If the pieces that appear on the literary discourse pages in the Saturday Nation are an indication of the concerns, methods and quality of intellectual expression, then the Kenyan scholarly tradition has begun to resemble our political culture.
The pieces, usually couched in ethnic innuendo, concern themselves with personalities, not ideas.
Their methods aim to malign, belittle or even mock, not debate complex ideological and sociological assumptions of their subject. The quality of the pieces tends towards dilettantism, not scholarship, often veering off into wild speculation.
The object of scholarship is to change or expand the way we view and experience the world by interrogating popular ‘truths’. But many of the literary pieces in the Saturday Nation restrict the way we view ourselves, and mis-educate us, just like the politicians, that our most important defining characteristic is our ethnicity.
Of course, like their political counterparts, the scholars, too, have learned the fine art of employing code words to teach the same lesson. Like our politicians, the scholars do not help us to reimagine our world and reinvent ourselves.
In the fashion of Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, they teach us that the world we live in – Kenya - “is the best of all possible worlds”.
John Mwazemba’s piece, ‘Hustlers’ versus ‘Dynasties’: Ngugi’s prophesied apocalypse, that appeared (Saturday Nation of February 13, 2021) followed in the tradition related above.
The argument in the piece is that William Ruto’s ‘hustler vs. dynasty’ narrative is the coming of political age of the vision in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. Writes Mwazemba: “Ngugi always prophesied that one day, workers will rise against the ruling class. It seemed very far-fetched but with the hustlers versus dynasties narrative, we have suddenly come face-to-face with the reality of Ngugi’s prophetic writing.”
This parallel is false on many levels. First, Petals of Blood is not merely about workers and capitalists. It tells many stories; of romantic love between Munira and Wanja; of the pain of personal betrayal when Karega, Munira’s former student, becomes Wanja’s lover. It tells the story of hypocrisy, greed, false narratives, and moral and financial corruption.
Reacting to Mwazemba’s piece, a reader who goes by the colourful name of ‘Filosofi Kali’, wrote: “Very shallow interpretation of Ngugi's work. The depth of Ngugi's literary masterpiece is lost in superficial analysis and journalistic haste.” So what Mwazemba has performed is an intellectual sleight of hand.
He reduces a complex interweaving of stories and themes into a workers- versus-capitalists narrative in order to draw a parallel with Ruto’s hustler vs. dynasty slogan.
Second, the authorial vision in Petals of Blood is based on the notion of class struggle in the Marxist sense in order to bring about a more equitable society. Taken in totality, Ngugi’s work and activism call for free and equitable societies.
For his political activism, he was detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta, and harassed, arrested, tortured and, finally, forced into exile by Daniel arap Moi. In exile, he campaigned with others to bring about democratic change in Kenya.
In the meantime, William Ruto was a key member of the YK’92 group, a shadowy outfit that campaigned to maintain the oppressive status quo, and whose members became miraculously super wealthy.
For Mwazemba, therefore, to give ideological depth to a mere political slogan and equate a politician’s fraudulent gimmicks with Ngugi’s vision of a free and equitable society in Kenya and a de-racialised world in which people of all colours and tongues can thrive, is not only grossly unfair but goes against the rules and traditions of scholarship.
The work of a scholar is to interrogate both the claims of an argument but also, by looking at the personal history of its proponent, its bona fides. Mwazemba’s piece not only fails to interrogate the claims of the dynasty vs. hustler dichotomy, but it also assumes that its bona fides has been established.
So for Mwazemba, Ruto’s political dictum has self-evident truth, and the only question is which side of the hustler vs. dynasty divide we are all on. He writes: “We are different; some people will subscribe to a different side in the hustlers versus dynasties narrative”.
Mwazemba does not consider those who might not only dispute the claims of the argument and its bona fides but also, more fundamentally, the erroneous proposition that there are only two kinds of leaders in Kenya – hustlers and dynasties - and the equally fraudulent claim that ‘hustler’ leaders are in the same economic class with, and share the interests of, the ‘wretched of the earth’ who push mikokoteni for a living.
The reality that Mwazemba’s piece concealed is that it is the political class, of which Ruto is a key player, which has created the conditions which condemn human beings to do inhumane work in order to survive.
Politicians restrict us from seeing the possibilities of life. They do not like us to realise that there can be a different Kenya or that waking up every morning to yet another multimillion shilling corruption scandal is not normal or that politicians fighting in order to demonstrate loyalty to their tribal chief is thuggery, not politics.
Scholars on the other hand should help us to see other possibilities. They should frame other debates and offer different visions.
Repeating political slogans, and worse, giving them moral and ideological depth is blurring the line between scholarship and political sophistry.