/ 13 October 2017

We need our own Nobel and an academy

Ngugi wa Thiong'o focuses on a five-year period of upheaval in Africa in his memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o focuses on a five-year period of upheaval in Africa in his memoir Birth of a Dream Weaver.

It is almost six years since I moved to Kenya. And every September for a few days before the announcement of the literature laureate there is an air of hope pervading conversations among the “woke”. It is possibly the only time that Kenyans offline and online discuss whether this will be the year. Will this be the year that the great old man of Kenyan letters, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, wins it?

Many Ngugi admirers all over the world weigh in and articles that could probably make an anthology have been written on why he deserves it and why this is definitely his year.

Even those who last read him as a set book in high school or, worse, have never read him and only know him as the guy who wrote about decolonising also weigh in. And then after the prize announcement, commentary on how he was robbed of the prize. Now I know there are plenty of problems with the Nobel literature prize, as is likely with any prize, but Ngugi winning or not winning should not be one of them.

A resident of the United States, Ngugi this year visited and had speaking engagements at South African universities to discuss decolonisation and the importance of African languages. As a continent, however, we have not seen fit to bring him back so that he can be immersed in the decolonisation project.

We have not found it worthwhile to keep him here for any length of time except for guest appearances, so that he can hear the linguistic changes in his Gikuyu mother tongue. Instead, he lives in the US, where he went into exile many years ago and we have not matched conditions on the continent to allow for him to come back. (A shout-out here to the University of Johannesburg’s literature department for bringing us back another older man of letters, Wole Soyinka).

Ngugi’s rhetoric therefore becomes difficult for many of us living on the continent because he is not here to lead us in the correct way. And so too with many of our best and brightest with whom we have been frustrated until they left for lands where they are more appreciated.

We are okay with our academics and scientists being paid less than politicians and sometimes even dare to call them sellouts when they leave for favourable conditions instead of fighting for better treatment. We become complacent and are content when our leading brains give intellectual succour to our former colonial masters and neocolonisers while our countries could very well do with the benefit of their knowledge.

Then after those colonial masters and neocolonisers have taken from us because we have failed to sustain our brightest and best, we then have the audacity to beg that they invite us to their table and make one of our own their special dinner guest. Why?

The Nobel prizes are as international in much the same way as the Bretton Woods institutions are international. We cannot cry when they do not award one of ours in much the same way as we cannot cry about Bretton Woods institutions giving us ridiculous interest rates on loans. Their organisations, their rules, their accolades. Although colonialism caused much damage, maybe it’s time we start working on ourselves so that we think differently about this African project.

We live on a continent where one of the richest men has a foundation that gives away $5-million dollars annually to retired African presidents. Let that sink in for a minute. Retired presidents who still get pensions from their countries, who get paid vulgar amounts of money for consulting on governance and who have the privilege of recognisable names should they choose to go into business. These, then, upon retiring “honourably” as per term of office of their national Constitutions, get rewarded.

It is telling of African democratic spaces, though, that for the past few years the foundation has not found a former president among our 54 countries to give the prize to. But I suppose we cannot fault Mo Ibrahim for his little contribution.

We can only ask why Ibrahim’s fellow billionaires, the likes of Oppenheimer, Dangote, Dos Santos or Sawiris, who often talk a good game about being African entrepreneurs and this being an African century, have not seen fit to set up an academy that celebrates and propels the various African achievements to the next level? Call it an African academy with each of them making an endowment for a particular field: chemistry, mathematics, music, physics, medicine, literature, etcetera.

Such a prize would not only be truly ours but it may even do a lot to curb the brain drain because those who win it choose to stay and give back to their field of excellence — assuming there are more leaders who choose to win Ibrahim’s leadership award and make it comfortable for our bright minds to work without political hindrance.

Equally important, our African billionaires may find some of the innovations of these amazing minds useful to get them even more business. What’s there to lose?

I am not holding my breath that there will not be collective hope before the announcement of the Nobel literature prize. I am also under no illusion that there will no longer be disappointments when Ngugi does not win.

Yet I cannot personally help hoping that, instead of this yo-yo of emotion over some Swedish and Norwegian prize, we would start having conversations with our own Nobels who are alive in these times to consider doing some of these things for their home continent.

It costs so little but would go a long way and would immortalise them in our hearts and minds for centuries to come.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya