Q&A: Mukoma Wa Ngugi – teasing out the Tizita, and probing poetry and prizes

AiW Guests: Meriel Clode, Lisa Walker, Antonia Cheema-Grubb & Harriet Lewis.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a US-based Kenyan writer, who was born in Illinois and grew up in Nairobi. He is the author of eight books including crime novels Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi, and an Associate Professor of Literatures in English at Cornell University. He published his poetry collection Logotherapy in 2016, and has recently published a novel about four Ethiopian musicians called Unbury Our Dead with Song with Cassava Republic Press. He co-founded the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize in 2014.

We were lucky enough to sit down with him last month to discuss his recent publications, his work with literary prizes, and debate language in relation to his book The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity and Ownership.

Africa in Words: In your novel Unbury Our Dead with Song, you describe the Tizita as a “sad, bluesy Ethiopian song” (pg 14). Why have you chosen the Tizita as the central cultural form of the novel? Is it significant that, as a Kenyan writer, you have chosen the Ethiopian Tizita, as opposed to the Sudanese/Senegalese griots, or the Kenyan Malaika, which are also mentioned in the novel?

Mukoma Wa Ngugi: I can give you two answers. One is more political: why can’t I, as a Kenyan, write about Ethiopian music or South African literature? Why can’t we have a pan-African conversation around our aesthetics? And there is also the divide between Kenya and Ethiopia psychologically. I have lived in Kenya for a long time but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I actually visited Ethiopia. I did a DNA test and I am 10% Ethiopian. I jokingly say that the 10% possesses the Tizita. The more relevant answer, for me anyway, is that I just fell in love with the music. My daughter, who is eleven now, plays the violin. I saw her fall in love with the violin. She was maybe three or four, and we went to a craft fair in Connecticut and she stopped and walked to the person with the violin, she just stood there. The craftsperson asked –  “Do you want to play?” – but no, she just wanted to listen. For me, regarding the Tizita, I was at a party in Boston in the early 2000s and some of our friends were Ethiopian, so at two or three o’clock in the morning, I heard my first Tizita. It was just this beautiful, amazing sound. I kept asking the host – “What was that song?” -, and there was no finding out what this song was. I spent a lot of time looking for that song, but it wasn’t until I was applying for a job here at Cornell, ten years later, and (I guess this is a teaching moment – I was looking up who my interviewers were going to be) one of the people here turned out to be Ethiopian and had written an essay on James Baldwin and the Tizita, connecting the two. When I read the essay, I discovered that this was the song I had been looking for. After that I was able then to, well, find the music.

In what ways, if at all, is the protagonist’s journey to find the Tizita connected to your work on recognizing literature in African languages? Can debates about language be connected to debates about music?

Here’s a question I always think about: why is it that for intellectuals, when it comes to African languages, it becomes an issue? If you’re a musician, you just sing in your language. There was a time, in 2019 or thereabouts, I was hanging out with CDM Kiratu. He’s this great Kenyan musician and he was explaining to me how he ended up singing this song, ‘Bilha’ (click to listen to the album on YouTube or click below for the title song in the album playlist).

The album, Bilha, is available to listen on YouTube, Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group, ℗ 1985 A.I Records Kenya Limited. Released on: 1985-01-01. Associated Performer, Singer: CDM Kiratu. Author, Composer: CDM Kiratu.

I was asking him about being bilingual, and he explained that it just so happened for him that he knew English and that is the reason he became a well-known musician for bilingual music. One of my favourite musicians, Vieux Farka Toure, sings in Bamana. 

Another friend will break into all these different languages when they’re singing. Why is it for us intellectuals the question exists, but for musicians, for newscasters, it does not? For pretty much every other avenue, people just use their languages.

Throughout the novel, the themes of sex, journalism and music seem to poignantly contrast with the themes of colonial legacy, corruption, dictatorship and xenophobia. In what ways are the former connected to the latter for you?

The character Manfredi is completely unlike me, in terms of politics. Manfredi comes from an oppressive family. In the 1990s, I coincidentally met the daughter of the district-commissioner who was responsible for railroading my dad into detention. It was almost like she wanted me to absolve her of her father’s sins. At that point, in the 1990s, Kenya was turning to democracy. She had so much guilt. This is where Manfredi comes from: we were politically repressed – but who were the people benefiting from oppression? What were they going through? Through that meeting, I was able to see guilt, and a degree of humanity, and then I could create Manfredi. Manfredi would be me, having a conversation with somebody who tried to kill us. Though he is self-conscious, though he is a spoilt brat, Manfredi then going into the music and the parties, going through all that, is him trying to understand his family’s role in the repression, in this case in Kenya.

