Of Ngugi, myths and facts as literature department turns 50

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o speaks at the University of Bayreuth in 2014.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The policy of Africanisation was extended to the University of Nairobi in the early 1970s.
  • Most of the lecturers were wazungu, with Prof Andrew Gurr as the Chair.
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o took over from Andrew Gurr as Head of Department. But this transition took place after I had left.

In 1995, Carol Sicherman, the American Scholar and author of the book on Ngugi wa Thiong’o titled The Making of a Rebel, came to the University of Nairobi. Sicherman had applied for and been given a grant by her university to sort out a research problem concerning the Kenyan writer.

“Ngugi published this letter, which he co-authored with Taban and Anyumba, requesting the University of Nairobi to abolish the English Department and replace it with the Department of Literature,” she told me when she came to the Department. I was the chair at the time. “But he did not publish the reply from the addressee,” she added.

“I came via the UK and spoke to the professors who were here then, but they all advised me to come and check with the ‘guinea pigs’. They told me you were one of them.” As I recollect, when she uttered the words “guinea pigs”, she had an ironic smile on her face.

“So, my research agenda is to find out if there was a reply to the famous letter, and of course what the response contained.”

I wondered why the British scholars gave her such an evasive answer. Nevertheless, I figured we would have to go back to the Senate documents of the late 1960s. According to our statutes, the Senate is the organ that discusses and approves academic programmes and the creation of new departments. But then I wasn’t sure whether or not there were any ethical issues concerning an outsider who wanted to dig into our official archives. So, I called Prof Francis Gichaga, the then Vice-Chancellor, to inquire about that issue.

Pay informants

“Our Senate minutes are public documents,” he said.

“We have nothing to hide, and your friend should feel free to look at them.”

American researchers consider it unethical to pay informants; so, when I offered to assist in reading through those dusty old minutes, I knew I was going to work for free.

We searched and searched and searched, and in the end we found nothing. The legendary letter never reached the Senate and was, therefore, never discussed, which probably explains why the Britons she had spoken to did not give her a definitive answer.

And come to think of it: if the university authorities had reacted to the letter and, accordingly, informed the authors, Ngugi would have published the reply.

After all, he did that with the back-and-forth correspondence between him and the institution upon his release from detention. That was when he was asking to have his job back.

However, as I was flipping through the records, I stumbled on a letter from the then chair of the Department about Ngugi’s application for a teaching job.

The letter was dated 1968, and in it the Chair was requesting the British Council to assist in the evaluation of the application. The council suggested the name of Prof Killam as somebody who could evaluate the writer’s request. Killam was a specialist in African literature and had written about Ngugi’s novels. Fortunately for Ngugi, Killam recommended him for the job, and the novelist was hired as a special lecturer.

Ngugi had apparently been sponsored by the British Council to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Leeds. But he had returned without this qualification. And, according to a research Evan Mwangi did for his doctorate, Ngugi’s master’s thesis had been rejected.

Owuor Anyumba appeared to have suffered a similar fate. His CV said he had obtained a master’s degree from Cambridge University, but he didn’t collect the certificate. I doubted this claim. Why wouldn’t you even take a loan to fly to the UK to pick up such an important document?

Besides, what prevented Cambridge from mailing the certificate to their student? I submitted my own PhD dissertation to U.C. Santa Cruz in 1979, and they mailed the certificate to me in 1980. I showed it to Mr Anyumba, who was my boss at the time.

Literary scholarship

Taban Lo Liyong had graduated with an MA in creative writing from the University of Iowa in the US. He was, therefore, not in mainstream literary scholarship.

The point I want to make is that these three gentlemen must have been considered marginally qualified to teach in the university.

Two of them were BA holders and the third had a master’s degree in an area that was not being offered in the department. What’s more, in 1968, they were newly appointed. Their wish to overhaul an academic curriculum and create a new department must have appeared presumptuous and impertinent to the administration.

I know about the cult of personality that has been created around Ngugi wa Thiong’o; I also know that myths are more colourful than the naked truth. But let us for a moment do some critical thinking.

In an institution with many PhD holders, these three people must have wrestled with identity issues. So, we ask: what was the motivation behind their literary activism?

Was it a genuine and sincere desire to reform a curriculum or was it a compensatory and self-serving effort to stake a claim in the academic cosmos, so to speak?

They sought to abolish the English Department and replace it with the Department of Literature. But given English had long before become a world language, the idea of teaching literature in English and English translation rather than English literature had already been institutionalised.

For my Cambridge School Certificate in 1967, one of our set books was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. And for my Cambridge Higher School Certificate, which I sat in 1969, three of the set texts were outside the realm of English Literature: Lenrie Peters’s The Second Round, Bertold Brecht’s Galileo, and Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King. Brecht’s play was translated from German, and Laye’s novel was translated from French. So, weren’t these three gentlemen fighting a battle that had already been won?

