Professor Kithaka wa Mberia – African literature from the perspective of a Kenyan literary scholar

Imagine the first taste of cold water at the end of a sweltering hot day. Perfectly satisfying. That is exactly how I felt after a candid conversation with Prof. Kithaka wa Mberia. The man needs no introduction to any literature enthusiast out there. He is a prolific Kenyan playwright with bestselling books such as Kifo Kisimani (Death at the Well), Natala and Maua Kwenye Jua la Asubuhi (Flowers in the Morning Sun). Kithaka wa Mberia has always had a way with words, hence his impressive collection of poems. Yes, not only is he a playwright but also a poet. He has published five anthologies, including Mchezo wa Karata (A Game of Cards), Msimu wa Tisa (The Ninth Season), and Bara Jingine (Another Continent), among others. As I said, the man needs no introduction as he has been in the Literature field for ages. Sitting down with him and getting the inside scoop on the African Literature scene is quite the treat. 

Prof. Kithaka, in your own words, can you construe what African Literature is? Or maybe what it is not?

Well, you see, there are many ways to go about attempting to define African Literature. For starters, some people look at it from the angle of Africa, the continent. The continent that runs from Cape Town to Cairo. From what I know, most tend to look at it from the Sub-Saharan context. You know Sub-Saharan Africa, also known as Black Africa because most Africans are Black people. When you hear people talk about African culture, they exclude the culture of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and the like. This translates to African literature. When people, and I can be wrong, talk about African literature, they almost exclusively refer to Sub-Saharan literature. I am not sure if when you mention African literature, people will be in a hurry to talk about works from North Africa. You find that people will run to works from Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and the likes. Most people presume that African literature is literature written by Black people in Africa. All in all, one would generally say that African literature is literature written by Africans as defined to some extent by colour and experience. Experience matters.

If it seems like I am going around in circles, it is because of the nature of the question. As you mature in the field, you will realise there are some questions to which you will be lying if you purport to have a single answer. One is defining African literature … It is a loaded question.

Being a Swahili Writer, where would you position Swahili literature in the African scene?

Let me shock you. Written Swahili literature is about 300 years old. I would first like to debunk this misconception that writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o , Grace Ogot, Ole Kulet and Wole Soyinka are first-generation writers. I understand this is what schools teach you, but that’s far from the truth. Written Swahili literature has a long history. I mean,  despite people saying African women do not write, one of the earliest pieces of Swahili Literature, Utendi wa Mwana Kupona, was written by Mwana Kupona binti Msham around the 19th century. And if it is not obvious, she was a woman.

Poetry is the oldest genre of Swahili literature. Then followed by prose. I think the oldest recorded Swahili prose is Uhuru wa Mtumwa (Freedom of Slaves) by James Mbotela, 1934. Then there was the emergence of Swahili plays in the 60s. That is when Graham Hyslop published Afadhali Mchawi (Preferably a Witch), and Henry Kuria published Nakupenda Lakini (I love you but …).

Since the 70s, there has been a lot of Swahili writing. I have not done the research, but Swahili writers might be just as many as English writers in Africa, especially in East Africa. Some might argue that there are more Swahili writers than English ones.

It has not always been this way. I acknowledge that a while back, people were not taking Swahili as seriously as it should be. This is because the colonial powers had deemed anything African below human standards. Our language is one of them. But it is just us. Before Kifo Kisimani became a Kenyan set book, it was studied in universities abroad. Our eurocentric attitude exceeds that of the Europeans themselves. People out there get very excited reading Swahili books, but, within, it is not phasing. But what do you expect when this way of living has seeped into daily life? You see generations being overly excited by Caucasian music, literature and people. You see my point. Many Africans do not think much of Swahili because it is distanced from literacy. Whenever people find out I write in Swahili, they have a problem reconciling my status as a professor with my use of the Swahili language. It is funny because, in the international scope, people do not have this problem.

I am sure you can tell I get very excited talking about Kiswahili.

Kiswahili as a language is identified primarily as more African, specifically more East African. Does this help identify your work globally as African?

When literature is written in Kiswahili, people do not debate that it is African literature. They do not have to guess. There was a debate about whether African literature could be written in non-African Languages. The argument is that English is also an African language; it is just not an original one. But with Kiswahili, that is indisputably African literature.

