analysisBy Okello Oculi
In February 2010 Ngugi wa Thiong'o, one of Africa's potential candidates for a Nobel Prize, accepted my plea for him to address students of Literature at Makini Secondary School in Nairobi.
It was an awesome event for students and staffs as a combined educational and political event. Ngugi had travelled from America to appear in court over a case of violent assault on him and his wife, suspected to be planned by big guns in Kenya's politics who resent his derogatory literary attacks on their corrupt and unpatriotic lifestyles. Makini School enrols a large number of children of diplomats and staff of United Nations agencies who prefer not to rub noses with 'socialist' critics of government.
Ngugi treated the students to enchanting storytelling and dramatized rendering of sections of his novels. The question-and-answer session that followed had much energy. One outstanding question was why he was teaching and living away from them in a distant United States whose students had their own literary heroes. It was a jolting complaint and Ngugi struggled to provide a non-political answer, for he had fled into political exile after a long detention in Kenya's maximum security prison. He told the students that literary work knows no borders and his writings do not have to be written in Kenya. He refrained from invoking as covers Nigeria's Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka; Kenya's Micere Mugo and Jared Angira; Uganda's John Ruganda and hundreds of other hawkers of brains that had drained out of Africa. He had just told me how thrilled he was with the news that Achebe had reported that he was writing a novel in Igbo.
When the news of Professor Chinua Achebe's death came, it recalled Ngugi's report to the students of Achebe's book Things Fall Apart reaching East Africa when he was entering Makerere University College. The electrifying power of the book was in making him think that Igbo language and Kikuyu were very similar. While Kikuyu proverbs were not the "palm oil with which words are eaten" its equivalents were groundnut and sesame oil. African languages had always carried a literature which had been silenced by colonial textbooks written by British authors. He would have the thrill of meeting Achebe is flesh and blood at an African Writers Conference held at Makerere in 1962. He was working on his own novel, Weep Not Child, in the tradition set by Achebe. The East African Literature Bureau had, in 1956, published Okot p'Bitek Lak Tar (White Teeth), a novel in his Acholi language, but there had been no translation of the work in Kikuyu or English for Ngugi to reach. Achebe's writing in an Igbo-dominated English language would so deeply affect Ngugi that he would, subsequently, regard writing in African languages as a vital tool for mental freedom from inferiority complexes trained into minds of those who attend colonial schools.
Okot p'Bitek's 1966 book published in English and Acholi, Song of Lawino/Wer pa Lawino, showed that he had taken into his study of Anthropology at Oxford University that Achebe virus at the core of Things Fall Apart, namely: that Africa's religious philosophy does exist; waiting to be adorned and shown to the international arena by her bold and proud intellectuals. Okot would, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, teach his long song at the University of Ife/OAU. His disciples on that campus built a shrine in his name. Achebe had reached Ife via East Africa.
As a beneficiary of the literary-philosophical virus invented and propagated by Achebe, Ngugi and Okot, I went to the Catholic Church's Cathedral in Abuja in the hope that I could join in prayers and songs for Achebe's safe journey to After-Africa. His death was not mentioned. The Sermon rebuked those who blamed evil spirits and ran to babalaos for "deliverance" and herbal medicines to fight witchcraft by mothers-in-law, witches, and business rivals. They did not see the importance, for their own moral growth and elevation, of following Jesus and be crucified on the cross. It sounded like Jomo Kenyatta calling on Kenyans to "suffer without bitterness". He was talking to Kikuyu people who had killed and been killed by European farmers to recover land robbed from their ancestors. Kenyatta had been safely locked away in prison while the Mau Mau war raged on. A former British District Officer would tell me that the Governor had urged them to supply Kenyatta with as much whiskey as he craved in the hope that it would ruin his liver.
It is paradoxical that Achebe's fatherland has intensified attacks on African religions, philosophical systems and languages while hailing Things Fall Apart. Preachers and managers of rituals from the main Christian branches hang on to biblical texts and denounce "cultists". Some Pentecostal denominations prohibit uses of ancient ethnic names -including Yoruba names that link a child to clan members and historical experiences of a family. A study done for the Presidency on religious cultures and their implications for democratic culture reported that a military culture of command and regimentation had penetrated worship environments. There was little intellectual exploration of potential ideas and philosophical values in ethnic civilisations of their diverse urban worshipers. A religious leader once condemned FESTAC as the invasion of Nigeria by Satan.
In 1972 a music shop in New York sold me an album labelled "SHAKARA and LADY" by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a name I had never heard before. There was also a MISA LUBA album - a Catholic Mass composed and rendered in enchanting Luba ethnic music. They were fellow travellers with Chinua Achebe's call for founding our freedom and CREATIVITY on Africa's ancestral roots. Pope John Paul arrived with his charismatic power over worshipers. It was clear that he had been touched by Fela's music and MISA LUBA's new magical gift to humanity. He called for the vitality of Africa's culture to regenerate the Church. Perhaps Achebe passed the baton to Pope Francis.