The best way to preserve memories, they say, is with ink, through creative writing. Upon the passing of Professor Chris Wanjala, a prolific writer and a professor at the University of Nairobi, Alexander Opicho recounts the journey to meeting him, and the life changing experiences he encountered upon the meeting. Alexander writes in nostalgia, to remember Professor Chris in the best way that he can.
The Journey To Meeting Professor Chris Wanjala.
This is a real story. About my brief meeting with Africa’s most respected literary critic, Professor Chris Wanjala of the University of Nairobi. It was on 20 th June 2017.
Our meeting was triggered by an article I had published in Saturday Nation in February of the same year and also in the East African of the same week-end. Ainehi Edoro, the editor of the Brittle Paper, a West African literary blog had also accepted to publish the article, but she declined after learning that it is already published in Kenya and East Africa.
I don’t know why this article was accepted by three serious publishers, and yet it was not one of my best pieces on literary criticism. I have more than a hundred articles on literary appreciation and criticism which I believe are the best, unfortunately, all of them have been severally declined by editors.
This experience made me to realize one thing that the mind of the editor is not the same as that of the writer, I think there is much of self-adulation in the writers thinking as that of the editor is substantially guided by objectivity.
The title of the Article was what is the Essence of Anthologizing Famous Stories? The article was about a thousand words and two pages long, critically cautioning why Professor Chris Wanjala anthologized famous stories like:
- The Memories We Lost by a Lidudumalingani
- How Much Land does a Man need by Leo Tolstoy
- My Father’s Head by Okwiri, Handsomest Man Who Drowned by Garcia Marquez
and many other stories by young African writers that have once been prized by the Caine Prize organization. My idea was that other than recycling famous writers like Tolstoy, Professor Wanjala should have announced a call for submission of short stories, so that he gives an opportunity to young writers from Africa to have a chance of being exposed to professionalized editorial services and thence publication. It was such an objective and critical comment I made. It was not that I aimed to throw a spear at the vulnerable tummy of Wanjala’s professional and intellectual repute as a guru of literary criticism.
Prior to Meeting Professor Chris Wanjala
In contrast to my expectations, this story got attention of the intellectual community, both the virtual and the non-virtual communities from the spheres of literature and beyond.
Tellingly, the Face-book page of professor Wanjala quickly accumulated to more than a hundred followers on the day the story was published; several rejoinders in the spirit of riposte began appearing in the culture pages of the print media in Kenya, most notably like the one in the Saturday Nation of the following week’s end by Mr. Ongeti, a literature student at post-graduate level at the University of Nairobi, Ongeti offensively dismissed (me) the author of the debated article as a mcguffin of literature.
Personally I wrote the article out of literary consciousness and spirit of intellectual inquiry that goes with the culture of literary scholarship, but the public mistakenly thought it was sardonic or wry impeachment against the personality of Professor Chris Wanjala in his capacity as the father of literary appreciation and criticism in Africa.
They were wrong. I was not malicious in my sentiments when I wrote the article, I was only peddling genuine moot about Wanjala’s Anthology: Memories we lost.
The heat and hot air in the social media about the article I think psychologically nudged Professor Chris Wanjala to call me. He called me in the late evening of the same day. We talked and laughed on phone.
I realized he is a humorous old-man who easily breaks into mirth as I do. We talked for one hour, we moved away from the article to properly knowing one another after which we then effortlessly plunged into other matters of African literature; we talked about the regrettable death of the African Writers series (AWS) at the Heinemann Publishers in London.
We also lauded characteristic eloquence of Austin Bukenya , I mentioned poetic uniqueness in his neology of the word tabanic used in describing ,but with derision, Taban Lo Liyong’s skepticism about literary poverty in east Africa, we also talked Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Pablo Neruda and Garcia Marquez, we also talked of Kenyan literature that has now been divided and left cleft into ethnic identities of Luo literature led by Tom Odhiambo, Gikuyu literature led by Evan Mwangi, Luhyia Literature led by Egara Kabaji and pastoralist literature let by Ole Kulet. I remember us also mentioning Timothy Wangusa, Okot P’ Bitek, Ng’ang’a Mbugua and Godwin Siundu. Our talk which began in English turned into a long spell of Lubukusu, a linguistic Nationalism to which I and Prof. Wanjala both subscribe.
