For Great Literatures of the World, the Logic of Love and Marriage is Always Slippery

“If love be so good, then whence cometh my woes?” Many hearts that pound with the beauty of love – both real and imagined – will reflect on their loves and woes with Geoffrey Chaucer. This is especially so in this season of long nights of loving and being loved. For it is the Valentines season, when black and red are the colours of love and the rose flower the symbol.

John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) would see it a little differently. Purple, he would say, is the colour of love, and lilacs the flowers. Remember where in Miller’s epic play Proctor looks out of the window in spring and explodes: “Lilacs have a purple smell. Lilac is the smell of nightfall.” And Proctor goes on to say that the night was made for loving, and purple is the colour of the night, the colour of love. The night of love has a purple smell. Purple or red, the season of love or – more to the point – the season of desiring to be loved is here. Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is regarded in literary studies as the father of English Literature. His collection of stories titled The Canterbury Tales is regarded as the beginning of English writing as we know it today. The stories are believed to have been shared by a group of Christian pilgrims journeying to Canterbury. The narratives are at once cheeky and hilarious. A recurrent feature is Chaucer’s abiding preoccupation with matters of the heart.

Matters of the heart are often attended by aches that defy the mind. Those who seek love and matrimony should thank the stars if they should get both. For, the great literatures of the world – from Chaucer to the present writer – the logic of love and marriage is a slippery one. The two have seldom been hosted in the same chamber. Hence, to some love is given and to others marriage. To most are only given hearts that pine for love, but never really get it. Hence, Chaucer may ask, “If love be so good, whence commeth my woes?”

Separate them

If love is not requited, the heart that loves must accept the pain of rejection. It must accept to be lost in the unfathomable legend of loving without being loved back. As if he was thinking of this Chris Okigbo, easily Africa’s foremost poet, wrote, “Love Apart.” Here he said, “The moon has ascended between us; Between two pines that bow to each other; Love with the moon has ascended, fed on our solitary stems; And we are now shadows; That cling to each other; But kiss the air only.”

Okigbo’s “Love Apart” is a poem of heartache,” such as many a loving heart would pen in the season of love. Why the season of love? Should love not be eternal? Should not the tying of nuptial knots be the crowning glory of love and loving? Chaucer certainly set the pace for English writing and writing in English. He legitimised writing in English at a time when Latin and French were the languages of literature. At the same time, he set a thematic thrust for the romantic work of literature. It pointed towards mutual exclusiveness between love and nuptial knots. Hence his poetry is mainly plaintive, decrying rejection and abandonment. From “A ballad of complaint,” through “A complaint to his lady,” all the way to “A rondel of merciless beauty,” to dozens of rich poetic vintage, it is the story of the searching heart. Where two hearts meet, circumstances must separate them – often permanently. The narrative poem “Troilus and Criseyde” is credited with the origins of the aphorism, “All good things must come to an end.”

A pulsating relationship between two youth comes to a rude end as the maiden, Criseyde, is given away in exchange for a prisoner of war, in the legendary Trojan War. She leaves Troilus waiting and hurting. Way before he is killed on the war front, she accepts another lover, in her place of bondage. Chaucer suggests she is not an unfaithful woman. She is just a noble and faithful woman whose heart must continue loving. Accordingly, she will love that which she has found, in absence of that which she loves. You men, who think your women have betrayed you, please take note. She’s not stopped loving you. You are only absent; yet she must continue loving.

Subsequent writers in English and other languages, too, pick up this theme to great effect. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is at its core a story of obsessive love between the unmannered Heathcliff and the urbane Catherine – where the two love intensely but never get married. Catherine, instead, marries Hindley Earnshaw because it is socially convenient. Thomas Hardy’s Tess (Tess of the D’Urbervilles) eventually marries Angel Clare, the love of her life. But the marriage is never consummated. It breaks down on the first night. She is doomed to exchange intimacies with Alec D’Urberville, whom she has never loved. Hardy has many similar characters – The Return of the Native is rich in love tangos, betrayals and unrequited dreams. The same pains characterize the pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure – among others.

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is an outstanding epic in this regard. You will discover Miss Havisham whose dreams die on the day of her proposed wedding. You will also meet Pip whose undying love for Estella of the heart of ice burns to ashes.

In Russia, Tolstoy has given us Anna Karenina while in France Gustave Flaubert has Madam Bovary. Others are D H Lawrence Women in Love and Sons and Lovers; Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatraand of course, the mother of all of all unrequited romances, Romeo and Juliet.

There are indeed numerous other fine readings besides those selectively mentioned here. Why, love remains only an illusion! Hence there abound many out there who would say with the poet, “She is everything to me; the unrequited dream; A song that no one sings; The unattainable; She is a myth that I have to believe in . . . “ Patricia Williams of Essay Writing Place has advised us that love does not come from outside. Try finding it within yourself. Hold a conversation with yourself. Know who you are. Accept yourself. And make friendships with yourself, despite all of your flaws. When you have loved yourself, you are ready to love others. For you know how good it feels to be loved. Then, just then, you might get some meaningful returns – both in wedlock and without. Maybe. Happy Valentines and try purple, this time!

Is this the final act by Phoenix?

The great poet said that the world is a stage. All the men and women are merely players, with their exits and entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts.

