Ngugi Wa Thiong'o 1938- (James T. Ngugi, James Thiong'o Ngugi, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o)

views updated

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o 1938- (James T. Ngugi, James Thiong'o Ngugi, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o)


Original name, James Thiong'o Ngugi; born January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya; married; wife's name Njeeri; children: five. Ethnicity: Black Education: Makerere University, B.A., 1963; University of Leeds, B.A., 1964; also studied film at Dramatiska Institute, 1986.


Office—International Center for Writing and Translation, University of California, Irvine, 179 Humanities Instructional Building, Irvine, CA 92697-3375. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, academic, and social activist. Teacher in East African schools, 1964-70; University of Nairobi, Kenya, lecturer in English literature, 1967-69, later became senior lecturer and chair of literature department; New York University, New York, NY, professor of comparative literature and performance studies, 1992-2002; University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA, distinguished professor of English and comparative literature and director of the International Center for Writing & Translation, 2002—. Creative writing fellow, Makerere University, 1969-70. Visiting lecturer, Northwestern University, 1970-71, and Yale University, 1989-92.


American Academy of Letters.


Recipient of awards from the 1965 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts and the East African Literature Bureau, both for Weep Not, Child; Paul Robeson Award for Artistic Excellence; Political Conscience and Integrity Award, 1992; Contributors Award, Gwendolyn Brooks Center 1994, for significant contribution to the black literary arts; Fonlon-Nichols Prize, 1996; New York African Studies Association, Distinguished Africanist Award, 1996; Nonino International Prize for Literature; awarded the Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Cabinet, 2001; recipient of honorary doctorates from the universities of Albright, Roskilde, Leeds, Walter Sisulu, Carlstate, Dillard, and Auckland.


Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, Heinemann (London, England), 1972, Lawrence Hill 1973.

Secret Lives, and Other Stories, Heinemann Educational, 1974, Lawrence Hill, 1975.

Petals of Blood (novel), Heinemann Educational, 1977.

(With Micere Githae Mugo) The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Heinemann Educational, 1977, Swahili translation by the authors published as Mzalendo kimathi, c. 1978.

Mtawa Mweusi, Heinemann (London, England), 1978.

Caitaani mutharaba-ini (novel), Heinemann Educational, 1980, translation by the author published as Devil on the Cross, Zimbabwe Publishing, 1983.

Writers in Politics: Essays, Heinemann (London, England), 1981, revised and expanded edition published as Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature & Society, J. Currey (Oxford, England), 1997.

Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, Heinemann (London, England), 1981.

Njamba Nene na mbaathi i mathagu (juvenile), Heinemann Educational, 1982.

(Co-author and translator with Ngugi wa Mirii) I Will Marry When I Want (play; first performed as Ngaahika Ndena), Heinemann (London, England), 1982.

Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, New Beacon, 1983.

Bathitoora Ya Njamba Nene, illustrations by Emmanuel Kariuki, Heinemann Educational Books (Nairobi, Kenya), 1984, translation by Wangui wa Goro published as Adventures of Njamba Nene, Heinemann Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya), 1986.

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.

Writing against Neocolonialism, Vita, 1986.

Matigari ma Njiruungi (novel), Heinemann (London, England), 1986, translation by Wangui wa Goro published as Matigari, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.

Njambas Nene no Chiubu King'ang'i, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.

The First Walter Rodney Memorial Lecture, Friends of Bogle (Ealing, London), 1987.

Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (juvenile), translation by Waugui wa Goro, Africa World, 1989.

Njamba Nene's Pistol (juvenile), translation by Waugui, Africa World, 1989.

Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Heinemann (London, England), 1992.

Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(And translator) Murogi Wa Kagogo (novel), East African Educational (Nairobi, Kenya), 2004, translated as Wizard of the Crow, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2006.

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer, Africa World Press (Trenton, NJ), 2005.

To Stir the Heart, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 2007.


The Black Hermit (play; first produced in Nairobi in 1962), Mekerere University Press, 1963, Humanities, 1968.

Weep Not, Child (novel), introduction and notes by Ime Ikeddeh, Heinemann (London, England), 1964, P. Collier, 1969.

The River Between (novel), Humanities, 1965.

This Time Tomorrow (play; includes The Reels and The Wound in the Heart; produced and broadcast in 1966, also broadcast on BBC Africa Service in 1967), East African Literature Bureau, 1970.

