This morning we attended a department symposium given by Dr. Esther Mbithi, Chair of the Literature Department at Kenyatta University. This is Miriam’s home department while on Fulbright, and Dr. Mbithi is our gracious host. Dr. Mbithi’s presentation on Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed was significant for a number of reasons. To begin, our interest in Kenya began with Dr. Maathai’s Nobel Peace Award in 2004. That Dr. Mbithi analyzed her memoir for us in 2016, on our second trip to Kenya, seems somehow conclusive. Her talk suggested that Maathai’s memoir provides an alternative post-colonial narrative of quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership and action that challenges the protest stories told by Kenyan authors like Ngugi Wa Thiong’O. The presentation evoked a lively conversation about Ngugi, post-colonial attitudes, student reading habits, and oral literature.
Miriam: Luckily for me, students from my graduate level Theory of Literature course attended as well as faculty members. I enjoy watching them engage with faculty even when they are actively listening to the discourse, rather than adding commentary. At one point, an unfortunate incident recurred similar to an event during the symposium one month ago when I presented my work on Colum McCann. A senior male faculty member requested that the female graduate students serve the tea and snacks to the faculty and others present, including the male graduate students. The first time this happened, during my own presentation, I felt helpless to protest -as a guest in this country and this department, I did not want to question their practices. So we used it as an example on feminist theory day. The students responded with thoughtful connections to our texts for the day, especially Monique Wittig’s feminist critique of unpaid household labor. Additionally, they saw the request and expectation that they serve tea as a way to remind them of their inferior status. However, this week when a similar request was made, something new happened. To start, my students all looked my way to signal their recognition of the problem, and I sighed with them. Additionally, my one male graduate student, from Eritrea, jumped up to assist the women in their tasks. When he brought me my cup of tea, he whispered, “I’m trying to be a good feminist.” This theory into practice moment made my work here more meaningful, and added to the already wonderful day.
Andrew: For me, I got to emerge from my fictional status as husband abroad into their reality in what might have been the best possible way. I could ask an intelligent question of Dr. Mbithi’s thesis about Dr. Maathai’s response to post-colonial structures and narratives. Most of the professors in the room had not read Unbowed, but contributed to the conversation through recollection of their encounters with Ngugi Wa Thiong’O. Mostly men talking about another man, with intimate details about which language he used, and when. This feedback, all given in good faith illustrated how even a woman who had risen to political power and international stardom because of her Nobel had a hard time remaining the focus. My chance to acknowledge Dr. Mbithi’s theory gave me a chance to contextualize a concept—the micronation—in my head. What Dr. Maathai calls the micronation approximates what many call an ethnicity. Unlike the American concept of ethnicity, however, micronations are quite numerous here in Kenya. There are at least 43 here, a dizzying array compared to the vague gradations that we assign in the United States. Micronational identity determines much of the politics here in Kenya in both good and bad ways. Though most in the West who cannot perceive the differences would assign the moniker “tribalism” to these groupings, a closer examination shows how these kind of affiliations help create new possibilities for alliances and innovation. Dr. Mbithi’s presentation helped me understand some of the identity binaries that drove the narrative of the election, and some of the smaller gradations that undergirded and drove the election. Our identity categories, much smaller and fiercer than we acknowledge, can confound our politics if we don’t understand them. While my ephiphany was internal, quiet, and more of a clicking of many earlier thoughts into a more understandable whole, it made me feel more at home here in Kenya than I have been thusfar.