This melancholic soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like aptly captures the life and times of Kenya’s Phoenix Theatre. In Shakespeare’s estimation, the many parts of a man’s life boil down to seven ages. If the seven ages are infancy, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantalone (pant alone) and old age, Phoenix Theatre has gone through it all – and back again. Indeed, the very name Phoenix says it all. After the mythical Greek phoenix, this troupe has had its numerous births, infancies, panting alones, deaths and resurrections. This bird has died to rise and risen to die and rise again some other day. For having died before in 2009, the Nairobi based theatre came back to life again. Yet its short-lived demise in 2009 was not even its first encounter with death. It might be too soon to pronounce this theatre dead. Yet, it is presently either panting alone, or dying again or – maybe – dead. But make no mistake, this is a phoenix, it could still rise again.

Depressing press reports have indicated this week that auctioneers on Wednesday descended on the Phoenix Theatre at the Professional Centre with tongs, anvils and hammers. After the fashion of Shylock the harsh Jew in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, they came to collect their pound of flesh, in rent arrears. They ferreted away theatre costumes and props. They locked up the place. Such is the call of distress. It afflicts the best of us – and especially in the arts. Kenyans will recall the struggles that such iconic artistic edifices as Elimo Njau’s Paa Ya Paa and Gallery Watatu have had to reckon with in the past, in the quest to keep both themselves and the arts alive. In its present predicament, therefore Phoenix is not alone. Nor is this story new to this troupe, as we have said.

The Phoenix story is a long and turbulent one. It goes back to the 1940s, when British soldiers began arriving in the then Kenya Colony after World War II. They came here to take up their rewards for the war effort, through the colonial office. Annabel Maule, in the volume titled Theatre Near The Equator: The Donovan Maule Story, recalls how her father, Major Don Maule, arrived in Mombasa in 1947, aboard SS Ascanius with the singular mind of setting up a repertory theatre on the Equator. And he did not come alone. For with him was his wife, Mollie. The two would become household names in theatre in Kenya, all the way to the early 1980s, in the golden age of the Donovan Maule Theatre. The life and times of the Donovan Maule Theatre inform part of Phoenix’s seven ages. Then, like now, it was not always plain sailing. Plays would be produced and performed to great acclaim. Yet the sheen on the stage and cheer in the theatre was not always matched with sterling accounts in the banks. Preeminently, it was always a matter of dents in the rents.

As early as 1949, The East African Standard lamented, “Here we are with four partially filled picture houses as our evening entertainment. Even when the show is in aid of (something) the Maules have to be content with matinees. Cannot something, even if it is only an ex-army hut on a suitable site, be put at the disposal of those who are prepared to entertain us in person?” The East African Standardwriter was grieved that the artistic revelers then – almost exclusively a European expatriate population – trooped into the movie cinema houses while few watched plays, or even cared about where the dramatic troupes were housed, if they were housed at all.

Fast-forward to 1980 and Donovan Maule Players are perfectly in the sixth phase of their thespian life. They are panting alone, lifting the curtain to their seventh age. Within the self-same stage are seeded the Phoenix Players. The Donvan Maule troupe closed its books of accounts for 1979 with a whopping loss of KSh. 8.7 million, according to Annabel.  By the start of 1981 James Falkland, the administrator, had begun thinking ahead. He was seeing the ashes of the DM Players and the emergence of the Phoenix from the ashes. He began prospecting for shareholders for Phoenix Players Ltd (In Formation). The owners of Donovan Maule – they were called Theatre Arts ’80 – however dug in for the long haul, pledging to inject more funds into the company.

Regardless, Phoenix was going to be born – and with lots of congenital problems carried over from Donovan Maule. Theatregoers of the ’80s will recall press reports of the night of long knives between Phoenix and Theatre ’80. It was one long story of love and hate. They seemed to agree today, only to differ grossly tomorrow. They led Nigel Slade, the lead arts writer at The Standard to write on 23 October 1982, “It needs more than cash to save DM.” At the apogee of friendships, suspicions and a doze of betrayals, James Falkland formally resigned in May 1983. The sun set on Donovan Maule. Phoenix was born.

Donovan Maule closed down after 35 years. Phoenix has shut down after 34. The congenital problems with which Falkland migrated from Donovan simply refused to go away. Yet, to its credit, Phoenix opened up the space to local talent, even if the repertoire has remained hugely exotic. Lupita Nyong’o, Ian Mbugua and Jean Gachui stand out in the talent pool. Others are Loice Abukutsa, Steve Mwenesi and the late Sam Otieno.

The financial sword of Damocles has for sometime now hung precariously above Phoenix. The alarm bells have gone off fairly frequently. Yet, it is a huge tribute to Ian Mbugua that Phoenix has come this far. He has strived, sometimes almost desperately and singularly to keep the repertory character of the theatre alive. He has introduced seasonal tickets, put up many plays and sought a solid board of directors. Yet it has remained difficult to stay afloat.

The one huge lesson from Phoenix is that repertory theatre can be very difficult to sustain. Here, of course, we understand repertory theatre to be a permanent company established in a regular home and performing exclusively in that place. There are all manner of establishment costs and allied challenges. In their heyday, Donvan Maule included the travelling strand in their theatre. They toured the entire country from Mombasa to Nanyuki and Kisumu to Kitale, staging plays to great praise and reasonable benefit.

