Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (ehn-GEW-gee wah tee-ONG-goh) of Kenya is one of the increasing number of African writers of international stature and reputation. Born James Ngugi in Kamiriithu village, twelve miles northeast of Nairobi, to Thiong’o wa Nducu and one of his four wives, Ngugi came of age during the Mau Mau resistance to British colonial rule. His father was one of many Gikuyu farmers who, dispossessed of their land in the Kiambu District, were forced to become laborers on their own farms. One of twenty-eight children in the extended family, Ngugi was until the age of nine raised with a mixture of Gikuyu traditional customs and Christian values. From 1947 to 1949, he attended the mission school in nearby Limuru, and he completed his primary education in Maanguu at one of the schools founded in the Independence Schools Movement, a cooperative undertaking by those who viewed education as essential in their fight for freedom from British rule.{$S[A]Ngugi, James;Ngugi wa Thiong’o}

Ngugi’s secondary education continued his development of dual perspectives inherent in the colonial and nationalistic curricula at the previous schools. From 1948 to 1954, he studied at Alliance High School in Kikuyu, eight miles northwest of Nairobi. There he encountered the missionary headmaster Carey Francis, whose rigid views and disdain for Gikuyu customs Ngugi later depicted in fictional form. Although Ngugi eventually acquired a complex religious but humanistic sensibility through his examination of biblical lore and Christian teachings, the Protestant bias against Africans and their beliefs left a bitter legacy that influenced him long after his adolescent years. During this period, Ngugi’s family was engaged in the Mau Mau struggle. His brother, Wallace Mwangi, fought with Mau Mau forces from 1954 to 1956. His parents and other relatives were detained as subversives, and a stepbrother was killed in the fighting. His entire home village was relocated by the British during the warfare between 1952 and 1956. Although he himself did not fight because of his young age and the responsibility to pursue his education, Ngugi came to view the Mau Mau struggle as a model of the heroic quest for independence and as an idealized example of the worldwide fight against social injustice. Indeed, the Mau Mau war became the central theme and subject for much of his later fiction and drama.

After he graduated from high school, Ngugi in 1963 completed work in the honors English program at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, then the only school in East Africa that conferred degrees in English literature. Productive in his own creative efforts, Ngugi drafted his first two novels, several short stories, his first play, and two additional one-act plays. He was also active in literary circles and contributing to the Nairobi newspaper Daily Nation , and in his creative writing he showed the influence of the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad; he did not seem to object to the conventional colonial syllabus under which he studied. In 1961, he had married Nyambura, and during this time they had two sons, the first of five children. In 1964, Ngugi left Africa to pursue a degree in English studies at Leeds University in England. There his exposure to socialism and the radical views of students who openly debated issues of social and political justice set him on a transformatory journey. He had reached a point of crisis, and, pondering the issue of universal values, he began to question the value of continuing to write in English. He traveled to literary conferences in New York and Moscow, meeting several...

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radical writers, and also began to study Caribbean literature. Work on his novelA Grain of Wheat, which he began drafting at this time, helped him define his systematic model of the Mau Mau years as a paradigm of resistance to colonial rule. His first two novels—Weep Not, Child and The River Between—were a cultural and political chronicle of the Gikuyu from precolonial rule to the Mau Mau years. In A Grain of Wheat, he found an aesthetic complexity of multiple points of view that permitted him to compare Mau Mau resistance fighters with those Kenyans who collaborated with the British. Ngugi returned to Kenya in 1967 without finishing his degree but with a growing international reputation, having been the first East African to publish novels in English.

Taking up a teaching post at Nairobi University, Ngugi set about reforming the curriculum from the British canon to an African-based program of study that included the diverse oral traditions that had never been considered literature in the colonial university. In 1969, siding with students who were protesting the lack of academic freedom, he resigned in protest. In many senses Ngugi was carrying out his own intellectual Mau Mau war against the legacies of British education in East Africa, just as his heroes had done throughout his first three novels. By 1970, Ngugi was at Makerere University once more, as a fellow in creative writing; there he helped conclude curriculum revisions along the lines of those at Nairobi and organized a writers’ workshop. That same year, he renounced his Christian name and took the traditional Gikuyu name. In 1970, he taught African literature at Northwestern University in the United States. While in Chicago, he witnessed the degradation of African Americans and came to deplore the conditions of ghetto life, convinced that American racism was the result not only of a long history of psychological conditioning but also of systematic political and economic exploitation. He returned to Nairobi University in 1971 to head the English Department and complete the curriculum changes he had initiated two years earlier. While teaching there for the next five years, he became recognized as the leading proponent of a radical Marxist-humanist East African literature.

