Version classiqueVersion mobile

Music and Dance in Eastern Africa

Kahithe Kiiru
Maina wa Mũtonya

Part IV: Music and Dance in Life Writing

Representing Performance: Memories of Song, Music and Dance in the Autobiographical Writing of Ngũgĩ and Wainaina

Inge Brinkman


In this contribution I seek to establish in what ways performance is remembered in Kenyan autobiographical writing. It is telling how much attention is being given to performance – song, music, dance and also narrative and speech –, and how strongly performance is considered in aesthetic terms. This is especially noteworthy in view of the tense political situation described in these books. One would expect that there are other, more urgent things to tell than narratives on singing and dancing, but clearly performance is deemed important, and is considered part of the political situation.
Focusing on Ngũgĩ’s memoirs, the analysis shows that several authors – notably authors belonging to the political elite and/or with a record of activism – create an oppositional framework. On the one hand, there are the traditional performances – evaluated positively and associated with popular resistance. On the other hand, a missionary musical tradition is presented – in much less positive terms - that destroys this traditional repertoire, reinforced by colonial bans and censorship.
In Mau Mau autobiographies this opposition is less strongly developed, in that local songs do not automatically belong to the resistance repertoire, and church hymns from the missionary realm may be turned into resistance songs. The authors of Mau Mau autobiographies are hesitant to condemn their own Christian upbringing and reason from a much less radical stance. The opposition between “Gikuyu tradition” and missionary Christianity does exist for these authors, but is much less strongly tied to the political realm.
In Wainaina’s autobiography, finally, we hardly find such an opposition. Resistance can also be breakdanced, and traditional music may be ‘kimay’ – the word the protagonist coins to describe chaotic and disconcerting sound. While most authors happily describe the meandering of oral forms and various media into each other, for Wainaina this is a source of confusion and even fear. Only at the very end of his autobiography he evaluates multimodality on more positive terms, as he comes to see in it the possibility to “carry our diversity and complexity in sound.”

Texte intégral


1The manifold ways in which African written literatures intertextually and intermedially engage with oral literary traditions have received considerable scholarly attention. In most cases the focus is on contents: we learn about the insertion of proverbs, songs and narratives into writing. At times, form is also discussed, including the employment in written texts of onomatopoeias, repetition, rhyme, and other stylistic elements characteristic of oral genres (there exists a vast body of literature on this, with Eileen Julien, 1992 as a landmark).

2Yet, the ways in which performance is represented in written texts from Africa have hardly been discussed; little do we learn as to how African authors write about oral performance (some remarks are made in: Morales, 2003; Samuelson, 2007, but none deals with the representations of performance per se). In this contribution I seek to establish in what ways oral performances, especially song, music and dance, are remembered in Kenyan autobiographical writing.

3The aim of the contribution is twofold. Firstly I want to offer an analysis of what these authors say about the relations between language, orality, writing, music and dance. This issue leads to more specific questions about language. What terms do the authors use when describing song, music, speech, dance, and performance? At the same time, this issue relates the autobiographies to their broader cultural implications: what is said in these texts about the relations between dance and society, music and history?

4The second aim is to establish the relations between memory and performance. How do authors remember oral performances? Do these memories reflect in the narrative structure of their autobiographical writing, and, if so, in what ways? How do author, narrator and protagonist evaluate such performances in the text? What meanings are attributed to them?

5These questions will obviously not lead to an analysis of performance as such, but approach music and dance from a meta-level, investigating authors’ statements about the role of song, music and dance in their lives. This may help us to assess performance, in this case particularly song, music and dance, as part of Kenya’s cultural history, both contemporary and in retrospect.

On Autobiography

6Autobiographies, memoirs and diaries pose a problem. They are not literature, they are not history: they are in between. There is a classic notion that as all writing sprouts from the mind of the author, it cannot be but autobiographical, and in that sense all writing adheres to an autobiographical stance. Nevertheless, for analytical purposes it is fruitful to distinguish autobiographical writing as an invitation to a particular reading strategy (Wagner-Egelhaaf 2005: 9) that takes the autobiographical pact as its guiding principle. With the notion of autobiographical pact I follow Lejeune’s proposal (1975: 4) in that author, narrator, and protagonist are identical. His famous definition of autobiography reads: “Retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality.”

7A brief exploration of the various forms of autobiographical writing may be in order. The difference between memoir and autobiography is usually placed in the final part of Lejeune’s definition: “in particular the story of his personality”. In memoirs the focus is less on self-realization as a person and more on the author’s role in public life. Many publications by political leaders and activists can be said to resort under the rubric “memoir”. Yet as the very notion of “personality” has been questioned by various authors especially from postcolonial, postmodern and/or feminist stances (Hunsu 2011), and most of the works under discussion combine attention for public life with descriptions of childhood years, the difference between autobiography and memoir can be said to be merely gradual.

8For diaries the term “retrospective” in the definition constitutes the difference: that characteristic of autobiographies hardly holds for diaries. A diary is written nearly simultaneously to the events: events and the author’s feelings about them are recorded on a daily basis. We have to bear in mind, however, that published editions of diaries are often heavily edited, rendering the difference between autobiographies and diaries less outspoken. Still, the daily notation characteristic of diaries is not present in autobiographies and the element whereby an older self reflects on a younger self – as in autobiographies – is absent from the diary form.

