Three feet from where Tika’s mama stood was a blank LCD screen powered down from the ceiling. The screen seemed apprehensive, waiting for the signal to speak to the trapezoidal table where Tika fidgeted with TV, Projector, and PolyCom remotes. All four people were well within the camera’s vision. The lighting was sombrely tuned. The furnishing was that of a cockpit without consoles. All were sweating.
This was the best Single-Point Video Conferencing room that one could set up with the right amount of money and brains. Fabric panelling on the wall and acoustic perforated tiles deadened the pitch of the Pastor’s voice. Tika’s eyes circled the room, looking for missing connections before signalling the giant projection screen to life. He was proud of what he had done. Two VGA Projector Inputs hung at the far end of the table. He fixed them and switched on the light control and the projection screen switches. White light directed four peering eyes to the LCD screen projected on the wall.
Marry me. He had said Yes to Annalina because there was no incentive to say No. He loved her. She loved him. That was all. He wanted a wedding, but not a traditional wedding. Hidden in the midst of tens of icons on the desktop was a shortcut to eNGAGEMENT, a virtualization software. Tika started the program and Logged In. He was directed to eNGAGEMENT.COM—the virtual space that created virtual wedding videos and streamed them. For Tika, eNGAGEMENT was like any other video game, only the characters were him and Annalina and the game was their wedding.
—From “eNGAGEMENT,” Richard Oduor Oduku, Afrofuture(s), Jalada anthology 02
The alleyways and cobbled streets. Cathedrals that stood distinct with crosses illuminating them with bluish white light. A light that grew brighter when looked at. A river ran from the north and meandered through the middle of the city to form an estuary in the southwestern sections. The boat men still cast their nets, and outside resorts bonfires were lit, men dancing around them. The concrete jungle was mostly in Nobel Central where the mayor’s office stood. There were many interspersed gardens of mythical beauty, growing the roses, almonds, lilies, daisies and other delicate plants that ran instinct in the other world where beauty and art were banned.
It was the revolving lights in the distance that made me come to that tower. We were never allowed to go near them. I desperately longed to be there. Close to the outer edge of the city. They shone bright like miniature suns, blinding anyone that went near these outer walls. Only a handful of people knew what that wall was made of. But stories went around. Saying it was made of impenetrable glass a hundred meters in width. The secure world that fed illusions to those outside, kept Imaginum invisible. For outsiders Imaginum could be anywhere. They searched the depths of the Sahara, under the Indian Ocean, and sent satellites even in the sky.
—From “Imaginum,” Moses Kilolo, Afrofuture(s), Jalada anthology 02
If it wasn’t for Jalada’s Afrofuture(s) anthology, Richard Oduor Oduku and Moses Kilolo might not have written science fiction.
They are the administrative core of Jalada’s publications. Moses is the Managing Editor; Richard is the head of its Communication and Publicity Team. Before Jalada, Richard’s favorite reading was The New Yorker while Moses’s was the UK literary magazine Granta. Indeed Jalada has been called “a Granta for Africa.” Its use of topics or themes to inspire unexpected writing certainly resembles Granta—though Moses denies this.
Jalada publishes two themed anthologies a year, and Afrofuture(s) was issue 02. Richard’s story “eNGAGEMENT” concerned a near-future wedding. It’s a sign of how radical the Jalada collective can be that it would not have been out of place in the previous anthology Sext Me—about the impact of new technology on sex.
Moses’s story for Afrofuture(s) envisions a defensive utopia, a city-state into which artists have retreated and screened themselves from the world.
Moses: “The city is invisible to anyone outside it, surrounded by rays that mean if you look at it, a bit like a mirror, you see something else, a landscape a bit like a reflection. I wanted to show the importance of imagination and creative work. If we didn’t have that, what kind of world would we live in? In this story, Imaginum exports creative products to other cities, but other cities feel their existence is meaningless without art of their own, so they want to conquer Imaginum.
“It was my first foray into science fiction so I wasn’t thinking of technicalities. I was more interested in telling a story, and I hoped it would fit in. It was more a utopian story than dystopian. I think Africans are more interested in utopia.”
What is exciting them most right now—now being April of 2016 when I met them at the Alliance Française café—is their Languages programme. Their Language issue published in March was based on a previously unpublished fable written in Kikuya by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The story was then translated into thirty-three local languages.
Richard: “The English translation, "The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright," had words such as "democratic" and "egalitarian." When translating the story to Dholuo language, I realized that these words do not have direct translations in my mother tongue hence I had to find a way of preserving the ideas through other words. It is in the same sense that Luo worldview only has a single word, ‘piny’ which translates to either a country, world, earth, or universe.”
Why was the Language programme necessary?
Richard: “This is a political issue. At independence we had lots of local-language books, plays, poetry, but the political system saw local languages as a threat to the state. Sometime in the 1960s publications in local languages were banned. Fiction came to be imagined in English and written in English.”
Moses: “We’ve been raised to speak and write in English. Do we ignore mother tongues to the point that we destroy them? How can we use these languages, engage with them? I'm a Kamba speaker, but I am rusty in reading and writing my own language. The only things in it to read are the Bible and HIV leaflets.”
Like Alex Ikawah, Richard is a Luo and could really engage with Alex’s “Sex Education for Village Boys”: “I felt I KNOW this; I’ve been through this. When we imagine some of our stories in English, we miss out on certain delightful elements or phrases that only exist in our mother tongues.”
