Childhood through an adult lens
The Mau-Mau war, a guerrilla “insurrection” waged in Kenya between 1952 and 1959, seems to have made the deepest dent on Ngugi wa Thiong’o's consciousness. His just-released childhood memoir, Dreams in a Time of War (Random House Struik), shows the impact of the struggle waged by fighters, also known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, on his upbringing.
Fought mostly by the Kikuyu tribe into which Ngugi was born, the war was precipitated by British colonists seizing land belonging to Africans. It’s a class conflict Ngugi returns to again and again in his oeuvre.
It is the central theme of A Grain of Wheat, by most accounts his best novel, set during a state of emergency (imposed in 1952). When Ngugi became a Marxist, he found new and compelling ways to present this conflict. The result was polemical novels such as Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross (written on toilet paper while the author was under illegal detention), and the allegorical page-turner Matigari.
His plays, I Will Marry When I Want, about the politics of land, and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, about the trial of the famous (or notorious) Mau-Mau fighter, are typical of Ngugi deploying his voice and talents for the Marxist revolution.
A tribal relic
Over the decades, especially in his native Kenya, he has become something of a tribal relic and an anachronism; some of his compatriots routinely dismiss him as a Kikuyu nationalist, a contentious identity especially in the light of the disputed election of 2007 “won” by fellow Kikuyu, Mwai Kibaki.
Ngugi was born in 1938, “under the shadow of another war, the Second World War”. When he was coming of age, in 1952, the colonial authorities in Kenya imposed martial law. The 14 years that touch both ends of these dates are important. The young Ngugi saw his once (relatively) wealthy father lose his land—and it was not to a white landowner but to a Church of Scotland-educated African.
When the precocious Ngugi was able to walk great distances from his father’s homestead he became aware of the white-owned plantation at which some of his siblings picked tea. “I was aware of the trees being cut down, leaving only stumps, soil being dug up, followed by pyrethrum planting.”
Ngugi learned that this land “was not quite our land” and “that we were now ahoi, tenants at will”.
You get the sense that from this springs Ngugi’s vision of the world as binary. The world has only two sets of people: workers/peasants and the property-owning class. Most workers hope, one day, to control the means of production or at least to become the manager. And to this class project, Ngugi has committed his erudition, his revolutionary fervour and his storytelling capabilities over the decades. And what an effect he had on generations of readers.
Sense of lyricism
When, as a teenager, I read Matigari, I pontificated so much on the book that for a while some of my peers christened me Matigari. Matigari is the mind-blowing story of a mythical man who emerges from the mountain demanding justice. Its lyricism and its black-and-white sense of wrong excited my impressionable young mind.
But when, a few years later, and relatively more mature, I reread Devil on the Cross and Petals of Blood, and much later on, Decolonising the Mind, the book in which he declared that he would write only in Gikuyu, I found Ngugi’s Manichaean vision rather juvenile and unsophisticated.
There was a space, I reasoned, in which people needn’t necessarily belong to one class or the other, a private sphere in which all that Marxist stuff didn’t matter that much. It was the time that I came to appreciate his more nuanced works, such as the The River Between and especially the masterpiece, A Grain of Wheat, books featuring real people encountering real problems. This contrasts with later novels that are peopled with implausible characters who spout Marxist rhetoric.
These were also during the years that my peers and I were immersing ourselves headlong in the works of the late Zimbabwean-born Dambudzo Marechera. In an interview Marechera conducted with himself (yes, with himself), the writer said he never thought of writing in Shona, his mother tongue. “Shona was part of the ghetto daemon I was trying to escape. Shona had been placed within the context of a degraded, mind-wrenching experience from which apparently the only escape was into the English language and education. The English language was automatically connected with the plush-seeming splendour of the white side of town.”
It was in this context that Ngugi’s decision to write in his native Gikuyu was admirable and yet rather startling. His later novels, starting with Devil on the Cross, came out first in Gikuyu; this was proof of Ngugi contesting the dominance of the English language. But, as others have pointed out, Ngugi’s decision to not write in English was a luxury that only he (and a few other writers) could afford. I imagine before he puts the last sentence to a novel, there are scores of translators queuing outside his house awaiting the nod from Ngugi to render it into English and other world languages.
As Chinua Achebe and many others have argued, the English language can be made to work in ways that would startle the inhabitants of its ancestral home. Take, for instance, Amos Tutuola, the late Nigerian writer who penned A Palm Wine Drinkard, a delightful and strange book about ghosts, written in “rotten” English. Could the English claim the following as a sentence in their own language? “When I travelled with him a distance of about twelve miles away to that market, the gentleman left the really road on which we were travelling and branched into an endless forest ...”
I found Dreams in a Time of War wanting as a childhood memoir. There’s something contrived about it. Ngugi is presumably viewing things from his childhood not with a child’s eyes but with the practised gaze of an adult, striving for balance and political correctness. For instance, about his father, Ngugi writes that he was a revered patriarch who “acknowledged that his wives headed their respective households”. The book would have benefited from being written without feeling as though it had the advantage of hindsight.
About moving to schools with different curricula, he writes that the resulting divide was one he would “still be trying to understand through my first novel, The River Between”. I assume the people who will read his memoir are people who know Ngugi and his works and who don’t need an abridged version of Ngugi’s long-running concerns.
Ngugi writes about his circumcision that, although he was deeply impressed by the ritual, he “emerged from it convinced more deeply that, for our times, education and learning, not a mark on the flesh, are the way to empower men and women”. Revolutionary thoughts indeed, but you also wonder whether these are Ngugi’s sentiments now or those of his teenage self. Perhaps this question stems from my instinctive reaction to Ngugi, from how I am always wary of his didactic tone and revolutionary demeanour.
The memoirs are written in a sparse, nonchalant accent and show nothing of the flourish that made him such a beloved writer. About his father’s decision to expel his mother and his siblings from the homestead, Ngugi writes, rather prosaically, that “it is not a good thing to have your own father deny you as one of his children”.
When Ngugi went to school for the first time as a nine-year-old, his mother extracted a promise that he would “always try the best”. I wonder what she would make of this rather deflating effort. It’s clear there is a follow-up memoir planned. This, presumably, will focus on Ngugi at high school and Kampala’s Makerere University, the revolutionary years when he went back to work in Kenya and the later years in exile in the United States. I hope he will try his best.