Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms
By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
Heinemann, 1993, 184 pp
Burying SM: The Politics of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa
By David William Cohen and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo
Heinemann, 1992, 159 pp
These works each address questions of cultural authenticity, westernization, and the multilayered nature of power in rapidly evolving Third World societies. The first, a collection of 21 essays and speeches by Kenya's leading writer, emphasizes themes long associated with the author: the necessity of decolonizing African culture, of writing in African languages, and of returning the generative center of cultural production to the grass roots among Africa's common folk. Where Ngugi's principal concern is literary culture, and his commentary is shaped by radical socio-political perspectives from the 1970s, Cohen and Odhiambo tackle culture as subjective reality-in-the-making, applying the techniques of deconstruction now fashionable in postmodern sociological analysis. Their subject is the 1986-87 controversy in Kenya over the burial of S. M. Otieno, a "modern" Luo professional living in Nairobi, whose Kikuyu widow put up a highly publicized legal battle to prevent her husband's relatives from burying his body with "traditional" rites in Luoland. Why did the contest over the body become a national obsession? What was the case "really" about? How did the multiple stakeholders, from President Moi on down, in the process of offering their official and unofficial testimonies, actively create (not merely reflect) Kenyan culture and history? The authors of this intriguing account offer a chorus of conflicting voices and invite readers to draw their own conclusions.