«Popular Fiction and the Popular Press in Kenya This chapter explores the emergence and growth of popular fiction in Kenya while examining the role of ...»
According to the professor of politics who has never been inside a university lecture room, come January next year one real professor of mathematics will be calling a man who was born when I was the village twist dancing champion, “Mtukufu baba” (Trans: His Eminence father).
The professor of politics has said that wapende wasipende (Trans: whether they like it or not), the man who stopped speaking Sheng’ just the other day when someone whispered into his ear that he could follow his father’s footsteps and become president, cannot develop malaria if he got the main job in State House. The agemates of the young man are also telling him, “Uhush, wewe mufiti kuwa prezzo. Steto hau ni yako. Mabuda kama Saitosh waume vako” (Trans: Uhuru you are fit to be president. State House is yours. Old men like Saitoti should stand aside). Others are telling him … A guy swing us jobos (jobs) when you get there” (Sunday Nation, August 11, 2001).
Above, we see a language that is only just English. Apart from the political allusions and imagery that a Kenyan reader familiar with the political process in the country can easily decode, infused in what should be English are Kiswahili words as well as the urban lingua Sheng’. Equally important are the markers of discourse such as “professor of politics”, meant to refer to President Moi, who had once claimed to be a “professor of politics”. The “real professor of mathematics” is a reference to Moi’s then vice-president George Saitoti who is a university professor. Other markers include Uhush, a contraction for Uhuru, here referring to Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru Kenyatta who had been “anointed” by Moi as his successor. Several of the “idioms” appropriated in the text can only be understood within a particular sociocultural space even though an attempt is made in the subsequent paragraph to make sense of the message. Interestingly, it is unlikely that this “linguistic maze” causes any confusion to the intended readership. Instead the language creates its own unique audience. The writer thus imagines a public that is able to decode the text with all its mixed codes, code switching and allusions.
When the text excludes through language, it disempowers some but at the same time empowers a particular in-group (Githiora, 2002).
The language adopted in Whispers however came under intense criticism especially from schoolteachers. “People had just woken up from David Maillu and were not ready for another Maillu,” noted Mutahi during an interview with this researcher.7 As outlined above, Maillu had been furiously debated in the 1970s through the 1980s. Whispers came under similar attacks. Although the column was not entirely modelled on “Maillusque”, it was criticised for being thin on imagination and typecast just as Maillu’s work as imitative rather than imaginative. Constant criticism was mostly levelled on the language in Whispers. Kenyan English language teachers accused Mutahi of “bastardising the English language” and complained about its deleterious effect on their students.8 Mutahi however argued that this language adequately mediated the realities he was interested in exploring. Mutahi Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003 Critics raised similar complaints about the fiction published in the Drum magazine. Peter Nazareth, for instance, criticised the “gross misuse of the English language” and the deleterious effect of Drum’s style on the speech patterns of youth all over Africa (cited in Stein, 1999: 9).
appears to have also been aware that there is a sense in which language encodes certain values and practices. For instance, in one of his early articles titled “English language R.I.P”, he writes : “… [y]ou meet a fellow in the morning when you are suffering from a splitting headache, perhaps caused by the joys of Friday night at the disco and when he asks you how you feel, you beam and say, “fine thank you!” (Sunday Standard, November 6, 1983).
Mutahi then argues that having a splitting headache is not a “fine” condition.
He wonders why, to say otherwise in English would invite derision. He finds the English language “as is” inappropriate in certain contexts and therefore deliberately “bends it”. Clearly, he demonstrates how language carries with it certain values and mannerisms and in this case how the English language also carries with it certain mannerisms which he seems to disavow.
