Muiritu Mugikuyu

On January 10, 1961, the Gikuyu-language newsletter Kiri-nyaga carried an item, “Muiritu Mugikuyu Russia,” [Gikuyu Woman in Russia]. It reads,

Uhoro uria urikitie gutukinyira hindi ino ukuuga ati thi-ine wa cukuru nene iri mucii wa Moscow, na niguo mucii uria munene wa Russia, kuri muiritu umwe mugikuyu urathomera kuo. Uhoro ucio urandikitwo magathiti-ine ma githungu, no gutiri kuramenyeka muiritu ucio ni wa district iriko. Ndeto icio ithiite na mbere ikoiga ati ritwa ria mui[ri]tu ucio ni Wairimu. Tugukiuga ati Wairimu athome ohige na agagitucokirera hindi iria akanina githomo. (2)

The news which has reached us says that in a big school in Moscow, and Russia is so very big, there’s a Gikuyu woman studying there. The news was written in the English-language papers and it is not yet known what district the girl comes from. The news says that her name is Wairimu. We will say to Wairimu: study and become wise and return to us when you complete school. (my trans.)

I attempt to capture the locution of this particular article. The article is noteworthy in several respects. First, in the negotiation between oral and written works. The opening, “the news has reached us” participates in an oral tradition of conveying news from person to person; it makes social what might be detached, the act of reading. It is only in the second sentence where the act of reading a newspaper in English is mentioned. How to think, here, about translation? Not only from language to language, but from page to performative idiom on another page. And what becomes the role of interaction? “We will say to Wairimu” speaks from the page to a person, refusing to keep the boundaries between the written and the spoken, the read and the heard.

The article is part of been-to archives: movements by Africans abroad were tracked and traced by other Africans. Celebrated, discussed, debated. One did not travel as oneself but for others.

This particular article becomes even more interesting because of the follow-up article, dated January 17, 1961

Uria Muiritu Mugikuyu Athiire Russia

Kiri-nyaga ni irikitie kuonana na ithe wa muiritu mugikuyu uria twirigite kwandika uhoro wake urathomera bururi wa Russia. Ritwa ria muiritu ucio ni Liliani Wairimu wa Stephen Githaria wa mwena wa Kiambu. Wairimu oimire guku mweri wa May 1960 agithii bururi wa Abachi na niguo Abyssinia na thutha ucio niguo ahotire guthii kuu bururi wa Russia. Ithe oigire ati ndari na kindu arihire gikonii thabari yake ya kuuma Abachi kinya mucii uria munene wa Russia wakuo Mosco. Ekuuga ati kuringana na uria arikite kumenya kuma kuri Lilian Wairimu, cukuru iyo athomagira ithondeketwo tondu wa nduriri cia andu airu iria itathiite na mbere, na nicio cia Afrika ona gutuika ni kuri na arutwo a kuuma mabururi ma Asia.

Cukuru iria Wairimu athomagira itagwo Friends University, Mosco, Russia. Riu iri na arutwo makiria ma Magana kenda andu airu. Lilian Wairimu ekwaba guikara mwaka umwe akiruta ruthiomi rua Ki-Russia na thutha ucio athii na mbere na mathomo ma urigitari. Stephen Githaria egukiuga ati muiritu ucio wake agacoka guku Kenya arikia kuhituka githomo kia urigitari. Riria aroririo kana niegwiciria muiritu ucio ahota gutuika Komunisti, aroigire abatairio ni githomo giciki.

How The Gikuyu Woman Went to Russia

Kiri-nyaga has met with the father of the woman about whom we wrote she is studying in Russia. Her name is Lilian Wairimu, daughter of Stephen Githaria from Kiambu. Wairimu left here in May 1960 and went to Ethiopia, which is also called Abyssinia, and thereafter was able to go to Russia. Her father says she did not have to pay for anything to travel from Ethiopia to Russia. He tells us that from what he has heard from Lilian, the school is devoted to the needs of black students, especially those from Africa, even though a few Asian students attend the school.

The school she attends is called Friends University, Moscow, Russia. She is studying with more than 900 black students. Wairimu will spend one year learning Russian, following which she will proceed with medical studies. Her father says she will return here to Kenya when she completes her studies in medicine successfully. When asked whether his daughter might become a communist, he responded that she is focused solely on her studies.

How did this work? Who initiated contact? Did Kiri-nyaga editors contact the father? Did he contact them? How did he discover that his daughter had been re-profiled (the story is adapted from an English-language paper) in a Gikuyu-language paper? And why did he supply the wealth of details he did?

