In the House of the Interpreter Summary
In the House of the Interpreter is a 2012 memoir in which Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o recalls his adolescent years, in which he studies at a British colonial school in Kenya amid the political turmoil of the 1950s.
- Ngũgĩ finds the Alliance school to be a sanctuary from the political situation unfolding in Kenya: British colonials relocate Kenyans—including Ngũgĩ’s family—while Mau Mau rebels fight back.
- During his high school years, Ngũgĩ flourishes intellectually, discovering passions for literature, theater, and community building. He develops a nuanced understanding of human nature and events.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In the House of the Interpreter, published in 2012, is the second volume in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s series of memoirs. It covers his years spent at Alliance High School—a prestigious British-run boarding school in Kikuyu, Kenya—and the author’s experience of the political turmoil that took place under British rule.
This volume of his memoirs begins in 1955, as the author is returning to Limuru after the first term of his freshman year at Alliance. As he arrives in Limuru, he finds that the entire area—including his family home—has been destroyed. His family, he discovers, has been re-settled in Kamirithu as part of the colonial government’s plans for the region.
As he realizes that his home is forever changed, Ngũgĩ reflects on the academic term he has just completed. Upon arrival, he recalls, Alliance felt like a sanctuary—a respite from the region’s volatile administration, designed entirely to provide its students with intellectual nourishment. Despite some minor hazing from the upperclassmen and a necessary period of adjustment to the school’s English-style customs, Ngũgĩ is beginning to adapt to Alliance. Courses in English and theater pique his interest in particular, and he begins to view the humanities as disciplines through which he can make sense of and appreciate the world around him.
When the first-term exams draw to a close, Ngũgĩ is surprised and proud to discover that he has scored the third-highest marks of all forty boys enrolled. He will be moved to the upper half of the academic class, which means his return home for the first term holiday will be a triumphant one. In an extremely competitive academic environment comprising the region’s most promising students, he has already begun to distinguish himself.
Ngũgĩ’s high spirits make it especially jarring to discover the changes that have occurred in his absence: his family’s resettlement is a small part of the restructuring that has now started to uproot most of central Kenya. The colonial administration is leveling neighborhoods and destroying homes, moving native Kenyans and redistributing land to suit British interests. The new settlements heavily favor Kenyans who are loyal to the colonial state, giving them advantageous properties and modernized homes, whereas those who are considered potentially disloyal are left to build their own huts out of mud and thatch.
As the disparity between loyalists and nationalists grows more and more evident, Ngũgĩ grows more and more anxious—his brother, Good Wallace, is a Mau Mau guerrilla fighter operating in the mountains. Ngũgĩ worries about his brother’s safety and fears that his familial ties to the resistance will be discovered, resulting in his expulsion from Alliance. When the break is over, he returns for his second term feeling uneasy.
Alliance’s headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, returns at the start of the second term, having been abroad for the first term. Suddenly, Ngũgĩ notices a shift in the behavior of those around him. They seem more studious, more disciplined. Carey Francis is an imposing presence—the school is replete with rumors of his temper, as well as his fairness and even his occasional whimsy.
During one assembly in the school’s chapel, Carey Francis reads a passage from The Pilgrim’s Progress in which a man visits the house of the interpreter as it is being swept. The dust fills the room, choking those in its proximity, until a woman sprinkles water on the floor. The dust is settled, and all is well. Carey Francis likens the house of the interpreter to Alliance: a place where the dust brought in from the outside world can be settled.
As the political upheaval continues, Ngũgĩ’s fear about his secret family...
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connection to the Mau Mau resistance deepens. He is worried for his brother, but he also struggles to reconcile his personal feelings toward the conflict. The colonial state is directly responsible for the loss of his home, and directives for atrocities against his people and community are handed down from the British administration as a matter of course. He has small skirmishes with the administration on multiple occasions, and on one especially heartbreaking visit home he finds that his mother has recently spent three months being interrogated at the guard post.
Alliance is also the place where Ngũgĩ feels the most hope and the most opportunity—he is able to take solace and pleasure in his studies and feels supported by the school’s nourishment of both mind and spirit. In addition to his formal curriculum, Ngũgĩ discovers passions for theater, debate, community organizing, scouting, and eventually evangelism. Despite the school’s Eurocentricity, it’s the first time he has been integrated with so many other types of native Kenyans and the first time he has seen Africans teach as equals alongside Europeans. Ngũgĩ credits both experiences with his own widening perspective and increasing confidence in the academic community.
Before the last term of the second school year, his family gets word that Good Wallace has been captured by the British and is now in a concentration camp awaiting further processing. Shortly after that, Ngũgĩ learns that the leader of the Mau Mau resistance has been captured as well. Despite his conflicted feelings about the political environment, he feels a sense of defeat and emptiness when he learns of the leader’s fate. Deeply aware of the terrors of war, Ngũgĩ’s final visit home that year is especially fraught and he feels impatient to return to the relative safety of Alliance.
When he returns after the break, even Alliance is no longer a shelter from the political world outside its walls. The Suez crisis permeates the political discourse, and the students cannot help but fixate on contemporary events. As Ngũgĩ notes in chapter 33:
Each day brought out something new that impacted our view of the country, the continent, and the world. Our activities on the school compound now played out against the background of the all-year political theater in the streets.
Eventually, some good news from the outside world does arrive: Good Wallace has been relocated to a prison near the family’s new village and is slated for eventual release.
Ngũgĩ’s final year at Alliance revolves around community work, faith, and debate, and he invests considerable time and energy in all three pursuits. When the year draws to a close and he receives his final certificate, there’s a welcome surprise among the remarks on his scholastic performance: “he has shown a pioneering spirit.”
Awaiting acceptance to Makarere University College, Ngũgĩ works as a teacher in nearby Gatũndũ. When the letter arrives, he plans a visit home to share the good news but runs into trouble on the bus home: he is interrogated for not having his tax papers in order, and when he then protests, he is further accused of resisting arrest.
For days, he is detained with other criminals. Though he is sure he has been arrested by mistake, he struggles to navigate the bureaucracy and ultimately winds up on trial without representation. When the guard who arrests him is called to testify, Ngũgĩ is invited to cross-examine the guard himself. In a moment of clarity, he begins treating the trial like one of the debates he loved back at Alliance. Through careful, agile questioning, he highlights inconsistencies in the guard’s story and is finally declared innocent. On the strength of his own education and intellect, he is able to free himself.