Manfredi, as the protagonist, goes on an educational journey with each of the Tizita singers. What is the significance of these different histories of the Tizita?

I was hanging out in Addis in 2015, thinking about why I was writing the novel and why the Tizita matters. The first thing about a Tizita, and this is clear when you talk to Ethiopians about it, is that they feel it. When I was in Ethiopia, I was having conversations about the Tizita, my search and journey. One of the guys I was talking to said: “I have to give you this instrument.” And he gave me this Begena. The corporal plays the Masenko in Unbury Our Dead with Song, but one of the characters plays the Begena. I’m trying to impress on you how personal the Tizita is: that nobody gives you that sort of instrument unless they’ve seen something. It was hell bringing it back.

 Was there a particular character that you enjoyed writing the most?

All of them! I have never written characters before that truly I envy. Sometimes you just want to kill your characters but I envy these ones. Imagine finding a link into aesthetics and finding a link into beauty, into a song that has been sung for generations. The Tizita is infinite. There is no illusion: we are going to die in a Tizita. Imagine being a musician who finds the link or connection and it becomes part of who you are. There is this line in the novel, the little refrain “We unbury our dead through song”.

So, I envy them but of course my favourite character is the Diva. She is based on Bezawork Asfaw, but the story behind Bezawork (which of course you can think about as gendered and so forth) is that she had a long jaw but she is best known for her Tizita singing. She was there, she made money, but then she had surgery to correct her jaw. The story is that her voice changed so she became a worsened Tizita musician because of the surgery. All these stories, they came together in the novel.

 You mentioned the refrain there, what was the thought process or influence behind the title of the book “Unbury Our Dead With Song”

At one point I was commuting back and forth between here and Connecticut; I was doing four hours of commuting so I could be with my family. It meant that I had to find an apartment here where I could be for three days and go back. Behind the apartment was a graveyard. Sometimes, I would smoke a little bit, drink a little bit; you can’t imagine a quieter place, it was nice and peaceful. Sometimes when I would walk around, I would look at the gravestones and they would be from the 1700’s; it was an abandoned cemetery. At the same time, I was listening to the Tizita, to Bezawork over and over again. Eventually this is where we will end up. And eventually, if you’re dead long enough, no one will be there to tend to your grave. I had to address myself, what remains of us, as human beings. For the novel anyway, what remains is the Tizita itself. So, the Tizita itself becomes life. Let me read you this quick passage:

“When I dream of happy days, oh Tizita,
Wake me, so I can find you once again
… One day, I will be dead and gone
My grave untended
… Tizita, What I fear the most
Is that I forget
This pain that carries my love” (pp. 30-31)

In essence, that is the novel. Having talked with many people about the Tizita, the fear for the musician or the fear in the Tizita is that if you lose the pain, then you forget everything else.

 That’s a really beautiful passage you read there, thank you.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your poetry anthology, Logotherapy. You’ve talked in an interview about this anthology being more playful than your previous anthology, Hurling Words At Consciousness and you also dedicate a lot of your poems to close family and friends. How does this anthology for you navigate the personal and the political?

When I think about my earlier poetry, it’s political, as it should be, I don’t believe in non-political art. It’s urgent and more immediate. Most of the poems I wrote in Hurling Words at Consciousness, I wrote when I was in my 20s and 30s. With Logotherapy, I wrote it after my daughter was born, I was married and stuff like that. With Logotherapy, you have to have an investment in life. So, I can see how my younger me would have liked Logotherapy because it’s slow, it’s meditative. Whereas Hurling Words at Consciousness is political – it is trying to do stuff. Logotherapy is more about you wanting to be in conversation. When I was writing it, of course, I was older so I was more conscious of my mortality and, when I die, what my daughter will be reading of me. I can’t tell how it’s received.

It was received very well. I really enjoyed reading it!

Thank you. It’s a more introspective, intense look at life and of course more playful. And to my daughter’s embarrassment there was a time when she had just been born and I was holding her and she had diarrhoea. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that! I have a poem where I say cashita. 

Just drawing on that idea of the introspective, in your poem ‘Multiplicity and Skins’ you seem to explore the idea of separate identities and the idea of belonging. In an interview by Aloi for the Cornell Chronicle you said that, “home is not longing to belong to two places at once.” I was just wondering how this anthology helped you explore your relationship with Kenya and the US and African identity and identities?

