We Harvest the Present from the Future We Planted Yesterday: A Conversation with Abdilatif Abdalla and Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Abdilatif Abdalla  (born 1946) is a Kenyan writer and a political activist. He was the first political prisoner in independent Kenya. At the age 22 he was imprisoned by the Kenyatta regime after he questioned the direction the country was taking, in his pamphlet,  Kenya: Twendapi? – Kenya: Where Are We Heading to? In prison he secretly wrote on toilet paper, Sauti ya Dhiki  (Voice of Agony), an anthology of poems that ironically won the Jomo Kenyatta Award for Literature in 1974. After his release he lived in exile for 22 years in Tanzania, England and finally in Germany, where he still lives.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (born 1938), probably one of the African continent’s most prominent writers, was also detained by Jomo Kenyatta’s regime for his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). While detained, he wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Caitaani mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross). He spent the next 22 years in exile, and, just like Abdilatif Abdalla, never returned to live in his native Kenya again. 

Whilst wa Thiong’o keeps on publishing his works, Abdalla continues to write poetry, but decided that poetry was dead on paper. If you are lucky, you can catch him on a reading of his works. He has, however, edited and published numerous works  connected with Kiswahili literature, as well as translations. Abdalla and wa Thiong’o have been close friends and compatriots for over 30 years. We spoke with both of them in 2011 on the occasion of a symposium held in honour of Abdilatif Abdalla on his retirement at the University of Leipzig, where for 15 years he taught Kiswahili Language and Literature.

Q: Please tell us, how did you meet and what sealed your friendship?

Ngugi: Our friendship in a way was really formed by struggle. Long before we physically met I came to realize the incredible parallels in our writings. It was inevitable for us to meet.

Abdilatif: I remember when Ngugi’s book of essays, Writers in Politics, came out in 1981, when I was already living in London.. I just couldn’t believe how identical his views were to mine. So I collected some of the papers I had written and posted them to him. We hadn’t met each other then. It was only in 1982 in London through the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (CPRK) that we met. After working together in the CPRK for about five years, we moved to another stage politically, but also personally. With other Kenyans in London, we then formed the United Movement for Democracy in Kenya, taking its acronym UKENYA from its Kiswahili name, Umoja wa Kupigania Demokrasia Kenya. In this organisation one had to prove oneself in order to be trusted with tasks given. So we all went through a phase of testing each other. That’s when our friendship became even stronger.

2011 Symposium, University of Leipzig.

Ngugi: Actually, let me tell you another story. In 1968, Abdilatif was arrested for writing and publishing a pamphlet, which was entitled, Kenya: Twendapi?  – Kenya: Where are We Heading? It was about the abuse of the democratic process in Kenya. After his trial in March 1969, he was imprisoned at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison for three years. In 1977, I was myself arrested for writing plays that simply questioned the direction our society was taking. I was detained at the same prison, and from my block I could see the block where Abdilatif was imprisoned some years earlier. It was the guards who pointed out to me that this was the block from where his Sauti ya Dhiki was written.

Q: You both wrote whilst detained. What were the particular circumstances under which you wrote Sauti ya Dhiki (Abdilatif) and Devil on the Cross (Ngugi)?

Abdilatif: I was held under solitary confinement for three years. That meant that I had no contact, not only with the outside world but also with other prisoners. In fact it was so absurd, I wasn’t even allowed to talk to the guards who were in front of my cell door every single day for 24 hours. So writing helped me to keep my sanity. Since I was not allowed to keep any reading or writing material, I had to use toilet paper. I had already learnt from Kwame Nkrumah’s biography just how important toilet paper was to him when he was  imprisoned. Of course, what I was doing was an offence since I wasn’t allowed to possess any writing material. The tiny piece of pencil I was using was secretly provided to me by a sympathetic warden whom I had befriended. I wrote most of my poems at night, because at night wardens had to return the keys to the Duty Office as a security measure,  so that prisoners couldn’t overpower them and escape. There was a small peephole on the door through which the warden could check my cell. Normally, I was supposed to sit on the side of the wall facing the door. When the warden had returned the keys to the Duty Office,  I would sit right under the peephole at the door, where no one could see what I was doing. I did most of my writing there. After I had written something, I would wrap it in a small piece of plastic paper and toss it in my chamber pot. In the morning, when I was let out to empty the pot. I would take the paper and hide it until the friendly warden came to smuggle it out to my older brother – Sheikh Abdilahi Nassir, who at that time was working in Nairobi – who kept the poems until my release when they were published.