If they would adopt this model, the Phoenix team could carry on, even under some other guise, and do just as well as they have always done. Indeed, they could even do better, without the regular stresses of establishment costs. The notion was always of course that they wanted to have a regular home within the traditional English repertory model. At the apogee of their financial challenges, in 1979, their precursors attempted all manner of survival tricks, from annual subscriptions to temporary memberships for those who wanted to patronize their bar for drinks and other refreshments. It did not work. Phoenix tried the same model. It has not worked. The lesson is increasingly that the theatre is the troupe and not the building. It is not even the corporate entity that is now in trouble. The artistic dream must overwhelm all these other concerns. When buildings, physical spaces and sundry structures want to leave us, we should allow them to go. For this is the time to say with Ted Kennedy when he bid his brother President Kennedy his final farewell, ” The cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.” The theatre ought to outlive physical edifices and troubled corporate entities.

This article was first published in the Standard on Saturday 22 April 2017.

Chinua Achebe: Killing the Icon?

I discovered Chinua Achebe at the age of thirteen. I was in my sixth grade at Nairobi’s Ofafa Jericho Primary School, in 1970. We had never heard of African writing before. We thought that books were only written by Europeans. We had been fed on Grimm’s Fairy Tales and sundry English folktales.

We had read all about The Brave Little Tailor, Snow White and the Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, The Elves and the Shoemaker and the like. My sisters were in love with a book in two volumes, titled Read Me a Story. They were forever singing about the “Mirror on the Wall” and the “fairest of women,” Snow White.

Beauty was defined as whiteness and whiteness as beauty. African women still wrestle with this absurd conflation. You want to be beautiful? Be white. Years later, I would come across an address that Achebe made at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair’s Indaba in 1986. He described my formative literary menu as “beautifully packaged poison.” But I run ahead of myself.

Our first encounter with African books was heavily West African. The European publishers behind them invariably painted on Nigerian and Ghanaian canvasses. This was both true of the children’s readers and of the English Language course books. Before the advent of Kenya’s Safari Children’s English, we read the alien New Oxford English Course by French and a course titled Learning by Reading. The closest thing to East Africa was Roland Hindmarsh’s Understand and Write. The background was however heavily Ugandan and Tanzanian. So, too, was Oxford English.  And so we read about Mallam Ishaya the blind storyteller, the handlooms of Kano, Hassan and Udo the greatest among thieves, the tiger who wore shoes, and many others. In high school they wrestled with Ogundipe and Tregidgo’s Practical English.

It was within these circumstances that I stumbled into Achebe. It was a passage from Things Fall Apart, in the Learning by Reading course book. The passage was about the feast of the new yam festival. It remarkably introduced us to Ezinma and Ekwefi, her mother, in the Okonkwo household. A few days later, I devoured for the first time the entire volume of Things Fall Apart, from the Macmillan library in Makadara, Nairobi.

Such was Achebe’s prowess. His classic was accessible even to a little boy in Standard Six. I hardly put it down. The African world of letters had come home to stay. And I was not alone. The Heinemann orange covers moved from this pair of hands to the other, often inviting trouble from our teachers who found us reading these books in the middle of other lessons. The virtuosity of Achebe, the founding editor of the African Writers Series (AWS), was simply pulsating. Alan Hill, his publisher, has told the story of how he first got to publish Achebe in 1958 and how the AWS was launched. It was a journey of faith. For, nobody believed that an African could tell a story, let alone write one.

Was Achebe, who died last year, a great writer? This question is frivolous. He was a prodigy, completing Things Fall Apart at age 21. Yet, we must grapple with the doubt. Last week, Prof. Henry Indangasi of the University of Nairobi dismissed Achebe as an inconsequential writer who lost the opportunity to become great. In a cripplingly ad hominem assault calculated to be pruriently iconoclastic, Indangasi painted the portrait of a feverish attention hungry individual. He cast Achebe as finicky eater, and above all an intellectual dwarf:

Why was Achebe feeling bad (about Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize for literature)? It revealed a side of the fabled writer that still makes me cringe. Arrogance, vanity, lack of modesty . . . he read sections of his newly published novel with a somewhat heavily Nigerian accent. He wasn’t a particularly good reader  . . . he was very careful about what he drank or ate  . . . he did not touch alcohol, even as he watched us getting drunk  . . . The Nigerian novelist had the potential to be great: but great he was not.

Indangasi describes Achebe’s visit to Kenya in 1988. I was part of the activities around this visit. I was a young editor, recently retained by Henry Chakava as the English Language Teaching (ELT) Editor at Heinemann. As the ELT person, part of my brief was to develop children’s literature. I launched the series with Achebe’s The Drum, The Flute and How the Leopard Got His Claws. The latter was a combined effort between Achebe and John Iroaganachi. The great raconteur could condescend to co-authorship. Chike and the River would follow two years later, after Achebe personally intervened to stave off an intermeddling European publisher who contested our right to publish. We threw in Anthills of the Savannah Grasslands, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, The Trouble With Nigeria and – of course – Things Fall Apart. We were ready to hit the road.

We travelled across the country with Achebe, Chakava and a few other colleagues. Achebe talked about children’s literature and about the African condition. Anthills was freshly arrived from the kitchen. It was the latest talking point in African literature. Coming as it did 21 years after the prophetic A Man of the People, it invariably informed a significant part of the dialogue.

At the University of Nairobi, I was dismayed to witness a professor of literature who had not read Anthills attempting to discuss it with Achebe, nonetheless. He occasioned Achebe to read excerpts from the book, as a basis for engagement. Such was the academic environment at my erstwhile university at the time, the Launchpad of Indangasi’s diatribe against Achebe. If Indangasi was uneasy with Achebe, he did not say so – until last week, 26 years later.  However, I recall that Indangasi, then Chair of the Literature Department, was extremely panicky. He trembled like a leaf. He could hardly make a coherent address in Taifa Hall, where I sat only a few places from him. The students shouted him down. He cut short his address and invited Chakava to introduce Achebe. Achebe spoke with aplomb, to great acclaim.

