The 2019 article by Kenyan writer Billy Kahora, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Giant of Kenyan Letters, is the germ of this essay. Kahora’s article is an ode to Ngugi. However, this piece will not be a paean. Indeed, its central claim is that although Ngugi has penned many texts over the past 50 years, it’s not yet time to celebrate him as a literary giant.
Borrowing from Kahora’s title, I intend to problematize the ‘Ngugi as giant’ sentiment shared by numerous consumers of literature. Focusing on his critical essays, I make the claim that Ngugi has yet to attain ‘gianthood’ for three reasons. First being his tendency to eschew responses to serious criticism of his work. Second, the vast majority of his critics, both early and current, are indulgent. Finally, I argue that his style of essayistic production tends to preclude meaningful interaction with his texts.
As far as I’m aware, Ngugi doesn’t respond to his serious critics in a public forum. However, in Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot suggests that “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”. This leads me to wonder if it’s possible for a writer to be a giant even while not engaging in dialogue with fellow scholars as I suspect of Ngugi. Indeed, a brief look at the serious but few early critiques of Ngugi’s critical essays yields noteworthy results.
As we learn from Carol Sicherman and Hannington Ochwada, most of Kenya’s trained historians differed with Ngugi on matters of the country’s historiography. The distinguished political scientist Ali Mazrui differed with him on politics. Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and others, differed with him on the issue of the English language as mother tongue. Time and again Lewis Nkosi demonstrated, cogently but to no avail, why the writer couldn’t “emigrate from their own time” in response to the question of language. Lupenga Mphande challenges him on what he saw as negligence of the linguistic tools that distinguish African literature (as per Ngugi’s limiting definition) from literature from other parts of the world. Joseph Mbele demonstrates that the question of language as an instrument of communication is more complex than Ngugi leads on.
On the pertinent issues raised by the critics above, Ngugi effects no changes in subsequent work. Nothing in his later essays is corrected or even reconsidered as to suggest that he did, in fact, pay attention to the criticism but just never responded to them publicly. Furthermore, when his critics’ assertions proved prophetic, as when he returned to writing in English even after declaring, in Decolonising the Mind, to use Gikuyu and Kiswahili as “a vehicle for any of [his] writings”, he offered no explanation.
This return would, of course, have been a key moment for him to renege on his disputed ideas about English and mother tongue. In Traveling Theory: Ngugi’s Return to English, Simon Gikandi explains the return thus, “By the time he took up a senior professorship at New York University in the early 1990s, it was clear that Ngugi’s effort to use Gikuyu as the language of both his fiction and critical discourse had been defeated by the reality of exile and American professional life”. I find this explanation insufficient for if we are to accept it, we should also be ready to comprehensively reevaluate Ngugi’s radical writing on language in Decolonising and elsewhere.
Certainly, if he’d engaged the critics, he might not have undertaken the mission in the first place, or he might at least have been content to leave it as an unreachable ideal. Unfortunately, considering this debacle, one cannot help wondering what else of Ngugi’s assertions ought not to be put in practice. It may seem absurd to disqualify him from ‘gianthood’ based on an unwillingness to engage his critics, but how else does a giant display their true mettle if not through their response to challenges, tests, and criticism?
Orientalism (1978) and On the Postcolony (2001) are works by two scholars many consider giants, particularly within the discipline of postcolonial studies. Edward Said was not just a critic of robust insight, but also a comparatist par excellence, and the increasingly recognized Achille Mbembe is arguably the most important African thinker today. These two names pop up in conversations on university campuses, invoked by students across a range of disciplines: Literature, Philosophy, Political Science, and others.
They are discussed all over the world in media debates, journal pages, in all manner of publications. In other words, these two are giants of the critical essay. I’ve learnt the following about them regarding the topic of ‘gianthood.’ A giant has immense stature. A giant can be hit easily when a stone is cast at them because of their stature. But a giant doesn’t fall easily, again because of stature. A giant does not bruise easily. A giant endures harsh criticism; his shoulders are strong, and therefore reliable.
