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Why ask our writers to carry the yoke for historians?

By Tony Mochama | February 27th 2016 at 13:04:30 GMT +0300

Last week, on these pages, writer Abenea Ndago went on a long lament. He blamed local authors for not capturing history in literature such as the exile of the Nandi Orokoiyot’s Talai clan, the Abagusii’s suffering in the first decade of the 20th century under the Abasongo (white bastards), and demanded why no Taita has written a gripping work of art about Mekatilili wa Menza.

Other than being a terribly prescriptive discourse, I wondered why Mr Ndago did not place this question squarely on the table of the numerous historians who hang around academic corridors like mounted heads from big game trophy hunting. Other than Prof Bethuel Ogot and the late Ali Mazrui, we Kenyan writers have little detailed historical material to work, even on the web, for those much needed historical novels. This argument is at best a case of putting the cart before the horse, and at worst a case of asking the Kenya Rugby Sevens team (writers) to be subs and score tries in a game featuring misfiring Harambee Stars (Historians).

Nonetheless, since Ndago said history has eluded Kisii writers, I will refer him to Enock Matundura’s book ‘Kivuli cha Sakawa’ (Nsiema Publishers, 2010) as a literary moment of our colonial history.

Crime of omission

When Ndago, through insidious innuendo, says my book of nocturnal city essays ‘Nairobi: A Night Runner’s Guide’ (Contact Zones, 2014) is about ‘drinking and urinating in Nairobi’s pubs at night,’ I suspect that he has not read the book at all. For example, if he had, he would have known that Chapter 52 of the book is an essay on Nyang’au Nyamwamu, the night runner who streaked into a British camp in ‘Bosongo’ in 1909 and was shot dead by a British soldier – the very subject matter that Ndago says we are not aware of.

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This is the tragedy of many literary commentators today.

Like those annoying 11.15pm drunks in Nairobi bars who want to give their ‘learned’ opinions yet they have never seen the Kenyan Constitution. As Dr Tom Odhiambo of the University of Nairobi has often complained, we have ‘critics who don’t read, but still want to give LOUD opinions.’

Still on we Gusii writers. whom ‘history has eluded’, three of us have won Burt Awards for African Literature in consecutive years – I for ‘Meet the Omtitas’ in 2013, Moraa Gitaa for ‘The Shark Attack’ in 2014 and Chris Okemwa for ‘Sabina and the Ogre’ in 2015. All these are young adult fiction books for 2016 high school youth. Are we then, failures, for not engaging them in Gusii goings-on in 1906?

To be fair to Ndago, he also turns the dagger on his own, conveniently ignoring Yvonne Owuor’s epic ‘Dust’ that speaks of Dholuo dreams derailed by the State and instead concentrates on her ancient Caines’ Prize of 2003 about Rwandan refugees displaced by the 1994 genocide; instead of congratulating her for having sneaked in a tragic tale about that African Holocaust under a decade of its occurring. Instead he calls her out on her crime of omission for not writing historical fiction about her Kano great uncles displaced by the building of the railway from Miwani to Kibigori in the years 1901-1906.

My question then is – if Ndago is a Luo and an author, and knows and cares so much about this tale of displacement, why not pen the novel himself? When Archimedes discovered ‘displacement’ as he took a bath, he did not dash out naked into the street, shouting ‘Conon of Samos and Erastothenes of Cyrene, why have you not formulated displacement?’ He yelled Eureka, and wrote the theory himself.

Worrying about why no Kalenjin writer has ever captured the beheading of Koitalel arap Samoei by Colonel Meinertzhagen in 1905 is an idle and futile enterprise of the imagination. I would recommend Ndago pick up a copy of my ‘Road to Eldoret’ collection of stories, remind himself of the 2008 killings.

Tribal jingoist

2017 is coming, and we cannot afford to forget the bloody lessons from eight years ago; never mind that collective amnesia is one of our favourite national hobbies, other than the long distance and marathons.

In my ‘anthology,’ Ndago may come across a long short story called ‘Gray Lions’ where a moran called Olonana ole Sempeyo appropriates the lion killing feats of Colonel Patterson. It is set in 1898!

Ndago then turned his dagger on Kikuyu Kwani? writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, whom he described as ‘midget-minded tribal jingoist with a Masters’ in Ethnic Journalism.’ This is a grossly unfair description of a literary pioneer and hero of Kenya, whose post-2000 literary revival has got us writers so far, 16 years on.

To call one of the sufferers of the Second Liberation, Koigi wa Wamwere part of old Jomo’s ‘Muigwithania’ based on his Negative Ethnicity book is to take a joke too far, at best, and at worst betray historical revisionism with an insidious anti-Agikuyu agenda.

Kwani? editor Billy Kahora was then somewhat faulted for his 2008 book about the Goldenberg whistle-blower David Munyakei, for not rendering a similar literary recognition to John Githongo, the Anglo-Leasing ghost buster. ‘Does it have anything to do with the regimes that presided over the scams?’

No, Ndago, it does not! Had this literary critic actually bothered to read the Borderlines novelist Michela Wrong’s non-fiction book starring Githongo called ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat,’ he would have found a legally lifted chapter in it that, in its entirety, is an excerpt of Kahora’s ‘True Story of David Munyakei.’

We are tired of bloggers telling us, the real authors, not only how and what to write, but now in new depths of outsider effrontery, when and where to write about, as per our ethnic blocs. Why begin to bark and balkanise the book creators?

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Kenyan writers Mekatilili wa Menza kenya history
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