In his now famous open letter to Ngugi to return home,David Maillu brings forth a very pertinent issue that need not be ignored. The role of the African writer in the politics of the day.
Much as I may not agree with Maillu for choosing silence to save his skin during the Moi dictatorial era, my conscience does allow me a tad-bit sympathy to a man who, in a stroke of patriotism quite rare in writers, implores one of Kenya’s foremost intellectuals to reconsider and return home if only to share the copious honors his name seems to be attracting lately, with his motherland.
Nonetheless, that he would beseech Ngugi to choose silence over activism against repression by the Moi regime sits Maillu unfavourablely beside one professor Ali Mazrui, author of the book ‘The trial of Christopher Okigbo’. In this ‘trial’, Mazrui takes Okigbo, a talented Nigerian poet who died young fighting in the Biafra war , to task for ‘wasting’ his great talent and youth on a conflict of disputable merit. Okigbo is thus charged with the crime of putting society before art in his scale of values.
Like Mazrui, Maillu seems to believe that the writer has no active role in the politics of social upheaval of his day. If anything, his call is for the writer to stand by the side, watch and document the unfolding events without so much as dipping his finger in the bloody mess.
Is this all a writer can do?
In his autobiography ‘There Was a Country,’ Chinua Achebe, argues that a writers’ role is not a rigid one and that any and every writer has the obligation of helping reshape his country’s dialogues; directly and indirectly . In so doing, the writer makes the world a better place and humanity’s passage through life easier. ‘I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without protest’ said the father of African literature.
Maillu’s words to Ngugi to save himself by diverting from writing raw-nerve books and waiting for the hostile regime to cool down are as ridiculous and as cowardly as Mazrui’ s verdict to Okigbo that he was guilty of putting society before art in his scale of values. By being bold enough to speak out and act , Ngugi, Mkangi, Oyugi and others ended up losing lucrative jobs and comfortable lives. They however, rightfully earned enviable permanent places in the history of Kenya. As Elie Wiesel rightly puts it, ‘there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice , but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
It therefore goes without saying that any writer, or rather any serious writer, cannot separate them self from the politics of the day. Like an old adage goes, Politics is always present in literature.
During her recent Nairobi visit, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a public lecture at the University of Nairobi during which she explained her reasons for tackling a topic as hefty as the Biafra war in her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. ‘ I wrote about the Biafra war because I know of a women who had lived in suspended hope from 1969-2003 praying that her child who disappeared during the war would come back one day; I wrote about the Biafra war because My dad still has tears in his eyes when he talks about the war that deeply scarred him; I wrote about it because my mother still cannot talk about how her father died; I wrote about the war because my parents lost everything they ever possessed to the war and because both my grandfathers are buried in unidentifiable mass graves in what used to be Biafra.
Need I say more?