By Fred Mbogo
Published October 29, 2013
East African literary critics are yet to learn how to deal with Taban lo Liyong his having been on the scene for close to five decades notwithstanding. At various points in the history of literary criticisms in East Africa, lo Liyong has been discussed frequently as a spoiler, or rubble-rouser, a provocateur and so on. The most memorable of his most quoted declarations was made in 1969 when he confidently stated that East Africa was a literary desert. In recent times this assertion by the man who was for close to three decades believed to be Ugandan has been embellished with sentiments like East Africa’s ‘literary unseriousness’ or East Africa engaging in pulp or cheap literary production.
During the “East Africa at 50” conference on literature at University of Nairobi that ran September 10-12, 2013, Taban Lo Liyong who now teaches literature at Juba University in South Sudan, was in his element again, railing against a perceived moral emptiness in East Africa. Perhaps this time he should call it a moral barrenness.
In a paper he presented on September 11, lo Liyong tore into the notion of ‘tribe’ in terms of numbers as the card that decides who wins elections. He derided the ‘hollow’ persuasion that democracy peddles where numbers matter and called for a re-inspection of moral selves.
The paper appeared to be timely especially given the on-going cases at the International Criminal Court where Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy-President William Ruto are to answer to criminal charges following the post-2007 electoral violence. The International Criminal Court’s interests are also in Uganda where there exists a 2005 warrant of arrest on Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels.
Taban lo Liyong’s paper was titled “Tribal Values, not Numbers, Count”. His was a call to a return to the wisdom held by elders and which is assumed to have existed for eons from the days of pre-colonial Africa. That wisdom, when employed properly, he argues in the paper, should lead to some form of reconciliation in warring situations, especially in areas prone to ethnic clashes. But that same wisdom should be engaged in the process of imbuing values that are counter-greed, that instead inculcate a sense of caring for one another. So, implicitly, Taban lo Liyong is calling on Africans to continuously study cultural productions that have otherwise been assumed to have museum-like value. These include those under oral literature as well as some that have been situated within anthropology.
Perhaps this is the same idea that so inspired Dr Tom Odhiambo of University of Nairobi in his argumentative paper on the place of cultural studies in Kenya 50 years on. The idea that literature must remain pure and uncontaminated by other cultural productions was being questioned here. Indeed, the conference seemed to suggest a move away from the perception that literary tools cannot be employed in reading artworks within popular culture: television, film, radio, popular and glossy magazines, live performances and music.
In this context, then, the conference seemed to answer Taban lo Liyong’s anxieties about a literary barrenness in East Africa. The massive cultural productions under discussion suggested a robust engagement with creativity in East Africa.
There was even a supposition that lo Liyong was off the mark in his comments as he had a low opinion of Kiswahili literature in East Africa—perhaps because his thinking had been trapped within that Western education frame. Literature from Somalia was discussed alongside that of post-Genocide Rwanda.
The conference had a healthy dose of discussion with writers and their craft. There was, for example, Professor Euphrase Kezilahabi, the re-known writer of Rosa Mistika, in conversation with Professor Kithaka wa Mberia. Kezilahabi’s Rosa Mistika has been translated into various languages and read as a school text all over the world. He has written five other novels and several books that carry his literary essays.
Wa Mberia, on the other hand, is a prolific playwright, poet, and academic based at University of Nairobi. His play, Maua Kwenye Jua La Asubuhi, which has been staged all over Kenya since the late 1990s, is a pointer to the kind of politics the writer engages in. In this play, wa Mberia narrates the story of Africa’s so-called ethnic clashes and blames politicians who find it easy to use the ethnic card to incite citizens against one another.
Through humour, poetry, a strong storyline and suggested movement, the play invites audiences to think through their actions, to always question directives given by politicians and ultimately not heed their every word and action.
Wa Mberia’s plays, including Kifo Kisimani, have been used as examinable school texts in Kenya and abroad.
It is in the discussion between Kezilahabi and Kithaka wa Mberia that issues about Kiswahili literature’s place in East Africa came to the fore. Such finer questions as to how various versions of Kiswahili come into play in the writing of fictional works were deliberated upon.
There was also the very idea that Kiswahili being partly of Bantu heritage should fly on its own wings; its poetry in particular, shouldn’t be so reliant on styles of expression from Arabia.
The personal journey of both writers gave insight to the punishing road that writing takes its workers through so much so that publication brings about a feeling of freedom from torture.
The climax of these writer-conversations at the conference pitted Kenya’s ‘father of popular literature’, Dr David Maillu, against Taban lo Liyong with Professor Chris Wanjala of University of Nairobi as the in-between critic.
The magic of Maillu’s daring spirit seemed to come alive once more as he narrated his experiences as a writer. The grit with which he survived tormenter-critics who went as far as calling his books pornography showed through in these conversations.
Talking about his novel, “After 4.30”, Dr Maillu seemed happy that it went out of print on several occasions. His novels have continued to be accessible to a wide readership in Kenya and beyond as he is able to tell a story with ease as was demonstrated at the conference.
Taban lo Liyong seemed more interested in going back to his conference paper theme about values and how an East Africa can be shaped about ethnic-inspired knowledge of a past that must be used to inspire the desirable future. Perhaps his statements should have been made in Tanzania where unfolding events are questioning citizenship with the government’s forceful deportation of “suspect” foreigners—Burundians, Rwandans among others—back to their countries.