It was quite the weekend for publishers and authors in Nairobi. On June 15, a book chronicling on the life of 80-year-old Professor Ngûgî wa Thiong’o was launched at the United States International University.
Riding in matatus through Limuru town years ago, the stench from the Bata Shoe factory fumes would invade every aperture of the handkerchief clasped tightly around my nose.
Gagging, I would say to my mother, “It smells like 10-day-old cud.” She would, quite matter-of-factly, respond; I did not know what cud smelled like, and Ngûgî grew up in the Limuru stench and became a professor who told stories about people like her, without meeting her.
Living in awe of Ngûgî, I however often imagined spinning cloth on a loom, interlacing thread so tightly as to make a handkerchief the Limuru stench could not infiltrate.
At the launch, there was something regal about Ngûgî even though his clothing and demeanour spoke to his simplicity. The grand old man of literature spoke about issues he has consistently raised, hinged on “decolonising the mind.”
“Africa,” he said, “was the biggest continent, with resources that have not benefited Africans.
African history, in particular the slave trade, prepared primary social capitalism for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.
Africans were traditionally makers of things. With the Industrial Revolution, Africans saw Europe as the makers of things yet they were making things with our things. Africa has remained the gift that keeps giving to others.
There are few, if any, industries, oil drilling companies or financial institutions in Europe or other parts of the world owned by Africans, yet Europeans owned all of this in Africa."
"Where were the African troops on French soil as opposed to how many French troops there were in Africa?” the professor mused, concluding, “Europe had given Africa the resource of their accent, while Africans gave Europe the resource of their access. Many Africans spent extraordinary amounts of time and energy perfecting English and French accents as Europe sharpened its instruments of access in Africa.
“How ridiculous, that an African could laugh at another African for not speaking English correctly, yet when Europeans spoke an African language, Africans applauded.”
His speech was larded with other memorable quips: “If you know all the languages of the world but your own, you are enslaved. If you knew your own language first and then learnt other languages, then you are empowered and enabled to participate on an equal give and take basis.”
I left USIU rejuvenated by his words but conscious of how predominantly male and therefore exclusive the publishing and by extension, Prof Ngûgî’s ecosystem is.
With the exception of Garnette Oluoch-Olunya, those who spoke, his students, colleagues, publishers or editors were male.
During the break, I conversed with two ladies, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Nigerian founder and publisher at Cassava Republic, one of Africa’s leading publishing houses, and Deborah Ahenkorah, Ghanaian publisher and founder of the Golden Baobab prize.
Bibi, when named the 2018 Brittle Paper African Literary Person of the Year, had spoken of the importance of emerging from the shadow of the 1962 “African Writers of English Expression” conference at Makerere in which only two female writers were present.
Standing in one spot, coffee cold and forgotten, we spoke of our journeys with the written word, why we authored and published.
When Bibi, who has published more than thirty authors and fifty titles, made editorial decisions, she focused on stories situated in the present and future, stories connecting with Africans.
Deborah’s mission was to end a shortage of books for African children written by Africans. When we eventually parted there was a certainty to the unsaid knowledge between us – an ecosystem of African women authors and publishers, like a seed buried in the dark earth, was pushing its way out, sprouting, growing. Nothing could stop it.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mũkami Kĩmathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]