Ngugi wa Thiong'o Thiong'o, Ngugi wa - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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?”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Black Hermit [as James T. Ngugi] (play) 1962

Weep Not, Child [as James T. Ngugi] (novel) 1964

The River Between [as James T. Ngugi] (novel) 1965

A Grain of Wheat [as James T. Ngugi] (novel) 1967; revised edition, 1986

*This Time Tomorrow: Three Plays (plays) 1970

Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (essays) 1972

Secret Lives and Other Stories (short stories) 1975

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi [with Micere Githae-Mugo] (play) 1976

Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria Ngerekano...

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Roger A. Berger (essay date spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berger, Roger A. “Ngugi's Comic Vision.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 1 (spring 1989): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Berger explores the comedic elements in Ngugi's fiction, noting how the author's satirical overtones transform his novels into works of “resistant political discourse.”]

The serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritarian; they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and always contain an element of fear and of intimidation. … Laughter, on the contrary, overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never used for violence and authority.


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Richard Gibson (review date 16 June 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gibson, Richard. “The House the Freedom Fighters Built.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4498 (16 June 1989): 670.

[In the following excerpt, Gibson lauds Matigari as a fine example of effective political propaganda.]

Since Weep Not, Child (1964), which was the first East African novel in English, most of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's writing has been in that language, but Matigari, his new novel, was written originally in Gikuyu, Ngugi's native African tongue. It is a superb work of agitprop, brief, sharp and clearly intended to shorten the days in power of the “KKK”, the Ruling Party of a “country with no name”.


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Carol M. Sicherman (essay date fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sicherman, Carol M. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 3 (fall 1989): 347-70.

[In the following essay, Sicherman asserts that Ngugi's additions to the 1986 revised edition of A Grain of Wheat reveal the author's “understanding of the role of history and in African literature and of his own role in the rewriting of Kenyan history.”]

When Heinemann decided to reissue some of the most successful titles of its African Writers Series in a new format, Ngugi wa Thiong'o took advantage of the opportunity to revise certain details and to add significantly new passages in A Grain of...

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K. L. Goodwin (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goodwin, K. L. “‘Nationality-Chauvinism Must Burn’: Utopian Visions in Petals of Blood and Matigari.Literary Criterion 26, no. 3 (1991): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Goodwin investigates Ngugi's blending of narrative forms in Petals of Blood and Matigari, arguing that both works move “effortlessly between realism, satire, farce, fantasy, and exhortation.”]

Commonwealth literature is not everyone's notion of a viable or useful category, and some may think that it smacks of postcolonial cultural imperialism, but it is a wider (if less precise) category than ‘world literature written in English’ and has the advantage...

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Abdulrazak Gurnah (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “Matigari: A Tract of Resistance.” Research in African Literatures 22, no. 4 (winter 1991): 169-72.

[In the following essay, Gurnah laments Ngugi's repetitive themes in Matigari, arguing that, despite the novel's positive political message, the work is merely a “simple and unattractive polemic.”]

Matigari was written and first published in Gĩkũyũ, sustaining its author's celebrated vow to write “creatively” only in an African language. The Kenyan security authorities' response to the novel, like their response to Ngaahika Ndeenda in 1977, confirmed the political implications on the writer's choice...

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David Maughan Brown (essay date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, David Maughan. “Matigari and the Rehabilitation of Religion.” Research in African Literatures 22, no. 4 (winter 1991): 173-80.

[In the following essay, Brown provides a religious interpretation of Matigari and explores how Ngugi utilizes Christian themes to support his sociopolitical ideals.]

Ngũgĩ's use of the imagery and symbolism of Christianity, his attitude towards the Church and its ministers, and the thematic centrality accorded to religion in his fiction all underwent significant changes in the course of his progression from Christian liberalism to the radical socialism, imbricated with cultural nationalism, which has informed...

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Theodore Pelton (essay date March-April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pelton, Theodore. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Politics of Language.” Humanist 53, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 15-20.

[In the following essay, Pelton investigates Ngugi's literary, political, and cultural significance within the context of postcolonial African literature.]

I am concerned with moving the centre … from its assumed location in the West to a multiplicity of spheres in all the cultures of the world. {This} will contribute to the freeing of world cultures from the restrictive walls of nationalism, class, race, and gender. In this sense I am an unrepentant universalist. For I believe that while retaining its roots in regional and...

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Christine Loflin (essay date winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Loflin, Christine. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Visions of Africa.” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 4 (winter 1995): 76-93.

[In the following essay, Loflin maintains that descriptions of the land, boundaries, and features of Kenya are paramount to Ngugi's novels, asserting that his portrayal of the Kenyan landscape is closely related to the well-being and identity of the community.]

