Monday, April 22, 2024

Rudolf Okonkwo: Weep not, Mukoma wa Ngugi

• March 26, 2024
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Ngugi wa Thiong’o[credit : LInguapax]

I met Ngugi wa Thiong’o at Bard College in upstate New York on Chinua Achebe’s 70th birthday. Every literature star from across the globe was there. Here are some of those present: K. A. Appiah, John Ashbery, Don Burness, Chinweizu, Johnetta Cole, Jayne Cortez, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Joseph Duffey, Michael Eric Dyson, Nuruddin Farah, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Nadine Gordimer, Michael Harper, C. L. Innes, Bernth Lindfors, Norman Manea, Ali Mazrui, Toni Morrison, Micere Mugo, Gil Noble, Emmanuel Obiechina, Charles Ogletree, Sonia Sanchez, Ruth Simmons, Richard Sklar, Wole Soyinka, Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and John Edgar Wideman.

Of all of them, it was Ngugi that I wanted to meet. And I did meet him, surrounded by friends, media types, and well-wishers. It wasn’t easy to get a one-on-one with him. But I shook his hand and said habari yako. He was with his wife and two young kids. Upon inquiring, I discovered that she was his second wife.

I needed no other event to conclude that the heroes of African struggles like Ngugi wa Thiong’o belong to us all. It was clear from the way people embraced him on that day. It is the same to this day. They have put a lot on the line — their freedom, fortune, and future to push Africa in the right direction. Someone like Ngugi spent time in prison and exile, all to see that Africa crawls out from the abyss. We honour them for that sacrifice. And we will always do so time without end. The stories of their heroic past will stand the test of time.

And boy, oh boy, time tests stories.

Recently, I mentally reviewed my unpublished memoir, “Because I’m My Grandfather.” It stopped when I got to America. Should I add the American stories to it or work on the American stories as part 2? I asked myself. I remembered why an agent who liked the memoir did not sign me up. She wanted me to alter the main thrust of the story. I refused because that would mean making up what did not happen to spice up the story the way Western publishers wanted African stories to flow. And she passed.

And I kept my story. Intact.

Regarding stories, authenticity matters more than the accolades it would bestow.

Now to Mukoma’s tweet, which has been read all over the world.

“My father @NgugiWaThiongo physically abused my late mother. He would beat her up. Some of my earliest memories are of me going to visit her at my grandmother’s, where she would seek refuge. But with that said, it is the silencing of who she was that gets me. Ok- I have said it.”

That was a hefty allegation. Without prejudice to the credibility of Mukoma’s allegation and accepting the Western disposition of believing the accuser first before interrogation, I dared to make the following observations.

I must acknowledge upfront that mothers are exceptional. They are more particular to last-born children like Mukoma. Witnessing one’s mother in any form of distress is disheartening.

I have always believed that the most precious gift a man can give his children, which is more valuable than wallets full of bitcoins, is to love their mother. It is a gift that keeps giving in perpetuity. The worst burden a man can heap on his children, more prominent than a giant hunchback, is the trauma that comes with maltreating their mother.

Unfortunately, most families don’t attain that ideal. How each family handles those kinds of lapses makes all the difference. And that is the challenge that Mukoma faces.

For us, the observers, any attempt to minimize Mukoma’s pain is almost wayward. And any pretence of diagnosing his trauma is pure quackery. All we can do as fellow merchants of stories is to be true to the debt we owe to stories. It is an ancient debt that we must honour in the tradition of those who came before us. Just like in breaking writing rules, we can bring down the fences, but we must first know, remember, and respect why societies put up fences in the first place.

With just one tweet, Mukoma brought his mother alive and on stage. Mukoma, the writer, owes it to his mother to ensure her story is not lost. Imagine what he would do with a powerful book. As a writer, Mukoma can end the silencing of his mother, Nyambura. I will give him a free title: Nyambura, the phenomenal woman behind the great Ngugi.

Such a book will not just be therapeutic for Mukoma; the vigour needed to gather information and tenderly put it together will open up a multidimensional look at a subject beyond what one tweet can convey effectively.

Hopefully, Mukoma’s tweet was not intended to solicit such a contract from a cynical publishing world. And hopefully, it was not a quarterback’s hail mary in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter.

The stories we love best are where the tellers washed their hands, cleared their throats, and muttered the essential opening, “Once Upon A Time …” before they embarked on the tale. For tweets, there are a mere 280 characters. They can make noise, but can they make legends?

Mukoma should not just write a well-thought-out, powerful book for his late mother; he should do it for his daughter, named after his mother. That gesture will forever halt what he considered a systematic erasing of her from the Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s story. The book will wield her forever in the story.

As the uproar that followed Mukoma’s tweet was in the air, I thought about that encounter with the agent and many other publishing ordeals Africans face in the West. There is the story and the process of panel-beating the story to fit into the form the publisher presents it to the world. It is in that process that a lot of harm is done. And more damage is done during the promotion of the story. The ugly process was something writers and publishers protect readers from seeing. It is as messy as how Africans produce palm oil from the palm kernel.

Writers have a predisposition to dream. Their dreams entail hunting for stories. Like children by the seaside, writers pick up stories like children pick up pebbles. Sometimes, the writer finds a shiny one. Sometimes, he finds one that needs polishing to bring out its shine. At other times, the pebble the child finds may not be the shell of a sea creature but the fingernails of a mermaid.

Just because your dreams are valid does not mean they will all come true how and when you want them. Similarly, because your stories are valid, you do not have to tell them how and when you want.

Be it in marriage or funeral rites, when the drummers finish beating their drums, when the audience stops clapping and cheering, when everyone has eaten, wiped their mouths, and headed home, when the dust has come down and settled on banana leaves and window louvres, the dancer will have to go to a quiet corner of the compound and use his tongue to count his teeth.

Okey Ndibe wrote that a story that must be told never forgives silence. He did not add that measured silence, especially temporary ones, does not harm a story that must be told. This is what our forefathers called wisdom.

For someone who just finished writing “Why I’m Disappointed in Jesus,” I understand why Mukoma wanted to express his disappointment with his father’s alleged treatment of his mother. Some who have not even read a word of my book said that with “Why I’m Disappointed in Jesus,” I was crying for help. If so, it could be the same with Mukoma.

Stories are not innocent, harmless tales. While buried in the ground, some stories are like uranium, just another rock in the soil. But once dogged out, they can become radioactive. How you handle them will determine whether they provide electricity or become a bomb that will destroy your history, home, and heritage. It is up to each writer to choose.

Mukoma owes it to his mother to ensure her story is not lost. He owes it to his father to ensure his legacy is not cursed. How Mukoma intends to navigate the two ropes is up to him. In his steps lies his own legacy as a writer, a son, and a decent human being.

So for you, Mukoma, the son of Ngugi, I say in the languages of my forefathers, which your father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o urged us African writers to write in, biko, were nwayo ka ofe di oku juo oyi.

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History, Afrodiasporan Literature, and African Foketales at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef” and “Children of a Retired God,” among others. His upcoming book is called “Why I’m Disappointed in Jesus.”

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