You don’t have to know themes to appreciate literature

You don’t have to know themes to appreciate literature

Date: 13 May 2017 07:01

Today, very few young Kenyans would tell where their local Kenya National Library Services centre is. The Internet has literally brought the library onto everybody’s palms.

But when growing up in Kisumu, the library is where parents who didn’t want ‘idle’ children at home during holidays sent the young ones to. We simply called it ‘library.’ When some of us couldn’t afford secondary school fees we spent most of the time at the library, reading and copying notes borrowed from classmates who were at school. This land of books is where literature entered our lives.

Many Kenyans were introduced to reading in about four ways. Many read because the teacher said you read. Others read because the Bible or Koran stared at you the whole day at home. But newspapers and magazines have always been a great influence on reading habits. The Daily Nation was said to be easy to read, when I was a student. The East African Standard was said to be difficult. I’d grown up reading Taifa Leo, mainly dazzled by the escapades of ‘Juha Kalulu’ — the man and his dog made my day, every day. There were also portraits of soccer stars in the sports pages, for our scrapbooks. Drum and True Love magazines provided the racier and thrilling tales that the newspapers didn’t. I was reading for fun but in the same breath I also got to know a few things about the world, other peoples, cultures etc.

But ‘library’ stands out for offering the endless rows of the African Writers Series, in that unforgettable. I knew Chinua Achebe, Mongo Beti, Alex la Guma, Buchi Emecheta, Christopher Okigbo, among many others, whose faces, names and book titles I had seen, read and reread, way before I was introduced to literature as a subject at Kisumu Boys’ High School. Even then, literature was only part of the English lesson. Still, it was part of a fresh and larger world that high school opened to me, away from the ‘subjects’ and note-taking culture of primary education.


My first lessons in literature had little to do with themes, style, characterisation, language and other categories that a student of literature is supposed to cram these days, even before they read a novel, poem, play or an essay. I was taught to read literature more or less the same way I was tutored in Economics. It was something different from what I was used to every day. The story was new, which is why storybooks are also called novels. The people in the books weren’t real, but could resemble living persons. A turn of phrase could be memorable but it existed among many other words, phrases, sentences etc.

Yes, there was some (moral?) lesson at the end of the story. Okonkwo may have failed to achieve his dreams in Things Fall Apart but he left us a lesson that any student of economics would appreciate: to grow wealth, one may borrow, invest wisely, produce, save, reinvest and be rich. My teachers told me people read for different reasons: to pass time, make the grade in an exam, because a friend has recommended it or because she finds it actually interesting, among many reasons. I was free to choose mine.

If the study of literature in schools and colleges went back to ask the question, why read literature, we probably wouldn’t be so worried about the decline in interest in literature. Teachers of literature should ask themselves why students should be bothered to study the subject when there are many other ‘interesting’ things — such as trawling the internet, following others on Twitter, listening to music online etc. Why should pupils in Forms Three and Four study The River and the Source, instead of reading, for example, Fifty Shades of Grey?

What makes Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source so special? Why, a student asked me once, if the idea is to provoke debate on gender equality, rights of women, the worth of the girl-child, the value of the family etc, why not teach So Long a Letter? The student argued that the latter is shorter, punchier and because it is a letter, it’s more memorable. Good arguments, I thought. However, I argued, The River and the Source is not just about the subjects that she mentioned. It is particularly Kenyan. Its subject matter is very local. Reading it first would enable a more productive comparison with So Long a Letter or such other book from elsewhere.

Why should reading a story set within our own houses, homes, villages, communities, counties, country, matter? Because being local is the foundation of our being. When I first taught The River and the Source in 1999 at Sinaga Girls’ Secondary School, in Siaya County, I would ask the students to read the book and reread it. Then I would pose the old literary questions: what do you like or don’t you like about the book? Many of them felt that they somehow ‘knew’ the story. How, I would ask? This is where the interesting part of the literature lesson would begin.

They would say they knew the names — Akoko, Adoyo (pretty much the current season when weeding is happening), Obanda, Odero etc. That they could imagine where most of the events happened. Alego was neighbour to Gem, where Sinaga is. Some of them were born in Asembo. They knew that the ‘battering market of Kisuma’ was Kisumu. They understood what Chik, Jodongo, dak, wat etc, meant among the Luo.


It wasn’t just a literature class. Here was geography, history, culture, religion or politics, rolled into one lesson. Those curious about the Luo language — Luo or non-Luo pupils — extended the discussion beyond the classroom. Homework could be based on subjects such as ‘Neighborliness among the Luo’ or ‘Marriage Rites of the Luo,’ with reference to The River and the Source.

But the literariness of the story remained the core of the discussions on novel. It wasn’t difficult to draw the plot of the story, working out the family tree from the birth of Akoko on the first page of the book to the burial of Becky at the end of the story. That plot, one could argue, traced the ‘story/stories’ or ‘history’ of the Luo people (and many other Kenyans) and their encounter with Jorochere (Europeans). Did we need to highlight parallelism or allusion as elements of style? Not really. They emerged naturally from the learners’ imagined world.

Imagination is the source of all stories. But the storyteller needs a language that goes beyond the language we use in everyday rituals such as asking for water, calling for help, exclaiming at an incident etc to make the imagined real. The language of literature is special because of the way it deliberately disobeys the laws that grammar insist on. This aspect makes life difficult for the high school reader of literature. The English (language) teacher may not be able to point out all the time to the pupil that grammar is about how language should be used whilst literature is often about how language is or can be used, in different contexts.

Just like literature can break rules and still educate, entertain and inform the reader, it can also raise uncomfortable questions about the way we see the world, live in it and imagine it. This is why some people think that The River and the Source is revolutionary in the way it perches women on a pedestal, in what other people think is a society dominated by men. Akoko, the noisy one, isn’t just symbolic, her character is deliberately constructed to make the reader ask herself: is this possible, or isn’t it? Her lineage is full of women who break what is taken to be the ‘natural order’ of life. Nyabera, Wandia, Becky, Vera, all go beyond the roles that would be or are prescribed for them by the society. This is the intrinsic value of good literature — it raises pointed questions about received wisdom. That is to say, even where it seems to be emphasising some traditional values, it speculates whether they can’t be changed. 

Therefore, my experience of teaching The River and the Source retaught me that lesson that all good teachers know: start with the known and progress to the unknown. One can know and define a metaphor, personification or symbol but she needs to know that these ideas are sensed in the form of an image. Identifying that image in a story is more important than speaking about hidden meanings and other complex ideas that detract from the simple and pure enjoyment of reading/listening to a story.


The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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