Wednesday, June 06, 2007

At the Hay Festival, Ngugi wa Thiong'o spoke of the nature of authoritarian rule, mentioning Zaire ruled by Mobutu, Central Africa by Bokassa, Uganda under Idi Amin and Kenya under Moi. He felt that under dictatorships, the resulting culture of silence and fear has a corrupting influence. "With twenty years of dictatorship, moral decay seeps through every vein and artery of society." This moral decay formed a partnership between the west and Africa, with Africa also acting as a junior actor of the west in the Cold War.

In his latest book, WIZARD OF THE CROW, Ngugi chose to invent a fictional territory for the action of the story - he did not want to identify one country as he thought it might distract from the story. There is a lot of humour in the book and he argued that humour acts as a screen (like distance) with which to view grim reality. It allows us to palatably look at the moral devastation and decay in post-colonial territories, taking the sting out of the situation. The passage he selected to read aloud illustrated this perfectly, and had the audience laughing out loud:
Minister Machokali was waxing ecstatic about how the benefits of the project could trickle down to all citizens. Once the project was completed, no historian would ever again talk about any other wonders in the world...Here Machokali paused dramatically to allow time for an ovation. Except for members of Parliament, Cabinet ministers, officials of the Ruler's Party, and representatives of the armed forces, nobody clapped, but nevertheless Machokali thanked the entire assembly for their overwhelming support and he invited any citizen eager to say a word in praise of Marching to Heaven to step forward. People stared at one another and at the platform in stony silence. The only hands raised were those of the ministers, members of Parliament, and officials of the Ruler's Party, but the minister ignored them and appealed to the citizenry. Are you so overwhelmed by happiness that you are lost for words? Is there no one able to express his joy in words?

A man raised his hand and Machokali quickly beckoned him to come over to the microphone. The man, clearly advanced in years, leaned on a walking stick as he pushed through the crowd. Two police officers ran to help him toward the microphone near the platform. Age was still revered in Aburiria, and the multitude waited for his words as if from an oracle. But when the old man began to speak it was clear he had difficulty in pronouncing Swahili words for the ruler, Mtukufu Rais, calling out instead, Mtukutu Rahisi. Horrified at the Ruler's being called a Cheap Excellency, one of the policemen quickly whispered in the old man's ear that the phrase was Mtukufu Rais or Rais Mtukufu, which confused him even more. Coughing and clearing his throat to still himself, he called out into the microphone, Rahisi Mkundu. Oh, no, it is not Cheap Arsehole, the other policeman whispered in the other ear, no, no, it is His Holy Mightiness, Mtukufu Mtakatifu, which did not help matters because the old man now said, with what the old man thought was confidence, Mkundu Takatifu. At the mention of "His Holy Arsehole," the multitude broke out in hilarious laughter, which made the old man forget what he had wanted to say... (pp.17-18)
There was a further issue discussed in this session about the language chosen to write in if you are multilingual, but I'll save it for another day, as Ngugi, Habila, Adichie and Soyinka all touched on this over the course of the week.

And, speaking of Adichie, I am absolutely thrilled to announce that Chimamanda has won the Orange Prize tonight (full press release here): thoroughly deserved for an outstanding piece of work. I am sure we're all looking forward to what she writes next!

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