It was lively, Professor Wanjala finished off our discussion in fact by commending that it was a delight, for us having a talk like that.
Especially between an elder of Omunyanga Elgon Nyanza age-grade (the age grade of those males from Bungoma County circumcised in 1956, which is actually the age grade of Professor Wanjala) and Omuchuma Namukhalaki (this is my age grade which includes those males that were circumcised in 1986 in Bungoma County).
Professor Wanjala of course took an opportunity to as paternal as any other cultured scholar can do to a budding writer, he requested for a meeting, and also for anything I have written whether published or not, so that he can read.
This was in February 2017. But four months later, on 20 th of June 2017, I chanced to travel over one thousand miles from Lodwar, my place of work, to Nairobi, where Wanjala stays with my manuscript of literary essays for Wanjala to read and also to demystify myself before him beyond the theory of suspected witch-hunting. I informed Wanjala of my coming to Nairobi prior to this visit.
My Experience at University Of Nairobi
The first place I visited when I landed Nairobi was the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM) offices at Luther Plaza to pick contributors’ copies of the Management Magazine of May and June, the two issues in which I had my two stories; how other Counties Cannibalize Turkana County of its Cash resources, and Food Prices Challenges is beyond local politics, they had been published in May and June respectively.
I was served promptly by Sammi Nderitu who was already in the office that morning, then I crossed Nyerere road to the University of Nairobi. At the main gate I met a gate-keeper behaving so uppish as if he was the Vice Chancellor.
He declined to allow me enter, he stressed that I must give him cell-phone Number of Professor Wanjala so that he can talk to him through my cell-phone. I felt offended but I managed to suppress my vexation.
It was evident in the eyes of this obstreperous gate-keeper that he wanted a bribe from me, little did he know that I wanted to slap him, only to control myself after I remembered how the former Chief Justice lost her job because of pinching the nose of a gate-keeper at a certain city shopping mall.
I just walked away, upwards to the by-pass to another gate that passed through the pavement of the Manu Chandaria sponsored University of Nairobi Towers, opposite school of engineering. The reception was so warm and friendly at this second gate; the gate-keeper that served me there had a name-tag with some name like Wafula on it. I didn’t read it fully be he had obstructed, he gaily directed me to where I could get the offices of Professor Wanjala at the department of literature.
I went on, up the stairs to the mezzanine floor, which is erroneously labeled as second floor. I don’t know why people at the department of Literature, which also host a sub-department of French studies, could not afford to label the floors correctly, why they could not help to know that after ground floor we usually go to mezzanine floor but not second floor.
I also wondered why a university in Kenya should have a department of French Studies, yet Kenya does not get more than twenty thousand French tourists in a year, why not a department of Germanic or Arabic or even Chinese studies given that these are the key communities that supply visitors and other human in-flows to Kenya.
At most I wanted to see sub-departments of Yoruba, siZulu, Gikuyu, luBukusu, Dholuo, Punjabi, or Luganda literature. My rationale for these musing was that this is where Ngugi, Taban, Anyumba, Gikandi, Mphalele, P’Bitek, De Graft and many others had in the mid of the last century launched a cultural revolution which aimed at decolonizing sources of African literature as well as decolonizing African literature and the African mind. Amid these one person tergiversations and mental peregrinations, I suddenly got to the office; Prof. Wanjala’s Office is directly opposite doctor Siundu’s office.
Wanjala shares the office with Prof. Wanjiku Kabira, just the same way Dr. Siundu shares the office with Dr Muchiri Jenniffer, the famous literary columnist with Saturday Nation. Dr Siundu, child hood friend, we used to hunt for human-chickens together, though what brought us together and bonded us up to now was literature or more correctly love of books.