9These three related forms are at once literature and history. Autobiography, memoir and diaries claim a relationship with historical reality that is not characteristic of fictional writing. At the same time – as Ben Yagoda in his history of the memoir pointed out in 2009 – they are not as different from fiction as they themselves suggest. Autobiographical writings constitute constructive and imaginative forms. Far from copying their lives down, the authors create the narrator and the protagonist they write about, even if that narrator and protagonist are identical to themselves.

Autobiographical Writing in Kenya

10Nearly all countries know a number of memoir-writings, mostly by political leaders explaining their role in public life. Famous examples in Africa include Nkrumah’s Ghana: the autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (1957) and Mandela with Long walk to freedom (1994). In Kenya such memoirs are relatively numerous; we can think of Tom Mboya, Freedom and after (1963), Oginga Odinga’s, Not yet Uhuru (1976), Harry Thuku, Harry Thuku: an autobiography (1970) and Bildad Kaggia, Roots of freedom (1975). Also other public figures, such as Wangari Maathai with her Unbowed (2006) may be included.

11It is also quite commonplace for authors engaged in writing literary works to publish their memoirs, diaries or autobiographies. On the African continent there are numerous examples: Camara Laye (1953), Wole Soyinka (1981), Buchi Emecheta (1986), Aminata Forna (2003), Zakes Mda (2011), J.M. Coetzee (2011), just to mention a few examples. In the Kenyan case we could mention Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1981, 2011, 2013) and Binyavanga Wainaina (2011).

12For politicians and writers to publish their memoirs is hence not that exceptional, although for Kenya the number of such memoirs is relatively high. What is unique about the Kenyan case, is the spate of autobiographical writings dealing particularly with one period in Kenya’s history, namely the Mau Mau memoirs. In South Africa we have rather some people writing about resistance to the apartheid system. Yet also in this case most of the authors are public figures, and outside South Africa, we find no example comparable to the Kenyan one on the continent. The publishing of Mau Mau memoirs experienced a boom in the 1960s and 1970s, and trickles on until this very day, with a total of more than thirty memoirs, diaries and autobiographies.

13We have autobiographical writings dealing with life in the colonial camps, such as J.M. Kariuki, Mau Mau detainee (1963) and Gakaara’s diary (1988). There are Mau Mau memoirs on life in the forests, for example Barnett and Njama (1966) and Waruhiu Itote (1979). Civilian experiences in an Emergency village are described by Charity Waciuma (1969), one of the first published autobiographies in English by an African woman. Some of these books on Mau Mau were written by the leadership, but quite some also by rank-and-file or civilians. Indeed these memoirs together form a unique body of literature in Africa’s literary history.

14Despite the number and the particularity of Kenyan autobiographical writing, relatively little attention has been given to them. Even if life writing is the most practiced genre in Kenya, literary analyses are mostly devoted to the novel (Peterson 2012). The most important work dealing with autobiography in Kenya largely discusses it as historical source for the interpretation of political history (Clough 1997). Even if this theme is framed in narrative terms (Atieno-Odhiambo & Lonsdale 2003), relations between autobiography and the wider political context are regarded as the most important feature of these autobiographies. While such an approach holds water, an approach that does justice to the form that these narratives take and their cultural implications is equally valid. Many authors of Kenyan autobiographical writing detail the role that music, dance, songs, narratives and other oral forms played not only in their childhood, but in their lives on the whole. If we were to limit our analysis to political history, we would miss out on such features that apparently matter enough for these author to write about.

15With over forty publications, it would be beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss all Kenyan autobiographical writings in their relation to music and dance performance. In two publications – namely Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Dreams in a time of war: a childhood memoir (2011) and Binyavanga Wainaina, One day I will write about this place (2011) – music plays a particularly important role, as it is in many ways constitutive of the narrative. These two publications will form the basis of this chapter, while being framed in the wider context of Kenyan autobiographical writing.

16The Mau Mau autobiographies mostly stem from authors who were adults during the war and/or were written quite soon after Kenya’s independence (in most cases in the 1960s and 1970s), whereas Ngũgĩ’s book dates from 2011. Other autobiographies from the activist realm, such as Koigi wa Wamwere’s (2002) and Wangari Maathai’s (2008 [2006]) works are also of a comparatively recent date. Binyavanga Wainaina’s book (2011) not only is of a recent date, it also was written by an author of a different generation than Ngũgĩ and the authors of the Mau Mau memoirs, with a gap of more than thirty years in their date of birth. It would be interesting to frame Wainaina’s work in reference to other authors of his generation. Being a young autobiographer, however, Wainaina’s One day I will write about this place is exceptional; so far no other authors of his generation wrote their memoirs. It would be beyond the scope of this chapter to also draw in fiction and other works that intertextually anchor Wainaina’s autobiography in relation to Kenya’s wider literary history.

17Apart from the generation gap and the date of publishing, representations of the politics and aesthetics of music and dance may also be related to the issue of audience. The earliest examples of Mau Mau memoirs may have addressed colonial discourse on Mau Mau, but the bulk of these memoirs speak to each other and a Kenyan audience. Ngũgĩ and Wainaina may relate to a wider international readership, while Wainaina’s urban, middle class upbringing in a globalized context in any way brought in a more international musical experience. These remarks in literary history and context are tentative: in the first instance this chapter aims at a textual approach.

