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Why Imprisonment of Writers Contributed Most to African Literature

The recent research findings by the local media in East Africa concurred with an idealistic logic behind African and even world wide experience in the history of art and literary creativity that, a writer in prison, isolation, ostracism conditioned solitude or exile has a good state of muse. She commands admirable artistic originality, beauty of literary thought and might of intellectual productivity. The  groundings of  the research that triggered this essay was also triggered by online  literary discourse  that beautifully captured a  discussion by  Dr. Walibora Waialua’s  review of prison poetry, with a focus on Saudi ya dhiki by Abdullah Abdallatif. Abdallatif was detained in 1975 at Kamiti maximum prison in Nairobi for writing a Kiswahili poem entitled Kenya twentapi. This poem was not more than four stanzas but it earned him five years of detention. It was during this detention that the young Abdallatif wrote Saudi ya Dhiki. This Kiswahili poetry is now a case book for postgraduate studies in politics, literature, philosophy and liberal arts in most of the universities in Africa and the diaspora. The message is that; there is excellence in the level of art created by authors in prison. The excellence which calls for the turn to have a special breed of literature known as prisonorature. This shall mean any work of literature authored by an author while in prison. But exiled writers and those conditioned into segregation can also have their works go by this literary nomenclature as well. Subject to moot.

devil on the crossWorld History of literature and creative art, drama as well as music falls in tune with Dr. Waliaula’s observation that there is good bedfellowship between the prison and a good novel, drama, effigy or poems. The prime gist is that life of a writer in prison shapes author’s creative ability then and permanently after. Beyond Abdallatif, a survey of some eminent writers that have experience of imprisonment, detention and exile once in their lives can remove hypothetical outlook towards co-associations between a prison and creativity. Firstly, history of written literature in Kenya offers beautiful lessons for all. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was detained in 1978 after writing his second play and sixth book; Nghehika Ndenda a Gikoyo version for I Will Marry When I Want. Reasons for Ngugi’s detention remain a political turf up to date. But some overtures point to communism while others point to panicky state of Kenyatta’s government in those days. However, above board analyses have to uncover the fact of blatant failures of self-rule. Before this experience Ngugi had been averagely writing and seriously teaching literature in English at university of Nairobi. But while in detention, Ngugi wrote, Devil on the Cross, a socialist critique of Kenya’s cult of dictatorship. A very keen reader can easily discover that, the Wizard of the Crow is a sequel to the Devil on the Cross. In a word, works of Ngugi after the detention command more intellectual depth than the works pre-detention. Most notable is Writers in Politics, written as essays on North Korean Socialism. Its publication threatened Ngugi with a second detention. Detentiom made Ngugi a world class writer. However he lost his focus by choosing to write in his vernacular kikuyu so that the political police from other ethnic communities especially of Kalenjin government under president Moi could not detect the politically invasive nature of his work. Ngugi’s writing in Kikuyu is simply an effort to harness security measures but not a struggle against cultural imperialism. These security connotations are the key driving factors behind Soyinka’s extra complex and esoteric English.


The man diedThe literature Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka and Professor Ali A. Mazrui are equally products of unfair detention. Soyinka was detained in the seventies by Nigerian military dictators while Mazrui was detained by Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator. Reasons for detention of both are that they maintained intellectual open mindedness. Soyinka had written The Interpreters, Kongi Harvest and The Lion and the Jewel before his detention. But while in detention, he stole a warder’s pen and toilet paper to write the Man died, a (prose account of his time in prison) which enjoys artistic might above Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria. After release from detention, he wrote Season of Anomie, a literary analysis of Africa’s cult of political dictatorship. The same theme observed by Ngugi. These books written by Soyinka while in detention as well as those written after detention captured the attention of the Nobel committee. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize on a clear basis of literature work after detention as well as his firm stand against dictatorship and abuse of human rights by series of Nigerian power maniacs. Mazrui had written the trial of Christopher Okigbo, an anti-communist satire whose main message is the risk that Africans take by carelessly experimenting with foreign ideologies like communism. Especially when Okgibo intellectually goofed by hiding a secessionist call of Biafra backed by the careless Marxist and utopian socialist spirit.  After the detention, Mazrui has done a literary magnum opus. Mazrui is great intellectually. His Islamic way of looking at issues plus his experience of political terror in Uganda during the two political epochs of Milton Obote and Id Amin Whetted his sense of writing as exposed in his post detention days writings in The African Conditions. A student of African literature would easily sense a void in the fiber of African prisonorature if analysis of this type misses to highlight literary preponderance of African literature like D. M. Zwelonke, Doris Lessing, Elechi Amadi, Koigi wa Wamwere, Dennis Brutus and Pepetela the Angolan author of Mayombe. And possibly it can be a critical fallacy of prisinorature if Nkrumah and his Consciecism as well Paul Freiere with his Pedagogy of the oppressed are not given a literary treat on such pages. To my taste this analysis of African history of literature gets more painting from the expositions of Elechi Amadi in his Sunset in Biafra. Captain Amadi got the inspiration and charm to thrill his audience in Isibiru and the Great ponds after some experience of regular detentions during the Biafra breakdown. Doris Lessing shares some accolades with Oludhe Macgoye.They are an anti thesis to a pan African thesis that pan Africanism is black and focused on African blacks as Senghor and Cesaire called it, Negritude. This ladies Lessing and Macgoye are white Africans. Their writing has taught me one lesson; There are also white pan Africanists. Lessing is a victim of South African apartheid influenced state terror.