I was living in a village and also in a colonial situation.

—Ngũgĩ, [Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics] (48)

Landscape as an aspect of fiction has...

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Patrick Williams (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Williams, Patrick. “‘Like Wounded Birds’?: Ngugi and the Intellectuals.” Yearbook in English Studies 27 (1997): 201-18.

[In the following essay, Williams examines how Ngugi portrays the role of the intellectual in postcolonial Africa, comparing the representations of intellectuals in Ngugi's fiction with the works of Edward W. Said.]

For many, Ngugi is perhaps the paradigmatic postcolonial intellectual: politically committed, oppositional, outspoken, activist, exiled. At the same time, though this fact is widely acknowledged, it is, arguably, surprisingly little studied, and the same may be said for his continued engagement with the figure of the...

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Steven Tobias (essay date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tobias, Steven. “The Poetics of Revolution: Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Matigari.Critique 38, no. 3 (spring 1997): 163-76.

[In the following essay, Tobias contends that Matigari utilizes an unique Marxist-African perspective to critique the sociopolitical structures existing within postcolonial African states.]

The term postcolonial literature is inherently problematic. A useful and generally acceptable definition of this nebulous and diffuse genre appears in the 1989 book, The Empire Writes Back:

What each of these [various postcolonial countries'] literatures has in common … is that they emerged...

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Christopher Wise (essay date spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wise, Christopher. “Resurrecting the Devil: Notes on Ngugi's Theory of the Oral-Aural African Novel.” Research in African Literatures 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 134-40.

[In the following essay, Wise discusses contradictions in Ngugi's theories on oral and written literature, comparing Ngugi's fictional works with such critical works as Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.]

The loss of the oral-aural lifeworld and community values of precolonial African culture forms a great theme of contemporary African literature, though perhaps nowhere more so than in the theoretical writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.1 In fact,...

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Nicholas Brown (essay date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Nicholas. “Revolution and Recidivism: The Problem of Kenyan History in the Plays of Ngugi wa Thiong'o.” Research in African Literatures 30, no. 4 (winter 1999): 56-73.

[In the following essay, Brown delineates the recurring subversive political themes in Ngugi's plays, commenting that the author's theatrical works allow “us to take seriously the possibility that art can be at war—in more than a metaphorical sense—with the state.”]

Given the immense power of the regime
. …
One would think they wouldn't have to
Fear an open word from a simple man.

—Bertolt Brecht

In a recent essay, [“Art War with the...

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Simon Gikandi (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gikandi, Simon. “Traveling Theory: Ngugi's Return to English.” Research in African Literatures 31, no. 2 (summer 2000): 194-209.

[In the following essay, Gikandi examines Ngugi's role as an African public intellectual and discusses the reasons behind his decision to return to writing in English as opposed to his native Gikuyu language.]

Writing has always been my way of reconnecting myself to the landscape of my birth and upbringing.

Not surprisingly the natural landscape dominates the East African literary imagination. This awareness of the land as the central actor in our lives...

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Helen Hayward (review date 15 March 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hayward, Helen. “A New Dispossession.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5163 (15 March 2002): 25.

[In the following review, Hayward contends that The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood are important works for understanding postcolonial African writing, notable for their political nature as well as their emphasis on subtleties within historical events.]

In this trio of roughly chronological novels [The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood,], Ngugi wa Thiong'o portrays the disruption of Kikuyu society as a result of the invasive pressure of colonialism; he depicts the struggle against colonial...

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Bonnie Roos (essay date summer 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roos, Bonnie. “Re-Historicizing the Conflicted Figure of Woman in Ngugi's Petals of Blood.Research in African Literatures 33, no. 2 (summer 2002): 154-70.

[In the following essay, Roos acknowledges the contradictory traits of the character Wanja in Petals of Blood, asserting that “the great beauty of Ngugi's characterization is that he recognizes these conflicts within himself and in the people around him.”]

The 1972 novel Petals of Blood marks Ngugi wa Thiong'o's growing interest in strong women characters like Wanja. Wanja succeeds in areas where women literary figures traditionally do not. In her relationship to the land, her...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bongmba, Elias. “On Love: Literary Images of a Phenomenology of Love in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between.Literature and Theology 15, no. 4 (December 2001): 373-95.

Bongmba contends that the romantic images in The River Between can be viewed as examples of a “phenomenology of love.”

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron. “Neocolonialism and the Betrayal Plot in A Grain of Wheat: Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Re-vision of Under Western Eyes.Research in African Literatures 29, no. 1 (spring 1998): 139-52.

Caminero-Santangelo discusses the influence of Joseph Conrad's Under...

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