Thirty seven years today, the 27th March 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather, a young activist from the Apachi tribe, showed up at the Oscar ceremony, wearing the national costume of her people.
She was holding a piece of paper with Marlon Brando’s statement to read out to the audience and inform the press (1) . In her 45 seconds’ speech, that was all the time she was allotted, it was said that the famous actor would not accept the “Best Actor” Oscar for the movie “The Godfather”.
The reasons given were the ill – treatment of Native Americans in the American Movie Industry and the massacre of the Sioux on 29 December 1890 at the battle of the Wounded Knee.
I will not deal with the malicious comments made such as that she was not a real Indian – she is still refuting them nowadays (2) – or with the criticism against Marlon Brando for not having the courage of a confrontation and the ensuing booing, since his opinions in favour of the Native Americans were already known.
It is interesting though, that the Oscar podium, the brightest ceremony in show biz, became the scene where old scores with the past and the continued injustice of the present required settlement.
Doubtless, the theatrality of the gesture of Littlefeather, even as a show off, a small crescendo, relates, although different, to that of the Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull, when he took off his own person in the famous show “Wild West”.
In 1938, in Kamirithu, a village in the area of Limuru in Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiongo was born, the fifth child of the third wife of his father, in a polygamous family of four wives. He considered all of them to be his mothers.
The first wife had been the narrator, the story – teller, the one who knew how to gather the children around the fire and how to tell stories, real or fictional. These stories lasted for exactly the time that was needed to prepare the meal.
If it was green maize, it took half an hour, confirms Wangari Maathai (The founder of the Green Belt movement and Peace Nobel Prize in 2004) in her book “The Unbowed”. The same held for yam. But if they had to prepare something that would take more time, they had to invent new episodes for the story, new adventures for the hero to overcome, in order to keep the children awake.
These were stories invented and stories remembered, because they had also sat listening to them when they were children. The modification and the weaving of the stories based on the archetypal myths of their tradition had been the first laboratory of writing for little Ngugi, even before school.
If he went to school, it was because his mother insisted. This woman did not know how to read or write. Nevertheless, deep in her heart she knew that this child – every child – deserved an education.
It is wonderful, it is exciting to the same degree as the weaving of stories and narratives around the fire, that this decision, ie little James’s going to school, affected a life, his life, and affected the history of literature. Little James, who decided to take back his ancestral name Ngugi, received his first schooling near his village and then, after graduating from Makerere College in Uganda, he completed his studies at the university of Leeds. He now teaches Comparative Literature at the university of California at Irvine. The boy from Kamirithu was last year’s candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature (cf Waxtablets: When Ngugi wa Thiongo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2009, i.e. in a different world ) He has been awarded this prize in our hearts.
It is wondrous how international history, the shadow of World War II, affects a country thousands of kilometers away, how the life of a family changes drastically. His family has sent two boys to the war… Everyone’s life has been affected. As if they are connected with an invisible thread, as Father Brown affirms in Chesterton novels. One son survived the war and returned. Kenyan soldiers fought during WWII with the British Army against the Germans. The same was true for Cypriots who enlisted with the British Army and helped the allies in Greece. They were told that they should fight for the Motherland and they did it readily, expecting that they would be rewarded with their country’s freedom.
Many Cypriot women donated their jewelry and their wedding rings in order to collect money to help the allies during the war.
Another brother of Ngugi was killed by a British soldier. He was deaf and mute and he could not hear the soldier ordering him to stop.
The reason for this post is the presentation of Ngugi’s new book “Dreams in time of War: a childhood memoir”, that is being released on the 9th of March. It will take place in the 20th Century Theatre, ( 291, Westbourne Grove, London W11 2 QA)
The event is organized by The Travel Book shop.
Many people believe that there is no need for book presentations since the writer can say all that he has to say in his book. There are writers that escape publicity so markedly that they create a new myth around them, the myth of their non – existence.
I, on the other hand, prefer the conversations and the exchanges around a text, I enjoy all the associations of ideas brought up when reading a book by all our previous lectures and experiences. I would like to meet the writer!
I would have liked to be in London to meet Ngugi. I would like, not only to listen to him, but to express to him my own impression on reading his books and how I understand the interconnection between Africa and Greece. How the decision of his mother, the war and its shadow, the oral traditions of his country, our Homer and the rhapsodist, and the descendants of the Griots of Africa are all linked together..
The shield of Achilles (representation)
Homer and his epic poems are related to Africa, not only because the epic poems were memorized and recited orally. Homer, in the first rhapsody of his Odyssey, mentions the African people with great respect. The are called Ethiopians (Αιθίοψ= the one with a black face) and with this he meant not only the people of Ethiopia, but all the people of Africa.
These Ethiopians had received a visit from Poseidon (Neptune) and they were considered to be his friends.
“Now Neptune had gone off to the Ethiopians, who are at the world's end, and lie in two halves, the one looking West and the other East. He had gone there to accept a hecatomb of sheep and oxen, and was enjoying himself at his festival”
Translated by Samuel Butler, Odyssey Book I. 22-5
Zeus spent 12 days with them and in the Iliad I, they were called divine. Divine Ethiopians have something to tell us. The Greeks of Homer recognized to them the privilege to eat with the Gods.
I would discuss with him the Gicandi, the oral epic poem of Kenya, the one with the 127 stanzas, made up of riddles and Kikuyu proverbs. Ngugi mentions the Gicandi in his novels. His “Devil on the Cross”, although prose, is based entirely on metaphors and proverbs.
This epic poem was engraved with mnemonotechnic symbols on a gourd, a writing similar to the Egyptian hieroglyphs and was recited by the minstrels. These sacred gourds were destroyed by the missionaries who wanted to eliminate idolatry, ie to separate a whole people from its tradition and its beliefs. They wanted to erase the people’s memory.
The Cypriot gourd (Koloka)
“Writing” the stories on the back of a gourd, I would also wanted to tell Ngugi, was a very common tradition in Cyprus. The story is told in the form of Painting and Decorating (Πλούμισμα) a gourd, as was done with Achilles shield in Iliad.
“…And the monk started painting on a gourd…”Georges Seferis (Nobel Prize in Literature 1963) writes in his poem “Details in Cyprus”
George Seferis, had a collection of gourds and he wanted to name his poetic collection for Cyprus KOLOKES (gourds in the Cypriot idiom).
Later on, it appeared that, apart from the gourds, our two peoples had more things in common:
Mau Mau suspects in Kenya (State of Emergency)
School children held as suspects in Cyprus (State of Emergency)
Two pictures taken at about the same time, at the end of the fifties: One in Cyprus, one in Kenya.
State of Emergency: to account for the reduction of political freedom in both countries by the British “occupation” forces. Both countries were colonies of the British Empire. In both countries the fight for liberation had just started and any participation of the population in it was considered a terrorist action.
In the case of Cyprus, the suspects are little pupils.
A reminder for the friends of Waxtablets: The event is on Sunday the 7th of March at 7 pm.
We will have more to say about Africa and its magic gourd,
I am involved in the creation of texts that function as wax moulds hosting memory images. I find my material in human gestures, in historical moments, in buildings, in places remote in space and time, in map imprints, in real or symbolic labels. In Waxtablets personal accounts and testimonies sneak into literary texts as well as encounters with remarkable minds. Memory, as a creation and a presence in the margins of time, confronts an actuality inhumed in the foam of oblivion.