Ngugi wa Thiong’o came to Kenya this past week at the invitation of the KCA University. The KCA intended to award Kenya’s most renowned writer and scholar with an honorary doctorate, which they did on November 11.
Speaking to a house-full crowd of mainly young people the night before at PAWA254’s Mageuzi Theatre, Ngugi explained that irrespective of his already having no less than 10 honorary doctorates from universities in Africa, Europe and even ‘down under’ in New Zealand, he was profoundly grateful to KCA since it was the first institution in Kenya that was recognising him this way.
What was remarkable about last Thursday was that the overwhelming adulation Ngugi received that night was so long overdue. Young creatives were practically hanging from the rafters at Nairobi’s newest theatre space.
They were so keen to see and listen to pearls of wisdom from the revered novelist (whose peers tended to shun or criticise) who’d been invited to speak with them by Jalada, Kenya’s newest online literary magazine.
Jalada is three years old, having emerged out of a Young Writers Workshop organised by Kwani!, Kenya’s other ‘avant-garde’ publishing house started by Binyavanga Wainaina more than a decade ago.
But in those three short years, this youthful pan-African publication has gained a large local following as well as appreciative global attention from media houses like The Guardian and CNN, both of which took note of Jalada’s remarkable and unprecedented achievement — translating Ngugi’s writing into more than 50 languages — the background of which was explained by Jalada’s managing editor Moses Kilolo.
Taking his cue from Ngugi himself who, for many years, had been a singular voice advocating for the protection, promotion and active use of indigenous African languages, Kilolo explained that he’d originally wanted to start an annual edition of Jalada devoted to translations of African literature.
But first he needed the right story to translate and that’s what he wanted Ngugi to provide. His challenge was how to suggest the idea to him, Ngugi being a writer he’d never met but who he admired.
Kilolo was acquainted with Ngugi’s son, Mukoma (who’d followed in his father’s literary footsteps as had a number of his other children, including Tee and Wanjiru), and so he emailed him with the proposal that he pass a message to his father to hopefully provide Jalada with one of his unpublished short stories that the journal could then translate and publish in a number of local languages.
Kilolo was stunned by Ngugi’s response which was swift and affirmative. The story he sent, The Upright Revolution: or Why Humans Walk Upright was published in March of this year along with translations that now number more than 50 languages.
This kind of translation was what attracted the Guardian’s attention. The number has grown since the British press published the story suggesting Ngugi’s fable had most likely broken records for being the most translated African short story in literary history.
According to Kilolo, so far The Upright Revolution has been translated into 40 African languages as well as several European and Asian ones, all of which can be read online at the Jalada website.
The evening at PAWA254 had also been advertised as The Upright Revolution; but Ngugi had no idea what was in store for him upon arrival that evening with an entourage that included his wife Njeeri, the writer David Maillu (who Ngugi applauded for having written for years in his own Kikamba language), Dr Peter Kimani, a faculty member of the Graduate School of Media and Communications at Aga Khan University and Al-Amin Kimathi.
Kilolo, with the help of his Jalada Collective, had organised a live performance of The Upright Revolution by local actors in seven African languages, namely Kiswahili, Sheng, Kiluhya, Dholuo, French, Kinyarwanda and lastly English.
Their performances moved Ngugi who said Jalada had beautifully illustrated the reality of what he’d been saying for years: that speaking indigenous African languages need not be divisive; instead it can be inspirational and offer genuine communication among peoples.
He was especially touched by the musicality of the languages performed.
Jalada continues to invite more translations of The Upright Revolution, a fable Ngugi wrote one evening after his grandchild had asked him for a story as a special birthday gift.
That’s how he just happened to have one unpublished short story on hand to share with Jalada.