Why Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wanted abolishment of English department at Nairobi university

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By Idowu Omoyele

WHILE a professor at the University of Nairobi, Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was the catalyst of the discussion to abolish the English department.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wanted the English department to be replaced by a department of African literature and languages.

He argued that after the end of colonialism, it was imperative that a university in Africa teach African literature, including oral literature, and that such should be done in the richness of African languages.

Ngũgĩ , a long-time advocate for the use of local languages, was also imprisoned in 1977 for writing a play where local actors performed in Gikuyu. The simple act of speaking or writing in your mother tongue was a revolutionary gesture.

Ngũgĩ now writes primarily in Gikuyu though he formerly wrote in English. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri.

We revisit the issue. Read on…

James Ngugi’s internal memo

FIFTY years ago, during the so-called Nairobi revolution of the late 1960s, a move was made to transform the disciplines and curriculums in a post-independence African university.

An internal memo, dated October 24 1968, was sent by a lecturer and two research fellows — Kenyans James Ngugi (later Ngugi wa Thiong’o) and Henry Owuor Anyumba and Sudanese-born Ugandan Taban Lo Liyong — of the Nairobi college of what was then the University of East Africa to the dean of the faculty of arts in which they called for the abolition of the department of English.

They wanted the English department to be replaced by a department of African literature and languages.

The memo was subsequently published as an appendix to Ngugi’s first collection of essays, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (1972).

All three were English graduates. Anyumba and Lo Liyong were fellows researching oral literature in the cultural division of the Institute of Development Studies and Ngugi, ironically, was a lecturer (and the only African one) in the English department they were seeking to abolish.

Ngugi, a pioneer East African writer in English

Ngugi had become a pioneer of East African literature in English. In November 1962, his first play, The Black Hermit, was produced by Makerere College’s travelling theatre at the National Theatre in Kampala to celebrate Uganda’s independence; in 1963, it became the first play by an East African writer to be published in English.

Similarly, his first published novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), is the first by an East African writer in English. By 1968, he had already published another two novels: The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967).

“The primary duty of any literature department,” they wrote, “is to illuminate the spirit animating a people, to show how it meets new challenges, and to investigate possible areas of development and involvement.

“In suggesting this name [department of African literature and languages], we are not rejecting other cultural streams, especially the Western stream. We are only clearly mapping out the directions and perspectives the study of culture and literature will inevitably take in an African university.”

The memo was a response to a paper that James Stewart, the acting head of the department of English at Nairobi, had presented to the faculty of arts board on September 20 1968. It contemplated the distant prospect of a department of African literature (or African literature and culture) and proposed the setting up of a department of linguistics and languages in a close relationship with the department of English.

His paper also addressed issues pertaining to other disciplines and departments, such as African languages and Swahili in particular; modern languages and French in particular; and English, and especially the place and purpose of each within the faculty of arts.

Referring specifically to the department of English, Stewart made the following provocative point: “The English department has had a long history at this college and has built up a strong syllabus which by its study of the historic continuity of a single culture throughout the period of emergence of the modern West, makes it an important companion to history and to philosophy and religious studies.

“However, it is bound to become less ‘British’, more open to other writing in English (American, Caribbean, African, Commonwealth) and also to continental writing, for comparative purposes.”

Africa not an extension of the West

Ngugi, Anyumba and Lo Liyong responded: “Underlying the suggestions is a basic assumption that the English tradition and the emergence of the modern West is the central root of our consciousness and cultural heritage.

“Africa becomes an extension of the West, an attitude which, until a radical reassessment, used to dictate the teaching and organisation of history in our university.

“Hence, in fact, the assumed centrality of the English department, into which other cultures can be admitted from time to time, as fit subjects for study, or from which other satellite departments can spring as time and money allow.

“Here then, is our main question: If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?

“Just because for reasons of political expediency we have kept English as our official language, there is no need to substitute a study of English culture for our own. We reject the primacy of English literature and culture.”

The point at issue is not so much that Ngugi and his collaborators wanted to replace one essentialism (Eurocentrism) with another (Afrocentrism) — although that is problematic in itself — as that they were wanting to do so without considering overhauling or even challenging the infrastructural and institutional foundations of a postcolonial African university, which were, and still are, Western.

As Simon Gikandi, the distinguished Kenyan literary scholar and professor of English at Princeton, noted in the preface to his magisterial work Maps of Englishness (1996), “those who advocated the abolition of the English department at the University of Nairobi wanted to reject the primacy of English literature and culture but not the epistemology of literary studies inherited from colonialism”.

