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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

1938—

Writer

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o is considered one of East Africa's most eminent literary figures. Since the early 1960s, Ngugi has produced a number of novels, plays, and critical essays—both in English and in Kenya's indigenous Gikuyu language—with a strongly political tone, for his emergence as a writer has also coincided with Kenya's struggle to free itself from the legacy of colonialism. At times, Ngugi has vociferously criticized the post-colonial leadership in his country, and after a period in the late 1970s when he was harassed and even jailed, Ngugi left the country for an exile that would last more than 20 years.

Ngugi holds a distinguished professorship at University of California at Irvine, and continues to produce an impressive body of work dealing with Kenyan history, politics, and culture. "Writing has always been my way of reconnecting myself to the landscape of my birth and upbringing," Ngugi wrote in his Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. "Not surprisingly the natural landscape dominates the East African literary imagination. This awareness of the land as the central actor in our lives distinguishes East African literature from others in the continent and it certainly looms large in my own writing." More than his ability to relate depict his "awareness of the land" in his writing, Ngugi has led the charge to offer the intricacies of his thought and culture that only his mother tongue can capture. Ngugi argued that African culture was supplanted by colonialism when other languages were forced upon Africans and had not been revived when African countries won independence because the language of the former colonial powers remained in use. Ngugi's insistence on using the Gikuyu language was what he called the "aesthetics of resistance," according to Washington Post writer Lynne Duke. His "attempt to rise up, to rise again and keep rising."

Chronicled Kenya's Independence

The writer was born James wa Thiong'o Ngugi on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya. He graduated from Makerere University with a bachelor of arts degree in 1963, and went on to earn a second one from the University of Leeds. By this point, his first play, The Black Hermit, had already been produced in Nairobi, Kenya's capital. It was part of a resurgence in African culture taking place at the time, for Kenya's status as a British possession ended in December of 1963 when independence was formally granted after more than a decade of unrest. Ngugi's first novel,Weep Not, Child, fictionalizes a crucial period in the Kenyan struggle, the Mau Mau emergency (1952-56). In this rebellion, Kenyans took arms against the English colonial government, which had relegated them to work as laborers or subsistence farmers. The novel won its young author the 1965 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts prize.

During the mid-1960s, Ngugi taught school and wrote in his spare time. Subsequent novels include The River Between, published in 1965, and A Grain of Wheat, which appeared two years later. The latter work deals with the aftermath of the Mau Mau uprising, and the changes that took place in Kenya and among Kenyans themselves as the country moved toward independence day. In 1967, Ngugi became a lecturer in English literature at the University of Nairobi, but soon involved himself in a burgeoning African nationalist movement there, and successfully campaigned to force the institution to change its "English Department" into the "Department of African Languages and Literature." Around this time he abandoned his Christian name, James, in favor of "Ngugi."

Ngugi eventually became senior lecturer and chair of the literature department at the University of Nairobi, a position that placed him in the vanguard of the country's intellectual elite, but his prestige did not protect him from official harassment when he grew increasingly critical of Kenyan politics. In 1976 he co-wrote a play with university colleague Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, that won a competition. Kimathi had led the Mau Mau uprising, and was executed for it by British colonial authorities in 1957. But an attempt to schedule the play at Kenya's National Theatre to coincide with a UNESCO general conference in Nairobi was thwarted by the venue's European management, who had scheduled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for that month. As Ngugi recalled several years later, "the conflict over the performance space was also a struggle over which cultural symbols and activities would represent the new Kenya," according to an excerpt of his 1996 Oxford University lecture found in TDR.

Risked Danger with Play, Novels

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was eventually granted a four-night schedule, and each performance sold out. "But the dramatic highlight still belonged to the opening night," Ngugi recalled in his Oxford University lecture. "As the actors performed their last song and dance through the middle aisle of the auditorium, they were joined by the audience. They all went outside the theatre building, still dancing. What had been confined to the stage had spilled out into the open air, and there was no longer any distinction between actors and audience." Afterward, Ngugi and another playwright whose work had also premiered that month were invited to appear before Kenya's Criminal Investigation Department at its Nairobi Headquarters. They were posed the question: "Why were we interfering with European performances at the National Theatre?," as he recalled in his Oxford University lecture.

