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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1262

In spite of its subtitle, Detained is not, strictly speaking, a “diary”: It does not record day-to-day prison experiences, nor was it written while Ngugi wa Thiong’o was in prison. It is, instead, a “memoir”; it recalls from some distance events in his life leading up to his incarceration and, according to a thematic (not chronological) arrangement, particular details during his detention that help him tell his story. Yet this story is not in intention strictly personal; it is historical and ideological: It presents a larger picture, the British occupation of Kenya since the 1890’s and the neocolonialism that followed (beginning in 1963) under Jomo Kenyatta, and more recently, toward the end of Ngugi’s detention, under Daniel Arap Moi. It is thus a memoir of a people oppressed by a foreign culture. Ngugi takes pains to treat himself as one among many who have faced the test of political intimidation. He does not create an initiation experience—a personal rite of passage. Nor does he sentimentalize or glorify his year in prison (though touches of romanticism and idealization color his historical recollections and ideology). Rather, he attempts to record it, reflect upon it, draw political conclusions from it, and castigate those who put him through it. It is a story told with dignity and strength; the victim proves stronger than his tormentors.

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The text in the Heinemann edition of 1981 begins with a copy of the “detention order” and a preface, followed by section 1, “Prison Notes,” which constitutes the main body of the memoir, section 2, “Letters from Prison,” and section 3, “Prison Aftermaths,” consisting of documents related to Ngugi’s unsuccessful attempt to reclaim his chairmanship of the literature department at the University of Nairobi.

In the preface, Ngugi explains that his attack on “those who were responsible for my detention” is not “personal” but “ideological,” that he does not want to treat detention “as a personal affair between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon.”

His own arrest is a case in point, as he tries to separate fiction from fact, to dismiss false speculation and name the real reason for his detention. Ngugi’s “crime” was to coauthor and help produce a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982), in a Kenyan language, Gikuyu and, more significant, to involve ordinary people from his native region as actors, stagehands, and consultants in a culturally revolutionary exercise. Ngugi is convinced that historically the greatest fear of the British colonial regime and its Kenyan successor has been an aroused populace aware of its own indigenous culture.

The structure of the memoir results from a combination of factors. As a prison diary it records the author’s personal thoughts and actions, but as an ideological statement it subordinates the personal to the collective good. As a historical commentary it tries to reason from the facts, but as a pedagogical and ideological tool it must persuade an audience of a certain point of view. In addition, Ngugi’s literary training and practice direct him to unify and shape his political theme in an artistic manner. Finally, Ngugi’s spiritual, even mystical, tendencies (whatever their source) work with some tension against the Marxist materialist position and put as much emphasis on personal freedom and imagination as on political action, historical accuracy, and ideological consistency.

These various factors are evident from the opening lines. Ngugi uses the literary device of the “frame” to structure the main section of the book, “Prison Notes.” As he remarks in the preface, his story begins at the end, just after midnight on the morning of his release, December 12, 1978, as he writes the final paragraphs of his novel Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (1980; Devil on the Cross, 1982). He then recalls the night of his arrest, December 30/31, 1977, the ransacking of his library, the confiscation of suspicious-looking books, the sudden, insulting wrenching from his home. Once in prison, he soon discovered that his salvation depended primarily on himself—on a personal resistance. Detained reveals an almost obsessive determination on Ngugi’s part not to yield but instead to join the ranks of those who have stood firm against legalized terrorist tactics.

In chapters 2 and 3, Ngugi writes the “book” that he was commissioned to write ten years earlier, “A Colonial Affair,” detailing the social life of the English settlers in Kenya. He refused, at that time, he says, because he then thought that the English settler had no culture worth recording. He now admits that he was wrong. There was a “settler culture,” a “culture of silence and fear.” It proposed an “aesthetic of submission and blind obedience to authority.” Ngugi cites various documents to trace this “animal brutality” in the very laws of the courts and he uses, for example, Isak Dinesen’s Den afrikanske farm (1937; Out of Africa, 1937) as an indicator of the settler mentality. Chapter 3 recalls some of Kenya’s heroes and the gradual betrayal of their ideals by the petty bourgeois element that adopted capitalistic, Christian principles.

Chapters 4 and 5 both begin with some historical background to prepare for Ngugi’s own personal situation. Chapter 4 briefly traces the British fear of indigenous culture (the “anti-imperialist Muthuu dances” is a striking example) up to 1977. His play was only one in a series of popular expressions of protest. Chapter 5 records examples of those who have betrayed Kenya (Harry Thuka and Jomo Kenyatta) and those who have remained loyal (Waiyaki wa Hiinga, Me Kitilili, Makhan Singh, and others). Chapter 6 details Ngugi’s own symbolic protest against repressive authority, his refusal to submit to the ritual practice of being chained as a precondition for receiving medical treatment or seeing relatives. He sacrificed both privileges in the name of human dignity.

In the final three chapters, Ngugi abandons almost entirely the historical context that explains his detention and focuses on his personal situation. In chapter 7, for the first time, Ngugi comes close to writing a personal diary, not a chronological recording of events but a collection of random thoughts, recollections, it would seem, of his arrest, his entry into prison, the daily routine, books, conversations with warders, language, his prison novel, and ways of passing the time, such as storytelling and singing sessions. While prison “is basically a cliche: dull, mundane, monotonous,” the active mind creates a garden out of despair: “Good is the earth, existence is holy and in suffering itself new reasons are found for living.” Chapter 8 develops a psychological aspect of his political detention: His hopes of release are periodically raised and dashed. Unlike the criminal, the political detainee never knows when his release will come. The most devastating blow to Ngugi was the confiscation of his novel, which he had laboriously and surreptitiously written on toilet paper. This act of defiance had provided for him a symbolic release, an inner sense of freedom. Now, the self that he had put on paper in literary form was taken from him. In what must have been a tremendous act of willpower, Ngugi dealt with the blow by vowing to begin again. The authorities surprisingly returned the “manuscript” three weeks later, declaring the language to be “difficult” but the content harmless.

On the final night and morning of his detention, Ngugi’s thoughts were not on history and the ideological struggle but on his personal situation, on the uncertainty of his release. Mysteriously, metaphor and historical fact, symbol and reality, creative expression and freedom merge on the final page as Ngugi, “only a couple of paragraphs away,” finishes his prison novel to the announcement of the warder, “Ngugi, you are now free. . . . “


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 74

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings, 1983.

Delius, Anthony. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. October 16, 1981, p. 1217.

Killam, G. D., ed. Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1984.

Nazareth, Peter. An African View of Literature, 1974.

Rajab, Ahmed. “Detained in Kenya,” in Index on Censorship. VII (June, 1978), pp. 7-10.

Walmsley, Anne. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Free Thoughts on Toilet Paper,” in Index on Censorship. X (June, 1981), pp. 41-42.

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