It is a bond that has lasted between us up to now, we are still literary friends. I was not lucky; Dr. Siundu was not at the office. I discovered later that he had by then gone to eastern Uganda, in the villages of Masaaba, at the foot of Mount Masaaba(Elgon) to interview Timothy Wangusa about Bilomelele bye Luginki Masaaba (poems of Mount Masaaba/Elgon) his forth-coming poetry book written in Lugisu. This interview was subsequently published in the Saturday Nation of the following week-end.
Above all else, I was personally happy of this gender mix. It goes beyond specializations to reflect Kenya’s constitutionalism organizational structures of public institutions and as well as literary duties to the commitment of gender consciousness through mainstreaming as a post-modern obligation of literature as a life-style. I salute the University of Nairobi for these show of inclusivity in its efforts to execution management of gender and diversity.
I salute University of Nairobi on this perspective because I am aware of other universities in Kenya where departmental heads are dominantly and serially the males from the local ethnic community surrounding the university.
Wanjala was not at the office. I only got two ladies there. Both of them were humble physically, but one was very hostile to me in a palpable aura of fugue that goes with too much unexpected academic success.
The hostile lady was in ornamental glasses, behind a desk-top computer, I thought maybe she is professor Waniku Kabira, but no, I mused within myself in a moment’s flick ; a professor of literature cannot wear ornamental classes, cannot be irrationally hostile to elders like me even they are strangers, and even cannot take pride behind a desk-top computer.
The hostile lady had already advised me to go out and come back later when Professor Wanjala called me to go at the university book-shop to have a look-see at new books by African Writers. I went at the book-shop. I was not properly stocked. Especially the literature section. It had Ngugi’s last century books like Weep not Child and also some Novelettes in Gikuyu, unfortunately I don’t read Gikuyu. I read English, Deutsch, Kiswahili, Sheng and Lubukusu.
Thus, I immediately went back to the department of literature where I had seen something like a library, and truly it was there, I walked into the departmental library. I was ushered in and admitted to sit and read by a very polite young man evidently looking like as if he was an orphan on work-and-study program.
The Literature department at the University of Nairobi substantially has European classics; Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, as well as the Auto-biography of Tolstoy, Discourses of Jean Jacques Roseau, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Japanese Classics, the Quran, Shakespeare’s complete works, Garcia Marquez. I flipped through Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude; its pages are seriously touch-worn and underlined in blue ink.
I remembered Dr. Siundu’s review of this book in 2014; I remembered he reviewed the book a week before Garcia’s death. I did not clearly see any book by African writers, especially African Writers of the post-de-colonial era like Chimamanda, Taiye Selasi , Okwiri, Musila, Emma Dabiri, Kilugi, Laila Lalami and also there were no books on African queer theory or literatures on the gender-fluids and sexual minorities in Africa .
Exclusion of such literatures by the world class university like Nairobi is an example of pertinent questions which Francis Fukuyama describes as social patrimonialism or social extraction in his book Political Order and Decay, I will discuss it with Dr. Siundu one time in the coming days if God will allow us to meet. All the books there were every-Man’s library editions. Including the Quran, I chose to read it, like for Forty Minutes as I buy time for Professor Wanjala to come.
Meeting with Professor Chris Wanjala
I learned later that, Professor Wanjala has a defective cell-phone that keeps on failing to function intermittently, during the time I was reading the Quran at the library, Professor Wanjala had come to look for me at his office, he did not get me there, his cell-phone was not working, unfortunate enough the hostile lady gave him wrong description of my appearance, she told him that I was a very short man wearing a red shirt.
Wanjala went out looking for a man of that description. Instead I am a man of medium height and noticeable body weight, my head is attractively big, I was wearing a sorrel sweater not a redshirt, and for your information sorrel is color which is a blend of dark-brown and grey, to a non-colour expert it is just coffee-brown.
When I went back to the office to find out if professor Wanjala had come or not, the hostile lady was more hostile, in fact she did not look at me normally.
She had to make squinny look at me through her ornamental classes, the other lady politely told me to go out and look for Wanjala, Coincidentally Professor Wanjala called me, I think his cell-phone had resumed a somehow functioning state , he instructed me to go downstairs and meet him around the main library, some few meters away from the literature department.
