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Daring to Criticise: ‘Bakoki’ Wanjala’s Gift to the Fraternity of African Letters

Bereaved of my “Bakoki”, my age-mate, Chris Wanjala, I am bereft of words. Moreover, it is not easy to write with tears dripping from one’s eyes. I told you that I cry easily, either for joy or for sorrow. I have never believed that macho-masculinist fallacy that “men do not cry”.

I am literally crying as I write this, and I am in shock. Indeed, I had thought I would not write about Prof Chris Wanjala until later, when I was a little more composed. But you, my readers, ordered me to write.

I think it started with my friend, folklore guru Humphrey Ojwang, with whom we were fellowshipping with Chris Wanjala only a few weeks ago. “You should write an elegy for your “Bakoki,” he hinted.

Or did he say “eulogy”? Neither would be easy, but as I was saying, the floodgates were opened. The demands from you kept pouring in, from all the social media channels that I can access.

AN EXCEPTIONAL MAN

Even the press reactions of our first responders, like my friend Prof Egara Kabaji, appeared to underline the need to say something about this exceptional man, even before we officially say our final farewells to him.

I was particularly touched by the almost unanimous opinion of those who were Mwalimu Wanjala’s students that “he was the best teacher” that we ever had.

That, as you might imagine, made me a little envious, especially since “Bakoki” and I shared several students along and across our academic echelons.

Jokes apart, however, I am sure that what “Bakoki” and I shared in full and equal measure was a passion for literature, a passion for teaching and, inevitably, a passion for our students. I will not talk about all these here. But what I think we should share, a heritage from Mwalimu Chris Wanjala, is his unique affirmation of literature, and especially criticism, as a profession in its own right.

Present-day generations do not hesitate to arrogate titles and offices to themselves. You will thus hear razor-sharp young people glibly describing themselves as artists, poets, pastors or prophets.

In our times, especially in fields academic, creative or spiritual, you hardly dared “entitle” yourself with anything more than a modest statement of what you did. If you wrote verse, fiction or short stories, you would say you wrote or you “had written a few things”. A lecturer or even a professor would be content with simply admitting that they taught at the university.

We in literature were particularly shy, or even furtive, about what we did. Or maybe we did not quite know what our business was.

The clear distinctions we perceive in the literary enterprise today, like creative writer, critic, literary historian and literary theorist, were rarely spelt out. This was particularly so in the British “English” tradition, which Chris Wanjala, parodying my teacher F.R. Leavis and the “Makerere” approach, called the “Great Tradition”.

It was, for example, difficult to convince our British teachers at the then University of East Africa that one could teach creative writing. That was simply in “poor taste”. Similarly, literary appreciation, the systematic, technical engagement with and evaluation of texts, was accepted grudgingly as “criticism”, as the term connotes.

These concepts inevitably rubbed on to us first-generation local literary academics. We were caught between the conservative outlooks of our teachers and the startling concrete experience we had had, especially of the growing body of African Literature that squarely challenged those outlooks.

LACK OF CONFIDENCE

The resulting lack of confidence in our discipline made many of us wander to or, as the late Okoth-Okombo called it, “masquerade in” other disciplines, like Language, as in my case, or socio-political pursuits.

It took scholars like Chris Wanjala, and a few others, like Simon Gikandi (considerably later), to make us realize that Literature, as Literature, had its own legitimate and, indeed, obligatory ground (or even battleground) from which it should contribute to intellectual production.

How Wanjala struck out on this enlightened and enlightening route, quite early in his career, is a topic worth exploring in its own right.

But his early and mid-career publications, like Standpoints on African Literature, Seasons of Harvest and For Home and Freedom, are good pointers to the brilliance and originality of this disarmingly unassuming yet sharply articulate scholar.

Realising that these texts preceded the nightmare years in Nairobi and elsewhere in East Africa when literary practitioners became the primary targets of vilification, detention, persecution and exile, one cannot help being amazed at Wanjala’s perceptive and even prophetic vision of the power of the creative word.

In other words, Chris Wanjala alerted us, quite early on in the years of our nationhood, to the explosive power of literature, and the need to take it seriously.

In other words, if literature could be “dangerous” and “subversive”, as those who persecuted our writers realized, it needed to be taken more seriously than as mere tales and jokes.

We needed to read, study and interpret it competently, as the “critics” do, in order to take viable standpoints about it. That, primarily, is how Wanjala earned our respect in the literary field. He did not have to call himself a critic. We recognized him as such through his work.

Indeed, even the forces and powers beyond literature realized his far-reaching influence, and tried to distract him from his noble pursuits. But fortunately, Mwalimu remained passionately committed to his path.

He continued to direct his influence towards a host of national and international literary endeavours, like PEN International, the main defender of writers’ rights worldwide, ACLALS, the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literary Studies and, locally, the National Book Development Council of Kenya and his own-founded Nakhatami Literary Agency, among many others.

My “Bakoki’s” departure is an incalculable loss to his family and to all of us. But, as in all worthwhile causes, the fall of a comrade should only fire us with more courage and determination to carry on. The struggle for literary power continues.

Rest in Peace, Bakoki Chris Wanjala.

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