Ode to Peter Amuka, maestro of literary journalism in Kenya

In Summary
  • Among the pioneering and prolific literary journalists in Kenya stands Prof Peter Amuka, now an emeritus at Moi University.
  • He serves as my mentor in this cherished endeavour that I pursue with devotion and delight.
Prof Peter Amuka hands over a present to the Kenya Film Commission /handout
Prof Peter Amuka hands over a present to the Kenya Film Commission /handout

Literary journalism demystifies societal narratives through the artful fusion of journalistic rigour and literary craftsmanship. It is a vital method in shaping the cultural consciousness and preserving our multifaceted heritage as Kenyans.

Among the pioneering and prolific literary journalists in Kenya stands Prof Peter Amuka, now an emeritus at Moi University. He serves as my mentor in this cherished endeavour that I pursue with devotion and delight.

This week, he marked another year older, an occasion celebrated by scribes and scholars across Kenya, gathered under the umbrella of the Kenya Literary Scholars, boasting a membership exceeding 400 enthusiasts of the literary arts.

While Amuka never directly taught me, our paths converged under the adage that “bards of a feather flock together” — pun intended. We share a common mentor in Ngugi wa Thiong’o, despite a significant 30-year age gap.

Amuka’s doctoral thesis at UCLA bore the title 'Kenyan Oral Literature, Ngugi’s Fiction, and his Search for a Voice'. In it, he posited that Ngugi’s literature vividly reflects the anti-colonial struggle in Kenya, particularly through representations of the Mau Mau war against British colonialism.

Drawing from Amuka’s insights, I’ve calibrated my own reflections on the interplay between postcoloniality, marginality and literary imaginaries in numerous books I’ve authored or co-edited since my days as a doctoral student in Berlin over a decade and a half ago.

Amuka’s passion for what Goethe termed 'World Literatures' (Weltliteratur) is well-known. However, Ngugi advised him early in his career to shift his focus from Russian literature to African literature, which shaped his trajectory significantly.

As a postcolonial thinker, Amuka champions indigenous knowledge systems as the foundation for developing a postcolonial literary heritage in our country. Thirty-four years ago, he penned a seminal chapter on the centrality of verbal and performing arts in Kenya, featured in William Robert Ochieng's book Themes in Kenyan History published in 1990 by Heinemann and distributed in London by James Currey.

One of his recent public engagements was as a discussant at a panel discussion on Ama Ata Aidoo in July 2023. Aidoo’s passing occurred around the same time as her sister, feminist compatriot in African literature, Micere Githae Mugo, another influential figure in Amuka’s intellectual formation during his time at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Amuka took to writing his novel, titled Wanjira and Her Hitlers. This novel, considered a key text of post-Covid literature in Kenya, was penned during his residency at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia from February 2020 to April 2022.

Amuka’s astuteness as a senior researcher in literature, orature and theatre has always been evident. He has been a longstanding member of the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA) since the 1980s and has collaborated with esteemed scholars like Prof Emilia Ilieva of Egerton University and his former teacher Chris Wanjala on various research projects.

His interest in indigenous verbal arts dates back to his MA days at the University of Nairobi. In 1978, he conducted groundbreaking research on the art of Ngero, a genre of Luo oral literature, challenging prevailing misconceptions about its definition and translation.

Upon returning from Ethiopia, Amuka spearheaded the production of a poetry collection titled Soaring above the Pandemic: Poetic Echoes from East Africa, in collaboration with poets from the Creative Writers Association (CWAK). This collection, edited by Amuka, Egara Kabaji, Bryson Omwalo and Barack Wandera, was published by Intercen Publishers and showcases his versatility across literary genres.

At 75, Amuka remains a stalwart of Kenyan literature, a driving force behind initiatives like the Creative Writers Association of Kenya, which boasts over 100 members spanning four generations.

When one conducts a survey of over 50 articles he has penned for the Nation Media Group weekend papers over the past two decades, three major concerns release themselves into our minds. They form a kind of common denominator in the fractions of his large intellectual views writ over decades.

They revolve around the intricacies of power dynamics, identity formation and the decolonisation of knowledge – concerns that were planted in him by his eminent teachers like Ngugi, Micere and Ruganda four decades ago.

Amuka appears keen on the exploration of colonial psychology and delves discursively into the psychological impact of colonisation on the colonised and the coloniser as well as residual social pathologies still evident among us – 60 years after Independence.

For example, it is in September of 2019, he set facts straight as to how and why his teacher the late Ugandan Shakespeare – John Ruganda became persona non grata in Kenya courtesy of his strident dramatic attacks at the postcolonial ineptitude of black leaders. He believes through his writing on the relentless need for liberation from oppressive systems – including systems that assail academic and art freedoms.

The professor has been steadfast in his advocacy for a critical reevaluation of knowledge production. His voice has been reasonable for long, in calling for the centralisation of the arts and the humanities in new curriculum re-invigoration processes currently underway across levels of learning in Kenya. 

He believes that a society that loves shaking hands but not extending helping hands to the needy is one whose soul-searching can start by inculcation of the arts and reading cultures at the epicentre of learning.

My reading of his work has left me convinced that this is an intellectual signpost that is worth following in terms of the directions it advises. His emphasis on the fluid and dynamic nature of identity formation in the interstices of different cultures vindicates those of us who are Africans of urban locations of culture.

It soothes many of us who are children of double ethnic affiliations and to whom the world of culture and art is never one of black and white or rural versus urban but rather a complex boiling pot of modernity and its pros as well as cons.

Reading Peter Amuka’s literary journalism and thoughts is an essential exercise in understanding the complexities of postcolonial Kenyan existence.

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