When my friend Palesa Mgidi first shared the news of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o winning the 2016 Pak Kyongni Prize on Facebook, we speculated over whether or not he would make the trip to receive the award in person. Palesa and I, both English teachers from South Africa living in Daegu, decided that we couldn’t let the opportunity to meet him slip through our fingertips. We decided then and there that we would make the trip to Wonju, and what a trip it was.
Wonju is a beautiful city in Gangwon Province in South Korea. I’ve blogged about the beauty of Gangwon before, when I visited my friends in Gangneung just an hour and a half away. The moment we stepped into the streets, we were struck immediately by the heavy presence of soldiers, a fact that shouldn’t have surprised us all that much considering how close it is to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that marks the division between North and South Korea.
I am, in all my experience, an anxious traveller. I like to be punctual, and I was deathly afraid that we would be late for the ceremony. To this end, I didn’t have any consideration for the practical implications when I bought 7 AM bus tickets for that Saturday morning, and my friend and I (her more than me, shame) had to get up at the crack of dawn to make the trek across Daegu to the Bukbu Intercity Bus Terminal. I was by then already manic with excitement, which I of course – considering my age, background and profession – had to share via Twitter:
— Annetjie v Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) October 21, 2016
We arrived at our hotel around 10 AM and spent the rest of the day exploring this quaint, alarmingly quiet city (scroll down for pictures). Autumn was in full bloom in this late stage of October, and we couldn’t stop ooing and aahing at the foliage. I fell in love with Wonju, it’s my kind of city. So much beauty, so much sadness, so much tension. We visited a memorial to the “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945:
Then, the moment arrived, and it was almost to big for me to bear. Halfway through getting ready, I could feel the tugs of panic setting in. My face felt very hot, my heart was beating irregularly, and I kept thinking how small and idiotic I am for undertaking such an enormous trip. Who do I think I am? Some kind of foreign correspondent? I practically conned my way into the ceremony, for God’s sake.
Luckily, we had the real issue of finding the Toji Cultural Centre – beautiful place, nestled between mountains and trees – and the distraction pulled me back from the ledge.
The ceremony itself was very Korean – well-structured, organised to the last detail, and it opened with a magical Daegeum Sanjo (traditional bamboo flute) and dance performance. When I later asked my colleague and friend Mrs Lee about the term used to describe the performers as “national cultural assets”, she explained that in Korea, people much like places of heritage and history can be declared as such. In the case of Woo Jang-Hyun, Jung Hwayeong and Jung Songhui, they possessed unique gifts and I felt honoured to experience them in real life.
After the formal ceremony, there was a special dinner for the author and all the visitors who attended the ceremony. It is during this time that my friend and I – her boldly, me shyly – made our way to the front of the line to meet the man.
Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on our encounter, I can’t help but wonder, imagine, how Ngũgĩ felt about the whole evening. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one I will retell and re-fabricate until my tongue is dust. He had just won 100 million Korean Won (over R1.2 million), but more precious than that, I imagine, was the fact that on that evening he met the poet who inspired the first novel that he wrote in Gĩgĩkũyũ and set him on the path to becoming “a language warrior for African languages”.
When the writer found himself in jail for his work in 1977, it was the poetry of Kim Chi Ha, especially the poem “The Five Bandits” that sustained him and inspired him to write Caitaani Mũtharabaini (later translated as Devil on the Cross) on the only writing material he could find – toilet paper.
I wish I had the guts to ask him how he was feeling about all of it, if at the age of 78 he still got butterflies in his stomach, if he still had doubts about the world. I could see hints of an answer in the way he reached for his wife Njeeri during the photo sessions, she who never left his side once during the evening.
I wished I wasn’t such a brazen tourist, taking pictures with Kim Chi Ha and his wife Kim Young-Joo as if they were attractions, not figures in Korean history (Kim Young-Joo is the daughter of the late Pak Kyongni) who deserve to be revered and respected.
Whenever I do something like this, insert myself into a narrative where I don’t necessarily think I belong, like an over-caffeinated semi-colon, I always come out on the other side feeling energised, humbled, and grateful to have been a fly on the wall of a remarkable story.