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There Is Common Cultural Heritage Between Sembene Ousmane And Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

By Alexander Opicho

The young generation in Kenya is at most aware of Ngugi wa Thiong’o as the father of written literature in Kenya. They are not aware of his contemporaries in the intellectual struggle as well as literary struggle for truth, justice and democracy. Ngugi was not alone and has never been alone in literary struggle towards better Africa. He is an out-come of a strong intellectual peerage.Taban Lo Liyong, Okot P’Bitek, Okello Oculli, Grace Ogot, Ali Mazrui, Jared Angira and Abdalla Abdallatif are his peers in east Africa. But from West Africa, there was Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amilcar Cabral, and Sembene Ousmane. From South Africa we had Masizi Kunene, Eskia Mphalele, Dennis Brutus and Alex La Guma. From the Maghrebian Africa there was Frantz Omar Fanon, Naguib Mahfouz and many others.

Out of all the above contemporaries, Sembene Ousmane and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have a lot in common, both on a contrasting and a comparative scale. Foremost, this month of June, 2015, Ngugi is celebrating the first Jubilee of his first novel Weep Not Child. This is the month in which the African community celebrates the first decade since the death of Sembene Ousmane on 9th June 2007. Ngugi also recalls in His Detained, a prison diary that it is in this same month of June in 1987; when Ngugi was attached by a deathly fit of asthma during a temporary visit to Dakar in Senegal. It was no one else but Sembene Ousmane that gave him a life saving first aid, regardless of language barrier.

Ngugi is the son of a peasant farmer from Kenya while Ousmane was the son of a fisherman from Senegal. Kenya is on the Indian Ocean coast of east Africa. Similarly Senegal is on the Atlantic Ocean coast of West Africa. Both Kenya and sengal are former colonies of European powers. Ngugi was born in a polygamous Kikuyu family in central Kenya whereas, Ousmane Sembène was born in traditional Ziguinchor in Casamance to an Islamic Lebou family. Both of them were exposed to African cultural traditions at their earliest age. Sembène was exposed to serer religion especially the Tuur festival. Ngugi was exposed to christo-pagan kikuyu traditions. They were both circumcised at a tender age, Ousmane under Islamic observation, while Ngugi under observation of Kikuyu circumcision rituals.

They were both influenced by conflict between culture and Semitic oriented modernity to write their first novels. Ngugi’s The River Between has themes on conflict between Kikuyu culture and Christianity. While some of adult works of Ousmane draws a lot on serer themes.

Ngugi recounts often in his essays that he was inspired by his mother.To an extent that Ngugi’s mother was the chief guest during the launch of Ngugi’s third novel The Grain of Wheat at the University of Nairobi. Ngugi uses very many dominant female characters in his books, Like Nyambura in The River Between and Nyawira in the Wizard of the Crow. A connotation of Ngugi’s appreciation for his mother. Similarly Sembene Ousmane was brought up by his maternal grandmother. She influenced him greatly. Even he is named after his maternal grandfather; Sembene Ousmane Matar. Just like Ngugi, Women also play a major role in most of Sembene’s works. An example is in the likes of the towering role of Ramatoulaye in God’s Bits of Wood.

Both Sembene and Ngugi are competent in three languages; Sembène speaks and writes French, Arabic and Wolof (his mother tongue).Ngugi speaks and writes English, Kiswahili and Kikuyu (his mother tongue). Both of them are masters of a European tongue. Ngugi is a master of English and Ousmane a maestro of French.

When Ngugi was at Alliance high school studying English and literature, he contrasted Sembène who had been drafted into the Senegalese Tirailleurs in 1944.This is where Sembene learned railway maintenance skills. Sembene later fought in the World War II with the Free French Forces. Ngugi did not actively fight any war, though he was indirectly affected by the European centered wars.His close relations fought in the World War II and later on Mau Mau guerilla warfare for Kenya’s independence.

After the war Sembene returned to his home country, But Ngugi was then lucky to join Makerere University .These and other experiences like the 1947 participation in a long railroad strike, influenced Sembene to write his seminal novel God's Bits of Wood. The book which exactly shares content, theme, style and a socialist denotation with Ngugi’s Petals of Blood.

Ngugi and Sembene both read writings of Karl Marx and got inspired by Marx’s socialist ideology. They both subscribe to Marxist social stand. Both Ngugi and Sembene coincidentally have female Marxist intellectual sympathizers in their countries. Ngugi has Micere Mugo and Ousmane has Marriama Ba.Both Micere and Marriama were teachers of European languages.Micere and Ngugi are still alive, but Marriama and Sembène are both dead a decade ago.

After their countries got independence, they both clashed with the leaderships. They both sought for refuge in the overseas. Sembene stowed away to France, But Ngugi used a Ghanaian Passport to take refuge to America. This is where they severally discovered the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay and the Haitian Marxist writer Jacques Roumain. When Sembène opted to study filmmaking for a year at Gorky Film Studio, Moscow, under Soviet director Mark Donskoy.Ngugi settled as self-styled Marxist and professor of English at Irvine University.

Both authors have had concern with social change in Africa and the world. Their centre of focus was the working class members in their respective societies. They both wished to touch a wide audience but realized that the written works would reach only small cultural elites, thus they tried their hands at theatre and drama. This is when Ngugi wrote and directed his second drama I Will Marry When I Want at Kamirithu Community theatre, as Sembène produced his first film Barom Sarret (The Wagoner). Ngugi had written and directed the play in his native language kikuyu, A literary and cinematographic success that Sembène had already registered in his 1968 film the Mandabi.

Later, Sembene settled as Wolof-language films writer. The films that included Xala (1975), Ceddo (1977), Thiaroye (1987), and Guelwaar (1992). A literary position that Ngugi has persistently taken till today. He already has novels written in Kikuyu and soon he is producing another one in kikuyu under the title, Rwimbo rwa Njuki ( The Song of A Bee).

Alexander Khamala Opicho
Lodwar,Kenya.

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