Mutahi was also accused of ‘polluting form to elevate the event’. While it is true that the column relies sometimes on rhetoric and clichés and that this on occasion affects the quality of the writer’s arguments, this strategy should also be seen as necessitated by other factors. Indeed, Newell (2001) has defended this style of writing arguing that popular writings understandably “pollute form” because sometimes they are “concerned with the reconstruction and documentation of their immediate surroundings rather than their interpretation” (100). Newell (1997) further argues that some authors’ refusal to adopt European plot conventions is often deliberate and should not be taken as a mark of literary incompetence, but as an indication that fictionality has been marginalized in favour of the didactic, problem-solving approach to narrative. Mutahi’s decision to employ this demotic register should therefore not be taken as a mark of incompetence. Indeed, Mutahi’s educational background, which we discuss below, leaves no doubt that this decision was very deliberate.
The ‘Making’ of (Paul) Wahome Mutahi Wahome Mutahi was born in October 24, 1954 in Nyeri, Central Kenya, a place he immortalised in his work as “the slopes of Mount Kenya”,9 possibly a literal reference to the region’s mountainous topography. Nyeri was the second settlement of the Consolata Missionaries in Kenya and generally had a strong missionary presence, both Catholic and Protestant. Mutahi admits to his upbringing as having been hugely influenced by the Catholic Church. He was even ‘forced’ into a seminary by his parents.10 Baptised Paul, a name he was to drop later in life, Mutahi became an altar boy at his local church, living the life that was supposed to have led him to priesthood. It is a life he refers to quite regularly in Whispers. Like most Kenyans, Christianity had a significant impact on Mutahi’s life both as a child and as adult. In a later chapter, I argue that because of decades of Christian missionary evangelisation and education, Christianity has become a part of Kenya’s popular traditions. Despite initially being pressurised by his parents to train as a Catholic priest, Mutahi refused to make it to the altar, ‘robed’. Although “the word” remained his vocation, he became a ‘priest’ of another kind, of ‘whispers’. Mutahi often prided in “congregating a far bigger audience through Whispers than I would have had I become a Catholic priest”.11 Mutahi was one of five boys in a family of seven. His father Elijah Mutahi died in 1972 although the writer’s early childhood as noted earlier, mainly revolved around his mother, the school and the church. Because his father was always away most of the time, young Mutahi established what he calls “a “The slopes” is one of the most important settings / spaces for Mutahi’s narratives. Ogude (1996) argues that “when an author chooses a particular setting for his or her novel, it shows they believe that the physical setting of the narrative has an important function to play in the novel” (132). The “slopes” is to Mutahi what Illmorog is to Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It is, to borrow Ogude’s words in a related discussion, “a centre stage to re-enact Kenya’s history…” (Ibid.).
Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003.
Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003.
special relationship” with his mother Octavia Muthoni, a relationship that is constantly revisited in Whispers where one of the characters Appepklonia (hereafter referred to as Appep) is a ‘literary clone’ of Mutahi’s mother Muthoni and shares with the character Whispers a similar relationship that Mutahi shared with his mother. Quite often, it is Appep who acts as Whispers’ moral guide in the column just like Muthoni with Mutahi. But Appep also gives us the face of a mother figure that is quite different from Thatcher. She is almost an anti-thesis of Thatcher. During Mutahi’s early years, at the insistence of his mother, he attended St. Paul’s Seminary in Nyeri for his primary education later proceeding to St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Nairobi for his O-level education. However, after only three months, Mutahi was expelled from the school. Mutahi says his expulsion was because his lifestyle was deemed “incompatible with Catholic teachings”.12 He claims to have rebelled because Catholic education was too authoritarian, too guided and dogmatic. In 1972, he returned to “the slopes” and joined Kirimara High School in Nyeri for his A-level education having rejected a possible life as a priest. Incidentally, while at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, he had developed a keen interest in literature although the school allegedly discouraged students from studying literature, which at the time was considered “subversive” to the minds of young Catholics. As a result, Mutahi did not formally read literature at O-levels. But he claims to have persuaded his new headmaster at Kirimara to allow him study literature at A-levels. This decision was to mark a turning point in the former altar boy’s life. He passed his A-levels examinations and joined the University of Nairobi in 1974 to study for a BA in Literature. At the university, Mutahi remarks that he was later to be influenced in a number of ways, which we discuss separately, by his literature lecturers who included among others, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
After completing his BA degree in 1978, Mutahi was employed as a District Officer by the Kenya government and served in Meru and Machakos districts.
