Ngugi’s Remembrance of Things Past

by Tosin Sulaiman culled from NEXT Newspapers

At 72, the Kenyan author and playwright, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, still longs to write his great masterpiece. Despite being hailed as one of Africa’s literary giants and having his books translated into more than thirty languages, Ngugi admits that he sometimes has doubts about his impact as a writer.

Speaking at an event in London on Sunday, March 7, to launch his latest book, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, Ngugi said:

“As a writer, one of the things I always fear is that I haven’t done as much as other writers have done…I’ve never written that book that I really wanted to write. You can argue that every novel I’ve written is an attempt to write that novel. I want to write that novel that really, really empowers people.”

At the event, ‘Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in Conversation’, organised by the Travel Bookshop in London, the author read excerpts from Dreams in a Time of War, recounting how he grew up in a polygamous household, his mother’s efforts to send him to school despite their poverty, and the impact of the Second World War on his family. He was also interviewed by Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, and answered questions about the legacy of colonialism in Kenya, the Mau Mau war of independence, and writing in his native Gikuyu language.

The mother tongue

He was at his most impassioned when discussing language, a subject on which he has had much to say since announcing in the late 1970s that he would write books in Gikuyu, rather than English. In his 1986 book, Decolonising the Mind, he wrote that “the domination of a people’s language by the languages of the colonising nations was crucial to the domination of the mental universe of the colonised.” When Dowden asked whether he still felt he should be writing in his mother tongue, Ngugi, who has criticised Chinua Achebe for writing in English, insisted his views had not changed.

“There’s nothing wrong with the English language,” he said. “The power relationship between languages is what we’re talking about. I’m talking about the decolonising of the power relationship in the world. I believe in it even more firmly than ever before.”

A different world

He also spoke of his concern about the growing inequalities in Kenya and lamented that the country had not learnt sufficient lessons from its struggle for independence.

“I don’t feel independence has been fair to ordinary working people of Kenya,” he said.

“The gap between the poor and the rich is widening every day and deepening every day and I’m sure those who fought were not fighting for that kind of world. They had a vision of a different world.”

Ngugi’s works have attacked the British colonialists in Kenya and the brutal tactics they used against Mau Mau insurgents in the 1950s, but he has also been fiercely critical of the country’s post-colonial governments. His writing and activism led to his imprisonment between 1977 and 1978, and later to his 22-year exile in Britain and the United States, which began in 1982.

He continued to be a bête noire to Kenya’s former president Daniel Arap Moi, even in absentia. After his novel Matigari was published in 1986, Moi issued an arrest warrant for the main character, believing it to be a real person, and later banned the book.

Ngugi, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, eventually returned to Kenya in 2004, after Moi left power. But his homecoming was marred when he and his wife were attacked and robbed by gunmen. In 2006, Ngugi published Wizard of the Crow, his first new novel in more than 20 years, which received glowing reviews.

Childhood years

As Dreams in a Time of War suggests, Ngugi developed his gift for storytelling through listening to fireside tales told by members of his large family.

Born in 1938 in Limuru in Central Kenya, Ngugi never knew where he ranked in terms of age among his father’s 24 children. His mother was the third of his father’s four wives and Ngugi was the fifth of her six children.

The book describes an atmosphere of cooperation, rather than competition, among the wives, who formed an unlikely alliance. In one delightful passage introducing us to each woman, Ngugi assigns them political titles: the youngest wife, an outspoken, no-nonsense woman, was the “defense minister of the homestead,” the shy second wife was the “minister of peace,” his generous, hard-working mother was the “minister of works,” and the eldest wife, a philosopher, the “minister of culture.” Storytelling was the family’s main form of entertainment and every evening, the children would gather around the fireside in the hut of the eldest wife, who was the best storyteller. Even when he already knew the story, Ngugi gave his undivided attention.

Ngugi writes movingly of his mother who, despite being illiterate, was determined that her son would get an education and also took an active interest in his learning. Even when he scored ten out of ten in his schoolwork and moved to a higher grade every term, his mother would ask, “is that the best you could have done?” By the age of 16, he had been accepted into one of the country’s best high schools and his mother had to scrape together donations to pay part of the tuition. But they still could not find the money for shoes and long stockings, which were required by the school. Of the shoes which stood between him and a prestigious education, Ngugi writes, “I had never owned or worn a pair in my life…I had walked barefoot all my life.” Thanks to his sister’s generosity, this would change.

The world wars

Besides education, war is the other major theme in the book and Ngugi actually writes about three different conflicts – the First and Second World Wars and the Mau Mau uprising.

He describes his father’s desperate attempts to avoid fighting in the First World War, in which African soldiers drafted by the colonists died “out of all proportion to the European soldiers.” Every time his father was about to undergo a medical exam, “he would chew leaves of a certain plant that raised his temperature to an alarming level.” Ngugi was born “under the shadow” of the Second World War, which he learnt about during the family’s fireside sessions and through stories about his half-brother and cousin, who both fought with the British army.

But he also saw evidence of the war, for example in the soldiers who passed through Limuru, the Italian prisoners of war who were building a road in the village, and the disruption caused to the system of food production and distribution, which led to food shortages and famine in some areas.

The Mau Mau

However, it was the Mau Mau uprising that had the biggest impact on Ngugi, not least because his older brother was a guerrilla fighting in the mountains while other brothers were on the British side.

As Dowden explained, the uprising was one of the most savage wars in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s. The British “executed more people in Kenya in that period…than all the other anti-colonial struggles put together,” he said.

Ngugi told the audience that British portrayals of the insurgents as terrorists were at odds with what he knew of his brother, who came down from the mountains one night to wish him luck in an exam, despite the risk of being caught.

As the evening ended, the conversation moved on to Ngugi’s reasons for writing the memoir, which took him less than a year to complete. He explained that he wanted to empower people to rise above their struggles, but that he also wanted his children and grandchildren to understand what he went through.

“But it’s not just a story about the past,” he continued. “That’s why it’s called ‘Dreams in a Time of War.’ When my grandchildren read it, I hope they don’t read it as a story about the past but a story about their own lives in the present.”

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