Moderating the Ngugis: A view from the stage

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o and his son Prof Mukoma wa Ngugi, when they held a literary debate at St Paul's University in Limuru on February 21, 2019. PHOTO | ESTHER NJONDE

What you need to know:

  • I have never believed that scions should waste a lifetime trying to punish the failures of their parents, or vice- versa.
  • So even though Mukoma had gone out of his way to ask others to ask me, a vocal critic, to monitor ‘The Duel on the Ridges’, I was always going to make their contest a playful game about the practice of writing, rather than a vicious fight about (dis)abilities.

Ms Gloria Mwaniga stated here that I did not have the skill to stir a fight between Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and his son, Prof Mukoma wa Ngugi, at St Paul’s University last week (Saturday Nation, February 23, 2019). That is true.

I have never believed that scions should waste a lifetime trying to punish the failures of their parents, or vice- versa. So even though Mukoma had gone out of his way to ask others to ask me, a vocal critic, to monitor ‘The Duel on the Ridges’, I was always going to make their contest a playful game about the practice of writing, rather than a vicious fight about (dis)abilities.

I was also accused of failing to fight with Ngugi. Guilty, as charged. That duel wasn’t pegged between Ngugi and I. Neither was I called to interview him as a lone respondent. Therefore, to bludgeon him at someone else’s duel would have been disingenuous.

Incidentally, elsewhere, there was a disingenuous report about that afternoon by George Mugo. I will not repeat it, because repeating some things gives them currency. But I will state categorically that in the deliberations I witnessed, Ngugi never once mentioned Kamirithu Polytechnic or the current government. Perhaps Mugo was privy to gossip on Ngugi’s plan for the polytechnic but, while I was at St. Paul’s, Ngugi left that unsaid.


Let me share my experience, including things that I left unsaid, and why. I had prepared 19 questions. I only got to ask nine. Half the afternoon was lost to the university’s hospitality – prayers, songs, shairi, dances, drama and protocol-filled speeches.

The audience was varied – undergraduate students of communications, theologians; academics from other disciplines, aspiring writers, lovers of the arts, the community from the ridges, Ngugi’s old friends from the University of Nairobi, from Limuru, and beyond.

Delving into cultural theory and comparative literature would alienate most. I crossed out five questions and asked the two authors to start by reading from their work – to allow them to fall into character, and, as I explained, to cater for anyone in the audience “who has never read a single Ngugi sentence”. I extended my mediation between father and son by asking the audience not to clap after the first reading, lest their applause divulge a crowd-favourite by its sheer volume and duration.

One reading was in Gikuyu. The other was in Xhosa. Ngugi meandered; Mukoma was brief. Ngugi cheated by incorporating someone to aid his performance, as I jokingly said to Mukoma who gave a solo performance, invoking his height to measure victory.

I opened play with some low balls, asking about method and the habits that have stood each writer in good stead over the years. I was struck by how similar Ngugi and Mukoma are: They don’t approach writing as a 9-to-5 job. They write when an idea becomes irresistible.

I underlined their similarities by asking about the jukebox trope which runs through the fiction of every published Ngugi — the patriarch, Wanjiku, Nducu, Mukoma and Tee, who was in the audience. I learnt that fiction writers sometimes forget their own writing when Ngugi quipped, “I don’t have a jukebox.” I reminded him about Beatrice in his short story, Minutes of Glory. He smiled at the memory.

My trick question about mentoring led me to confirm what I have always suspected about Ngugi: Outside his own children, he doesn’t read anyone else. He couldn’t name what he learnt from his recent meetings with young Kenyan writers, whether there were any new themes they brought to his attention, or if they encouraged him to re-think persistent ones, such as freedom. He just said they inspire him; particularly when he meets one writing in a so-called mother-tongue.

I flipped the notion of mentoring for Mukoma. I wanted to know how he has helped his father overcome his blind-spots. He hadn’t anticipated this. He prevaricated; redirected it to his father. I persisted; he couldn’t name a tangible thing that his father’s writing has gained from his career. I vexed Mukoma some more by asking how he has extended his father’s 1969 battle to decolonise the teaching of literature. Answer: we need translations between African languages.


But why have he and his siblings branched into solo renditions of the detective novel — influenced no doubt by Mwangi Cowboy, the fictional character their father created to entertain them in childhood — when they could have rejected the Western model of the novel, and scripted one collective narrative? Answer: they have raised the profile of the detective genre in Africa.

Mukoma made a dash for a Guinness Book of Records for ‘most writers in one family’. I stopped him with, “Let me not break your heart by telling you about the Kibera family”. Silently, I noted that Mukoma’s novels affirm multiculturalism by featuring an American expert who partners with a Kenyan sleuth to solve symptoms that scarcely camouflage our deeply rooted woes.

