Ngugi wa Thiong’o interprets a continent to the world
Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (Harvill Secker) is author and teacher Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s coming-of-age memoir that deals primarily with his years at Uganda’s Makerere University, near Kampala.
The book begins with Wa Thiong’o reeling from an injustice as his play, The Wound in the Heart, is denied a staging at the Kampala National Theatre for reasons initially unknown to the aspiring playwright, despite having won the hotly contested inter-house theatre contest.
A one-act play, the writer’s second, The Wound in The Heart includes a scene in which a rape carried out by an English officer is described. Although this segment does not make up the thrust of the play, it is enough to rally Uganda’s English guild to conspire to snub it, a situation that heightens the young James Ngugi’s resolve to tell even more accomplished stories.
Birth of a Dream Weaver is self-contained, managing to sustain the reader’s focus over 220 pages, despite largely concentrating on a narrow five-year period of the narrator’s life.
The period between 1959 and 1964 is one of enormous political upheaval, with Ghana setting the stage for
a wave of independence across African colonies. As the Kenyan writer notes, he entered Makerere by second-class coach, “a subject of the British Crown Colony, and left in March 1964, citizen of an independent African state”.
Although the book deals with how the contradictions of the neocolonial environment at Makerere moulded his desire to become a writer, Wa Thiong’o does not skimp on the severity of Kenya’s colonial project and its after-effects that would send him into exile after postgraduate studies at Leeds University.
Chapter 2, titled “A Wounded Land”, lays out the pseudoscience at the heart of the colonial project and how that was used to try to flush out the Land and Freedom Army (the Mau Mau). Wa Thiong’o, who had relatives in the Mau Mau, renders this aspect of Kenyan history with chilling sensitivity and proximity.
Because the book is centred on his life as a student in Uganda, he draws this link to Kenya by explaining that Idi Amin’s rise to the top was precipitated by his enthusiasm for collecting the decapitated heads of Mau Mau fighters for the British. The more Amin collected, the higher up he climbed the ranks of the colonial army.
After taking power from Milton Obote in a coup in 1971, Amin forced a large number of Makerere staff into exile, which saw a decline of the university’s stature as an institution that had punched above its weight.
Wa Thiong’o describes Makerere as a contradictory paradise — an enabling environment for learning filled with academic and artistic misfits but also the accoutrements of the colonial era. Studying English literature, Wa Thiong’o and a circle of friends form a study group, which enabled them to bring to life texts that appeared dead in the classroom context.
He is also drawn to the university’s extracurricular life: the social dances for which he needs ballroom lessons to thrive, the camaraderie and decorum of his residence, Northcote, and the need to maintain its prestige in the annual theatre contest.
Wa Thiong’o throws himself wholeheartedly into the scripting of plays, his second attempt rising to the top of the university’s heap in 1962.
The half-decade Wa Thiong’o spends at the university is a highly productive period, yielding two novels (Weep Not Child and The River Between, both published after his student days), one major play, two one-act plays, nine short stories and more than 60 pieces of journalism. He writes: “I was confident I had redefined the limits of what it means to be a student. I started worrying about jobs.”
Birth of a Dream Weaver is elliptical in structure, with the author focusing on one seminal project at a time and occasionally letting the world in on his life as a family man. These passages are few and far between. Mostly the reader feels he is on a merry-go-round of campus years.
There’s a certain degree of claustrophobia to these sections, which lets up periodically. He does so when he develops the tension around the production of The Black Hermit, a difficult but ultimately exhilarating and successful staging that turns out to be an enormous confidence boost for the budding playwright.
There are also the dizzying few days of the First International Conference of Writers of the English Expression in 1962. During this gathering, Wa Thiong’o is thrust among the best of the best, walking Harlem Renaissance lynchpin Langston Hughes around a narrow shebeen district in Kampala and having one of his short stories dissected by Bloke Modisane, one of the Drum generation of writers.
He hands one of his manuscripts to Chinua Achebe, who later plays a role in getting it published. Wa Thiong’o is initially apprehensive and Achebe is seemingly aloof, not managing to get through it in its entirety.
But it is the South African writer and critic, Lewis Nkosi, who sums up the mood of the festival, writing in The Guardian that the writers are “mostly young, impatient and sardonic, talking endlessly about the problems of creation and looking, while doing so, as though they were amazed that fate had entrusted them with the task of interpreting a continent to the world”.
In the latter passages, Wa Thiong’o is foisted back into Kenya and begins to make a living as a journalist while pursuing his dream of being a published author.
Wa Thiong’o maintains a tempered nature throughout the writing of his memoir, the fourth in his ouevre. At some points, the prose is dry and the descriptions of college life are mundane, only enhanced by the characters rather than the events themselves. But one emerges with a fresh understanding of life in the protectorate that was Uganda versus the stridency that was colonialism in Kenya.
Although he doesn’t labour the point, Wa Thiong’o illustrates how political circumstances compel the production of art and invariably, through a confluence of factors, shape the direction it will take.