I followed instructions and dashed out, immediately when I was out of the departmental hall, I just saw an old man in a disturbed face; I knew he was the one. He also saw me and knew that I was the one.
We walked towards one another, Professor Wanjala saluted in a colonial statement that Livingstone and Speke exchanged when they met in Uganda; Mr Opicho I hope, I said yes.It was evident that we were both delighted to find one another; our exchange of greetings was uproarious. People around were stunned-on.
He told me that he was Professor Chris Lukorito Wanjala, but in a professorial pose, I told him that I was Alexander Opicho. We laughed in a guffaw and he offered to walk me around the campus of the University of Nairobi. We walked for some few meters, then he told me that he had has lost his second mother-in-law, he is polygamous, and by then a mother to his young wife had just died that morning.
She died at the village in Bungoma, I commiserated in a manner that conforms with the standards of the Bukusu Nation. He accepted. We walked together to the offices of College of Humanities and Arts (CHUNA) Sacco.
A benevolent savings co-operative organ for the university staffs in the college of humanities. He wanted to get some money through arrangements of emergency loan to support funeral expenditures. He was given a claim form to fill, it required three guarantors.
We walked around the campus looking for guarantors; we met an old man of around seventy years. He was carrying a text book of Trauma Management in his hands; after greeting each other jovially, Wanjala introduced him to me, he was a professor of psychiatry.
When Wanjala requested him to be a guarantor, he went palpably wary and declined to guarantee for wanjala’s loan, he did not give any reason.
We kept on walking, now to the Senior Members club, an exclusive restaurant for professors at the university. Wanjala told me that he was assuming that the club can be a good catchment area for those people that can probably act as guarantors him.
We got to the Club, when got ourselves seats, Wanjala avoided a spongy cushioned couch for a plastic chair, then he ordered hot tea and sausages for himself, I also ordered the same. We sipped our tea and slurped our sausages as we confabulated, but Wanjala’s eyes were snake’s like; actively hunting around for the persons that could guarantee him for the loan.
Contrary to his assumptions, professor Wanjala displayed some facial expressions of disillusionment when all the fellow professors present by that time at the Senior Members Club refused to guarantee for him.
They never gave reasons, but they were all snobbish in one way or another in their manner of decline. Some two or three old professors with bushy grey beards, wearing lugubrious faces were sitting alone at this and that table in the restaurant, when I asked Wanjala to commend about it, he joked that old professors at the University of Nairobi prefer talking to their own tribesmen than fellow intellectuals, so they were sitting lonely waiting for their tribesmen to surface. We giggled, finished our tea and then walked out to look for guarantors.
While in the elevator, I thought of a professor preferring a company of a tribesman to a colleague. Then again I remembered arguments of Francis Fukuyama in Political Order and Decay that ethnicity is a genetically coded behavior in human beings, and it is biological necessity for survival, just the same way black snakes can peacefully move together as a group, but kill a yellow or green snake on the spot.
This relates beautifully to a social reality that in the modern political form of socialization known as democracy communities that are more nepotistic stand a better chance to acquire political power than those communities that are generous to foreigners. I rationalized away the tribal preference syndrome among the professors at the University of Nairobi on this basis of Fukuyamaian thought.
When we got out of the elevator Wanjala told me that he wants to try a common man, I did not respond because I did not know if I was a common or gentry in the ken of professor Wanjala. I just kept mute as we walked on past the Mahatma Gandhi statue towards the university bindery. Professor Wanjala was right, the first common person he tried was a security guard at the university, and his name was Mr. Misiko .
