Ngugi wa Thiong'o 1938-
(Born James Thiong'o Ngugi; also transliterated as Ngũgĩ) Kenyan novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, children's writer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Ngugi's career through 2002. See also Ngugi wa Thiong'o Criticism.
As a spokesman for his people and a chronicler of Kenya's modern history, Ngugi is widely regarded as one of the most significant writers of East Africa. His first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), was the first English-language novel to be published by an East African, and his account of the Mau Mau Emergency in A Grain of Wheat (1967; revised, 1986) presented for the first time an African perspective on the Kenyan armed revolt against British colonial rule during the 1950s. Additionally, Ngugi's Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (1980; Devil on the Cross) is the first modern novel written in Gikuyu (or Kikuyu), a Kenyan language in which the author intends to continue writing his creative works. He has also been influential in education in East Africa and is recognized as a humanist deeply interested in the growth and well-being of his people and country.
Born James Thiong'o Ngugi to Thiong'o wa Nduucu and Wanjika wa Ngugi, Ngugi is the fifth child of the third of Thiong'o's four wives. Ngugi was born on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya, and was one of the few students from Limuru to attend the elite Alliance High School. While at Alliance, he participated in a debate in which he contended that Western educations were harmful to African students. The headmaster subsequently counseled Ngugi against becoming a political agitator. Ngugi next attended Makerere University in Uganda and later the University of Leeds in England, where he was exposed to West-Indian born social theorist Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, a highly controversial treatise in which the author maintains that political independence for oppressed peoples must be won—often violently—before genuine social and economic change may be achieved. Ngugi became influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, developing an ardent opposition to colonialism, Christianity, and other non-African influences in Kenya. During this period, he also began to write plays and novels criticizing Kenyan society and politics. In 1962 his first full-length play, The Black Hermit, was performed at the Uganda National Theatre. In the early 1960s he worked as a regular columnist for Sunday Post, Daily Nation, and the Sunday Nation. Ngugi wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child, while he was a student at Makerere. In 1968 Ngugi—then an instructor at the University of Nairobi—and several colleagues mounted a successful campaign to transform the school's English Department into the department of African Languages and Literature. After the publication of A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi rejected his Christian name of James and began writing under the name Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He also began translating his play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) into Gikuyu—under the title Mzalendo Kimathi. Ngugi published his last English-language novel, Petals of Blood, in 1977. Due to his vocal opposition of the injustices perpetrated by the postcolonial Kenyan government, Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charge in the Kamoto Maximum Security Prison from December 1977 to December 1978. While imprisoned, Ngugi wrote his memoirs, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), and vowed to write his creative works only in the Gikuyu language. He began writing his first Gikuyu novel, Devil on the Cross, on sheets of toilet paper from his cell. Upon his release from detention, Ngugi lost his position at the University of Nairobi. When his theatre group was banned by Kenyan officials in 1982, Ngugi, fearing further reprisals, left his country for a self-imposed exile. After the release of Matigari ma Njiruungi (Matigari) in 1986, the Kenyan government issued a warrant for the arrest of the main character, thinking that Matigari was a real living person. Eventually realizing their mistake, the government confiscated all copies of the novel and prevented it from being sold in Kenyan bookshops from 1986 to 1996. Upon leaving Kenya, Ngugi lived primarily in London, until moving to the United States in 1989. He has since taught at several universities, including Yale University where he held a regular visiting appointment as Professor of English and Comparative Literature from 1989 to 1992. He has also taught at New York University as Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies and as the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages from 1992 to 2002, as well as the University of California, Irvine, where he served as the Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation. He has received numerous awards such as the 2001 Nonino International Prize, the 2002 Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Cabinet, and a honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Ngugi's fiction reflects his abiding concern for the poor of Kenya who have been displaced by white colonialists and by African opportunists who seized power after independence. His early novels, Weep Not, Child, The River Between, and A Grain of Wheat, all explore the detrimental effects of colonialism and imperialism. Njoroge, the protagonist in Weep Not, Child, is prevented from pursuing his education by the Mau Mau, or Gikuyu militants. The government's repression of the rebels and the violent resistance to British domination in Kenya disrupt both Njoroge's plans to attend university and his relations with his family. Consumed with despair, he eventually attempts suicide. In The River Between, Ngugi attacks the African tribal rite of female circumcision. He opposes the tradition, as well as Christianity's condemnation of the rite, believing that Christian missionaries only condemn the act because it acknowledges female sexuality. The action of A Grain of Wheat covers a time span of four days leading up to “Uhuru Day,” or the Kenyan Independence Day in 1963, and involves four main characters, who are all from the Gikuyu village of Thabai. Within the four-day fictional present, Ngugi conveys—principally through a series of interlocking flashbacks—the personal histories of the protagonists, focusing on their experiences under the state of emergency, while also presenting an outline of the history of Kenyan resistance to colonial rule. Petals of Blood offers a scathing critique of capitalism and accuses wealthy landowners and bureaucrats of exploiting the poor and working classes. The novel concerns four principal characters who are being held by police on suspicion of murder—Karega, a teacher and labor organizer; Munira, headmaster of a public school in the town of Ilmorog; Abdulla, a half-Indian shopkeeper who was once a guerrilla fighter during the war of independence; and Wanja, a barmaid and former prostitute.