By 1968, the Ministry of Education, headed by Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, had already started implementing the policy of Africanisation. John Woods, my British headmaster at Friends School Kamusinga, went back to his country and was replaced by David Masinde in that year.

The Kenya government simply stopped renewing the contracts of foreign teachers who had previously dominated the teaching profession. The policy of Africanisation was extended to the University of Nairobi in the early 1970s. By 1973, the year I graduated, nearly all our British lecturers had gone back to their country.

Again, we ask the question: given that Africanisation was the official policy of the government, and contrary to the tone of the acclaimed letter, weren’t the authors simply swimming with the current rather than against, if you excuse the cliché? Were they not cashing in on a policy that clearly favoured them?

The department I joined in 1970 was not called the English Department, it was called the Department of Literature. Most of the lecturers were wazungu, with Prof Andrew Gurr as the Chair.

Taban Lo Liyong had joined the Department, having transferred from the Institute of African Studies. And although we had courses such as the African Novel, Modern African Poetry and Oral Literature, the majority of the offerings for single majors belonged to European or world literature: the Classic Novel, Classic Poetry, Development of Drama, Theory of Literature and Stylistics, and Shakespeare and Tolstoy (and their contemporaries).

The previous year, 1969, Ngugi had resigned, reportedly over the issue of academic freedom, the refusal by the university authorities to allow opposition leader Oginga Odinga to deliver a public lecture at the institution. But he came back in 1972 and rejoined the Department, apparently without any administrative hitches.

As we saw it then, two language-based departments had been established: the Department of Literature (with the mandate to teach literature in three languages – English, French, and Kiswahili) and the Department of Linguistics and African Languages. The Sub-Department of French was housed in the Department of Literature, but literature in Kiswahili never took off.

A few years later, the department of Linguistics and African Languages developed and taught the course in Fasihi ya Kiswahili or Kiswahili Literature. Maybe the English Department had been abolished by the time I joined the newly established University of Nairobi.

But there is no evidence that this was in response to the letter that the three gentlemen wrote. And speaking for myself, I never got the impression that some upheaval had happened.

By 1973, the year I graduated, the wazungu had left or were leaving. Ngugi wa Thiong’o took over from Andrew Gurr as Head of Department. But this transition took place after I had left.


The change in the curriculum that many scholars so glibly talk about was the result of the conference on the Teaching of Literature that was held at Nairobi School in 1974. That was the same year I went to America on an exchange programme called the University of California Education Abroad Programme. However, I was told that, in his new role as Chair of the Department, Ngugi was the organiser of this event.

On the positive side, this conference affirmed the educational principle of moving from the known to the unknown. African literature was rightly accorded a central place in the syllabus. But from the point of view of literature as an institution, the results of this meeting were calamitous.

The age-old idea that good literature speaks to our common humanity went out the window. Instead, literary works were to be taught from the perspective of how they related to Africa and Africans. So, we had concentric circles: African literature, literature of the African Diaspora, and literature of the rest of the world.

The fact that William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji eloquently tell the human story and resonate with the entire species of Homo sapiens was of no consequence to the participants. These classics of world literature do not talk about Africa and Africans; so our students didn’t need to read them.

Black Aesthetics was introduced as a core unit. In the course of description, no attempt was made to define the concept of aesthetics. Instead the focus was on the suffering of black people and their struggle against slavery and colonialism.

And I never got to know whether those who designed this course thought there was brown aesthetics, yellow aesthetics, or white aesthetics. Whatever the case, the notion of the universal in literature was roundly rejected, and the discipline became the face of a narrow African nationalism.

Let me now turn to yet another issue that affected the growth of the Department and the discipline: the politics surrounding the PhD in literature.

I have said that the authors of the letter the response to which Carol Sicherman was concerned about did not have PhDs, and they might have resorted to literary activism as a way of asserting their claim to academic pre-eminence.

One of the administrators who attended the appointments committee that interviewed Ngugi wa Thiong’o for the post of senior lecturer gave me an account of what transpired. Ngugi was asked: “Which of your works is equivalent to a master’s degree?”

 “None,” he answered.

 “What do you mean, none?” was the follow-up question.

 “They are all above.”

The committee had sincerely hoped the author would, for instance, say A Grain of Wheat, which was the author’s most ambitious work at the time of the interview. This was the work he wrote when he was studying for his master’s at Leeds. But to Ngugi, all his works were above this degree.

In 1977, I attended the high-profile launch of Petals of Blood at City Hall. Mwai Kibaki, the Finance minister of the day, was the guest of honour. In his speech, Kibaki alluded to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet writer, who had to leave his country in order to criticise it. A few days after the launch, I sat with Ngugi in the cafeteria and asked him why he invited a man who was the architect the system he was lambasting in his novel.

