Graeme Wood

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1938–)

 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has led Kenyan struggles for literary and political autonomy for more than four decades. A writer and critic from the Gikuyu ethnic group, he is best known for historical novels depicting crises in Kenya’s quest for independence, from the Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950s to the semidictatorial regime of Daniel Arap Moi that ended in 2002. Ngugi’s insistence on writing in African languages and his ideas about the place of culture and literature in postcolonial societies have influenced writers throughout Africa and beyond.

Born in Limuru, Kenya, Ngugi was educated in English at Christian colonial schools in Kenya, at Makerere University in Uganda, and at the University of Leeds, England. His family, members of the ethnic group most prominent in the Mau-Mau rebellion, suffered greatly after being accused of sympathies with the rebels. Ngugi was radicalized during those years and during his subsequent study in England, where he came into contact with other ex-colonial subjects and imbibed the liberatory Marxism of Frantz Fanon.

Thiong’o wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), under his birth name, James Ngugi. During the remaining years of the 1960s and 1970s, he slowly shed the trappings of his colonial upbringing and replaced them with his indigenous African heritage. He adopted the name Ngugi wa Thiong’o and became increasingly dedicated to cultivating his mother tongue, Gikuyu. In 1967, he published A Grain of Wheat, another examination of the Kenyan fight for independence.

Ngugi taught at Nairobi University from 1968 to 1977. During the last years of the government of Jomo Kenyatta, Ngugi became vocal about the imminent rise to power of Daniel Arap Moi, then the vice president of Kenya. Ngugi’s play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want; 1977), written and produced with fellow Gikuyus, so incensed Moi that he was jailed without charge for one year. While in prison he wrote Petals of Blood (1978), his last novel in English.

Ngugi claimed that by writing in English rather than African languages, writers had been propagating the “neocolonial slavish and cringing spirit” that had convinced Africans that they could neither govern themselves nor foster a sufficiently rich indigenous culture (1986, 26). He pointed out that writing in English effectively excluded the African proletariat from cultural transactions. The shift from English to African languages (primarily Gikuyu, but Swahili as well) provoked a great deal of praise and condemnation from other writers who argued that he had effectively denied anyone but the Gikuyu the privilege of reading his books. In 1980, he published the first novel in Gikuyu, Caitaani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross).

Continued friction between Ngugi and Moi led Ngugi to flee Kenya for London and then the United States, where he has lived for the last two decades. Ngugi taught at Yale University, New York University, and the University of California at Irvine, where he is now a Distinguished Professor of Literature.

Ngugi returned to Nairobi triumphantly in August 2004 and began a hugely popular tour of Kenya to promote his novel Muroogi wa Kigogo, a Gikuyu work five years in the making. He also planned to reconsecrate his marriage to his wife Njeeri under Gikuyu traditional rites. The homecoming turned tragic just two weeks after he arrived, when armed assailants broke into Ngugi’s apartment, stole money and a computer, and raped his wife. Ngugi and Njeeri defiantly continued with their planned ceremony later that month. At the end of August they returned to California, vowing to return to Kenya “again and again,” despite the ordeal they had faced.

Graeme Wood

See also

Fanon, Frantz (1925–1961); Kenyatta, Jomo (1889–1978).

 

Further Reading

Gikandi, Simon. 2000. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann.

Sicherman, Carol. 1990. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel. New York: Hans Zell.

 

Originally published in The Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora. Carole E. Boyce Davies (ed.), Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

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