- She was the toast of Kenyan literature in the early 1960s and her novels tackled issues that firebrand male writers could not touch. Then the trail went cold. Why?
As the world celebrates the Black History Month and as Kenya heads to a general election, the work of Rebeka Njau will resonate with our anxieties about the next five years that we seem so determined to waste.
Although published a decade ago, Rebeka’s novel, The Sacred Seed (2003) examines the violence, betrayal and plunder that Kenya suffers every five years as a result of tribal politics.
The Sacred Seed, like Ayi Kwei Ahmah’s Osiris Rising, also suggests the role that Africans across the globe can play to help nourish justice and avoid shoring up dictatorships in Africa.
The book, which is Rebeka’s second novel, revolves around a city woman, Tesa Koki, who returns to the village after being raped by the corrupt president of her country, Dixon Chinusi.
The rural sanctuary she escapes to is also on Chinusi’s radar, as he intends to grab and desecrate it. Inspired by fellow women in the village, Tesa takes it as her duty to defend their integrity and honour.
Like Mwathani (the Ruler) in Ngugi’s Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), the head of state in the novel contracts a strange disease because of despoiling the country.
Using experimental modernist prose, the novel is told from a multiplicity of subjective perspectives. Rebeka delves into the minds of her characters to reveal the psychological wounds they have suffered under patriarchy and dictatorship and their determination to heal the society.
Although set in no particular country in Africa, the appearance of proper nouns such as Mt Nongolot (an anagram for Mt Longonot) and Olom (Molo) in The Sacred Seed suggests that the setting is Moi’s Kenya.
The narrator presents the destruction of the resourcefulness of women in the traditional African societies by modern regimes and points to ways women’s power can be restored through the demolition of class hierarchies.
While the foundational African women’s writing from the 1960s and 1970s tended to represent African American women negatively, including Ama Ata Aidoo’s The Dilemma of a Ghost (1964), the 1990s witnessed more positive images of African American women in African fiction.
Some writers like Ayi Kwei Armah tend to idealise the African American woman in their fiction, but the African American male is, however, not always positively drawn in African literature.
The Sacred Seed joins Bessie Head’s 1966 story, Woman from America, in arguing for more active involvement of African American women in the affairs of the African continent, especially the empowerment of African women.
In the context of the black history evoked in The Sacred Seed, it may not be a coincidence that American President Barack Obama used February to deliver his message to Kenyans to vote wisely in the March 4 general elections.
Launched by the Harvard-educated son of former slaves Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) in 1926, the Black History Month was initially called the “Negro History Week” and was celebrated in February, the month in which major Black anniversaries are marked, including the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s birthday.
The “Negro History Week” evolved into Black History Month in 1976. Celebrated in Kenya mainly at the universities, it involves events and statements that highlight unity between African people in the continent and the diaspora.
Rebeka’s novel warns African Americans against their possible complicity in encouraging dictatorships in Africa. Through her African-American character, Ellen, Njau suggests the need for black solidarity.
Ellen comes to Africa as a missionary, but her commitment to the church and to the word of God is repaid with an attempted rape. Like the head of state, the African pastor who wants to rape Ellen is presented as a lecherous, corrupt and greedy hypocrite.
Unlike the African American woman Ast in Armah’s Osiris Rising, who arrives in Africa radicalised and ready to go, Ellen initially joins hands with patriarchy and dictatorship to roll back the gains that women have made in the country.
Her moment of self-actualisation comes when she abandons the church and joins African women in a traditional shrine. She uses her African American quilting skills to uplift African women.
As in Armah’s fiction, the future for Africa seems to be in the pre-colonial past — only if that past can be stripped of its patriarchal backwardness.
Presented through the painful memories of the women, rape and violence are not as graphic as in Armah’s novel, whose earlier work, Two Thousand Seasons, gained notoriety for its graphic representation of all sorts of rape, including sodomy, as symbols of abuse of Africa by European and Arabic civilisations.
However, in Njau’s novel, Tesa is raped more than once — the first time as a schoolgirl and repeatedly later as a city music teacher. The author told Saturday Nation about her narrow escapes from rapists in her adolescence.
