By Catherine Kimotho with Ogova Ondego
Published December 16, 2012
Edited by South Africa-based Kenyan academics Prof James Ogude and senior lecturers Grace Musila and Dina Ligaga and published in 2012 by Africa World Press of Trenton, New Jersey, United States of America, the book–Rethinking Eastern African Literary and Intellectual Landscapes–is said to be an academic presentation by ‘like-minded’ scholars.
Perhaps to facilitate easy reference, the tome is divided into four sections–Literary and Intellectual Traditions, The Eastern African Canon and Post-Colonial Imaginaries, Eastern African Diasporas, and Performance and Media–complete with end notes, bibliography, index and profiles of contributors.
It is the fourth section, Performance and Media, that would readily connect with most seekers of information, researchers, critics, journalists, historians, policy-makers, development workers and practitioners of culture.
Tom Michael Mboya sets the pace with his provocative article, The Serious People of Raha: The Politics in the Ethnic Stereotyping of the Luo in Okatch Biggy’s Benga, in which he analyses the assertions that the Luo are ‘extravagant, self-centred, and exhibitionist; that they use their money for show and not to improve themselves as argued by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga; that ‘the Luo were being left behind in social and economic development because they wasted a major portion of their income on women, alcohol and cars’ as contented by Z A Otieno K’Oloo and that the Luo were ‘renowned by their detractors for their epicurean hedonism and no thought for tomorrow’ by Atieno Odhiambo against the music of Okatch Biggy. He persuasively concludes that raha (pleasure) ‘makes the Luo person unashamedin a polity where the identity is assaulted by others.’ That this pride in self not only empowers the Luo and ‘positions him to be an agent in his/her political economic affairs; but it enables him/her to act’. A people that had been marginalized, and whose marginalization was often justified on cultural grounds, Mboya contends, should react by defiantly embracing the demeaned culture and thus affirm themselves through Okatch Biggy’s music.
Also of interest is Maria Suriano’s ‘From Dansi to Bongo Flava: Popular Music and Politics in Tanzania, 1955-2005′, a paper that examines how the forms and functions of popular music have changed in tandem with the major political shifts in Tanzania (Tanganyika until 1964).’ Suriano argues that Bongo Flava, the music of the younger generation, is a democratic public space and a testimony that popular culture can bring about change in postcolonial Tanzania.
Dominica Dipio’s paper looks at the often shifting ground of the ‘imbalu’ male ritual circumcision among the Bagisu or Bamasaba of Uganda. This rite of passage is said to be directly connected to ‘adulthood, responsibility, marriage and continuity’. Though viewed as ‘the only ritual that equalises men and opens the door to adult responsibilities and privileges’, modernity is introducing ‘fun, spectacle and commerce’ to imbalu.
Fred Mbogo, after looking at Vioja Mahakamani (drama in the courtroom), the long running television drama in Kenya, concludes that this parody of modern court proceedings entertains as it provides legal education and urges the audience to ‘re-examine their societal values, the crisis of rural-urban migration, threats from technological advancement and the continual assault of ‘traditional’ values by a ruthless economic system.’ Moreover, Mbogo contends further, Vioja Mahakamani could unintentionally contributing to the, perpetuation of ethnic stereotypes that lead to favouristism, nepotism, tribalism, bias, prejudice, mismanagement and their attendant ills in public life in the country.
Dina Ligaga, in examining a Kenyan radio play, not only argues that ‘one of the most effective ways of reproducing particular notions of nationalism as natural is by circulating them within the realm of the everyday’ but calls for a re-examination of the notion of nationalism as practised in Kenya.
Though it appears in the first section of the book, Literary and Intellectual Traditions, Tom Odhiambo’s ‘Kwani? and the Imaginations Around Re-Invention of Art and Culture in Kenya’ could also have fitted well in the Performances and Media section. Basing his argument on Taban Lo Liyong’s assertion that East Africa was a literary desert in terms of quality and quantity of literature and intellectual debates produced in the region after the ‘golden years’ of 1960s and 1970s, Odhiambo contends that Kwani?, a literary publication in Nairobi, ‘has achieved little of its initial objectives, and that its stated intentions are undermined by its reliance on donor funding, its transinational and global tendencies, and its editorial practices which have probably encouraged the production of what it calls ‘non-creative fiction’ more than fiction.’
Suffice it to say that Odhiambo’s is a good illustration of what literary criticism and communication should be. He writes in a narrative that is almost free of all academic or theoretical jargon, basing the argument on facts or what one could refer to as ‘terms of reference’.
Predictably, the style and language of the book is academic and most essays are couched in academic theories and jargon. This could pose a challenge to general readers or seekers of information.
The type face and font size of the blurb on outside back cover is not only ridiculously small but is overly congested with information published in its twenty page introduction also competing for space here! The white spaces that are meant to give relief to the eye are almost non-existent, especially in the Introduction. The Content page, too, is a jumbled assortment of chapters, titles and names of authors making it difficult to differentiate one from the other.
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I also take issue with the description ‘Eastern African’ which purports that the essays touch on the entire Great Lakes and Horn of Africa region, i.e. South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Congo-Kinshasa. Out of the 19 essays in the book, only Somali-born Nuruddin Farah (whose works are examined by Fiona Moolla) could be said to belong to ‘Eastern Africa’; the rest lie within the domain of what has traditionally been known as East Africa, i.e. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Therefore the question arises as to the rationale behind this choice of description in regards to the essays.
Rethinking Eastern African Literary and Intellectual Landscape is not only a mouthful but it testifies to the purpose of the essays. Prof James Ogude, the main editor of the book, indicates in his equally mouthful ‘The Emergence of Local Patronages and Intellectual Traditions in Post-Independence East Africa: Nativism or a Critique of Difference and Universalism?’ essay that there is a need for the region to rethink or reconstruct its old literary perspectives. The black aesthetics movement in the 1960s and the radical curriculum change called for by Ngugi wa Thing’o and Taban Lo Liyong at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s was a ‘radical challenge’ from the notion of Africa as the ‘Marginal Other’. It is from this essay that the title of the book, Rethinking Eastern African Literary and Intellectual Landscapes, is derived.