Writing in Multimodality

“The choice and arrangements of the words, the cadence, I can’t pick any one thing that makes it so beautiful and long-lived in my memory. I realize that even written words can carry the music I loved in stories, particularly the choric melody. And yet this is not a story; it is a descriptive statement. It does not carry an illustration. It is a picture in itself and yet more than a picture and a description. It is music. Written words can also sing.” (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o 2011: 65).

18With these words the most famous author from Eastern Africa, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote about the time when he learnt to read as a young boy. Deliberately blurring the boundaries between the literary, the visual and the musical, this quote indicates an ensemble of aesthetics that informs the performance of oral story-telling and singing, the practice of reading, and the creation of visual arts.

19“Music” is a word often taken for granted, but the role that music and dance play in people’s lives and even its very definition is not easy to establish. The performance of genres that are usually conceived of as “textual” may by African audiences regarded as “music”. As Ruth Finnegan points out: “Where language ends and music begins is a moot point for example, perhaps differently construed in different traditions” (Finnegan 2007: 203-217, quote 212). Likewise David Coplan proposed the word “auriture” to indicate that the boundaries between text-driven performance and rhythmic, melodious song is a matter of definition. When asking for explanation of some words of a song, Coplan (1994: 8-9) was told: “If you want to understand my song, mister, just listen to the music”.

20The quote from Ngũgĩ suggests that “music” and “text” may be fluid categories, not always easily distinguishable. This also shows in other autobiographies from Kenya. Ngũgĩ makes a similar statement in his follow-up memoir In the house of the interpreter (2013:38) when music is shown to bethe gateway to literature, particularly poetrywhile also ascribed aspects ofsoundless motion”. Another example comes from the former Mau Mau guerrilla Joram Wamweya who has a camp guard “sing” at them as they escape through the barbed wire in the 1950s: “Eiyu! Rudi!’ (‘Come back!’), he sang as he went at us. ‘Eiyu! Rudi!’, shooting at us” (1971: 88), and he refers to the Mau Mau oath as “chanting” (1971: 52).

21In many memoirs, speech and language itself are also attributed strong performative qualities. Kenyatta told the famous journalist Henry Muoria (1994: 11, for another example: Wamweya 1971: 119): “The power of the spoken word is so great that even the Bible recognizes that fact.” Binyavanga Wainaina (2011: 188) also describes language use in performative terms: “A Jamaican accent smudges the seams of his Sheng. His voice has the rich musical undertones of a Luo.” When discussing a church collection, people are said to throw money “in the moving dancing collection baskets. A crescendo is reached, after we have given money, and people are writhing and shouting in the heat. Words are flowing from their lips, like porridge, in no language I know, but in a clear coherent pitch. Each person has his or her own tongue.” Movement and tongue together form one sound, while at the same time “each individual lives inside his or her own sound” (Wainaina 2011: 58).

22The multimodality in the foregoing examples does not lie in the combination of various modes, but in the fluidity of the boundaries between them. Rhythm, music, singing, chanting, speech, and writing are not neatly bounded, but meander into each other. For Wainaina (2011: 25-26) this intermediality or multimodality forms a constant source of discomfort, and he finds out a new word to describe it: “kimay” ( “This is my new word, my secret”):

“Kimay is the talking jazz trumpet [...] Kimay is yodeling Gikuyu women […]. I can speak English. I can speak Swahili. Kimay is any language that I cannot speak, but I hear every day in Nakuru: Ki-kuyu, Ki-Kamba, KiGanda, Ki-sii, Gujarati, Ki-Nyarwanda, (Ki) Ru-fumbira, Ki-May. There are so many, I get dizzy. Ki-May is the accordion, the fiddle, the bagpipe, the trumpet. All those spongy sounds. […] Most of all I fear accordions.

23Only at the end of the memoir he begins to attach meaning to this meandering of modes into each other. As he watches a documentary on 1960s Kenyan benga music, he suddenly realises “Here it is, the source of all kimay […] Any good benga guitarist can mimic the architecture and musical rhythms and verbal sounds of any Kenyan language. Stripped down, that is the intent of benga. Kimay is people talking without words, exact languages, the guitar sounds of Kenya speaking Kenya’s languages.” (Wainaina 2011: 253).

24Ngũgĩ (2011: 115-116) describes different, oppositional sets of performativity that internally form wholes: “The difference lay in intangibles. When I think back on Kamandũra [a missionary school], what pops up are images of church, silent prayer, and individual achievement; in Manguo [an independent school], images of performance, public spectacle, and a sense of community.” He juxtaposes as contrasting the “slow, mournful, almost tired” melodies of the missionary hymns to the hymns sung during the church service at the African-independent school, sung “with zest and rhythm”, accompanied by drums and cymbals.

25For Ngũgĩ these are clearly distinguishable contexts – in contents and form – and he associates with the African independent school and resistance context as opposed to the colonial, missionary context. For Wainaina there are no such neatly bordered contexts: “The music sounds like, like chaos” (Wainaina 2011: 24) as “We are mixed-up people” (Wainaina 2011: 21).

