An Evening in the Shade of a Baobab Tree | Jioni Moja kwenye Kivuli cha Mbuyu

I had the very good fortune of hearing the literary legend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o speak at the Brattle Theatre last night. Having already seen the late Chinua Achebe in lecture at my alma mater eight years ago, Ngũgĩ had long been next on my list. I began reading his works when I was about eight years old: The River Between and Weep Not, Child were assigned books for my brothers, who were in secondary school at the time, but my father encouraged me to also get started if I wanted. So I dived in and, while some meaning was lost on my not-quite mature mind, I enjoyed them — and came to appreciate them even more when I finally encountered them again in my own literature classes years later.

So last night I sat grinning widely in the back of the theatre, tickled by his delivery that was reminiscent of a grandfather recounting stories to his children and their children. Seated in the relaxed manner of one of who has truly earned the right to lean back in their chair, he had an easy air about him, especially as he later invited the audience to ask him questions — “anything, really”. Watching him seated onstage next to his son, renowned author Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ who led the conversation, I felt party to something special. The core of the lecture was his prison memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, but what remained with me most poignantly were the themes that emerged thereafter:

The role of translation.

Multilingualism.

Identity.

Art.

The discussion of who determines one’s literary identity and reiteration of the importance of writing in one’s native tongue (à la Decolonising the Mind) made me reflect on my own linguistic upbringing. I was raised in English and Haya, surrounded by Swahili (and Tok Pisin before that). This was a function of the places my family has lived, but Swahili is Tanzania’s national language and East Africa’s de facto lingua franca. Yet many a school would punish students for speaking anything other than English — I myself fell victim to the “It’s a pity I can’t speak English” signboard that would be hung around one’s neck for the transgression. And, in a vestige of colonial rule, we were actually encouraged to seek out fellow perpetrators to report and pass the shaming sign onto. Oddly enough, one could also be punished for speaking English too well thereby being deemed a show-off: it happened to one of my brothers in primary school, whose teacher then had the gall to complain to my mother while standing in a hallway plastered with signs blaring “SPEAK ENGLISH ALL THE TIME”. Yes, I’m serious; it has been at least two decades since this incident and I’m still baffled.

There is plenty more to delve into about language and its role, and I look forward to exploring that as I improve upon my repertoire and perhaps attempt to expand it. It is a privilege to be able to move between two tongues and in the process open doors for those confined to either side. If ever there was any doubt about the importance of the bilingual nature of this blog, last night that doubt was erased. To paraphrase Ngũgĩ: art, in any form, is a rejection of confinement. I choose to be free, and so this blog must live on.

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Baba Ngũgĩ and I, his literary prowess undimmed by terrible lighting!

***

Jana jioni nilikuwa na bahati njema mno ya kumsikia mwandishi mashuhuri Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o akihutubia kwenye ukumbi wa Brattle Theatre hapa Boston. Nikiwa tayari nimeishamwona mhenga marehemu Chinua Achebe alipokuja chuoni kwangu miaka nane iliyopita, Ngugi nilikuwa nikimvizia siku nyingi. Nilianza kusoma vitabu vyake nilipokuwa na umri wa kadiria miaka nane: kaka zangu waliokuwa sekondari walikuwa wanasoma The River Between na Weep Not, Child na baba yangu akanipatia nakala ili nami nivianze. Basi nikajitosa na ingawa kuna ambayo sikuelewa kwa sababu ya uchanga wa kiakili, nilivipenda mno; huko mbeleni nilikuja kuvielewa vema zaidi nilipovifikia hatimaye kwenye vipindi vya fasihi shuleni.

Hivyo basi jana usiku nilikenua meno kweli, nikifurahishwa mno na jinsi Ngugi alivyohutubia kama vile anasimulia wajukuu hadithi. Alikuwa ameketi kwa raha zake, kwa namna ya mtu anayestahili haswa kupumzika, akitukaribisha tulikowepo tumuulize “chochote kile”. Kumtizama ameketi jukwaani na mwanaye aliyekuwa akiendesha mazungumzo, mwandishi maarufu Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, nilihisi nimeshuhudia tukio la aina yake. Mada yake kuu ilikuwa ni kitabu chake, Wrestling with the Devil, lakini kilichonigusa zaidi ni mada nyingine zilizoibuka:

Jukumu la utafsiri katika fasihi andishi.

Utumiaji wa lugha zaidi ya moja.

Utu wa mwandishi.

Sanaa.

Kulikuwa na mjadala mfupi juu ya nani anayebaini utu wa mwandishi, na msisitizo wa umuhimu wa kuandika katika lugha za kienyeji (kama ilivyojadiliwa kwenye kitabu chake kingine Decolonising the Mind). Haya maongezi yalinifanya nitafakari juu ya malezi yangu ya kilugha: kwa kuwa familia yangu imeishi sehemu kadhaa, nililelewa katika Kiingereza na Kihaya, nikiwa nimezungukwa na Kiswahili (na kabla ya hapo Tok Pisin – ambayo ni lugha ya kisiwa cha Papua New Guinea). Kiswahili ni lugha ya taifa ya Tanzania na lugha unganishi ya Afrika Mashariki, lakini shule nyingine zinaadhibu wanafunzi kwa kuzungumza lugha yoyote ile zaidi ya Kiingereza — mimi mwenye nilishawahi kuvalishwa kibao kilichoandikwa “Ni aibu kuwa sijui kuongea Kiingereza”. Na kwa mfumo wa kikoloni, tulikuwa tukihimizwa kuwasaka wakosaji wengine, kuwataja, na kuwavisha hicho kibao. Cha kushangaza, mwanafunzi anaweza pia kuadhibiwa kwa kuzungumza Kiingereza kwa ufasaha mkubwa kwa kisingizio kuwa anajidai: hayo yalimkuta kaka yangu mmoja shule ya msingi, na mwalimu alikuwa na ubavu wa kumlalamikia mama yetu huku kuta zote za shule zikiwa zimeandikwa “ONGEA KIINGEREZA WAKATI WOTE”. Hata sitanii; imeishapita miaka zaidi ya ishirini na hadi leo hii bado ninastaajabu.

Kuna mengi mno zaidi ya kuchunguza kuhusu nafasi ya lugha; nina shauku ya kuyaonja, huku nikiboresha lugha ninazozifahamu tayari na labda kuongeza nyingine. Ni fursa kubwa kuweza kutumia lugha zaidi ya moja kwa urahisi, na kwa namna hiyo kuwafungulia njia walioko upande mmoja au mwingine. Kama nilikuwa na mashaka kuhusu umuhimu wa kutumia lugha mbili kwenye hii blogu, basi hayo mashaka yaliondolewa jana. Kuazima maneno ya Ngũgĩ: usanii, katika fani yoyote ile, ni ukanushi wa udhibiti. Mimi ninaamua kuwa huru, na hivyo hii sanaa yangu hii lazima iendelee.

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Nikiwa na Baba Ngũgĩ; ufundi wake hung’aa licha ya mwanga hafifu!

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