculating enough about the future? Could we be living in a theoretical space that needs serious puncturing and rebuilding but we aren’t aware or are deliberately ignoring that reality?
I pose these questions as a way of celebrating Charles Mangua. In Form One at Kisumu Boys’ High School, I had chanced on Son of Woman on the street book vendors. The blurb promised a racy story.
There was adventure – alcohol, sex, money, little care in the world. But after saving enough money to buy it, I didn’t read beyond page three. A prefect – a really big boy – found me scanning the pages on my lap and confiscated it.
I would only later meet Mangua at the university where Kanina and I (later Kenyatta’s Jiggers) appeared on a course called ‘Kenyan Fiction and History.’ But to be honest, it was and still is Son of a Woman and Son of a Woman in Mombasa that should have been on that reading list. Why wasn’t it?
Because, like the prefects at Kisumu Boys’, Kenyan universities didn’t really think much of the likes of Charles Mangua, Mwangi Ruheni, David Maillu, Mwangi Gicheru, Meja Mwangi, among other writers whose works were deemed ‘popular’ rather than serious.
When I read and hear of ‘hustler nation’ today, I wonder if the utterers of these words had read Mangua, Ruheni, Gicheru, Maillu, Kiriamiti, Mwangi etc. I wonder because if anyone was theorising Kenya’s socio-economic realities, then these writers were at the forefront of doing so from the 1970s.
The characters they created represented their vision of the future as seen through the lens of the realities of the day. How else could have a banker imagined and created Dodge Kiunyu, a character born in difficult circumstances, raised in hardship, struggled through school and college, got a good government job, slid into bad times through hedonistic choices, got jailed, served time and got out to still dream of good times in Mombasa with his one-time friend Tonia?
Dodge Kiunyu is the quintessential character of most of the novels of the 1970s and 1980s. He represents the children of the ‘middle moment’ in Kenya’s history. Independence has come. Kenyans are supposedly free.
They should now be eating matunda ya Uhuru. Kenyans who had been stuck in the reserves and countryside can now move freely throughout the country – women and men. Many of them travel into urban centre in search of work.
But there is little employment opportunity. Men and women naturally search for companionship and the likes of Dodge Kiunyu are born – out of wedlock – to women who can only make a living selling their bodies. The promise of the 1960s is long dead, and everyone is simply hustling.
Dodge Kiunyu dodges so many troubles – being orphaned, being raised by a struggling sex worker, having to relocate to the village – but eventually graduates from school to get a government job. What follows is ‘fast and hard living’. It would eventually lead to a failed robbery and jail.
For a young man who still dreams of a good life, Dodge decides that he could try his luck in Mombasa. But first he gets his childhood friend, Tonia, out of jail and marries her. Yet, how does one survive in Mombasa without money? Well, read Son of Woman in Mombasa to find out?
Yet, such pithy critiques of the emergent Kenya could not be fully prescribed in our schools because they were deemed corrupt. This thinking, that stories that speak about sex, alcohol, prostitution, urban squalor, crime, delinquency etc, are morally abhorrent prevails to date. The idea that literary truth is within the text and has little relationship with social reality is very outdated.
The writer doesn’t seek to tell the reader that women are ‘sexploited’ every day on the streets and within neighborhoods; writers don’t need to preach to the reader that alcohol is sold all over the place and is destroying people’s lives and homes; no writer openly propagates their ‘message’ to the reader.
What writers do, what Charles Mangua tried to do in Son of Woman, Son of Woman in Mombasa, A Tail in the Mouth, and Kanina and I (Kenyatta’s Jiggers), his most known writings, was to provoke readers to think more creatively and critically about their lives, the lives of others and the life of their community?
We simply ignore the hundreds of homeless and hungry women and children on the streets. We would hardly talk about sex workers without moralising about their lives. When young men and women are employed but can’t live a decent life because the economy keeps shifting goalposts, how do we understand their tragic lives?
In 2020, Thomas Piketty published Capital and Ideology. In this voluminous text, Piketty mines several archives to demonstrate the significance of data to knowledge. Surprisingly, one of those sources he relies on to understand socio-economic inequality is literature! I do not for a minute delude myself that a ‘self-respecting’ Kenyan economist, lawyer, urban planner or sociologist would be bothered about Charles Mangua’s Son of a Woman as a reference in her work for any reason, whatsoever. What value would such a book have for her? After all, in our pursuit of ‘decolonising’ literary pedagogy in this country, literary scholars themselves have simply ignored so many of our Charles Manguas.