Hit below the belt? How to respond to unfair criticism

By: Enock Matundura

I read Harry Mulama’s article titled ‘Of deadwood critics and the death of literary criticism’ with keen interest because of three major reasons. One, it was the first time I had come across such a byline since the Literary Discourse was incepted almost four years ago. From the trend of events, the pages of the Literary Discourse have become synonymous with names of certain regular contributors. Harry Mulama’s is not among them.

Two, the article was accompanied by mug shot photos of some scholars one can arguably say are the ‘who is who’ in literary criticism in Kenya.

Three, the writer was lamenting about the quality of literary discourse in Kenya – noting that the only contributors to these pages whose articles he found interesting and exciting were Flora Veit-Wild, Ben Okri, Simon Gikandi and Evan Mwangi. He also advised the editors of the Literary Discourse to get pieces from Prof James Ogude and Garnette Oluoch – who he probably has a lot of faith in compared to the University of Nairobi literary scholars.

Mr Mulama went ahead to dismiss Dr Joyce Nyairo by claiming that her “ideas are hopelessly archaic, because they retell the literary barrenness nonsense”. Having done with Dr Nyairo, the writer directed his blazing gun towards dons at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Litarature – Dr Tom Odhiambo, Professors Chris Wanjala and Henry Indangasi. “What have all these professors from the University of Nairobi done for the (literature) discipline?” Mr Mulama posed.

He finally concluded his article by calling these UoN eminent scholars “Kanu professors’ and lastly put a footnote of identifying himself as an independent scholar living in Kilifi. Having not heard of Mr Mulama before, I was curious to know who the independent scholar was — and so I googled in the internet.

Nothing much came forth about Mr Mulama except some tweeted information from Professor Makau Mutua who said, “Harry Mulama lays waste to Joyce Nyairo and ‘KANU professors’ at the University of Nairobi,” to which he got some response from Ahmednasir Abdulahi , “very well written. This criticism just doesn’t apply to the literature dept but to all universities in Kenya.”


I also came across Professor Wanjala’s response to Mr Mulama on Facebook, terming his sentiments as a “ shameless attack and a case of infantile radicalism coached in demented cowardice.”

When I finished reading the article, I called Dr Timothy Arege of Kenyatta University to establish whether he had read the article. In our discussion, we were in agreement that someone was either masquerading as an independent scholar to settle some scores or someone might have written the piece and used a pseudonym. Be that as it may, the question one would ask is: how should the scholars respond to Mr Mulama’s outbursts?

There are four strategies that can be used to counter unfortunate comments such as those made by Mr Harry Mulama. Strategy number one is to completely ignore him. This strategy worked for us (old boys of Starehe Boys’ Centre and School) very well when Dr Joyce Nyairo wrote an article titled ‘The half truths biographers tell’ in which she reviewed Yusuf King’ala’s The Autobiography of Geoffrey W. Griffin: Kenya’s Champion Beggar. Instead of writing a fair criticism of the book, she immersed herself in interrogating the sexual orientation of the great educationist.

When we consulted one another on whether her allegations were worth answering back in the press in defence of our former director and mentor, it occurred to us that Dr Nyairo’s gauntlet was not worth picking. The strategy bore fruit because the fire that Dr Nyairo lit went off almost immediately. Had we decided to engage her head-on, chances are that we could have come out more wounded because we know Dr Nyairo can sometimes be nasty.

Strategy number two is to hire the bolekaja critics (the equal of manambas) to respond on one’s behalf. It is said that when Chinua Achebe failed to clinch the coveted Nobel Prize for literature – which instead went to his fellow countryman – Wole Soyinka, Achebe used this strategy to discredit Soyinka’s win.

Strategy number three is to wait for your foot soldiers to come to your defence. Indeed Dr Remmy Shiundu came in handy to defend Prof Wanjala and the other dons in his piece titled ‘In defence of Prof Wanjala and Varsity dons’.

Strategy number four is to counter the allegations by raising the debate to a higher level (in Kiswahili, we say kuukweza mjadala na kuuingiza viwango vya juu) to divert attention – the way Dr Nyairo and Prof Wanjala did in their articles, ‘Who really wrote it? The value of pseudonyms and literary disguises’ and ‘East African literary critics should learn to live and let live’ respectively.

Reading in between the lines of these two articles, one could easily feel that the two scholars, just like Dr Arege and I, had read some mischief in Mr Mulama’s piece and had to use some strategy to bring sobriety in the literary discourse.

We are waiting for Dr Tom Odhiambo and John Mwazemba, who were remotely mentioned in Mulama’s outburst, to hit back using whatever strategy they think foots the bill.

However, whether Mr Mulama’s claims hold water or not is a topic for another day.