His name is regularly included in lists of Nobel contenders alongside figures like Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth. Several cultural commentators have made a passionate case for the 78-year-old Kenyan writer and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a pioneer of modern African literature. Abdi Latif Dahir of Quartz admires his courage and resilience – “For more than half a century, no amount of detention, harassment, prohibition or exile has deterred Ngũgĩ, whose writing has continued to broaden and influence a new generation of thinkers and writers.” Recognising the author’s “urgent voice”, Rajeev Balasubramanyam of Washington Post writes that his “rich body of work is of potentially tremendous importance to our understanding of how the world came to be as it is.”
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (baptised “James Ngũgĩ”) himself remains composed and grounded in the midst of accolades. In a recent interview (to Neil Munshi of Financial Times), he said that a Nobel “would be validating but not essential”, further adding: “No matter how you are recognised in other countries [with awards or prizes], there is something special about home. There’s no point being a prince elsewhere, when you are a pariah at home.”
Ngũgĩ has experienced the heights of literary fame. He has also been imprisoned and violently persecuted. Forced into exile. Displaced. Over the decades, he has been witness to the terror of European imperialism and the calamity of despotism in independent Africa. Still, the writer plans to retire in his country and continues to have faith in its democratic prospects.
Ngũgĩ was born in a large polygamous peasant household (one father, four wives and twenty-eight children) in 1938 in the village of Kamirithu just north of Nairobi in the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya (1920-1963). The first book he read in his mother tongue was the Bible. At missionary schools Maanguuu Karing’a and Alliance High, he was exposed to Shakespeare, Dickens, R. L. Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan. “I must never be absent from school, however hungry we were,” he promised his mother Wanjiku (mentioned in a 2006 Guardian feature by Maya Jaggi). He later attended the prestigious Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda (then affiliated with the University of London), followed by Leeds in England.
In 1964, two years after he burst onto the literary scene in East Africa with his play The Black Hermit (story of city-worker Remi who is in love with a white girl, Jane, but is expected to return to his rural community and run for office), Ngũgĩ’s first novel Weep Not, Child was published by Heinemann in Britain. This one is a tale of brothers Njoroge (the scholar) and Kamau (the carpenter) set against the brutality of British colonialism. Political themes of oppression, rebellion, independence and corruption ran through subsequent books A Grain of Wheat (1967) and Petals of Blood (1977). In the same year, he began writing in his native language Kikuyu (or Gikuyu). “The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation, language was the means of the spiritual subjugation,” he argued in his 1986 collection of essays Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. He vociferously urged African writers to not write in the language of their colonisers, for that simply amounted to an expansion of “the metaphysical empire”. Now, however, these radical views have softened.
Ngũgĩ’s first Kikuyu play I Will Marry When I Want (1977) – on an ordinary farmer’s struggle against unscrupulous elites – was banned by authorities and the writer was detained without trial by vice-president Daniel arap Moi (born 1924, later dictator of Kenya from 1982-2002) in the hideous Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi, where he’d write on toilet paper. After a year, thanks to an Amnesty International campaign, he was declared a prisoner of conscience and released. He fled. In 1982, when warned that he’d receive a “red carpet welcome” if he returned to Kenya, Ngũgĩ stayed on in London. In 2004, following the defeat of Daniel arap Moi, when Ngũgĩ and his wife Njeeri visited Kenya for the launch of his 1,000-page magical realist satire Wizard of the Crow, they were attacked by four hired gunmen and had a narrow escape.
Today, Ngũgĩ is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine, where Njeeri directs conflict resolution services. He continues to write.
Harvill Secker recently released the Kenyan author’s Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening – the story of how the herdsboy and child labourer became a storyteller. It is his third memoir after Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012). In this wondrously nuanced blend of personal narrative and political history, Ngũgĩ recounts the four years he spent in Makerere, which he entered in July 1959 “as a subject of a British Crown Colony” and left in March 1964 “as a citizen of an independent African state”. In those days, the university was a kind of Charing Cross with “a constant flow of visitors, from governors and secretaries of state to world leaders like Indira Gandhi of India and Golda Meir of Israel.” And Makerereans knew that they could “challenge the best that any university in the world – Cambridge, Oxford Harvard, you name it – had to offer.”
