Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Many high school leavers today have never read his works. 

| File | Nation Media Group

We’ve got to take literature more seriously than we do

What you need to know:

  • Just a few weeks ago, there was discussion in these pages whether books should be expensive.
  • The idea that you can measure the worth of books by how cheap they are seriously undermines literature.

On Monday, June 7, Henry Munene wrote an article in the Daily Nation with the title, “Let children read fiction to boost creativity, improve analytical skills.” Munene was pleading to parents, teachers and officials at the ministry of Education to consider the worth of literature.

Such prayers are made in our media all the time by different commentators for several reasons. But Munene’s biggest worry was that the government – or rather specifically, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development – had nominated books to be studied for literature in Kenya’s secondary schools in the new cycle beginning next year “based on the lowest quoted price.” If I understood Munene well, procurement matters had superseded literary quality.

Now, there is a cliché that claims that sometimes reality can be stranger than fiction. Well, how does one even begin to understand how the quote price of a yet-to-be-published manuscript can be used as an important guide to selecting a text that will determine the future of thousands of young Kenyans?

I guess the government will soon deny that significance of price considerations in the selection of the set books for schools. But at least it is in the public domain now that whereas common sense would dictate that the worth of a literary text should be measured by its creativity, it is actually its shilling-worth that matters!

This is not a new debate in this country. Just a few weeks ago, there was discussion in these pages whether books should be expensive. Books can be expensive for many reasons. Of course the most important of these reasons is that books are intellectual property. Just as one will pay a plumber or mason for the technical skills of the repair work done every time he does some work, we only buy a book once. In other words, every time we read a published book, we are meeting the author and listening to their story without necessarily paying for it. That is the magic of the printed work but that is also why some books are expensive compared to others.

Unbalanced literary diet

Surely, someone who advises the government about the cost of education would know that one cannot use ‘advance procurement’ as a means of deciding what book should be studied and what shouldn’t. Can’t the government just drop all taxes on books and make them affordable to poor Kenyans?

To go back to Munene’s thesis, this idea that you can measure the worth of books by how cheap they are seriously undermines literature. It is the reason Kenyans are loath to buy books unless they are religious or motivational books. How can a society progress if its people just don’t read beyond the school curriculum? And how did we reach this point?

We reached this level or functional illiteracy because we hardly read enough books at school. We grew up on an unbalanced literary diet. We read a bit of the Bible or Koran. We studied two or three set books. We hardly read a novel beyond the prescribed one. In the other subjects we copied notes and reproduced them in the exams. We could safely say that many Kenyans are leaving school without being schooled.

It doesn’t surprise today that high school leavers in Kenya will hardly have met Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Grace Ogot, Meja Mwangi, Mwangi Ruheni, Mwangi Gicheru, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Kithaka wa Mberia, Kitula King’ei, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Francis Imbuga, Binyavanga Wainaina, Mbugua Ng’ang’a, Ken Walibora, among other Kenyan authors, if these writers’ texts aren’t recommended set books.

In other words, their ken of Kenyan literature, art and culture will be limited to the few lesson in literature in which they may actually not read the prescribed books but guide books on the set books! How are we allowing our young to leave school without having sampled the breadth and length of Kenyan literature, art and culture? What exactly are we teaching in the subject called Integrated English?

If the school leavers don’t know much about Kenyan literature, they are probably in total darkness about regional, continental and world literatures. Save for the few short stories that they will read in the selected anthology, thousands of young Kenyans may not be able to mention a single author from Uganda or Ethiopia or Rwanda. Don’t even bother them about writers from the Middle East, Australia, Canada or Mexico. Where is Azerbaijan, they may ask you if you cite an author from the Eurasians. Of course there are exceptions to this tragedy. Some teenagers will read beyond the school texts because there is a library at home or because a teacher or relative offered them a book or urged them to read.

Cheap is expensive

So, how do we plan to produce school leavers or graduates who can compete globally? Ours are school leavers weaned on a very poor literary diet. Our KCSE syllabus compares very poorly with the IGCSE syllabus in literature. The IGCSE candidate will most likely have read 12 texts at ‘O’ level to the KCSE’s miserable two or three. We don’t even need to compare the KCSE Form Four leaver with a claim to have studied literature with the IGCSE ‘A’ level literature candidate.

What is the point for harping on about literature? Why should people read fiction, anyway? What value does dreamy poetry, didactic drama or some illusive prose?

Because literature is what first teaches us how to communicate. We learn to speak from those around us – mother, father, sister, brother, playmate etc. But we learn to speak contextually from the arts and culture. By introducing us to metaphor, irony, hyperbole, idiomatic expressions, proverbs, songs etc, literature teaches us how to negotiate everyday situations. Literature teaches us how and why to speak in particular circumstances. How does one respond to an elder; how does one pose a question to a superior; what do you say to a lover; how does one mourn a relative, a friend, a neighbor etc. This is why individuals quote from books that they have read. This is why often when we say one has a way with words, we mean that they are speak creatively.

Maybe the problem isn’t even the bean counters. Shouldn’t we actually just talk openly about how the integration of literature and English has undermined poor children’s education? It is poor Kenyans whose children end up with a poor syllabus who will pay dearly in future when those young men and women are deemed unemployable because they have poor communication skills.

We hear so often about university graduates who neither speak nor write well. Why has this problem become acute? The culprit is that English syllabus. If one reads just about four novels, a few poems, one play, and 12 short stories, between Form One and Four, it doesn’t matter how many grammar lessons the person attends, they will not be able to write and speak a language well – be it English or Kiswahili. Grammar is just about the rules of a language, which rules are broken every day, including in the English class.

If the price for studying literature is that low-priced, then we truly haven’t heard of or learnt the meaning of the cliché ‘cheap is expensive.”

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]