In enumerating these qualities of giants, I have in mind the critiques of, among others, Bernard Lewis and Fred Halliday on Said’s Orientalism; as well as the critiques of Mbembe’s On the Postcolony by Jeremy Weate, and his African Modes of Self-Writing by Ato Quayson, and others. In both cases, the giants responded—Said lividly and Mbembe with more restraint. There are no disciplines for ‘gentle giants.’ One of two things have happened if the giant is not criticized; either they’ve written nothing worth criticizing, or they are dead. In the end, both mean the same thing—the giant is not in fact a giant.
Aside from the serious criticism which keeps a giant sturdy, there’s a second, destructive kind capable of making a person think of himself a giant when in fact they are of normal size. This second kind is what I’m referring to as ‘indulgent’ criticism. It is for the most part irrational and—though the practitioner may not know it—a disservice to the potential giant. The motivation behind indulgent criticism has no bearing to scholarship or literary criticism and could be nationalistic, ethnic, as well as personal.
I encountered this kind of indulgent criticism in December 2018, at a workshop in Nairobi. This was not the first time I had encountered it. But the actors involved make this instance significant. It featured in a conversation I overheard between a respected University of Nairobi lecturer and another workshop attendee. The subject of the conversation was a newspaper article a colleague of his had written in a local daily, criticizing Ngugi. The lecturer from UoN was not impressed by the article; he stated of the writer “…he is not even worthy of untying Ngugi’s shoelace.” Knowing the interlocutor and what he has achieved for literary studies in the country, I would have hoped for less Messianic imagery and more by way of a grounded response.
This is, unfortunately, not an isolated case. In all manner of departments in the Kenyan university, Ngugi is highly regarded. In literature, as I just hinted above, the regard reaches as high as the heavens. One recalls Juliane Okot Bitek’s adoring remark in response to my 2019 article on Ngugi, “He’s brilliant, curious, well-read, generous and ours.” Also, there is Peter Amuka’s statement—also from 2019—in the inaugural Moi University Literature journal, LIFT that “the departure of Ngugi wa Thiong’o deprived Kenya of a literary colossus and an icon that could not be and has never been replaced”. Professor Amuka would do well to remember Eustace Palmer’s article, The Criticism of African Fiction: Its Nature and Function, where he asserts that, “One of our problems is that we have begun to talk of our novelists as towering literary giants when another twenty years might reveal that their present works are only juvenilia”.
Indulgent criticism is older than the above examples may suggest, and furnishing a comprehensive list is beyond the scope of this article. One needs only recall Mbele’s unfortunate observation back in 1992, “[…]it has become almost unfashionable to challenge [Ngugi’s] views on the subject,” to get a sense of the extent to which Ngugi’s views were accepted without much debate. Nevertheless, I believe Ngugi’s essays lend themselves to debate and warrant deeper critical engagement.
As I endeavor to illustrate using Ngugi as an example, in so far as it curbs growth by offering a premature sense of accomplishment, indulgent criticism is a disservice to the author. If he errs and no one calls him out on it, he goes on to repeat the same blunder in the next work and so on. Indulgent criticism is the enemy of an author’s growth. It gives a wide berth to questionable ideas because the practitioner would rather praise the writer instead of engaging his intellectual production.
In his article, The Criticism of African Fiction: Its Nature and Function, Eustace Palmer has suggested that “for effective criticism of the African novel we need not look for criteria other than those which have grown up along the Western literary tradition”. Further adding, “These criteria are so generalized that they allow for a tremendous amount of flexibility.” We need to approach Ngugi’s work with criticism that has stood the test of time rather than the indulgent type that has dominated studies on his works, those that Lewis Nkosi referred to as “casual commentaries on art and letters”.
Due to casual or indulgent approaches towards Ngugi’s works, several questionable ideas have become respectable. I have in mind specifically Ngugi’s views on colonialism and imperialism, as well as his parochial understanding of racism.
Ngugi has succeeded in reducing the two-headed beast of colonialism and imperialism into a two-headed scapegoat for problems facing contemporary Africa. African scholars have noticed and taken note of this state of affairs. Reviewing Ngugi’s Secure the Base for a local daily, the Kenyan academic Evan Mwangi suggests that, “To young scholars, Ngugi might even sound a little bit of date. For how long shall we continue blaming colonialists for problems we have created for ourselves?”