Ngugi's 1977 novel, Petals of Blood, landed him in particular disfavor, for its portrayal of a postcolonial Kenya riven by corruption and disillusionment cast much of the blame on the political leaders who had emerged since independence. The novel recounts the stories of four characters, all jailed for murder; one is a teacher and union activist named Karega; Munira was once headmaster of a school; Abdulla is a half-Indian shopkeeper who participated in the war for independence; and Wanja, once a prostitute, works instead as a barmaid. At the time of the novel's publication, Ngugi's play, Ngaahika Ndena (translated as "I Will Marry When IWant"), co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii, was banned as incendiary. Ngugi soon became the victim of an official harassment campaign: his home was searched, his library of books confiscated, and he was jailed without trial for a year. He also lost his post at the University of Nairobi.

In the midst of this troubling time, Ngugi announced that he would write only in Gikuyu or Swahili from this point forward. His first work in Gikuyu was published abroad as Caitaani utharaba-ini in 1980, with a translation by the author appearing three years later as Devil on the Cross. Ngugi viewed the decision to switch languages as critical to his ultimate objective as a writer—using literature to incite change. "When you use a language, you are also choosing an audience," he said in an interview with Research in African Literatures. "When I used English, I was choosing English-speaking audience…. Now I can use a story, a myth, and not always explain because I can assume that the [Gikuyu] readers are familiar with this…. I can play with word sounds and images, I can rely more and more on songs, proverbs, riddles, anecdotes…. I maintain multiple centers, in a sense, simplify structures."

Continued Writing in Exile

In the early 1980s, Ngugi moved to England. He continued to write both fiction and nonfiction there, including three works that have become staples for students of African literary criticism: Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Writing against Neocolonialism (1986). His second novel in Gikuyu, Matigarima Njiruungi, attracted a great deal of controversy back in Kenya, which by then had become a one-party dictatorship. "Matigarima Njiruungi" means "the patriots who survived the bullets," and the plot revolves around a man, Matigari, who has been living in an East African forest for some time, but decides to return to his home to reunite his sundered family. On the way, Matigari is arrested and jailed in the oppressive political atmosphere, but escapes to continue his crusade for peace. He then lands in a mental hospital, but once again eludes his captors. Matigari decides that an armed uprising of the people is the only route to justice in his country. The publication of Matigarima Njiruungi caused such a furor in Kenya that authorities briefly believed that Matigari was a real person and launched a search for him.

Ngugi and his wife, Jerry, founded a literary journal in the Gikuyu language, and though he had once delivered conference papers and wrote an important critical essay for Yale Journal of Criticism in it, he began using English again in the late 1980s in his academic career. In the early 1990s, he accepted a professorship at New York University's Africana Studies Program, and in 1996 he was invited to deliver the prestigious Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University. The four essays were published the following year as Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State of Africa.

From the publication of his children's Njamba Nene books in the late 1980s, Ngugi turned to nonfiction for more than a decade to examine East African culture and politics in his scholarly work. He also became the subject of several scholarly works by others. He continued to work in academia as distinguished professor and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California at Irvine.

Though living far from his home, he continued to work toward leading Kenya into a new era. "What we see is after independence—even after post-cold war situation—is, quite frankly, the continued deprivation of people," he told the Research in African Literatures. "[I]n fact, the gulf between the poorer nations and richer nations of the West is widening and within each of those nations, particularly Africa, the gulf between the poor and rich is becoming really enormous. When I travel from New York to other parts of the world I see that the whole world is connected—but in the image of the beggar…. You see the beggar and the homeless persons in every capital city in the world."

Returned from Exile

With the political party of President Daniel arap Moi finally out of power in 2002, Ngugi began exploring the possibility of traveling to Kenya. In 2004, Ngugi returned to Kenya for the first time since 1982. His return was to promote his first piece of novel since Matigari. His novel, the first installment of a six-volume story, Murogi wa Kagogo (translated as Wizard of the Crow), is set in the fictitious country of Aburiria. In it, Ngugi offers complex musings about dictatorship, humanity, cultural legacy, and Western influence on Africa in a story. Though in his review of the book in the New Yorker John Updike wrote that Ngugi offered "more indignation than analysis in his portrait of postcolonial Africa," Jumana Farouky of Time.com praised the tome for being "laugh-out-loud funny."

At a Glance …

Born James Thiong'o Ngugi on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya; married; children: five. Education: Makerere University, BA, 1963; University of Leeds, BA, 1964.

