62. Farewell To Kenya’s Pan-African Griot

Business Day (South Africa),
29 October 2018.
Prof Adekeye Adebajo

Kenyan scholar and literary critic, Chris Wanjala, who died at the age of 75 this month, was among the pioneering first generation of post-colonial East African scholars of English Literature. Renowned for a self-effacing humility, he taught at the University of Nairobi for four decades, publishing 10 books and over 50 articles. A  public intellectual, along with other university colleagues in the early 1970s – Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, and Taban lo Liyong – Wanjala helped to transform the curriculum from a Eurocentric one to one which  had African oral and written literature at the centre of its intellectual enterprise. In the process, they also transformed literature curricula across East Africa.

It was this story that Professor Wanjala told at a conference we hosted at the University of Johannesburg in August on potential lessons for curriculum transformation in South Africa from experiences in the rest of Africa. In displacing courses taught by British lecturers at the University of Nairobi that had focused solely on the Western canon, the young pioneers criticised Western education and philosophy for suppressing African voices of dissent and liberation, and set out instead to promote “aesthetic theories based on oral literature” centred on African people, society, and history.

Though he was part of this “Nairobi School of Literature,” Wanjala continued to argue for a rigorous philosophical foundation to underpin this Africanization of a colonially-inherited curriculum, and insisted that the Western canon must continue to be taught alongside African literature, and that strong writing skills and textual criticism not be lost. He believed strongly that language could not be divorced from literature. Wanjala thus promoted the use of African languages, teaching Kiswahili literature. He further argued for the study of African political thought, and consistently criticised the “servile mimicry” of African scholars who sought validation from the West. The issue of cultural alienation was a central focus of his work.

Wanjala was a cosmopolitan scholar who was as conversant with Shakespeare and Dickens, as he was with Tolstoy and Brecht. He was, however, primarily an uncompromising Pan-Africanist who had an unusual grasp of not only East African literature, but also Southern and West African, as well as Caribbean literature. He introduced two generations of Kenyan students to Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembène, Derek Walcott, Lewis Nkosi, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Alex La Guma, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.

A subject that was particularly close to Wanjala’s heart was the role of African intellectuals in society. Two of his memorable essays captured his rich insights into these debates. In a 2005 article on the iconoclastic South African writer of the Drum era of the 1950s, Lewis Nkosi, Wanjala described how the author often maintained a tone of “detached humour and urbane irony” in his literary criticism. He noted Nkosi’s dismissal of black South African fiction as “lacking the combination of art and imagination needed to grasp the African reality,” as well as the South African writer’s often vitriolic criticisms, for example, dubbing Mphahlele’s prose as “dull-witted.” Nkosi could be even more scathing: “I fail to see what particular use a deranged poet is to the armed struggle.” He felt that South African writers in exile played only a marginal role in the liberation struggle, especially if they lacked an organic link to the masses.

In a 2017 essay, Wanjala reviewed Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui’s 1971 novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, in which Mazrui tried Nigeria’s greatest poet – who had been killed in the Nigerian civil war fighting for Igbo secession – in an African Hereafter for betraying his art by swapping his pen for a pistol, and for putting ethnicity before his country. Wanjala regarded Mazrui as having sided, in the novel, with the “Counsel for Damnation” – liberal Ghanaian lawyer, Apolo-Gyamfi – who like Mazrui, had studied at Oxford. Both Mazrui and Apolo-Gyamfi felt that the artist’s loyalty was to broader society, and not to a parochial community. Wanjala saw Mazrui as portraying more negatively the “Counsel for Salvation” – Kenyan journalist, Hamisi – whom he felt viewed the artist as committed to a more communal Africa.  Wanjala, is however, scathing about the alienation of the African intellectual and political elite from the masses, and accused Mazrui of “wagging his tail to please his imperial master.”

Wanjala has now himself joined the ancestors in the Hereafter that Mazrui dubbed “After Africa.” Farewell, “Mwalimu.”

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.