My earliest memory of Prof Chris Lukorito Wanjala, whose remains were interred in his Lwandeti home in Kakamega county at the weekend, was in 1979. I was a Form One student at Kivaywa Secondary School.
This was in a magazine entitled Joe and ran by journalist/publisher Hillary Ng’weno. In it were two articles on the ethical or moral base of David Mailu’s sassy books—After 4.30, My Dear Bottle, One by One—books which, like many students my age at the time, I had furtively read at school, away from the hawk eyes of our teachers. One of the articles was by Prof Wanjala.
I cannot remember exactly the side Wanjala took in the argument. All I recall was the simplicity, clarity and fluency with which the two writers conducted the discourse. I found it exciting. I had never read anything like it.
I trace my first encounter with Prof Wanjala to Joe. I also trace my fascination with the argumentative or persuasive form of discourse to Prof Wanjala’s polemic on David Mailu books.
I continued reading Wanjala’s articles, mainly on Literature, throughout my secondary and High School education finally meeting him omundu khu mundu, as Senator Moses Wetang’ula would put it, at the University of Nairobi’s Lecture Theater II in 1987.
He taught us East African Literature departing with Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat.
I have fond memories for his teaching of this book because of an essay queastion that forced us to look at the place of conscience in human conduct in different light.
In that book, Mugo is hailed for his supposed nationalistic or patriotic role in fighting for freedom, and the village wants to crown him for that, on Independence Day. Unknown to the villagers, Mugo secretly played hand in exposing Kihika, the freedom fighter who was captured during the Mau Mau war of liberation.
The action, though unknown to everybody except himself, haunts him. I saw Mugo as a prisoner of conscience, stricken by shame.
He declines the crown after confessing his betrayal of Kihika. It is not for this that I remember Wanjala though. I remember him because he rebuked me, while marking my answer script, for not knowing, “at that level of education”, the correct spelling of the word guilt. I had argued that Mugo suffered from a guilty conscience, and by confessing the crime of betrayal, set himself free.
Wanjala was happy with the bid about guilty conscience, but furious with the misspelling of the word guilty.
I have never forgotten this. Every time I come across the word, I remember Wanjala’s fury.
Thank God mine was a communication between a meticulous lecturer who marked every script and myself.
I have always read courage and audacity in those students who take part in the spelling bee competition in which contestants are asked to spell a broad selection of words, usually with a varying degree of difficulty.
Perhaps the most humbling action Prof Wanjala ever took was to join a small group of young enthusiasts of literature on May 19, this year at American Place in Nairobi’s Central Business District.
The group, led by Thomas Mlanda, Abdul Adan (Caine Prize, 2016), and Eddah Mbaya (Founder, #LetsTalkMentalHealthKE), had organised a kind of symposium to discuss mental health in human culture and the place of artistic culture with close reference to the Memories We Lost and Other Stories, by Ludamalingani Mqombofhi. The book is an anthology of short stories edited by Prof Wanjala himself and a set book for secondary schools.
Self-effacing Wanjala turned up to take part in the discussion and launched into a discourse of how different societies, over the years, have approached the problem of mental illness among some of their members.
He also argued that mental illness has not been a theme novelists have dealt with extensively though one can look at some books by Fyodor Dostoevsky like Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment from that perspective.
Some boisterous members wondered whether writers had the capacity to write about mental illness when they are not medical doctors.
He replied that literature does not deal with the disease or any disease for that matter. Rather, it deals with the reaction to the disease by the afflicted and those around him.
In Wanjala, we have lost a man who simplified literature to the layman, who wrote and talked about literature in ways that could make sense to a Form One student like I was back then in 1979.
The writer is a communications officer, Ministry of Education