A Closer Look: When a speaker does more than speak

By Alex Park

Last year, Thomas Friedman came to Kagin Commons, for a cost reportedly in the tens of thousands of dollars, essentially to read the inside jacket of his new book and sell copies of it afterwards. Like a motivational speaker encouraging us to get in on the globalization craze, he dropped anecdotes of tea in Lebanon and “ordinary people” in India already benefiting from his line of wisdom. Richard Holbrooke, on the other hand, gave a stump speech at the beginning of this year: his case for why he should be Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State. The management team at The Mac Weekly, I sorely recall, called Macalester’s mere allowance of this occurrence a neo-colonial gesture. Even more unfortunate was that some people actually agreed with them. Maybe if he had answered more audience questions he wouldn’t have had such a negative response.

Following the trend, you might have expected one of Africa’s foremost thinkers and writers, a man who could put ten words to a napkin and see it be fought over by the archivists of multiple universities, who (it’s been rumored) has been short-listed for this year’s Nobel Prize in literature, to do something similar. He might’ve drifted in, said a few words, and left. He did not.

Maybe you didn’t see Ngugi yourself when he spoke in Weyerhaeuser Chapel on Wednesday, but it was just one of several venues that he was present at during his nearly eight hours on campus. He had lunch with Afrika!, sat in on a class on post-colonial literature (his own area of focus), got some coffee at the Grille, gave twenty minutes to The Mac Weekly, and then addressed a crowd at Weyerhaeuser Chapel. Afterwards, he met with some faculty and had dinner with them.

“Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s visit to Mac was a wonderful treat,” said David Chioni Moore, who teaches the class that Ngugi sat in on. The visit was the last stop on a tour of the ACTC schools. Before Macalester, Ngugi visited Augsburg, where he received a similar treatment. Moore added that colleagues there were influential in making the circuit a possibility.

“It is rare . to pack so much in to a short eight hour visit,” he said.

Rare, but should it be? We all take classes, so at the end of the day, submitting ourselves to a public lecture, fascinating though it may be, can be a bit much to ask. That a figure as influential as Ngugi could come, spend the day here, and days more at the other ACTC schools, participating in the life of the campus rather than just descending upon it should spark some interest.

Certainly, even among those here with African Studies concentrations, few people have even heard of Ngugi. The man is no Spike Lee, enveloped in his own celebrity to the point that a mere hour of time is supposed to feel like a privilege. But what if there were more of these sorts of things? What if other influential thinkers, activists, retired politicians or artists came and actually met with people, had lunch, walked around, and saw what we had here for themselves? In turn, we in the community might see what they had to offer for ourselves.

Surely, for the effort we exert to bring speakers here, we could at least ask them to consider doing more than for our praise than just speak, converse with us through microphones, and leave.