• It is not a literary shot in a darkly world of poetry alien to him
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is known across the world as a major writer from Kenya. He writes in prose mainly but also in drama and essay forms.
However, the ongoing global pandemic occasioned by the new coronavirus has brought out another dimension of his literary prowess: poetry. Recently he published a powerful poem online on Brittle Paper, arguably one of the distinguished digital journals of African literature today.
The poem, ‘Dawn of Darkness’, was written on March 23 but got published on April 21 as the global pandemic reached our shores. It offers the initial reaction of Kenya’s foremost international writer to the outbreak of Covid-19, now ravaging both his country of birth and his host country, the United States. The latter is the worst-hit country.
Written graphologically in the shape of a water jar, the rare poem offers showers of hope to the world. In the silver-tongued stanzas, its main point is captured poignantly by a Gikuyu saying — Gũtirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa. No night exists that does not end in light. (www.brittlepaper.com)
It can be argued that Ngugi’s new flirtation with poetry lies in his associations with poets over the years. In the 1960s to 1980s, he worked closely with renowned East African poets like Ugandan Okot p’Bitek and South Sudanese Taban Lo Liyong. Micere Mugo, a famous Kenyan poet, toiled in the same Department of Literature upon her return from Canada as the first Kenyan woman with a Literature PhD. These poets may have left an indelible mark on Ngugi and perhaps inspired him towards poetry ultimately.
Also, the recent demise of the famous poet Edward 'Kamau' Braithwaite of Barbados on February 4 is worth noting. Since the 1970s, the Caribbean poet was Ngugi’s ideological twin across the Atlantic in the Black Diaspora. Together, they shared a vision for black cultural decolonisation through language rights activism.
Ngugi’s mother Wanjikũ wa Thiong’o gave Kamau the Kenyan name in the 1970s, when he visited her. In his debut anthology of essays, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politic (1972), he acknowledges the influence of Caribbean writers and thinkers in shaping Africa’s anticolonial and postcolonial literary thought, including his own.
Together with other Caribbean giants, such as George Lamming, also from Barbados, and the 1992 Nobel laureate Derek Walcott from Santa Lucia, Braithwaite’s amity in seeding the poetic muse in Ngugi cannot be gainsaid. His new poem, ‘Dawn of Darkness’ does not, therefore, arise out of a vacuum. It is a smoldering from embers of literary companionships with poets that is as multidimensional as it is multilingual.
The third major poetic source with whom Ngugi has longstanding ideological links is the famous Lamu poet Abdilatif Abdala. The two have the distinction of being early political prisoners in Mzee Kenyatta’s era. The former was jailed in solitary confinement in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in the late 1970s and the latter in the same penitentiary facility in the late 1960s.
From prison, both writers penned manuscripts precariously that would later be published a decade apart as Sauti ya Dhiki (1972) by Abdalla and Ngugi’s Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982).
Abdalla would ironically bag the Jomo Kenyatta Prize of Literature for his work. These books today form iconic cornerstones of the literature of postcolonial protest in our country.
The late Ken Walibora conducted research on this kind of literature for his doctorate. His illuminating book, titled Narrating Prison Experience: Human Rights, Self, Society, and Political Incarceration in Africa (2014), offers interesting insights to the psychology of confinement in this age of Covid-19 and its prison-like restrictions.
In the winter of 2007, I was a foreign student of German language at the University of Leipzig’s Herder Institute in eastern Germany. At this very time, Abdilatif Abdalla was retiring from the famous Institute for African Studies at the University of Leipzig.
Ustadh Abdilatif fled into exile in Germany via Mwalimu Nyerere’s Tanzania many years ago. There, the revered poet taught Kiswahili and Fasihi in Leipzig for 15 years. To mark his legacy and honourable retirement, the university invited Prof Ngugi from the United States. He delivered the valedictory lecture as part of celebrations in honour of the Malenga wa Amu. As I sat there listening, I noted that theirs is a kinship based both on nationality and intertextuality.
Therefore, Ngugi’s new poem, ‘Dawn of Dusk’, is not a literary shot in a darkly world of poetry alien to him. His mind is poetic by association to poets. The poem symbolises the genre evolution of his literary versatility transcending prose, plays and now poetry. It is a harbinger to his imminent entry into the world of poetry.
Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University [email protected]