Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o is primarily known as a novelist, having published one of the first English-language novels by an East African, Weep Not, Child (1964). This novel, The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and Petals of Blood (1977) re-create the cultural history of the Gikuyu people and the emergence of modern Kenya. His fifth novel, Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (1980; Devil on the Cross, 1982), combines elements of Gikuyu oral tradition with satire on neocolonial exploitation and realism portraying the victims of that exploitation. Writing fiction for the first time in his native Gikuyu, Ngugi completed his own translations into Kiswahili and English. In addition to his novels, Ngugi has also published a collection of early short stories, Secret Lives and Other Stories (1975), which gathers his work in this genre from the early 1960’s to the mid-1970’s.

Ngugi has also written extensively as a social and literary critic. His collection of literary criticism, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972), testifies to the maturation of his social vision, including speculations on Mau Mau, nationalism, socialism, and capitalism. A second collection of essays, Writers in Politics (1981; revised 1997), asserts that the function of the writer in society is essentially a political one, however explicitly mute or vocal the writer may choose to be on social issues. In Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981), Ngugi records his experience during his politically motivated incarceration, openly indicting the corruption of neocolonial Kenya and offering insights into his development as a writer and an activist. In a subsequent collection of essays, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Ngugi employs the ideals of the Mau Mau movement to analyze the role of writing and education in contemporary Kenya. His fourth collection of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), addresses the need for awareness of the dominating colonial legacies of British culture and the obligations of a neocolonial writer in Africa to address his compatriots, his cultural and historical milieu, and his global readership. Ngugi gathered twenty-one short essays and speeches into his next collection, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993). In three sections, he addresses the challenges of freeing culture from Eurocentrism, from colonial legacy, and from racism, proposing that although its influence cannot be erased, the Western world should not be the primary shaper of culture in Africa and throughout the world. Ngugi’s focus on language and form in African literature and art is revisited in his sixth critical work, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State of Africa (1998). In this book, he traces the connections between art and politics, drawing on the example of Africa, where art has been widely used to expose the political sins of those in power.

Ngugi has also granted a number of interviews that have been published. In the 1960’s, he contributed forty-four columns to the Daily Nation, a newspaper in Nairobi, useful for their witness to his humanistic and political growth as a writer and thinker. In 1990, Ngugi expanded his literary canvas still further by publishing two children’s books, Njamba Nene’s Pistol and Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus. Because Ngugi’s themes and concerns are often interwoven among his various modes of discourse, virtually all of his writings help provide an informative context for the reading of his drama.


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Ngugi wa Thiong’o is the foremost writer of modern East Africa. Through his novels, essays, and plays, he has garnered the respect of both Africans and others. His fiction offers the single most impressive record of an African...

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country’s precolonial history, its exploitation under colonial rule, its turmoil in gaining independence, and its subsequent struggles to maintain a democratic government in the midst of neocolonial corruption. His essays, often forthrightly polemical, have resulted in the emergence of East African literature as a serious topic of criticism among scholars of world literature; he has also made a significant contribution to curriculum reform in African universities, emphasizing the study of African literature.

Ngugi’s plays, like his early fiction, reveal a well-schooled and well-read background in British and European literature, but they evolve, as do his novels, from a humanistic, ethical focus to one of a leftist, radical program for social reform. By adapting The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and I Will Marry When I Want to experimental forms that include aspects of the Gikuyu oral tradition and by producing and writing the latter play in Gikuyu, Ngugi succeeded in reaching the masses with his drama and his concerns. His explicit commitment to democratic socialist reform and the strong popular support of Ngugi’s I Will Marry When I Want resulted in Ngugi’s detention.

While Ngugi, then known as James Ngugi, was recognized early as a promising young writer, his later work—perhaps because of political circumstances and his refusal to desist from polemics and activism—has not been accorded the same official status. His first play, The Black Hermit, was selected for performance at the 1962 Ugandan independence celebration, and Weep Not, Child, his first published novel, received an award from the East African Literature Bureau in 1965 and first prize in the 1966 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts. In that same year, Ngugi traveled to the United States as an honored guest of the 1966 International PEN Conference.

Ngugi earned the Lotus Prize for Afro-Asian literature in 1973 and began a twenty-year period during which he produced works of high quality that earned him worldwide respect but little formal recognition in the form of awards. In the 1990’s, however, he was acclaimed for a lifetime of important fiction, drama, and criticism. He received the Zora Neale Hurston-Paul Robeson Award in 1993 and in 1996 was given the Fonlon-Nichols Prize and the New York African Studies Association’s Distinguished Africanist Award.

Other literary forms

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In addition to his novels, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (ehn-GEW-gee wah tee-ONG-goh) has published short stories, numerous plays, and several works of nonfiction. His plays include The Black Hermit (pr. 1962); The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (pr. 1974), written with Micere Githae-Mugo; and, with Ngugi wa Mirii, Ngaahika Ndeenda (pr. 1977; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982) and Maitu Njugira (pb. 1982; Mother, Sing for Me, 1986). Ngugi has expressed his commitment to his political responsibility as a writer in numerous works of literary, political, and social criticism, including Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972), Writers in Politics (1981; enlarged, revised, and subtitled A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature and Society in a 1997 edition), Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (1998). In the 1980’s, he pursued his interest in African-based educational curricula by recasting stories of the Mau Mau resistance, many of which had appeared in his novels, as works for children, written first in his native Kikuyu and later translated into English. A collection of Ngugi’s essays and talks written between 1985 and 1990 appeared in 1993 under the title Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms.


