Self-Idolatry, or What Made Ngugi’s Story Most Translated?

Self-Idolatry, or What Made Ngugi’s Story Most Translated? By Alexander K. Opicho

There have been ground-shaking African literary events in the week that preceded the Easter holiday of 2016.The events have done what we can describe in the language of Ayn Rand as un-shrugging the African map of literature, orature, cyborature and art within the broad globalectics of world literature. The week began with a first event by having Tonni Morrison, a black American woman, defying the challenges of gender and age to listen to the cords of conscience in the strength of her compassion to write one of the best books of this century. Morrison is now at the age of 85, but her book, God Help the Child reflects energy and strength of the mind – rare commodities in the human nature in such physical conditions. The second event was the release of the current issue of the web-based literary magazine; Afridiasporacom.The issue has unspeakable stories, poems, features, interviews and artworks echoing the afro-politan voices in the stretch towards cultural cosmopolitanism. But the most tremulous of all the events is the release of the latest edition of the magazine Jalada Africa containing a new short story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o translated into over 30 African languages, making it the single most translated short story in the history of African and modern writing.

The short story was originally written in Kikuyu as Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ and was translated by Ngũgĩ himself into English as The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright. This story is in fact an impressive venture into translation for Jalada Africa, a Pan-Africanist writers’ collection based in many countries of Africa including Kenya. Translation Issue (Volume 1) is the outcome of four-months laboring that came out with beautiful featuring of collaborative work by translators as well as language protagonists from African countries.

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Moses Kilolo, Jalada Africa managing editor appreciates worthiness of the issue by asserting that “Professor Wa Thiong’o is uniquely placed to be the first distinguished author and intellectual featured in our periodical translations issue.” He has, for many years, been the most vocal proponent in publishing in African languages.’

The story is currently available in Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiZulu and Xitsonga, as well as the original Kikuyu, Ahmharic, Dholuo, Kikamba, Lwisukha-Lwidakho, Ikinyarwada, Arabic, Luganda, Kiswahili, Hausa, Meru, Lingala, Igbo, Ibibio, Somali, Nandi, Rukiga, Bamanankan, Lugbarati, Shona, Lubukusu, Kimaragoli, Giriama, Sheng, Ewe, Naija Languej, Marakwet and French. Also the audio recordings of the story are also available in Kikuyu, English and Sheng.

There is promise that the anthology will soon be available in PDF and e-book formats. Still, Jalada Africa encourages writers and translators who do not find their African languages featured in this issue and who would like to volunteer to contribute a translation of this story and to future Translation Issues to get in touch with the editorial teams of the magazine through the mail: [email protected].


In his scholarly justification of the literary spaces and ontologies from which the story emanated, Ngũgĩ points out that the cruel genius of colonialism was to turn normality into abnormality and then make the colonized accept the abnormality as the real norm .The basic truth to be derived from Ngugi’s argument above is that African literary socializations have to put mother tongue first and then add to it any imperial culture of personal choice, as it will be necessary; that’s the way of cultural progress and self- empowerment in the sense of cultural expression. Thus, Jalada’s actions will empower Africa by making Africans own their resources from languages , making dreams with our languages, to other natural resources and making things with them, consuming some, exchanging some. The moment we lost our languages was also the moment we lost our bodies, our gold, diamonds, copper, coffee, tea. The moment we accepted or are being made to accept that we could not do things with our languages was the moment we accepted that we could not make things with our vast resources.

The questions that Ngũgĩ’s story provokes are many. They range from originality, self-idolatry of the Gikuyu as an African nation, ideology, language, publishing culture and politics in Kenya, onamatology, post-colonialism and African literary fashion. These are some of the questions deliberated on during the Makerere international conference in Uganda in the month of August 2015. However; the perspectives of deliberation were not exhaustive given space, resource and intellectual station of career literature professionals in relation to Ngugi’s ideological-cum-literary struggle.

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The question of ideology is established by first identifying Ngũgĩ as a Marxist, socialist or communist ideologue given the opportunity for praxis. Ngugi stopped from being an original writer of African literatures just after writing his first two books; Weep not Child and then the River Between. Since then the rest has been Marxist phrase-mongering and revolutionary pamphleteering of the socialist order. Even the current story is nothing else but a simplified allegory or political satire glorifying Marxist ideals as the theriac against political brutalities like the ones committed by Daniel Toroitich arap Moi in Kenya of the dark days. Unfortunately, Ngũgĩ is a Marxist whose ideological passions are driven by love of money, ethnic sentimentality and self-idolatry at individual level. He piques at Moi’s dictatorship while wearing total blinkers tinted by pro-gikuyu blindness to dictatorship of corruption under Kenyatta, Kibaki and Uhuru governments in Kenya. His ultimate intellectual cum revolutionary action against Moi’s government is barely seen in this paragraph from the story;

Everything about the body was upside down. Hands touched the ground; eyes were close to the ground, their angles of vision severely restricted by their proximity to the ground; dust entered the nose, causing it to sneeze; legs and toes floated in the air: nyayo juu, the spectators shouted, and sang playfully.