Career:

East African schools, teacher, 1964-70; University of Nairobi, Kenya, lecturer in English literature, 1967-69, later became senior lecturer and chair of literature department; Makerere University, creative writing fellow, 1969-70; Northwestern University, visiting lecturer, 1970-71; exiled from Kenya, 1982-2004; New York University, New York City, professor of African and Caribbean literatures, theater, film, and cultural theory, early 1990s; University of California at Irvine, distinguished professor, 2000s-.

Awards:

Dakar Festival of Negro Arts, award, 1965; East African Literature Bureau, 1965; Paul Robeson Award for Artistic Excellence, Political Conscience and Integrity, 1992; Gwendolyn Brooks Center Contributors Award for Significant Contribution to the Black Literary Arts, 1994; Fonlon-Nichols Prize, 1996; New York African Studies Association Distinguished Africanist Award, 1996; Nonino Prize, 2001; Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa (CODESRIA), honorary life membership, 2003; University of Leeds and University of Transkei, honorary doctorates.

Addresses:

Office—University of California, Irvine, Comparative Literature, 401 Humanities Instructional Building, Irvine, CA 92697-2650.

Ngugi's book tour was entitled "Reviving the Spirit," and Ngugi told Robyn Dixon of the Los Angeles Times. "All I wanted was to breathe the air of Kenya again, to walk in the streets, to go to the marketplaces -just to be here. Coming home revived me in spirit, which is very important." Yet a pall was cast over his trip when Ngugi and his wife were brutally attacked in their hotel room within weeks of their arrival. Four men were arrested and security guards surrounded Ngugi to ensure his and his wife's safety. Instead of immediately cancelling the tour and leaving the country, Ngugi and his wife openly grieved with the Kenyan public about the attack and the rape of Ngugi's wife. Despite the sour taste left by the attack on he and his wife, Ngugi remained optimistic about his visit to Kenya. Dixon related Ngugi's comment: "'We have to keep rising up, rising up, rising up." Cheered that Kenyans no longer lived under Moi's oppressive government, Ngugi also saw that his refusal to write in English had also made an impact in his homeland. As he observed to the Guardian: "I feel very happy about my stand. I met a lot of hostility. But now in Kenya many books are being written in Gikuyu, and theatre in African languages is quite common. The younger generation will have a choice."

Selected writings

Books (as James T. Ngugi)

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

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

The River Between (novel), Humanities, 1965.

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

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.

Books (as Ngugi wa Thiong'o)

Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, Heinemann, 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, 1978.

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

Writers in Politics: Essays, Heinemann, 1981, revised and enlarged as Writers in Politics: A Re-Engagement with Issues of Literature and Society, James Currey (Oxford), 1997.

Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, Heinemann, 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), Heinemann, 1982.

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

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Heinemann, 1986.

Writing against Neocolonialism, Vita, 1986.

Matigari ma Njiruungi, Heinemann, 1986, translation by Wangui published as Matigari, Heinemann, 1989.

Njambas Nene no Chiubu King'ang'i, Heinemann, 1986.

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, 1992.

Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State of Africa, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Murogi wa Kagogo, 2004; translated as Wizard of the Crow, Pantheon, 2006.

Sources

Books

Cantalupo, Charles, The World of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Africa World Press, 1995.

Gikandi, Simon, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Heinemann, 1992.

Robson, Clifford B., Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, St. Martin's Press, 1980.

Sicherman, Carol, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The Making of a Rebel: A Sourcebook in Kenyan Literature and Resistance, H. Zell, 1990.

Periodicals

American Visions, April/May 1994, p. 11.

Guardian (London), January 28, 2006.

Los Angeles Times, August 20, 2004, p. A3.

New Yorker, July 31, 2006.

Research in African Literatures, spring 1999, p. 162; summer 2000, p. 194.

TDR, fall 1997, p. 11.

On-line

"Africa's Wizard of Words," Time.com,http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901060911-1531284,00.html (May 30, 2007).

"An Interview with Ngugi Thiong'o, May 2004" by Michael Alexander Pozo, St. Johns University, www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/post/poldiscourse/pozo3.html (May 30, 2007).

"Contemporary Postcolonial and Postimperial Literature in English: An Overview," National University of Singapore,www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/post/index.html (May 30, 2007).