Misiko was very relaxed and very smooth with no traces of being suave in his manner of communication when professor Wanjala was explaining his problem ranging from death of the mother-in-law to the need for guarantors. In fact, Misiko took the form from Wanjala and within five minutes Misiko had already found two other guarantors, all of them from security and guarding department, these are true common men asin Wanjala’s parlance, they signed the form as loan guarantors to professor Wanjala, for a loan of sixty thousand Kenya shillings. on seeing this, Professor Wanjala’s face went somewhat young, it went a true and un-fettered tell-tale of an internal wave of joy and sweet emotions up-and-down his spine, some tears tripped under his glasses, he uncontrollably cried out to me; Opicho! A common man is very accommodating but those professors refused to be my guarantors. I also felt it.
Story of Stories
As way of consolation I told Professor Wanjala about a Bukusu proverb which says; kamalwa na karundukhe kakhoya okhunywela, meaning; even though a feast of good beer attracts a lot of friends but if by bad luck you happen to brew defective beer no friend will help you to drink. I told him that when you have a problem, friends will avoid you, it is like you have brewed a defective beer and you want to sell, even your long term carousing friends will avoid you.
Professor Wanjala listened to me carefully and laughed aloud, and then he told me that he was thinking of a case where one has two or three wives and all of them don’t know how to brew beer, such a man will never get a single vote for anything from the community members. Then we reached CHUNA offices.
We did not take more than Forty minutes at CHUNA offices before other common-men had already accommodated Professor Wanjala by approving his loan application and immediately giving him the cash applied for. It was so encouraging; Wanjala thanked them effusively and then told me that we can go back to the Senior Members Club for a chit-chat.
I walked abreast him, he was now warm and youthful, his walking style was a mix of professorial swagger and vestigial of self-axiomatic youthful life. He called me, Alex! I responded prof.!
Then he told me he has a son called Alex, he teaches in the same department of literature, that the son teaches French Literature. That he named this son after his South African friend Alex La Guma, the author of A Walk in the Night, Time of the Butcher Bird, In the Fog of the Season’s End and many other works. I took the opportunity to ask Wanjala if he is also a socialist realist the way Alex La Guma was, he giggled and said that socialism used to be a fashion of thought in the last century.
That he was also a socialist enthusiast just like all other young intellectuals of that time in the likes of Phillip Ochieng, Benjamin Wegesa the author of Captured by the Raiders, and also Koigi wa Wamwere.
But one day in 1975 he went for a literary seminar at Dar es Salaam in Tanzania only to find that books of socialism ideology that were criminalized in Kenya are freely sold in bars, buses and on the streets in Tanzania, he jumped to them with all the money he had. Starting with Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Paul Freire and so forth.
Then a British professor then visiting Dar es Salaam University spotted him; this professor had a Chinese wife. The professor advised Wanjala that there is nothing of value in Socialism, he told Wanjala to apply for a PhD at Leeds so that he can assist Wanjala to get a scholarship.
Wanjala did it. This is how Wanjala got a scholarship to Leeds University for Doctorate studies in Literature. I looked at Wanjala in the eyes for any critical remark, but he did not. I think professor Wanjala is not aware that the students who went to Leeds for further studies were potential Marxists, and after being identified by the Western Powers, through CIA spies, like the White Professor with a Chinese wife in Dar es Salaam, the Western often employed soft power to recruit them to Leeds for capitalism friendly education; this is how Ngugi, Wanjala, Soyinka, Wangusa Gikandi and many others landed in Leeds. MWe got back to the same seats we had used at Senior Members Club, Wanjala instructed the maître d’ hotel to serve with fish stew together with Busuma, he ordered for himself a special dish known as Dhola, which is a local argot among the club patrons for a cocktail of beef, salad, pepper, exotic greens, native greens and stew served with Busuma. The delivery was prompt. Then he slurped his dish as I did mine.
Delving Creativily Into Politics
This is the time we perambulated between Elijah Masinde of Dini ya Msambwa in relation to his anti-colonial semiotics in 1960 at Kakamega football stadium where he kicked the ball into the atmosphere and it has never come back up to now; a symbol that colonialism will never come back to Kenya again.