I am interested in how this hailing functions.

In translating this story from English to Gikuyu, and changing the locution, using direct speech, for instance, Kiri-nyaga editors called out to Lilian and her father, interpellated them as particular kinds of subjects—those who pursue education wherever it may take them, those whose train to build the nation. The editors of this paper issued an invitation.

Lilian, or rather Lilian’s father, answered. He accepted the invitation, shared excerpts from her letters, helped to fill out what might have been absent, affirmed his daughter’s commitment to the nation, to returning and building Kenya.
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Why do these particular reports strike me? What made them stick out from the rest of the more political articles on Kenyatta and Mboya and Odinga? This is one set of questions.

Another set of questions have to do with ethnicity, why my seemingly relentless focus on Gikuyu-language newsletters prior to independence? What does it mean to risk ethnicity? To dare to transcribe what might seem to be an exclusionary language? To risk ethno-centrism?
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I continue to think that our most urgent, vital, and necessary task right now is to create and enhance forms of affiliation that bring us together as citizens. And so my focus, in turning to history, is to ask how this might have happened.

How do we call each other into being? And how do we respond to those calls?

One way to read this series of articles is as an example of ethno-centric pride. I think this is a limited kind of reading.
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Kiri-nyaga was published in Nairobi, and while it seems to have had broad distribution—letters to the editor come from Nyeri, Molo, Nakuru, Kiambu, Muranga, and Mombasa—it’s striking that the editors’ “call” to Lilian was heard and answered by her father, from Kiambu, in less than a week. (Yes, yes, my geography is bad. I’ve admitted this. And I know sections of Kiambu are not far from Nairobi, and rural-urban travel, yes, I know all this.)

What compelled him to answer? What did he hope to accomplish?

It’s not simply that he answered but how he answered. He clearly understands the inspirational nature of her story and offers a route to those who might want to follow: go to Ethiopia and from there to Russia; get in touch with Friend’s School in Moscow. As far as possible, he reassures the young Kenyan who travels that there will be other black people in Russia and that the school enables learning by providing the necessary language training.
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I have not yet touched the question of gender. And to do so, I offer yet another snippet, this time from February 21, 1961:

Amerika:
Muiritu umwe wa ruriri rua Gikuyu niekurikia githomo kia urigitari bururi wa Amerika mweri wa Juni mwaka uyu turi naguo. Ritwa ria muiritu ucio ni Florence Mwangi, na arathomagira cukuru itagwo Smith College. Riu eguthoma cukuru ingi itago Albert Einstein College. Aroigire ati kuu Amerika andu a ruriri rua Negroes nimakoragwo magiikiriruo karamba maundu-ini tondu ona mawira maria mega marutagwo ni andu aria eru a bururi ucio wa Amerika. Aracokire aroiga ati ari na wendo munene wa kwenda guuka Kenya niguo ateithie andu a bururi uyu.

A Gikuyu woman will complete her studies in America in June of this year. Her name is Florence Mwangi and she is studying at Smith College. Now she will proceed to Albert Einstein College. She said that Negroes in America are oppressed because all the good jobs are taken by the whites in America. She went on to say that she is eagerly looking forward to returning to Kenya so she can help her fellow Kenyans.

It is and isn’t unremarkable that Kiri-nyaga featured two stories, in successive months, on women abroad, both studying to be doctors.

To my mind, these articles highlight how the demands of nation-building and the hopes for independence shaped and re-shaped gender ideologies: the Kiri-nyaga editors are clearly proud and excited to be writing about women who are going to build Kenya.

In this particular article (on WM’s mother!!), Florence Mwangi responds to the editors, as does Lilian’s father. She responds to the hailing, identifying herself with a national cause, inserting herself into an emerging national narrative.

Simultaneously, she participates in the most frequent kind of diasporic exchange: she volunteers information about the conditions of blackness “over there.”

I have argued, elsewhere, that the archives of diaspora are more innovative and idiosyncratic than we have thus far studied. Diaspora is not simply a recovery but a making, a fabricating, and it often begins with the question “what is blackness ‘over there’?” I cannot—or choose not to—go into more extended detail about how archives across diaspora feature news items about “over there,” forging relationships of care and consideration, understanding the complex weft and warp of inter-national race making and re-making.

Part of a longer-term project involves re-thinking the diasporic implications of local writing, the archives available in Gikuyu and Kiswahili, in multiple other languages and dialects across Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, along the Afro-Indian Ocean, to understand these writings as forms of reaching out, of calling to each other across distances and histories, creating shared stories of inspiration and aspiration.