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o (born 1938) was Kenya's most famous writer. Best-known as a novelist, he also wrote plays, literary criticism, and essays on cultural and political topics.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o (formerly James Ngugi and known generally as Ngugi) was born in Limuru, Kenya, on January 5, 1938. Educated initially at a mission school and then at a Gikuyu independent school during the Mau Mau insurgency, he went on to attend Alliance High School in 1955-1959 and Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, in 1959-1964. After earning a B.A. in English he worked as a journalist for Nairobi's Daily Nation for half a year before leaving to continue his studies in literature at the University of Leeds in England.

He returned to Kenya in 1967 and taught in the English department at Nairobi University College until January 1969, when he resigned in protest during a students' strike. He lectured in African literature at Northwestern University in Illinois from 1970 through 1971, then resumed teaching at Nairobi University College, where he soon was appointed acting head of the English Department. In December 1977 he was arrested by the Kenyan government and detained for a year; no formal charges were ever filed against him, but it is assumed that his involvement in an adult literacy campaign aimed at raising the political consciousness of peasants and workers in his hometown of Limuru led to his imprisonment. When he was released he was unable to regain his position at the university. In 1982 he went to England at the invitation of his publisher (Heinemann Educational Books) to launch a novel he had written while in detention. During his absence there was an attempted coup in Kenya, after which a number of his friends and associates fled the country. Ngugi wa Thiong'o chose to live in exile in London.

Ngugi came to the United States, teaching at Yale University and Amherst College before becoming the Erich Maria Remarque professor of comparative literature and a professor of performance studies at New York University, New York City, New York.

Ngugi's literary works were concerned with major social, cultural, and political problems in Kenya, past and present. His first two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965), set in the colonial period of his childhood, focussed on the traumatic effects of the Mau Mau uprising on Gikuyu family life and on the impact of the independent schools movement on rural Gikuyu society. His third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), combined memories of the Mau Mau era with a depiction of Kenya on the eve of independence—a time of great bitterness, Ngugi claimed, "for the peasants who fought the British yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side." In Petals of Blood (1977), his longest and most complex novel, he described in even greater detail the exploitation of Kenya's masses by its own established elite.

Ngugi always sympathized with the oppressed and underprivileged people in his nation. Before independence this included most Kenyans, for the country was being ruled by foreigners; but after independence he showed that the poor, rural, working-class people continued to suffer—this time at the hands of their more fortunately placed fellow countrymen who controlled all the levers of political and economic power. So Ngugi's primary target of criticism shifted from the colonial government to the neo-colonial government.

This was most evident in the works he wrote after Petals of Blood. For the adult literacy campaign in Limuru he coauthored in Gikuyu a musical, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1980), later translated and published as I Will Marry When I Want, (1982), which exposed the hardships of the landless poor and the greed and arrogance of wealthy landowners. In a subsequent Gikuyu novel, Caitaani Mũtharaba-inĩ (1980), translated and published as Devil on the Cross (1982), he turned to allegory and transparent symbolism to indict the evils of capitalism in contemporary Kenya. Another of his Gikuyu musical dramas that stirred controversy in Kenya in 1981, Maitu Njugira (Mother, Sing for Me), was immediately published. Ngugi said that it was his imprisonment that persuaded him to persist in writing novels and plays in Gikuyu so that he could convey his message directly to the exploited masses among his people.

However, he continued to write his political and cultural essays in English in order to reach a broad international audience. These miscellaneous pieces have been collected in four volumes: Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (1971), Writers in Politics (1981), Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Moving the Centers: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom (1993). He also produced an autobiographical work based on his year behind bars: Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981). He also wrote two children's books Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus and Njamba Nene's Pistol, both in 1995.

For his literary accomplishment, Ngugi has received many awards. He received the Distinguished Africanist Award from the New York African Studies Association (1996), the Fonlon-Nichols prize (1996), the Zora Neale Hurston-Paul Robeson Award (1993), the Lotus prize for Afro-Asian literature (1973), UNESCO first prize (1963), and the East Africa Novel Prize (1962).

In all of his writings Ngugi attacked injustice and oppression and championed the cause of the poor and dispossessed in Kenya. He "set out to develop a national literature for Kenya in the immediate wake of that nation's liberation from British rule," wrote Theodore Pelton in the Humanist (March-April 1993). He was East Africa's most prolific and most politically engaged author.