Remembering Childhood Performance

“It is a sunny day, but for some reason what comes to mind is the song we used to sing to welcome rain” (Ngũgĩ 2011: 248)

26Music – especially songs – appear in all sorts of occasions in Kenyan autobiographical writing. The authors pay much attention to describing their memories of music and song, and sometimes also of dance. Music and dance can certainly serve as mnemonic devices, invoking the past through associations of rhythm rather than verbally. As Laura Fair (2001: 260) writes about coastal taarab music: “Elderly men and women who lived through these times frequently draw on Siti’s songs as mnemonics of memory, triggers that allow them to see and hear the struggles and debates of the times.” It is clear, however, that the references to music and dance in Kenyan autobiographical writing surpass the functionalist idea of mnemonics. Given the charged political context about which the authors write, it is noteworthy how much attention they give to song, music, dance and other performative genres. Oginga Odinga (1976: 9-10), for example, renders his childhood memories of songs with full details. For a high-ranking politician there is apparently nothing childish or irrelevant about this – to the contrary, songs and music are worthy of detailed description. Thus in his chapter “At the feet of the village elders”, he refers to story-tellers and harpists as “the sources of education in the village” and he quotes one of the songs he heard as a child at length.

27Ngũgĩ (2011: 30-31) also elaborates on his childhood memories of oral story-telling and singing, and likewise does so in a particularly positive manner. Oral performance is rendered in full musical detail in his Dreams in a time of war. A strong example is the description of his mother telling a tale of a man asking for the way to a medicine-man Ndiro in a musical manner: “He describes the medicine man in terms of his gait, dance steps, and the rhythmic jingles around his ankles that sound his name, Ndiro.” The narrative thus revolves around sound and movement, both within and without the narrative, as the children mimic the narratives’ protagonist, “stepping on the ground and calling out “Ndiro” in unison”. Such vivid description is also encountered in Maathai’s autobiography. She recounts how her aunt Nyakweya, a “great story-teller”, when she told stories, “would sing and imitate the movements of the characters.” (Maathai 2006: 51).

28In these autobiographies the performances are not only detailed, they are also evaluated in positive terms. Of course, not all is bliss: in Ngũgĩ’s book, for example, some children would take away the walking sticks of their lame and blind half-sister if she did not want to tell a story (Ngũgĩ 2011: 124). Yet, overall the image is one of a near to idyllic traditional African authenticity. The oppositional framework that Ngũgĩ creates, begins here: as little children they are firmly embedded in local traditions of story-telling, singing and music; a homestead experience hardly disrupted by the wider context of missionaries and colonialism. It is only when going to school that the protagonist realises that there are forces at work that try to counter these local popular cultures. This scheme of opposition is also created in Wangari Maathai’s autobiography (2006: 50) when she writes that stories like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood meant little to her, while stressing that the Gikuyu stories that she was told as a child did make sense.

29Authors of the Mau Mau memoirs dwell less on their childhood memories of song, dance and other performances of oral literatures, focusing on their role in the Mau Mau period. If they do write about their childhood experience of performance, they also maintain an opposition between “tradition” and “Christianity”, yet this is much less strongly framed in favour of “tradition” than with authors like Ngũgĩ and Maathai. Thus Joram Wamweya (1971: 4) remembers getting nightmares from some of the stories he was told by his grandmother. Most of the authors do evaluate traditional performance positively, but this positive evaluation is not necessarily related to a negative assessment of Christianity and colonialism. Charity Waciuma (1969: 10, 65) recalls listening to her grandfather’s stories as “fun”, and sings “all sorts of songs, but not hymns” on the way to church ( “hymns after all, are only meant to be sung during the service”, she comments). Joram Wamweya also recounts how he hears “the sound of boys and girls singing sweetly together” on moonlit nights. After having made some enquiries, he and his brother visit a dance that also involves some “heathen rituals” (Wamweya 1971: 5). Belonging to a Christian family, they realize that they are not supposed to attend the dance at all. While the authors of the Mau Mau memoirs are opposed to colonialism, most of them have a Christian background, and describe their childhood in Christian families without idealising “tradition” or condemning Christian missionaries. J.M. Kariuki (1963: 3, 5), for example, describes the element of performance in his childhood in a rather enumerative, matter-of-fact way:

“Up till the age of seven I led the normal life of a Kikuyu small boy of those days, herding the cattle and goats, learning Kikuyu customs and traditions from my grandparents, spying on the dances of my elders, stealing sugar-cane and maize and being thoroughly spoilt by my elder sisters and their lady-friends.”

30Somewhat later, the protagonist goes to school; “we were taught singing, dancing, drawing, counting and scripture, in which we learned the catechism. It was not really a good school but my three years of discovery and development were a vital part of my life.” Both the experiences as “a Kikuyu small boy” and as a schoolboy are rendered without much detail, and the missionary education is not evaluated as morally less defendable than the “Kikuyu customs and traditions” or posing a threat to them.

31Wainaina’s book is again very different. While the other authors discuss “traditional” as different from “Christian”, Wainaina does not uphold any such opposition. His childhood memories of music are not always positive. Only in one instance does he refer to childhood memories music in innocent and warm terms: “Mum is shelling and humming, and our bodies all hum smoothly with her” (Wainaina 2011: 27). The narrator’s childhood memories do not relate to “tradition” in a framework of living authentic popular culture as with Ngũgĩ. Tradition is a funny and bewildering thing for Binyavanga Wainaina as a child. When Kenyatta has died, for example, he watches television with his sister Ciru:

“If goat tripe could sing, this is what it would sound like, boiling goat tripe singing on television, singing for Kenyatta. Jimmy is in his room listening to Top of the tops on BBCRadio. […] Television voice: ‘This delegation from Nyanza Province is playing a nyatiti. They have come to sing for the late President Kenyatta. A nyatiti is a traditional Luo musical instrument.’ Matiti. Ciru giggles. I giggle. Titi. Titties.” (Wainaina 2011: 23-24).

