The single most translated short story in the history of African writing: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Jalada writers’ collective
‘Ituika Ria Murungaru: Kana Kiria Gitumaga Andu Malhii Marungii,’ translated into English as ‘The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright,’ is the single most translated short story in the history of African writing. It is a fable in the Kenyan language of Gikuyu about the human body, a contest between the parts of the human body, and why humans walk upright on their two feet instead of four limbs. The story has attracted many thematic analyses, from politics, philosophy, and psychology. However, Ngugi wa Thiong’o once said that, beyond his fascination with dialectics, from Plato to Hegel, he simply wrote the fable ‘Ituika Ria Murungaru’ or ‘The Upright Revolution’ to be enjoyed as a story and not a treatise on politics and philosophy (Thiong’o 2016).
The fable begins by describing the rhythmic coordination and the cordial relationship between the legs and arms of the human body. Soon, other body parts begin to envy this union. The tongue suggests a wrestling match between the arms and the legs, a contest that is witnessed by the other creatures of the forest. Following this duel, the other body parts cannot determine who the winner is. In the end, they all decide they were a part of the same body, and united, they are stronger. It is this unity of the body parts that made man more human, compared to his animal cousins that rejected the upright revolution.
When he wrote the story in 2012, Ngugi did not imagine that it would one day become the single most translated short story in the history of African writing. He wrote it only as a gift to his daughter for Christmas, and after it was read, the story was momentarily forgotten. Ngugi first spoke about it on stage at the Moderna Museet auditorium during the 2016 Stockholm Literature.1 When in 2015 he received a request from a group of young writers in Nairobi for a short story in Gikuyu for a possible pan-African translation project, he spent many sleepless nights crafting the perfect story. After many failed attempts, he remembered that he had stashed away ‘The Upright Revolution,’ a work written as a gift, as an act of unconditional love, and as part of a family tradition—the gift that would soon give him and millions of others so much joy.
I watched him and his family on Kenyan television in early 2015. While he shared many ideas on language and freedom, my mind drifted in and out of the Jalada Language and Translation project that we had been deliberating on. That night, on 6 June 2015, and after hurried contributions from members of the Jalada Collective, I wrote to his son Mukoma wa Ngùgï, asking him to pass a word to his father, about contributing to the issue. A few months later the translation issue was published.2
In those early days someone told me it was an exceptional achievement for a short story to be translated into a dozen languages. We had translated the story into 33 languages.3 I do not come from a long tradition of scholars of literary translation, and so I could not assess the accuracy of his statement at the time. I could only say without a doubt that my activism for African languages with the Jalada Collective and beyond was beginning to take shape. Those words were a major compliment, and an encouragement given the work that we at Jalada had done around language, translations, and the use of digital resources. Following this breakthrough, Ngùgï himself said, ‘I see your Jalada project as a literary melting pot where African languages meet in dialogue among themselves and with other languages including European and Asian ones. From our base we converse with the world’ (N. Thiong’o, personal communication, 29 March 2016).
Jalada is a pan-African collective of young African writers from across the African continent. I am a founding member and the immediate former managing editor. I conceived and birthed the inaugural Languages and Translations Issue, with contribution from the collective, and remain the project lead for the Jalada Language and Translation project.
The word jalada is a Swahili word for an archive or a case or folder for documents. To the collective, Jalada is a digital archive of stories. The seeds of what became Jalada were first planted in 2013, on the sidelines of a workshop convened at the British Council in Nairobi by renowned editor, Ellah Wakatama Allfrcy. At the time, Ellah was the deputy editor of Granta magazine. She has since left Granta but became one of the board members of the Jalada Africa Trust. In that year, she ran the workshop alongside Adam Foulds and Nadifa Mohamed. The latter were featured in the 2013 spring issue of Granta magazine, dubbed ‘Best of Young British Novelists.’4
It began as a conversation among participants about what we as young African creatives drawn from different geographical locations, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya, could do with the resources we valued: language, creativity, knowledge, and our web of connections. Thus, Jalada was born. In its early days it was largely a Google group, a kind of a virtual office linking voices across the continent. All you needed to do was post a message, and another member would take action. The internet became an enabler of collaboration and a resource in the production process of a digital Jalada magazine. It was the beginning of active involvement in both practical work and activism for pan-African interactive spaces for writing and translation.
Our first thematic issue tackled the undcrcxplorcd subject of mental health within the African context. Titled Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-Nude and Other Stories,5 the e-anthology appeared on what was then jalada.org and has since been changed to jaladaafrica.org. It went live at midnight on 27 January 2014 and featured twelve short stories written and edited exclusively by the Jalada Africa founding members.
Our second anthology, Sext Me Poems and Stories,6 was published on 10 June 2014 and focused on stories of fictionalised sexual experiences in ways that broke the implicit modesty of fictional boundaries for many African storytellers. We also did an anthology on Afrofutures, a publication that allowed us, as Africans, to capture multiple and alternative ways of imagining futures. Titled simply as Jalada 02: Afrofuture(s)? it appeared online on 14 January 2015.