A Grain of Wheat (novel), Heinemann (London, England), 1967, 2nd edition, Humanities, 1968.


Contributor to anthologies, including E.A. Komey and Ezekiel Mphahlele, editors, Modern African Short Stories, Faber, 1964; W.H. Whiteley, editor, A Selection of African Prose, Oxford University Press, 1964; Neville Denny, editor, Pan African Short Stories, Nelson, 1965; and Oscar Ronald Dathorne and Willfried Feuser, editors, Africa in Prose, Penguin, 1969. Contributor of stories to Transition and Kenya Weekly News. Editor of Zuka and Sunday Nation (Nairobi).


Novelist, dramatist, essayist, and literary critic Ngugi Wa Thiong'o is East Africa's most prominent writer. Known to many simply as Ngugi, he has been described by Shatto Arthur Gakwandi in The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa as a "novelist of the people," for his works show his concern for the inhabitants of his native country, Kenya, who have been oppressed and exploited by colonialism, Christianity, and in recent years, by black politicians and businessmen.

Throughout his career as a writer and professor, Ngugi has worked to free himself and his compatriots from the effects of colonialism, Christianity, and other non-African influences. In the late 1960s, for example, Ngugi and several colleagues at the University of Nairobi successfully convinced school officials to transform the English Department into the Department of African Languages and Literature. Shortly thereafter Ngugi renounced his Christian name, James, citing Christianity's ties to colonialism. He took in its place his name in Gikuyu (or Kikuyu), the dominant language of Kenya. Ngugi strengthened his commitment to the Kenyan culture in 1977, when he declared his intention to write only in Gikuyu or Swahili, not English. In response to a query posed in an interview for Journal of Commonwealth Literature concerning this decision, Ngugi stated: "Language is a carrier of a people's culture, culture is a carrier of a people's values; values are the basis of a people's self-definition—the basis of their consciousness. And when you destroy a people's language, you are destroying that very important aspect of their heritage … you are in fact destroying that which helps them to define themselves … that which embodies their collective memory as a people."

Ngugi's determination to write in Gikuyu, combined with his outspoken criticisms of both British and Kenyan rule, have posed threats to his security. In 1977 Ngugi's home was searched by Kenyan police, who confiscated nearly one hundred books then arrested and imprisoned Ngugi without a trial. At the time of his arrest, Ngugi's play Ngaahika Ndena (translated as I Will Marry When I Want), coauthored with Ngugi wa Mirii, had recently been banned on the grounds of being "too provocative," according to American Book Review contributor Henry Indangasi; in addition, his novel Petals of Blood, a searing indictment of the Kenyan government, had just been published in England. Although Ngugi was released from prison a year later, his imprisonment cost him his professorship 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 in London.

Ngugi chronicles his prison experience in Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, and expresses his political views in other nonfiction works such as Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. He has received the most critical attention, however, for his fiction, particularly his novels. Ngugi's first novel Weep Not, Child deals with the Mau Mau rebellion against the British administration in the 1950s, and his third novel A Grain of Wheat concerns the aftermath of the war and its effects on Kenya's people. Although critics described the first novel as somewhat stylistically immature, many commented favorably on the universality of its theme of the reactions of people to the stresses and horrors of war and to the inevitable changes brought to bear on their lives.

In contrast, several reviewers believed that A Grain of Wheat fulfills the promise of Ngugi's first novel. A Grain of Wheat portrays four characters who reflect upon the events of the Mau Mau rebellion and its consequences as they await the day of Kenyan independence, December 12, 1963. G.D. Killam explained in his book An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi: "Uhuru Day, the day when independence from the colonial power is achieved, has been the dream of each of these figures from their schooldays. But there is little joyousness in their lives as they recall over the four days their experiences of the war and its aftermath."

In their book Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings, David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe praised the "almost perfectly controlled form and texture" of A Grain of Wheat. Killam commented: "A Grain of Wheat is the work of a writer more mature than when he wrote his first two books… In A Grain of Wheat [Ngugi] takes us into the minds of his characters, sensibilities resonant with ambiguities and contradictions, and causes us to feel what they feel, to share in significant measure their hopes an fears and pain." Shatto Arthur Gakwandi similarly observed in The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa: "The general tone of A Grain of Wheat is one of bitterness and anger. The painful memories of Mau Mau violence still overhang the Kikuyu villages as the attainment of independence fails to bring the cherished social dreams." Gakwandi added: "While the novel speaks against the harshness of colonial oppression, it is equally bitter against the new leaders of Kenya who are neglecting the interests of the peasant masses who were the people who made the greatest sacrifices during the war of liberation. Ngugi speaks on behalf of those who, in his view, have been neglected by the new government."