32Traditional performance is associated with goat tripes, the children create a joke out of the “strange” word nyatiti, and the experience is contrasted to “Top of the pops on BBC radio”.

33At best, the performance of “traditional songs” is presented as folkloristic: interesting in a way, yet remote from the experience of the protagonist and his schoolmates:

“Sometimes we practice traditional songs for the interschool music festival. We try to make sure we do not shake our bodies too much. [...] At practice, the conductor, our music teacher Mr. Dondo, keeps us in do-re-mi-fa key with his mouth organ before we start. Don’t move like a villager, he likes to say. We often do not know the meaning of the traditional songs we are singing, but we learn the words well.” (Wainaina 2011: 34-35).

34To conclude, the childhood memories of music and dance in Ngũgĩ’s book are positively evaluated and tied to village life and local popular traditional culture. This element can also be found in autobiographies by politicians, and political activists like Wangari Maathai. The authors of most of the Mau Mau memoirs perceive a difference, an opposition even between “tradition” and “Christianity”, but their evaluation of these is much less outspoken and less tied to the political realm. For Binyavanga Wainaina, finally, childhood memories of performance are not per se positive: traditional performance is presented as alienating, only appearing on television or at school.

Political Meanings: A Tradition of Popular Resistance?

“They would sing a song over and over and then move to other songs. I was merely the trigger.” (Ngũgĩ 2011: 136)

35Singing, music and dance are clearly not only pastime to the protagonists: performance has meanings beyond pure form and – apart from its educational and recreational functions – is often strongly related to politics. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes how he became a singer himself, triggering people’s resistance songs. After changing from the missionary to the Gikuyu independent school, he notices how performance accompanies all activities in his new environment (Ngũgĩ 2011: 122). The establishment of the new independent schools leads to the creation of a corpus of new songs, gradually spreading beyond the school confines and being sung at social gatherings “in homes or in the open air” (Ngũgĩ 2011: 123-124). As the political conflicts in the region rise in the course of the 1940s, songs are made that ever stronger relate to local political leaders, to land evictions, and to resistance against colonialism. The young Ngũgĩ learns many of the songs and soon becomes one of the performers at such social gatherings. As he quotes a song in Gikuyu, translating it into English:

Njamba ĩrĩa nene Kenyatta

Kenyatta our great hero

Rĩu nĩ oimire Rũraya

Has now returned from Europe.

Jomo nĩ oimĩte na thome

He came back through the main gate (Mombasa).

Ningĩ Jomo mũthigani witũ

Jomo has been our eyes.

(Ngũgĩ 2011: 122-128, 135-136 (quote 136)).

36The transition from member of the audience as a child to song performer as adolescent is presented as seamless. For Ngũgĩ the homestead performance and the singing of protest songs at gatherings form a continuum. The scenario is only disturbed by the colonial authorities: “Mau Mau songs and all references to Waiyaki, Kenyatta, or Mbiyũ were criminalized. This abruptly ended my career as a troubadour” (Ngũgĩ 2011: 156). Once again Ngũgĩ creates a strong opposition between a local tradition of popular performance related to resistance, and colonial forces that disrupt this tradition and try to undermine it.

37A similar oppositional framework can be found in Koigi wa Wamwere’s memoir. Here also, songismentionedasameansofresistancethatthecolonialauthoritiestrytocurbandcontrol. Yet, this tradition ofresistance through song continues: “Can I sing you a short song”, the young Koigi is asked by a Mau Mau fighter, followed by a Mau Mau hymn (Koigi wa Wamwere 2002: 105-107).

38Apart from the colonial legislation in terms of bans and censorship, several authors also refer to the slower processes of cultural change that undermined local traditions. Thus in Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed (2006: 11) we find Gikuyu culture destroyed by missionary enterprise: “The athomi [readers, meaning those trained in missionary schools] culture brought with European ways and led to profound changes in the way Kikuyus dressed and adorned themselves, the kinds of food they ate, the songs they sang, and the dances they performed […] Dancing and non-Christian festivities and initiation rites were discouraged or even demonized and banned by missionaries and converts.” Another author who discusses the steady disappearance of performance in the context of colonial domination is Henry Muoria (1994: 33-34). He first specifies all the “great dances” that were performed on occasions like circumcision and also functioned as a meeting-place for young people. He subsequently explains that, as the dances were performed with dignity, “the whites” did not like them and that all these dances “disappeared under influence of education and evil propaganda.

39Several authors who had participated in Mau Mau describe their encounter with the legal prohibition of political songs and dances as well as the continued attempts of people to circumvent such laws. Thus H.K. Wachanga (1975: xxxiii-xxxiv) starts his book with a story on how dancing functioned as an act of resistance. Colonial censorship not only targeted writings, like books, pamphlets and periodicals, but also dance performance. As of 1940 no authorisations for holding dances were meted out, but the political movement of the Forty Group “defied the Government and organized dances on river banks and in the valleys.” During one such dance, a local headman tried to intervene, but the dancers attacked him and the accompanying Tribal Police, and managed to chase them away. When a larger government force eventually returned, all dancers had already disappeared. Wachanga decided to commemorate this event in a song, lauding the attackers for “Hitting the bastard and knocking him down”. Henceforth the dancers were left in peace. Such narratives portray the protagonist and the political groupings as heroically resisting colonial intrusion in local life; in this sense they resemble Ngũgĩ’s and Koigi’s representation of colonialism and resistance.

