By Daisy Okoti
Published January 5, 2014
“The man has struck again in the Press, launched his book in Lodwar presided over by the Governor of the oil- and water-full Turkana County, and published a stinker in the Saturday Nation saying I forced him out of Kenya. The man has flown back to Juba and he is listening to the echoes of his voice enjoying himself immensely.”
That is how Chris Lukorito Wanjalaof the University of Nairobi reacted to Juba University’s Taban lo Liyong’s article in Saturday Nation newspaper of Nairobi that had dismissed Kenyan professors of being unread, uncritical and unreceptive of ‘foreigners of more superlative endowments’.
In a non-flattering language in the article that was published on December 29, 2013, lo Liyong referred to literature lecturers in Kenyan universities as ‘non-readers’, ‘non-experts on literature’ and ‘writers of students’ guides for secondary schools who call themselves professors’.
Lo Liyong concluded, “When Kenyan universities begin to insist on published critical works as ground for appointment to associate professorships and professorships, then we shall know that our universities have come of age.”
Prof Wanjala chose to respond to lo Liyong through an unexpected medium: Facebook.
In a post that generated a lively debate on January 1, 2014, Prof Wanjala wrote, “There have always been bruising wars of supremacy between Taban Lo Liyong and Kenyan intellectuals. Taban Lo Liyong never read what we wrote. He went on operating as if he was the only pebble on the beach, advertising his own essays and quoting exotic authors.”
While John Sibi-Okumu and Ssaalongo Theo LuzukaTheo urged Wanjala to ignore lo Liyong, Kenneth Jumba, Kipsiro Kiprop and Ogova Ondego argued that lo Liyong was in order and that intellectual development exists only where there is critical and robust interaction.
“The genre of critical analysis will not grow if the likes of Prof Taban keep quiet. He should be encouraged to stalk the controversy more,” Jumba said.
Ondego added, “Prof lo Liyong’s voice is very much welcome; what kind of intellectualism can exist without interaction, provocative interaction that pushes us out of our comfort zones to examine whether we really have those zones in the first place. And how long they last. If at all.”
Lo Liyong, who is credited with having observed in “Literary Vacuum in East Africa “—an essay Wanjala says was published in 1965—that East Africa was a literary desert, is now talking about an intellectual desert in the region. And there is little proof from anyone to show that scholarship is alive and booming in the region.
Speaking during the ‘Remembering Chinua Achebe Colloquium’ at the University of Nairobi in April 2013, lo Liyong, once more, urged scholars to read more critically, analyse issues and become more creatively involved in scholarship. Those attentively listening to the 77-year-old scholar and teacher who is described by the late William Robert Ochieng as an intellectual tyrant’ and a ‘con’ were post-graduate—Master’s and PhD students—and lecturers. He wasn’t challenged. Do Kenyan scholars think Taban lo Liyong has any reason to raise such disturbing concerns about scholarship in the region? That Kenya lacks intellectuals who can theorise, come up with new knowledge which they can impart on students who can then apply it creatively, having interacted with it, modified it and adopted it as their own?
Wanjala, who says he joined the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi in 1968 and taught alongside lo Liyong from 1971 till the latter left Kenya, contends the lo Liyong’s claims are unfounded.
“Taban has always waged war against Kenyan literati and it should not be surprising his article in the latest Saturday Nation was continuing his war of words. This war of words will not stop unless Taban lo Liyong stops belittling and insulting Kenyan intellectuals. Taban will not stop his tirade unless people fight back. The truce will come when he has been vanquished.”
But can this debate be simply wished away? Prof Wanjala doesn’t show why Taban lo Liyong shouldn’t belittle and insult Kenyan scholars; is Taban lo Liyong merely being arrogant?
“Taban is telling the truth. I agree with him that East Africa is a ‘literary desert’. Taban is asking questions we always ask,” says Kipsiro Kiprop.
Saying Taban lo Liyong has challenges intellectuals in eastern Africa in general and Kenya in particular to prove their worth, Ogova Ondego says, “Taban lo Liyong is challenging academics – whom he refers to as ‘non-readers’ and ‘non-experts’ on literature—to prove that he is wrong in arguing that the only qualification for them to be called ‘professor’ is to write literature guides for secondary school students. What do you say about that, Prof Chris Wanjala?”
Perhaps wishing to add fuel to the fire or to merely shed light on how the intellectual barrenness developed in Kenya, Ogova Ondego says, “The great days of intellectual debates and cultural awareness, I am told, happened in those heady days lo Liyong is referring to at the University of Nairobi. What happened thereafter?”
And I think it is at this juncture that the debate gets more exciting as information that led to the development of the intellectual barrenness in East Africa comes flooding in. The intolerance of academic freedom by the Government of Kenya’s second President, Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, comes into focus.
“Following the great purge, intellectuals were scattered to the four winds of the earth. E S Atieno Odhiambo left for Rice University in the US, Micere Githae Mugo for Harare, Mukaru Ng’ang’a for Sweden, Kabiru Kinyanjui went quiet, Ngugi took off!” Francis Makokha says. “Many stayed back including Prof Chris Wanjala, Prof William Ochieng, Prof Mwanzi and others but there is a widespread feeling that the intellectual flame had been effectively dimmed, if not extinguished altogether.”
Ogova Ondego: Francis Makokha, sir, but those who remained weren’t critical of the system; they served it almost with religious devotion. Do you recall the non-flattering title, ‘Nyayo Professors’, ‘Nyayo Chaplain’, ‘Nyayo this and Nyayo that’? William Ochieng served the system. And so did Henry Mwanzi? And Eric Aseka?”
Francis Makokha: “I remember. They were called intellectuals for hire, Kanu hatchet men, etc. I later got in touch with the youngest of them at the time, Eric Aseka, known to me personally, to get a perspective of what was happening. Later he reverted to his ‘saved’.”
Ogova Ondego: “Yes, Sir. So, is Taban lo Liyong flying off tangent in his claims of intellectual barrenness in East Africa or does he have a point?”
Francis Makokha: “He’s got a point now as he did then and I am sure that … more intellectuals will come forward to enrich this discourse for the good of us all.”
Francis Makokha: “Prof Wanjala, after studying lo Liyong’s works and teaching with him, is that how you came up with the idea of the ‘Tabanic genre’?”
Chris Wanjala: “I have said elsewhere that Taban belongs to Nietzsche’s school. This arrogance is a philosophy of people who in Taban’s words,’will go to all lengths in order to achieve something.’ They will outdo anyone to succeed; the Germans will outdo Jews, and the ‘Kaffirs’ in South Africa can raise themselves to the level of a ‘Mulungu’. I called this feeling in Taban ,’The Tabanic Genre’ in my chapter in a book. In his own way he wants East African intellectuals to rise and shine. He says: ‘The Tabanic Genre fights against eunuch scholars and bourgeois power groups’. Says Taban, ‘I don’t like a scholar who just reads and accepts; or merely reads to gather facts. I prefer scholars who put themselves and their positions into their reading’.”
Hey, so even Prof Chris Lukorito Wanjala also agrees with Taban lo Liyong’s assertion that “I don’t like a scholar who merely reads and accepts; or merely reads to gather facts. I prefer scholars who put themselves and positions into their reading”?