Ngugi wa Thiongo's son Mukoma wa Ngugi follows in his father's footsteps


Prof Carole Boyce-Davies speaking at Muranga University of Technology

Photo credit: Brian Keitany| Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Mukoma, who is a novelist, poet and literary scholar, visited Murang’a University five years after his father Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched his Gikuyu book Kenda Muiyuru (Perfect Nine) at the institution.

This week I moderated a conversation between Mukoma wa Ngugi and Carole Boyce-Davies. The two professors from Cornell University were speaking to students at Murang’a University of Technology.

This was not the first time the Ngugis were visiting the institution which is a two-hour drive away from Nairobi. In 2019, Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched his Gikuyu book Kenda Muiyuru (Perfect Nine) at Murang’a University of Technology. Five years later, in February 2024, his son, Prof Mukoma wa Ngugi, visited the institution.

The university has witnessed little literary activity over the years, with most literary scholars preferring to speak within the confines of the city.

By speaking at Murang’a, a place he confessed to visiting for the first time, Mukoma appears to walk in his father’s footsteps. Ngugi advocated for stirring consciousness at the margins in his book, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993).

Mukoma, who is a novelist, poet and literary scholar, had come to Murang’a with a guest, Boyce-Davies. Boyce-Davies, who delivered the main address, is Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters and Professor of Africana Studies and Literatures in English at Cornell University. Among the East African literary fraternity, Boyce-Davies is well known for her book Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature.

The literary scholars spoke to an audience made up of young undergraduate students of literature, communications and academics from various disciplines. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation because most of the students had not interacted with the literary and critical works by Mukoma and Boyce-Davies.

Mukoma spoke first. His talk centred on the responsibilities of students as citizens of the world. He urged them to have an extended awareness of their blackness bringing to memory liberation icons like Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. He mentioned Pio Gama Pinto and Malcolm X and their connection to the East African emancipation struggles that is often glossed over. He urged students to be committed to history and to choose their side of the struggle, which should be with the oppressed people.

He urged students to give their experiences creative expression in poetry, novels and short stories that used African languages. Mukoma argued for intrinsic motivation to creative writing but didn’t shy away from stating that writers should write for prizes. He made these remarks in the backdrop of the Nobel Prize which has eluded his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Mukoma values cash awards and is the co-founder of the $15,000 Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. The prize also ensures that winning Kiswahili authors get published by Mkuki na Nyota in Tanzania.

When Boyce-Davies rose to speak, she wafted lyricism and storytelling into her presentation. She narrated how an old man welcomed a tired tiger into his home and gave it water and shelter from the sweltering sun. The tiger promised to be soon on his way. However, as soon as the tiger felt better, he began doing tiger things – roaring, clawing and demanding meat.

Boyce-Davies asked the students what the response of the old man should have been. When some suggested killing the tiger, Boyce-Davies singled that as a violent approach. Instead, she began chanting Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” as a response that the man should have adopted. “Wont you help to sing…these songs of freedom…” she invited her audience. She juxtaposed the oral story in the larger context of the struggle for African peoples in the wake of transatlantic enslavement, extractive colonialism and neo-colonialism. This is an idea she carries in her book, Pan-African Connections (2022). The book also features a chapter by Kisumu Governor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o. Boyce-Davies noted that the global freedom struggle was an important arena of intellectual and activist work.

She argued for diaspora literacy among students pursuing intellectual connections. She recalled names like James Brown, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and closer home Jomo Kenyatta and Haile Selassie, stating that students ought to be familiar with diasporic terms and the ideas they evoked. Whenever Boyce-Davies mentioned a concept that students seemed to be unfamiliar with, she encouraged them to search online on their phones – bringing into play her years of experience as a teacher.

Boyce-Davies also explored cultural connections as expressed in hip-hop, dance and language. She saw popular culture as a common heritage among Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. Earlier, Mukoma had hinted at nudging his university to include Kenyan hip-hop in its collection.

Among the books that Boyce-Davies has published on the subject of the diaspora are Decolonizing the Academy: African Diaspora Studies (2003) and Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject (1994). She also co-edited with Ali Mazrui and Isidore Okpewho The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities (1999).

I gave the audience a chance to field questions to the scholars. It was interesting to hear what sort of questions university students mostly in their 20s had in their mind.

A student wanted to know where the scholars, one born in the Caribbean and another born in the USA but who spent his childhood in Kenya, called home. Mukoma took the first stab at the question observing that whichever place one chose to call home, they had to be committed to it, and it was a place that a person felt responsibility for. Boyce recalled the frustration that most African Americans had when they jetted onto the continent and they felt that they didn’t fully belong because of the conditions on the ground or their sense of prejudice.

Most students were preoccupied with the experience of racism, from the football fields, public parks and institutions. Boyce-Davies recalled the experiences that Sojourner Truth had with racism and her firm response. She, in part, recited Sojourner’s speech “Ain't I a Woman?” Mukoma on his part was quick to point to other forms of discrimination on the continent as well, realized through segregation/apartheid, xenophobia and continuing brutalities that continue to dismember families, communities and cultural belongings.

In 2019, I had the chance to organize another event that featured Mukoma and his father, Ngugi, at St. Paul’s University. The question of literary prizes dominated their event which I dubbed “The Duel on the Ridges”. Ngugi argued that although prizes were important, he drew strength from affirmation by his readers. Mukoma on the other hand argued that prizes mattered because they ensured that stories were written and published.

Although I was initially wary of leading the discussion, in the end, what dominated the conversations at Murang’a University of Technology were larger issues of intellectual, political and cultural connections and not the specifics of the authors’ writing. The students soaked in the debates, even contributing to the discourse that afternoon which was remarkable given the struggle that younger audiences have with gadgets during lectures. This encounter reinforced my belief that there was urgent need for scholars to engage with young minds at the margins.

Mukoma and Boyce-Davies also unveiled the winners of the Safal-Cornell Kiswahili prize last Friday. Discussions on how to have the winning authors engage more with audiences within and outside the academy are ongoing, with a view of giving prominence to literary texts written in African languages.

- The writer is the Chair of Humanities Department at Murang’a University of Technology and the co-founder of Kikwetu Literary Journal