40In the Mau Mau autobiographies, the importance of resistance songs is stressed and several authors detail the context of the performance and offer the lyrics of such songs. Wachanga (1975: xxvii, 70-71, 86-88), for example, himself a composer, repeatedly refers to songs that were created to commemorate historical events. Rather than to tell about the past then, history is sung about:

“Blend with ours your voices
In our triumphant song
Glory, praise and honour
Unto Jomo the King.”

41Wachanga (1975: 88) also relates to the Christian context in which performance takes place: “After we finished singing that song, I opened the Holy Bible to Zephania3:18-20 and read the following words,” after which the Bible text is given.

42Yet, while for Ngũgĩ and Koigi singing is unequivocally related to a tradition of popular resistance, this is much less strongly developed in the Mau Mau memoirs. In the Mau Mau memoirs song is not uniformly tied to resistance. Wachanga (1975: 160) for example also describes a prostitutes’ song in the detainee camp he was held, rendering the lyrics in full. Also in Gakaara’s diary we find performances that are carried out without any reference to resistance. And Joram Wamweya (1971: 123) relates how he began to sing after he had been left behind by his co-fugitives and managed to board a train on his own: “I began to sing aloud so that should they hear me, they would know that now they were the trailers. I sang Muomboko. When we approached the next station, I stopped singing and returned under the car.” Not only the singing itself is remembered, it is also specified what type of song the protagonists used to challenge his co-fugitives with. The song, however, is not sung to perform an anti-colonial act, but serves as a means to communicate.

43For Wainaina (2011: 86), resistance is not necessarily embedded in a local tradition of popular resistance at all. He relates to a school protest in mixed and global terms: “[We] run around the school, breakdancing and shouting and singing South African songs.” Furthermore performance can also be used in a high-political sense that is far removed from the popular resistance model that Ngũgĩ employs. The protagonist describes choirs practising political praise songs ( “Rule, Moi, rule”) and stadium performance for the President: “… rows and columns of citizens, in clear straight lines, in crisp uniforms, Boy Scouts and policemen, the navy, the army, and ten thousand schoolchildren in new uniforms. Then there are the tribes-each one in a costume, here to tell the president we sing and dance for you.” (Wainaina 2011: 45-46, 50). The relation between politics and performance is for Wainaina hence not restricted to traditions of popular resistance; it can equally entail a legitimizing project on the part of established political rulers. Yet the protagonist is also suspicious of the model that activists like Ngũgĩ stand for:

“Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a writer and playwright, a Kenyan playwright, and people say he says that women should not perm their hair or wear lipstick. I have permed my hair. I like it. […] I don’t like Moi, but if those people take over the government, what music will we listen to? Nyatiti?” (Wainaina 2011: 88).

44This section argued that especially authors from the political elite and/or with a record of activism describe a valuable local popular tradition that is undermined by colonial legislation in the form of bans and censorship, as well as through a slower process of cultural change related to Christian missionaries. Performance takes the form of popular resistance against this process of undermining. For Mau Mau bibliographers the opposition between local popular resistance versus colonial-missionary destruction is less clear in that performances of resistance songs often take place in a Christian framework, and examples of songs are given that do not at all relate to popular resistance. In Wainaina’s autobiography the politics of performance extend beyond resistance and also may include the legitimisation of power structures.

Aesthetics in Troubled Times

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times”
(Ngũgĩ, quoting Bertold Brecht 2011: 1)

45As indicated, music and dance are hardly ever described in a matter-of-fact tone, but in most cases receive a positive description and are regarded in terms of beauty. Thus as we saw most of the authors remember the songs and dances of their childhood well.

46Singing can bring solace in difficult situations. Charity Waciuma in her Daughter of Mumbi (1969: 126) describes singing in detail. After she and her family are forcibly moved, she nostalgically relates to her former home: “This other one is a prison. Strange that the Home Guard cannot understand when we sing how we wish we have wings like angels and over the high prison walls we would fly; we would fly back to the arms of our beloved and then be willing to die.

47The performances during Mau Mau are described not only in detail, but also in terms of worthiness. Gakaara wa Wanjaũ (1988: 117), for example, emphasizes the role of dance and music in the detention camp he was during the Emergency:

“After the lecture there were cultural dances in the open field. We watched detainees performing for others. Mahuti wa Gĩcuhĩ had organised the most beautiful performance; his group performed the mũcũng’wa dance. The dancers were resplendent in colourful cloth; they wore strings of beads of cowrie shells collected from the sea shore; on their ankles they wore rattles made of tins containing pebbles which thundered in the rhythm of their energetic steps.”

48The prisoners strongly feel the need to engage in artistic expression and use much creativity to continue performing their repertoire: “Some danced the mwomboko to the improvised music of one piece of metal beaten against another” (Gakaara 1988: 165). In the degrading and dehumanising environment of the camp, the prisoners seek to establish their dignity through performance.

