Prof Chris Wanjala, doyen of East African literary criticism

He was not only a distinguished scholar but also a key figure in various literary associations and forums

In Summary

• It is five years since the passing of this great doyen of literary criticism in East Africa


Last Sunday, October 29, writers, scholars and critics from across East Africa gathered to commemorate the life and legacy of renowned literary critic Prof Chris Wanjala. He died in October, five years ago.

This significant event held virtually under the auspices of two influential literary caucuses, the Kenya Literary Scholars and the East African Literary and Cultural Association was hosted by Dr GO Nyandoro of Kisii University, the convener of both forums.

The evening’s highlight was the premier annual memorial lecture, titled: Centrality of Literary Criticism and Literary Scholarship in Times of Global and National Uncertainties: Lecture in Memory of Prof Christopher Wanjala (1944-2018). I delivered the lecture in my capacity as a national literary critic in Kenya today.

It marked five years since the passing of this great doyen of literary criticism in East Africa and drew scholars from the East African region and abroad, including the esteemed Prof Danson Kahyana from Makerere University. Prof Danson Kahyana, in his speech, lamented the scarcity of inaugural lectures delivered by full professors in the region.

These inaugural lectures, though rare, hold immense significance as they mark important milestones in the literary history of East Africa. They provide valuable insights into the growth and development of written and oral arts, helping younger scholars in literary studies to understand the evolution of their field. The absence of these lectures is a loss for the literary community, and Prof Kahyana’s remarks underscored the need to encourage and support such academic traditions.

As the discussant of the evening, Prof Peter Amuka of Moi University painted a vivid picture of the life and times of the late critic, Prof Chris Wanjala. Having been a student of Wanjala and their mutual teachers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the late Micere Mugo in the 1970s during the revolutionary era of the University of Nairobi, he provided insight into the ideological transformation that Wanjala underwent.

Wanjala transitioned from a socialist aesthete to a disciple and practitioner of Afrocentrism within the context of the changing dynamics of the 21st century, marked by the decline of Marxism and the resurgence of neoliberalism. Prof Amuka’s evocative narrative shed light on the profound intellectual journey that Wanjala embarked on, reflecting the evolving landscape of both African and global scholarship.

Prof Wandia Njoya, a scholar from Daystar University, took the opportunity to address the persistence of dogma in literary and African scholarship. I argued that literary critics contribute to media literacy by educating the public on how to approach information critically. They teach individuals to question the sources of knowledge, depend on research and discern credible narratives from fake news, thus mitigating the effects of disinformation that is rife around us.

I pointed out how and why Prof Wanjala was not only a distinguished scholar but also a key figure in various literary associations and forums, serving as a catalyst for intellectual growth and exchange. He founded and led multiple literary caucuses and associations, providing a platform for scholars to engage with literature and criticism.

By helping to launch, for example, the Kenya Oral Literature Association (Kola), he showed the role such associations play in fostering a sense of literary community and cultural exchange within the East African region. It is this spirit of collaborative scholarship in literature and folklore that made him a mentor for many who attended. He was renowned for his dedication to nurturing the next generation of literary critics and scholars, including myself. Many of his former students have gone on to make significant contributions to the field of literature and criticism.

The late Mwalimu’s reach extended beyond the academic world. He collaborated with professionals in the print and electronic media domains, contributing his insights and expertise to a broader audience. His impact was not limited to the classroom; it extended to the general public through his involvement in various media outlets.

This man of all seasons left an indelible mark on the field of literature. His intellectual journey, marked by adaptability and evolution, serves as an inspiration for future scholars and critics. No wonder many attendees shared personal anecdotes and professional experiences, illustrating the profound impact Wanjala had on their lives and careers.

The event was graced by Dr Kenneth Ngure, the Literature chairperson at Kenyatta University. Prof Catherine Ndungo, who served as the pioneer director of the Institute of African Studies at Kenyatta University, reminded the audience of Wanjala’s significant contributions to sister varsities, such as Egerton University, Kibabii University and KU.

He had been the chief guest at the institute’s launch in September 2012 and had previously served as the IAS director at the University of Nairobi in the early to mid-1980s, playing a pivotal role in advancing humanities research and documentation during that period.

During the event, it was unanimously agreed that a book of essays in honour of Prof Chris Wanjala be initiated as a collaborative project under the auspices of the two host caucuses. This book would serve as a testament to the enduring legacy of the late doyen of literary criticism.

We landed on the consensus to continue the memorial lecture series in his honour, ensuring that his contributions to East African literary scholarship and criticism remain celebrated and cherished. 

I concluded by emphasising that literary critics are important cultural assets. They are skilled at analysing and evaluating texts, including news articles and reports. They can employ their expertise to dissect the content, identify biases, misinformation and manipulation of language, and provide readers with a more informed perspective as did Wanjala for over five decades. His public criticism in newspapers, radio and TV helped us navigate the arts.

With the commitment to publish a book of essays and continue the annual lecture series in his honor, Prof Chris L Wanjala’s legacy will live on, inspiring future generations of literary scholars to embrace his passion for literature and critical thinking, especially in this times of global and national uncertainties.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star