17 March 2017

Kenya: What Happened to Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's Makerere University?

Photo: Ngugi Wa Thiong'o/Facebook
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o.

In a new memoir, Ngugi wa Thiong'o revisits his time at Makerere and leaves Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire with a nostalgia for a university that once was.

Kenyan literary colossus Ngugi wa Thiong'o has a new book out. The third volume in a series of memoirs, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer's Awakening continues the story of the making of Ngugi from where the previous titles, In The House of the Interpreter and Dreams in a Time of War, left off. In this volume, Ngugi takes his readers back to the late 1950s and early 1960s. The reader learns that the writer left Kenya for Uganda in 1959, a colonial subject, and returned in 1964, a citizen of an independent Kenya.

The memoir is Ngugi's ode to Makerere, the university that made him the first East African to publish a novel in English. The reader learns of Ngugi's writing process for his first two novels. One learns that the working title of the manuscript for his first novel, The River Between (which was in fact published second) was 'Wrestling with God', taken from Genesis 32:24-26. On completion it became 'The Black Messiah'.

We also learn that literary competitions and prizes were partly responsible for Ngugi's advent as a writer. The River Between was originally entered for a novel competition ran by the East African Literature Bureau in 1961. In an era when literary initiatives on the continent are starved of support by national governments, this fact evokes a longing for a bygone past, when the state, even if colonial, financed literary prizes.

"The Makerere that Ngugi talks about, that nurtured him into a novelist and playwright, is a thing of the past."

We learn that emerging writers had their eyes on Western publishing houses, even in those days. Ngugi tells of a rejection by Jonathan Cape of a short-story collection manuscript of his. As is the case today, the African writers of Ngugi's era did more than complain about the lack of publishing opportunities. They established platforms to discover and support emerging writers. One of these was the Mbari club, which convened the now-famous 1962 Conference of African Writers of English Expression at Makerere. The memoir shows how extra-ordinary an opportunity the conference was for a young Ngugi, acknowledging the privilege he had as a student writer working in English because more senior African language writers had not been invited. He wrote his second manuscript, which became his first published novel, Weep Not, Child for the conference and that is where he handed it to Chinua Achebe.

In his four years at Makerere, Ngugi wrote two novels and three plays. This was possible because of the intellectual environment at Makerere at the time, and the cooperation between the state, and writer-led literary initiatives with the university. While literary entrepreneurship remains the forgotten maid of literary culture, the story of Ngugi's development as a young writer is a tribute to those who provided him with immediate motivation to write his first two novels.

Ngugi's memoir is a historical treasure trove, not only for literary and cultural entrepreneurs, or biographers of literary figures, or scholars of literature, but also for educational historians. The Makerere that Ngugi talks about, that nurtured him into a novelist and playwright, is a thing of the past. After outlining the various aspects of the failure of Ugandan and African post-colonial leadership, including the destruction of institutions of intellectual production, Ngugi laments: "Somehow, Makerere survived, but as a shadow of its past."

There is immense pain in that one line. Today, Makerere's Literature Department, which nurtured Ngugi between 1959 and 1964, is overcrowded by students and is disconnected from the culture of the halls of residence. It no longer organises competitions in which lecturers can support students to write, direct and stage plays. The Literature Department is part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which, according to Mahmood Mamdani's Scholars in the Marketplace, was worst hit by Museveni's neoliberal reforms of higher education.

Mamdani argues that as government turned away from funding higher education, to prioritise primary education, some units at Makerere turned to a business approach to generate income. They looked at academic courses as products they could sell to the market. For most of the arts and social science courses, they had to be 'innovative' to attract parents and students, as these courses were deemed theoretical and not skills-based. They came up with 'inter-disciplinary' courses that joined the theoretical with the skills-based. This is the logic that informs the Bachelor of Ethics and Human Rights course, for example. Ethics is the theoretical arm, while Human Rights constitutes the skills part.

"Between 1954, when it was born, and 1963, the Makerere Students Guild had presidents from Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda"

The prestige of some units has not survived the era of academic entrepreneurship. Extra-curricular intellectual activities at the level of the hall of residence, ran by academic units do not feature in the neo-liberal structure of the university. A student teeming with Ngugi-like ambition is left to their own devices. Besides the high number of students enrolled at the university, that makes it impossible for a student to develop a mentoring relationship with their lecturer, and the department's relationship with some of the contemporary national and Pan-African literary initiatives is a work in slow progress.

Makerere has also fallen from the Pan-African grace of its past. Students at Makerere in Ngugi's time came from all over the continent. The Students' Guild leadership was a multinational affair. "Between 1954, when it was born, and 1963, the Makerere Students Guild had presidents from Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda," Ngugi writes. Today, non-Ugandan students at the university are a negligible fraction - and they are even more insignificant in university students' leadership.

Ngugi's Birth of a Dream Weaver, even for those whose parents were not born when he studied in Makerere, evokes a nostalgia for a by-gone Makerere. Today, given the condition of the university and the department in which Ngugi studied, it would be a very tall order for an undergraduate student in their twenties to write three plays and two novels in four years. It is disturbing that a directly colonial Makerere was in fact more Pan-African and supportive of student literary and cultural endeavor than the shadow that it has become, 54 years after attaining the flag of independence.

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