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.
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 draw on oral resources, transforming the psychology of his writing in profoundly radical ways.
If his early works in English were fashioned from the European novel, Gikuyu opened up new resources that were influenced by an exceptionally localised culture.
Ngugi wrote his first two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964), and The River Between (1965) as an undergraduate student at Makerere University College.
These early writings were partly motivated by the optimism spawned by global changes in the 1950s and early 1960s. “There was the Cuban revolution in 1954, the Caribbean Workers’ Movement that brought about the independence of many Caribbean countries, Mau Mau war in 1952, Ghana’s independence in 1957, Algerian war in 1960, Tanzania’s independence in 1962; country after country was becoming independent. There was a lot of hope and energy that we could transform our societies. There was a lot of optimism that the future was going to bring fundamental changes,” he said in my 2010 interview.
In 1965, he went to Leeds University for graduate work. This was a period when Leeds was developing strong interests in the study of cultures, writings and the arts of the Anglophone African countries.
While at Leeds, Grant Kamenju introduced Ngugi to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. His encounter with this text was transformative, especially because “we did not have tools to theorise or think about independence and the contradictions that accompanied it. It is Fanon who made us look at post-colonial Africa differently,” he said in my 2010 interview.
But Ngugi, like Weep Not, Child, a novel that opens with an extrapolative sense of sanguinity but metamorphoses into a narrative of melancholy and disenchantment, entered the 1960s with hopes and dreams and ended the decade cynical and disillusioned.
Ngugi started the decade of 1970s at home, teaching at the University of Nairobi. He was at the centre of key debates about Kenya’s history, culture, literary expression and theatre.
As a teacher, he was responsible for training journalists, editors, publishers, writers, critics, and thespians. But 1970s was also the decade of disenchantment when he became a revolutionary. Simon Gikandi elucidates the difference between the disillusioned Ngugi and the revolutionary Ngugi: “The former had sought to represent the contradictions of the neo-colony but was unable to project an alternative social system, while the later took up these contradictions and sought to project a future beyond them.”
It is the revolutionary Ngugi who participated in a literary project at by co-authoring Ngaahika Ndeenda with Ngugi wa Mirii, for the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre.
It is the setting of the play and Ngugi’s developing relationships with the subaltern that began to worry the government. During the play, when peasants addressed certain injustices, they were not acting out theoretical or fictionalised grievances.
When they mentioned home guards in the play, they would name names of people in the village. The play was no longer an abstract, autonomous, aesthetic project. This led to the closing of the theatre, the banning of the play and Ngugi’s detention in 1977.
Detention cut off the intellectual Ngugi from the institutions of knowledge and cultural production.
This act was symptomatic of that period and marks the beginning of political disruption of the space occupied by intellectuals.
Universities swiftly lost their moral authority. By picking up the country’s leading writer in the middle of the night and condemning him to detention without trial, it was clear that no one could be spared by the state.
Ngugi entered the 1980s in exile. This phase in his biography raised powerful questions about the survival of the projects he had already started, and which could not survive outside Kenya.
They included the Kamiriithu theatre project, writing two powerful novels in Gikuyu, and his famous claim that he had made an epistemological break from English and the world associated with it.
His novel Wizard of the Crow is a quintessential work of exile. It drew from Kenyan materials — and it is in many ways about the history of Kenya — but it had to attach itself to international movements because it had to exist only in relation to those movements.
If Ngugi of 1970s was trying to make the local his habitat, exile forced him to occupy a more international space with all its contradictions.
Globalisation, which becomes one of his major themes, is the classic alternative to locality.
Ngugi’s other significant influence was the revolution he helped midwife, along with Taban Lo Liyong and Owuor Anyumba, and which led to the abolition of the English Department at the University of Nairobi and its replacement with the Department of Literature.
This revolution produced a model for re-thinking institutions of literary education not just in Kenya, but also in other African countries and later in the Caribbean.
The premise of this revolution was that to study literature written in European languages was not to assume there was a natural relationship between Africa and Europe.
Ngugi was offering ways of challenging dominant ideas while suggesting other ways of thinking about Africa outside the established paradigms.
In 2010, Ngugi authorised me to document his life and works in form of a documentary. In this project, I use his life and his intellectual biography as an axis around which debates on African languages and literatures, the role of writers and intellectuals in politics, social and cultural transformations, identity, decolonisation, the exigencies of post-colonial regimes, exile and diaspora, and the memory of the colonised, revolve.
Looking at his life, Ngugi’s biography provides revealing insights about the deployment of memory and the role of memory in the evolution of the Kenyan state.
His biography leads us to a deeper understanding of colonialism and capitalism, decolonisation and disillusionment, constraints of the post-colony, Kenya’s intellectual history, pain and melancholic anxieties of exile, and diasporic privileges and displacements.
If the process of becoming of our nation has been defined by an unofficially sanctioned program of forgetting, Ngugi’s biography invites us to resist the urge to forget.
Happy Birthday, Mwalimu Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Wachanga Ndirangu is a Professor of Media Studies and Information Science and a Visiting Professor at Princeton University as a documentarist and visual archivist.