Associate professor

“He is very brilliant. I was with him at Makerere”, he answered.

Shortly after this event, he was promoted to the rank of associate professor.

Ngugi’s fortunes, however, took a nosedive with the performance of Ngahika Ndenda, a play in Gikuyu which he wrote with Ngugi wa Mirie, which took place in Kamirithu. In December of 1977, Ngugi was Thiong’o was arrested and detained without trial.

In January 1978, members of the Department, led by the newly appointed chair Owuor Anyumba, went as a delegation to see the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Jospat Karanja. Our agenda was to find out why Ngugi had been arrested, and whether the university boss would intercede for him.

The atmosphere was tense. I remember the late Waigwa Wachira trying unsuccessfully to inject humour into our discussion.

“Sir,” Wachira started, “does it mean that if I wrote a poem about a flower, I would be arrested?”

“Ngugi did not write a poem about a flower. The play is about the forces of darkness oppressing the peasants and the workers”, said an unsmiling Karanja. Then he added a ominously: “I went to warn you. If you break the law of the land, you should be prepared to face the consequences”.

We left the Vice Chancellor’s office feeling dejected and powerless.

Ngugi would be the last person to rise to the level of associate professor without a PhD. The rules changed soon after the novelist’s incarceration. Even an MA wasn’t good enough to earn you a lectureship.

Doctoral research

In 1983, the then acting chair and I applied for the post of senior lecturer. We were asked to wait in the room next to where the interview would take place. Then came the registrar, “We will start with the chair,” he said. They interviewed him for what felt like an eternity.

When my turn came, they asked me two questions.

“We can see you’re supervising the doctoral research of your boss. How does it feel like to guide your superior?” they inquired.

“Well, it looks odd, but I am doing the best I can,” I answered.

“We’ve been told by your head of department that one doesn’t need a PhD in literature to teach in the university. But we can see you have a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz.”

“You do. How else do you supervise PhD students if you don’t have one yourself? For me, doing doctoral research gives you an opportunity to generate new knowledge,” I told them.

That day I became a senior lecturer. As for my boss, he not only wasn’t promoted, he was also demoted from the position of head of department. He eventually resigned from the university.

But, trust me, although I disagreed with him on the issue of the PhD, I genuinely felt sorry for him.

The unceremonious demotion of our departmental boss signaled a hardening of the position of the University of Nairobi with respect to those who did not possess doctorates in literature.

 Previously, the perception had been created that you didn’t need this degree in the discipline, and that you should just have read a copious amount of literature. If Ngugi didn’t subscribe to this view, it was nevertheless true that those who did not have this qualification drew comfort from the trajectory of his academic career. One could rise to the level of associate professor without a PhD. But there was never going to be another Ngugi was Thiong’o.

A look at two well-known scholars will illustrate the point that having a PhD in literature was non-negotiable: those are John Ruganda at the University of Nairobi and Francis Imbuga at Kenyatta University College, then a constituent college.

 Both of these gentleman danced around the issue of the doctorate by arguing they were celebrated playwrights, with their dramatic compositions being studied as set books in our high schools. In both institutions, the claim was rejected. The comic side of the issue was that Ruganda went to Canada and did a PhD on Imbuga’s drama, and Imbuga went to the US and wrote his PhD on Ruganda’s drama.

Badge of honour

Though an important part of the history of the Department, the debate about the PhD in literature has long been foreclosed. The doctorate has become a trademark and a badge of honour.

The 15 years I was chair, from 1984 to 1999, I was privileged to oversee the award of PhDs to three scholars who later become professors - Wanjiku Kabira, Muchugu Kiiru, Helen Mwanzi and one who become Cabinet Secretary for Interior - Dr Fred Matiangi. Many more have passed through the Department and obtained this important degree.

The department no longer suffers from a shortage of PhD holders, and many more are on the way. But as we celebrate 50 years of our existence, we need to step back and re-examine the quality of the PhDs we award.

In Kiluhya, we have a saying that every generation sings its own songs. That said, there is something universal and normative about the doctoral degree – the generation of new knowledge. To create this new knowledge, we have no choice but to question existing assumptions and theories. The PhD student is expected to be a disruptive force in the world of academia.

But more often than not, we encounter students who fall prey to the fallacy of description, the false belief that you can create knowledge by simply describing what authors do in their works.

To grow the department, our students and our researchers need to recognise this mistake in reasoning and gather the intellectual courage to challenge the views and opinions of their fellow scholars.

To put it differently, we should scrupulously distinguish between facts and fabrications in our quest for truth and knowledge.

Henry Indangasi is a professor of Literature at the University of Nairobi.