Indangasi’s face off with his students, however, has remained. But have I not seen Indangasi try to speak in other forums? I deliberately say, “try to speak.” For, Indangasi seems to be very nervous before audiences.  A slightly diminutive and somewhat diffident individual, he tends to fumble and trundle with words. He can put off the audience. Could his showing in Taifa Hall, 26 years ago, be what caused him to attack a dead man who cannot defend himself?

We visited many institutions with Achebe. He addressed a diversity of themes and topics, contrary to Indangasi’s selective amnesia and deliberate hypermetropia. Two themes recurred. First was the poet and the emperor, second the beautifully packaged poisons. The emperor was the African strongman, the poet the philosopher. Why was the emperor uneasy with the poet? Rather than dialogue with him, the emperor incarcerated him or, alternatively, exiled him. This was a daring subject to address at the apogee of Kanu’s dictatorship. It was the year of the infamous Mulolongo elections in Kenya. University dons languished in detention, or exile. Meanwhile “Scholars for Kanu” were in ascendancy.  Achebe made these scholars-for-hire very restless.

It is not true, as Indangasi alleges, that Achebe made personalized attacks on Ngugi and his pet subject of writing in African languages. Invariably this question came up, from the audience. What did Achebe think about it? His answer was that where one thing stood, another one could stand there with it. It was a very complex issue, he said. He gave the example of Nigeria, where with over 300 tribal languages, English was playing a unifying role of sorts. In any event, our situation and crises were far too urgent for us to argue about the vessels, when we should be arguing about the content. Any idiom that helped us to tell our story justified itself.

Equally important was the issue of the beautiful packages of poison. Achebe said on numerous occasions that it was important for Africans to tell their own story. Foreigners like Joseph Conrad had tried to tell our story. However, they had distorted it with lurid racist images of primitive cannibalistic “beasts.” It is strange that Indangasi admires this racist writer, for whom he even named his son.

But something else, Indangasi had the chance to take on Achebe on Conrad in 1988. He did not. Nor did he pluck the courage to write about this and other things at the time. It would have sparked a good debate, in which Achebe would probably have participated. But Indangasi instead waited for Achebe’s death to assist him in his demolition of this writer’s reputation. Even then he had to wait for a further year after the death – no doubt to be very sure that Achebe was truly dead and would never speak for himself – for him to make his assault.

Does Indangasi write with the pen of a bitter man? Is his pen drunk with the ink of an axe grinder? I am aware that Indangasi would have wanted to become a great writer. To his credit, he has written some illuminating literature study guides for high school. Yet I don’t know of anything significant he has published. Some years back we turned down his manuscript on the escapades of a brazen teenager in Kamusinga and Chavakali villages. It did not make the mark. Is Indangasi unhappy that he did not become an Achebe? Does he seem to have pathological fear and suspicion of Nigerians? Indangasi was shocked that Achebe – nay, a Nigerian – (sic) treated him well. That earlier on, Wole Soyinka had treated him as “a non-person.” I have had the privilege of sitting at table with Wole many times. To say that he is extremely brilliant is to say nothing new. He is possessed of the kind of intellectual acumen that makes people of subordinate endowment cringe with inferiority complex. I don’t doubt that you could feel like a “non person” before him. But Wole is a very warm person, as are virtually all Nigerians I have sat with. Nigerians are by and large very intelligent people. Such people arouse fear and suspicion among intellectual minnows and sundry slow thinkers.

What is wrong with reading a book you have written with “a Nigerian accent” if you are Nigerian? Should Achebe have read his books with a Maragoli accent, like Indangasi’s? We all have our mother tongue influence on our articulation of foreign languages. Should we be accosted because of that? What is wrong with not touching alcohol, even as Indangasi and “the rest got drunk”? Should Achebe have sponged himself with alcohol in order for him to be a great writer?

In Search for Meaning: Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe

I am tempted to paraphrase Count Leo Tolstoy and yet I purpose to discuss him some other day, on account of time and space confines.  The Russian writer, you will recall, says at the start of the tragic eponymous story of Anna Karenina, “All happy families are happy in the same fashion. But each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In like manner, all bad writers are bad in the same way. But every great writer is great after his own fashion. Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, all of whom have been in literary focus in recent times, were great writers, each after his own fashion and reasons.

I discovered Conrad in my ‘A’ Level literature class, in a gone age. Our focus was on the search to understand what sits at the heart of the human soul. We were grappling with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Golding was himself preoccupied with the bestiality that seems to rule the human soul. He was overwhelmed with man’s inhumanity to man.

In a surrealistic moment in which one of his more saintly characters falls into a trance in Lord of the Flies, he tells us that things don’t work because of the darkness of man’s heart. Man seems to be fundamentally prone to evil. On this account, he is totally incapable of good. In the quest to appreciate this focus more expansively, Joseph Conrad came in the picture, alongside other soul-searching writers. Having spent time in Africa and in the high seas in the late 1800s, Conrad had witnessed enough human wretchedness. He concluded that something irredeemably wicked rules the soft centre of the human soul. He explored this theme in The Heart of Darkness and in Lord Jim. He seems to rest his case where he sees Africa as the headquarters of this Gaderene darkness. It is a darkness that often leaves Conrad’s characters in desolation. Like Lord of the Flies, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and such other works as The Nigger of the Narcissus and The Outcast of the Islands are emblematic of the human soul in retrogression. Eventually, we are each a battleground. The forces of good and evil are locked in warfare in this tragic theatre. The wicked will invariably win, for such is human nature. Evil must triumph over good. The human being is incurably in the grip of the Neanderthal instincts that urge him to harm fellow man.