In spite of its prominence in The Sacred Seed as well as in the drafts of her memoir in progress, Njau’s presentation of rape in is in more restrained terms than in Armah’s novel, capturing her reluctance to reproduce actual pain. The restraint also suggests that although rape is physical, it is also symbolic of other forms of violation of women’s bodies and psyche by the state, the church, and patriarchy.
With her restrained tone when describing rape, Rebeka could also be gesturing at the sorry easiness with which the Kenyan nation is raped. Without being as graphic as Armah, she is calling upon us to resist the violation of our rights more than we usually do.
For Rebeka, art for art sake is a luxury a country like ours can hardly afford.
“Writing that is mere intellectualism is not for a country that is full of social ills and miserable poverty,” she says.
Then there is the question of time and the fight for recognition.
“For lack of time, I had to write Ripples in the Pool at night under very stressful conditions,” she says.
To make matters worse, if her husband did not confiscate her works to suppress her visibility, colleagues would deny her credit for what had seen the light of day.
“One church man came to my office and suggested that my husband must have written the novel for me,” she says.
Although her books have not received as much attention as it deserves, it has received some critical appraisal in key texts, including by such respected African women critics as Kenya’s Prof Ciarunji Chesaina (the University of Nairobi) and Nigeria’s Prof Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi (Sarah Lawrence College, USA).
Discussions of Njau’s novels also feature in books and essays on urbanisation in African fiction, African engagements with feminism, and subversive sexualities. Her fiction features in Celeste Delgado’s essay on the childless African woman in Obioma Nnaemeka’s highly praised edited collection of essays, The Politics of (M)othering (1997).
The Sacred Seed has started gaining some international visibility. The University of Nairobi’s lecturer Alex Wanjala has recently published an essay about the novel in the Global South, a journal from the Indiana University Press.
In the essay, Dr Wanjala examines the way Njau uses elements of orality in the novel to bring out an intersection of modernity and African traditions.
“Like Grace Ogot, Rebeka Njau is a very important writer in Kenya,” says Dr Wanjala in an interview with Saturday Nation. “She addresses issues that affect women directly and then demonstrates how women’s issues are symptomatic of a malaise in the larger Kenyan society.”
Dr John Mugubi of Kenyatta University, who wrote his Master’s thesis on Rebeka’s work lauds her as a stylist.
“The uniqueness and power of Rebeka’s style cannot be understated. She has a penchant for subversion of literary conventions in order to drive points home.”
Born in 1932, the novelist is currently working on her memoir, in which she highlights, among other things, her separation with her Tanzanian husband, artist Elimo Njau
Kenyan memoirs, including Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed, shy away from discussing personal marital problems. From the drafts of the memoir, Rebeka seems ready to bare it all about her relationship with Elimo, who, according to the memoir, got married to his African American girlfriend while still living with her.
While Prof Maathai politely blames her divorce on pressure on her husband from outside forces, Rebeka describes Elimo as jealous, “manipulative and controlling.”
She says she will reveal the real cause of the fire that razed Paa ya Paa, her husband’s gallery, in 1997. The current version of the story is that an electrical fault caused the fire, destroying the main building and invaluable works of art and documents displayed and archived in it.
A poet and visual artist, Rebeka also writes as Marina Gashe. She was educated at Alliance Girls’ High School and Makerere University.She was one of the founders of Nairobi Girls Secondary School, where she served as headmistress between 1965 and 1966. Her major works explore women’s lives and the dilemmas of an educated woman in Africa.
First published in the journal Transition in 1963 before appearing in book form in 1965, her play The Scar (1965) is a one-act tragedy in verse about the disinheritance of African women by patriarchal structures.
Pacesetter and iconoclast
It is considered to be the first play by a Kenyan woman writer. The play is also one of the earliest texts to condemn female genital mutilation. Its heroine leads women in a poverty-stricken village in fighting the practice.
While Ngugi’s The River Between is ambivalent about the so-called female circumcision, Njau’s play is unequivocal that the practice is a betrayal of women and a violation of their bodies.