Further Reading

There have been three books devoted to Ngugi's works: C. B. Robson, Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1979); G. D. Killam, An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi (1980); and David Cook and Michael Okenimpke, Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings (1982); a collection of essays entitled Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1985), G. D. Killam, ed. □

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NGUGI WA THIONGO

NGUGI WA THIONG'O, also written Ngũgĩ; formerly James Ngugi [b. 1938]. Kenyan (Kikuyu) teacher, critic, dramatist, and novelist, born in Limuru, and educated in Kenyan schools and at Makerere U., Uganda, and Leeds U., England. His first works were in English, set against a background of social and political upheaval as Kenya moved towards independence from Britain in the 1950s and early 1960s. Ngugi's style has been described as biblical in its purity, and expresses an African Marxist viewpoint. His writings in English include the novels Weep Not Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and Petals of Blood (1977), and the plays The Black Hermit (1968), This Time Tomorrow, The Rebels, The Wound in the Heart (all 1970), and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976, with Micere Mugo). When he completed Petals of Blood, he gave up English as the medium for his fiction, but continued to use it to translate his works and for non-fictional purposes. He argued that to provoke and cultivate the social and political reforms needed in Kenya requires novels and plays in the local languages. For this, his medium is Kikuyu (or Gĩkũyũ, as he writes the name). With Ngugi wa Mirii, he produced the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (1980), translated as I Will Marry When I Want (1982). It was immediately banned. In Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), he describes his one-year detention without trial in 1978. His Kikuyu novels are Caitaani Mutharabaini (1980), translated as Devil on a Cross, and Matigari Ma Njiruungi (1986), translated as Matigari. In these, Ngugi draws on oral traditions and tribal values to attack neo-colonialism, and their apparently plain language is laden with aphorisms, symbols, and slogans. His works are widely read in Kenya by people far from the modern metropolitan centres. Ngugi discusses the language issue in Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), a work dedicated to ‘all those who write in African languages, and to all those who over the years have maintained the dignity of the literature, culture, philosophy, and other treasures carried by African languages’. He adds in the preface: ‘If in these essays I criticise the Afro-European (or Eurafrican) choice of our linguistic praxis, it is not to take away from the talent and the genius of those who have written in ENGLISH, FRENCH, or PORTUGUESE. On the contrary I am lamenting a neocolonial situation which has meant the European bourgeoisie once again stealing our talents and geniuses as they have stolen our economies.’ In the same work, he says: ‘This book … is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gĩkũyũ and Kiswahili all the way.’

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o (ĕngōō´gē wä tē-ŏng´gō) or James Ngugi, 1938–, Kenyan writer, acclaimed as East Africa's foremost novelist. He studied at universities in Uganda and England. His first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964) and his second, A Grain of Wheat (1967), are accounts of the Mau Mau rebellion. Ngugi is particularly concerned with preserving native African languages, and in 1977 he wrote (with Ngugi wa Mirii) and directed a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (tr. I Will Marry When I Want, 1982), in Kikuyu. The production was so popular among Kikuyu farmers and workers that the government, fearing the play would encourage political dissent, banned it. Arrested and detained (1978–79) for his novel Petals of Blood, Ngugi wrote about his prison experience in Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981). After his release, he continued to write in Kikuyu and English. In 1982 he went into self-imposed exile in London, later settling in the United States, where he now is a professor at the Univ. of California, Irvine. A triumphant trip home in 2004 was cut short when he and his wife were brutally attacked in Nairobi; they soon returned to the United States.

Ngugi's literary targets have included governmental corruption, socioeconomic exploitation, and religious hypocrisy. Some of his writings, such as the novels Petals of Blood (1977), his last novel in English; Caitaani mutharaba-ini (1980; tr. Devil on the Cross, 1982), his first novel in Kikuyu, written while he was in prison; and Matigari (1986, tr. 1990), are still politically controversial. Ngugi's lengthy novel Murogi wa Kagogo (2004, tr. Wizard of the Crow, 2006) is a surreal, allegorical, and satirical fantasia of corruption, venality, and shape-shifting magic in a fictional postcolonial country resembling his homeland—and other 20th-century African nations. His nonfiction works include Barrel of a Pen (1983), Decolonising the Mind (1986), Moving the Centre (1992), and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams (1998). He also has written children's books.