Colonialism is a historical fact. No one in their right mind can doubt the theft of land and minerals by Leopold and his cohorts, the slaughter of millions, the widespread racial prejudice, the hurt and pain occasioned by the aforesaid beast. And Britain, though they have tried to sanitize their history by way of making some reparations, will always have this stain of empire. The same for Belgium, France, and the rest of them.
Concerning the continuation of imperialism’s gene through the progeny of imperialism (Africans), Ngugi states in Moving the Center that, “The African bourgeoisie that inherited the flag from the departing colonial powers was created within the cultural womb of imperialism.” Essentially, he is calling Africans the sons and daughters, not of Africa, but of the Western powers that so palpably had us in their clutch once upon a time. He goes on,
“…even after they inherited the flag, their mental outlook, their attitudes toward their own societies, toward their own history, toward their own languages, toward everything national, tended to be foreign; they saw things through eyeglasses given them by their European bourgeois mentors.”
Upon reading this characteristic Ngugian rhetoric, the Ugandan novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s apt remark in an interview concerning African realities comes to mind: “I soon became resentful of post-coloniality…the way it encourages reactionary literature, the way Africans could not be held for their misadventures.” I take no joy in being depicted as a puppet. Africans, whether peasants, ruling class, and everything in between, ought to be given credit as human agents capable of distinguishing theft from philanthropy, truth from falsity. Despite the advantages that assuming the position of a puppet would bring, I refuse to believe that Africans are incapable of thinking for themselves. When we allow the “scapegoat” to shoulder the corruption in our countries, as Makumbi rightly suggests, we abrogate responsibility for our own actions.
Blaming the endless scandals in Kenya on these ‘isms,’ as Ngugi has done and continues to do is not the solution. Nor is promoting novels like Mashingaidze Gomo’s A Fine Madness which, ignoring the real problems in contemporary Zimbabwe, perpetuate the same outdated ideas.
African leaders are not passive observers to neocolonialism; they have to give their consent, sign a piece of paper before anything happens to their countries. And when they sign, it is willingly; not while intoxicated with brandy as Bessie Head tells us the British tried doing to Botswana chiefs so they could sign mining concession documents. Otherwise, all leaders would have ended up like Patrice Lumumba—stripped of power, then murdered. Despite all evidence against it, Ngugi continues to spread the idea of Africans’ passivity in the face of neocolonialism, of White fingers pulling the strings of Black bodies, thus reminding us of Makumbi’s equally apt remark in the aforementioned interview, “The bottom line is that publishing is a business, what sells gets published. Post-coloniality sells.” Next, I turn to Ngugi’s parochial understanding of racism.
Like Frederick Douglass and Hubert Harrison before him, W.E.B. Du Bois witnessed first-hand the despicable White against Black racism of the United States. However, when in 1949 he visited Warsaw, his eyes were opened to the other permutations of racism. With the realization of racism’s complexity and ubiquity, his conception of it also grew. In his 1952 essay about the experience, The Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto, Dubois wrote of the role of “human hate and prejudice, which reached all sorts of people and caused endless evil to all men.” In other words, hate and prejudice took on many forms and affected all human beings. Compare this with Ngugi’s one-size-fits-all notion of racism in Moving the Center, “Those fighting racism must never forget that racism, no matter how all-pervasive, is nevertheless an ideology founded on an economic system of exploitation and social oppression…”
Ngugi’s Afro-radicalism precludes him from appreciating that some things existed in Africa long before the West’s incursion, and always will not because the Europeans brought it, but because it is just as much African as it is European. The capacity for racism being one. On this issue, the light of Ngugi’s Marxism falls short at illuminating. While as per Du Bois racism affects “all men,” Ngugi blames only a portion of mankind—the West. In Moving the Center, he asserts that,
“…So long and so much has racism been part of the imagination and practices of the West that some people are often tempted to see racism as the foundation of all the social evils of the West. The history of capitalism, from the merchant and industrial capital to the finance capital of the imperialist era, gives credence to this interpretation of history and politics.”
But it’s not possible to share his views. No one corner of the globe should shoulder the blame for a fundamentally human problem. Further, Ngugi’s interpretation of history and understanding of racism is found untenable upon analysis of examples outside America and Poland.