Ngugi: With me it was a similar process, although I didn’t have to hide my writing in my chamber pot. Also there was a difference in the conditions under which we were detained. Abdilatif faced a court of law and was convicted. I never saw a court and was put in political detention without charge. Like him I wasn’t allowed books but, unlike him, I wasn’t in solitary confinement. I was alone in my cell but there were other political detainees in my block. I too used toilet paper but I hid what I had written in the bundle. So it wasn’t a role of toilet paper but a bundle and from outside one couldn’t tell that there was something hidden between the sheets. One day, though, the warden found a whole pile of unused toilet paper in my cell. It was my novel. So they took it but, fortunately, they returned it to me saying it didn’t contain anything harmful.

Q: After release, both of you were politically active in exile in London in the 1980s. At the time, London was a hub for internationalism and activists from around the globe. How did this shape your politics?

Ngugi: We formed the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya in London in July1982. The Committee was mainly comprised of Kenyans but it also had other activists from the Caribbean, America, Nigeria, as well as some Europeans. We cannot overemphasize the role of the founding Chairperson of the Committee, John La Rose, and his New Beacon Press, for the political scene in London in the 1980s. He brought us together with other intellectuals. Besides the New Beacon Press, there was also another political hub called The Africa Centre, in Covent Garden. This place brings up memories. It was the centre of political life in London, not just regarding Africa but also the Caribbean. It planted an African consciousness, if you like, within the political heart of Britain. If these kinds of places die due to some developmental scheme, a piece of history dies. [1]

Abdilatif: London was a hub especially regarding African politics. Africa was, then, going through a democratization process. Apart from us Kenyans, there were other Africans organizing themselves to agitate for democracy in their own countries. All these activities fed and inspired each other. When I moved to work and live in Germany, this is what I missed a lot. At least in the cities I have stayed, Leipzig and Hamburg, there wasn’t anything like this.

Q: Abdilatif , your poetry is described as traditionalist in form, yet subversive in content. This to me alludes to a wider question about the dilemma we face today, where many radical ideas and structures have been appropriated. Can you advise the younger generation on how to face this dilemma?

Abdilatif: First of all, you need the activists and the organisation from which they can emerge and operate. And for those activists to have something in common, that is what we learned from our networks and activities in London. The importance of having at least a common view of what should be done; and secondly an independence of mind. What I mean by that is not to be influenced and be diverted by other forces, and with this comes a very important point. For example, we used to fund our activities from our own pockets, our own funds. So if we wanted to do something that was beyond our financial means, we used to suspend it till when we had the resources, rather than begging for funds from other quarters. This way we could remain independent and in control of our activities. As they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Because some financial support come with conditions attached. I’ll give you an example from another organisation I was later involved with.

 During the presidency of Bill Clinton, the USA started ordering and pressurising African countries to democratise. And we said yes, of course, African countries should be democratic, but that democracy should be  defined by ourselves. Our countries have gone through different histories and we have different aspirations and conditions too. Therefore, an imposed type of democracy could never serve Africa’s interests well. So we decided to form an organisation that would spearhead and mobilise activists within Africa to formulate ideas on how to go about this. Among its founders were the late King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho (a progressive monarch, who was at that time in exile in London after his government threw him out of the country for the second time) because of disagreeing with it on how it was running the country), and the late  Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu, a great Pan-Africanist and former Minister in Zanzibar and later in Tanzania. It was called The International Institute for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. One of the problems we later faced was lack of adequate funds. There just wasn’t enough we could provide from our own pockets. So we thought, well, maybe we should seek assistance from some of the Western  governments or organisations  making loud noises about Africa having to democratise. So we had a meeting with one of their representatives. Now, this lady came with her conditions, which we obviously refused. We just didn’t want to be controlled. Therefore, in political activism self-reliance is very important, and it means doing   things that you yourself can afford.   

Q: If you had to name one book essential to you, which one would it be?