I left, unasked, questions about whether there are plans to turn Mwangi Cowboy into a TV series or a video game, and why Ngugi’s novels and plays have never been adapted for film. I had planned to ask Mukoma whether his father teaches his detective novels and, more importantly, whether him teaching his father puts his students at a disadvantage. Are their avenues of inquiry that he discourages? I sacrificed that question. The organiser, Dr Ndavula, had just informed me that live TV coverage was ending in 10 minutes.

The audience needed a chance to field questions. I prioritised that, along with my question to Ngugi on how he felt in October 2016 when he lost the Nobel Prize in Literature — plus its Sh96 million — to the American singer, Bob Dylan. I wanted to see whether he would uphold the validity of songs as literary expression. It would be surprising if he didn’t, seeing as he had spent a good part of our afternoon singing and dancing.

He disarmed me with his willingness to talk about that Nobel debacle, but I was not surprised that like other repressed men of his generation — whose autobiographies we have been reading — Ngugi kept his emotions buried. He felt for the journalists at his door, for his employer, the University of California at Irvine, but he never told us what he felt for himself. Did he cry? Was he sad, or angry, or momentarily overcome, unable to write and left brooding for days? He sidestepped these caprices of emotion and gave the textbook answer: I don’t write for prizes.

If we had more time, I would have asked father and son how vernacular media can be employed to enrich the prospects of national belonging in a fractured post-colony. Is the nation still a valid entity? Does multiculturalism have any role in nationhood? Do they both support multiculturalism, or should we describe Ngugi, with his “hierarchies is what I am against”, as an Identitarian?

If this had been a conference of academics, I would have asked these two scholars whether they worry about the function of the university as an elitist institution. How it might be transformed into a driver of equality and inclusivity.

Answering a question from Ms. Lillian Atieno, an interpreter, about why he translates his work into English, anyway, Ngugi went where I always knew he would go. Slaves. Every time Ngugi refers to Kenyans who have not mastered their mother-tongue as being enslaved, I get rankled by his disconnection from reality. True, fiction writers are steeped in the imaginary. But that doesn’t absolve Ngugi from studying the predicaments and impulses of the people he writes for.


Who are the natives in today’s Kenya; what is their aesthetic, and what exactly is a mother-tongue? The assumption that everyone is raised by a mother, and one who isn’t at work, 7am-9pm, is problematic.

What if, for the sake of domestic harmony, one opts for a cosmopolitan language — Sheng, English, Swahili — as the first language of her home? Doesn’t the mere fact of that choice, claim the language and make it hers? As Chinua Achebe once asked, “how many years (of use) should constitute effective occupation”? Incidentally, when will we admit that the English we speak, is actually a Kenyan language? Where else in the world do people use the word “otherwise” as a verb and a noun — to greet, to explain, to warn, to express defeat?

And what if a mother acquires the language of her husband as the language of the home, or vice versa — since it is not always true that a Kenyan home has only one ethnic language? Does this mean that it is possible for one to change one’s ethnic identity?

These are the questions I failed to ask. Ngugi has spent so many years denouncing fluidity, refusing to see that identities are never static. And yet, as he tells us in Dreams in a Time of War, his paternal grandfather was born and raised Maasai then he moved to Murang’a where he was assimilated and given the name Nduucu.

Clearly, identity is a site of struggle, open to change over time and place. Tons of scholarship in the Humanities theorises this fluidity of identity and demonstrates the tenuous link between language and belonging. But Ngugi persists in seeking a stable basis of identity and belonging in this notion of a mother-tongue.

How is language an effective glue for belonging when, even between speakers of one language, differences and tensions persist along the lines of age, gender, generations, wealth, residence? What value is a shared tongue if it cannot erase these tensions which impact belonging in undeniable ways?

I halted these thoughts. I had hoped to tease out generational differences between father and son. I found none. Wait. There is one. Ngugi the father has bagged many global awards, shrugs off cash awards, and has waited long for a Nobel Prize. As he waits for his own, Mukoma values cash awards and he has planted the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. That’s noble.

But the cards that the lottery called lineage handed unto Mukoma, and our Kuonekaniwa practice of the arts, decree that any literary thing Mukoma touches will always be read as being aided, abetted, propelled, or perhaps provoked, by his surname. That’s the seed and the yoke that he must bear.

I had come to this duel aware that I needed to be neutral. But in those last five minutes when Ngugi predictably pulled out his beloved word “enslaved”, I swallowed some mounting bile and seized the valediction as my only valid moment to earth Ngugi’s ethereal cultural theory.

What we need in this country, I said with studied restraint towards my father who calls me a slave, is a language policy that will make it possible for every child entering primary school to formally learn two or three Kenyan languages. Upon entering secondary school, that child should be able to learn at least one other Kenyan language. We have the intellectual resources to do that.

I praised Ngugi for the beautiful moment in which he taught the whole audience elementary Dhuluo and used that to emphasise that what Kenya needs is greater inclusivity in the ethnic corporations that we call devolved governments. And, since complimenting one another is more important than winning over each other, I asked father and son to shake hands. The End.


Dr Nyairo is a Cultural Analyst     — [email protected]