Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Mukoma Wa Ngugi were the two players in the Dr Joyce Nyairo moderated “Duel on the Ridges” at the St Pauls University on February 19, 2019.
It’s been a Ngugi family month here in Kenya over the month of February. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o the family patriarch was in town promoting his newest publication Kenda Muiyuru in venues across the country including at the Kenya National Theatre. Mukoma Wa Ngugi his son was a guest lecturer at St Paul’s University in Limuru giving the university a keynote address on his work in progress on Africans and African Americans.
The two would share a stage in a high profile event organised by the communication department of the St Paul University dubbed the “Duel On the Ridges.” It was billed as an intellectual battle of the two professors who ply their trade in the United States moderated by cultural analyst, literary critic and author of Kenya@50: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging Dr Joyce Nyairo.
The afternoon would start with prayers, performances from school kids, Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize 2018 winner Jacob Ngumbau Julius and welcome remarks from university administrators led by Vice Chancellor Prof Joseph Galgalo. With the protocol being dealt with, the battle royal could commence.
The two professors did their best of making a show of the battle as they took their seats and adopted a fighting stance as they laughed. It was all great fun. Our moderator would start by asking that the two read from their work for the benefit of the few in the audience who had not experienced it. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o would start off reading from Kenda Muiyuru assisted by “his son” Ndungi Githuku who had helped him at the previous book launch.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi two poems one in honour of Dedan Kimathi and the many of our heroes that passed on and the second he wrote in Xhosa. It was starting to get nice as one of the protagonists was reading in English and Kikuyu and the other in English and isiXhosa. With the panel officially introduced and having read their work, the battle could be engaged.
It would start rather tamely as our moderator threw lowball questions to the two first on their writing habits. Neither of the two had any real special habits that preceded their writing. Another question was for Mukoma asking him if he recognised the privilege that he had growning up in an environment with books and writers. He would share that he did recognise the privilege and what it meant as he grew up knowing that these things were possible going as far as writing a memoir at 14.
There was also the famous question of the jukebox which apparently features in all of the books of the Ngugi clan. The answer was that they didn’t realise that it was there but conceded that music was central to their lives. We would go into the language discussion with Ngugi explaining that he was not against English, he actually loved it. He was against the hierarchy of language where one language was perceived to be higher than another.
Mukoma would wonder why African literature was considered to have started with the advent of Chinua Achebe ignoring the writing of the South Africans in the early 20th Century and going as far back as the Amharic literature in the 16th Century or even the Slave Narratives.
Ngugi on the question of not winning the Nobel Prize would state that he never wrote for prizes. He believed in the “Nobel Prize of the heart” which he got from his readers around the world who loved his work. He would share an anecdote where he was once thought to be a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize and then he would fail to get it. The most distraught were paparazzi who had gathered outside his house to get a scoop on the new Nobel laureate. Ngugi and his wife would invite them to have a cup of tea and console them.
As the event wound down, it would become evident that this was less a duel but a sharing of the thoughts of some of the brightest minds that Kenya has ever produced. You can watch the whole debate below.