Even words can sing: Lessons from my father's tribulations

I was born eight years after publication of Weep Not,Child in 1972. Eight years after that, my father was forced into political exile. Eight years later, I would see him again in Harare, Zimbabwe, coming to get me to join him in the US.

Sitting at the Great Zimbabwe, a ruined city of one of the most significant civilizations in the world, watching a musical performance, it was as if time had never elapsed. We watched the Jerusarema dance, characterized by acrobatic movements, essentially driven by master drummers, hand clapping and whistling.

“It’s all about the timing,” my father said referring to the dance. “Dance and music are arts of time.”

It reminded me of the days at the Kamirithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre, where my father and the late Ngugi wa Mirii were staging their play, I Will Marry When I Want. Mostly, it’s the music I remember. You see my siblings and I had formed a band.

We would entertain theatre goers as they waited for the performance to begin. At least that was the plan.

Thiong’o played the trumpet, Kimunya played guitar, Ngina and Nducu played the recorder, and Mukoma and I had the most important instruments ? spoons, he would hit two spoons together, whilst I would clink the spoon along the rims of an empty Fanta soda bottle.

Our father, playing the role of conductor always chipped in to establish the tempo at the beginning. “It’s all in the timing,” he would say.

And I would hear those words again. Years after I had joined him in his exile, years after the end of the Kanu dictatorship, years after the second draft of my first novel, The Fall of Saints, I heard those words again: “Words like music are all about timing,” he said to me. And those words would take me back to the day the police raided our house in Gitogothi, Limuru, and took my father away.

“Ngugi wa Thiong’o arrested! That was the heading of a local newspaper in 1977. They had told my mother it was for him to answer a few questions. He will be back in the morning.

He did not.

Still hoping, my brother Mukoma and I would often make our way through the misty morning, past the white flowered pyrethrum plantations down to the Manguo marshes. In silence, we would mold and sculpt the clay we dug out into pots, the glassy swamp seemingly oblivious to the fact that our world had been changed for good. Months into his disappearance, we would hear from him.

“I hope that the kids are continuing with their music,” he wrote to my mother from Kami?ti? Maximum Security Prison. It was one of the few letters that made it out of prison. But we held onto the music.

Those days, I spent many of my afternoons picking castor oil seeds. I spent time atop the castor oil tree too; this is why I think I may very well have been the first one to notice the doves that started perching on our roof. Anyway, that’s how I remember my father’s homecoming from a year in the maximum! The word got around fast.

Burned effigies

Soon hundreds had trickled in. There was food, there was music too.

Order restored, my brother Mukoma and I would sit on the steps of our house and watch rehearsals of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.

When I later directed the play, 18 years later in Orange, New Jersey, it was the music and poetry of the words, I had heard on those steps that I wanted to capture.

Same thing at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi. Sitting in the empty vast theatre seats, I would repeat the songs and words spoken in my father’s Maitu Njugira, translated as Mother Sing for Me, a musical production.

My siblings composed some of the music. The evenings on our home verandah porch had taken a different turn. We turned off the radio, and with my father on base, we tried the harmonies before they made their way to the theatre. “Music brings words to life,” my father always said. It was about that time that I decided that I would be a playwright. This was on my mind when last year, Mukoma and I, (and our writer friend Amkelwa Mbekeni) collaborated to write Love and Revolution with Miriam Makeba, a play about the enduring relationship between the exiled daughter of South Africa, Miriam Makeba, and the militant Black Panther leader Kwame Toure.

The intention was to simply capture in words: her music, her essence in it, her spirit, and her quest for justice.

The quest for justice is central to my novel, The Fall of Saints. It comes from my father, or rather from his stories of Mwangi Cowboy — a fictional Kenyan cowboy whose quest was justice.

The kind that ducked bullets, scaled prison walls to rescue the unjustly held and single handedly brought wars to a halt. He was justice itself. He always stood for the downtrodden.

He could draw a gun faster than any police officer could, in the world. He never missed a target. We elaborated on the Mwangi Cowboy even after my father’s forced exile. Mwangi Cowboy became part of the family.

And he could sing. That’s how we knew the enemy was going down, when he (Mwangi Cowboy) sang.

And we held on to him, Mwangi Cowboy, even after a gathering of more than five was made illegal by the State. The problem was that even without the invisible Mwangi Cowboy, we were three more than was allowed to assemble. The sycophants sang, praise songs not only as they burned effigies of my father. It became a public display of hatred against the exiles, enemies of the state, my father heading the list.

The sycophants competed with each other to see who could show more loathing. For a few weeks, the country was filled with the smoke of the Exiles.

That’s how we heard that we were required to burn an effigy. Our father’s. We didn’t join the smoke parades.

One New Year’s eve, the police force aided our home demanding to know who had given our family the right to assemble.

Time of war

There were other threats too. But the songs never died. The music never ceased. When my brother, Mukoma and I collaborated to write, We, Them, and Her: Consciousness Before Dawn, a play performed at Rutgers and Boston Universities, it was the music I had heard from I Will Marry When I Want, from Mother Sing for Me, and from The Trial of Dedan Kimathi that we incorporated to help carry the words.

So what have I learned from my father? To find beats and rhythm in the sentences. That words are all about timing. Never to lose the beat, knowing when to go a little faster, or when to slow down. Somewhere in the background, my father’s words always echo. “Good writing is like music. There is rhythm, there is flow, and there is inflection or modulation.”

It is what I look for now, when writing. If not, at least I always make sure there is some music playing in the background. As my father says in his memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, even words can sing.

— Wanjiku is the author of ‘The Fall of Saints’, and director of the Helsinki African Film Festival in Finland