Take for instance the plight of the San of Botswana, sometimes called Batswara. The racism against them is meted out by their own compatriots presumably because they look like the Chinese. And the government, deeming it ‘archaic’, won’t allow them to continue with their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in their ancestral land of the Kalahari.
One may read on racism and afro-phobia in India; racism by Arabs against Blacks; finally, there is the racial superiority of the Chinese and accompanying stereotypes of Africa in the highest-grossing non-English film of all time, a Chinese production called Wolf Warrior 2. Whether overtly as apartheid in South Africa or hidden though “deeply racist” like in England, as the young Zoe Wicomb discovered in harmony with Dubois, you will always find racism wherever humans are.
So far, I’ve discussed two reasons why christening Ngugi a ‘literary giant’ is not as easy as Billy Kahora would have us believe: his tendency to eschew responses to serious criticism of his work and indulgent criticism. Next, I turn to the third reason: his style of writing essays, especially as exemplified in the hugely influential collection: Decolonising the Mind.
Reading Decolonising, one gets a feeling that the work is meant to be taken as the perorations of an expert—the foremost expert if you will—whose word needs no backing. Ngugi expresses his intent at the beginning of the book thus, “I shall look at the African realities as they are affected by the great struggle between the two mutually opposed forces in Africa today: an imperialist tradition on one hand, and a resistance tradition on the other.” So far so good except the methods he employs in the book, often Marxist, are suspect.
Here’s Ngugi stretching his intellectual arms, “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves concerning their natural and social environment, indeed to the entire universe.” As early as this, he’s already building what will become a radical conception of the mother tongue. Ngugi uses no citations whatsoever because this was an unshared opinion at the time he wrote Decolonising. An opinion serious critics continue to disagree with to date.
Certainly, part of Decolonising is personal history—of his education, of his work—and I can’t argue against lived experience such as where Ngugi submits, “In order to capture the vivid images of African speech, I had to eschew the habit of expressing my thoughts first in English. It was difficult at first but I had to learn.” But there are other parts where he speaks more generally and yet still provides no citations. I have in mind his more scientific claims, as when he writes of the African child in colonial times, “The language of his conceptualization was foreign. Thought, in him, took the visible form of a foreign language.” Here I think we are right to expect a reference to an expert because we see trappings of Science in a statement by someone who’s not himself a scientist. The change from “I” to “the African child” is significant and transports what was a personal essay to the realm of the research essay. Therefore, the research ought to be cited.
Here as well Ngugi doesn’t cite his source, “[Colonialism’s] most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control.” Once again, a personal reflection is taken for a scientific fact. At this point, one can’t help but wonder why—if these essays are unfalsifiable personal opinions—it should be unfashionable to question them, as Joseph Mbele posits.
My final example comes from Ngugi’s article published in 1985, On Writing in Gikuyu, wherein he claims, “The first sure sign of self-colonization is when one reaches a position where one feels that one does not know enough of one’s language, meaning that one knows more of another people’s language.” This manner of writing, as we have seen, renders meaningful interaction with the text difficult.
Certainly, it would have been better if Ngugi had offered a caveat such as Frantz Fanon did in 1986 when he stated that, “It is good form to introduce a work in psychology with a statement of its methodological point of view. I shall be derelict. I leave methods to the botanists and the mathematicians. There is a point at which methods devour themselves.” But then again, though an expert on the subject, Fanon nevertheless bases his propositions on “other studies and [his] own personal observations”.
On the other hand, Ngugi’s Decolonising is largely a one-man show, a collection of unscientific personal experiences meant to be taken as perorations of an expert. Even so, as we see in Fanon’s example, experts know enough to know they don’t know everything; they, too, cite others.
If we can’t engage a text meaningfully, then we can’t evaluate its content either to know if the writer is a literary giant. On the basis of his or her work alone can a writer attain such status. It is, therefore, my contention that it would be premature to label Ngugi an African literary giant at this point in his career.
Jean Pierre Nikuze
Jean Pierre Nikuze is a Rwandan writer residing in Nairobi. A recent graduate from Moi University, when he’s not writing you’ll find him job-hunting. His works have appeared in Africasacountry, Caliban Online, The Nonconformist Magazine, Hobart, Kalahari Review, and elsewhere.