Devil on the Cross again focuses on four protagonists—Wariinga, a young secretary whose promising academic career has been ruined as a result of her impregnation by a wealthy older man; Gatuiria, a radical music student attempting to compose an oratorio that will convey the whole of Kenya's history; Wangari, a heroine of the liberation struggle and dispossessed peasant arrested for vagrancy in Nairobi; and Muturi, an enigmatic leader of an undefined workers' revolutionary movement. The four meet on a bus going to attend, as spectators, a “Competition in Theft and Robbery.” The competitors all boast of the ways they have exploited the masses in the past and outline new plans for doing so in the future. One of Ngugi's most controversial novels, due to its advocacy of armed rebellion against oppression, Matigari follows an African rebel whose name means “the patriot who survived the bullets” in Gikuyu. The novel opens with Matigari emerging from the forest after years of hunting—and ultimately killing—a man named Settler Williams and his faithful retainer, John Boy. Williams had stolen Matigari's land years earlier, and when Matigari returns to claim his home, he finds that the house has been sold by Williams's son to John Boy's son, John Boy Junior. Matigari is thrown into jail but mysteriously escapes—he has an almost supernatural ability to change his appearance and seems invulnerable to rocks and bullets. Matigari travels the country with dreamlike rapidity, asking everyone he meets where he can find truth and justice, eventually confronting Kenya's Minister of Truth and Justice with the same question. He is sent to a mental hospital but escapes again, vowing to take up arms to reclaim his house. After being mauled by police dogs, the wounded Matigari burns down the house and is carried away by a swollen river to an indeterminate end.
Ngugi began his playwriting career with The Black Hermit, but his two most widely recognized theatrical works are The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria Ngerekano (1977; I Will Marry When I Want). The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was written in response to a 1974 play by Kenneth Watene, which characterized Kimathi, the leader of the Mau Mau uprising, as a crazed and brutal paranoiac. The content of Ngugi's play derives from the actual trial of Kimathi after his betrayal and capture in 1956, but the author makes extensive use of mime, dance, and Gikuyu song to portray Kimathi as a courageous freedom-fighter struggling against the forces of imperialism. The symbolic focus of I Will Marry When I Want is the framed deed, to one and a half acres of land, that hangs in the house of a farm laborer, Kiguunda wa Gathoni, and his wife, Wangeci. The story shows how Kiguunda's employer, Kioi, a wealthy Christian businessman, gains possession of the land—to build a foreign-owned insecticide factory—by persuading Kiguunda to join the church. Kioi convinces Kiguunda to mortgage the land so that he can pay for a Christian wedding service in order to cleanse his sinful, traditional marriage. Kiguunda succumbs because he is led to believe that this service will enable their daughter, Gathoni, to marry Kioi's son, John. Unfortunately, John seduces Gathoni and abandons her after she becomes pregnant.
Ngugi's nonfiction writing explores subject matter familiar to his novels, including the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the West, the loss of traditional African cultures, and the effect of Christianity on tribal communities. The essays in Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972) emphasize the important social functions of African literature, while Ngugi's prison diary Detained recounts the circumstances of his arrest and detention. Writers in Politics (1981) and Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) present essays that explore Kenya's myriad social and political problems and stress the need for radical, fundamental reform. Though both works underscore the need for African writers to write in African languages, Decolonising the Mind additionally contains Ngugi's pledge to write solely in Gikuyu, calling the collection his “farewell to the English language.” Ngugi has since refrained from publishing any works of fiction in English, though he has released subsequent nonfiction works in English, such as Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993). This collection examines such social issues as the importance of language to national identity, the effects of globalization, and Ngugi's hope for a strong and united Africa. Based on a series of lectures that Ngugi delivered at Oxford University in 1996, the essays in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (1998) discuss the role of the writer in contemporary African society and the complex relationship between art and the state.
Critics have consistently acknowledged Ngugi as an important voice in African letters. He has been called the voice of the Kenyan people by certain commentators, while others have lauded his novels as among the most underrated and highest quality to come from Africa. Ngugi's fiction has been noted for its overtly political agenda, its attempts to give a literary voice to the poor of Kenya, and its consistent critique of colonialization and oppressive regimes. Critics have also praised Ngugi's role as an influential postcolonial African writer, particularly in his portrayal of corrupt post-liberation African governments. Helen Hayward has commented that his early novels—including The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood,—act as “important documents in the history of postcolonial writing, distinguished by the urgency of their political engagement and the subtlety of their historical grasp.” His essays and critical works have been acclaimed as powerful and insightful explorations of relevant political, social, and literary issues in Africa. Moreover, reviewers have asserted that his nonfiction work has provided a much-needed African perspective on world affairs. Scholars have also examined Ngugi's emphasis on language, viewing his switch from using English to African languages as an outgrowth of his political ideology. However, some have criticized Ngugi's return to using English in his later nonfiction works and his residency in the United States, arguing that both are symbolic of his growing disassociation with African revolutionary politics. Simon Gikandi has stated, though he appreciates Ngugi's growing global focus in such works as Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, that “Ngugi's best fictional work was nourished by his dynamic relationship to local sources, his relationship with the East African landscape … What is going to nourish Ngugi's imagination in exile?”