Ngugi wa Thiong’o says “let our planes fly”

At a public lecture on June 11 at the University of Nairobi, Kenyan literary giant, Ngugi wa Thiong’o told the story of Gachamaba and Charles Njonjo. Gachamba was a bicycle repairman from Nyeri, in Central Kenya, who, in the late 1970s, built an airplane. He had no secondary education and spent his days tinkering with spare parts. His airplane flew for 9 miles. Charles Njonjo, on the other hand, was an exceptionally well-educated lawyer and the Attorney General of Kenya from 1978-1982. He heard about Gachamba’s short flight and, banned the flying of planes without a proper license. In Ngugi’s hands this story became an insightful metaphor for the Kenyan government’s habit of inhibiting the country’s talents.

Ngugi’s lecture was in many ways evidence of this. It was part of a series of public engagements to commemorate the first edition of his Weep Not, Child, first published in 1964 by East African Educational Publishers. Weep Not, Child was an anti-colonial novel, which marked Ngugi as independent Kenya’s most important and talented writer of fiction. Yet in subsequent years, as Ngugi’s criticism shifted toward President Jomo Kenyatta, the government began to get in the way. Ngugi was arrested in 1977 and in 1982, under Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel Arap Moi, he was allowed to go into exile with the veiled threat that upon his return he would be met by a ‘red carpet.’ He was away for 22 years.

Given this troubled history with the Kenyan state, his very public return to Kenya, which included a meeting with Kenya’s current President, Jomo’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, was nothing short of historic. During the lecture, he joked about his imprisonment and exile and the irony that now, many years later the son of his incarcerator was receiving him at State House, on a real red carpet, and asking him to return home. Ngugi lauded this as a sign of how far Kenya has come, although he did not shy away from noting how far the country still has to go.

Kenya is less dictatorial than it was during the first Kenyatta and Moi eras, to be sure. But  recent years have seen  new  laws controlling the media, the wanton detention of Somalis in Nairobi, the terrible decision to build a wall on the Somali border as well as the mystery disappearance of key witnesses in the trials at the ICC of both the President and the Vice President.  The country is more democratic than it was, but many Kenyans are understandably leery of going back in time.

Before Ngugi’s speech, performances and speeches were given in his honor. One performance – a reimagining of Weep Not, Child – left many in tears. Actors reenacted the scenes in which the young protagonist is tortured on suspicion of being a Mau Mau, as well as parts of the book in which he is being taught English:

Teacher I am Standing. What am I doing?
Class You are standing up.
Teacher Again.
Class You are standing up.
Teacher You- no- you- yes. What’s your name?
Pupil Njoroge.
Teacher Njoroge, stand up. What are you doing?
Njoroge You are standing up.
Teacher What are you doing?
Njoroge You are standing up.

The scene continues with Njoroge getting more and more confused about pronouns, and we in the audience laughed and laughed at his mistakes. Later, Ngugi rebuked us all for joining in with the colonialist’s humiliation of Njoroge and making his proficiency in Kiswahili and Kikuyu seem inferior. He went on to note the story of Githunguri Teacher Training College, a school set up by Kenyans during the colonial occupation. As the colonizers began to ban African schools, Githunguri was turned into a prison in which they would hang people suspected of being Mau Mau. The significance of desecrating an institution celebrating Kenyan educators, and subsequently turning it into a site of murder, speaks volumes of the violence that was done to the Kenyan mind during the colonial regime.

The connection between education and colonial dominance has long been one of Ngugi’s primary concerns; he deployed many of his harshest words for independent Kenya’s failure to redress this legacy. In publications like Decolonising the Mind he chastises those who fail to understand why it is so harmful for us to laugh and humiliate those who do not, as he wrote in Devil on the Cross, “speak English through the nose”. Ngugi was instrumental in developing the Literature department at the University of Nairobi, where, for a time, they were able to develop a syllabus for Kenyan secondary schools featuring books from Africa, Asia and Latin America, not just Europe. However, much in the same way as Njonjo would not allow Kenyan engineering to flourish, the Kenyan government responded by abolishing literature in secondary schools.

And so, after lamenting this intellectual loss, the Professor warned that even 52 years after independence, as Kenyans (and Africans in general) continue trying to perfect their English or French, foreigners continue perfecting their instruments of access to Africa’s resources. He renewed his old, still unheeded call for the government to do whatever it can to allow Kenyans to make their own futures in the way of Gachamba, not the way of Njonjo, and to let their own planes fly.

Nikita Bernardi

Nikita Bernardi is an MA student in African studies at Yale.

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