Petals of Blood, Ngugi's fourth novel, is considered his most ambitious and representative work. Like A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood describes the disillusionment of the common people in post-independence Kenya. Killam noted, however, that in Petals of Blood Ngugi "widens and deepens his treatment of themes which he has narrated and dramatized before—themes related to education, both formal and informal; religion, both Christian and customary; the alienation of the land viewed from the historical point of view and as a process which continues in the present; the struggle for independence and the price paid to achieve it." Petalsof Blood is also described as Ngugi's most overtly political novel. A West Africa contributor noted an ideological shift in the novel "from the earlier emphasis on nationalism and race questions to a class analysis of society." Critics cited in particular the influence of both Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, the latter of whom, according to Killam, "places the thinking of Marx in the African context." In World Literature Written in English Govind Narian Sharma commented: "Whereas traditional religious and moral thought has attributed exploitation and injustice in the world to human wickedness and folly, Ngugi, analyzing the situation in Marxist terms, explains these as ‘the effect of laws of social development which make it inevitable that at a certain stage of history one class, pursuing its interests with varying degrees of rationality, should dispossess and exploit another.’"

Petals of Blood concerns four principal characters, all being held 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 for independence; and Wanja, a barmaid and former prostitute. "Through these four [characters]," wrote Civia Tamarkin in the Chicago Tribune Book World, "Ngugi tells a haunting tale of lost hopes and soured dreams, raising the simple voice of humanity against the perversity of its condition." American Book Review contributor Henry Indangasi described Petals of Blood this way: "Through numerous flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, and lengthy confessions, a psychologically credible picture of the characters, and a vast canvas of Kenya's history is unfolded."

Several reviewers note that Ngugi's emphasis on the economic and political conditions in Kenya at times overshadows his narrative. The West Africa contributor explained: "Petals of Blood is not so much a novel as an attempt to think aloud about the problems of modern Kenya: the sharp contrast between the city and the countryside, between the ‘ill-gotten’ wealth of the new African middle-class and the worsening plight of the unemployed workers and peasants." Charles R. Larson expressed a similar opinion in World Literature Today: "Petals of Blood is not so much about these four characters (as fascinating and as skillfully drawn as they are) as it is about political unrest in post-independence Kenya, and what Ngugi considers the failures of the new black elite (politicians and businessmen) to live up to the pre-independence expectations." Foreshadowing Ngugi's 1977 arrest, Larson concluded: "In this sense Petals of Blood is a bold venture—perhaps a risky one—since it is obvious that the author's criticisms of his country's new ruling class will not go unnoticed."

Critics also maintain that this emphasis lends a didactic tone to the novel. New Yorker contributor John Updike observed that "the characters … stagger and sink under the politico-symbolical message they are made to carry." World Literature Today contributor Andrew Salkey, on the other hand, offered this view: "It's a willfully diagrammatic and didactic novel which also succeeds artistically because of its resonant characterization and deadly irony. It satisfies both the novelist's political intent and the obligation I know he feels toward his art."

Despite these reservations, many critics concur that Petals of Blood is an important literary contribution. Sharma, for example, wrote that "Ngugi's Petals of Blood is a complex and powerful work. It is a statement of his social and political philosophy and an embodiment of his prophetic vision. Ngugi provides a masterly analysis of the social and economic situation in modern Kenya, a scene of unprincipled and ruthless exploitation of man by man, and gives us a picture of the social and moral consequences of this exploitation." Cook and Ikenimkpe stated that Petals of Blood "stands as a rare literary achievement: with all its faults upon it, [it is still] a skillfully articulated work which in no degree compromises the author's fully fledged radical political viewpoint." Indangasis concluded: "In many senses, literary and nonliterary, Petals of Blood will remain a major but controversial contribution to African literature, and the literature of colonised peoples."

