Tuesday, 22 May 2012 06:23

Legend of a Critic and Literary Scholar

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“A literary critic must be encompassing in time and space. In the criticism of East African literature, I have tried my best to give women, men, and the youth who write an equal hearing. Different ages of writers engage in different passions.”
-Prof Chris Wanjala

Towards the end of last year Prof Chris Wanjala was conferred the Award and Honour of Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear (EBS) by President Mwai Kibaki in recognition of his outstanding and distinguished service rendered to the Kenyan nation as a university academic, literary scholar, writer, critic, and man of culture. Prof Chris Wanjala is Chairman of the National Book Development Council of Kenya, Chairman of the Technical Committee drafting the Kenya National Heritage and Cultural Policy, Chairman of Linguistics and Translations Rights Committee at International PEN Kenya Chapter, former Director, Institute of African Studies.

Prof Chris Wanjala is an icon known in academic circles as Kenya’s foremost literary critic and historian. He is a repository of knowledge with a rare photographic memory of books read, writers met, places visited and students taught. As critic, he is spokesperson of his contemporaries. But Chris has such a misleading mien of a harmless academic, that is, until you cross his path, for then you will rue what discourse did delight than his wrath will wrought!

Commenting on Kenya’s New Writing, Prof Wanjala asks, “Who are these inebriated young patrons, do they seek entertainment like Shakespeare’s clowns?” When South Sudanese scholar Prof Taban lo Liyong published a new version of Song of Lawino claiming that Okot p’Bitek’s original narrative poem was an incomplete rendering of Acholi song, Prof Chris Wanjala was the first to come out in defense of the late Ugandan poet, “Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino was not an Acholi oral song to be seen as an inheritance of the collective creativity of the people.”

Chris Wanjala was born in Bungoma on April 4, 1944. He received his early education at Bungoma High School and Friends School Kamusinga in Western Kenya. He joined the University of Nairobi in September 1968 to study literature. When he was a sophomore, he became Chairman, University of Nairobi Student Writers Workshop and found himself inclined to doing critical overviews of his colleagues’ poetry and stories than dwelling on his own creative work.

As an undergraduate student, Chris Wanjala wrote a critical review of Kenyan writer John Mbiti’s Poems of Nature and Faith and Ugandan poet Joseph Buruga’s The Abandoned Hut. The review impressed his lecturers Dr Adrian Roscoe and Dr Angus Calder so much, that they organised a seminar for young Chris to present an academic paper on his review to lecturers and students. The article appeared in the university journal Busara making it the first ever published critical work by Prof Wanjala, and which marked the beginning of a career that would later thrust him to the pinnacle of East African literary criticism to be feted with distinguished critics of the time such as the late South Africa’s Lewis Nkosi and Nigeria’s Abiola Irere, now at Harvard.

Prof Wanjala’s PhD (1978) was on East African literature, published into a book, The Season of Harvest. He was involved as student leader and lecturer in the great debate of the 1970s that re-oriented (1973) the study of (African) literature in university and in secondary schools whose optimal watershed was changing the English Department into the Department of Literature during a workshop at the Prince of Wales (Nairobi School).

Prof Wanjala’s seminal and memorable work of criticism was a book, Standpoints on East African Literature which he edited while still a third year student on being prodded by Dr Adrian Roscoe and Dr Angus Calder. This critical book of essays was a counterpoise of emerging East African literary scholars to the domineering expatriate scholarship.

But perhaps his greatest contribution to literary studies was his lifting of popular literature to the level of scholarship by setting aside chapters in his book, For Home and Freedom on Dr David Maillu’s popular books and Charles Mangwa’s Son of a Woman. Scholars today are doing dissertations on popular literature. Prof Wanjala has written and edited other books which include, Drums of Death (Novel); Faces at Crossroads: A Currents??? Anthology (Poems & Short Stories); Singing with the Night (Poetry), The Debtors (Plays), Attachments to The Sun (Poetry), his forthcoming autobiography with its uncanny treatment of the ogre! He is widely traveled and has written for conventional and reputable journals like the Commonwealth Literary Journal, East African Journal, and has worked as editor for the Kenya Literature Bureau.

Prof Chris Wanjala began teaching in 1972 becoming one of the first three University of Nairobi post graduate students to teach at the university. The other two were Prof Edah Gachukia and the late Jane Nandwa. Most lecturers at the time were either Makerere University trained or British expatriates. He taught at the University of Nairobi for 17 years before proceeding to Egerton University to set up the Department of Literature. He remained there for 10 years and returned to UoN. During the crackdown on intellectuals in the1980s Prof Wanjala contemplated leaving the country. Prof Chris Wanjala is the first Kenyan scholar to give the Inaugural Lecture at University of Nairobi upon receiving his professorship.

Prof Chris Wanjala has worked for radio, television and print media since 1969 - he first appeared on Radio Uganda, Kampala, when he led a delegation of young writers and students to a workshop at Makerere University. Prof Chris Wanjala 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 recently on the Korean funded GBS TV.

KHAINGA O’OKWEMBA is the author of the poetry book, Smiles in Pathos and Other Poems & Columnist with The Star. He pens the weekly column, Literary Postcard, in the newspaper. He is the author of the acclaimed poetry book, Smiles in Pathos and other Poems. Khainga is the treasurer of PEN Kenya and a member of the board of the continental writers body, PEN Africa Network.

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