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Writer David Maillu: Ngugi wa Thiong’o praised for what I started

By By Mbugua Ngunjiri | April 12th 2014

By Mbugua Ngunjiri

Writer David Maillu cannot countenance the constant reference to his early sex-themed books. He believes Kenyans should give him more credit for his general contribution to literature in the country. 

“I am not just about After 4.30 and My Dear Bottle,” he says, his soft-spoken voice belying the passion with which he delivers the statement. “I have virtually published more than any other writer in the continent, particularly when it comes to children’s books.”

It therefore hurts him to end when all the attention is lavished on his more illustrious peer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and by extension his children, who are writers in their own right. He recently wrote an opinion piece wondering what the “obsession” with Ngugi and his family was all about. He even alleged a secret plot by Ngugi’s tribespeople to cut him down to size.

Asked why he decided to pen such an ill-tempered rant against Ngugi, Maillu told The Standard on Saturday that he was defending himself against Ngugi’s son Mukoma wa Ngugi who had accused him of being a Kanu/Moi sympathiser. “I thought I should launch a little defence on behalf of my supporters,” he says. “I have a right to correct some of these things.”

Incidentally, it is Maillu who had provoked Mukoma’s response when he wrote an “open letter” to Ngugi asking him to come back to Kenya. That letter was not without some well-aimed barbs directed at Ngugi. He had accused Ngugi of being hypocritical. “Ngugi was supporting Marxism and talking about the West like it was such a terrible thing,” says Mailu. “Then he goes to live with the people he has been attacking.”

He adds that Ngugi has no business publishing a Gikuyu journal (Mutiiri) in America where there are no Kikuyus to read it, “then he gets credit for it.” Maillu admits that the letter was “biting” but then he wanted Ngugi himself to respond to it. “Why would he allow his son to write something like that and the son says it is in defence of the father?” he asks.

Did Maillu really think Ngugi would respond to his letter and actually come back to Kenya or he just wanted to provoke some controversy?  “First of all I was challenging one thing he said that he would come back home when Kanu is out of power,” he says. “What happened? Why is he lying to the world?”

After some reflection Maillu says that the “real” intention of his missive was to create a power base here in Kenya that would speak truth to power. “If I appear at a conference or somewhere with Ngugi… what we say… the government takes seriously. I talked to other intellectuals (on the same).

“He (Ngugi) has made a lot of money but then if he doesn’t do that (come back to Kenya) then he is just a materialistic intellectual,” he explains, adding that he longs for the days when the Kenyan Church was strong and would issue statements against government excesses and the government would take heed. “The voices are no longer there…” he trails off.

He is however quick to add that he has no ill-feelings against Ngugi. “I admire Ngugi in the sense that if I wanted to be critical of Ngugi’s work I would have started with Petals of Blood because of the use of Kikuyu which is not translated,” he says. “I respect the man. He is one of the few people we have in this continent; he possibly knows that.”

Maillu however does not understand why Ngugi has never taken upon himself to talk about his writings or even pay a visit to him whenever he is in the country. “When Ngugi was at a place where I had to go to see him, I did. He never comes to see me. He is not concerned about me,” laments the writer who founded Comb Books. “It should be a give and take kind of thing. Let’s accept it was bold for me to write this letter to him.”

About his writings Maillu feels Ngugi has been a secret admirer of his works only that he (Ngugi) does not bring himself to publicly say it. “I have never seen him trying to be critical of my work; he keeps quiet,” he offers. “When I staged a play at the National Theatre called Jesse Kristo, he saw it three times. I asked him a few things and he wouldn’t tell me anything. Equally I have never been critical on whatever he wrote publicly. We have respected each other on that issue.”

Banned play

Still, the writer of Unfit for Human Consumption cannot shake off the view that Ngugi has taken so much credit for writing in mother tongue yet he is the one who “introduced” him to it. In the early 1970s Maillu was working at the KBC where he ran a Kamba poetry programme for three years. Occasionally he would bump into Ngugi, then teaching at the University of Nairobi, at the Kenya National Theatre.

“When I published the first Kamba poetry book in 1972, he wanted to know how the response with vernacular writing was. I told him there is nothing more beautiful than writing in vernacular and my readers were very excited about it,” recalls Maillu. “He took that seriously and when eventually we met again he told me he was trying to do something – that was when he was writing Ngaahika Ndenda – but he didn’t want to tell me what it was.”

All in all despite Ngugi’s “snubs” Maillu takes comfort in the knowledge that other literary scholars take him seriously. University of Nairobi lecturer Dr Tom Odhiambo, whose PhD thesis was on Maillu, wrote that Maillu is a “sharper” social critique of Kenya’s social history than most of his peers, including Ngugi.

Prof Evan Mwangi, whose Master’s thesis was on Maillu’s The Broken Drum thinks Maillu is Africa’s answer to Shakespeare. 

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