Controversy was also prevalent following the 1986 publication of Ngugi's second novel in Gikuyu, entitled Matigarima Njiruungi. Set in an unspecified location, although critics are quick to point out the area's similarities to Kenya, the story centers around the title character, whose name translates as "the patriots who survived the bullets." The tale finds Matigari who once used violence in the fight for his people's liberation, leaving the forest to reclaim his home and reunite his family through peaceful means. After discovering that the heirs of his oppressors have gained control of the house, he is soon arrested. He escapes, embarking on a quest for truth and justice that ends as he is confined to a mental hospital. He again eludes his captors, resolving that "armed power of the people" is needed for justice to prevail. The novel concludes on an ominous note as Matigari burns the house and is attacked by police dogs.

"The publication of Matigari in Kenya fired the imagination of peasants and workers in a way that closely paralleled the hero's effect on their fictional counterparts," reported David Maughan-Brown in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. He concluded: "The ‘arrest’ of his book effectively consigns Ngugi to a double exile: with Ngugi physically cut off from the peasants and workers in Kenya, who are the source of his inspiration, the banning of his book means that he cannot, through his fiction, communicate with those for whom he writes."

In 1997, Ngugi expanded on his published set of essays from 1981 in Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature & Society. Ngugi recognized that many of the problems written about in the early 1980s were still significant issues nearly twenty years later. This spurred him to expand upon the volume, adding essays not only on the current situation in Africa but also on the role former colonizing nations are playing in those conflicts. The book is organized in three main sections. Following a new and the original preface, is the "War of Images" section that argues for the benefits of an African education for African children, an increase in Marxist scholarship, and creating larger sense of identity among the diaspora. The middle section, "Words and Power," deals with the ways literature can and has been used as a protector and and propagator of human rights. The final section, "Links of Hope," discusses the similarities among peoples of the former European colonies in Africa and Asia and the shared political and economic hardships they face. Ode S. Ogede reviewed the revised collection of essays in Africa. While he mentioned some light criticism, his views were mostly favorable. Ogede stated: "A humane and touching book, this new version of Writers in Politics says a great deal about the strength of optimism. It should interest everyone concerned with the evolution of Ngugi's ideas." On the writing of the essays, Ogede said that it "is so lively and full of good judgement that one is never bored by any of the chapters."

One of Ngugi's most praised publications is his 2004 novel Murogi Wa Kagogo, which he translated two years later into English as Wizard of the Crow. Nguri creates the fictional African nation of Aburiria, undoubtedly modeled after his native Kenya during the Moi regime, and tells its tale of struggle, corruption, and oppression after gaining independence. The leader of Aburiria, aptly named "the Ruler," agrees to build the tallest building in the world so he may converse with God as he pleases. The wealthy, educated class line up for a piece of the profits from the project while the poor try to get minimal pay for their work on the construction. Meanwhile, Kamiti, an M.B.A.-holding beggar, and Nyawira, a women's rights activist, find themselves running from the police after a Global Bank demonstration. While hiding in a building, Kamiti creates a sign warning trespassers that they must answer to the Wizard of the Crow if they enter. This, however, creates an instant urban myth where flocks of people, from the poor to "the Ruler" himself, try to get benefit out of this sorcerer's magical powers. The book is filled with metaphors and Machiavellian plots alike. A reviewer in the Economist concluded that "it is hard not to be cheered by the spirit of gentle resistance that is at its core, in defiance of everyday greed." Harper's Magazine contributor Randy Boyagoda called Wizard of the Crow "the author's most raucous and ambitious combination to date of satire, social realism, and supernatural occurrence."



Bailey, Diana, Ngugi wo Thiong'o: "The River Between," a Critical View, edited by Yolande Cantu, Collins, 1986.

Bjorkman, Ingrid, Mother, Sing for Me: People's Theatre in Kenya, Zed Books, 1989.

Black Literature Criticism, Volume 3, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 3, 1975, Volume 7, 1977, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 36, 1986.

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings, Heinemann (London, England), 1983.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 125: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Second Series, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur, The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, Africana Publishing, 1977.

Killam, G.D., An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi, Heinemann (London, England), 1980.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, Heinemann (London, England), 1981.

Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1972.

Palmer, Eustace, An Introduction to the African Novel, Africana Publishing, 1972.

Palmer, Eustace, The Growth of the African Novel, Heinemann (London, England), 1979.

Robson, Clifford B., Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Macmillan (London, England), 1979.

Roscoe, Adrian, Uhuru's Fire: African Literature East to South, Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Tibble, Ann, African/English Literature, Peter Owen (London, England), 1965.

Tucker, Martin, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967.


Africa, spring, 1995, Ode S. Ogede, review of Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, p. 320; spring, 1999, Ode S. Ogede, review of Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature & Society, p. 331.

