Ngugi’s novels are a tale of his life over the years
10 months ago, 13 Jan 10:11
As Kenyans mark the 55th year of political independence, it might be instructive to re-examine the biography of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who turns 80 this year, particularly because Ngugi’s biography and intellectual career are emblematic not only of Kenya’s political challenges and processes of becoming a nation, but also of our national intellectual history. Regarded as one of the leading writers globally, and one of Africa’s most powerful post-colonial thinkers, Ngugi is an inimitable cultural icon in the humanities and occupies a unique place in Africa’s cultural criticism and political activism. Born on January 5, 1938, Ngugi grew up during the most violent period in Kenya’s history, and came of age at the inevitable end of British colonialism in East Africa. Yet Ngugi is a product of the best colonial education at both Alliance High School and, later, Makerere University College. His recent memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War and In the House of the Interpreter, have confirmed what critics have suspected about the autobiographical nature of his early works, especially his first novel, Weep Not, Child. In these memoirs, we encounter a young Ngugi who is a victim of intersecting national and global events, such as the tragedy of the Second World War, the Mau Mau war, the impact of the independent school movement, and the declaration of the state of Emergency. TURNING POINT The estrangement of his mother from his father was a critical turning point in his biography, and it is in Dreams in a Time of War that he introduces himself as Ngugi wa Wanjiku. His mother, like Nyokabi in Weep Not, Child, became the “co-efficient of optimism” at a moment of crisis that was defined by private mourning and collective suffering. She offered him the opportunity to realise his dreams, “the offer of the impossible that deprived me of words.” Although his mother could not read or write, she became his most vigilant teacher. Ngugi, like most Kenyans of his generation, was the first person in his family to go to school, leaving behind his dispossessed family. At Alliance, Ngugi found himself physically fortified against the crisis of the state of Emergency; where almost everyone in his village lost a family member either to the war, to the forest or to the detention camps. In the midst of this unprecedented violence, Ngugi was educated in English and a certain kind of Englishness, but yet haunted by his own relationship with his mother and connectedness to his community. It is not difficult to imagine Ngugi coming home from Alliance or Makerere only to discover that education, which his mother had perceived as a path to freedom, was also a form of alienation. While most students of Ngugi’s work argue that he returned to writing in Gikuyu for ideological reasons, it seems, however, that he was in search of new resources of language that could reconnect him to the mother and the community that he had left behind. When Ngugi wrote in Gikuyu, he begun to ...
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