12 February 2019

Kenya: Prof Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Unveils His First Gikuyu Epic

Photo: allafrica.com
Ngugi wa Thiong'o unveils his first Gikuyu epic.

Renown author Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o has released his 34th novel, a Gikuyu epic titled Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (loosely translates to perfect nine: the story of Gikuyu na Mumbi). The book was launched at the Kenya National theatre on Monday, February 11.

Many literature enthusiasts gathered for the event including former Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga who described Ngugi as a friend of many years and lauded him for his consistency in promoting local languages.

"I am currently reading the Kikamba Bible which was translated from Greek by Professor John Mbiti. There is something profound about the mother-tongue. At the judiciary, there is what we call Alternative Justice Systems where people settle issues in the hearing of elders or religious leaders. This method enjoys a lot of support from people and is especially esteemed because of the use of local language. Parties involved have more confidence in getting justice served when the issue is deliberated in a language that can be understood by all," said Dr Mutunga.

In his speech, Ngugi disclosed that his latest book, which he has published at the age of 81, is special in that it is his first attempt at writing a Gikuyu epic. Epics are a genre of writing that is poetic in nature and often features heroic characters.

"When writing this novel, I focused on the myth of Gikuyu and Mumbi, and their daughters. Contrary to most claims about the tradition of marriage, Gikuyu had only one wife and was therefore monogamous."

"I thought about Gikuyu's daughters and how they had to do all the work since they did not have any brothers. They did not depend on men to fend for them because the men were simply not there. I like to think of them as the original feminists.

I allowed my mind to wander to the struggle faced by Gikuyu and Mumbi before arriving at Mt Kenya. The myth says that God brought them to the Mountain but what that means in essence is that God gave them the strength to reach the Mountain.

I also explored the perception of the Gikuyu clans, which are named after the daughters of Gikuyu and Mumbi. Often when people distinguish one clan from another, it is in a negative connotation; that clan practises witchcraft, those ones have an evil eye, that other one is mean and so forth.

I wanted to tell a different story of our matriarchs. A story of brave, witty and heroic women and simply allow these qualities define the clans. This is my first Gikuyu epic and I hope that you will all grab a copy and enjoy reading it," Ngugi said amidst the applause from the audience.

Ngugi acknowledged the people who helped him realise the epic, notably, Prof Wanjiku Kabira, a teacher of literature at the University of Nairobi. He thanked her profusely for availing herself to read the drafts and giving insights that shaped the story.

"Prof grasps people's reality in such a refreshing manner that makes him a brilliant writer. He sent me the drafts of Kenda Muiyuru and my initial reaction was on how the character of Mumbi was being depicted, especially from a gender perspective. We discussed this at length.

I also offered insights on the ogre stories, most of which I borrowed from Wanjiru wa Rukenye's books. I was very humbled to read his work and give comments. Ngugi is the kind of person who appreciates everything you do, every effort you make. He is such a gifted writer and that is why we keep asking when he will get the Nobel Prize in literature because he has surely earned it," said Prof Wanjiku.

Apart from the captivating narrative penned by Ngugi, the graphic illustrations contained in the book are an eye-catcher. The artwork was done by freelance artiste Julius Maina who has been creating art for the past 16 years.

"Sometime back I had this desire to create a Gikuyu e-book with illustrations for children to learn the basics of our language. Around the same time, I bumped into a friend, Mr Nyoro who was my boss back when I used to work at Oxford University Press. He gave me a book saying that they were doing a project on the African culture.

When I opened the book, I saw it was written in Gikuyu and I immediately connected with it. Later, Mr Nyoro then introduced me to Ngugi we hit it off immediately. He was so warm and charismatic which really motivated me once I begun sketching the illustrations," said Julius.

Maina admits that the task was quite challenging and it earned him a couple of sleepless nights, He submerged himself in the Gikuyu culture through online research and films. His efforts finally paid off when he completed the project, eight months later.

"When I look at this book, it makes me so happy because people are proud of how it came out and proud of the effort I put into it. Ngugi loved it so much and for me, that was very rewarding." said Julius.

On February 21, the world will be marking 'Mother-tongue Day' and to celebrate this observance, a delegation from East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), the publishers of Ngugi's epic novel, will be unveiling Kikamba textbooks in Kitui at Kenyatta University Kitui Campus.

Ngugi is scheduled to accompany them as he continues to champion for the 3-langauge policy of teaching children their mother tongue, Kiswahili and English.

Kenda Muiyuru by Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o is now available at the local bookstores and is retailing at Sh700 per copy.

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