49These aesthetics can bind people over all sorts of barriers. Thus Gakaara (1988: 32) writes how the prison guards start being involved in the prisoners’ song because of rhythm of the “sweet song”:

“We marched to the beach in style, in line formation, two people abreast, singing our song “To be isolated on an island in detention is an unforgettable experience”. […] Then we marched back in formation to the rhythm of our sweet song; to the show tune, some of us whistled in the manner of recorded music. The beat was so good that the warders, walking on either side of our formation, could not help joyfully marching with us to the rhythm of our song.”

50Apart from the aesthetic evaluation – that can be gathered from the positive markers like “sweet song”, the beat that was “so good”, the “joyful” marching of the warders – and the ironic title of the song, the quote also shows that the music transforms the positions that the detainees and the warders normally have towards each other. Through the song, the warders “could not help” step out of their role, and the prisoners and their guards for this short moment become one group, like in the shouting “in unison” of Ngũgĩ mentioned earlier.

51Gakaara (1988: 132) also has a scene in which a traditional dance is held, whereby “the camp officer, the sergeant, the camp personnel and their wives all came to watch and they enjoyed the performances tremendously.” In this case also, the usual barriers between prisoners and personnel are to some extent overcome, although hierarchy is maintained through the dancers-spectators relation. It would be inconceivable to have the military and the personnel perform for the prisoners.

52A similar process of overcoming barriers is described by Wangari Maathai (2006: 272):

“When we were confronted with a tense situation, we would sing about the need to protect the forest, and dance. This was a way to disarm the armed men in front of us-and it worked. We could see their frowns and scowls vanish and their faces soften. We were only women singing and dancing, after all, and those things didn’t pose a threat. As far as they were concerned, we could sing and dance all day! What they didn’t know is that the singing and dancing made us feel strong. It also ensured that nobody got hurt.”

53In these cases it concerns processes of momentary unification, nearly as in carnival. But performance can also be meant as a more enduring process over ethnic boundaries: Thus Wamweya (1971: 102) writes about an encounter of the runaways with “Wakamba”:

“We ate our porridge and told the Wakamba that we would sing them a Kamba song. Muroki Karuga began singing and because of its great charm, the two Akamba on hearing the words kept on saying: ‘Ai!-Ai!-Ai!’ We told the men that the song was composed by two young Kamba men who had decided to join hands with the Agikuyu in the fight for freedom, until Kenya’s independence was won.”

54In a very different way, Wainaina (2011: 52) also suggests that music can overcome barriers: “Music makes whole worlds, out of unwhole lives.” Yet this assessment always has an undertone of irony. When the experience is finally genuine, the protagonist is drunk: he ends up in a village bar, with a local chief and a dombolo song starts: “I have struggled to get this dance right for years. I just can’t get my hips to roll in circles as they should. Until tonight. The booze is helping, I think… My body finds the rhythmic map quickly.” […] “If you ask me now, I’ll tell you this is everything that matters. So this is why we move like this? We affirm a common purpose: any doubts about others’ motives must fade if we are all pieces of one movement.” (Wainaina 2011: 140 and 141). As indicated before, Wainaina does not always describe music and dance with positive markers; movement, sound and music can be a source of disconcertment, fear even.


55This analysis has shown that several authors – notably authors belonging to the political elite and/or with a record of activism – create an oppositional framework. On the one hand, there are the traditional performances – evaluated positively and associated with popular resistance. On the other hand, a missionary musical tradition is presented – in much less positive terms - that destroys this traditional repertoire, reinforced by colonial bans and censorship. For these authors, performance is directly related to the wider history of missionary and colonial control, and childhood memories of performance are wrought into a single narrative of oppression and resistance.

56In Mau Mau autobiographies this opposition is less strongly developed, in that local songs do not automatically belong to the resistance repertoire, and church hymns from the missionary realm may be turned into resistance songs. These authors are hesitant to condemn their own Christian upbringing and reason from a much less radical stance. The opposition between “Gikuyu tradition” and missionary Christianity does exist for these authors, but is much less strongly tied to the political realm. Their autobiographies stress the Mau Mau struggle as anti-colonial, but the memory of performance is only partly related to this: other performances – not connected to resistance – are also described.

57In Wainaina’s autobiography, finally, we hardly find such an opposition. Resistance can also be breakdanced, and traditional music may be kimay – the word for chaotic and disconcerting sound. While most authors happily describe the meandering of oral forms into each other, for Wainaina this is a source of confusion and even fear. Wainaina is also much less positive about performance than the other writers.

58Whatever assessment is presented, it is telling how much attention is being given to performance – song, music, dance and also narrative and speech – and how strongly performance is considered in aesthetic terms. This is especially noteworthy in view of the tense political situation described in these books. One would expect that there are other, more urgent things to tell than singing and dancing, but clearly oral performance is deemed important, and forms part of the situation.

59Generally speaking, performance is described in positive terms, and the markers to describe music with are often situated in the aesthetic realm. The notable exception is Binyavanga Wainaina’s autobiography. Sound and music are the crucial elements around which the narrative in One day I will write about this place is structured, but the assessment is often not positive at all. The protagonist views the intermedial character of Kenya’s music as chaotic, and experiences anxiety and fear when listening to it.

60Yet, in the final analysis even he – despite all his discomfort and irony – sees possibilities in kimay, as he writes on the very last page of his autobiography:

“Right at the beginning, in our first popular Independence music, before the flag was up, Kenyans had already found a coherent platform to carry our diversity and complexity in sound.” (Wainaina 2011: 253).