We also talked about Cardinal Maurice Otunga, rhetoric of Henry Manguliechi who dismissed Wanami his teacher of Kumuse, the buskusu rhetoric, the way Aristotle dismissed Plato, we also talked about political wiles of the colonial compliant chiefs like Namutala, Henry Wanyonyi, Namachanja, Kukubo and Cheloti, especially how these chiefs used voodoo as a means to power and maintenance of power, we talked about how Islam shaped Nabongo Mumia the king of Wanga to inculcate the vice of dishonesty among the Bawanga people, we also talked about Naliaka Wanambisi now known as Professor Monica Mwelesi and her sterling academic performance through Fulbright scholarship which gave her an opportunity to study the mind and style of Okot P’Bitek in the Song of Lawino.
We talked about the late Gizito Wanjala a promising young scholar of African poetry who died mysteriously when about to graduate with a Masters of Arts in Poetry at the University of Nairobi.
Also Professor Wanjala informed me that he Kamwaa or he shares maternal grandparents with the late Gizito, that he shares with the late Gizito Likhoni, or the a gift of a bullock during circumcision from the same grand-parents of the family of Bamwaya Nanjango Nalufuli. This is also the time when Professor Wanjala informed me that Naliaka Wanambisi is critically sick; I felt very dis-easened abou Naliaka’s disease.
This again the time I asked professor Wanjala why Ngugi w Thiong’o has only mentored his family members of three sons and a daughter to be writers, why Ngugi did not mention Kiswahili as the most imperative literary language for Pan-African writers in his latest article Rurimi na Karamu published in the 2016 edition of Journal of Eastern Africa literary and cultural Studies Journal and Why Ngugi has never attracted Wole Soyinka intellectually. Professor’s Wanjala response was very sharp, properly backed with facts from experience. He argued that, Ngugi is very right and very justified to treat writing as a business, and no paterfamilias worth his salt can go around avoiding his children only to mentor other people to take over his business empire.
A true father mentors his sons and daughters to take over after him. He argued that a writer as an author is an authority and in politics no political leader easily mentors a non-family member to take over his or her authority, unless the leader is confused. Professor Wanjala justified Ngugi’s current position that each and every person must go through his wife Njeeri wa Ngugi before talking to Ngugi.
He justified this position by Ngugi by equating it to how the wife of Karen Blixen used to manage each and everything for Karen Blixen pus deciding who talks to Blixen and who cannot. In my mind I was thinking of a narrative in Paul Theroux’s Sir Virdia’s Shadow about how after the death of Patricia Naipaul, the second wife of V S. Naipaul came in with kind control over the kind of intellectual and social relations Naipaul has.
About poltics of Language in Africa , Wanjala praised Ngugi for appreciation of translation, he also commended that Kiswahili is not a Pan-African language but it is a mother-tongue of Alamin Mazrui which is also facing a threat of gradual death given the phenomenon of Sheng.
Professor Wanjala corrected those suppositious about adversity between Ngugi and Soyinka, he pointed out that the two are not enemies by using an argument that when Ngugi was detained by Jomo Kenyatta, Soyinka joined the world movement crusading for Release of Ngugi and even sent his emissary Kole Omotso, the author of Between Achebe and Soyinka which way forward? Omotso came with a letter written by Soyinka protesting against detention of Ngugi. Such acts can only come from a friend.
But Soyinka’s nonchalance about Ngugi’s literary activities is a revenge for the criticism Ngugi wrote in the collection of essays under the title Homecoming, in this book Ngugi derided Soyinka as an intellectually abstract and metaphysical poet. Thus, Ngugi and Soyinka are not unflagging enemies the way Achebe and Ali Mazrui were to Soyinka; Achebe for his pro-Biafra politics and Mazrui for his pro-Islam intellectual inquiry.
Some two guys joined as at the table, one of them was the professor with bushy grey beards in a lugubrious face. Wanjala Introduced him to me as the only professor of mathematics, but he introduced himself as professor Khalakhasia from the department of mathematics. Khalakhasia talks in a serious cacophony; he is the noisiest person I have ever made.