As Ngũgĩ finds his voice as a playwright, journalist and novelist in the multi-cultural context of his college, he is shocked at the racism at the core of the colonial project. It feeds upon and functions through twisted and selective interpretations of science and religion. The academia, the church, the literary establishment somehow all collude to promote the idea of the inherent biological, spiritual and cultural inferiority of Africans. Elaborate anthropological books and research papers are written by Europeans, liberal and conservative, that condescendingly resort to “zoological and forest metaphors.” All of these white writers somehow claim to “know the African mind” inside-out – even though they have only made perfunctory contacts with the natives.
Ngũgĩ’s educational institution encouraged students to develop their own opinions, to pursue the ideal – “to track down truth wherever it might lead” them. But – “I soon discovered,” writes Ngũgĩ, “within the first year, that not every faculty member held this rosy view of the quest.” On the hypocrisy of elders, this is what he thinks:
My mother, whose impact on my intellectual life can never be told enough, used to be very hard on us when we children told adults to their face that they lied. This was the one admonition I never understood. Grown-ups lied all the time. But still recalling her concerns, I would ask myself: How does a grown man, an adult, a governor even, literally sit down and consciously fabricate lies and sleep in bed untroubled by his inventions?
Ngũgĩ maintains that certain present-day tyrannical regimes of Africa have grown out of colonial legacies. In his account of Kenyan and Ugandan political history, references are made regularly to the Land and Freedom Army (LFA), an armed resistance movement that the British dubbed “Mau Mau” to make it look like a meaningless uprising. The LFA members were dismissed as thugs and gangsters. These fighters and soldiers were sent to “detention camps”, that were, in actuality, concentration camps. This horrifying chapter of the past has only recently been made a subject of serious scholarly study. The Guardian published a long read on the Mau Mau in August 2016 based on the book Britain’s Gulag : The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (2005) by Harvard historian Caroline Elkins.
Here is a clip from British Pathé that shows British officers containing and suppressing the activities of the LFA sometime between 1952 to 1960.
Memorable are the discussions on the politics and purpose of art and the ups and downs of art-making. Ngũgĩ is devastated when a play of his, The Wound in the Heart, is not allowed at the Kampala National Theatre. Reason? It contains the “impossible” character of a British officer who rapes an African woman. Then Ngũgĩ records a rejection, the tone of which will be achingly familiar to any writer anywhere:
Received a letter from Jonathan Cape Ltd. in reply to my short stories which I sent them. Said they, “regret that after careful consideration we have decided not to make you an offer…we do not believe the collection would be saleable in this country at the present time.” It was like an electric needle. Could not read. Never been in a worse situation Not even 30 cts to buy a stamp.
Wonderful are the moments of Ngũgĩ’s meeting with the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and his encounter with the poetry of Négritude (a literary and philosophical movement initiated by francophone African intellectuals in France in 1930s) and finally, departure to Leeds on a British Council scholarship. In the chapter on Négritude, Ngũgĩ marvels at the words of the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001), who became the first president of his country. Senghor’s verses:
Black mask, red mask, you black and white masks,/ Rectangular masks through whom the spirit breathes,/ I greet you in silence!
Naked woman, black women/ Clothed with your colour which is life, with your form which is beauty.
“I read and reread with astonishment the lyrical rendering of blackness,” writes Ngũgĩ. “Reading the poetry of Négritude was like seeing my face in a mirror for the first time, whereas before I had seen only other faces reflected there. Theirs was a literary mirror of blackness as colour, history and active being. I recalled the arguments I’d had in school about black Jesus, the colour of God, and here was a poetry affirming blackness as an active value and force in history.”
It is precisely such joyful literary epiphanies and feats that balance and soothe the raw (and justifiable) indignation in Birth of a Dream Weaver. A must-read for its honesty and complexity and fiery prose. Ngũgĩ’s is a view of the world that cannot be missed. Someday I will sink in and publish on the weighty Wizard of the Crow – the crowning glory of his literary career – set in the fictional “Free Republic of Aburiria”, in which, wrote Scottish author Aminatta Forna in The Washington Post Book World in 2006, Ngũgĩ has “turned the power of storytelling into a weapon against totalitarianism.”
Featured: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (cropped) by User “Niccolò Caranti”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons