Writers are born, and all our great writers are self-made

Prof Egara Kabaji

Prof Egara Kabaji speaks during an interview in Eldoret in May 2020. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

A while back, Prof Egara Kabaji fielded questions from writer Oumah Otienoh which just culminated into an article in the Saturday Nation (December 30, 2022) titled, ‘Kabaji: How can you teach writing if you do not write.’

It is difficult to tell whether it means the written word teaches writing better or teachers of writers must themselves write as a prerequisite to teaching writing. However, Kabaji's contention seems to be that writing is taught in classrooms by those who have a book or two or a litany of articles in their name. Nothing can be further from the truth unless the writer-teacher combination is meant to teach grammar and not to gate-keep on writing.

My thesis, which we will explore shortly, is that good writing is mostly learned by reading, and those who purport to teach it must confine themselves to the teaching of grammar while pointing learners to the right 'cadavers' to devour. They can come up with their own cadavers if they so wish, but it is hardly a requirement.

In school, we were reminded at every available opportunity that if you ever aspired to write anything worthy, the undisputable key was reading as many books as possible. Meaningful writing seems to accrue from deliberate reading.

To use an analogous situation, in medical school cadavers are used in teaching, in learning how to write, and the cadavers are quality books. Great writers emerge from lessons on 'Cadavers' that have been read and the writing styles one exposes oneself to and not necessarily from teacher-writers in the lecture halls!

Bring out talents

Kabaji's thesis is inaccurate because it at once seems to assign to the school system the unenviable task of inculcating professions in pupils. School is supposed to bring out the talent in pupils and not inculcate talents in them.

It fails terribly the moment it attempts to inculcate professions, and this explains why there has been some incessant tinkering with the 8-4-4 system to the 2-6-3-3 one, and now again to the competency-based curriculum.

The objective of this seems to be a situation where schools will create entrepreneurs and not just churn out people looking to be employed. Developed talent is more likely to bring out business people: inculcated talents bring forth employees.

Kabaji is a literary icon and a specialist in literary communication. I wonder what inspired him to pursue writing, but I know he will tell us someday. Did the inspiration come from a burning ambition to be a writer or he already knew he could write? All evidence seems to point to the latter.

Elsewhere, there seems to be a pattern as well. Writing, research might show, could be innate after all. Information gleaned about some great writers corroborates this assertion. Wole Soyinka kept winning prizes in literary compositions when he was young.

He went to university, my thinking, merely to paper up his talents. Elechi Amadi is a physicist and a superlative writer; Taban Lo Liyong, in realisation, that he was studying for himself and not his father, switched from political science to literature at the university in the 1960s immediately after burying his father because he believed he was a wordsmith and not a person interested in understanding whether democracy meant government for the people by the people.

Chinua Achebe quit medical school where he could have studied real cadavers, to come to interact with the written ‘cadavers’ because the literary calling in him was too powerful to resist. It is said Achebe walked around with a novel all the while and way before he ever joined the university to pursue a course in English and religious studies. It stands to reason that he already knew the nexus between good writing and deliberate reading.

Here is inviting Prof Kabaji to get on board the ‘schools ought to bring out talent’ bandwagon. Kabaji holds Prof Francis Imbuga in high esteem. Imbuga started writing plays in 1969, some basic internet research about him says.

His play ‘Omolo', the internet continues, was chosen as an entry in the Kenya National School's Drama Festival finals of that year. Imbuga got his first degree in 1973! Kabaji's reasoning is prescriptive instead of descriptive of what brings about good writing. The secret of good writing is being married to books, Taban Lo Liyong keeps saying. We deserve better from literary icons, perhaps some ‘State of Literature in Africa' address no less, and from Taban Lo Liyong or Wole Soyinka.

Henry Lisege lives in Eldoret


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