The winners in the other fields outlined in Alfred Nobel’s will are often cited for their ‘innovation’ or something new that they have brought to the world, or how their action or research advance the cause of humanity and peace.
Probably the most difficult committee to sit in is that of Literature. That is why the citation for most of the literature awardees range from their artistic voices to their deliberate commitment to write a certain kind of literature. And that is exactly where Ngugi wa Thiong’o comes in. For many literary lovers and enthusiasts, especially of African literature, it seems to have become a norm or even fashionable to bet that somehow, Ngugi will win the Prize this time.
Ngugi’s career has been prolific. With about 10 novels, 4 plays, about 10 collections of essays, 5 memoirs, and a couple of short stories and children’s books, Ngugi remains a towering name in African Literature. Indeed, in 1995, Bernth Lindfors in his “Authors’ Reputation Test”, placed Ngugi among the top four most popular authors in an international calibration of African writers.
In the last 5 years, Ngugi has become a perennial fixture on the list of nominees, each time with high odds in his favour only to lose to someone else in the end. Which begs the question: Why exactly has Ngugi been a perennial nominee or to ask in another version, why exactly has the committee been snubbing Ngugi all this time? And to respond to this question albeit inconclusively, we may need to understand Ngugi’s politics one needs to understand what Ngugi has done and some of the main ideas he has expressed in his works.
While those inclined to postcolonialism keep lambasting the prize as a European project, and that it doesn’t matter whether Ngugi wins it or not, I mean even Achebe, the master storyteller, didn’t win, there is an unexpressed desire that maybe, he should win it. What import would Ngugi’s winning have on African literature? That the discussion over Ngugi’s winning the prize has remained prevalent for about five years now, each time gaining fervour and the direction each year shows how postcolonial literature in general and African literature, in particular, is still mediated by this prize despite our vehement denials and criticism. There is every reason why Ngugi ought to win the prize if the justification used to award the previous laureates is anything to go by
For a fact, Ngugi’s career has been prolific. With about 10 novels, 4 plays, about 10 collections of essays, 5 memoirs, and a couple of short stories and children’s books, Ngugi remains a towering name in African Literature. Indeed, in 1995, Bernth Lindfors in his “Authors’ Reputation Test”, placed Ngugi among the top four most popular authors in an international calibration of African writers. He could still rank as highly or even better were this test to be repeated again. All his works, both fiction and non-fiction details his experiences in his childhood and other eventful stages in his life, and those of the people around him against a background of colonialism in Kenya.
Firstly, In his writing, teaching and practice, Ngugi has been an advocate for the use of vernacular language for the perpetuation of a people’s identity and the preservation of their cultural and literary heritage, especially in the aftermath of postcolonial violence meted on a majority of countries across the world. Staying true to his word, Ngugi penned Matigari, a novel that was very popular in the 1980s among Agikuyu speakers. The success and how the book resonated with the masses that Ngugi wrote irked the powers that be so much that the book had to be taken out of the bookshops. Later, he wrote a magisterial novel (Murogi wa Kagogo), Wizard of the Crow, first in Gikuyu, which was later translated to English in 2006. He still runs and maintains a journal, Mutiiri that seeks to document and archive the heritage in Gikuyu.
His advocacy for the restoration of the African dignity and unity, both in Africa and in the diaspora in his collection of essays, Homecoming were replicated in his push for the abolishment of the English studies department at the University of Nairobi.His arguments for the need to reorient the university curriculum to reflect the experiences of the African people as shown in their literature. The structure of the new department of literature at the University of Nairobi, had course selections for Kenyan, African, Carribean, African American, and Literature of the rest of the world was radical and precedent-setting. Such an undertaking found space for the inclusion of Oral Literature in the university curriculum. Indeed, this curriculum change did influence the structure and course offerings at the University of Nairobi, and the other universities in Kenya and the region.
If the award is on the content of his works, Ngugi has been forthright in defending the ordinary people against all forms of oppression.
Both in writing and practice, Ngugi extols the role of the artist against a background of colonialism and dictatorship in the post-independent states. It must be noted that in addition to his success in novel writing, Ngugi did try his hand in drama and theatre performance to a greater degree of success as well. During his days at the University of Nairobi, he popularized Kamirithu Theatre Group, one that he identified as the “people-based theatre”.This is the group that performed his plays, the Trial of Dedan Kimathi and I Will Marry When I Want. It is the performance of the latter, in its Gikuyu version, Ngahika Ndeenda by the Kamirithu group, at their centre in Limuru that irked the government leading to the destruction of the Kamirithu Education Centre. Ironically, the government erected a polytechnic there.
What this could prove is that by working with this theatrical group, in a language that they could understand, Ngugi also could push his Marxist inclinations on the people. This kind of practice, Ngugi seems to have shifted from being merely ‘literary’ to a level of advocacy. In theatre, Ngugi found a way to work with ordinary people to speak for themselves and their experiences in a way he could not achieve in the novels. However, this came with a great personal cost: He had to flee to exile to hide from the successive governments that saw his Marxian tendencies as a threat to their power.
However, how unquestionable the value of the Nobel Prize for Literature is for African Literature, however the mystery surrounding the criteria guiding the selection of the winners, it adds both economic and socio-cultural value of African to African Literature in the global literary marketplace. If the criteria for the award is on artistic choice, Ngugi has been artist par excellence, trying his hands across the different genres with considerable success. If the award is on the content of his works, Ngugi has been forthright in defending the ordinary people against all forms of oppression. They may as well give it to him as a recognition of his advocacy for the restoration of dignity, cultural and literary heritage of individuals that were violently robbed their language through colonialism and slavery via a return to vernacular language.
Whatever justification the committee may give for awarding him the Nobel, I hope that this time, Ngugi will Not Weep, again.