One can’t possibly exhaust the rumours surrounding Ruganda’s unfortunate experiences in Kenya.
But I need not overstress Taban’s superiority complex over “inferior” Kenyans.
He, Ruganda and Okot p’Bitek taught me in the 1970s at the University of Nairobi, where I never thought of them as foreigners and superiors but only as mentors.
I missed the xenophobia that Taban saw, because it wasn’t there.
In the 1990/91 academic year, the prominent and acclaimed Ugandan playwright, director and poet John Ruganda was barred from teaching at Moi University’s Department of Literature. Since then, various reasons for the virtual ban have been adduced and attributed to government agencies and some individuals.
Of particular interest to me is the claim that Ruganda was “thrown out of Kenya through the machinations, largely, of one Chris Wanjala”. Taban Lo Liyong made the statement in the Daily Nation of December 27, 2013, an article which was this week posted on social media. He missed vital information from those who were deeply involved in the struggle for Ruganda’s work permit. I was one of those individuals with a narrative Taban and sundry require for purposes of getting close to the truth and leaving the innocent soul of Prof Wanjala out of it all.
Sometime in 1990 or 1991, Ruganda telephoned me from a university in Canada where he had just completed his PhD on Francis Imbuga’s plays. I was happy for him and readily suggested that he should join Moi University. He agreed and applied for an associate professorship. I was then on leave in Texas, USA, but wrote a reference letter in support of his application even as Prof Oluoch Obura ensured he got the job.
When I returned to the headship of the Department of Literature, Ruganda had already joined but had work permit problems.
I found, on file, copies of letters by the vice-chancellor, his deputy and many other senior university managers, pleading with the Immigration Department to grant Ruganda permission to work in Kenya. They had awaited a response in vain for weeks.
My superiors instructed me to reinforce their plea with yet another letter and ordered that I take it to Nairobi personally.
A top official at the Immigration Department was mandated to attend to me in his office rather than the open counter. Before him was a fat file he flicked through, back and forth, as he spoke. He mentioned financial issues touching on a raft of events various national and international agencies had sponsored after actress and engineer Stella Muka’s tragic death in the early 1980s.
Ruganda had been the key facilitator in many of those events, but the officer claimed his role had been negative. He refused to elaborate. I recall his mention of the play Echoes of Silence by Ruganda and the claim that it was “too political”.
Another serious-sounding issue was that Ruganda had incited Kenyans to violence at the National Theatre. There were a few more claims I needn’t narrate here. I was more interested in getting the work permit than the details of allegations against him.
At the end of the encounter with the officer, no reason had been given for delaying the issuing of the permit. Nor did the officer say, imply or confirm that Ruganda was guilty of an offence or more. He told me to return to Eldoret and await a written response.
A few weeks later, a plump immigration official brought me a letter copied to all the other senior officers of the university.
The last part of the last sentence read, “for reasons we are not prepared to disclose, Ruganda must leave Kenya now.” I told him the target of his letter was not on campus and could have been in Njoro with Chris Wanjala. As he turned to go away, he warned me that hiding him was a serious criminal offence.
The truth is that Ruganda, though already employed by Moi University, was then training a theatre group at Egerton University or in Nakuru at the invitation of Wanjala. He and others from Njoro informed me that Ruganda was interested in moving there and that his official recruitment was imminent.
The other plain truth is that Wanjala told me he wanted to develop theatre in Nakuru and Njoro and required Ruganda’s talent and experience for this. He was honest enough to urge me to hunt for the work permit faster because both Moi and Egerton would benefit. I knew what the playwright was worth and would not have minded sharing.
Thus collectively we were trying to engage Ruganda because he was a brilliant person that would benefit students and the communities at the two campuses.
However, according to Taban, we were “reluctant to get him (Ruganda) a work permit so that he could train and employ Kenyan actors and actresses.” He proceeded to observe, rather angrily, that “Kenyan intellectuals have never been kind to foreigners of more superlative endowments and achievement.”
I need not overstress Taban’s superiority complex over “inferior” Kenyans. He, Ruganda and Okot p’Bitek taught me in the 1970s at the University of Nairobi, where I never thought of them as foreigners and superiors but only as mentors. I missed the xenophobia that Taban saw, because it wasn’t there.
One can’t possibly exhaust the rumours surrounding Ruganda’s unfortunate experiences in Kenya. I, however, know for a fact that the University of Nairobi banned Echoes of Silence on its campus and the play could not be performed anywhere in the country. I am sure the ruling political class of the 1980s and 1990s could not stand the critical content and tone of the drama.
Whether that was the reason for denying Ruganda permission to work at Moi University is anybody’s guess. But I know, very authoritatively, that the Kenyan intelligentsia, fronted by the late Chris Wanjala, adored and venerated Ruganda but did not have the political and state power to retain him.
Ruganda’s literary output and professional touch in theatre spoke volumes for him and, unlike Taban, didn’t have to announce in the media that he was “among the top five essay writers in the world”. The world in Kenya wanted him without such verbal bullying. And Wanjala was part of that world.
The last but not least claim was that Ruganda had to leave Kenya because his much younger Kenyan students wanted to be professors and feared he would outdo them. I have already narrated how much I wanted him to remain in Kenya and therefore can’t have been one of those students.
Secondly, the story of professors Bethwell Ogot and Godfrey Muriuki and the late Dr Ben Kipkorir will haunt me forever. The three went to Kenyatta University to be interviewed for the post of professor in history. Muriuki and Kipkorir chose to withdraw from the contest because Ogot was not only much older, but was as good as their teacher and mentor. Either Ogot or Kipkorir put their memoirs like I have summarised here, but I also benefited from the latter’s verbatim paraphrasing. I wish Ruganda were alive to hear that I can’t have competed with him for a professorship. Sadly, Ruganda thought so and told Imbuga as much.
Prof Amuka teaches literature at Moi University in Eldoret. Email firstname.lastname@example.org