ART CHECK

Literary mausoleums as public sites of culture

The burial sites of iconic figures are testament to their impact

In Summary

• How we celebrate the literary giants of our continent is the subject of debate

Bust of former President Daniel Moi alongside statue of an elephant
Bust of former President Daniel Moi alongside statue of an elephant
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

Last month, the father of the modern short story genre was honoured in the US with a monument. The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum now stands as a monument to both the man and his artistic works. The museum is the residence he dwelt in for years in the 1830s. It was inaugurated by the American Library Association through an advocacy group dealing with such activities known as United for Libraries on January 19, 2020.

The debate on how we celebrate the literary giants of our continent and our region continues unabated. There has been the claim that we celebrate our writers only after their demise. We do so with eloquent requiem speeches and abandon their sites of burial soon after. In fact, some funerary sites of such luminaries have fallen into decrepit conditions as a result of years of neglect.

The great Tanzanian writer Shaaban Robert, the undisputed father of modern Swahili literature, today rests in one such grave in Tanga, Tanzania. Buried on June 22, 1962, Shaaban offers a case in point. Even in its forlorn state, his grave continues to attract visitors, including great Swahili scholars like Prof Clara Momanyi of Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Kenya. She wrote her doctorate research work on the works of the Swahili novelist and playwright.

 

The Hero’s Corner at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi is an attempt for the government to come up with a comely necropolis for great sons and daughters of this country. Many view it as a final resting place of politicians of great stature and rarely as a place for other non-politician champions.

The second president Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi passed away early this week. His final resting place will be a major debate in days to come. Should he rest at the Hero’s Corner or Parliament or his Kabarak home?

Perhaps this tone of thought arises from the fact that our founding father has a special place of rest on Parliament grounds. Can literary greats be considered for such public honour on the basis of their contributions to our national culture? Can great sports icons earn such funerary honour, too?

In Siaya county, the doyen of Kenyan history, Prof Emeritus Bethwell Allan Ogot built a great library of literature and humanities in honour of his writer wife Grace Ogot. She is considered to be the matriarch of Kenyan women writing. Together with Charity Waciuma, she placed the women writers of East African on the continental map of modern African literature.

Grace Ogot was one of the first women to venture into elective politics and leadership after Independence. She rests today in a wonderful mausoleum befitting a writer of her stature and literary prowess. Scholars and students come from near and far to use this resource centre that needs emulation. She died in 2015 having inspired male and female writers of East Africa and beyond with her natal aesthetics in long and short fiction.

However, her mausoleum case is unique. As we celebrate it, questions arise on the plight of her peers and successors in women writing in Kenya. Where did Kenya bury Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye? She died in December 2015. Where did the literary world bury Margaret Ogola? She died in 2011. Like their predecessor above, we lost these two literary luminaries in this past decade.

Memories of their funerary ceremonies are still fresh archives. Should we have considered interring them as part of the national heroes of Kenya at the Hero’s Corner? Their works, such as Coming to Birth and The River and the Source, are evergreen set-books at high school level, and raised several generations of English classes across Kenya.

 

The plight of our departed writers can be broadened to encompass the cases of their male counterparts, such as Wahome Mutahi, Katama Mkangi and Francis Imbuga. Each of them demonstrated great individual talent, and their works form part of the canon of contemporary Kenyan literature. It is this canon that forms the epicentre of our national literary heritage.

Today, the remains of Chinua Achebe rest in a magnificent marble mausoleum in Ogidi, eastern Nigeria. Around him is the scenic cultural landscape that gave Umuofia and Okonkwo to the world in Things Fall Apart. The burial sites of art geniuses across the world are testaments in stone of their eternal art.

To inter ceremoniously the creatives of our canons of cultural excellence is to bring to life the adage that writers never die. Mausoleums stand as calcified memories of the adage. Let county and national governments be encouraged to create public libraries in such places of importance as are dwellings of departed icons, be they artists, politicians or from other domains.

--------

The writer teaches literature and theatre at Kenyatta University. [email protected]

The late Shaaban Robert
The late Shaaban Robert
Image: COURTESY