See his memoirs, Dreams in Times of War (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter (2012); studies by C. B. Robson (1979), G. D. Killam (1980; as ed., 1984), D. Cook and M. Okenimkpe (1983, repr. 1997), C. Sicherman (1990), C. M. Nwankwo (1992), H. Narang (1995), C. Cantalupo, ed. (1995), I. B. Lar and T. I Ogundare (1998), J. Ogude (1999), S. Gikandi (2000), O. Lovesey (2000), P. Nazareth, ed. (2000), and J. G. Ndigirgi (2006).

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Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

NGUGI WA THIONG'O

Formerly wrote as James T. Ngugi. Nationality: Kenyan. Born: Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kiambu District, 5 January 1938. Education: Kamaandũra School, Limuru; Karing'a School, Maanguũ; Alliance High School, Kikuyu; University College, Kampala, Uganda (editor, Penpoint ), 1959-63, B.A. 1963; Leeds University, Yorkshire, 1964-67, B.A. 1964. Family: Married Nyambura in 1961; five sons and three daughters. Career: Columnist ("As I See It"), early 1960s, and reporter, 1964, Nairobi Daily Nation; editor, Zuka, Nairobi, 1965-70; lecturer in English, University College, Nairobi, 1967-69; Fellow in Creative Writing, Makerere University, Kampala, 1969-70; visiting lecturer, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1970-71; senior lecturer, associate professor, and chairman of the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, 1972-77; imprisoned under Public Security Act, 1977-78; left Kenya, 1982; now lives in London. Awards: East African Literature Bureau award, 1964. Address: c/o Heinemann International, Halley Court, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8EJ, England.

Publications

Novels

Weep Not, Child. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Collier, 1969.

The River Between. London, Heinemann, 1965.

A Grain of Wheat. London, Heinemann, 1967.

Petals of Blood. London, Heinemann, 1977; New York, Dutton, 1978.

Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (in Kikuyu). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1980; asDevil on the Cross, London, Heinemann, 1982.

Matigari (in Kikuyu). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1986; translated byWangui wa Goro, London, Heinemann, 1989.

Short Stories

Secret Lives and Other Stories. London, Heinemann, and New York, Hill, 1975.

Plays

The Black Hermit (produced Kampala, Uganda, 1962; London, 1988). London, Heinemann, 1968.

This Time Tomorrow (broadcast 1967). Included in This Time Tomorrow, 1970.

This Time Tomorrow (includes The Rebels and The Wound in the Heart ). Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau, 1970.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, with Micere Mugo (produced London, 1984). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1976; London, Heinemann, 1977.

Ngaahika Ndeenda (in Kikuyu), with Ngugi wa Mirii (producedLimuru, 1977). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1980; as I Will Marry When I Want, London, Heinemann, 1982.

Radio Play:

This Time Tomorrow, 1967.

Other

Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics. London, Heinemann, 1972; New York, Hill, 1973.

The Independence of Africa and Cultural Decolonisation, with The Poverty of African Historiography, by A.E. Afigbo. Lagos, Afrografika, 1977.

Writers in Politics: Essays. London, Heinemann, 1981; published asWriters in Politics: A Re-Engagement with Issues of Literature and Society. Oxford, England and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1997.

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

Education for a National Culture. Harare, Zimbabwe PublishingHouse, 1981.

Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. London, New Beacon, and Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1983.

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London, Currey, 1986.

Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (for children). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1986.

Njamba Nene's Pistol (for children). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1986.

Writing Against Neocolonialism. London, Vita, 1986.

Walter Rodney's Influence on the African Continent. London, Friends of Bogle, 1987.

Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London, Currey, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1993.

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

*

Bibliography:

Ngugi wa Thiong'o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources 1957-1987 by Carol Sicherman, London, Zell, 1989.

