18 August 2018

Africa: Despite His Views On Africa, I Choose to Celebrate the Trinidadian's Work

Many have written about the life and times of V.S. Naipaul since last Saturday when he passed on. Having said horrendous things about ex-colonials like me, it is inappropriate to for me respond now that he is dead.

My culture, which Naipaul did not respect, does not allow this. But it is in order to reflect on the impact of his works on my ever changing acuities and interpretation of realities over the years.

I was introduced to V.S. Naipaul by Mr. Cassianus Ijait Aluku at Vihiga High School as a Form Three student.

Aluku was the headmaster, and a lover of literature. He would read for us sections of Miguel Street and laugh for a long time before getting us to appreciate the humour.

Significantly, Aluku instilled the love for literature in me and the sensitivity of reading behind the smiles, laughter and tears of human beings to discover the deep frustrations and struggles that underlie the facade we wear in our lives. Through his teachings, I relished V.S. Naipaul's brutal portrayal of characters that resonated well with the people I encountered in Navuhi Village, where I was born.

The hopelessness I saw in Naipaul's characters in Miguel Street was also evident in many people in Navuhi Village. In Borgat, I saw a man whom we called Brando in my village. He was mentally disturbed, but always imitated American film stars in his ways. In Laura, the prostitute in one of the stories, I visualised the girls who had descended on our town of Majengo when Idd Amin turned Uganda into a killing field.

There were many wife beaters in Navuhi to make me remember Bhakcu in one of the stories. The fact that Bhakcu pretended to be a mechanic yet he had no idea about cars made me think of the many boys who were my classmates at Chango primary school and who ended up as "fake mechanics". They never really mastered the craft. They are still wasting away as old men. Such people are dotted all over Kenya.

The last chapter of the book that shows the narrator leaving Miguel Street unites Naipaul with all the other characters in the book. They all longed for something, but they never got it. Naipaul was lucky to escape.

It was while at Kenyatta University that I was made to look at Naipaul's works with fresh consciousness by Prof. Nana Tagore. She taught us A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men. Having studied in the West Indies, Nana brought to us additional knowledge that contradicted Naipaul's rather pessimistic attitude.

Why was Naipaul so pessimistic about his people, including his own father? Despite the cynical portrayal of Biswas, Nana Tagore's deep insights into the mind of Naipaul as an ex-colonial made us understand him and the yearnings of Biswas and his struggle for dignity.

The Mimic Men, which was written in Uganda when Naipaul was offered a writer-in-residence fellowship at Makerere, came with a sense of loss and despair that is characteristic of Naipaul.

Having moved to what he perceived as the centre of the world, Naipaul had nothing but disdain for us who operate from the periphery of the periphery, for that is what Navuhi village is. As graduate students at Kenyatta University, I remember the many hours we spent arguing with C.J. Odhiambo, the late Ezekiel Alembi, Joshua Kyalo and Judy Langat about Naipaul's ideology.

We considered everything Naipaul said with critical introspection. This is the writer who told us openly that Africa has no future. He added insult to injury by asserting that Africans need to be kicked and that is the only thing they understand. Of course our pride cannot allow us to swallow this, but let us sober up and reflect. Do we really have a future with all that is going on in Africa?


Naipaul appealed to something in me. Was it his whimsical nature? Perhaps it was his attitude towards controversy? Such characters in mythology do and say nasty things, but they are never considered villains in any way.

He once said that if a writer does not generate hostility, then he is dead. He also described Trinidadians as people who live purely physical lives.

He concluded that this aspect of his people makes them only interesting to "chaps in universities that want to do compassionate studies about brutes".

Love him or hate him, but Naipaul had strong views about women writers. He boastfully argued that no woman writer was his literary match and that when he read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two he would always tell if it was by a woman or not.

Naipaul was not only a braggart, but also a gifted snob. Those of us who know the attributes of a trickster cannot fail to appreciate him.

Prof. Kabaji is the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Planning, Research and Innovation) at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology.


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