Inspiration African literature

Ngugi wa Thiong’o says “let our planes fly”

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On June 11, at a public lecture at the University of Nairobi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of Kenya’s greatest authors of all times, told the story of Charles Njonjo, a lawyer and Attorney General and Gachamba, a bicycle repairman. Gachamba, with no secondary education to his name, spent his days tinkering with spare parts and, in the late 1970s, succeeded in building an airplane. The airplane he built flew for 9 mile but Charles Njonjo, who had heard about Gachamba’s short flight, banned the flying of planes without a proper license. In Ngugi’s hands this story became an insightful metaphor for the Kenyan government’s habit of inhibiting the country’s talents.

Ngugi’s lecture was in many ways evidence of this. It was part of a series of public engagements to commemorate the first edition of his Weep Not, Child, first published in 1964 by East African Educational Publishers. The novel was anti-colonial in nature and marked Ngugi as independent Kenya’s most important and talented writer of fiction. However, in subsequent years, Ngugi’s criticism shifted toward President Jomo Kenyatta, and the government began to get in the way. Ngugi was arrested in 1977 and in 1982, under Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel Arap Moi, went into exile. He was away for 22 years.

Given this troubled history with the Kenyan state, his very public return to Kenya, which included a meeting with Kenya’s current President, Jomo’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, was nothing short of historic.  

Before Ngugi’s speech, performances and speeches were given in his honor. One performance – a reimagining of Weep Not, Child – left many in tears. Actors reenacted the scenes in which the young protagonist is tortured on suspicion of being a Mau Mau, as well as parts of the book in which he is being taught English:

The connection between education and colonial dominance has long been one of Ngugi’s primary concerns.

Ngugi was instrumental in developing the Literature department at the University of Nairobi, where, for a time, they were able to develop a syllabus for Kenyan secondary schools featuring books from Africa, Asia and Latin America, not just Europe. However, much in the same way as Njonjo would not allow Kenyan engineering to flourish, the Kenyan government responded by abolishing literature in secondary schools.

And so, after lamenting this intellectual loss, the Professor warned that even 52 years after independence, as Kenyans (and Africans in general) continue trying to perfect their English or French, foreigners continue perfecting their instruments of access to Africa’s resources. He renewed his old, still unheeded call for the government to do whatever it can to allow Kenyans to make their own futures in the way of Gachamba, not the way of Njonjo, and to let their own planes fly. hg

For more information on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, please visit his website.