Abdilatif: To me, it is the Qur’an. It has guided me not only in my spiritual journey, but in my political journey as well. In prison I wasn’t allowed any books except the Qur’an, and only in the Arabic original. That helped me a lot, especially the verses on steadfastness and perseverance during difficult times. They sustained me. When I read about prophets who were opposed by their own people and the persecution they went through but never despaired, that kept me going in prison.

Ngugi: It would be CLR James – The Black Jacobins. The book talks about the Haitian independence, the only successful slave revolt in history. Few people know, that it wasn’t Ghana that was free first, but Haiti. His book really captures the drama of Haiti and its centrality for Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. It was published in 1938, and he said himself that he wrote it with Africa in mind, that if the peoples of Haiti under the most adverse of conditions could rise up and get independence, what they did could also be done in Africa. I admire the way he chose to write about Haiti, to show the capacity of ordinary men and women to change the conditions under which they live. No matter how bad the condition, that you don’t have to accept it, that no matter how downtrodden, he or she can actually overcome. If your enemy wants you to stay down, you shouldn’t accept that. What is important, is that you rise again. With every blow from your enemy, you rise again, again and again. You have to fight the conditions – be they imperial, colonial, or social – by yourself. If someone gives you a helping hand, fine. But the effort must come from yourself, that’s what I learned from The Black Jacobins.

On a more personal note, when I was writing my book Detained, which was about my prison experience, I had sworn that I would never go into exile.  I was going to the launch for my book in London, and I was due to return shortly after. Now CLR James pleaded to me, and I remember his words clearly, he said: If you are going back, they are going to kill you the way they killed Walter Rodney. But, I still wanted to go back. Then I got a message through the Moi regime, that a red carpet awaited me back on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta airport. I knew instantly what that red carpet meant. So I stayed in exile for many years to come.

Q: Both of you have overcome a lot. Today, what do you yearn for most?

Abdilatif: On an individual level of course, what I yearn for most is to have a peaceful and healthy life. But I cannot divorce myself from the society. So, regarding my country Kenya for example, what I would yearn for most, is to see that the peoples of Kenya are living the kind of life which a human being is supposed to be living, rather than living in a condition that is sub-human.

Ngugi: The idea of utu is actually a very beautiful way to describe this. Utu is a Swahili concept, which means humanness and it comes with compassion, awareness of other peoples and recognition. You live your utu, because you recognize other people’s utu,and you recognize that their utu, again, is depending on other people’s utu. You can see how colonialism and all structures of domination aim at destroying the utu of those they wish to dominate. You can actually see it, how the utu of ordinary peoples is being destroyed by the structures in power. Do they have enough clothes, food, medical care, and so on? Because these things are fundamental to live one’s utu. Now, when a dominant class destroys the utu of others, they don’t realise that they are actually destroying their own utu as well. Because it’s inter-connected, that’s very important.

Q: After all these years of political activism, do you believe that mankind is capable to learn from history?

Abdilatif: I do think mankind is capable to learn from history; it is a matter of will. One who doesn’t learn from history, as they say, is bound to repeat the mistakes that have been made before. There are, of course, those who would rather not reflect on the past, thinking that the past has nothing to do with the present and the future. But what we live in the present is, more often than not, conditioned by the past. And sometimes, that past becomes so stubborn it just stays with us. So we need to reflect from it in order to progress.

Ngugi: I remember Abdilatif reciting his poem Jana na Leo na Kesho – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and I formulated a sentence of my own in my mind: We harvest the present from the future we planted yesterday. In a way all of human experience is learning from the past, if you look at skills being passed down from one generation to another. From there we adapt and add other things, and so on. It’s the story of human progress. Of course when we build a house, we do not build it the same way as our forefathers did, but the idea is derived from them. Unfortunately, though, sometimes we are resistant to learn from our mistakes. When it comes to the question of utu, it seems we keep destroying each other again and again. As in colonialism and other authoritarian regimes, where we destroy the utu of our own people or other nations for our gains, we can see that happening still today. That’s where we don’t seem to have learned, whether that’s Africa, Europe or America.

  • Interviewed by: Sybille Biermann, Nathan Richards, Matthew Milbourne, inLeipzig, Germany, on May 5, 2011.

[1] At the time of the interview, The Africa Centre was about to be closed down. The decision sparked a lot of outrage because of its historical importance. The Centre is now relocated to a new site.

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