Critical Studies:

Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Clifford Robson, London, Macmillan, 1979, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1980; An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi by G.D. Killam, London, Heinemann, 1980; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings by David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe, London, Heinemann, 1983; East African Writing in English by Angela Smith, London, Macmillan, 1989; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel: A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance by Carol Sicherman, 1990; The Novel as Transformation Myth: A Study of the Novels of Mongo Beti and Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Kandioura Dram, Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University, 1990; "Justice for the Oppressed": The Polictical Dimension in the Language Use of Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Herta Meyer, Essen, Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1991; African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices: A Comparative Study of the Post-Independence Novels by Ngugi and Sembene by Clara Tsabedze, New York, Lang, 1994; The Novels of Achebe and Ngugi: A Study in the Dialectics of Commitment by K. Indrasena Reddy, New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1994; Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott, edited by Michael Parker and Roger Starkey, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Text and Contexts, edited by Charles Cantalupo, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1995; Politics As Fiction: The Novels of Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Harish Narang, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1995; Ngugi and African Post-colonial Narrative: The Novel as Oral Narrative in Multi-Genre Performance by F. Odun Balogun, St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, World Heritage Press, 1997; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings by David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe, Oxford, J. Currey, 1997; Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1997; Post-Colonial African Fiction: The Crisis of Consciousness by Mala Pandurang, Delhi, Pencraft International, 1997; A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives by Sara Talis O'Brien, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1998; Ngugi's Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation by James Ogude, London and Sterling, Virginia, Pluto Press, 1999; Critical Essays: Achebe, Baldwin, Cullen, Ngugi, and Tutuola by Sydney E. Onyeberechi, Hyattsville, Maryland, Rising Star Publishers, 1999; Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Simon Gikandi, Cambridge, England, and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000; Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Oliver Lovesey, New York, Twayne Publishers, 2000.

* * *

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was a Kikuyu adolescent in Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion, and the events of those years, of the larger issues of black dispossession by white settlers, and of the history of the Kikuyu from pre-colonial times to the present, lie at the center of his novels and most of his short stories. He was the first Anglophone African writer to give in fiction a Kikuyu view of the bitter colonial war that the British called the Mau Mau Emergencya healthy corrective to other fictional accounts, like Robert Ruark's, from a white man's point of view. Ngugi's attitudes to larger political questions are by no means unambiguous in his first two novels (hence some considerable uncertainty of craftsmanship in them) but what emerges clearly from The River Between (the first to be written, but the second published) is a deep sense of African deprivation and of the desire to win back a lost heritage. It is expressed in Weep Not, Child through Ngotho's religious attachment to the land of his ancestors taken from him by Mr. Howlands, and through his older sons' determination to fight for their lands by joining the Mau Mau. But Ngugi is also aware of another part of the African heritage diminished by white colonialismthe Kikuyu religion and tribal culture; it is this aspect of their disinheritance that figures particularly in The River Between.

The river is a symbol of sustenance and growth, but it also divides the christianized half of the tribe from the adherents of the traditional tribal ways, soon after the advent of colonialism. Waiyaki, the hero, is an idealistic youth, who dreams with messianic fervor of leading his people out of colonial tutelage, peacefully, by acquiring the white man's education. He would also reconcile the two religiously divided villages; though associated with the traditionalists, he loves a daughter of the fanatical Christian Kikuyu pastor. But Waiyaki's enthusiasm for Western education blinds him to political methods, and he is rejected by his people. The weakness of the novel is that Ngugi romanticizes and glamorizes Waiyaki: his tribal opponents are presented as vindictive personal enemies; their different political approach is not seriously considered.

Njoroge in Weep Not, Child is another self-centered youth with mission-school education and messianic ambitions, whose hopes are destroyed when his brothers' involvement in Mau Mau forces him out of school, but again self-centeredness is not part of any ironic regarding of the hero by the novelist. Yet Weep Not, Child is a better novel, for Ngugi develops some complexity of structure. There are ironic parallels between the African devotion to ancestral lands and the white settler's love of the soil he has acquired, with the opposed characters oblivious to their common human suffering. Such ironical treatment is a great advance in Ngugi's technique, as are the convincing portraits of subsidiary characters who betray the very values they struggle to achieve, or who suffer constant frustration.

A Grain of Wheat is a novel of mature outlook and much subtler technique. Ostensibly about the Uhuru celebrations of Kenya's independence in 1963, it keeps flashing back to individual sufferings in Mau Mau days. There is no single, central hero this time, but four major characters, each guilty of betraying himself and others when sorely tried in the Rebellion. Mugo, regarded by his people as a Mau Mau hero, has messianic visions before the Rebellion, but his jealousy of the real leader led him to betray him to the British. At last Ngugi is able to treat a messianic figure with detachment, but also with humane sympathy: the years of Mugo's lonely, conscience-ridden life are movingly conveyed. Other characters who also committed acts of betrayal painfully learn, first, the depths of utter disillusion, and then, the harrowing experience of coming to terms with their own limitations. Mugo's public confession brings him peace of mind, and helps them to face the future with some hope. A great strength of this finely orchestrated novel is Ngugi's skillful use of disrupted time sequence to indicate the interrelatedness of the characters' behavior in the Rebellion and the state of their lives (and of the nation) at Independence. Ngugi's maturity appears also in his sober attitude both to the struggle for, and attainment of, Independence; there are signs of the new African politicians already betraying the ordinary people who suffered under colonialism. Though a disturbing novel, it proclaims hope for the regenerative capabilities of ordinary human nature.

