An afternoon with Ngugi and the questions I wanted to ask
What you need to know:
- Like a good teacher, he insisted that we all sit around his table.
- He then turned to each person, asking about our writing, school or day jobs.
- All of us were a little shy for we had expected a brief, casual hello followed by a few camera clicks, then goodbye.
It is said that every person is three people removed from any person they want to meet. This means that you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows the person you want to meet.
In my case, the person I knew was writer Kinyanjui Kombani. Having secured a lunch meeting with Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o, he mentioned to a group of young writers gathered at the Goethe Institut that it was possible for them to go say hello to Professor Ngugi.
He sat at a table, Ngugi did, his back turned to the sun. His face bore the smile that had become so familiar. We approached cautiously, dragging our feet, unsure of what to say to a man who had been writing for over half a century when we were just beginning.
Like a good teacher, he insisted that we all sit around his table. He then turned to each person, asking about our writing, school or day jobs. All of us were a little shy for we had expected a brief, casual hello followed by a few camera clicks, then goodbye. Instead, a very calm Ngugi, who was evidently happy to delay his lunch, shared numerous anecdotes about his days at Makerere University and how he presented his first manuscript to Achebe.
We stood there, all of us magically spellbound and very curiously listening to the first East African writer to be published in English tell us his life journey.
It was a vague remembrance of old Shakespearean wisdom about a tide in the affairs of men which must be taken at the flood that made me shoot the first the three questions I had always wanted to ask Ngugi.
I met Ngugi for the first time when I was 11, between the dusty pages of old copies of the short story Secret Lives and the play "The Trials of Dedan Kimathi". I remember leafing through the short stories over and over, savouring the tales and magic. I wondered about rain makers and scary black birds that caused bad luck as I lay in my bed. Sometimes, inspired by these stories of places and people, I’d wildly imagine my own versions of the tales.
I grew up some, then met Ngugi yet again, through other people’s essays and opinions. Through interviews for Conversations with African Writers by Lewis Nkosi and Robert Serumaga. I also read Ngugi’s own essays about literature and politics. I also remember listening to Dad draw up a larger than life picture of the fearless writers and academics who wrote plays and got arrested for it.
Ngugi’s leftist activism and heroic deeds and those of other alternative voices like Prof Edward Okong’o Oyugi, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, George Nthenge and Maina wa Kinyatti filled my mind. Unknown to Dad, I used to mix up these tales, the almost mythical fictional tales with the non-fiction realities.
We sat at the table and listened to Ngugi talk of how, in his first year at Makerere, he had stopped Jonathan Kariara — a writer he admired immensely — in the corridors and asked Kariara to read a story (which interestingly, he even hadn’t written yet!). Later on, after receiving encouraging feedback from Kariara on the story Mugumo, Ngugi learnt that a writer can learn from everybody.
He sat there, speaking softly and thinking hard before sharing anecdotes and I stared, an interested observer trying to reconcile the person who sat before me with the myth of the man I had always had in my head.
I asked about the Makerere conference of 1962 and whether he thought it was the turning point for African literature and Ngugi admitted that indeed, it was important because of the confluence of historical factors and because it was the first writers’ conference held on the continent. He also agreed that the conference converged all writes on the continent who were writing in English at a very important transition period between colonialism and independence.
Admittedly, I have never really felt like I can relate to Ngugi’s main struggle, that of writing in African languages. I am of the Achebe school of thought; that English can be morphed and shaped to become my own language. And yet, as I sat in the February sun and listened to Ngugi talk about the turning point for writing in Kikuyu, I knew that indeed, the language warrior had conviction, something which in my opinion, every writer ought to have about their struggle.
According to the anecdote he shared with us, in 1966 as a student in Leeds University, he was invited as a guest of honour representing Africa at the international PEN conference in America that had writers from across the world. In that year, the theme was ‘The Writer as an Independent Spirit’.
It was the writer Ingatious Sloane who, at a panel presided over by Arthur Miller, said something about Italian literature not being translated into English as much as it should ‘and yet Italian wasn’t like one of these Bantu languages with one or two words in their vocabulary. That irked Ngugi so much so that he stood up to respond and to fight for the honour of the continent.
Later, on returning to Leeds and realising the irony of writing in English when he had just been defending his Bantu language, thoughts of writing in his mother tongue started filling his mind.
We left the meeting place a couple of hours later. I knew in my heart that the good old Professor would always be more of a myth and legend to me. Disconcertingly, I was unable to ask him how he reconciles his exile years with the present political scene in Kenya. I was unable, too, to have a deeper conversation on language and tell him exactly why I feel like I can’t relate to that struggle at all.
And yet, having met the man, having seen his patience and willingness to teach and learn from a group of young writer, I definitely knew that the link must always be made, that the bridge between old and young writers shouldn’t be too far apart, for we need to understand their struggles and motivations and passions even as we try to find out our own.
Gloria Mwaniga is a writer represented by Storm Literary Agency.