Celebrating Ngugi and his elusive, overdue homecoming

Friday January 03 2020

Kenya’s foremost novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, unveils his book titled "Kenda Muiyuru" during a Kenya Editor's Guild breakfast meeting at Sarova Stanley. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


This January marks many things.

It is the beginning of a brand new year 2020. Moreover, it is the beginning of a new decade.

In fact, it is the beginning of the second decade both of the 21st Century and the 3rd Millennium.

For the numerologists and the astrologists, such a constellation of numbers can bear tidings with deeper implications for human affairs in terms of transition and tradition.

For the Kenyan literary world, the year is a fresh page or stage upon which much remains to be seen in terms of written and performing arts.

Critics and literary pundits await what the new year shall bring from the creative talents and imagination in and outside the motherland.


The year 2019, now seen in retrospect, gave us the beautiful novel The Dragon Fly Sea by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, the winner of the Jomo Kenyatta Prize of Literature in 2015.

The same year, the sensational topic of sexuality was highlighted colourfully by the Franco-Kenyan novelist Waithira Francis in her debut novel, My Name is Toni.


The novel has become an internet sensation and is perhaps one of the most daring works of written art of last year.

In the oral scene, the only competition it has, arguably, is King Kaka’s hit song "Wajinga Nyinyi".

The hit is surely a verbal rhapsody that brought the nation to a direct encounter with spoken word performance in urban Kenya.

It outplayed the salacious tunes of Gengetone artistes and compelled political and social commentary on the state of the nation.

As we kick off the year 2020, I cast my eyes on the horizon of predictions and foresee a greater star rising on the long literary career of Kenya’s foremost novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

The octogenarian giant of African literature turns 82 on the holy day of Sunday.

He was born in the western edge of Kiambu County near Limuru on January 5, 1938. Last year, he was tipped to win the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature.

This was the third time in a row that the world awaited with bated breath the award of the coveted global literary trophy to the revered professor and writer.

Although this did not happen, he ended up winning several other awards of international stature and cemented his half-a-century-old hold on African literary excellence.


In the last week of 2019, he was awarded the 31st Catalonia International Prize by the Catalan Government in Spain.

It will be formally offered to him in the first quarter of this year in a ceremony that will see him earn millions of shillings too.

The prize is given annually since 1989 and has been awarded to famous and influential people across the world over the years.

His strident and vocal campaigns in favour of African languages, minority rights and social justice through cultural activism are some of the parameters that were used to measure his distinguished work of many years.

Earlier in the year, Ngugi bagged The Erich-Maria-Remarque Peace Prize 2019. The prize is awarded by the city of Osnabruck in Germany since 1991. It comes with Sh2.8 million.

It is named after an internationally-acclaimed writer who was born in that city and whose most famous work, based on German military experience and expedience, All Quiet on the Western Front (1928).

The awarding committee singled out for recognition Ngugi’s magnum opus, a book of evergreen essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.

The book came out in 1986 and advocates for linguistic decolonisation and cultural nationalism as pathways of postcolonialism.


Over the years, Ngugi has won other international prizes and thus placed the nation of Kenya on the world literary atlas in an indelible manner.

They include: The Lotus Prize (1973), Nonino International Prize of Literature (1991), Nicolas Guillen Lifetime Achievement Award for Philosophical Literature (2014), Park Kyong-Ni Prize (2016).

He has been awarded honorary degrees from several universities, including the University of Leeds (2004), University of Auckland (2005), University of Bayreuth (2014), Yale University (2017), and University of Edinburgh just last year.

University of Dar es Salaam remains the only university in East Africa that has awarded a similar highest degree of honour to the literary enigma.

This is a sobering observation that calls for a national and regional introspection of the self-evident paradox of sorts laid bare by the highlights above.

Is this a poignant exhibition of the truth in the adage that prophets are never recognised in their natal lands?


It is equally a paradox of history that our own highest national literary award has escaped Ngugi wa Thiong’o over his six decades of writing experiences.

Inaugurated in 1974 and awarded last in 2015, the prize has remained a chimera in the star-light epic journey that is the life and times of perhaps Kenya’s best bet for the Nobel Prize for Literature yet.

As he turns 82, may the year 2020 and its iconic implications, symbolic or otherwise, usher in a worthy homecoming to the good professor and champion of Africa. Happy Birthday, Happy New Year, Ngugi.

Dr J.K.S Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University