Lack of awareness among ‘English teachers’ disturbing
Taban Lo Liyong is beautifully eccentric. The South Sudanese scholar is considered an intellectual irritant who has had numerous run-ins with colleagues in the literary world. Critics accuse him of appointing himself the prefect of East African literature.
The late Prof Chris Wanjala, a respected literary critic, once described Lo Liyong as an “ingrate” after he gave an interview deriding Ngugi wa Thiongo, historian William Ochieng and Ali Mazrui.
The critic wondered why Kenyan newspaper editors allow Lo Liyong to “shower his literary offals on the Kenyan literati year in, year out.”
“Who appointed Lo Liyong to throw mud at professors and lecturers in literature, drama, poetry and cultural studies in Kenyan universities?” he ranted.
The poet had angered the Kenyan literati with his argument that Jua Kali artisans were more deserving of the Nobel Prize award than Ngugi, in a conversation with this writer and media intellectual Julius Sigei.
(Armed with his old brown leather bag full of books and other paraphernalia, an enraged Lo Liyong – following acerbic criticism – will a week later storm our newsroom to disown his comments on Ngugi, claiming the writers were high on tots of whisky during the interview. We almost jumped out through the window when he threatened to fire a protest letter to His Highness the Aga Khan.)
Lo Liyong has never hidden his exaggerated self-appraisal and disdain for what he calls “pseudo-intellectuals”. He brags that there is no writer of metal in Kenya to compare with him. According to cantankerous old man of East African literature, only Ayi Kwei Armah can hold a candle to him in Africa.
“(Wole) Soyinka showed us what can be done with the big vocabulary (Kamara) Laye produced classics. But in terms of really understanding what the European mentality is all about, only Armah and I have got it right.”
But Prof Wanjala dismissed this assertion: “What literature is Lo Liyong publishing that would be worth serious attention in a university and secondary school curriculum apart from his rusty manuscripts that he composed while studying in Iowa in the mid-1960s and that he is wont to pulling out one by one, like a witchdoctor pulling out magic wands from a mysteriously dark bag, to unsuspecting publishers and media practitioners?”
Nobody doubts Lo Liyong’s contribution to the growth of the East African literature. While at the University of Nairobi, he teamed up with Ngugi and Okot P’Bitek to demand the abolition of the English Department which they considered an entrenchment of the colonial mentality.
In the mid-60s, he sparked debate when he wrote the famous essay declaring East Africa a “ literary desert”. The exchange that followed is a strong pillar in the East African literary discourse. Wanjala’s The Season of Harvest is a response to Lo Liyong.
It was, therefore, shocking when in a forum to celebrate the anniversary of Sembene Ousmane, a group of Kenyans who introduced themselves as high school “English teachers” confessed not to have interacted with Lo Liyong’s literature. It was also apparent the teachers were not aware of Sembene, the poetry of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, David Rubadiri, Bertolt Bretch, the works of Es’kia Mphahlele and Armah.
One might not be aware of the conversations, attitudes and silences in university departments of literature but there is something disturbing about any system that produces such level of ignorance.
It has also been argued that societal dynamics have changed and the choice of literary works for study is informed by a desire to respond to the prevailing circumstances. There is also the view that new voices have emerged that require accommodation and articulation in old spaces. Literature is the study of society and teachers have an immense role in shaping students’ world view. That is why study should be entrusted with teachers who Philip Ochieng would call“socially and intellectually aware”.
As old hands, we might be accused of bending towards antiquity and reluctant to accept the argument that the study can be enlightening in absence of exposure to the reflections and irritations of literary greats such as Shakespeare, Soyinka, Ngugi, Mariama Ba, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi, Grace Ogot, Asenath Bole Odaga, Francis Imbuga, Everet Sitanda, Lo Liyong, Henry Indangasi, John Ruganda, Kithaka wa Mberia and the pioneers of the Great Tradition.
—The writer is the Political Editor at People Daily