Conrad has been hailed as a master stylist. In the Reader’s Companion to World Literature, the editors said of him, “His greatest skill lies in his capacity to evoke an atmosphere, whether of a typhoon at sea or of the sultry mystery of the jungle. And this he does by a treatment as careful as that of the realists.”

In an interview with Lewis Nkosi of South Africa in 1962, Chinua Achebe was asked whom he admired most among writers. He replied, in the interview published in African Writers Talking, “I don’t really think there is any one (not anyone) I can say I admire all that much. I used to like Hemingway; and I used to like Conrad, I used to like Conrad particularly; and I like [Graham] Green.”

That Achebe liked Green is not in doubt at all. In No Longer at Ease he makes Obi Okonkwo, the principal character, to say of Green’s The Heart of the Matter, “[It] is the only sensible novel any European has written about Africa and one of the best novels I have read.” The theme of black on white is recurrent in Achebe’s reflections. He said on numerous occasions that he went into writing because of what Europeans had written about Africa. “I was quite certain that I was going into writing, and one thing that set me thinking was Joyce Carey’s novel set in Nigeria, Mr. Johnson, which was praised so much and its clear to me that this was a most superficial picture,” he told Nkosi in 1962.

But perhaps it was perhaps Conrad, more than any other writer who miffed Achebe most. Conrad has been hailed as a humanist who was opposed to the excesses of European greed and inhumanity in Africa. European exegetes state that he has been misunderstood and misrepresented. That the darkness he talks about pertains to the white man’s inhumanity to the black man. He is like the benevolent European journalist in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, who discloses to the world the atrocious plunder of the Congo by European self-seekers. Nonetheless, his outrageously racist thrust is unmistakable.  A respected white man who has lived in Africa for a while “goes native.” A European party finds him worse than the natives. His alienation from the western world has driven him to insanity that only Africa could throw someone into. An African tribe has adopted him and made him a chief. He wallows in blood, human sacrifice and horrific rites. He is a cannibal, like his hosts. Heart of Darkness may indeed be partly about Europe’s dark heart’s excesses in Africa. But it certainly is [also], and more profoundly so, about the perceived darkness of Africa; a darkness that can render a good white man into a blood drinking savage. Such is Mr. Kurtz.

Conrad is the great writer who tells stories within stories in slim volumes such as Heart of Darkness. A master of description and casting of canvases. He even defends the black man against Europeans. Yet, it does not escape the discerning mind that his love for Africa is dangerous, like that of Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Blixen loves her cook the same way she loves her dog. When you have understood, you will find that he fights for the African the way animal rights activists fight for dogs’ rights. Is this possibly why Achebe says, “I used to like Conrad? Why “used to”?

In the end, Achebe thinks we should all tell our own story. Nobody can do it for us. But what is our story? In the quest to give meaning to the African condition, Achebe sees dispossession as the genie that we must address. Even the telling of our story by somebody else is in the docket of dispossession – perhaps of the worst order – that you cannot even speak for yourself? Where is your voice? If Achebe is a great writer, would it suffice that he finds and gives us a voice? It is no doubt nightmarish if you should find that you have your own story to tell, but your voice is stuck in the chest. Anyone who enables you to find your voice is great – even by just that alone. Yet Achebe has done more than find our voice. He tells our story with the richness of the African idiom. He is the great artist who reminds us in Things Fall Apart, “ … the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Yet in Home and Exile he says, “In the war between dispossession and its nemesis civilization itself regresses into barbarism; words become weapons again rather than tools; ploughshares are beaten back into spears. Fear and suspicion take over from openness and straight conversation.”

Such is the troubled relationship that has informed the intercourse between Africa and Europe. In this day and age when Africa seems to be consciously running away from the lands of the setting sun to the lands of the rising sun, the questions of quality of partnership between Africa and the outside world may need to come back into literary debates and scholarly debates generally. Eventually it is a search for meaning. What meaning do we construct from these relationships? Achebe was fond of reminding us of British colonial governor who once said in Rhodesia that the only partnership possible between Europe and Africa was partnership of the horse and its rider. The African would be the horse and the European the rider.

But what has the relationship between Africa and Europe been in the pages of world history? Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s White on Black: Images of Blacks in Western Popular Culture is certainly one of the most comprehensive efforts to explore the changing fortunes of this relationship. The earliest representations of Africa from about 2500 BC trace us back to ancient Egypt. They paint a portrait of integration and intermarriage between Africa and Europe. Black beauty is celebrated. Black is positively valued as the colour of Egyptian culture and of fertility. After 2200 BC, Blacks decline from a mysterious loved people, to a liked warrior people. They were then at war with the Nubian kingdoms in the south – Kush and Meroe. Subsequently, the identity of both Egypt and Blacks is distorted. They no longer seem to belong together – Egypt and blackness. When Egypt conquers Kush, Blacks are depicted as defeated enemies. There is reversal again to a positive image when Kush conquers Egypt (800 – 300 BC). Blacks become pharaohs. But elsewhere in Libya, at this time, the great historian Herodotus sees blacks as wild beasts.

