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Thiong’o's memories of a time of war

May 17, 2010

thiongoNgugi wa Thiong’o had been hesitant to write his memoirs, but wanted to give his children a wake up call about what life was like when you had to walk miles to school - not to mention being a political prisoner.

A giant of African literature, he has never been afraid to challenge the establishment. Yet while he recounts his time in prison with humour today, he has never moved back to Kenya full time since going into exile nearly 30 years ago despite being one of the country’s best-known writers. 

Thiong’o was imprisoned without charge in December 1977 after peasants and workers performed his play “Ngaahika Ndeenda”,  which criticised inequalities in Kenyan society.

Thiong’o went into exile in 1982 and only returned in 2004, when he and his wife were assaulted in what he maintains was a politically motivated attack.

“If I had returned to Kenya during the Moi dictatorship, I probably wouldn’t be breathing today. But after the defeat of the Moi dictatorship …  my exile was over, because I know I can return to Kenya, I can visit Kenya, although I have to say that when my wife and I returned to Kenya for the first time we were brutally attacked by armed gunmen so I realised that the forces that had always been against what I stand for in terms of creating a more humane society, that those forces are still very much alive,” he told Reuters Africa Journal in Los Angeles.

“I was arrested in 1977 … when I was then professor and chairperson of the department of literature at Nairobi university. So, from being a professor and author of three novels, and so on, I found myself in a maximum security prison. On my left, were sections for the mentally deranged, and then the other side was for those who were condemned to die. So writers were somewhere between those two categories,” the 72-year-old told fans at Los Angeles public library, where he was promoting the first volume, “Dreams in a Time of War”.

Under Daniel arap Moi’s rule, dissent was crushed and those who opposed him were harassed and suppressed, many of them killed or subjected to Nairobi’s torture chambers.

The brutal repression of life under a dictatorship informs much of Thiong’o's work. One novel, “Wizard of the Crow”, revolves around an imaginary country’s ruler who wielded so much power that every aspect of his life, including eating and going to the toilet, made news.

It was his wife Njeeri wa Ngugi who persuaded him to begin writing his memoirs when their children began asking questions about their early lives in Kenya. This first volume tells of his childhood, colonialism and the uprising for independence from Britain. “My husband was explaining that he had to walk a long way (to school) … and our son turned round and said ‘How come? Your mummy was so mean, why wouldn’t she drive you?’,” she told Africa Journal.

“And I think that’s when he had a true wake up call. He thought ‘I had better do this for my children, my grandchildren’.”

(Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o speaks about his book “Wizard of the Crow” at a bookshop in downtown Nairobi in 2007. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna)

As a 14 year-old High School student in Nigeria, my understanding of true struggle for independence was through the prism of “Weep not Child” Almost 40 years later, the memory of the images i captured on the pages of the book shines clearly and without any distortion. Thanks for the memory, and God bless you in your new endeavor

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