Ngugi’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi continued his celebration of the Mau Mau resistance, and it found popular reception among Kenyans for its examination of heroic leadership. The publication of Petals of Blood in 1977, however, disturbed many of Kenya’s neocolonial leaders. Written in the format of a detective novel and continuing the chronicle of the earlier three novels into the postindependence era, the book suggested that many of the leaders were corrupt and interested in maintaining a colonial relationship with the West. Ngugi’s activism did not evoke the full wrath of the authorities until his staging of I Will Marry When I Want at the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Center in Limuru. A depiction of “proletarization of the peasantry in a neocolonial society,” the play portrayed a government in collusion with Western petrochemical corporations and suggested that contemporary leaders were acting essentially as the British did before independence in depriving peasants of their lands while encouraging the dispossessed to work as laborers for the Western companies at very low wages. The play also emphasized the large gap between the wealthy class and the Kenyan masses, and, through a celebration of the Mau Mau legacy, came just short of calling for political revolution. Crowds jammed the roads between Limuru and Nairobi to see performances until the authorities banned the play. Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charges on December 31, 1977.

Despite international protests and appeals, Ngugi was held incommunicado until mid-December, 1978. His release was not accompanied by reinstatement in his post at the university, which had been terminated at the time of his detention. Ironically, the next two years of government-enforced unemployment and isolation, which were intended to silence him, proved to be his most prolific since his student days at Makerere. Unflinchingly didactic as he had been in much of his fiction and in his plays, Ngugi published his memoirs of prison, set about writing and collecting three books of essays, and renewed his early interests in education by recasting his Mau Mau stories in a series of books for children. Ngugi’s themes center on the necessity of leadership, education, and socialist reforms in an open democracy. His novels and plays constitute an ongoing critique of colonial betrayal and neocolonial corruption. His social and literary criticism of the 1980’s and 1990’s centers on his calculated use of Gikuyu and Kiswahili as languages of literary creation, a choice confirmed during his detention and begun in 1978 with the classic prison novel Devil on the Cross, which was originally written in Gikuyu on toilet paper. Although English is no longer the language in which he creates, Ngugi continues to translate his work into English. Although he is sometimes criticized for his didacticism and repetitive subject matter and themes, most of his critics and readers find that his skillful characterization, plotting, and use of cultural details overcome any didactic weight. Ngugi has won a lasting place in literary history as one of the most important African writers of the century.


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Ngugi wa Thiong’o was born in 1938 in Kamiriithu, just north of Nairobi, in Kenya. Ngugi’s family belonged to the Gikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Ngugi attended a mission school and became a devout Christian. At school he also learned about the Gikuyu history and values and he completed the Gikuyu rite of passage ceremony. Later in life, he rejected Christianity.

Ngugui attended Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda in 1963. He also completed graduate studies at Leeds University in England. He first gained attention in East Africa for his performance of his first major play “The Black Hermit” in 1962.

He completed the manuscript for The River Between before completing what became his first published novel, Weep Not, Child, in 1964. This was the first novel in English to be published by an East African author. The River Betweenreflects the aftermath of the Mau Mau Rebellion, the uprising of African tribes against British control. The story is set in the 1920s and 1930s and portrays the divisions between African and the English, Christians and the Gikuyu, and two young people who fall in love amid these fractions.

Ngugi’s third novel, A Grain of Wheat, also expores the break with nationalism and new birth—and also references the Mau Mau Rebellion. In his own family, Ngugi’s brother joined the movement and his stepbrother was killed. His mother was also arrested and tortured as Ngugi’s village suffered during this event.

Ngugi also was a reporter in Nairobi for The Daily Nation. His essays, columns, and plays are important for his using English as a primary language instead of Gikuyu. His later works, including Petals of Blood, present a harsh picture of life in post-colonial Kenya. He also wrote controversial plays and in 1977 was arrested and imprisoned. During this time, he wrote Detained: A Writer’s Diary (1982), in which he left English as his primary language and wrote in Gikuyu. His later works were translated into English.

Ngugi went to London for a self-imposed exile and later traveled to the Sweden and then the United States, where he has served at several universities as a professor. He is currently a professor at the University of California at Irvine.


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