BOOK REVIEW: 80-year old historian and author not planning to give up pen soon – Daily Nation
At 80 years, many men slow down to less strenuous activities and choose to spend more time with their grandchildren, telling grandpa tales. Not so for Mutu wa Gethoi, who turned 80 in June. He plans to launch his latest book, Elders of the Mace.
Published by Longhorn, the book has taken more than 20 years to write, and Mutu believes it is his best work yet.
A historian and cultural activist, Mutu spent years teaching African history abroad. In fact, this book was born out of lecture notes he has given over the years. He established the House of History 15 years ago to gather information, reclaim and preserve African history because,
“We Africans lost vital parts of who we are when we were colonised.”
“The mzungu (white man) made us feel inferior to him. He said we had no history and our culture was primitive. We were made to take up English names and deny our own identity,” he said in a recent interview.
As a young man, he saw his proud father, Leonard Githui wa Kareithi, forced to take up an English name to spare him the pain of excommunication. Gethoi vowed never to take up an English name. He modified the name Githui to Gethoi to make it phonetically correct. His father’s humiliation sparked in him a desire to reclaim African history and restore African pride.
Set in fictional Watuland, Elders of the Mace is a rallying call to African leaders to spearhead a rebirth of our rich cultural heritage. It is also a challenge to African intellectuals who left home to study, live and work abroad, to return home.
“This book is a candid if belated interrogation of the sins of our fathers, a fight against the spiritual a trophy of our people. It is an effort to reclaim a people’s eroded self-esteem,” says Gethoi.
Even though he insists the book is purely a work of fiction, he went to America during the JF Kennedy-Tom Mboya African Student Airlift to seek higher education and a better life.
Through the lead character Tenne, the book paints a picture of a respected African professor in America, who is completely out of touch with his people and culture. After receiving a strongly worded telegram from Watuland asking him to return home and save the country from the reigning dictator, Mwa-Pesa’s bad governance, wanton corruption and greed, Tenne does not know where to begin.
To demonstrate just how out of touch he is, Tenne brings expensive flowers to place on the grave of an elder, Cucu Mukuru, to the chagrin of village elders, to whom, the use of flowers at funerals is yet another form of negative western influences and sacrilege to the dead woman.
In Watuland, flowers bloom all year round. They do not signify rebirth or the start of new life as is the case in the west. The dead woman is a seer and prophet, who decried negative western influences. She prophesied doom for the people of Watuland unless they reclaimed their roots. She is the reason Tenne has been summoned by elders.
A major clash of cultures is imminent; to be an Elder, Tenne is expected to take a second wife, chosen for him by his clansmen. But Tenne is already married to an American woman, Barbara, who is opposed to polygamy.
Elders of the Mace offers thought provoking reading and is the latest in Mutu’s bag of books. His first book, Tales to Tell, is a collection of scintillating poems, published in 1991.
He has published six biographies, including the hugely successful From Charcoal to Gold, Njenga Karume’s biography, and that of Philip Gichuru Gitonga, Kitchen Toto To Ambassador, 2015.
During this interview, Mutu was writing a sequel to Elders of the Mace and two other undisclosed books.
What makes a man in his sunset years and wealthy enough to retire happy want to continue working?
Born, 1937 in Nyeri to Leonard Githui wa Kareithi, a teacher, and Millicent Mahiira Karungari, a nurse, Mutu’s grandfather was the famous Chief Kareithi wa Kamweti. He distinguished himself early, for his love of animals, especially cats, love for art and passionate aversion to the British.
“My father was a pioneer student at Alliance High; a teacher at Tumutu High and staunch Presbyterian. Gethui refused to be baptised so the missionaries threatened to excommunicate him, forcing him to take the name Leonard. He, however, defiantly refused to baptize his children.”
That incident set Mutu on a soul search. “I asked myself, who Am I? Does taking an English name make me a Christian, worthy of going to heaven? I didn’t think so. I renounced the Christian faith in the 1950’s and begun a journey to rediscover myself and reconnect with my ancestry.”
Mutu decided to study African history but an unfortunate incident forced him to take a detour. “Instead of going to university, I joined Kagumo Teachers College and thereafter taught at Mukurwe-ini, where I rose to head master”.
Mutu studied history, maths and geography by correspondence. When an opportunity to go to America arose, he was ready.
He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Northern Michigan and an MA. His pursuit of a Law degree at University of Dar es salaam aborted due to illness.
Back home, in 1965, the Voice of Kenya was recruiting news readers. With his polished English, Mutu was a perfect fit. He would work with the English General Service until 1969, when he went to Harvard to study media management.
After VOK, he became Director of State Functions at the Office of the President until he crossed the then powerful minister Mbiyu Koinange, who hated the idea of a Nyeri man getting too close to Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
1974, Mutu became Assistant Registrar, University of Nairobi. He returned to University of Northern Michigan to teach African History in 1980.
In 2002, Mutu came home, with renewed passion for Africa’s cultural renaissance. Mutu is an avid golfer, married with four children. His challenge to youth, “Tell your own authentic story in a compelling way.”
Whatever it is you do, be it, music, painting or writing, give it your very best effort.
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