African Business, November 1, 2006, review of Wizard of the Crow, p. 81.

Africa News Service, December 16, 2006, "Court Sentences Ngugi's Attackers to Hang"; December 16, 2006, "Guards to Die for Attack on the Ngugis"; December 21, 2006, "What Prof Ngugi Said about Court Ruling."

African Studies Review, December 1, 1999, Adeleke Adeeko, review of Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and State in Africa, p. 187.

American Book Review, summer, 1979, review of I Will Marry When I Want.

ARIEL, January 1, 1991, Judith Umbach, review of Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, p. 116; October 1, 1996, Ode S. Ogede, review of Moving the Center, p. 188; July 1, 2005, Eriks Uskalis, reviews of The River between and Matigari, p. 85.

Bookbird, spring, 1995, review of Njambe Nene and the Flying Bus.

Chicago Tribune Book World, October 22, 1978, Civia Tamarkin, review of Petals of Blood.

Choice, September 1, 1993, A.A. Elder, review of Moving the Center, p. 130; March 1, 1995, reviews of Decolonising the Mind and Moving the Centre, p. 1059.

Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2004, Wachira Kigotho, "Outspoken Kenyan Scholar Is Attacked."

Economist, August 19, 2006, review of Wizard of the Crow, p. 70.

Encounter, December 1, 1989, review of Decolonising the Mind, p. 42.

English Journal, March 1, 1995, review of The River Between, p. 49.

Harper's Magazine, September 1, 2006, Randy Boyagoda, review of Wizard of the Crow, p. 93.

Journal of Black Studies, January 1, 1998, review of Moving the Center, p. 386.

Journal of Commonwealth Literature, September, 1965; Number 1, 1986.

Journal of Modern African Studies, September 1, 1998, Patrick Williams, review of Writers in Politics, p. 542; September 1, 2000, Patrick Williams, review of Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, p. 544.

Library Journal, September 1, 1982, review of Devil on the Cross, p. 1678.

New Internationalist, June, 1989, review of Matigari, p. 50.

New Statesman, October 20, 1972; July 24, 1981, James Campbell, review of Writers in Politics, p. 21; June 18, 1982, Marion Glastonbury, review of Devil on the Cross, p. 22; August 8, 1986, Adewale Maja-Pearce, review of Decolonising the Mind, p. 30.

New Yorker, July 2, 1979, John Updike, review of Petals of Blood.

New York Times Book Review, September 10, 2006, Jeff Turrentine, review of Wizard of the Crow.

Observer, June 20, 1982.

Publishers Weekly, August 7, 1978, review of Petals of Blood, p. 80; July 24, 2006, review of Wizard of the Crow, p. 38.

Research in African Literatures, winter, 1991, Katherine Williams, "Decolonizing the Word: Language, Culture, and Self in the Works of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o and Gabriel Okara," p. 53; winter, 1999, Nicholas Brown, "Revolution and Recidivism: The Problem of Kenyan History in the Plays of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o," p. 56; summer, 2000, Simon Gikandi, reviews of Penpoints, Gunpoints, andDreams and Writers in Politics, p. 194; fall, 2004, Angela Lamas Rodrigues, "Beyond Nativism: An Interview with Ngugi Wa Thiong'o," p. 161.

Socialist Worker, November 4, 2006, Ken Olende, author interview.

Time, September 11, 2006, Jumana Farouky, review of Wizard of the Crow, p. 52.

Times Educational Supplement, December 18, 1987, review of Devil on the Cross, p. 14.

Times Literary Supplement, October 20, 2006, Andrew van der Vlies, review of Wizard of the Crow, p. 21.

West Africa, February 20, 1978, review of Petals of Blood.

World Literature Today, spring, 1978, Charles R. Larson, review of Petals of Blood; fall, 1978, Andrew Salkey, review of Petals of Blood; winter, 1989, Reed Way Dasenbrock, "The Colonial Legacy in Caribbean Literature," p. 150; September 1, 2004, "Ngugi Wa Thiong'o," p. 12.

World Literature Written in English, November, 1979, Govind Narian Sharma, review of Petals of Blood; autumn, 1982.


Ngugi wa Thiong'o Home Page, (June 8, 2007), author biography.

University of California, Irvine Web site, (June 8, 2007), author profile.

Voice-Online, (August 11, 2006), Davina Morris, author interview.