People

A Season of the Great Lake: An Interview with Mukoma wa Ngugi

An Afriquest Interview series conducted by F.O. Ohanyido.

Mukoma, let’s start with a small autobiography and your feelings about Kenya.

In a lot of ways, Kenya is my starting point but not necessarily my end point. This is to say that growing up in Kenya has shaped a lot of my political thinking; it has certainly colored the ink in my pen. It is a starting point that allows me to travel and to be shaped by my journeys. In short, it is my home but I am always careful that my home does not become my prison.

I must admit that having read some of your works, I have found it difficult to decide where your soft spot lies. Can you shed more light on your favourite genre, if there is any?

I primarily consider myself a poet which was sort of decided to me. Around 1996 I was invited to read my poetry at a cultural event in Ohio . When I got there I found there was huge poster of the day’s events and somewhere in the middle was my name with the description Kenyan Poet and I thought to myself, Hmmh, I can become that. I think I am most fluent with poetry. But I like to try and master other genres believing that some ideas also demand a certain form. There are some ideas in my poetry that would be very difficult to express in essay form. Conversely there are some ideas that lend themselves very well to the political or personal essay. I like to think of being able to use multiple genres as being fluent in many musical instruments. Most musicians play multiple instruments why not the same for writers?

I recollect reading somewhere how Binyavanga Wainaina one of Kenya ‘s accomplished writers, was really overwhelmed by level of American ignorance about Africa. He had gone on to quote a particular student in his contemporary-African-literature course at Union College who had said, “I’m not exactly sure where Sudan is. Is it near the ocean?”

That appeared to have been particularly painful , since the class had been discussing the novel Season of Migration to the North, by the acclaimed Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. He had simply told the young woman to look up where Sudan is located on the map. Do you sometimes go through similar vexing episodes in Wisconsin ?

There is a lot of what I would call willful American ignorance. American nationalism cannot exist if at some point the American citizen did not consciously decide not to look at the rest of the world. The belief in being the most civilized, most democratic and consequently most able to civilize the world cannot exist if the American citizen sees the full humanity of the African or Arab for that matter. Therefore this ignorance is part and parcel of American nationalism and this is why for me it is also very dangerous. I fully understand Binyavanga’s frustration. Here is a most remarkable book, one that ironically deals with the European’s inability to fully see Africa and what colonialism was creating and the consequences for both the African and the European, and the students cannot see it. In fact they do not want see it.
I also quite agree with Binyavanga’s response “if you do not know where Sudan is, I am not going to tell you find out where it is for yourself. For how else can real debate begin? I mean, if every discussion has to begin with where a certain country is located, or that Africa has cities, there are airplanes, Africans do live in trees etc, how do we get the real questions of the day that are plaguing humanity? How do we get to the question of lets how America is oiled by Iraqi or Nigerian resources for example?

So I think it is important to understand that these kind of questions, which come across as ignorant or arrogant actually have a function to play in American nationalism putting Africa in its place, blinding the American to US complicity and responsibility while at the same time reassuring the American that the mission to civilize and democratize is needed and noble.

Can you tell us a little about your first book?

The book, Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change was my attempt to try and contextualize contemporary Africa in the tradition of radical politics. The framework I use is Pan-African. In the book I look at the role of the Africanist and African scholar. There is a fascinating discussion that brews under the radar in academia. That is the Africanist scholar (mostly white and American) and the African scholar (African and elite) do not get along because they are in competition of who speaks for Africa . The irony of course is that they both, even as they pretend to speak for the continent long abandoned it. But juxtaposed to these kinds of intellectuals are others who have seen their role in more political terms Fanon for the African intellectual and Basil Davidson for the Africanist.

I also look at the failure of the so called second winds of democracy. Africa’s poverty since the 1990’s has been worsening. What is happening in the Niger Delta easily serves as a metaphor of what is happening in the rest of the continent. Resources are being plundered; the fledgling democracies lack the imagination or political will to bring relief to their societies, and we see a fattening local elite and corporations without shame. Steve Biko when asked what kind of political and economic arrangement he saw in a future South Africa said it would have to be socialist in nature; it would have to be redistributive. This was a result of the savage inequalities that exist in S. Africa . Well, the same vicious inequalities exist in most of the continent and piling the name democracy without democratic acts will not alleviate them. Elsewhere I have called for Democracies with content of economic, social and political equality. A democracy that does not aspire to such content, that has already accepted inequality as part of humanity will not work.

The overall point of the novel (and after this summary I hope you still find value in getting yourself a copy) is that we have to dream of societies that are just.

Do you share the view that educated Africans are probably more enlightened about the world we live in than Westerners?

Well, hesitant yes and shaky no. Yes, because we have to negotiate multiple worlds most Africans speak several languages. And no, because as Americans like to say the proof is in the pudding. If it were so, Africa would not be in the shape it is in; I mean most of our dictators have been educated. No also because our intellectuals don’t always contribute to African causes, and will not be politically active. I suppose the answer would depend on what it means to be enlightened. If it means just knowing perhaps, but if it means also action and results, I would be wary of giving a resounding yes.