 Right now, I am writing a book and my research is on Africa and African Americans. I am debating how much I should tell you guys. I was born in Illinois here and then I grew up in Kenya and then I came back. So, the book is actually exploring blackness. Like how did I become black? When I’m in Kenya, in my hometown Limuru, I’m not black and then at some point I become Gikuyu if I live where the Gikuyu live so shifting Blackness is what it’s all about. If you want to go deeper into theory then you can look at Édouard Glissant, where he talks about creolisation and his point is that we are all born creolised. For example, when I’m in Kenya hanging out with my friends, speaking Gikuyu, I present as Gikuyu. But Glissant’s point is you are always creolised. And indeed, I did a DNA test before beginning my book on Africans and African Americans because that has been fascinating for me. As I mentioned I am 10% Ethiopian so this is part of my DNA as well. Even though I present as a Gikuyu in Kenya even then I am already creolised. Also, what of our histories don’t we know as Africans and African Americans or as Black people? My main one – and this is the crux of the book I’m working on – is that we did not learn about African American history in Kenya, even in the stories around slavery and the British abolishment. I’m saying all this to tell you a story about multiplicities. About how I was in Zanzibar, again pursuing the book, and I was visiting slave monuments and I ended up in a slave cave where I sat down, you have to imagine this dark… it’s a place you don’t want to be. I sat down and I could feel all the multiplicities.

 You once had a conversation with your father and Ben Okri and you talked about what came first: words or sound? And you all agreed that sound did. What, in your view, is the relationship between sound and literature and sharing sound in terms of performing spoken word poetry with a live audience? Also, do you think words can be complete without sound?

Part of what COVID has robbed us of is live meetings. I hope this is going to answer your question; but I am interested in infinity. But also the idea that you can contain infinity between a note. I am most interested in the concept of a quantum computer and the concept that it can be on and off at the same time. I am sat in front of a grand piano. The whole idea behind hierarchies of what produces sound is that, for example, a piano is grand; you can do your classical music and so on. But also, you can take the one string ngoni or masenko and create infinity with one note: the grand piano vs the ngoni. The whole idea of one note – that you can contain infinity between one note. But what came first? Sound of course.

In Unbury Our Dead with Song, you talk about corruption. You write: ‘in the end, it was really no more or less professional than the Caine Prize or the Pulitzer – it was just as rigged or not rigged as any of them’. You were shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing back in 2009… 

– but I didn’t win! 

No, sadly not! But you did set up the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience as a writer with prizes, and to what extent this impacted your decision to become involved with the Mabati-Cornell Prize. Do you think the power structures that you critique in Unbury Our Dead with Song can be worked against?

That’s really tough. Underneath it all is the question of African languages, what gets social prestige. Africa has 55 countries and almost a billion people. How many prizes can you name? As many as 100 prizes for a billion people just wouldn’t work. In English, how many journals, how many agents, are specifically working with African writers? For African languages it’s even worse. Kiswahili is spoken by 200 million people, maybe more, over 5 countries, and yet if you just google “Kiswahili prize” we’re the only ones who come up. So for me it became a question of where am I going to put my resources, my intellectual resources, because it’s not financial for sure! It’s a good fight, first and foremost. We all root for the underdogs! What I’ve found since I’ve been in the West, teaching at Cornell, is that African languages don’t translate here. We went to the same donors that give money to the Caine Prize, and one donor said “I can’t sponsor a prize in a language I don’t speak”. Fundamentally, for me as a writer, it’s a question of my imagination being truncated.

Talking of your imagination, what is the future of the Mabati-Cornell Prize? 

We will hopefully be opening up the prize to more African languages. One of my fears is Kiswahili becoming an imperialist language. Part of my fear is that I’m putting all of this energy into the Kiswahili Prize, and it then has the potential to kill off other African languages. Whereas, the principle should be, all languages are created equal and we should have equal resources. 

Last year you tweeted that the Caine Prize for African Writing should consider an ‘originally written in an African language and translated into English short story’ category and your father has said in the past that he sees translation as the common language of all languages – sort of like an equaliser. What do you think a prize focused on translation would add to the African literary tradition that is currently missing? 

