By Khainga O’Okwemba, President of PEN Kenya
(This article has been edited and abridged for PEN International’s website)
“To be a literary critic one has to start as a lover of literature, a student of literature and ultimately a practicing debater on books as they arrive and on issues literary as they emerge in the public domain.” - Prof Chris L. Wanjala
These words, the most beautiful gift Prof Chris Wanjala gave to the tribe of writers while he straddled the literary landscape like a colossus, will be cherished as a patrimony to the men and women of letters. Those words are from the interview I did five years ago with the departed literary giant Prof Chris Wanjala when he came to Broadcasting House on my invitation to launch the premier literature programme, The Books Café on KBC English Service Radio. In that laconic statement Prof Wanjala provides a theoretical framework for those who would dwell in the field of literary criticism. When Prof Wanjala uttered those words, he was seated across the table in our KBC studio. There were, as you would expect, two microphones; his and mine. But he knew he was speaking to a wide audience beyond those microphones. After all, he had preceded me as a broadcaster. He was erudite, eloquent, historical, authoritative, and unmistakably critical, thus setting the tone and bar for the programme.
When I first met Prof Chris Wanjala in 2008, he was 64 years old and we immediately struck a friendship that would last for the next 10 years. Philo Ikonya - first exiled in Norway and later in Austria - had convened a meeting of mostly contemporary Kenyan writers to relaunch the then lumbering Kenyan Chapter of PEN International, the world’s oldest association of writers. Philo, Tony Mochama, and I had previously met in person, albeit at some nightly poetry reading in the city. So on this day as we gathered at the YMCA on State House Road Prof Wanjala walked in and quietly sat. Those of us who had only read him in the newspaper, or encountered his books, such as Standpoints on African Literature, (which he edited and published when he was in second year) would live to cherish that moment.
The celebrated literary scholar brought wise benevolence and urged us on. There was a follow-up meeting at the Kenya National Theatre, and this time, Prof Wanjala spoke of early Kenyan and East African writers whom he believed not only did we need to memorialise, but also read their texts as they were our literary heritage.
Prof Wanjala was a fine spirit. To me he extended a sincere fatherly love. I remember him telling me: ‘Son, have you taken dowry to my daughter-in-law; remember I have two cows for you in the village, tell me when you are coming to collect them.’ Prof Wanjala provided the foreword to my book, Smiles in Pathos and Other Poets. I do not shed tears easily; they drip freely only when I am deeply overwhelmed with emotion: this has been my experience from the moment I learned that Prof Wanjala had left us for the land of his forefathers.
When I conveyed the sad news to Malawian literary scholar Dr Mpalive Msiska, he wrote from London to say: “Prof Wanjala was at the centre of the development of African literary discourse at the time when Nairobi and East Africa as a whole threatened to partake substantially in the centre of cultural gravity which had largely been in West Africa.” Somali literary scholar Prof Ali Jimale Ahmed, a great admirer of Prof Wanjala, wrote from the USA to say: “Prof Wanjala was a giant, a true son of Africa who made it his mission to study and disseminate African literature.” PEN International Director of Programmes Romana Cacchioli, who had previously worked with Prof Wanjala on a UNESCO language project, said: “We celebrate Prof Wanjala’s lifelong contribution to African literary criticism, his contribution to PEN, and his endeavors to protect and promote linguistic rights.” When I was elected President of PEN Kenya Centre, I came up with a sketch for a creative writing programme for secondary school and university students. It was Prof Wanjala’s institutionalised name we brandished as a banner as we traveled the length and breadth of the country to introduce PEN School Clubs. Prof Wanjala encouraged students to take up writing as a vocation.
For us East Africans, Prof Wanjala defined and inaugurated a tradition of literary criticism, thus earning him the moniker, “the father of literary criticism in the region.” But whence did this towering intellectual come? Prof Chris Wanjala was born on April 4th 1944 in Bungoma County in Western Kenya. He received his early education at Bungoma High School and took his A-Levels at Friends School Kamusinga before proceeding to the University of Nairobi in September 1968 to study literature.
As a stripling at Bungoma High School, Chris had showed great potential in the study of literature as he enjoyed reading. He once told me in an interview: “We had an American Episcopal teacher called James Victor Warford. He started this notorious habit of creating a blank page in the library and he let the students go to the library and list the books they had read so that at the end of the day, the student who had the longest list would be rewarded. I was fascinated by that. I was encouraged to compete and I was always ahead of my contemporaries.” So by the time Prof Wanjala went to university, he was a thoroughly-read student. Still, it was at the University of Nairobi where he would excel as a towering literary figure that would dominate the literary landscape for the next 50 years. So, how best should we honour this illustrious African literary giant?