What you need to know:
- Carol Sicherman did not read to me what she had written after our conversation.
- From what she wrote in the Saturday Nation, it would appear she has very poor note-taking skills.
When I teach research methods, I normally tell students that in interviews you accurately record what you are told. You don’t distort what the interviewee says. You should also record what you say and the questions you ask.
Many researchers, including journalists, use recording equipment, but if they have to take notes, then they have to have good note-taking skills. And if you want to be absolutely transparent, you play back what you have recorded or read what you have written to the interviewee.
Well now, it is water under the bridge; Carol Sicherman did not read to me what she had written after our conversation.
From what she wrote in the Saturday Nation, it would appear she has very poor note-taking skills. She doesn’t remember what she told me; she doesn’t remember using the words “guinea pigs”, which to me were the most memorable in our entire conversation. She distorts what I told her, and in some instances she invents stuff I never uttered.
As I was reading her piece, I was saying to myself, well, she comes from a country that elected Donald Trump, a man who has no relationship with truth.
Trump led a bunch of people called Birthers who fabricated the lie that Barack Obama was born in 1961, in Mombasa, Kenya. They didn’t believe him even after Obama showed them his original birth certificate. And Trump had a cult following, especially among white women!
Let’s begin with the issue Carol Sicherman was researching when she came to my office in 1995: the response to the request made by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and company. She had already written a book on the novelist, titled Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel, and the answer to her research question should have been part of the book. It was obviously an afterthought.
The question was so basic it should have been answered in the book. This alone, if nothing else, would prove that this famous text was under-researched. It also shows that in researching for the book, the author did not ask the tough questions: she went along with what the novelist told her.
Sicherman goes overboard in dramatising what she saw as the risks associated with research on Ngugi. She even mistook the bureaucracy of our library staff for evidence of those so-called risks.
The notion that there were risks was fabricated by extremists and tribal chauvinists who did not care for the truth. We were teaching Ngugi’s works in the department, and some of our postgraduates were writing their theses on him.
What had happened, and which Sicherman didn’t bother to find out, was that the Moi administration had accused Ngugi of channelling to the underground Mwakenya movement money earned from his royalties.
Moi then ordered the Ministry of Education to stop prescribing his books as setbooks in high schools. But the government did not ban the books. They were in bookshops, and our students were reading them.
After I became chair of the department in 1984, I was reliably told that the Special Branch started spying on me, I guess as they did on the other heads of departments. The source told me the spies concluded I was a loner; I did not go to bars and large gatherings, and that I would drive from my house to the university and back every day.
But then one day the Kenya Times, the now defunct Kanu newspaper, sent a journalist to ask me what I thought of Ngugi’s production of the revised version of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. The journalist was a former student of mine, but I knew they had set a trap.
I told this journalist that I had not read the revised version of the play and had not watched the performance. The following day the opposite of what I had said was front-page news in the Kenya Times. It was good government propaganda: the chair of the Department of Literature had criticised Ngugi’s decision to stage the play in a foreign country.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. There is a limit to what an individual can do in a dictatorship. I knew even if I asked the newspaper to apologise, they wouldn’t. I was in a no-win situation. So I sat back and said those who knew my character wouldn’t believe the story, and those in doubt could find out from me.
I probably told this story to Carol Sicherman as honestly as I could, but her fabrication that I helped the government to suppress the production in London is downright malicious and unworthy of a scholar. Did I even have connections with the Moi secret service? Did I know any of their names?
Let me go back to our conversation. She says she got the answer she was looking for from Angus Calder’s collections. Calder went back to the UK at the end of 1971, and he had never been a head of department. Only heads of departments and those above are members of Senate, so, one would have expected Andrew Gurr to have the documents.
But let’s take her word for it, that Calder had the Senate minutes which contained the answer she was looking for. Why on earth did she come to Nairobi? Was she looking for something that was already in her possession?
I now want to address the misconceptions the two writers have regarding my politics. I am not a political animal. My name has never featured on any list of political appointments. I have never been appointed to any political commission.
In my last piece, I mentioned Dr Fred Matiang’i as one of my former students, and there are many others in top positions. But, if you ask them, they will tell you that I have never canvassed for political favours.
Otienoh markets himself as the Secretary of the International African Writers Association. I associate writers with intellectual depth, nuance, sophistication, and most of all critical thinking skills.
But what I read from this gentleman are empty platitudes and pedantic postulates. He regurgitates what he has read. He wants us to worship authors and not critically assess their works. I have bad news for him: nothing in my academic training prepared me for the worship of our fellow humans, however accomplished they might be. I don’t even worship myself. The road to critical thinking begins with self-criticism.
I would like to comment on the so-called revolution in the literature curriculum, which Carol Sicherman has sold to a gullible academic community.
I have said elsewhere that we had a whole generation of literature graduates who would tell the head teachers of the schools they had been posted to that they couldn’t teach poetry because they couldn’t handle elements like meter, rhythm and even irony.
These people who had supposedly been exposed to models of good writing told their bosses they couldn’t teach language and composition.
And one of the top-notch products of this curriculum would conduct workshops, telling English teachers that if you want to know the difference between a good novel and a bad one you count the number of peasant and working class characters in the work.
If these characters outnumber the bourgeois ones, then you are talking about a good novel.
I have spent a lifetime assuming that a revolution takes us from point A to point B, with point B being a better place.
A little story
What kind of revolution are we talking about when English teachers tell their students that a composition that earns you an A should have a generous sprinkling of big words and idiomatic expressions?
And if you write using simple, everyday words you get the bare minimum. The many American textbooks I have on my shelves say the opposite: that the simplest English is the best and anything worth saying can be said simply and clearly.
Before you call something a revolution, you need to examine the products of that revolution.
Clearly, Sicherman’s widely publicised research has ignored this aspect.
When she was in my office, Sicherman wondered aloud about where she was going to publish her article.
She had interviewed Andrew Gurr, who was the editor of a British journal called The English Year Book. The British were our colonial masters and they know us better. If she had chosen the British journal, Gurr would have verified her claims.
But she decided to publish it in Research in African Literatures, an American journal. When I lived and studied in California, I met and interacted with American scholars who were phenomenally intelligent, but I also met college graduates who thought Africa was in South America.
Early in his presidency, Bush II would make references to the nation of Africa and the continent of Nigeria.
So, presumably, many of her readers don’t even know where Kenya is, and they come to the reading with no critical insights of their own.
I want to end this discussion by telling my two detractors a little story.
About two weeks ago, I was teaching a course called Academic Writing and Critical Thinking to a PhD class in the African Women’s Studies Centre.
The class has 12 students, all women, and all but one married with children. The topic I was teaching was the mechanics of writing, and I started with the rules governing English spelling.
I posed the following questions to them: “If your child asks you, ‘Mummy, why is the word ‘coma’ spelt with one m and ‘comma’ with two ms? And why does ‘writing’ have one t and ‘written’ two ts? or why are letters ‘g’ and ‘h’ silent in the word ‘light’? What would you tell him or her?”
I went round the entire class, and none of them had the correct answer. And this is stuff I knew in Form One back in 1964 at Friends School Kamusinga. So much for the fabled revolution!
Henry Indangasi is a professor of literature at the University of Nairobi