It’s about creating a democratic space for languages to meet. They can only meet through translation. The goal of Ituika, my other co-current project (https://www.ituika.org) co-founded with Munyao Kilolo, is to ask what happens when African languages meet? You have different levels of translation when it comes to African languages. You have the African to European, European to African. What isn’t talked about is the translation between African languages. I was a visiting professor for two or three weeks – so maybe I wasn’t really visiting – at St Paul’s University in Kenya, and they have a Bible translation centre there. I met with one of the priests, and he was trying to explain to me why they have a translation centre. What he said has stayed with me since then. He said, “God will not come and speak to you in a foreign language”. What I find fascinating is the growth of English itself, and how it mirrors the struggle for African languages now. If you go back to the 13th century, you go back to your Chaucer and so forth, they had to fight to write in English. At that point, all the proceedings were in French or Latin. English was seen as a peasant language, then some King decided we needed a national language, so we can fight and have a national identity to rally against the French. English has come so far: it had to be nationalised, it had to be standardised, in order to become the English we have today. It had to be weaponized. There is a term that I’ve come to love: “the English metaphysical empire”. It’s about understanding that what needed to be left behind of the empire wasn’t slavery, or resource or the plantations, but that you can create an empire through metaphysics. We are in an English metaphysical empire.

Meriel Clode, Lisa Walker, Antonia Cheema-Grubb and Harriet Lewis were final year English students at the University of Exeter (21-22). They have a shared interest in postcolonial studies, intersectional feminism and international literatures. As part of their university module African Narratives, they had the opportunity to interview Mukoma Wa Ngugi which they thoroughly enjoyed.

Follow Mukoma on Twitter and for more, including on writings – books, articles, poetry, prose – news & events, media and contact – http://www.mukomawangugi.com/

Submissions for this year’s Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature closed on June 30th. For more see the Prize website – https://kiswahiliprize.cornell.edu/

About the Prize

The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature was founded by Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree in 2014 to promote writing in African languages and encourage translation from, between and into African languages.  The Prize sets a historical precedent for African philanthropy by Africans and shows that African philanthropy can and should be at the center of African cultural production.

For more about Ituĩka, see the website here https://www.ituika.org/ – they are currently receiving applications to their African Languages Teachers Database, the Spotlight series, and Theory, although those for stories and essays in African languages are closed for the moment, to reopen soon…

Ituĩka is an online and print platform devoted to publishing writers in African languages, facilitating translations, and raising the visibility of African language literary projects. Anyone writing in, translating into or from an African language is welcome to contribute to the platform. Together, Africans writing in African languages can overcome the great odds that have consistently faced publishing of literary and scholarly material written in their languages.

Unbury Our Dead With Song is published by Cassava Republic Press.

Unbury Our Dead With Song

@MukomaWaNgugi‘s pinned tweet at the moment is all about the movie journey of Nairobi Heat

Not to blow our own trumpet but… taking the opportunity to dip back through, in our archives is another AiW Q&A on the release of Black Star Nairobi– the 2013 sequel to Nairobi Heat – and Mukoma’s appearance with his father at that year’s Africa Writes Festival in London (select excerpts below): 

Q&A: Novelist, poet and literary scholar Mukoma wa Ngugi 


Could you start by telling us a bit more about Black Star Nairobi.  Where did the idea come from? 

Mukoma wa Ngugi: I like to begin with a question I don’t have an answer for.  For Nairobi Heat it was – ‘what would happen if I took an African American character and immersed him in Kenya?’  In Black Star Nairobi it was – ‘if I was to create ‘absolute evil’ what would it look like?’


Can you talk to us through the publication histories of Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi?Layout 1

Nairobi Heat first came out in South Africa and that was when the book industry was in a crisis, I think 2008, so we couldn’t get a publisher in the US.  So first we gave Africa rights to Penguin South Africa, and then after a little while we were like ‘well let’s give them world rights’ – I wanted to have a book in the US, so I could do a reading.  But the reason the book took 3 or 4 years to get to Nairobi is precisely because we had given away the rights.  Penguin South Africa held onto the rights, even when they knew they couldn’t do anything with the book.  Now consequently, anything that happens with the book has to go through Penguin South Africa.  The cautionary tale for African writers, or writers in general would be, just don’t give away your world rights – unless you get a really good deal!


AND – also in our archive, this 15-strong list – advice on writing when Mukoma guested with us (November 2013):

For Young African Writers

Thank you to Mukoma Wa Ngugi and to our Guests Meriel Clode, Lisa Walker, Antonia Cheema-Grubb and Harriet Lewis for this Q&A – and many congrats on your graduation 2022!

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: