Prof Chris L. Wanjala Iconic Literary Scholar

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Prof Chris L. Wanjala, a literature don at the University of Nairobi, is an icon revered in academic circles as one of Kenya’s leading literary critics and historians. Over the years, he has made vast contribution to the nation as a literary scholar, writer, critic, and man of culture. ESTHER KIRAGU talks to the man who wears many hats about his enormous contribution to the literary world.

As a literary scholar and writer, Professor Chris Wanjala’s passion for knowledge and learning has seen him get involved in the promotion of literacy and reading culture in the country as the chair of the National Book Development Council of Kenya, which is made up of a network of stakeholders from both the private and public sector.

A man of culture, Prof Wanjala is now keen to promote writing of books with a moral tone that appeals to young adults. As such, for the last five years, he has been part of the organisers of the Burt Award for African Literature; a literary prize that recognises excellence in young adult fiction from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya.

He has also authored many books including an anthology of short stories – Memories We Lost, which has been approved by Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development and is currently one of the secondary school literature set books. His writing has also seen him interact with the media and is a former columnist for The Sunday Nation, The Sunday Post, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Standard, and has hosted popular literary programmes on radio and television such as Literary Giants, Books and Bookmen and the Chris Wanjala Show which aired on GBS TV.

An interest in literary works…

Prof Wanjala’s upbringing was marked with family gatherings that involved story-telling sessions, especially of the community’s heroes. In addition, some of his family members were avid book lovers and this rubbed off on him from an early age.

“My grandfather was a ritual performer and one of my most vivid memories of him was his performance of a ritual dubbed kumuse, a traditional ceremony performed three days after the death of a senior citizen in the village. Part of the ceremony included reliving, through drama, the history of the entire tribe. The performance incorporated lots of proverbs and moral tales to help create coherence in the community. As a young boy, I would often accompany my grandfather as he performed this ritual and greatly admired his oratory skills, in addition to his capacity to recall past events some of which had taken place many years before,” he says.

Prof Wanjala seems to have taken after his grandfather, if his wealth of knowledge on cultural issues as well as photographic memory is anything to go by. With this interest in cultural issues, it was only natural that a youthful Wanjala decided to further his knowledge in literature at the University of Nairobi.

“However, at the time, only European literature was taught by white expatriate lecturers at the university’s English department. It was only later that renowned author Ngugi wa Thiong’o joined the department as the first African literature lecturer. I was one of his first students in African literature studies,” he explains.

As the department grew, other African lecturers such as the late poet Okot p’Bitek and Henry Owuor Anyumba came on board, hence a need to make the literature department distinct from the English department.

By the time Wanjala was a third year student, premier oral literature books had started being published and he was among the very first students to study oral literature. He was also the chairman of the University of Nairobi Student Writers Workshop and did lots of critical reviews of his colleagues’ poetry and stories, something that impressed his lecturers so much that they organised a seminar for him to present an academic paper based on the reviews to lecturers and students. The review appeared in the university’s journal Busara making it his first ever published critical work.

A career in cultural and literary works…

On graduating, Prof Wanjala worked briefly for the then East African Literature Bureau, now Kenya Literature Bureau, as a book production officer. He would edit and help publish books before eventually getting a teaching job at the University of Nairobi in 1972, becoming one of the first three postgraduate alumni to teach at the institution. At the time, most of the lecturers were either Makerere University trained or British expatriates.

According to Prof Wanjala, in those days, many of the African literature lecturers began conducting numerous debates as well as publishing books. However, there was a lot of acrimony between the African literature lecturers and the then Kenya Institute of Education, which was at the time managed by expatriates who were in favour of European books.

“This saw some of us being labelled as communists and Marxists. It didn’t help that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and I were officials of the Writers Association of Kenya, which had close links with the Afro-Asian writers association, which was backed by the then Soviet Union. However, this was an intentional part of the process to decolonise the mind and it drew lots of suspicion from the British Council and the government of the day,” he explains.

All the same, Prof Wanjala continued teaching at the University of Nairobi while studying for his doctorate and became the first Kenyan scholar to give an inaugural lecture at the University of Nairobi upon receiving his professorship. But things heightened in the 1980s and 90s as there was a crackdown on intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was arrested for his play Ngahika Ndenda (I Will Marry When I Want) which drew a lot of attention from the public who flocked the Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Centre in Limuru to watch the play. Prof Wanjala wrote a piece about the arrest, which was published in the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper. This put him on a collision with the government.

“Together with other close associates of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, we were placed under close scrutiny by the government. Many of us were forced to flee the country to seek asylum and those who remained were cowed to silence. I moved from the literature department to the university’s Institute of African Studies and focussed more on conducting research in oral literature and collecting material culture countrywide, aware that this would not brush anyone the wrong way,” he says.

The research led to the development of District Social Cultural Reports which helped the then Ministry of Planning better understand districts, now counties, to help plan for their development activities.

A lover of culture, Prof Wanjala chaired a technical committee that drafted the Kenya Culture and National Heritage Policy together with the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Sports and Social Services. The policy was later ratified by the cabinet in 2005. Additionally, he was part of those who formulated the current bill on culture in Parliament, which is awaiting presidential assent.

He has also worked closely with the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO (KNATCOM) and sits in the Culture Committee that liaises between UNESCO in Paris and the activities KNATCOM carries out on matters culture.

After being at the University of Nairobi for 17 years, he moved to Egerton University in the late 90s where he was instrumental in the setting up the literature department. He introduced journalism and publishing within literature and today is proud to see some of his students doing well in various industries in Kenya and abroad. He is of the opinion that literature is such a versatile field that those who study it tend to go into such diverse careers.

His outstanding and distinguished service to the Kenyan nation on cultural, academic and literary issues have not gone unnoticed as he was conferred the Award and Honour of Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear (EBS) in 2012 by retired President Mwai Kibaki. As if living a full circle, Prof Wanjala eventually returned to the University of Nairobi, where he is currently a professor in the department of literature. He is presently finalising on his autobiography, which he hopes to publish this year.

Published April 2017…

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