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With the publication of his first three novels, Ngugi wa Thiong’o quickly established himself as the major East African writer of the anglophone literary movement that began in Africa in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This anglophone literary school, which must be distinguished from the preceding romantic francophone movement called "negritude" because of its different political assumptions and its stress on realism, coincided with the bitter political and at times military struggle and the eventual achievement of independence by most African countries that had been under British colonial rule. Given the political situation, this literary movement was naturally preoccupied with assessing the impact of colonialism and with defining independent and syncretic African cultures. With a handful of other African writers, Ngugi stands out as a literary pioneer in this movement.

Ngugi’s systematic examination of the manner in which indigenous cultures were destroyed by colonialism has distinguished him from many of his colleagues, while his depiction of these cultures’ attempts to reconstitute themselves has made him unique. His refusal to divorce literature from politics and his acerbic portrayal of corruption in independent Kenya—first in Petals of Blood and then in his play Ngaahika Ndeenda, which was considered more dangerous by the government because it was performed in an indigenous language—earned him the wrath of political leaders and a year in prison without a trial. Building on his reputation as a fearless critic of African dictatorships, Ngugi produced Wizard of the Crow, which takes up where Petals of Blood left off—-sparing readers nothing by graphically depicting the carnage wrought by these murderous regimes, yet all the while employing his characteristic whimsy and humorous satire to highlight the surreal world the dictators create for their subjects.

Ngugi has also been concerned with the implications entailed in the use of English language by African writers, and he has supplemented his theoretical reflections by switching to Kikuyu as his primary literary language. Ngugi is widely recognized as Africa’s foremost revolutionary writer and is one of the world’s most read African writers.

Discussion Topics

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The representation of women and women’s experiences has changed over the body of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s work, as has his depiction of men and men’s experiences. What differences do you see between male figures in the early works and male figures in later works?

In what ways might the experience of the English-speaking reader of Ngugi’s translated texts be affected by a lack of familiarity with Gikuyu?

What are some of the countries with which the characters in Wizard of the Crow have contact? What do these encounters suggest about Ngugi’s vision of global exchange?

Throughout Wizard of the Crow, the Christian soldiers are on the hunt for the devil. What are some things that the devil could symbolize?

Most of the characters in Wizard of the Crow wish not to be associated with sorcerers or “superstitious” behavior and yet consult the Wizard. How does Ngugi represent the Wizard’s practice?


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Cantalupo, Charles, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Texts and Contexts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. A selection of contributions from a major conference held in 1994 to honor and examine Ngugi’s work. Although the emphasis is on the prose works, the criticism touches on issues, including Ngugi’s status as an exile and his use of the Gikuyu language, that also inform the drama.

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997. Part of the Studies in African Literature series, this volume offers insightful comments about Ngugi’s work.

Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Examines each of Ngugi’s works in the context of its historical background and in the light of Ngugi’s life. Gikandi asserts that Ngugi’s novels are of primary importance to Ngugi himself, and that the drama and criticism are meant to supplement the novels.

Killam, G. D. An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi. London: Heinemann, 1980. A good starting point for the study of Ngugi, with a biographical outline, an introduction, individual chapters devoted to one title, a bibliography, and an index.

Killam, G. D. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” In The Writing of East and Central Africa. London: Heinemann, 1984. The three parts of this volume contain chapters surveying writing in six countries, chapters on genres, and chapters on individual authors. A useful study for those who wish to understand authors in these contexts. Includes an index.

Lovesey, Oliver. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Twayne, 2000. The best introduction to Ngugi’s life and work for the general reader. Among its five chapters of criticism and analysis is one on “Performing Revolution: Plays and Film.” Also includes a chronology and annotated bibliography.

Moore, Gerald. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Towards Uhuru.” In Twelve African Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. The introduction provides a quick overview of issues in studying African literature. The twelve authors, selected for their longevity as writers, are appraised individually and comparatively. Contains references, a bibliography of primary sources, a suggested reading list, and an index.

Nazareth, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Twayne, 2000. A collection of essays, most of them previously published, that examine themes, language use, and use of the oral tradition in Ngugi’s novels.

Ndigirigi, Gicingiri. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Drama and the Kamiriithu Popular Theater Experiment. Lawrenceville: Africa World Press, 2000. The only book-length critical study devoted entirely to Ngugi’s drama, this book treats the plays individually and as a continuum revealing the author’s search for social relevance.

Parker, Michael, and Roger Starkey, eds. Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. The works of Ngugi, Chinua Achebe, Anita Desai, and Derek Walcott are discussed in this thoughtful volume. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Research in African Literature 16, no. 2 (1985). A special issue on Ngugi that provides important criticism on Ngugi’s work.

Sharma, Govind Narain. “Socialism and Civilization: The Revolutionary Traditionalism of Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” Ariel 19 (April, 1988): 21-30. Offers comments on Ngugi’s commitment to Marxism, his contempt for the middle class, and his observations on the Mau Mau uprising. Deals extensively with I Will Marry When I Want and Devil on the Cross, dividing African history into pre-and postimperialist eras.

Sicherman, Carol. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1957-1987. London: Hans Zell, 1989. A treasure for the scholar, with citations of Ngugi’s works in the original languages, manuscripts and other unpublished material, translations, secondary sources, undated material, nonprint media, and indexes of authors, editors, translators, titles, interviews, and subjects. Includes a brief introduction and preface.

Williams, Patrick. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000. Examines all Ngugi’s writing through Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. Includes detailed analysis of all the major plays, in accessible and stimulating language.


Critical Essays