The story of the conquest of the African civilization of Carthage and its integration into Europe is a tale for another day. The Christian era, however, reintroduces black as the colour of sin and darkness. Origen of Alexandria introduced the allegory of spiritual light against Egyptian darkness. Finally, there is the interesting story of Europe under Islamic siege in the late Medieval Age and the search for the liberating legendary Prester John, who was believed to live somewhere in Ethiopia, and Europe’s tenderness towards Africa.

The search for meaning in this complex web of race relationships where matrices of value take on metaphors of light, darkness, whiteness and   people’s skins and souls is not about to go away. Writers who attempt to find meaning in this labyrinth are great each in his or her own way and in their own space. Tolstoy, whom we paraphrase at the start of this piece, discovers a completely different kind of meaning of life and greatness from the thoughts of Jean Jacques Rousseau and in his own brand of Christianity, which he even tries to impose upon those around him. Time and space allowing, we will possibly address this – someday.

Survivors of The Bullet

Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls them Matigari. He says that they were remnants, or survivors. They survived the British colonial bullets that cut down many a fighter in the Mau Mau rebellion (1948 – 1960). In the novel first published in in 1986 in Gikuyu as Matigari Ma Njirungi (The Survivors of the Bullets), Wa Thiong’o is at pains to paint the portrait of a stolen independence and stolen dreams.

There are those who fought for Independence and those who gained from the coming of Independence. They were not necessarily one and the same. In point of fact, Wa Thiong’o is unequivocal. A self-serving class of overlords stole Independence from the people. Those who fought against Independence had the last laugh while those who fought for freedom languished. This is a recurrent theme in Wa Thiongo’s writings. We see it in the tragic return of the carpenter Gikonyo in A Grain of Wheat. Gikonyo returns from detention to discover that his former boyhood friend, Karanja, has not only become the village chief. Karanja has also sired a child with Mumbi, Gikonyo’s wife. If you thought Karanja would be remorseful, he is in fact spiteful. He warns the returnee, “There are laws here. If you joke, we shall send you back to prison.” We find this theme in Devil on the Cross, in I Will Marry When I Want, in Petals of Blood and in virtually everything Wa Thiong’o has written.

Such was the plight of the man who fought for land rights in Central Kenya. He was served a cold dish at Independence. On account of this, he has journeyed through history as someone to be kept on a short leash. But when it is necessary, he can also be unleashed as cannon fodder for the same forces that have kept him in chains. Such is what students of history would make of the anxiety in Kenya’s political elite over the rise of Limuru II and the imminent birth of Mukenya Solidarity Party. The victim of oppression is made to see and interpret the world through the eyes of the oppressor.

Voices such as those behind Limuru II and Mukenya evoke memories that dominant classes wish to suppress, especially in Central Kenya. For they are voices fully loaded with harsh realities of historical injustices that will just not go away. Beyond that, they debunk the myth that has often been peddled that everyone in Central Kenya is rich. Next to this is the myth that everyone in Central Kenya is the beneficiary of free things, just because half of our Independence period so far has been under the watch of two presidents from this region.

Far from it, however, is that the ruling elite has always been nervous about what Daniel Branch calls “the Kikuyu have-nots.” This is regardless that the President is from the region. Writing in the volume Kenya, Between Hope and Despair, 1963 – 2011, Branch says, “President Kenyatta was particularly concerned over the question of ‘the Kikuyu have-nots.’ These were mainly people from Mau Mau who had no land  . . . They were the ghosts at the banquet of postcolonial Kenya.”

Intractable land questions have troubled Central Kenya from the turn of the nineteenth century, beginning with the arrival of Charles Eliot as the British Counsul in 1903. Over the next 36 years, the people were effectively separated from their land. Efforts by such early land rights’ crusaders as Harry Thuku, James Beauttah, Joseph Kang’ethe and Jesse Kariuki came to naught. Kenyatta’s own land rights mission to the UK in 1929 did not realize much, apart from a few British radicals fussing around him in London.

Fast forward to 1948 and it was time to take up arms to fight for the return of the stolen lands. Tragically, not everybody joined the struggle. This is where the home guards come in. Were the home guards collaborators or did they just manipulate a bad environment for their own survival? The jury remains out on this one. Be that as it may, their position made the Mau Mau rebellion to be at once an effort to dislodge the settlers from the stolen lands and a Kikuyu civil war. In the end, the British and the home guards won. The Mau Mau were for all practical purposes vanquished and the war over by 1960.

It is instructive that it was in the same 1960 that the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made his famous “wind of change in Africa” address in South Africa. It was a tempestuous wind, the unstoppable wind of independence. Whatever the arguments about the timing of independence may be, one thing cannot be debated. Kenya’s Independence fell not into the hands of the freedom of land fighters, but in the hands of the home guard community.

This was an avaricious community of self-serving mythmakers. The rise of Mukenya and Limuru II suggests that the chickens are coming home to roost. Branch has recorded of 1964 – 1970, “While the last recalcitrant groups of Mau Mau guerillas remained in the forests of Mount Kenya, fears of revival of the insurgency were particularly acute. Even after all those insurgents were eventually cajoled into leaving the forests or tracked down and shot by (independent Kenya’s) security forces, the security threat posed by the Mau Mau was not deemed to have disappeared.”

The Kenyatta government lived in mortal fear that the Gikuyu Matigari would return to the forest and take up arms against it. This was because Jomo converted to the benefit of the home guard community all the funds that had been negotiated with the British to settle the landless on a million acres in the former White Highlands.