Personal interview with Mutahi, February, 2003 One notes influences of his experiences as a public administrator in Whispers.
He writes with the buoyancy of an insider who understands and disavows the bureaucracy of public administration, especially the condescension with which the government performs its power. When in early 2002 his play Ngoma cia aka (The Whirlwind)13 was banned by a District Officer in Nyeri “on security grounds”, Mutahi satirically tore into the public administration (read government) exploiting the situation to expose the vanity of the country’s political leadership. The provincial administration had claimed that staging the play amounted to “a public gathering” which required notification of a whole range of state apparatuses. The administration also argued that the play was “obscene and pornographic”. Below is an excerpt of the article in which Mutahi uses his alter ego Whispers to comment on the banning of the play but which, in fact, offers us a glimpse of how he critiqued power.
Just when I was getting in the mood of making a fool of myself, I got word that there was a new chief, nay, an emperor, who often got annoyed when natives made merry. He did not like the natives dancing excessively so he had declared a dance called Mugiithi subversive and banned it. He made sure that anyone seen shaking his shoulders in a manner likely to suggest the dancing of Mugiithi after ten in the night was made an unwilling guest of the men in blue. Like Bwana Ndithii of those early days, something tells the new emperor that whenever the people of the slopes begin to dance, they are up to some evil (Sunday Nation April, 7, 2002).
When Whispers (Mutahi) asked the administration police why they did not
want the play staged, he writes:
The play is as a relatively innocuous drama about family life yet was read as “politically sensitive” by the provincial administration since it was performed in the Gikuyu language, a testimony to officialdom’s paranoia over areas it is unable to have direct control. The vernacular in Kenya has traditionally been feared as potentially subversive. Ironically, the British colonial administration also thought it was subversive thus enforcing the learning of English with zeal.
The one who looked like a former Chinkororo14 was the first to speak, “Wapi license ya mchezo? Wapi permit ya DC? Wapi licence ya polisi? Wapi barua ya chief ya mchezo? Wapi kitambulisho? Wapi entertainment permit?
Wapi Wapi?” (Trans: Where’s the licence for the play, where’s the DC’s permit, the Police permit, where is the letter from the chief of plays?
Where’s your ID, where’s the entertainment permit, where… where?) I suppose he was about to ask to be shown my death certificate too… Then I made the first mistake. I decided to speak in English, thinking it might impress the former Chinkororo and make him think I knew what I was doing. “Pray, tell me without hesitation or repetition, who says that I need bureaucratic licences to be a thespian. Matters of theatrical persuasion and enactment don’t need to be legislated. No one has the caveat to disengage me from my literary pursuits!” …[t]he former Chinkororo talked into his walkie-talkie and said, “Inspector Bwire speaking, over. Kanatoa matusi eti hakaogopi serikali. Eti sijui serikali ni thespian, sijui ati legico…. Yes sir… Eti ata-pursue sisi out. Yes sir, yes sir… Over and out.” (Trans: He is insulting us. He claims he does not respect the government…He is saying that the government is not a thespian… Yes sir. He is saying that he will pursue us…). The fellow in the Kaunda suit came closer to my face and showered me with saliva as he said, “Gamzee, utagoma hiyo kizungu yago mingi. Nafigilia sisi hatugusoma?
Chunga mdomo. (Trans: Old man you will have to stop addressing us in English. Do you think we did not go to school? Watch your mouth!) Then he did a Kiganjo war dance around me as he swore, “Hagi ya Mama, haga gamzee nitaua!” (I swear by my mother I will kill this old man!) (Sunday Nation, April 7, 2002).
This was a group of “thugs on hire” who gained notoriety in the 1990s among the Abagusii in Western Kenya. The name later found expression in popular Kenyan political lore and became a familiar symbol in the country’s political discourse denoting one of the state’s modalities of political management, resorting to violence to establish order.