In the House of the Interpreter Summary
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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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.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,265 words.)