Nyayo Nyayo juu Hakuna matata Fuata Nyayo Hakuna matata

Turukeni angani

But their attention was fixed on the hands and arms. Organs that only a few minutes before were displaying an incredible array of skills, could hardly move a yard. A few steps, the hands cried out in pain, the arms staggered, wobbled, and let the body fall.

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The testimony above is too loud for those that were adults in Kenya during the previous two decades; they actually don’t need a teacher to know what Ngũgĩ is implying. The point of knot is why Ngũgĩ did chose to put his vocal cords in duty to communism but his hands are fully entrenched in capitalism, caressing fondly his deep-rooted sense of property in America at California, Irvine. This is a Western university where Ngugi earns American dollars in a usual capitalist style as a distinguished professor of special English. The pertinent question at this juncture is, who will set the school of Gikuyu studies at the University of Nairobi, as an effort towards indigenization of literary studies in African institutions in tune with moving from the theory of writing in local languages to the praxis of institutional realization?

Ngũgĩ has often called for writing in African languages without calling for African alphabets. All the thirty plus translations of his story into African language have been done by using the English alphabetical system. Again, what were the implications of Ngũgĩ himself translating the story first into English but not into other African language? Or maybe Ngũgĩ does not have time for any other African language apart from his mother tongue, Gikuyu? That is why he borrows a weapon from the enemy when the war is already on.

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Was it not Paul of Tarsus that wrote about the need for peace and harmony among the parts of a body? Was it not these writings in the epistles of Paul that made Shakespeare to write about the parable of organs on the human body in his drama? Isn’t the story title, Upright Revolution a direct copy of the line from Whalt Witman’s poems in the Leaves of Grass, the same collection from which Ngũgĩ got the title of his novel Weep not Child, a poetic line with homosexual connotations that Ngũgĩ ignorantly borrowed to use as title to his novel in replacement of Jomo Kenyatta the Messiah. The same way he shrewdly reduced 150 pages of Achebe’s No Longer at Ease into a short story of less than 20 pages anthologized as Mupenzi in the Secret Lives. The same way A Grain of Wheat is a direct borrowing from the statements of Jesus. What I mean is Ngũgĩ is not original in the manner of his literary choices. Even if he agitates for writing in Gikuyu, his thinking is not Gikuyu but instead a deep mishmash of pseudo-intellectualism writhing in pain as an African literary squab suffering from harshness of the motherlessness in the nest of nidifugous culture of Western thought system. He is not like Okot P’Bitek and Mazisi Kunene, the literary ancestors of writings in African languages that meant what they wrote and wrote what they meant from the title to the last word of their books by echoing blackness in its original station.Ngugi’s originality is poor across his literary space in time as we see in his current story in which he has only re-designed Jewish and Shakespearean stories in the inglenook of the waning European hearth as a package for consumption the juvenile African listener ignorantly warming themselves at the fire-side made by a step-mother.

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Logic of causative syllogism would just want to ask herself: why did Ngugi’s story have such a super degree of translations in to more than thirty languages? Answers are many; some are hypothetical, while others are empirical. The most critical answer is that literature is an outcome of national consciousness. Black Africans as a nation with active cultural nationalisms cannot escape psychological trap of holding Ngũgĩ as a charismatic leader given his post-colonial position as a veteran anti-colonial literary leader in the unblemished station of a worth of worthies perpetration of utopian socialism. Nations worship their culture to an extent of communal or nationalist self-idolatry. These are the categorical pitfalls in culture against which Fanon firmly protested, but an intellectual abyss for man in all societies. It is just the same way Shakespeare is a religion in England, Swift in Ireland, Pushkin in Russia, Kafka in Germany, Homer in Greece, Hugo in France, Thoreau in America, and Karol Wojytila in Poland. Each of these communities believe that their culture and hence writers are superior to all others in the world. But if at all translators are serious, they are supposed to notice overtones of Marxism in Ngugi’s story and therefore become duty-bound to go ahead and translate Marx’s Capital into African languages the way Nyerere did to Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and also went ahead to support another Tanzanian to translate Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in to Kiswahili.

Alexander K. Opicho writes from Lodwar, Kenya

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