In 1971, Heinemann Educational Books published an abridged version of Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya. I have yet to research how or whether this book was used within schools, but it was reprinted at least six times between its first publication and 1991 (1972, 1973, 1975, 1981, 1984, 1987). Again, I have yet to find out whether it has been subsequently republished.

This abridged version breaks completely from LSE, Malinowski, and Kenyatta’s diasporic community in England (C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Ras Makonnen, Amy Garvey, Peter Abraham).

Absent from this version is also Kenyatta’s fictionalized autobiography—no stories of having experienced everything of which he writes, no justifications for his writing, no rationale for the book, no tortured prose that attempts to negotiate between the Euro-colonial language of anthropology and a still nascent nationalist vernacular.

Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta writes in his new Foreword, sought to “impact . . . those who had no real knowledge of how Africans lived and thought and organised their own societies.”

The book, Kenyatta writes in a boast he first formulates in his introduction to the 1966 Kiswahili translation, “had much of the effect that was intended—and as the years have gone by—it has kept alive and been consulted as literature long after any political purpose has been swallowed up by history.” (The first edition sold 501 copies and had a negligible impact until 1954, when it was resurrected to explain Kenyatta and Mau Mau, and even then it had a negligible impact.)

In what can only be described as a disingenuous gesture, Kenyatta naturalizes the ideological effects of Facing Mount Kenya: its conception of the Gikuyu as one people with one purpose, its valorization of circumcision as the tool for creating national masculinity, the continuing impact of Gikuyu and GEMA politics on constitutional issues.

Kenyatta’s distinction between “political purpose” and “literature” is similarly disingenuous, but this is less important, I think, than his calm acceptance that the text can be—should be?—read as literature.

His awareness of the text’s literariness thrills me, in part because like Simon Gikandi, who similarly recognizes Facing Mount Kenya’s fictionality, I have tried to argue in my own work that thinking through this text as an intricately constructed work of anthro-fiction, which shares more, in terms of method, with those texts of armchair anthropology than the detailed fieldwork Malinowski advocates, allows us to re-think much of what we have thought of as Gikuyuness and Kenyanness, as masculinity and ethno-politics.

If this school edition was widely disseminated in Kenya, was taught, in fact, as Facing Mount Kenya, we also face an interesting question of canonicity: that what we have thought of as Facing Mount Kenya in Kenya might be substantially different from what we scholars and students of anthropology read.

This school edition also explains, in part, how Kenyatta becomes self-generating, a man needing no introduction. Here there’s a longer argument I’ve made elsewhere about the temporality of Facing Mount Kenya as a text that slips in and out of time—at times Kenyatta employs allochronic time, often, I suspect, when he doesn’t quite know what he is writing about, other times the text occupies the present of its writing. Like this temporally unstable text, Kenyatta becomes temporally unstable across his prefaces, his tone changing from the strained belligerence of the first (1938) to the nationalist arrogance of the second (1966) to this final assured authority (1971).

Those of us who claim to be theoretically sophisticated (which means queer, ask Joseph Litvak) have often been content to write that traditions are invented, and have believed that revealing fiction as fictional performs some function. But the critique of tradition and of culture requires persistence, continuity, not de-bunking, as some would have it, but careful explication and critique. This I write as a reminder of why I continue to think and write about Kenyatta and his legacy.

Not to mention, his ghost still haunts me.

2 thoughts on “09.22.08

  1. You got me at “its valorization of circumcision as the tool for creating national masculinity”. I’m wrestling with this so much! How do we understand female circumcision in the same text? Yes, male circumcision is used to create a national masculinity but what does female circumcision create? questions from a chapter of my diss that continue to haunt me.

    Also, trying to understand Kikuyu circumcision of Luo men in Dandora in January this year……There is so much there!

    my head hurts

  2. I’m also thinking through this –eh, drop me an email and I’ll tell you about my wonderful proposal that I’m not yet proposing but thinking of doing.

    Not to mention, you should tell me about teaching and CA!

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