From your biography, Kiswahili was not your first language, so why did you predominantly use the language in your works instead of your “mother tongue”?

Let us be realistic. I speak Kitharaka. How many people do you know who speak Kitharaka? And why do you want to write? To communicate, I presume. And not just to communicate, but to communicate serious issues. When I wrote Kifo Kisimani, it was not a joking matter. I had a serious issue to share with people. When I wrote Natala, It was not just idle pass time. I am serious. So if you have an important message, wouldn’t you want that message to reach a multitude of people?

That is one end. The other end is I am a very proud African. I am proud to be African. You can see it in how I carry myself. Just look at my name, Kithaka wa Mberia. Do not think that I am not baptised, but you will rarely see me using my English name. Seeing me in a suit and tie is almost an impossible thing. I can count the number of times I have eaten hamburgers in Kenya. I am an ugali kind of person. This might seem unimportant, but it is all in the attitude. How you dress, what you eat, and the language you speak is a reflection of who you are.

I speak Swahili more than English. That is my primary language. It is the language I use more than other languages. My attitude towards the world regarding being African beckons me to use an African language. However, Kitharaka cannot reach the masses as Kiswahili can. I want to reach as many people as possible using an African language. Hence I use Kiswahili. If there were other African languages as popular, I would use them.

Kiswahili is our hero. It is the warrior language. I love it, and I support it.

Now there is no way I would write in English. I know I would sell way more books in English than in Kiswahili, but that is a price I am willing to pay. And you can take that to the next bank.

While we are still hot on the topic of identity, as a literature enthusiast and an author, what are the criteria by which you measure up a piece of literature to be African? What are your thoughts on Africans from the diaspora writing literature identified as African?

African literature has to address African issues. I think African literature has to identify with African issues. Issues such as slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and disillusionment are uniquely African experiences. If they share the sentiments, feelings, fears and agonies with the mother continent, then even when they are written outside the continent, they are ours.

What genres are considered dead in Africa? What are we not writing more of?

We are not writing travel literature. Travel literature is close to none existent. There aren’t enough biographies and autobiographies. We have significant figures and writers with vocations. But we do not have people writing biographies and autobiographies. Instead, we have outside journalists and writers writing about us.

There is more prose, followed by poetry/drama and then biographies/autobiographies. Short stories are quite popular in Kenya because of KICD. If you see someone with short stories, they are in it for the money. The educational system has conditioned it to be a highly lucrative genre in schools. So if you want to build a nice house, just start writing short stories.

There is no children’s drama anywhere. Even when people tend to write, they have challenges fitting into the context of a child. The dramatists are not able to grasp children’s psychology. You find them writing about man and wife. What does a class three kid know about the concepts of marriage? The language used is not that of children at all. This applies to all African Children’s Literature.

What should the upcoming generation do to sustain authentic African literature?

Well, we are doing very badly. Very very badly. Do you know why? It is because of the foreign films and music. Because of the bombardment of foreign “literature”,. You see the turn our music has taken. There was a time when we were listening to authentic African music. But now we have young men jumping on stage, saying nothing. Do you know those songs in America where people dance with their underwear or are they showing? The trousers are hanging loosely. So instead of listening to the music, you pity the guy because you do not know when the pants will fall off. Now our music is like that, not inspired by African issues.

I am not seeing anything that will anchor upcoming authors on African matters. When you read books like Things Fall Apart or The River Between. The books are so African, not because Africans wrote them but because their essence is so African, and the issues discussed in them are so African. The perspective, the world view. It is so African. Even when we are painted in a bad light. You still identify with the literature because it is ours.

The government has also not done much for culture here.

I do not see many people anchored on African soil in the immediate future. Like there are no Achebes or Ngugis or Soyinkas. And that is something to worry about.

Afterword: As I said, the insight into African Literature as seen by a prolific writer like Prof . Kithaka wa Mberia is like cold water on a sunny day. This is the kick-off we needed to stir a conversation we have been keen to avoid for ages. Prof. Kithaka’s words should set the fight to sustain African literature with the level of authenticity that is anchored in reality.

For those who love reading, I am sure you have gotten quite the booklist from this little expose. I know I have. Till next time, let us define African Literature for the world to see.

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