Expanding on this theme, Gikandi’s protégé, Apollo Obonyo Amoko, in his Postcolonialism in the Wake of the Nairobi Revolution: Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Idea of African Literature (2010), charged the Nairobi troika with “reproducing the conceptual architecture of Stewart’s paper even as they contest his specific conclusions”, adding that, “far from being a straightforward postcolonial refutation”, their “arguments are a mirror image of Stewart’s with the notable exception of a plaintive and defensive discourse on Afrocentrism”.

Nevertheless, the Nairobi troika largely got their way. Two departments, of languages and of literature, were created, both emphasising African languages and literature, with African-American and Caribbean literature becoming an important part of the curriculum in the literature department.

Another significant part of the curriculum in that department, besides written literature from Africa and elsewhere, was oral literature, which had long been a great interest of Anyumba’s.

And yet, as Ngugi wrote in Decolonising the Mind (1986): “The actual syllabus resulting from the 1968-9 debate was necessarily a compromise. For instance, East African poetry was to be taught in its European context. It was not until 1973, when the majority of the staff in the department were Africans, that the syllabus was streamlined to reflect the new perspectives without a qualifying apologia.”

Similar campaigns for curricular reform were spearheaded in the other constituent colleges of the University of East Africa by the Ugandan linguist Pio Zirimu in the department of English at Makerere University College in Kampala and the Kenyan critic Grant Kamenju in Dar es Salaam.

Zirimu coined the word “orature”, describing it as “the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression”. He rejected the use of “oral literature”, which implied an apparent inferiority to writing or written literature.

Ngugi, Zirimu and Kamenju studied at the University of Leeds in Britain after graduating from Makerere’s department of English.

Ngugi joined the department of English at Nairobi after leaving Britain in 1967 and the following year the three would write On the Abolition of the English Department, the momentous memo that would predate and anticipate postcolonial theory. The publication of the foundational disciplinary text on postcolonial theory, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), was still a decade away.

When revisiting particular moments or milestones, it is important to understand their provenance, especially in times when truth or factual accuracy is supplanted or threatened by facile and fallacious revisionism, making the need to recover history and historical chronology all the more urgent.

The introduction to Decolonising the University (2018), a new collection of essays edited by Gurminder K Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nisancioglu, begins thus: “The call to decolonise universities across the global North has gained particular traction in recent years, from Rhodes Must Fall Oxford’s (RMFO’s) campaign for a public reckoning with its colonial legacies to recent attempts by Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to atone for its past ties with slavery.”

In truth, the demand for decolonisation and transformation of universities, challenging the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, began in the Global South. This was well before the “culture wars” that raged between the forces of conservatism and liberalism in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, and supposedly sparked the crises involving disciplinary knowledge production and canon formation in academia.

The #RhodesMustFall movement, which started at the University of Cape Town on March 9 2015, succeeded, on April 9, in its demand to have the statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from the entrance to the university’s Upper Campus. The Global North took its cue from the Global South.

Any serious attempt to record the history and place into context the crises and politics of disciplines and canons as they relate to the institutionalisation of literary studies in the Global South must acknowledge an older, formative period of curricular reform, such as the internal memo that initiated the Nairobi revolution.

Ngũgĩ: Long list of honorary degrees

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. He was educated at Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools; Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain.

Ngũgĩ has continued to write prolifically, publishing, in 2006, what some have described as his crowning achievement, Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. Ngũgĩ’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages and they continue to be the subject of books, critical monographs, and dissertations.

Paralleling his academic and literary life has been his role in the production of literature, providing, as an editor, a platform for other people’s voices. He has edited the following literary journals: Penpoint (1963-64); Zuka (1965 -1970); Ghala (guest editor for one issue, 1964?); and Mutiiri (1992-).

He has also continued to speak around the world at numerous universities and as a distinguished speaker. These appearances include: the 1984 Robb Lectures at Auckland University in New Zealand; the1996 Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University; the 1999 Ashby Lecture at Cambridge; and the 2006 MacMillan Stewart Lectures at Harvard. He is recipient of many honors, including the 2001 Nonino International Prize for Literature and eleven honorary doctorates.

  • Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Albright College
  • Honorary PhD, Roskilde, Denmark
  • Doctor of Letters honoris causa, University of Leeds, 2004
  • Honorary Doctor of Literature and Philosophy, Walter Sisulu University, 2004
  • Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, CSU Dominguez Hills, 2005
  • Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Dillard University, 2005
  • Honorary Doctor of Literature, University of Auckland, 2005
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters, New York University, 2008
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Dar es Saalam, 2013
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Bayreuth, 2014
  • Honorary Doctor of Letters, Yale University, 2017
  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is also an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2003 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2014.

Idowu Omoyele studied humanities at the University of Cape Town. Additional reporting by ScholarlyAfrica.


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