University of Nairobi should not allow Ngugi dream to die

Fountain of knowledge

The Fountain of Knowledge at the University of Nairobi. The university in July decided to abolish the Department of Literature and combine literature with linguistics.

Photo credit: University of Nairobi

If you realise the world takes your Kenyan university more seriously than its administrators take it, what would you do? Isn’t the temptation to give up too strong?

Passing by the University of Nairobi last week on our way to our afternoon cup of tea at the Norfolk, my dog Sigmund and I thought we were finally dead. Sigmund whispered to me that it felt “kinda nice, as if we were characters in Kufarikika”, a supposedly lost manuscript by Shaaban bin Robert that Sigmund claims to have discovered.

Such a manuscript about not just dying (kufariki) but surrendering to death does not exist (or maybe it does), but Shaaban’s creativity invites Sigmund to imagine a world beyond human life as we know it, the way Shaaban does in Kusadikika (1951) and Kufikirika (1968). Set in a non-existent world that Shaaban conjured up to satirise human greed, these works are the precursors of the anti-realist prose by Tanzania’s Euphrase Kezilahabi and our Kyallo Wadi Wamitila.

The reason we felt dead is that, in changes announced in July, the university has decided to kill the iconic Department of Literature, combining literature with linguistics. The alliteration in the new title is great but the collocation suggests retrogressing to the colonial past, given the struggles that led to the newly abolished department in the 1960s.

The change ironically contradicts the global trend, where literature departments have split up in the recent decades to enable units to focus on specialized areas of interest: rhetoric, communication, performance, theatre, etc.

Cost-cutting measure

While it is presented as a cost-cutting measure, I don’t see how the abolition of the literature department would save the university any money — unless the university plans to fire staff or dumb down course offerings. It will only succeed in hurting the image of the university globally, projecting it as a colonial relic serving the interests of the neo-liberal state.

It is also ironic that, as Nairobi regresses to a colonial model, Western universities are beginning to come to their senses and have in the last few years copied the model Nairobi has discarded in its recent changes. For example, Cornell, an Ivy league university, has renamed its department of English “department of literature” as Nairobi did in the 1970s. Why then would the University of Nairobi backpedal towards a model rejected over 50 years ago by abolishing the literature department?

The university administrators, who usually come up with such changes without consulting the experts in the affected subfields, seem ignorant about what makes University of Nairobi tick globally. The university is featured in most courses on non-western literature because of the efforts Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Anyumba, and Taaban lo Liyong made in the 1960s and 1970s to put African literature at the centre of literary and cultural studies.

For their part, universities in post-apartheid South Africa have, using Ngugi, Anyumba, and Taaban’s model, gone so far us to establish departments of African literature, independent of the English departments. The University of Witwatersrand is a good model, as its courses rigorously cover cultural production from different parts of the continent and in different media.

Critical thinking

Because it is grounded in critical thinking, the study of literature is one of the areas the neo-liberal state frowns upon. In Kenya, the state wouldn’t mind killing literature for good so as to produce from the education system robots who, for instance, follow “hustler” and “dynastic” political camps blindly as if there is any difference between the two crocks of s---t.

Our government mandarins, most of whom studied the arts and are good at abusing skills learned in humanities classes for propaganda and self-aggrandizement, have successfully spread the myth that humanities subjects, such as literature, are unmarketable. Yet intellectually and morally enriching liberal education involves, to use the words of Masao Miyoshi, “class-free, unrestricted, self-motivated, and unbiased learning…free from vulgar self-interest.” Such an education is not just about getting well-paying jobs. Service to society is paramount.

That said, I come from a poor background in rural Murang’a, and, after facing problems getting my first job at the University of Nairobi, I momentarily bought into the myth that humanities are economically unviable. I regretted leaving the study of mathematics, biology, and chemistry (MBC, the so-called “men’s best combination”) to belatedly study literature at a time the Moi regime was harassing humanities teachers across the country, especially Ugandan exiles who taught literature and history in our high schools.

