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In defense of literature and culture

By - | February 10th 2013 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Chris Wanjala

The books I read have a lot to do with the countries I have visited. I was travelling to Suva, Fiji, to represent East Africa at a conference organised by the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Studies the other year, when I realised that most of the books I read were from England and Africa.

 The emphasis in my English studies were in formal drills; reading accurately, writing grammatical English, mastering spelling, punctuation and the like. 

I had just defended my PhD thesis in Literature and graduated at a glamorous ceremony presided over by the then president of the Republic of  Kenya at the Great Court of the University of Nairobi, and come of age as a newspaper columnist, broadcaster, writer and critic. The major writers in my reading life were Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens, and they had educated my sensibilities as a human being.

Quarantine residence

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On reaching Mumbai, India, however, I was not allowed to proceed to Sydney on my onward journey to Fiji.  I was quarantined for four days, for having no valid Yellow Fever certificate.  I watched Indian general elections, which were going on at the time from the keyhole of my quarantine residence. I read many books, including the autobiography of Ali Bhuto, the founding Prime Minister of Pakistan. Many books had been written on Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The Indian press was awash with stories about the prime minister and her men.

I was released and got onto The Quantas to fly to Sydney and then boarded a helicopter to Suva, Fiji, getting there on the eve of the Australian College of Community Association Lawyers conference. I stayed in Fiji for three weeks enjoying the Peloponesian cultures of the South Pacific Islands. The island bustles with creative and cultural activities. The population is largely black Fijians and Indian immigrants who form the majority.  The government and the political control is in the hands of the blacks community.

I spent most of my time at the University of South Pacific (a co-operative regional venture, which serviced a dozen countries in the pacific). One of my hosts, renowned literary scholar said, “The Pacific, of course, is eminently accessible to Australia. School sporting teams tour New Zealand, families go to Fiji for holidays, and events in Port Moresby and Vila are brought into Australian homes through television.”

I moved to the countryside. I had been lucky to meet Ulli Beier, the German entrepreneur who had done so much in the previous decade to encourage writing in Nigeria and the country’s move towards political independence: “Chris, it will not be enough to remain in your hotel,” he said. “I have been here for only a few years, based in Papua New Guinea, but I have considered myself to be living in the Pacific Islands as a whole. Writings from the Maori of New Zealand compare very well with writings of Fiji Island, Samoa and Papua New Guinea,”

Beier mentioned Albert Wendt, the Western Samoan writer I had met in Japan four years later, as a fellow invitee of the Japan Foundation. Wendt is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories and a book of poems.

On getting to Fiji and in meeting Chris Tiffin, he told me: “His (Albert Wendit’s] work tends towards the satirical and the acerbic, but it is occupied most with a quest for re-integrative images, which might displace the south seas paradise image of these islands and take account of the dislocation, which exposure to western culture has produced.”

In Kenya we are currently talking about the New Zealander Witi Ihimaera and his novel, the Whale Rider, which is the main reason why I am talking about my visit to Fiji and all I went through meeting cigar-smoking Indian professors of English and Indian professors who teach Indian literature in many of the Indian indigenous languages.

The indigenes of New Zealand are the Maori; their ancestors arrived in New Zealand aboard fleets of large canoes. The Maori are scattered to the North and the South of New Zealand. Each Maori tribe has a common ancestor and a line of descendants.


In Kenya today, the general elections have made us very conscious about the word ‘tribe,’ and, thinking of the Maori of New Zealand, the word becomes even more prominent in our discourse. Tribes, among the Maori are communities with separate families. Each family has a separate meeting place, which has an aura of sacredness. The families are closely knit and boarded by memorable mythologies.

Writing firm Maori writers of New Zealand and firm the indigenous writers of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Island, I was lucky to meet Beier, the entrepreneur who had done so much in the previous decade to encourage writing in Nigeria and the country’s move towards political independence.

Maori families are patriarchal (father – centred) and they exercise what anthropologists call primogeniture – inheritance of chieftainships, forests and land by first-born males. The first-born male enjoys a special relationship with the ocean god. My visit to Fiji showed me that there was a great concern for culture among the Pacific Ocean communities. The Maori elite look for ways and means of protecting the culture of their people despite their overt inclination towards the Whiteman’s culture. The common Maori people promote tribal unity almost in the same way as the Kenyan communities do; they show great respect for their traditional culture.

I attended the All-Africa Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos in 1977 and I encountered the black people who came to participate in the festival from Papua New Guinea. When I went to Fiji in that year, I noticed that one of their writers Rusell Soaba wrote a novel entitled Wanpis. The novel drew upon the works of Wole Soyinka.

There is a deliberate effort among the Maori to revive their culture and their arts. The more urbanised Maori are medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians and writers. The common Maori people mire in rural poverty, urban poverty, crime, ignorance and diseases. Like most black communities in the world, the chasm between the New Zealand rich and the Maori poor is big. The Maori suffered from British historical injustices of land alienation, destruction of cultural shrines, in the same way as Kenyans did. It is for this reason that in 1995, the Queen of England offered a formal apology and compensation to the Maori community for the destruction of their property and community when the treaty they signed with the Maori was violated.

When I visited the Pacific, Witi Ihimaera was known for his book, The New Net Goes Fishing. The book was pitched to upper secondary level because of its theme, subject and language. It was seen as an appropriate text to teach the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.

It is, therefore, a little wonder to me that Itimaera’s novel, the Whale Rider, has been picked by Kenya Institute of Education for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education candidates in English and Literature. My son and nephew study it. Ihimaera’s work has analogies with that of Okot p’Bitek, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka in their attempts to preserve the spirit and customs, and the way of life that they saw passing.

The Whale Rider

Ihimaera focuses on the Maoritanga — the way of the rural Maori with his sense of sharing, his strong commitment to the family, his reverence for tradition and the shared places and motifs of the people, his bravery in the face of death. In the Whale Rider Witi Ihimaera demonstrates his outstanding language ability. It is this that counts for the great literary worth of his book that will be enjoyed and appreciated by the pupils and their teachers. He shows his capability through characterisation, the intricate story line and the aptness of metaphor and symbol in the entire novel.

At the ideological level, the novelist shows that the structures that have been put together by patriarchal societies to isolate women and the girl child, can be modified to create more humane relationships. The Whale Rider is a must-read for all of us.

The Whale Rider Literature autobiography cultures English
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