European literary history has similar epochs in its past and current times. Jeffery Archer has at long last written his climactic work after completing a sentence he began five years ago. Archer was imprisoned for false use of alibi to win economic gain unfairly. Before the imprisonment, Archer’s books; shall we tell the president?, Cane and Abel, First among Equals, Not a Penny More, not a Penny Less and the Cart of fruits were average popular entertainers. But the work after prison, Judas Evidence has earned Archer an accolade of author of a genre other than popular fiction writer.


Victor Marie Hugo, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Fidor Dostoyevsky, the three giants of European drama, prose and poetry are also products of prison agony just as their predecessor Cervantes, the Spanish jailbird and author of Don Quixote. Hugo was exiled for fifteen years to a lonely island of Cassantra; this is where he wrote the Hunchback of Notre dame. His main character Quasimodo is a self-picturisation while the whole book is a literary condemnation of the then French society for hatred of ugly truth. Hugo was released from his island of exile as a result of the current government being thrown out of power by Napoleon Bonaparte. After the exile, Hugo wrote Les Miserable. I request young readers to read Hugo’s works, of which am certain they will agree with the world that all of Hugo’s books are intellectually spellbinding and classic across all times.


Fidor Dostoyevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were all condemned to Siberia. Dostoyevsky  was sentenced to death, while Solzhenitsyn was jailed for eighteen years. The reason for their respective punishment is that they were writing novels about their current Russian society. They mirrored Russian politics, family and business life through their books. Dostoyevsky was released by Tsar Alexander after going through mock hanging. But Alexander Solzhenitsyn was lucky to escape from Siberia before his term was over. Life of both Russian writers after their Siberia experience was very productive. Solzhenitsyn won a series of prizes, while Dostoyevsky was made a state emblem on roubles, the Russian currency.


NgugiOther fertile grounds for literature and art are   the economic and social challenges that young writers and all African artists initially face.     Dominant among others are the challenges of poverty, alienation by publishers, failure to attend university education, culture and language barriers as well as a society of toxic personalities. However, to a gifted young writer all of these calcify to a literary and artistic stimulant not a snag.


This the dint of false censure that made Okello Oculli who represents a plethora of similar intellectual fallacies, to write in the literary discourse pages of the recent Saturday Nation that Kenyan youths have  two literary Kilimanjaro to climb for them to write from the top; Oculli adduced high or University  education and wide reading but not self- education. Occuli ended his article on a mistaken premise by strongly averring that good writers that can be likened to the literary stature of  Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Okot p’Bitek have to be highly educated and widely read. Occuli, it can be said at this juncture was more heuristic and intellectually sublimated to boldly  attribute literary greatness to high  academic  achievement  in  bare contradiction of  historical facts of literature, orature, poetry, drama and cyborature not only to forget wallorature and streetorature.


Oculli needs to be aware that most great writers, as Ezekiel Mwazemba puts it, must be classical in their work. This means that whatever they write remains intellectually and aesthetically fashionable. Commanding palateability to all ages and be capable to bestride geographies and societies. Going by these attributes of literary greatness no other breed of writers will command high degree of literary might than the early Greek writers that wrote the Iliad, Homer, Odyssey, Oedipus rex and The State or the Discourse. Similar accolades easily go to the Indian writer who wrote the epic of Ramayana and Mabharata and   Moses the Hebrew scribe cum fictionalist who crafted the book of job in the Bible. Research in literature methods of these early classical writers reveals that Greek writers are not products of university education but instead Greek authors were inspired by Muse the god of literature whereas Moses was inspired by Jehovah the fountain of wisdom. An inquiry into classical literature shows that both Greek and Indian early writers were all the products of self education and wide reading but with very minimum formal schooling.