Moses: “There are things that can never be thought in English. English is limiting your expression.”
English in not even the only lingua franca for communication in Kenya—Swahili is the other national language, but fiction in Swahili is hard to find.
Richard: “Instruction in Kenyan schools is predominantly in English, with Swahili being taught as just a subject. Swahili grew from the coast, an offshoot of the interaction between the peoples around the coastal region and Arabs. Swahili is the most popular language, the language of business and social interaction. Now written Swahili is largely school texts; there is very little access to Swahili literature of a personal nature.”
Moses: “Yet it has a long history of literary production on the coasts.”
Richard: “Poems that are still read after four hundred years. Some of the work is fantastic.”
For anthology 04, Richard wrote a story in Luo and then translated it into literal English as “Tribulations of Seducing a Night Runner” word for word, to see what the effect would be.
The result is a radically destabilized English that is, in my view, far more pungently Kenyan than the African writing I usually get to read in England.
The world is broken, son of the lake. Add me a little chang’aa as I tell you this story. Min Apiyo, add us patila here. Life is short my brother, let me eat your hand today.
One day we set out for a funeral disco. We were young and our blood was hot. It was already dark, but we tightened our buttocks that we had to go and dance. So we set off. It’s raining like Satan but we insist that once a journey has begun there is no turning back. We go and the rains beat us. We go and the rains beat us. Omera we were rained on like sugarcane. By the time we reached the disco, we are as cold as a dog’s nose.
Richard: “Expressions like ‘squeezing your buttocks’ didn’t make sense in English even in context.”
Moses: “We wanted to see how something contained in one language would show up in translation into English.”
But being both a writer, and administering Jalada is tough. They have to divide their time among the collective, earning a living, and producing their own writing.
Moses: “I freelance a lot, doing a lot of different things for different media outlets, for PR and advertising. I’m in the middle of a novel, but it goes back to finding time for my own writing. Jalada is in a phase of growth that requires we put in a lot of time. “
Jalada’s publication process is quite special. The founding members consulted by email for about a year to think through what they wanted to do and how to do it.
Moses: “We were fed up with magazines that never responded or which gave no feedback. We wanted to be different, more inclusive.”
Jalada combines aspects of a writers’ workshop—the members write for each anthology and critique each other’s work, and members pay an annual fee. Jalada also invites other writers to contribute or edit. Finally, the project nurtures writers who are not members, giving them some feedback on their stories. Across Africa. In a range of languages including French and Arabic. It’s a co-operative approach that is not only pan-African but reaches out to the diaspora in the USA, the UK—as far as Kazakhstan.
Welcome to the future.
After the interview I walk with Richard and Moses to the Phoenix Theatre for the Kwani? Open Mic Night. A local journalist comes with us, interviewing Richard and Moses as we stroll. They have to miss the event to make another interview, but I’d arranged to meet Clifton Gachuagua and we settle in for a night that will include a tour of River Road and in Clifton’s case, with him being arrested for walking home late at night.
The Mic Night confirmed what the writers had been saying about languages. Only about a quarter of the material was in English. Some of it was influenced by rap and recited in an American accent. The lead performer from Rwanda also performed in clear American English. The crowd was enthusiastic, driven by the dynamite compere, but I have to say, their response to English-language material was relatively muted. It was the local language stuff that got the whoops and hollers and comic double takes. I heard a bit of Arabic, I caught some passing English phrases, but what was in the mix—Sheng, Swahili, or local languages—I have no way of knowing. The biggest response of the night was to a family musical act with a young kid who looked five years old who sang the chorus “Jah Bless.”
About the only words I could understand. Somehow, it didn’t matter.
About Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe
It is no accident that Jalada chose a story by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to start their Language project. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is perhaps the most famous African proponent of fiction in local languages. He and the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, who did advocate writing in English, are often cast as being opposite sides of a debate. In my simplicity, I supposed that Jalada might be reopening the wa Thiong’o/Achebe debate. Beware of any binary—truth is never that simple.
Chinua Achebe is responsible for wa Thiong’o being published, and his advocacy of English included bending it to your will and using local expressions to dislocate it. Writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are regarded as following his footsteps, but again, beware simplicities.
More on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, language, and the African novel can be found in this New Yorker article by Ruth Franklin.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics Of Language In African Literature (1986) is pretty darn convincing though its Marxist terminology feels summarized—NOT wrong, just sketchy and predictable. Writing in English, in English forms, makes your work an adjunct to European literature, perhaps a means of revitalizing European languages and fiction—but what business is that of yours if you are African? English is the power language of the new African bourgeoisie who inherited from the colonizers. States don’t need the languages of colonization to unify—the peasants and working class make new lingua franca of their own like Sheng, Swahili, or Pidgin.
“A Statement” at the beginning of the book maps out his own future writing strategy, one not dissimilar to Richard Oduor Oduku’s or Alex Ikawah’s. He described Decolonising The Mind as:
… my farewell to English as a vehicle for my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way.
However I hope that through the age old medium of translation I shall be able to continue dialogue with all.
That’s what he did. Wa Thiong’o’s most recent novel The Wizard Of The Crow (2006) was translated by himself from his Gikuyu original. It also draws heavily on traditional storytelling and includes absurdist and magical elements. Professor wa Thiong'o, when asked by me at the Ake Festival in November 2016, said he was "very happy" to have The Wizard of the Crow described as fantasy.