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Book Reviews  •  •  •

Creative Writing:
Translation, Bookkeeping, and the
Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya
By Derek R. Peterson
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004.
vii + 289 pp. ISBN 0-325-07131-4 paper.

This is a book on the interplay of texts and contexts in the making of colonial
society in Central Kenya. Using extensive archival and oral sources, Peterson sets
out to re-examine the colonial encounter between the British and the Gikuyu in the
twentieth century and to probe the role of writing and reading in the imagination
of communities against the pressures of Protestantism and colonial rule. Derek R.
Peterson’s goal, stated rather modestly, is to examine how colonial texts shaped the
terms by which the Gikuyu negotiated their modernity and in turn how their idiom
and moral economy shaped the emerging colonial library as it sought to account for
African experiences. But this book is more than the textual negotiation of colonial
encounters: It constitutes a major revision of the nature and grammar of colonialism
in Kenya and provides a model for rethinking colonial relationships elsewhere. The
social and intellectual history that Peterson presents in Creative Writing, in meticulous
detail and elegant prose, is one in which a Gikuyu grammar of selfhood was retooled
to meet the moral challenge of Protestantism. In the process, central categories in
Gikuyu cultural grammar came to be translated in order to fit into the moral order
authorized by the Christian missions. But the translation of Gikuyuness to fit into the
idiom of Protestantism was not a one-way process. Indeed, the most original moments
in this book are the ones in which Peterson traces how Gikuyu athomi (readers)
translated colonial texts to fit into their own shifting moral and economic interest
and how they remade the language of politics and intellectual debate.
Each of the chapters in this book takes up a key moment in which texts entered
into a dialectical relationship with the rapidly changing context of colonial rule.Using
the Church of Scotland Mission at Tumutumu as his case study, Peterson addresses
important theoretical and political issues in colonial historiography, including the
role of comparative religion in the shaping of moral geography, the work of translation
in the making of colonial subjectivities, gender and oral politics, Mau Mau, and

•  REsearch in african liter atures, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Summer 2006). © 2006  •
188  •  Research in African Liter atures

Ngugi’s later day intervention in debates on writing and orthography. Peterson had
unprecedented access to the Church of Scotland archive, but what makes his book
pioneering in the history of Protestantism in East Africa is his unique interpretation
of the colonial library. The archive Peterson deploys in his book was already evident
in previous works on the encounter between Scottish missionaries and Africans, most
notably Brian McIntosh’s 1969 PhD dissertation, “The Scottish Mission in Kenya,
1891–1923) and R. Macpherson’s The Presbyterian Church in Kenya, (1970), but Creative
Writing stands out in two senses: the first one is Peterson’s competency in Gikuyu,
which enabled him to access the intricate idiom that was crafted to respond to the
demands of colonial translation; the second one is his ability to unlock the memories
of local Tumutumu families and their alternative versions of colonial modernity.
As a good social historian Peterson follows the evidence where it leads him
and this holds him back from pushing his narrative beyond the tangible; the literary
scholar in me craves for more speculation. At the same time, however, it is because
he is so closely guided by the evidence that Peterson is able to question some long-
standing assumptions about the colonial encounter in Central Kenya. Creative Writing
will be of seminal interest to literary and cultural historians because it questions two
key assumptions that have hitherto driven the debate on language and colonialism
in Kenya. It has been argued, for example, that colonialism privileged English, as
the subject of instruction in schools, and thus alienated the African child from his
or her natal landscape. This is a central claim in Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind. The
story Peterson tells here is a different one: He shows that questions of language were
at the center of Gikuyu grievances against the British in the 1920s and 1930s, but
the colonized were not fighting to retain their language, which they had not lost by
any measure, but to resist the colonial attempt to differentiate Gikuyu from English
and other modern languages. Nationalist linguists resisted the attempt to adopt an
orthography that would turn Gikuyu into an ancient, rather than modern, language;
they wanted their vernacular to have the “feel of English.” Furthermore, Peterson
shows that the politics of cultural nationalism were not driven by a desire to retreat
into a vernacular as the source of a nonalienated identity. When in 1929 the colonial
government set out to replace English with Swahili, as the language of instruction
in schools, Gikuyu independent schools fought to retain the colonial language at all
costs. Intellectuals of the independent school movement, most prominently Mbiyu
Koinange, graduate of Lincoln University and the Columbia School of Education,
argued that an education in Swahili was part of a plot to steal Gikuyu land: “Swahili
made Gikuyu forgettable in the British mind” (147), while a mastery of English
retained their identity as the protagonists in the struggle over land and rights.
A second revisionist move in Peterson’s book regards the still vexed question
of Mau Mau. As is well known, the British colonial government, with the aid of
psychologists, missionaries, and anthropologists, left behind an extensive archive
in which Mau Mau was demonized as an atavistic, unchristian, immoral, millennial
movement. The Mau Mau of the popular European imagination was antithetical to
religion, a fact reinforced by one of the most influential books of the 1950s, T. F. C.
Bewe’s Kikuyu Conflict: Mau Mau and the Christian Witness. Peterson’s book presents a
more complicated picture, one in which the binary opposition between Mau Mau and
Christian, even Mau Mau and Homeguard (Colonial Royalists), is nullified in the face
of archival evidence and the testimony of witnesses. He shows, for example, that in
the region around Tumutumu, members of Mau Mau spoke a grammar in which the
idiom of Gikuyuness was coached in the language of Protestantism.
Simon Gik andi  •  189

At the height of the conflict in Nyeri, Tumutumu was encircled by a battalion

of Mau Mau fighters, but local historians have been puzzled by why the mission, a
symbol of colonialism in Kenya, was never attacked. Peterson quotes witnesses and
government documents that show a deep relationship between the Mau Mau and
its assumed protagonists. By encircling Tumutumu, Mau Mau fighters may have
protected the mission from destruction by enemies of the mission; similarly, the
encircling battalion was fed by members of the women’s guild. Peterson even suggests
that at one point that the Mau Mau and the Homeguard shared a set of beliefs.
Peterson quotes government documents showing that members of the Homeguard sat
in Dedan Kimathi’s war council. This would appear to be a startling claim for those
who have come to see the two sides as structurally and ideologically opposed; still,
even when they diverged in means—and often ends—the two sides were products
of the same institution. Peterson reminds us that Kimathi had been a reader at
Tumutumu in his youth and that General China, the leader of Mau Mau forces in the
Mount Kenya forest, and his family were prominent members of the Scottish Church.
The history of nationalism in Kenya, already imprisoned by postcolonial disputes, is
in desperate need of this kind of revisionism.

—Simon Gikandi
P rinceton University

Postcolonial Theory and

Francophone Literary Studies
Ed. H. Adlai Murdoch and Anne Donadey
Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2005.
282 pp. ISBN 0-8130-2776-04 cloth. $65.00.

Packaging Post/Coloniality: The Manufacture

of Literary Identity in the Francophone World
By Richard Watts
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005.
ix + 189 pp. ISBN 0-7391-0856-5 paper.

The emergence of a specifically “francophone” field of postcolonial enquiry may seem

unnecessary and even hazardous, especially given the French-language origins of
much postcolonial thought and the risks of fragmentation that such monolingual
approach may seem to imply. The manoeuvre nevertheless serves a two-fold purpose,
strategic and provisional, challenging the anglophone emphases of much postcolonial
criticism while at the same time permitting “francophone studies” itself to develop
(much in the same way as “Commonwealth studies” moved on a decade or so ago).
Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies is the latest in a series of volumes
to map the francophone postcolonial field, its specific aim being to explore the