“Miri ya Mikongoe” ends, “I am chasing after uncertain myths, fragments of songs that no one sings. A search for the mythical African phallus.”
* * *
During my last visit home in 2001, my mother mentioned a book on Gikuyu customs, Mihiriga ya Agikuyu. It was, she claimed, available in local bookstores. At the time, I was too poor to shell out $3 for a book. So, I waited until I got back to the States and about a year ago (I was busy in the interval) I borrowed it. Interlibrary loans are wonderful. Quite wonderful. At the time, I was fascinated by the concept of clans and lineages and what seemed to me a certain astrological bias mediated through clan.
For example, the book claims that the Ambura clan, the rainmakers also known as Ethaga, descend from a particularly powerful child who, when angered, caused his antagonists to become sick or die: “Tondũ ũcio Ethaga othe makĩragwo marĩ ũrogi mũũru wa kanua umanĩte na kahĩĩ kau, naguo nĩ wĩtigĩragwo mũno nĩ Agĩkũyũ. Because of this ancestor, the descendants, the Ethaga, are said to have bewitched/bewitching tongues and are greatly feared among the Gikuyu.
My translation is inexact. No doubt Gikuyu readers can offer a better rendering. I was delighted, foreseeing possible ways I could think about magical language or, indeed, the very magic of language.
I was soon compelled by another story.
* * *
Gakaara Wanjaũ, one of, if not the most, celebrated Gikuyu author, compiled Mihiriga ya Agikuyu. First published in 1960, it has the same fractured sense of authority as Jomo Kenyatta’s 1938 Facing Mount Kenya: both texts attempt to understand, define, and in defining, control Gikuyu identity. Mihiriga competes with Facing Mount Kenya and a host of other publications written from the 20s through the 70s, perhaps culminating in the publication of L.S.B. Leakey’s 3 volume Southern Kikuyu Before 1903.
(Godfrey Muriuki’s 1974 History of the Gikuyu, 1500-1900 inaugurates a new form of discourse, less wedded to the idea of a unitary origin or identity for the Gikuyu. I also exclude the tentative fumbling of the Routledges in their 1910 With a Prehistoric People.)
It is crucial to remember Wanjaũ’s reputation as a lyricist and poet, for he does not merely transcribe, but, as with all artists, transforms as he transcribes.
* * *
For some reason, my primary school curriculum saw fit to include the myth of how Gikuyu men destroyed matriarchy. Those trained to be what Eve Sedgwick calls paranoid readers, arguably all literary scholars, may question this particular choice. While it may have been presented as one of several “traditional” stories, a way to teach diverse ethnic groups about each other, its particular brand of misogyny no doubt contributed to a sense of male entitlement. At that age, 8 or 9, we learned that women could be controlled through their sexuality. Men had brains; women had bodies. I do not overstate this early lesson. I merely point it out.
The story has stayed with me over the years and I have re-read it several times, including Kenyatta’s version. Again, a paranoid and properly historical reading would ask why a story about controlling women’s sexuality may be central to Kenyatta’s ethno-national project in Facing Mount Kenya. I can only point, in passing, to women’s complex position in colonial Kenya as social agents with political and economic power, a position that was, arguably, threatening to men such as Kenyatta and his colleagues, who were reared to embrace male privilege. (The references here include Luise White, especially Speaking with Vampires, and Derek Peterson’s amazing Creative Writing; more generally, Jean Allman, Susan Geiger, and Nakanyike Musisi’s edited collection Women in Colonial African Histories. And, of course, Carolyn Martin Shaw’s Colonial Inscriptions.)
Such naming is important, to indicate a history of one’s learning, to leave a trail of stale and perhaps moldy breadcrumbs that, perchance, may find fertile ground or feed the starving passerby.
* * *
Wanjaũ transforms the myth by turning it into a stunning libretto. It still needs music and extended dialogue. But it has all the makings of a classic opera. Perhaps, to use my impoverished musical vocabulary (it’s been years since I listened to music seriously) more Wagnerian than anything else.
In his rendering, the central event that precipitates change is dance: the women leaders will not let men dance or sing. It is only fitting, then, that the scene of revolution takes place during a dance. While his version imagines women’s sexuality as a weak point, the toughest women are impregnated so they cannot defend themselves, it is stunningly original in thinking about freedom as dance.
(I am being slightly ahistorical here. It is well known that songs and dances were central to anti-colonial resistance, ideologically if not directly, though the two lines were frequently crossed. Arguably, Wanjaũ infuses past myth with contemporary political strategies. His other work, collections of mau mau songs and poems, seems to support this reading.)
At the moment I have yet to think about this particular version, the linking of aesthetics to politics.
* * *
I have been deferring the real object of this reflection: what might it mean to transcribe, translate, and otherwise attempt to appropriate a work that is deeply misogynist, one that imagines women as easy dupes, weakened by biology, and men as cunning tricksters?
I am more than slightly uncomfortable that my transcription-translation may provide yet another opportunity to disseminate Gikuyu misogyny. Even my excessive framing, in this post and others to follow, may not circumscribe the psychic validation such sentiments may provide to those who read them as universal declarations of male superiority. I am especially worried because, as far as I know, my translation may be the first appearance of this particular version of the myth, at least online. On a lesser note, I worry that my ineptitude with written Gikuyu will cause me to destroy the lyricism of Wanjaũ’s language.
At the same time, I am compelled by the aesthetics of the myth: the multiple possibilities it offers to be re-translated, written into a play, performed as an opera, re-written into a long poetic sequence (my original and, when I have time, ongoing project). I also love how it understands freedom: not as an abstract concept located in legal documents. Instead, embodied and practiced through dance. I romanticize, perhaps, the ideological violence, and this disturbs me.
* * *
Why agonize over a piece of writing, anticipate its arrival with such distress? Isn’t this all some kind of absurd posturing? Perhaps.
Increasingly, I want to understand the difficulty of appropriation. Too often, in debates over hurtful language or symbols, we seem to efface or misrecognize the labor, the process, the near-impossibility of appropriation in favor of a facile approach that is too easy to discredit. A political and ethical approach to appropriation would begin by understanding its constant flirtation with failure. It is not enough to say that one reclaims or refashions a word or image or concept. That initial gesture is only one step and not necessarily the most important. It need not be a huge leap for gender, for race, for sexuality, for religion, for nation, for class, for any other categories. And, often, it isn’t.
By no means do I want to discount the value of appropriation and re-appropriation, the psychic, social, and political pleasures of affirmation. We need these. Equally, though, we need smarter ways to frame acts of appropriation, more complex ways to appreciate conceptual and social labor. I do not invent the wheel here. Others have written compellingly on the complexities of appropriation. I do, however, want to register, in some brief way, the labor of appropriation.
This post may be taken as one step toward that direction.