These fears live on. The ghosts at the banquet of independent Kenya will not go away. From Arthur Hardinge who proclaimed the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895 to Mwai Kibaki who proclaimed the Constitution of Kenya of 2010, the abiding fears and concerns in the ruling class remain the same. Can these concerns go away without historical injustices that span more than a hundred years being addressed and corrected?

Single Story

Prof. Edward Kisiangani calls it the prime narrative. Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie calls it the single story. And social science scholars Daniel Lerner and Everett Rogers called it the dominant paradigm. It all boils down to one thing – intolerance. It is the intemperate belief that there can only be one way of looking at things. There is only one truth and it is a gospel truth. The higher the source of the single story, the more binding it must be to all who hear it.

The single story is always a fanatical narrative. That was why Lerner and Everett called it the dominant paradigm. It seeks to repress all other perspectives while demonizing freedom of thought and conscience. Independence of mind descends to thought-crime. George Orwell wrote about the acme of the rule of the dominant narrative in the volume Nineteen-Eighty-Four. In the end, you have a massive sleepwalking population that worships Big Brother, the master of the single story.

Orwell tells us of a downtrodden community of Big Brother’s worshippers. They were “swallowers of slogans, amateur spies and nosers-outers for unorthodoxy.” They are the big man’s civilian army. In Orwell’s world, they will hand you over to the authorities to be vaporized. In our times, they will run you out of town with invective. The master narrative allows no debate, no conscience. In the place of these there is only insolence and diatribe. It is all meant to stifle the birth of a new free world.

The culture of the prime narrative defines the political reality in Kenya today. As is the case in every dystopia ruled by single narratives, there is an unhealthy political duality. Each duality demonizes the other. Hence, in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Big Brother, his party and thought police focus the public’s attention on Immanuel Goldstein, their nemesis.

We are told of Goldstein, “He was an object of hatred . . . He was the commander of a vast shadowy army, an underground network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State. The Brotherhood, its name was supposed to be. There were also whispered stories of a terrible book, a compendium of all the heresies, of which Goldstein was the author . . .” In short, the outsiders are the devil’s own people.

Are we coming to this pass in Kenya? Can we only see things in the unhealthy duality of the Jubilee Alliance and the Forum for Reform and Democracy (Cord)? And is either of them at once paradise and the devil’s kingdom, depending on where you look at it from? If you see it from inside it is paradise. If you are on the outside it is the devil’s kingdom.

I don’t where Ababu Namwamba is headed, after his fallout with Raila Odinga, whom he at one time glorified. Kenyans will recall the day in February 2008, when Ababu attempted to digress from the usual parliamentary oath of office. He tried to pledge his loyalty to “my President Raila Amolo Odinga,” to the dismay of many. Now that political amity is on the rocks. Ababu says that he is being sabotaged in ODM. For their part, ODM chiefs say Ababu has abdicated his responsibility as the Orange party’s Secretary General.

There has been no useful debate after the press conference that Ababu and several other MPs from his ethnic community held to catalogue their grievances. Perhaps these would have been matters best sorted out within party forums. But they say party organs had long ceased to function. Only they and their nemeses know the truth, one way or the other.

Whatever the case, what should have given ground for debate on how political parties are managed in Kenya has turned into a mutual hate campaign.  Ababu and his team are accused of having “been bought by Jubilee.” In other words, there are only two spaces in Kenya – the Jubilee space and the Cord space. Are we being told that if you leave Cord then you must of necessity exit into Jubilee?

The same intolerance is also in Jubilee, of course. The slightest shade of different opinion from the common narrative will lead you to be demonized. Today their focus is on dissolution of Jubilee member parties and creation of a monolith. Those who question this are demonized. They are considered Cord moles and enemies of the alliance.

The country is sitting in a dangerous place if the only possible response to dissenting opinion is demonization and insolence. The advent of social media has taken this to a new high. Social media is itself a good thing. Like Chairman Mao use to say, “Let a million flowers blossom.”

Citizen journalism on these platforms can be very useful in reigning in rogue leadership. Yet most of the time there is no reasoned argument. People are unhappy with what you say purely out of emotions – mostly ethnic based emotions.  They don’t, therefore, pause to reflect on the merits of what has been said. They resort to intolerant insults and cheap propaganda.

Going forward, Kenyans may need to encourage each other to face issues without the raw anger that comes out of dominant single stories. Free debate and divergence of opinion must be encouraged. This cannot, however, be the same as insolence and character assassination. I have often found myself being enlisted in social media groups whose members excel in trading mutual intolerance, anger and insults. Needless to say, I don’t last beyond a few days in any of these forums.

More fundamentally, this country could be gravitating towards the ultimate Armageddon. We are fast losing the capacity to listen to each other and to agree to disagree. We are incubating disastrous intolerance, with political podiums and social media platforms as the breeding and testing grounds. We might just see all this coming to full maturity at the next general poll.

The need for preemptive tolerance and peace dialogues that support healthy political plurality cannot be overemphasized. Meanwhile anyone posting hostile and abusive messages on any of my personal social media platforms – for or against – will be permanently blocked. Debate must be sober and dignified.

Guest Piece

We were only at the end of our second week as freshmen at the University of Nairobi in October 1979 when they sent us home. The previous week had been spent on registration amidst the excitement of orientation activities. We had immensely enjoyed listening to Prof. Joseph Donders who walked us through the motions of a rewarding life at the university. The Christian Union organized a weeklong of coffee activities called ‘Nyam nyams.’ Freedom was in the air.