Atieno Odhiambo, E.S. & Lonsdale, J. (eds) 2003. Mau Mau and Nationhood, Arms, Authority and Narration. Oxford, James Currey; Nairobi, EAEP; Athens, Ohio University Press.

Barnett, D. & Njama, K. 1966. Mau Mau from Within: Autobiography and Analysis of Kenya’s Peasant Revolt. New York, Monthly Review Press.

Clough, M.S. 1997. Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory and Politics. Boulder, Lynne Rienner.

Coetzee, J. M. 2011. Scenes from Provincial Life. London, Vintage Publishing.

Coplan, D.B. 1994. In the Time of Cannibals. The Word Music of the South Africa’s Basotho Migrants. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Emecheta, B. 1986. Head Above Water. London, Fontana.

Fair, L. 2001. Voice, authority, and memory: the Kiswahili recordings of Siti binti Saadi, in White, L., Miescher, S.F. & Cohen, D.W. (eds.) African Words, African Voices. Critical Practices in Oral History. Bloomington, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press: 246-263.

Finnegan, R. 2007. The Oral and Beyond. Doing Things with Words in Africa. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Forna, A. 2003. The Devil that Danced on the Water. New York, Grove Press.

Gakaara wa Wanjaũ, 1988. Mau Mau Author in Detention. Nairobi, Heinemann.

Gatheru, M. 1964. Child of Two Worlds. Frederick A. Praeger, New York.

Hunsu, F. 2011. Critical directions in African autobiography. Marang 21: 119-134.

Itote, W. 1979. Mau Mau General. Nairobi, East African Publishing House.

Julien, E. 1992. African Novels and the Question of Orality. Bloomington, Indianapolis, Indiana University Press.

Kaggia, B. 1975. Roots of Freedom, 1921-1963: The Autobiography of Bildad Kaggia. Nairobi, East African Publishing House.

Kariuki, J.M. 1963. “Mau Mau” Detainee. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Koigi wa Wamwere. 2002. I Refuse to Die: my Journey for Freedom. New York, Seven Stories Press.

Laye, C. 1953. L Enfant Noir. Paris, Plon.

Lejeune, Ph. 1989. On Autobiography. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Maathai, W. 2008 [2006]. Unbowed: a Memoir. New York, Penguin.

Mandela, N. 1994. Long Walk to Freedom. London, Little Brown.

Mboya, T. 1963. Freedom and After. London, Deutsch.

Mda, Z. 2011. Sometimes there is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider. London, Penguin.

Morales, D.M. 2003. The pervasive force of music in African, Caribbean, and African American drama. Research in African Literatures 34 (2): 145-154.

Muoria, H. 1994. I, the Gikuyu and the White Fury. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers.

Neubauer, C. 1983. One voice speaking for many: The Mau Mau Movement and Kenyan Autobiography. Journal of Modern African Studies 21 (1): 113-131.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa.1981. Detained: a Writer’s Prison Diary. Nairobi, Heinemann.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. 2011. Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir. London, Vintage Books.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. 2013. In the House of the Interpreter. Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. 2016. Birth of a Dream Weaver: AWriter’s Awakening London, Vintage Books.

Nkrumah, K. 1957. Ghana: the Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah. New York, Nelson.

Odinga, O. 1976 [1967]. Not yet Uhuru. Nairobi, East African Educational Publishers.

Obiechina, E. 1975. Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, esp Chapter: Nature, Music and Art. 42-81.

Olney, J. 1973. Tell me Africa: an Approach to African Literature. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Peterson, D.R. 2012. Ethnic Patriotism and the East African Revival. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Peterson, D. R. 2006. Casting characters: autobiography and political imagination in Central Kenya. Research in African Literatures 37 (3): 176-192.

Pugliese, C. 1986. The life-story in Kenya: a bibliography (1920-1984). Africa (Rome) 41 (3): 440- 446.

Samuelson, M. 2007. Yvonne Vera’s Bulawayo: modernity, (im) mobility, music, and memory. Research in African Literatures 38 (2): 22-35.

Soyinka, W. Aké: The Years of Childhood. New York, Random House.

Thuku, H. 1970. Harry Thuku: an Autobiography. Nairobi, Oxford University Press.

Wachanga, H.K. 1975. The swords of Kirinyaga. The fight for land and freedom. Nairobi, Kenya Literature Bureau.

Waciuma, C. 1969. Daughter of Mumbi. Nairobi, East African Publishing House.

Wagner-Egelhaaf, M. 2005. Autobiographie. Stuttgart, Metzler.

Wainaina, B. 2011. One day I Will Write about this Place. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press.

Wamweya, J. 1971. Freedom Fighter. Nairobi: East Africa Publishing House.

Yagoda, B. 2009. Memoir: a History. New York, Riverhead Books.


Is professor of African Studies at the Department of African Languages and Cultures at Ghent University (Belgium). She studied History and African Studies and received a Ph.D. degree from Leiden University (The Netherlands) with a thesis on oral and written literature, identity and gender in Central Kenya. Her fields of research include: African literature, African popular culture, and African history. The themes of her research engage African literature, performance, popular culture, narrative, literacy and books in the wider context of communication and public debate in terms of cultural history.

© Africae, 2018

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search