I see you as a kindred Afrisecal spirit. When did you discover this element of your writing?

I think to agitate for African causes is to at the same time have deep faith in African people. I do not think I can be a poet who sings (and singing contains wailing) for Africa without having faith that Africa can one day do right by its citizens. By the same token I cannot be politically engaged with the continent without faith, a faith that is logical but at times unjustifiable, that at times wavers but always present in Africa’s capacity for regeneration and renewal. In this sense I cannot but be a kindred Afrisecal spirit.

How do you situate the alterity of East and West African writings in the social, political, and aesthetic realms? Where do you think they intersect?

African writers have been, I think the single most important, facilitators of Pan-Africanism. People like Dubois and Nkrumah might have provided the theory, but it is the writers that humanize Africans to each other. We see each other through their works. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest were staples when I was growing up. When I meet a West African, the first thing more often than not he or she will say they have read Ngugi’s River Between or A Grain of Wheat. When Ngugi was detained, writers like Soyinka agitated on his behalf. Whether as a result of a common tapestry woven by colonialism, our dictators or that thing we call African solidarity, the intersections have always been there and they have been quite strong.

Are there any West African writers you consider to have had great influence on your writing?

In terms of setting a standard, I immediately think of Ben Okri. The Famished Road for me remains, one of the best novels I have read. I use standard here to mean writing something that is uniquely yours. Certainly the style of magical realism/surrealism has been used before by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But only Ben Okri could have written The Famished Road, nothing like it existed before. Its his contribution. This is an odd claim to make so think of Soyinka’s The Interpreters. The Interpreters is a fine book, a novel I am in envy of, yet my feeling is that it is not uniquely Soyinka’s. It could have been written by someone else. That it could have just as easily been written by someone else doesn’t mean someone else could have, or it would have been easy, but it does not set a standard of ambition to me as a writer.
Ben Okri’s Dangerous Love, is also a fine a novel as they come. The title is unfortunate; I think that in part has to do with why it receives so little attention, but it remains one of my favorite books where else can you find lovers taking serious romantic walks along the polluted highways of Lagos?

THE WHISPERING GROVE ANTHOLOGY which you’re co-editing is in the works with Mathew Taiwo and I. Do you think that there should be more of such pan-African collaboration?

If the older generation of writer’s made Africans visible to each other, they did not have shared projects that made the intersections real. The Whispering Grove Anthology continues this tradition and at the same time concretizes it. We also need to have African writer conferences on the continent- and may I nominate Nigeria? We need more African literary journals and prizes. We need translations between and into African languages .Things Fall Apart should exist in Gikuyu for example. I understand that there is a thriving Hausa literature; it needs to be translated into other African languages. We should not always need the medium of English and French to talk to each other. Our generation of writers should, as far as we can, professionalize writing. African writers should not have to win a European or American literary prize before we recognize them as writers. Our intellectuals should not have to publish in Western publications before we take them seriously. We have to become our own best audiences, critics, translators, publishers and writers.

Can you discuss a bit of your TOWARDS AFRICA WITHOUT BORDER project?

This is a pan-African project. Through the Toward an Africa without Borders Organization we want to bridge the gap between intellectual and political activism. We want to see our generation continue on with the tradition of revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon, who crossed many borders, Martinique and France to end up in Algeria where he gives his talents to the cause of African independence. But we also want to see borders such as between men and women erased. One of the mistakes constantly made by previous generations was to understand as one kind of freedom being more important than another. Freedom to vote is more important than economic freedom or national freedom more important than freedom from racism and in this instance, national freedom as more important than gender equality. We are saying that one freedom cannot be at the expense, or one’s liberation at the expense of another. We are therefore also in solidarity with other oppressed peoples such as the Palestinians. We are holding our third international conference in Durban South Africa July of this year. People who are interested can visit our website at towardanafricawithoutborders.org.

This year’s annual Ohio University Spring Literary Festival broke tradition for the first time , by bringing in three prominent African writers; the controversial writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, top Ghanaian diplomat and poet Kofi Awoonor, and exiled Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove. What do you think should be the message of African writers at such events?

African writers have to be willing to discuss their differences and therefore it is not so much a question of a common message. The discussion of differences will in the long run prove to be more useful especially in our day and age where we already accept that there is a mass called Africa . The three writers at Ohio University present an interesting case. You have Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt , a country that develops identity issues when it comes to Africa . You have Kofi Awoonor from Ghana , a country that is still reeling from Nkruma’s internal politics that toward the end of his rule alienated Ghanaians. And even though he corrected it later, his call for political independence first followed by economic independence was a clear misreading of the neocolonial forces that eventually led to his ouster. And of course Chenjerai Hove, who, and we should not doubt him, says he is in political exile from Zimbabwe . Zimbabwe is a Pan-African challenge. Can we really try and craft a united message when Zimbabwe is in ruins? If Mugabe is not good for Zimbabwe , can he be good for continent? Why should, and to me this is the idiocy of leadership, one person feel that only he has the ability to lead a country of millions? So there are all sorts of interesting questions that African writers at such meetings should raise. Personally I am not afraid to air my dirty linen in public, for how else shall I get it clean? To erase a border, you have to acknowledge it stands in your way first.