In the more recent times, European society enjoyed a blessing of great writers who actually shaped universal civilization of literature, art and theatre. Benjamin Disraeli, Cervantes, Shakespeare and Winston Churchill are the top cream that can be used as examples in this case; Disraeli used to joke that every time he wanted to read he instead wrote a new novel. While Cervantes, the Portuguese classical writer and author of the famous Angligue and Don Quixote, was a constant jailbird due to the heavy burden of debt. Cervantes learned how to read and write while in prison. But a controversy of fact is that those who have read Don Quixote know how great Cervantes was. On a similar footing, the greatness of Shakespeare in world literature is unfathomable. Some scholars say Shakespeare was a literary machine. Others say he was a theatrical institution. An intellectual profile of Shakespeare has it that William Shakespeare is the seventh son of poor farmer John Shakespeare. William went up to class three, he never  went to a secondary school, he ran away to town because he had stolen a deer of the rich farmer in the neighbourhood. It was while he was in the hideout away from the police in London that he tried his hand in playwrighting and stage acting. Those who have studied European English know that there are two types of English language in London; Churchillian English and the Queen’s English. Churchillian English is attributed to the writings and public speaking styles of Sir Winston Churchill. Reading of Churchill’s oeuvre the Gathering storm is a clear testimony to this. However, in contrast to Okello Occulli’s stand that higher education perhaps certified by University education or degree certificate is a basic for great cultural and intellectual contribution, Winston Churchill was a class three dropout with very bad grades in all the subjects apart from French in which he scored a merit. Churchill was self-made through self-education which had him just like Shakespeare devour extensively the Greek and Roman classics.


fanon2The history of American literature also presents facts that give a counterpoise to Oculli’s position. Indeed, a sharp and penchant attest to artistic reality that the poor, the half- literate, the Negroes and even the self educated can write with matchless excellence. This reality comes out in the names of Richard Wright, Malcolm X and Alex Halley. Richard Wright is the Author of the Native Son and the Black boy. However, most readers know Wright for the Native son because of the thrilling story of Bigger Thomas and his psychology of the black skin. The greatness of Wright’s authorship is that he changed how white America looked at the blacks and also it is noted that he is the sole source of influence to Frantz Fanon’s psychoanalytical thinking. Black Skin, White Mask, The Wretched of the Earth, and Facts of Blackness are simply Fanon’s extension of psychological analysis of the Bigger Thomases versus the white masters. All students of political science know the impact of Richard Wright’s novels on American political thought and even as its impetus on world politics.   Alex Halley’s the Roots is an epical account of Negroe struggle against the institution of slavery. It is both a film and a novel. Halley came a decade later after Wright but he was a contemporary of Malcolm X. He is the one who wrote an epilogue to Malcolm X’S blockbuster autobiography. Common intellectual feature of these three black American writers is that they were all self educated and never had formal education. They all learned how to read and write in prison. On such a backdrop of American literature from the illiterates, Okello Oculli’s arguments that those without university education cannot write to the top only reminds the elderly readers those days of world racial darkness during which the white people used to ask with contempt if any African can write like Johannes Kafka ? — a doubt to which Ali Mazrui retorted that neither can a white man write the Quran.


Africa, both east and west, south, central and north has a mosaic of spectacular talents in orature, poetry, drama and prose; despite the negative fact that most of them suffer from misfortune of small formal education. Two cases will help to expose this African artistic virtue. One from Kenya and another from Senegal. I guess Okello Oculli has read God’s Bits of Wood but he has not read the Broken Drum. Apart from We Killed Mangy Dog and The Money Order with White Genesis, Sembene Ouasmane Wrote God’s Bits of Wood. The literary weight of this book is only equated to Ngugi’s Petals of Blood and Mazizi Kunene’s Shaka the Zulu. David Maillu who has been denied recognition by local institutions, was recently honored by an Australian university for crafting an intellectually pregnant novel The Broken Drum. In literary circles, there is agreement that if at all there is any difference between Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow and Maillu’s Broken Drum then it is a subtle one. The only significant difference is between authors; Ngugi is a professor of literature but Maillu is not a graduate.


As a remedy to Oculli and others in his school of thought, I recommend that he or they read the last book of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The book is Globalectics; Theory and the Politics of Knowing. Oculli should focus on the chapter on Abolition of English Department. Actually borrowed from his previous work In Decolonizing the Mind. And also on national culture, a chapter borrowed from Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Ngugi comes out beautifully that; the challenge to an African writer is language. A condition that an African writer should conform to canons of European languages when writing is a vice which Ngugi has described as canonicity. Beyond this an African and Kenyan youth both in freedom and in detention or graduate or not can still write. Superbly write. The only Kilimanjaro they are to climb is mastery of their respective mother tongues and indigenous languages by having a motivation beyond money and economic cosmetics. This is current and live to a stage in civilization and cultural development of African society that African languages are mature enough to be vessels of prose, drama and poetry.



Ngugi wa Thiong’o – Globalectics; Theory and the Politics of Knowing

Alexander K. Opicho
Alexander K. Opicho
Alexander Ernesto Khamala Namugugu Opicho was born in Bokoli village, Bungoma District, in the former Western provice of Kenya. He went to primary and secondary schools in Western Kenya. He studied Accountancy, then governance and leadership at the University. He is currently pursuing a Phd course in management. He has two wives; Literature is the first. He has published poetry with Ghana poetry foundation, the East African Standard and on He has published online more than two hundred essays, several literary criticisms and over six hundred poems. His five books are with the publisher. He believes that the praxis of literature is the practice of freedom.

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