Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, East Africa’s most eminent novelist and now distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine was in Uganda over the weekend. He was a keynote speaker at events to commemorate 50 years of the University of East Africa at M
Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, East Africa’s most eminent novelist and now distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine was in Uganda over the weekend. He was a keynote speaker at events to commemorate 50 years of the University of East Africa at Makerere University.
His presentation titled 50 years of Education Transformation and Development; Prospects for the future, shed light on the importance of Makerere University as a breeding ground for many distinguished Africans. He also made a strong case for the adoption of our local languages in education and development. In this interview with Stephen Ssenkaaba, he shares his views on education, development and the place of Makerere University in shaping his own career and that of many other African leaders
QN: Why did you come to Makerere and not any other institutions in Kenya and elsewhere?
ANSWER: Even though it was under the University of London at the time I joined in 1959, Makerere was the only university college in East Africa. It served a number of countries; Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Rhodesia, but principally Kenya and Tanzania. It was the place to go for those hoping to pursue university education. At that time, coming to Makerere was every student’s ambition. Not even an admission to a university abroad measured up to being admitted to Makerere.
What were your first impressions of Uganda when you came for studies in 1959?
Kenya was a white settler colony when I joined Makerere; a sort of apartheid without the name. There was a state of emergency. Coming to Kampala and seeing black people freely walking around and very few white people, was psychologically important.
What were the highlights of your stay in Makerere?
It is in Makerere that I discovered myself as a writer. Between my arrival in 1959 and 1964 when I left, I wrote two novel manuscripts- Weep Not Child and The River Between and both had been accepted for publication by Heinemann in London. I wrote eight short stories; some of them had been published in PEN-Point –- the university literary magazine of the English Department and in The Transition – a literary magazine founded by Rajat Neogy. I also wrote one major play – The Black Hermit and two one-act plays. Plus, I was writing a column entitled: As I see It for The Nation newspaper using the name James Ngugi.
Being able to attend the first conference of African writers of English expression at Makerere in June 1962 was a huge experience. All major writers – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Peter Nazareth, John Nagenda and many others were in attendance. It was exciting to participate in this conference as a student.
My play, The Black Hermit, was the first play by an East African to be performed at the National Theatre. It was performed by students of the University Drama Society and was staged to celebrate Uganda’s independence.
Your work surely made you stand out; how did you handle that?
I did not think of myself as an extraordinary student. I was just a regular student, doing my essays, and going about my university life – enjoying the nightlife at Suzanna and Top life night clubs, and one time serving as guild minister of information.
How, in your view, has Makerere changed over the years?
Makerere went through difficult times during the Amin regime. You could hardly recognise its former glory. But now I feel the university has picked up. It was exciting to visit faculty members of the Literature Department and seeing a lot of activities going on there. They are actively writing and publishing short stories, novels and producing films. I sense a lot of energy here. Obviously, there are changes and these come with challenges. However, I am confident that if Makerere continues this way, it will have a good future.
I would personally love to see the university tap into its alumni more – people who have gone through Makerere are loyal to this university; we are proud of it; we should be asked to contribute something to the development of our alma mater.
You recently said you joined Leeds University in the UK because of its reputation for radicalism, which you found attractive. What did you mean?
Leeds University had a broadness of thinking that I liked. Just like Makerere, it was a collection of students from different cultures and countries – the sort of place where all kinds of ideas were discussed in a free environment. I like being in a place where competing ideas are discussed in such an environment. It is a bit like a wrestling or football game.
Did you see yourself as a voice for the anti-colonial struggle?
My work looked at the human presence in a colonial society. I set out to explore how human relationships are shaped by the economic, political and cultural situation of the people. I cannot divorce the human experiences and how they were impacted by the colonial presence and anti-colonial resistance.
What is your take on the current trend of African writing?
I see poets, short story and novel writers today, and this is encouraging. My only concern is the neglect of African languages in writing. In China, Europe and other societies, primacy is being put on developing their local languages. This is not so in Africa.
As scholars, as writers we are trapped into this colonial era language prison which we do not know how to break free from. About 90% of resources are devoted to developing foreign languages like English and French, and nearly nothing for local languages. It calls for government policies on African languages to change drastically. Every country should set up a African language bureau where policies on developing of local languages will be developed and implemented.
As a writer who writes largely in English, do you feel complicit in letting this trend flourish?
I am not taking a holier-than-thou outlook to this. We all need to work together to change this trend – the Government, publishers and education institutions. It is not something a writer can do alone, especially because we all work hand in hand with each other. I personally have written three novels in Gikuyu language – Devil on the Cross, Matigari and Wizard of the Crow. The play I Will Marry When I Want is an English translation and Mother Sing For Me – yet to be published, is also in Gikuyu.
I am translating the works of Moliere, a French writer. I have also done some few short stories in Gikuyu language.
Do you think the internet has helped or hindered writing?
I am a believer in technology. It is an enemy or a friend, depending on how you use it. We should think of ways of using technology to advance African languages.
Do you have a Facebook account?
No. Neither am I on twitter. I will get there though. But I have email account.
What is your reading of the goings on in your own country and other countries?
We need to look at the depths of where we have come from. We still have a long way to go. Genuine development for Africa will be based on the needs of the man and woman on the ground – the farmers and other ordinary people. We ought to have control of our own resources. Above all, the power of Africa is in the unity of its people. East Africa must unite. Africa must unite.
Did you try to learn any local languages while in Uganda?
I know a few Luganda words such as Tugende kutambula, kutambula (Let’s take a walk).
Who is Ngugi
- Born James Ngugi, 1938 in Kamiriithu, Limuru, Kenya
- Raised by his mother Wanjiku
- Attended Alliance High School, Makerere University Kampala and University of Leeds in the UK
- His first play The Rebels was performed in 1961 at the National Theatre
- Worked as a journalistcolumnist and features writer for The Nation newspaper in Kenya after graduating from Makerere
- Was a lecturer at Nairobi University in 1967
- Has been detained without trial and had his life threatened for his beacuse some of his work are critical of bad politicians
- He has won several awards and honorary doctorates for his work
- Has published over 30 works of literature in English and Gikuyu
- He is a distinguished professor, comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine
HIS FULL ADDRESS AT MAKERERE LAST WEEKEND
Get out of colonial trap – Ngugi