In a globalizing age that is powered by the USA , studying American literature in isolation from the rest of the world seems less and less justified. Do you believe that American literature is the condensation of world literature?

The American literature canon has been under attack since the 1960’s if not much earlier. There were African Americans, women, Native Americans and gay people saying that they were not being represented. So even within American literature there has been constant debate as to what constitutes American literature. The Africana departments, African American and other progressive departments are as a result of this struggle. The irony, and here I can only speak of my own experiences, is that world literature and most English departments have such a course, or at least such a textbook, is taught as that which is out there. And more often than not, the same English department will not include literatures from oppressed minorities within the United States . As with politics, and in this age of globalization, literature should show just how interconnected we are and not be used as a barrier between communities. Ideally, a course in contemporary American literature should carry literatures by immigrants as well.

What is your take on the Obama bid for the Oval Office? What will be the possible impact of his clinching the seat?

What we need to recognize about Obama is that he will be an American president first before anything else. If elected he will be running a very hungry empire. That means that American foreign policy will, as it has in the past, be an instrument of keeping the US at the helm of the world. We should not expect to fairer trade between African countries and the US under Obama. Also the Bush administration has pushed the US so far to the right and made the manufactured war on terror the center-piece of US foreign policy that Obama might have no choice but to continue with his own version of a war on terror. To be fair he will be a better president than Bush but if we want a president who will be better for the world, it makes sense to look at other candidates such as Dennis Kucinich as well.

I should add that I am of course proud of the fact that Obama has Kenyan roots, but if as I said Kenya should be a starting point and not a prison, I also do not want to be blinded by Kenyaness. True solidarity directly related to where a person stands in the struggle for a better Africa .

What is your vision for Africa in a broad sense? Any chance of your stepping into Kenyan or American politics in the near future?

The first thing is that we have to be wary about people who promise a single solution for the continent. There needs to be more conversations and more ideas. We need the input of different experts. There are some important questions that I have not been able to answer because of my training in political theory and literature. For example, what would the economy of a united Africa look like? What would the economical benefits be? What kind of trade? For this kind of questions we do need economists to step in.

But with that said, I am all for a United Africa. I imagine that when in 1946 Winston Churchill called for a United States of Europe, so soon after the 2nd World War, many must have thought him still shell-shocked. It was unimaginable that a mere generation later there would be a European Union. We have to dream! My general philosophy hearkens back to Steve Biko my vision certainly calls for equitable distribution of wealth a just Africa will have to redistributive in nature. Let us not forget that close to half of Africans live in crippling poverty. Freedom can only be a word amidst debilitating poverty. We also need to be in control of our natural resources. There are some things that do right and we need to protect them for example, I think we have one of the most comprehensive anti-nuclear proliferation treaties.

No political office for me. I do however hope that we will soon have politicians running for office on a Pan-African platform, with the promise that if elected he or she will work toward African Unification. Only then shall we be sure that Pan-Africanism has become of mass concern.

What about marriage?

The first of this September actually I am getting married to Maureen Burke. I feel very lucky to have found love.

I left this for last, but an interview with you cannot be complete without this question. What has it been like being the son of one of Africa ‘s literary icons? Does the shadow phenomenon have any effect on your craft?

I have grown up believing that anything is possible and I think in large part because of my father. For example, I have never doubted that I could write a book, since I saw them being written at home. Having him for a father does make it easier to dream. He is also my best critic. In fact, I just recently finished a novel tentatively titled The First and Second Books of Transition and he commented extensively on all the drafts.

And of course it helps to have a father that you look up to, that inspires you. So his newly released global epic, Wizard of the Crow has me now thinking of in the future writing a multi-generational epic about a single family in pre-colonial Kenya , each generation struggling through each historical epoch all the way through our current age. So I do love him for his writing, and his principled intellectual and political work.

But at the end of day, as a writer you can only be responsible for your own imagination. So in this regard, when I am in an act of writing my background is literally that, my background. Between my pen and page, when I sit down to write there can only be space for my imagination trying to find expression. I think this is true of every artist.

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3 Comments

  • Fine interview. The interviewer is a medical Doctor, but the interview is so professionally done as if he is a practising journalist. Good job!

  • great interview. panafricanism will sure take root. most of us believe in it although we may disagree on the current generation of african leaders to be the best suited to implement. i like the fact that they have caught on and have started the debate that has been going on in academia and in conferences like”towards an africa without borders” and others in bars and cook-outs. Pithy and enlightening.