I am in the middle of a very engrossing task when my phone buzzes out of the blue. The identity of the caller is immaterial – It’s what he says that disrupts the flow of my day. Taban Lo Liyong is in town and he is dying to speak to someone – a writer, to be exact. This is the news the caller breaks to me.
Lo Liyong is a celebrated South Sudanese academic, poet, writer and literary critic. That’s not all, he takes no prisoners in his media commentaries. Over the decades, he has, figuratively speaking, been the uncowed gadfly in Eastern African literary landscape.
He was a leading character in the memorable academic slagging of the yesteryear that starred such notable intellectuals as Chris Wanjala, William Ochieng and Ali Mazrui, all of whom have since departed. And Nairobi has been critical in his engagements.
I pounce on the opportunity without any second thoughts. A few hours after this call, I find myself signing the visitors’ book at the venue of our meeting. I have never had any physical encounter with Liyong before but I easily pick him out of the people lounging at the lobby. His typical old day intellectual looks – the crop of grey hair and beard – set him apart from the people around him.
After preliminaries and housekeeping, I fill Liyong in on my mission – I have come for nothing but ‘fireworks’. He takes my challenge with a long hearty laughter and informs me that things are no longer what they once were. He is 86 and the fire has, somewhat, fizzled out.
Wrestling the dead
This time, he won’t go to war against anyone. He won’t say anything unpalatable about Prof Chris Wanjala because wrestling the dead is an abomination. Very solemnly he says, it’s time he thanked the departed intellectual, who was once his pupil at The University of Nairobi, for pinning one of his works – The Tabanic Genre – on him.
Another subject drops on the menu of our conversation. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. There are a few stinging and nasty comments Liyong has previously made about Ngugi. But today there is a change of tune. Liyong recants all those utterances. He blames the media for planting words in his mouth so as to play him against Ngugi. In an apparent expression of his solidarity with Ngugi, he is dismissive of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He defiantly declares that Ngugi doesn’t have to win the prize to earn a name for himself. In his view, the Nobel Prize for Literature is a white man’s prize and, as such, Africans should let the white man award it however he wants.
We shift our focus to the fountain of knowledge across the road, from where we are seated – The University of Nairobi.
“Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Owuor Anyumba and I were the ‘revolutionaries’ behind the renaming of the university’s department of Literature and the shift in the curriculum on which it fed its students, then. It was the activism we commenced in in 1969 that emancipated the then department of literature from colonial shackles. Then, we insisted on the adoption of the known to unknown approach to the teaching of literature – teaching of this discipline beginning with local content, moving to East African literature, then diaspora Africa before, finally, progressing onto the rest of the world,” he says in a nostalgic tone laden with pride.
I seek to know if he thinks the department has lived up to the billing they had envisaged. While he hails their contribution as significant, he expresses disappointment over the fact that dream of having the department teach Japanese, Chinese and Indian literatures aborted.
“After our ‘revolution’, I went away. It was my anticipation that when I returned, I would find some of the European and Indian students we had taught serving as teachers at the university. I was disappointed – I met none of them!” He says.
With his gaze fixed on the direction of the university, Liyong insists that university dons have to continuously read and publish. In his view, this should be the pathway to associate professorship and full professorship appointments. He uses his failing eyesight to illustrate this. He talks of the many days, since 1945, that he has spent staring at books, sometimes, for as long as 36 hours, non-stop.
“University dons,” he says, “cannot be of optimal use to their students if all that they ever write are lecture notes. I am at pains to understand why there is a lot more literary production in other languages than English. This the case at The University of Nairobi, where Kiswahili is well taken care of and The University of Nairobi and The University of Khartoum where Arabic thrives.”
He remembers some of the academic spats he has had with some of the intellectuals at The University of Nairobi. Particularly, he singles out one who once defrocked him of his poet title because he doesn’t rhyme. He laughs off the critic and their view and explains that he writes African poetry which thrives on rhythm, not rhymes.
I set Liyong on yet another path – His 2020 dramatic suspension and reinstatement by The University of Juba over an open letter he had written to President Donald Trump’s administration. In the letter in question, he had invited White House to pile pressure on President Salva Kiir to reverse his decision to review inter-state boundaries and subsequently create 32 states instead of the 10 the Republic of South Sudan had at the time of her cessation from Sudan. In his argument, Liyong had declared this move unconstitutional.
At this point, he takes off his spectacles and lays them on the table.
“My letter was pleurer du coeur, a cry from the heart. The accusations The University of Juba administration levelled against me – That my authorship of the letter had soiled their reputation – were flimsy excuses aimed at justifying my vilification and persecution. Look, I am as human as I am a scholar. I have feelings and emotions. My core interest is humanity and it is to the service of humanity that I must dedicate my intellect,” he explains.
Reminiscing on his Iowa university days, he points a finger at the synonymy between the attempt to create 32 states in the Republic of Sudan and slavery.. He is glad that President Kiir, in the end, rescinded his decision.
“I cannot categorically say it was my letter that made the president change his mind. There were others, too. The Vice-President (Riek) Machar had begun the war before me.”
In his final remarks, Liyong takes a sweeping look at the state of publishing in Eastern Africa. He reckons that the publishing space has opened up and many people, scholars included, are exploring self-publishing. What disturbs him is the evident disregard of expertise in the publishing process. He reckons that unlike 5 decades ago, today, publishing houses and anyone opting for self-publishing can engage experts in the review and evaluation of their manuscripts.
To drive his point home, he tells me of his new book that he is launching on Monday next week at The United Kenya Club, Nairobi. He tells me that his South Sudanese publisher solicited the services of a reputable university don in the preparation of the manuscript. This, he insists, is the way to go.
Without any notice, Liyong rises to his feet and invites me to come along with him. We end up at the feet of the plaque on which the names of all The United Kenya Club chairmen are listed.
There, with his finger as the pointer, he treats to sentimental tales about the chairs, starting with Professor Shem Wandiga. Most of these people were his contemporaries, friends, acquaintances, classmates and colleagues. Just when I am about to ask him the reason for the gender bias in the list, he silences me with a question.