These words are the most beautiful gift Prof Chris Wanjala gave to the tribe of writers while he straddled the literary landscape like a colossus. They will be cherished as a patrimony to the men and women of letters.
To be a literary critic one has to start as a lover of literature, a student of literature and ultimately a practising debater on books as they arrive and on issues literary as they emerge in the public domain — Prof Chris L Wanjala
The words are transcribed from the interview I had five years ago with the departed literary giant, when he came to Broadcasting House on my invitation to launch the premier literature programme, The Books CafÃ©, on KBC English Service Radio.
In that laconic statement, Prof Wanjala provides a theoretical framework for those who would dwell in the field of literary criticism. When Prof Wanjala uttered those words, he was seated across the table in our KBC studio. There was, as you would expect, two microphones: his and mine. But he knew he was speaking to a wide audience beyond those microphones. After all, he had preceded me as a broadcaster. He was erudite, eloquent, historical, authoritative and unmistakably critical, thus setting the tone and bar for the programme.
In 2008, Prof Chris Wanjala was 64 years old when I first met him, and we immediately struck a friendship that would last 10 years. Writer Philo Ikonya — first exiled in Norway and later in Austria — had convened a meeting of mostly contemporary Kenyan writers to relaunch the then lumbering Kenyan Chapter of PEN International, the world’s oldest association of writers.
Philo, fellow writer Tony Mochama and I had previously met in person, albeit at some nightly poetry reading in the city. So on this day as we gathered at the YMCA on State House Road, Prof Wanjala walked in and sat quietly. Those of us who had only read him in the newspaper or encountered his books, such as Standpoints on African Literature, (which he edited and published when he was in the second year) would live to cherish that moment. It was Prof Wanjala’s towering figure that betrayed his presence in our midst. “Prof Wanjala, welcome, that’s Prof Wanjala,” Philo said with a deliberate staccato, emphasising the point.
The celebrated literary scholar brought wise benevolence and urged us on. There was a follow-up meeting at the Kenya National Theatre, and this time, Prof Wanjala spoke of early Kenyan and East African writers whom he believed we not only needed to memorialise but also read their texts, saying they were our literary heritage.
There are Kenyan poet and novelist Khadambi Asalache, who lies in repose in London, and whose poetry first appeared in the Commonwealth anthologies edited by Howard Sergeant in the early 1960s. Pick any of these anthologies and read Asalache and Joe Mutiga, and you will not help but ask, is there a deliberate scheme to erase some names from the annals of our history?
Prof Wanjala brought a certain element to the appreciation of literature that he alone had mustered and dominated: a historical perspective to literary discourses. Perhaps it was because as the ‘spokesperson’ of his generation, he spoke liberally and freely about writers and their texts.
I am tempted to say that Prof Wanjala stood alone in this respect because he had charted a career in literary criticism early in his academic life. For it is not unusual for a novelist not to speak charitably about another’s novel, especially if the two live in the same space and time. Thus Prof Wanjala would say: “A literary critic must be encompassing in time and space. In the criticism of East African literature, I have tried my best to give women, men and the youth who write an equal hearing. Different ages of writers engage in different passions.”
Prof Wanjala was a fine spirit. To me, he extended a sincere fatherly love. I remember him telling me: “Son, have you taken dowry to my daughter-in-law? Remember I have two cows for you in the village, tell me when you are coming to collect them.”
Prof Wanjala provided the foreword to my book, Smiles in Pathos and Other Poets. He said: “Typical of his romantic and sophisticated style is the poem from which he derives the title of his volume of poetry.”
I do not shed tears easily; they drip freely only when I am deeply overwhelmed with emotion. So this has been my experience from the moment I learned that Prof Wanjala had left us for the land of his forefathers. I am still not able to come to terms with Prof Wanjala’s sudden departure.
TRIBUTES POUR IN
When I conveyed the sad news to Malawian literary scholar Dr Mpalive Msiska, he wrote from London to say: “Prof Wanjala was at the centre of the development of African literary discourse at the time when Nairobi and East Africa as a whole threatened to partake substantially in the centre of cultural gravity, which had largely been in West Africa.”
Somali literary scholar Prof Ali Jimale Ahmed, a great admirer of Prof Wanjala, wrote from the USA to say: “Prof Wanjala was a giant, a true son of Africa who made his mission to study and disseminate African literature.”
PEN International Director of Programmes Dr Romana Cacchioli, who had previously worked with Prof Wanjala on a Unesco language project, said: “We celebrate Prof Wanjala’s lifelong contribution to African literary criticism, his contribution to PEN and his endeavours to protect and promote linguistic rights.”
When I was elected president of PEN Kenya Centre, I came up with a sketch for a creative writing programme for secondary and university students. It was Prof Wanjala whose institutionalised name we brandished as a banner as we travelled the length and breadth of the country to introduce PEN School Clubs. Prof Wanjala encouraged students to take writing as a vocation. Prof Wanjala, I will mourn you as a brave son: “Pride, oh pride/Here is a sublime pillar/A seminal critic, a god of imprecation/And fate, bridging a new narrative.”
When I wrote this poem for Prof Chris Wanjala, I already knew he was dangerous as an intellectual, “a god of imprecation and fate”. You admired or feared him. If you crossed his path, you lived to rue the day. His teachers knew better, and sometimes they frustrated his studies, especially when he was pursuing his PhD in the 1970s. But he did whisper something to me, and I am watching, for if you carry a pen that does not scare anybody, you have not earned the title of writer.
For writing, after all, is an act of subversion, as Egyptian scholar Prof Ezzedine Choukri Fishere might have said. Africa has lost one of its greatest literary minds. For us East Africans, Prof Wanjala defined and inaugurated a tradition of literary criticism, thus earning him the moniker, “the father of literary criticism in the region.”
Whence did this towering intellectual come? Prof Chris Wanjala was born on April 4, 1944, in Bungoma county, Western Kenya. He received his early education at Bungoma High School and his A-Levels at Friends School Kamusinga, before proceeding to the University of Nairobi in September 1968 to study literature.
As a stripling at Bungoma High School, Prof Wanjala had shown great potential in the study of literature as he enjoyed reading. Chinua Achebe writes in his memoir, There Was a Country, that there was an act at Umuahia Secondary School “between 4 pm and 6 pm, when all textbooks had to be put away and novels picked up and read”.
For Achebe, it was mandatory to read a storybook in the evening. No wonder a good number of pioneering Nigerian writers attended the same school as Achebe. Elechi Amadi, Chris Okigbo, Gabriel Okara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, all went through this school. Whereas Achebe was responding to the dictates of a policy, Prof Wanjala’s was a personal fascination with the written word.
Prof Wanjala once told me in an interview: “We had an American Episcopal teacher called James Victor Warford. He started this notorious habit of creating a blank page in the library and he let the students go to the library and list the books they had read so that at the end of the day, the student who had the longest list would be rewarded. I was fascinated by that. I was encouraged to compete and I was always ahead of my contemporaries.” So by the time Prof Wanjala was going to university, he was a thoroughly read student. Still, it was at the University of Nairobi where he would excel as a towering literary figure that would dominate the literary landscape for the next 50 years. So, how best should we honour this illustrious African literary giant?