Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Teaching Kenyan Literature beyond Fireside “Prattles”

Chon gi lala ... thu tinda (Dholuo)
Osa wano ... wano wakwa wathelela vau (Akamba)
Hadithi hadithi, hadithi njoo ... hadithi yangu imeishia hapo (Swahili)
These are sample openings and their respective closing remarks for traditional story telling sessions amongst select Kenyan communities. Many of us look back nostalgically to the traditional evening sessions that would culminate into riddling sessions, song and dance or story telling moments as the day’s activities came to their sunset moment. It was essentially a part of the informal system of education that people were socialised into long before they, yonder, enrolled into formal schooling. Does African oral literature still hold an unassailable position in our learning processes?
Once upon a time colonialist took siege of the education process in Africa and faute de mieux, as per their assumption, embarked on a premeditated task of civilising and rehabilitating Africans from their “darkness” as Chinua Achebe once mocked. Thus, it has been argued by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe himself amongst other African scholars that the colonialist’s interest in educating the Africans was selfish – to groom clerks who would serve as errand boys for their masters. A number of scholars have since faulted this process as being responsible for African people’s mistrust and indulgence in corruption and preferment of the culture of kickbacks and favours. Whether this is true or not is a question for debate in a different context.
The lack of interest in literature is best vivified in the apathy for reading amongst the contemporary general populace. It is likely that there is definitely something wrong with the way we teach the subject. Consider me old school but my take is that the environment in which we are brought up has a significant role to play in how we handle our learning matters. The process of socialisation has been and will continue to inalienably impact on who we are as we progressively evolve from childhood and get initiated into adulthood. This is why the African traditional lore had different genres of art for different age groups.
In our study of literature we have encountered children songs, stories and even other forms of art for varied age groups. Although the target audience for most of these is children, they are not necessarily a preserve for the young audience; they are nonetheless imbued with certain artistic qualities that are endeared towards a young generation. It could be short lines, regular refrains, predictable rhyme – read nursery rhymes, or simple images (pictographic illustrations) amongst others. The idea is to educate the young people’s impressionistic brains with upright values and mores so as to prepare them for a more complex and morally challenging adult life.
Image Courtesy of: http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/images/sunday/kikwetuinisde090912.jpg
Kilumi Dance being performed by women
Moreover, riddles, a common genre amongst Kenyan traditional communities, have always played the more important task of teasing our minds and provoking critical thought. If my memory serves me right, I recall some time back in the 80’s when during mourning periods old men would engage our minds with riddles during the night vigils. Such moments were characterised by a sombre mood but warmed by the bonfire, the members present would wittingly recreate riddles that would not only help reinvigorate the discussions, but also help to mitigate the devastating effects of the loss of a loved one by keeping those affected psychologically occupied.
Family genealogies would sometimes also be elaborately outlined in such contexts. It was then not uncommon to hear an old man ask a young one to describe his family tree. Those who appeared unapprised of the same would be mocked, made fun of and challenged to embrace their pedigree. As such, there was always a subtle suggestion and an affirmation to the bereaved that through death and birth, the cycle of regeneration would keep their generations alive. The spirit of togetherness was forged and the sense of loss occasioned by death alleviated. On the contrary, the modern society is more individualistic and characterised by weak filial bonds. A more developed society appears to suggest that people are busier and less likely to sacrifice their time for such engagements thus hindering parental mentoring of children.
It is thus clear that oral literature forms part of the basic fundamental educational tools for any community. The dos and don’ts are imaginatively recreated and communicated sometimes through ingenious messages. For example, the traditional African ogre narrative has metamorphosed into a contemporary image that is in touch with modern day realities. Recently, during the Africa Literature Association (ALA) Conference in the University of Witwatersrand in April 2014, Professor Njabulo Ndebele in his keynote address castigated the contemporary intelligentsia. He equated them to a people that epitomise buffoonery because they cower in the presence of corrupt leaders.
Borrowing from Ndebele’s point, we can surmise that our education system has inculcated a spirit of intimidation and thus scholars end up engaging in self-denigration by shimmering in shame and fear whilst corrupt leaders exuberantly wag their tongues and wallow in insatiable desire and unbridled greed. We can infer that a corrupt leader is a thinly veiled reflection of the traditional African ogre figure that devours everything and anything on its path. This evil ogre is disproportionately ugly and symbolises the triple iniquities of selfishness, greed and pride. Just like in these traditional tales, the corrupt leaders will fall and good will triumph over evil.
Aestheticism in literature is thus what appeals to the reader’s interest. Even the bible is widely coloured with stories and parables that serve to grant it a proverbial tastefulness. A tactful adoption of arts in the curricular can help inject the much needed vigour and stimuli in the Kenyan educational system. This might be the remedy or antidote to the laissez faire attitude bedevilling our academic lives. I submit thus, that literature should not be hated upon but embraced as a crucial ingredient in the making of the Kenyan educational broth. If we are to establish a solid Kenyan educational tradition, then we might as well tap into the modes of learning that have shaped who we are as a people over the decades.

Our teaching of literature then needs to be reconstructed. As a society we should embrace the arts and not necessarily see them as tools of subversion. In any case, if we shut down the arts, it essentially means that we curtail creativity and deny ourselves a rare opportunity to open up room for job creation and possibly wealth explosion. Our traditional fireside engagements are thus not futile prattles but rather diverse and dynamic tools which we can employ to educate the masses. Traditional methods of teaching can thus be engendered in modern methods of learning in a complimentary process as opposed to either approach being an exclusive venture.
The article also featured here: http://mediamaxnetwork.co.ke/peopledaily/83935/teaching-kenyan-literature-beyond-fireside-prattles/

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