Donders taught us how to read a six hundred-page book in one hour and how to enjoy the nightspots of Nairobi. He told us about such hideouts as Sabina Joy Day and Night Club, Hallians, Club 1900, Grosvenor, Starlight, Inn on the Park, The Garden Square, The Pub, Eclipse, Fransae, Hole in the Wall, Imani Day and Night Club and other places.

It was imperative, he said, that every university student visits these places, at least once in his or her lifetime at the university. This was not however to say that you should partake of the things that went on there. Together with my roommate and a couple of other varsity lads, we visited half of these places within ten days. We were overwhelmed by the sale and stench of love at Imani. Yes, it was a place to be visited only once, and a shocking eye opener to the seamy side of the city.

But this Saturday was the big day we had been keenly waiting for. We would enjoy our first Kamkunji at the university and march gallantly through city streets. The Second Years and the rest had thronged back at the start of the week. A notice had swiftly gone up on virtually all open notice boards that there would be a Kamkunji at the quadrangle in the Box. This was the place where a majority of the women lived, with a few in Hall Twelve. Mary’s Hall would come later.
The choice of location was because the female students were beginning to get tired of the Kamkunji’s and were staying away. The saying goes that if the mountain will not come to Mohamed, Mohamed will go to the mountain. If the Boxers would not come to the Kamukunjis, the student leaders would take the Kamkunji to the Boxers. On the agenda were two items. First, the Kanu Government had determined that Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and all former Kenya African Union (KPU) Party members would not be allowed to run in the general election slated for December. Second was the question of academic freedom.

Thrown in the elections mix was George Anyona, at this time a former detainee, alongside other members of Kenya’s fiery and dignified Third Parliament like Martin Shikuku and Jean Marie Seroney. While Shikuku and Seroney, who had accused Kanu of being dead, were cleared for the elections Anyona was thought to be far too hot to be allowed a new lease of political life. And so the headline on the front page of a leading daily paper read, “Anyona and ex-KPU barred.” We said NO.

Rumba Kinuthia, Gerald Otieno Kajwang’, Mukhisa Kituyi and a couple of others led us into the streets to announce our protest. We agitated for democracy and for academic freedom. The Jomo Kenyatta Government had detained Ngugi wa Thiong’o two years earlier. Although the new President, Daniel arap Moi, had released him alongside all other detainees on Jamhuri Day in 1978, Ngugi was not allowed to take back his job at the university. He had gone in for organizing community theatre in his native Kamirithu Village in Limuru.

The government was concerned that Ngugi was opening up the eyes of ordinary folk in the countryside to the true anatomy of the origins of their misery. Some said he had been jailed for writing Petals of Blood and Ngahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I want). Whatever the case, he was now a free man. Yet he was not allowed back to teach. We wanted him back.

The government closed the university the following day. They said that we should go back home to participate in the elections – which were still two months away – and to enjoy an early Christmas. They even gave us money, saying it was a refund of our capitation fees for what remained of the term. Never mind that we did not pay fees and that the government gave us an allowance that we called ‘boom,’ after the illicit coffee boom of the 1970s.

We went home. We enjoyed the boom, the politics and the early Christmas. Some of us thronged to Mathare Constituency. We registered and voted for Dr. Munyua Waiyaki, a darling of the university student community. We loved his charisma and courage. Had he not told off the redoubtable Attorney General Charles Njonjo over the thought of Kenya establishing diplomatic ties with apartheid South Africa?

The protest of October 1979 marked the beginning of unending confrontation that would see us lose a cumulative full academic year. Numerous issues in the country and beyond called for our voice and action. Each time we acted, the government reacted.  The only solution in their bag was to close the university. And so we went home over the assassination of Prof. Walter Rodney in Georgetown Guyana. We paid for commemorating the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960 in South Africa and for remembering the murder of Steve Biko and of our own J. M. Kariuki. We were punished for calling for peace in Angola and Mozambique and for the independence of Southwest Africa, now Namibia.

On other occasions, we were sent away for marking the fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran, the excesses of the Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the introduction of the one party regime in Kenya and detention of our teachers. They came for Willy Mutunga, Shadrack Gutto, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Micere Mugo, Kimani Gecau, Katama Mukangi and many others. In the end, they sent us away for between eight months and one year, because of the dark day that was 1 August 1982.

Regardless, in an age when Nyayo harassed everyone into submission, the University of Nairobi – the only university in Kenya at the time – became the conscience of the nation. Many a young man lost the opportunity to complete their studies for hailing human rights and freedoms. Odindo Opiata, George Rubik, Carnell Onyango, Onyango Paddy, Anyona Kanundu, David Murathe, Rumba Kinuthia, Saulo Busolo, Mukhisa Kituyi, Titus Adung’osi, Aoko Midiwo and a gentleman I now only remember as ‘Mr. Efficacity’ rank among the finest in my time. And there were other silent ones. They churned out liberation leaflets and other literatures.

These youth walked in the shoes of such other greats before them as Wafula Siakama, James Orengo, Chelagat Mutai and Awori wa Kataka. As we left the University of Nairobi, the conscience of the nation remained in the safe hands of Mwandawiro Mghanga and PLO Lumumba, newly arrived.

A generation later, I read in the daily press of university youth who protest about food. They set property on fire. They burn buses, laboratories and libraries because of food and student elections. I cannot understand. What went wrong? Is this university material? Really? Even the intermediate generation of Kabando wa Kabando, Wafula Buke and Kent Libiso never did this kind of thing. I catch myself marveling at the tumble of the academic community to common scavengers for food and wooly materialism. Whence cometh our redemption?