Ngugi’s new book launched in Nairobi

Kenya’s most celebrated author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was in town and there is no way I was going to miss the occasion of launching his newest book, Re-membering Africa. This was yet another opportunity for me to interact with the cream of Kenya’s literary society – who in their right mind would dare miss an event graced by Ngugi?
I am walking to the Alliance Francaise, where the launch is taking place, when Billy Kahora, the Kwani? editor calls me from South Africa. There are some details I wanted clarified on the second edition of Kwani? 5, I am reviewing for the Sunday Nation.
I have particularly strong views on a certain Kwani? writer, which I am including in the review. “I have no problem with what you have to say as long as it is constructive criticism,” Kahora says from the other end of the phone. Hmm…
I am a bit late for the event, as usual, and Henry Chakava, the chairman of East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), Ngugi’s local publishers, is almost halfway into his speech.
My feelings of guilt are banished by the reception I get from Lydia, who is looking particularly hot tonight. Lydia, for those who do not know, is the receptionist at EAEP’s Westlands offices.
As he finishes his speech, Chakava addresses the issue of language in the book being launched. Remember Ngugi had sworn to only write in his Gikuyu language? Is Ngugi backtracking on his vow? “Sometimes it makes sense to tell them (Mzungu) in their own language,” says Chakava as he welcomes Ngugi.
As usual Ngugi welcomes members of his family present. Of particular interest is a young man, in his early twenties, who someone whispers to me, is a product of Ngugi and a Mzungu woman in Sweden. Apparently, the young man must have been conceived in the early years of Ngugi’s exile.
Ngugi then makes a revelation that he is working on his memoirs. The first installment is titled Dreams in a Time of War, which basically talks about his early childhood. Already five publishers around the world have already bought publishing rights of the book! I told you Ngugi was big.
Publishers in the region must envy EAEP. They are automatically assured of rights for Ngugi’s works.
And to appreciate how this relationship came about Ngugi tells of how far he has come with Chakava. At some point Chakava almost had his finger severed for continuing to publish Ngugi at the time when the powers that be wanted nothing to do with him. He is also the man who had to bear with Ngugi’s experimentation in writing in Gikuyu, in spite of repeated warnings from his superiors – then Heineman Educational Publishers in the UK.
Unconfirmed reports say that Ngugi is a major shareholder at EAEP.
Re-membering Africa, is apart of a series of lectures Ngugi gave in 2002, staring with Harvard. In the book he has addressed issues of language. Well aware that his thoughts might spark off heated debates Ngugi said that when people read the book, they will agree, disagree or add onto his ideas. “Most of all, I just wanted to provoke a debate,” he said.
On the issue of language, he said that there is nothing wrong for Africans to learn foreign languages. “However, there is something fundamentally wrong when one identifies with other people’s languages and despises his own language,” he said heatedly, calling that a form of slavery.
He added that to add foreign languages to your own language is to empower oneself. Mnaskia hiyo maneno?
Check this space for a review of this book.
The book was first published early this year by Basic Civitas Books under the title Something Torn and new: An African Renaissance.

  1. inddeed Ngugi is so right. The dying “death” of local languages is a very worrying trend. It is the beginning of complete colonialization- economic, social and cultural.
    We cannot let this to happen. We owe it to ourselves and the future generations to change this trend. and we will.

  2. Ngunjiri…..looking forward to that Kwani? review…I know I will not be disappointed…..
    Na hio memoir ikamu speedy…

  3. ehhehee….. ati Ngugi ni Shareholder EAEP? nice one.

    It was a great evening but my legs were killing me from all the standing – cocktails should be banned in Kenya.

  4. Quite an observation. I like that observation about Lydia because I noticed it too. Did I see Tony Mochama in the event?

  5. @Jolanda; that’s a very interesting question you raise there. To begin with I don’t think Ngugi has ever been given the title “the voice” of Kenyan, let alone African literature. I would however hasten to say that it is the power of his ideas that have placed him in the celebrated position he currently occupies. Whether this is due to the fact that no significant Kenyan writing appears to challenge his works is neither here nor there.
    Still Ngugi’s Africanness gives him the sense of belonging and hence moral authority to write about Kenya and, by extension Africa. I believe he would get lost trying to comment on American lifestyle, never mind that he has stayed there for more than 25 years. Again, Ngugi has surpassed the level of being confined to just one country on continent for that matter.
    In his book Wizard of the crow, he uses the imaginary country of Aburaria, which is most likely Kenya, to address global issues. In the book he also flirts, not only with Western lifestyles, but with religions and civilisations of the Orient. You will notice that religion, especially Christianity, is a running theme in Ngugi’s books.
    About his prolonged absence from his country of birth interfering with his authority to address issues of his motherland came out quite clearly Murogi wa Kagogo – the Gikuyu version of Wizard of the Crow. In this book, he tries to invent his own language and forcing it onto the Gikuyu reader. His many years in exile also made him lose touch with the changing trends of Gikuyu language usage. The Gikuyu being used by the ordinary man in the street is much more livelier and descriptive, unlike the one he uses in the book.
    The language used in Murogi is one that the ordinary Gikuyu, who incidentally is his target, will find hard to identify with. This in effect renders his crusade on encouraging use of local languages rather ineffective.
    My two cents worth.

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