Contrary to the anti-humanities myth, literature and similar courses of study are as lucrative as the sciences. A study carried out in the US in 2015 showed that, yes, the entry-point salaries in the sciences are higher than in the humanities, but the difference between the two sets of specialization narrows with time on the job.

Personally, I still work for what Sigmund calls “a racially determined pittance”, but I don’t think my mathematics, biology, and chemistry would have brought me even a tenth of what I earn today — courtesy of the seriousness with which the world takes a University of Nairobi humanities degree. In fact, University of Nairobi’s highest earners are likely to be humanities graduates — excluding a few crooks in the sciences and business who upon graduation went into the thieving industry.

To be sure, though, some cultural critics and creative writers are probably silently celebrating the death of Nairobi’s literature department, even if they might not openly dance on its grave. Casting themselves as the F.R. Leavises and Frank Kermodes of Africa — and their university as a replica of Cambridge — Nairobi literature professors have been conservative, elitist, and intolerant.

Unlike its adventurous sister department at Kenyatta University, Nairobi’s staid literature department is even hostile to African theatre and other popular modes of expression. Students of these subgenres are usually regarded as second-rate academics, with the European art and Greek theory of literature (especially Aristotle) occupying the pinnacle of the canonical hierarchy.

But Nairobi still does a good job. Indeed, when Dr Jennifer Muchiri of the University of Nairobi generously invited me (“and your beloved dog Sigmund”) to speak at a webinar to celebrate the Department of Literature's 50th anniversary in May, I tried to read Ngugi’s opposition to abstract universalism through Sylvia Wynter’s ideas of the human, which are strongly echoed in Ngugi’s writing. Both Ngugi and Wynter are fond of Frantz Fanon’s and Aime Cessaire’s critique of the colonial notions of the human.

I came to Wynter's work late, although she has an essay in Out of the Kumbla (edited by Carol Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory), a book I liked reading at the department's library when I was a student there in the 1990s. The “Kumbla” in the title of this collection of essays signifies the ancestral womb in black Caribbean writing. Nairobi might need the creative power of the shapeshifting “kumbla” which, as Lesley Humfrey describes it, “may transcend the 'thwarted' present by discovering a new and fruitful future."

It is my colleague Alex Weheliye who drew my attention to Wynter's work when I joined Northwestern University in 2005. Weheliye has gone on to publish a magnificent book, Habeas Viscus (2014), which draws on Wynter's work to examine the centrality of race in the conception of the human. Our own Tavia Nyong'o (cousin to the one and the only Lupita) also uses Wynter to examine queerness in dramas about black survival in an anti-black world. Closer home, the Kenyan theorist Keguro Macharia uses Wynter in Frottage (2019) to study queer intimacy including in Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya.

Wrong notions

These works suggest that we have inherited the wrong notions of the human through colonial education. To unsettle the universal man of colonial education, Ngugi suggests that we should include in our syllabi literatures in African languages. I would urge us to do more work in Swahili literature. We tend to overburden Swahili scholars with the study of Swahili texts even when we are aware that most of them are linguists, not literary critics.

I still find invaluable courses I took with Kavetsa Adagala and Helen Mwanzi on children’s literature. This literature deviates radically from the literature of what Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls “andu agima,” (adult/complete humans) which approximates the universal colonial man.

University of Nairobi literary scholars have continued to do an excellent job of unsettling the Western man through inclusion of gendered analyses of African literature. We should go further and include queer criticism because there seems to be a myth that the Department of Literature was made up of a bunch of homophobes.

Digital humanities, animal studies, disability studies, and ecocriticism are the other ways of unsettling the universal man, as they push us against treating the able-bodied human as the centre of the universe. This way, we'll keep Ngugi’s dream alive.

Mwangi is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University, USA, where he also serves as the Melville Herskovits Professor of African Studies. He divides his time among New York, Machakos, Evanston, Geneva, Murang’a, Frankfurt, Cape Town, and Kawangware. [email protected]