Rebeka’s other play In the Round was performed in 1964 in Uganda but was never published. It revolves around a man accused of being a collaborator with the colonial regime and dramatises the ambiguities that define ordinary people’s reactions to the “Mau Mau” liberation war. The Ugandan government banned the play for being anti-establishment.
Her debut novel Alone with the Fig Tree won the East African Writing Committee Prize in 1964 and was developed into Ripples in the Pool, published over 10 years later.
Critics have hailed Ripples in the Pool as a precursor of the magical realist texts of Nigerian novelist Ben Okri and the mythological novels of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Angolan Pepetela (Artur Carlos Maurício Pestana dos Santos), and Armah.
Praised by Gay Wilentz “as the first sustained portrait of a lesbian within the context of post-colonial African literature” in Jane Eldridge Miller’s Who’s Who in Contemporary Women’s Writing (2001), Ripples in the Pool is about Selina, an urban woman who falls in love with her boyfriend’s sister, Gaciru, in a relationship that is considered by other characters as deviant.
The novel skillfully combines the domestic with the public to express the political disillusionment that defines postcolonial Kenya by satirising the new class of leaders, represented by Kefa Munene, the member of parliament in the poverty-ridden Kamukwa.
Rebeka’s The Hypocrite and other Stories (1977), is a reworking of traditional oral narratives, while her Kenya Women Heroes and their Mystical Power (1984) records the contribution of women that has been out in the historical records.
Apart from Ciarunji Chesaina, Sophie Macharia, and Lucy Muthoni, Kenyan women critics have tended to ignore her works.
This is partly because local institutions of criticism are largely patriarchal. Secondly, because it does not preoccupy itself with grand nationalist themes, Ripples in the Pool was allowed out of print in spite of its brief appearance in the respected Heinemann’s African Writers Series in 1978.
In addition, like Kenneth Watene’s Dedan Kimathi, Rebeka’s work is likely to have been pushed out of circulation in Kenya because it did not fit into the criteria of “committed” pro-Mau Mau literature that Marxist critics in the Kenyan academy in the 1970s cultivated.
‘I hate the hypocrisy of church leaders’
Q. So who are you reading now?
A. I read many books at the same time. But I read to get inspiration, not to get information. I read what many people don’t read, like Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I am also on Kenya Historical Biographies edited by Keneth King and Ahmed Salim as well as A Durable Fire by Barbara and Stephanie Keating.
Who is your favourite writer?
I love Franz Kafka and Emily Brontë of the Withering Heights fame. I also admire the dramatist Henrik Ibsen and Chinua Achebe, the father of the African novel.
Any forthcoming book?
I have just completed a novel — Decay of the Master. I will submit it to the publisher any time now. I know the title sounds scaring, grim and bleak, but wait to read for yourself. I am also writing my autobiography.
When do you write?
I wake up every day at 5am and write from 6am. But I also keep a notebook in my bedroom because I always wake up and jot down an idea or a sentence that may come to my mind any time.
Kwani? or the canon?
I like the young people for their originality and courage, their experimentation, but I think the two warring groups can meet somewhere and square out. I am sure they will find a common ground.
What do you do for a living?
I have some buildings at Ongata Rongai. I don’t consider writing a business venture.
Any grand children?
First my children. My son, Morille Njau, is an artist and a consultant based in the UK. He is the one who does the artwork for some of my works.
Hana, my daughter, works in Atlanta, Georgia, and now she is beginning to be a writer. She has written a very good short story and I think she will take after me.
Her daughter, Martilia, also appears to be walking in my footsteps in music as she is an accomplished pianist.
What is the one thing which you hate most in life?
It is the hypocrisy of church leaders. Sometimes I think all churches should be demolished so that they can be built afresh on truer foundations.
Even though I worked at the National Council of Churches of Kenya for a long time I did not attend church service and I don’t even now because I cannot stand the doublespeak.
Cord or Jubilee?
Jubilee, because they are young and energetic.
What would you do differently if you were to go over your 81 years over again?
Well there are many of course. But luckily for me, I have a very strong intuition which has been warning me or preparing me for any adversity.
Compiled by Julius Sigei