April 30, 2024

WA NGUGI | Our Students Are Not the Enemy

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I grew up in a dictatorship. Jomo Kenyatta, the first post-independence president, detained my father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o without trial in 1977. In 1982 President Moi forced him into exile. In our Limuru home we endured all sorts of hardships; monetary (I cannot count how many times I had to leave school due to lack of school fees), political intimidation, police raids, violent political thugs attacking our home and effigies of my father being burned on national TV while our mother, Nyambura Wa Ngugi kept us from falling apart.  

Now I find myself thinking about the University of Nairobi students who marched against the dictatorships. I have this distinct memory of Mwandawiro Mghanga, a student leader leading student strikes at the University of Nairobi and marches against the Moi dictatorship.  The government’s response was heavy handed and he was charged with sedition and sentenced to five years in prison.  Some student leaders like Karimi Nduthu were assassinated and plenty of others were thrown into jail. 

While the Kenyan Universities stood aside while their students were being jailed and assassinated, here in the US, it is more “sophisticated.” It is study and be quiet or we will make you unemployable, mark you with a scarlet letter that says troublemaker, antisemite and disturber of peace.  And the students are asking, what peace?    

The numbers coming out of Gaza do not lie: 34,000 plus Palestinians have been killed, homes and hospitals destroyed, and 1.2 million displaced, disease and hunger are weapons, mass graves have been discovered and universities destroyed.  Out of the 34,000 killed the majority have been civilians with a staggering 13,000 children victims.  Tell me what war, what higher form of morality, demands the sacrifice of 13,000 children.

Yet when our students call for a ceasefire (a reasonable, non-debatable — or ought to be — request) or call for a boycott (also reasonable, but debatable), when they speak their conscience, what do we do?  We threaten, arrest and suspend; we destroy their futures. The very antithesis to a university education. 

I recently came across a Kenyan newspaper article about Mwandawiro. In the accompanying photo, he is being led by a policeman to court.  And it struck me just how young he was in 1985. Just like the students I teach, just like the students that are being tear gassed, getting arrested and having futures destroyed all over the US.  

It struck me that Cornell is bringing the full weight of administrative power against young people for simply voicing their conscience.  What are we doing?

While in Kenya this past February, I was invited to speak at an event titled Valentine’s for Palestine where artists from the Kariobangi slum were painting a mural for Palestine. It was a moving event — here were Kenyan activists so moved by the belief that we share a common humanity and that we are responsible for each other that they were painting a mural in support of Palestine in a slum.  

In my remarks I echoed an earlier essay I had written titled, “Gaza and my political conscience.” I do not believe in the killing of civilians as part of a liberation struggle. In my political conscience, it is unjustifiable. I cannot agree with the Hamas killing of 1,200 people in Israel and the taking of hostages.  But surely using the same logic, the mass murder of 34,000 Palestinians and the leveling of Gaza is terrorism by any definition, a crime against humanity; it is a genocide unfolding. Yet we punish our students for following their political consciences instead of looking into ours.

Like Mwandawiro in Kenya, or closer to home Nick Wilson, Momodou Taal and two other students who have been suspended, we have all been students at some point. But then enters careerism, the climb from Assistant Professor to tenured, to Dean, Provost and President that numbs our memories of what it felt like to have and be moved by conscience. And we embrace our silence and the silencing of others.

While I was a graduate student at UW Madison in the 2000’s, Muslim students would be pulled out of the classroom for processing in Milwaukee.  And our professors, after the interruption, would continue talking about “post-colonial this” and “deconstruct that.” And I always wondered, where did they learn to be silent?  Two fellow students and I sat down and wrote this poem inspired by Pastor Martin Niemöller. 

War on Silence

When they came for the Irish, Blacks and Jews I

remained silent. You see, I was yet to be born.

And when it happened again, I was too young

and – waiting to go into college. Later when they

jailed anti-war protestors, waiting to become a doctor I

still could not speak out. And when the Twin Towers

fell and they pulled Muslim, Sikh and Turkish students

from my classroom, without tenure and vulnerable I

remained silent. And when they came for my colleagues

tenured but waiting to become dean or provost, I

would not speak out. And when they again started to shut

down universities, steal elections, assassinate, detain

torture and make wars without cause it was too late. I

could not speak. I did not know how. I had lost my

tongue. So when they finally came for me, I

could not scream, there was no one left to hear me. “You”

they said as they pulled out my eyes, “You! So mute

and silent, how can you be trusted to keep your eyes closed?”

We should not be teaching silence.  Our students are our conscience. We should listen and support them, or declare our irrelevancy and get out of their way.  

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a Professor in the Literatures in English Department at Cornell. He is the co-founder of the Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Writing. He can be reached at [email protected].

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