He is ever shouting. He tried to whisper to Wanjala that, ‘professor Wanjala, today you have taken lunch twice.’ But it was so noisy that every person in the restaurant turned around to look at Wanjala. Khalakhasia walked away un-apologetic, Wanjala became shy and stopped eating; I finished my fish, Professor Wanjala beckoned me that we go. On our way out, we giggled at overt sadism of Khalakhasia.
This is when we met Professor Evan Mwangi, who writes very prolific about Ngugi. He was in a company of Professor Peter Odhiambo. Wanjala introduced me to them. Then we proceed to the main gate for exit, where the obstreperous gate-keeper was. I gave Wanjala my Manuscript. He appreciated and cautioned me not to be a sadist if at all I want to prosper as a writer.
On 6th October, I wrote a short message to Professor Chris Wanjala, I wanted to share with him some news about the Egyptian Marxist and political economist Samir Amin who had died in early August 2018.Unfortunately, Chris Wanjala did not have the information about the death of Samir Amin, he replied to my message, fully expressing his grieve. In his message he also wondered why the media in East Africa could not run news stories about death of such a prominent intellectual, scholar, patriot and social revolutionary like Samir Amin. This was my fourth time I was communicating with Professor Chris Wanjala in the year 2018.
At the beginning of 2018, in fact on 20th January, I called Chris Wanjala to get his sentiments about South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile who had just died by then. Chris Wanjala talked on phone for two hours about the peculiar strength, intellectual alertness, academic focus, cultural confidence and intellectual empathy as the key qualities of Keorapetse.
Professor Chris Wanjala was very specific in declaring Keorapetse as a good man and a caring scholar for the critical role Keorapetse played in assisting Ngugi wa Thiong’o to run away to Zimbabwe and then use the Zimbabwean passport to go to exile in United Sates of America.
This was the time the government of Kenya under the visceral dictatorship of Daniel Moi had instructed the special branch police to arrest and detain Ngugi wa Thiong’o at the Nyayo torture chambers for writing the books that were intellectually liberal.
My conversation with Professor Chris Wanjala about Keorapetse that particular evening inspired me to write an article about the unique literary and intellectual spirit of Keorapetse Kgositsile, the article was published as the main letter in the Sunday Nation at Nairobi and as the leading opinion in the Face2face at New York.
In one of the week-end days of May 2018, I visited Anna Nanjala catholic Library in Lodwar town to do some general reading, I first read Professor Wanjala’s brief review of Dreams in Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Professor Wanjala had reviewed this memoir by Ngugi in Awaaz Magazine.
Then again I picked the Mind and Styles of Okot P’Bitek in Song of Lawino by Monica Naliaka Wanambisi (aka Professor Monica Mwelesi). The introduction in this book was written by Chris Wanjala. It is one of the best introductions ever written in Africa. It comes out clearly on the problem of ‘Barbarous Pedantry’ disguising as literary criticism in Kenya.
Professor Chris Wanjala: The Enthusiast.
It was so pataphorical on the day that Professor Chris Wanjala coincidently called me right at same moment I was reading the introduction. I thought maybe he was standing somewhere in the reading hall looking at me with his small sharp eyes that often scintillated from small eye-balls in un-skewed geometry of his baby face that used to give him a hallmark of youthful appearance in contrast to the biological reality that Wanjala was an indisputable septuagenarian by the time I was reading the introduction. I picked his call, he was happy and upbeat on phone.
He quipped that he finds fun in calling me ‘Alexander’ because he also has a son by the same name, that he named him after Alex La Guma, the south African Marxist, novelist and the fearless anti-apartheid crusader. Professor Chris was talking about Dr. Alex Wanjala, the French Literature don at the University of Nairobi.
I joked back to Professor Wanjala by teasing him to be open and declare if his son was fully named as Alex La Guma Wanjala or not. He went mirthful on phone; he broke into a long spell of deep-chested wheezing laughter after which he asked me where I was.
I told him that I was in Lodwar at Anna Nanjala library reading his introduction to professor Mwelesi’s Mind and Style of Okot P’ Bitek in Song of Lawingo. I also praised professor Wanjala on phone for displaying high level of knowledge of British Literature in the same introduction.
He became alert and careful on phone, then asked me if there are some of his other books on the shelves, I looked up and saw the Stand Points on African Literature, Drums of death, and then Memories We Lost.
I confirmed to him on phone whatever of his books that was there on the shelves. He was happy with that, then he instructed me to send him an e-mail of over a hundred questions to be answered in his auto-biography he was planning to write. I did so on the same day.
In June, 2018. We exchanged with professor Wanjala some short messages on phone about Taban Lo Liyong’o and Okello Oculli.Wanjala was so passionate about Taban, he commended Taban for having displayed extra-normal ability in blending philosophy with poetry, Wanjala was of an idea that Taban is the most qualified African writer to be considered for the literature Nobel Prize.
Two days later, professor Wanjala called me to inform me that he had finished looking at my manuscript of essays on African literature and thus I should to travel to Nairobi so that we look for the publisher together.
But Professor Wanjala told me that already he had two publishers in his mind; Naima Kassim at the East African Literature Bureau and Mellitus Wanyama at Utafiti Publishers. He told me that he held them in high esteem as the most preferred publishers for my Manuscript.
However, Professor Chris Wanjala had also asked me to write a less than hundred pages Biography of the late Pascal Nabwana before I got to Nairobi, so that I can take along for the two manuscripts to be published at the same day.
When I told professor Wanjala that I am not the right person to write Pascal Nabwana’s Biography, but instead Doctor Fred Makila, the author of Outline History of Babukusu is the right person. I told professor Wanjala that Dr. Makila is also a step son to Pascal Nabwana and hence he can do a good job in writing Pascal Nabwana’s Biography.
Professor Wanjala dismissed my arguments in a very humorous way, he told me not to think about Dr. Makila for writing Nabwana’s biography because Dr. Makila abandoned reading, writing and running Mukangu Bookshop at Misikhu township for busaa drinking and selling Madawa ya Kienyeji, herbal medicine.
He told me that Benjamin Wegesa the author of Captured by the Raiders was a more responsible writer and intellectually honest than Dr. Makila. I agreed and then I started researching for the materials I am to use in writing the Biography of Pascal Nabwana.
The Passing Of Professor Chris Wanjala
On Monday 15th October 2018, Mr. Felix Sialo, a Journalism lecturer at Maasai Mara University, called me in the afternoon to inform me that the social media was alive with stories about Professor Chris Wanjala who had passed on at Moi Teaching and referral Hospital in Eldoret during the early morning of the same day. It was so bad news for me. I mused within myself. Then the words of Herman Melville that, ‘O death! O death! why are you ever untimely!’ rang loudly in my mind’s ear. Chris Wanjala’s death is a gap I may not fill easily.
The Chris Wanjala I knew was a suave Marxist, talented writer, passionate teacher, true and honest friend, a practical feminist, a feasible protector of the maleness in a boy child, source of harmony between the snobbery in bourgeoisie culture in Kenya universities and humility in poverty across Kenyan rural societies. I mean Chris Wanjala was a true friend to African culture, a gifted oral historian, an intellectually militant but very forgiving scholar.
But he has died, what else can one say in such trial-some moments? Nothing. There is no any other conclusion I can make, but as a Muslim, I have to accept the death of professor Chris Wanjala just the same way I am without any other choice but to accept the deaths of David Rubadiri, Kofi Annan, Musician Kimaru, Winnie Mandela and V S Naipaul by decrying 2018 as a doomsday year for African art, music, culture, political inquiry and literature.
Chesamisi village is a potpourri of the unspeakable, this is the village where Professor Chris Wanjala socialized last at funeral gathering before he went home die of acute pains in the stomach and in the chest. Chesamisi village just like the meaning of its name is a tragic village, just like the villages, in chapter ten in Things Fall Apart where the egwugwu hovered here and there looking for the successful young men to kill. Chesamisi village is like dirty Africa of the last century in which Richard Wright visited out of love only to pick dysentery in return, the disease which killed Richard Wright some few days later.
By- Alexander Opicho
(From Lodwar, Kenya)