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13 - Ngũgĩ in the 1970s at the University of Nairobi

from Part II - Memories, Recollections & Tributes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2019

Margaretta wa Gacheru
Affiliation:
Ph.D. in Sociology from Loyola University Chicago and Master's degrees from the University of Nairobi, Northwestern University, and Loyola and National Louis University in Education, Chicago.
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Summary

The day after I arrived in Kenya in 1974, I had my first encounter with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. I had recently won a Rotary International ‘Ambassadorial Fellowship’ to study at the University of Nairobi for a year. So, I'd gone to new students’ orientation at the Education Building Theatre 2 to hear the Chairman of the Literature Department speak to us newcomers. I stood way up in the back of the large room and listened to one of the most inspiring lectures I'd ever heard. The room was packed but I felt Ngũgĩ was speaking to me directly. He spoke passionately about the need for all of us to see ourselves as writers who would tell Kenyans’ stories. He spoke as if he knew what he was saying and knew all of our potential to do the work required to create a body of literature that could equal or exceed that of canonical European writings.

Just a few years before, Ngũgĩ had spearheaded a cultural revolution at the University when he with others insisted on the transformation of the English Department into a Literature Department that was not Euro-centric, as the English Department had previously been, but Afro-centric. More precisely, the core course would be Oral Literature which would involve every student going out and interviewing elders who had oral traditions and stories about early Kenya to share. From there the curriculum would expand in concentric circles: it would go from oral to Kenyan literature, then to the study of South, West and North African and finally to literature of the Black Diaspora and the rest of the world.

Ngũgĩ's words that day lit a flame in my soul that has never died. His conviction about students’ creative capacity made me hungry to listen to more of what he had to say and share. But when I went to his office and asked that I be admitted to his department, he refused my request. I discovered that Ngũgĩ could be hard core. In part his refusal might have been because I wasn't a Kenyan or even an African. Plus, I was a visiting student who might not be serious about literary studies. But those were not his grounds.

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Chapter
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Ngugi
Reflections on his Life of Writing
, pp. 75 - 78
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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