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The arts are under threat

By Lucas Wafula | October 25th 2015

During the Great Debate at this year’s Nairobi International Book Fair, professor Austin Bukenya proclaimed thus: “The arts are threatened with extinction.”

The discussion was on the relevance of literature in Kenya and the larger Eastern Africa today.

Professor Bukenya narrated how his own president professes to be a writer on one hand and despises Kiswahili on the other, saying it lacks vocabulary.

Discussants at this event felt that East African governments should do more to promote the arts in general and literature in particular.

“I find it strange for anyone to ask if literature, or humanities, is relevant today,” professor Henry Indangasi observed. “In the United States, universities are considering students who have a strong humanities background for courses in medicine.

“This is because even doctors need to have the capacity for empathy, which is a quality that is acquired best from the study of humanities. Literature humanises us,” he said.

The participants decried the lack of funding for literature, whose contribution to the development of society is evident.

For instance, literature has produced many words that we use today in different fields, from politics to technology.

Not many people know that William Gibson who was a science fiction writer coined the word “cyberspace.”

Even fewer realise that Dr Seuss, the author of I Ran To The Zoo coined the word “nerd.”

We might count the politicians who know that William Shakespeare coined the word assassination.

Facebook users may not be aware that the term “unfriend” was first used in Laymon’s epic poem Brut; and Yahoo users may have no idea that word yahoo was coined by Jonathan Swift in his work titled, Guliiver’s Travels while “email” was coined by playwright Thomas Nashe!

The fears that populated the audience at Sarit Centre’s Expo Hall, were not entirely unfounded.

Many people remembered how in 2010, William Ruto, the then Minister of Education advocated for the funding of sciences only. “Courses will be funded differently depending on how they contribute to creating the human resource required for economic growth,” he said.

This ensured that only students studying science and technology courses in public universities would be assured of funding by the government. The literary scholars saw this as an antithesis of the reopening of the Kenya National Theatre.

The Nairobi International Book Fair, as usual, had brought with it the literary awards. Professor Indangasi, who is the chair of the National Book Development Council of Kenya pointed out that the government is still not keen to sponsor literary competitions. Indeed, it is a pity that locally sponsored literary competitions offer so little to the hardworking  writers. For instance, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, winner of this year’s Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature received Sh 300,000 for her novel, Dust, which is not even close to the Sh 435,000 that the second runners up got from the Burt Award for African Literature (sponsored by Canadian philanthropist, William Burt) competition!

Certainly, no one should be happy by this state of affairs considering the consequences. Actually, we should all be afraid especially when we are told, as we were, by the Judges and Magistrates Vetting Board, that many magistrates and judges are unable to write proper and well-reasoned judgments.

Before firing nine magistrates, the vetting board noted that some of the judgments “provided as the best writings of the officers lacked in structure, content and grammar.”

We should be frightened when scholars like professor Bethwel Ogot decry the number of graduates who cannot communicate well — even in their mother tongue!

“As a teacher of writing, I know that people acquire good writing skills from literature — which in this case should be good writing. Good reading skills translate to good writing skills,” professor Indangasi said.

People who do not read literature have no writing skills to speak of. I have researched and noted that they cannot put together a decent English sentence.”

Isn’t it ironical that we do not know what will happen in the next five years and yet we prepare for it in a traditional way. A way that came into being to meet the needs of industrialism in the 18th century, developing a hierarchy that put “useful” subjects at the top.

The result has been that there are children who stay away from what they like because they are told that they will not get employed (and now funding?) if they study such subjects as literature, art or music. No wonder we have been experiencing a lack of teachers of humanities. We are profoundly mistaken if we base funding of education on academic abilities instead of intelligence. The cramming and cheating we see in schools during national examinations, is a result of the protracted process of gaining university entrance and jobs.

Yet, our university graduates are the unhappy teachers, nurses and doctors that we see marching on streets because of poor pay. I am yet to see Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Yvonne Owuor, Binyavanga Wainaina or Lupita Nyong’o demonstrating.

Policy makers and politicians should know that literature, drama and poetry play an important role in some of the best-known cities in the world and so does art and music.

It has been documented that the city of Edinburgh passionately keeps its written tradition alive, from the verse of 18th-century bard Robert Burns to the works of modern-day writers like Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

In Dublin, Ireland, the written word is as celebrated as a pint of Guinness.

London is full of literary related sites that tourists visit all the time, while Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, attracts as many tourists as the Big Five do in Kenya.

St. Petersburg is renowned for its classical literature with titles such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment standing out.

Other literary cities include Washington DC, Santiago, Chile, Stockholm in Sweden, Portland in Oregon and Melbourne, Australia.

It is therefore clear that “killing” literature is akin to ending life, as we know it, thereby stunting development that those who advocate for the funding of sciences desire.

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