Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Oasis in the East African Literary Desert



Professor Taban lo Liyong

So what? Any memories of the Kwani? series elicited by this phrase? If Taban lo Liyong believes that the East African region is a literary desert should we weep? Or should we whip/flog ourselves for such a thing? Or rather, and on a different note, from which pedestal does Taban stand as he makes this declaration? From which eon was this statement made and of what relevance is it to a budding East African contemporary writer/scholar?
May be we should ask Prof Wanjala whose recent sentiments sought to understand who commissioned Prof Taban as the prefect of the region’s literariness. I am no expert in matters to do with the region’s creative dexterity and neither am I good with words. In other words, I would not even begin to consider myself a speck of a drop that would in a small way seek to quench the thirst in the said desert. Only a verse or two would stand wobbly in ‘solidarity’ with me when it comes to writing.
 Although truth be told. At the time that Taban unleashed his wrath about the region’s dryness as far as creativity is concerned, there were sproutings here and there to contradict his words. The only problem is that writing during the colonial and immediately postcolonial times was largely in English. Even Ngugi wa Thiong’o laments in Decolonising the Mind that any other form of writing was not considered as African literature. Consequently, writings in local languages and especially those in Kiswahili suffered the damnation of this parameter of judging what could be regarded as literature of the region or continent respectively. Thus, this in a way lends credence to Taban’s words that our region was devoid of writing.   
It is this that resulted to writers like Shaaban Robert famed for Maisha Yangu na Baada ya Miaka Hamsini, Kusadikika, and Wasifu wa Siti binti Saad among others being overlooked. Other compatriots like Ibrahim Hussein a prominent dramatist who wrote Kinjeketile (1969), Mashetani (1971), Jogoo Kijijini (1976), and Arusi (1980)were equally served with a portent dose of biased studies such that their works were almost reduced to set books for schools only. This led to persistent marginalisation thereby and once more underscoring the assumption that the region had no prowess when it came to dominions of imagination.  
Universities in the region have not tasked themselves with the need to demystify the perception that ours is nothing but a literary desert. As scholars, we have cast our nets and buckets were we are. Very few scholars venture outside their comfort zones to study non-mainstream texts. I mean, I still remember being asked to justify why I wanted to study John Kiriamiti’s et al books for my postgrad! Someone actually dared me to explain of what merit such an undertaking would have to academic circles. If only the scholars dared to wade through unchartered waters! Now you understand why sometimes it takes horrific occurrences like the Westgate Mall terrorist attack to get scholars, politicians and the like wagging their tongues.  
I don’t blame Taban. I cannot blame the Professor for year in, year out appearing like a controversial scarecrow that permanently clings to its position and scares the wit out of any marauding animal that ventures into the garden of East African writing. His statement is like the warning light that comes on in a car when it is running low on fuel. Whether you are broke or not, the light is a constant reminder that you have to refuel. And even when you refuel and keep driving, the light comes on again after sometime to ‘ignorantly’ remind you that it is nigh time to revisit the fuel pumps. Thus, Taban’s words are a constant aide memoire that we must keep the flame of writing on irrespective of the times, the number of writers, publishers, or books etc.
I wouldn’t want to rant about Taban as not knowing what he is saying. Mine is an appreciation that we cannot have enough of books to quench the thirst for reading. I actually pen this down as a tribute to all the East African writers who have tangibly contested Taban’s words through their writings. Theirs is a living testimony that ours is a region blooming with vegetated cover of books that is regularly watered and nurtured by the oasis of the genius minds of our writers.
The only protestations I harbour here are towards myself for not being an avid reader. Therefore, I hereby sentence myself to a lifetime of books, hard labour of reading and intermittent strokes of the cane by way of book reviews and critical thoughts based on East African writings. This sentence has no room for reprieve, presidential amnesty or anything whosoever that would give me a chance to get outside the bars of maximum literary imprisonment.
I mean how on earth can I decry lack of books when we have writers such as Ken Walibora, Kinyanjui Kombani, Ng’ang’a Mbugua, Jamal Mahjoub, Tayeb Salih, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Moyez Vassanji, Timothy Wangusa, Nuruddin Farah, Ahmed Artan Hanghe, Susan Kiguli, Esther Kamatari, Benjamin Sehene, Edouard Gasarabwe, Nadifa Mohamed, Maxamed Daahir Afrax, Amandina Lihamba, Moses Isegawa, Doreen Baingana, Bonnie Lubega, Shailja Patel, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Binyavanga Wainaina....
This is just but a taste of the writers we have in addition to the more usual names of John Ruganda, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wahome Mutahi, Grace Ogot, Francis Imbuga, Barbara Kimenye, Katama Mkangi, Meja Mwangi, Marjorie Oludhe MacGoye, Sam Kahiga, David Mailu, John Kiriamiti… the list is as long as it would take to dispute any notion that the East African region is nothing but a literary desert.
            The next time someone irks you about East Africa being a literary desert, tell them that Taban’s statement has metamorphosed into a cliché which we are glad to relish as a plat form that reminds us of our humble beginnings as a region in the bigger spectrum of the literary world.

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