Dennis Brutus Passes On!
He had cheated death in Apartheid prisons and in flight from Apartheid police bullets. On December 26, 2009, at 85, Dennis Brutus passed on but left his spirit with us.
I first met Dennis as an absence that dominated the 1962 Conference of African writers of English expression, at Kampala, Uganda. His small volume of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, had just been released by the Mbari in Nigeria, and it became one of the focus of interest in a gathering attended by most of the leading writers at the time including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J P Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Lewis Nkosi, Gabriel Okara, and the late Es'kia Mphahlele, one of the organizers. Later I was to meet him in person at the Afro-Scandinavian Writers at Uppsala in Sweden in 1966. I traveled with him back to London, through Oslo. It was in the plane that I saw a side of Brutus that truly amazed me. I sat next to him. We talked about many things, how he narrowly missed death after the South Africa Apartheid Police, shot him as he tried to flee to Zimbabwe; his anti-Apartheid Campaigns; his book of poems, Letters to Martha; the work of Edvard Munch (we had just seen his work at the Munch Museum in Oslo) and other topics. He never missed a word I said; he responded to my questions and observations; and yet all that time he was reading, writing and answering letters; putting them in envelopes, so that on landing in London he would post them to the anti-apartheid activists all over the world. It was my first witness of what is now called multi-tasking, and Dennis was a master at it. For him every minute was to be used in organizing for social justice.
I was to meet him in many other places, Britain, Japan, America, and lately, in 2006, in free South Africa, at Kwazulu Natal, where he dragged me into a meeting on globalization and social justice. He was the same multi-tasking genius, giving his all, to the cause of human dignity. Time was always of the essence. Once, traveling from Kyoto back to the USA, he and my wife, Njeeri, entered into a debate about the chances of Bill Clinton winning the general elections, and even agreed to bet on the outcome, the loser to take the winner to dinner at Rockfeller Center in New York. When we landed in New York, he and I were detained by the Immigration, and put into different waiting areas. Njeeri, a citizen, was allowed through. She realized that there was a mishap when she picked luggage and no sign of Dennis and me. I was the first to be cleared. My wife became increasingly worried. She went through some offices, determined to get a response from the officials. On the way, she spotted Dennis, just allowed through. She expected to find him worried, angry or simply upset. Look, Njeeri, I have just completed a Haiku. Yes, he had taken advantage of the half hour of his detention to write a poem.
That was Dennis Brutus, ever the embodiment of Stubborn Hope. His actions and words touched many lives. In 1977, when I was in a maximum security Prison in Kenya, it was his book of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, that I turned to help me make sense of my new life as a writer in prison. His soul is at peace. For us we can only be grateful for all he was able to do and give with his every ounce of breath as a writer and social activist. His name, a rebel; his cause, freedom; his weapon, Stubborn Hope!
He would not want us to cry. He would want us to take up that weapon and carry on the cause.
Go well Dennis
Stay well Brutus
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Irvine, January, 2010
Go well, Richard!
I first met Richard in 2001 when I was being considered for a job on this Campus. Those Campus visits are always intimidating no matter how many times one has done it. Richard introduced me before my talk at 135 HIB. He interspersed his remarks with a few Kiswahili and Gikuyu words, which only he and I knew what they meant in terms of the everyday of Kenyan life. It was as if we were kindred conspirators in the space otherwise packed with strangers, for me at the time. The linguistic conspiracy turned out to be the perfect way of making me feel at home, for it resulted in immediate bonding. Later when I joined the faculty, and my wife, Njeeri, the administration, Richard and his wife, Allison, welcomed us to their house on the hill where we also met his sister Anita Davis. We chatted about Kenya and farming among other things.
I could talk of Richard as a scholar and colleague but I want to dwell on his relationship to my two children, Thiong’o, now thirteen, and Mumbi, now fourteen, because it brings out a side of Richard that I found very endearing. Whenever and wherever their paths crossed, he had a word for each of them. Mostly, they met at the lower swimming pool at Troncos, University Hills. Thiongo in particular would stay with him in the jacuzzi where they just talked, with Richard wanting to know everything about their new life in Irvine and how they were fitting in their new school. Richard did not talk at them; they discussed and debated, with Richard constantly teasing their brains with all sorts of puzzles from history, science and literature. They beat him in Gikuyu; he beat them in Kiswahili. They looked forward to those sessions at the swimming pool and the news of Richard passing hit them in a very personal way. Thiong’o, after a pause, said: He was a great person. He was kind. And he was very smart. Mumbi said: Richard was always kind and friendly. I am sad that I shall not meet him again.
Like my daughter, I find it difficult to imagine that I shall not actually see Richard again swimming at the pool or walking past the windows of Colette Atkinson’s office or along the corridors of the first floor of HIB, always stopping by each of our offices to say hello and exchange a few words, with a smile. For me, that exchange was always preceded by a greeting we reserved for each other, Hujambo Bwana Mkubwa, a greeting in Kiswahili, something like, How are you big boss, but which has a specifically Kenyan flavor, at once evocative of the country’s colonial past of race relations while also mocking it playfully. We shared love of the country of our birth, its incredible landscape of sea, hills, valleys and plains and its history of promise and also failure. We carried, in our different ways, the memories of beauty, and also, quite frankly, terror, which was another knd of bond. But he never bowed to the memory of terror but rather celebrated that of beauty. My wife, Njeeri, remembers how Richard talked fondly of the African woman who helped bring him up. He sought beauty in human relationship but he also lived it in his life, for, in the very act of refusing to bow to the negative and the debilitating, there is another kind of beauty.
I feel as if it was this aesthetic that he sought in intellect and art, literature and literary scholarship a search that resulted in his Magnus Opus, The Material World. Among the dissenting writers mentioned in this work, is John Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress. When one of the characters, Valiant-for-Truth, realizes that he has reached his journey’s end, he calls all his friends and tells them: “I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my Rewarder.”
Every welcome into the world, as in everything, contains within it, anticipation of farewell. One is truly blessed, who, at the journey’s end, whenever it comes, can say: I have fought the good fight, I have kept the course, and I have kept the faith. Richard has fought the good fight in his life and scholarship, a fight maintained with a smile that came to his face and which I occasionally saw, whenever our paths crossed, and we said: Habari Bwana Mkubwa. Si Jambo Bwana Mkubwa. Now I can say: Kwa heri Bwana Mkubwa. Go well, Richard. Stay well. Rest in peace.
Remarks at the English Department Memorial for Professor Richard Kroll at the UCI students’ center, 11th March 2009.