In his critical essays in Homecoming, Ngugi argues the vital social function of literature in Africa, and the Third World generally. In Petals of Blood he impressively puts this belief into practice. A convincing attack, often Marxist in language, upon neocolonialism in Independent Africa is achieved fictionally by indicating powerfully and effectively how the lives of dispossessed little people are all but broken by an imported capitalist system. The four major characters, each a misfit in Independent Kenyan society, have come to the distant village of Ilmorog to seek personal peace and modest new beginnings. Long associated with heroic Kikuyu legends, Ilmorog becomes a living presence in the novel. In the grip of prolonged drought, and ignored by the M.P. who had begged their votes, the desperate villagers undertake an epic march to the capital to lay their troubles before the authorities. Subsequently religious, political, and economic exploiters swarm upon Ilmorog to "develop" it, and using such devices as foreclosed loans eventually dispossess the local inhabitants and establish New Ilmorog. The ample detail with which Ngugi conveys the ruthless stripping of already deprived ordinary people gains power from a sophisticated narrative technique that enables Kenya's history since 1963 to be felt through the consciousness of its social victims. Petals of Blood is an angry novel but it does affirm the potentialities of native communality for a just, humane African polity.

With greater fervor of feeling and rhetoric, Ngugi renews in Devil on the Cross his attack upon neocolonial exploiters of ordinary Kenyan people. The story of the economically and sexually exploited young woman, Warīīnga, is given some of the drama of fantasy by being told by "Gīcaandī Player, Prophet of Justice," a figure drawn from the oral tradition, who uses language emotively and didactically in ways reminiscent of Armah's novel Two Thousand Seasons (1973). While the device allows Ngugi to employ a variety of highly charged rhetorical modes, it is questionable whether he deploys them as convincingly as he might have. Would such a narrator use not only songs, incantations, the very idiom of oral tradition, but also echoes and parodies of Bible stories and biblical English, together with Marxist analysis and denunciation of capitalism? Ngugi doesn't seem to have tried very hard to disguise his authorial voice, or perhaps it is the effect of translating from his own original Kikuyu. While in Devil on the Cross he combines the biblical linguistic and moral flavor of his first two novels with the acerbic political tones of Petals of Blood, the cost is much wordy reiteration. Nevertheless, the catastrophic effects of the Western economic stranglehold on many African nations is starkly revealed in the misery of the destitute and starving and the monstrosity of the new Kenyan affluent class.

Arthur Ravenscroft

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wa Thiong’o, Ngugi 1938–

Ngugi wa Thiongo 1938

Writer

Hailed as New Literary Voice

Nationalized the National Theatre

A Year behind Bars

Government Hunted for Protagonist

Selected writings

Sources

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo is considered one of East Africas most eminent literary figures. Since the early 1960s, wa Thiongo has produced a number of novels, plays, and critical essaysboth in English and in Kenyas indigenous Gikuyu languagewith a strongly political tone, for his emergence as a writer has also coincided with Kenyas struggle to free itself from the legacy of colonialism. At times, wa Thiongo has vociferously criticized the post-colonial leadership in his country, and after a period in the late 1970s when he was harassed and even jailed, wa Thiongo left the country permanently.

wa Thiongo holds a professorship at New York University, and continues to produce an impressive body of work dealing with Kenyan history, politics, and culture. Writing has always been my way of reconnecting myself to the landscape of my birth and upbringing, wa Thiongo wrote in his Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. Not surprisingly the natural landscape dominates the East African literary imagination. This awareness of the land as the central actor in our lives distinguishes East African literature from others in the continent and it certainly looms large in my own writing, he continued.

Hailed as New Literary Voice

The writer was born James wa Thiongo Ngugi on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya. He graduated from Makerere University with a bachelor of arts degree in 1963, and went on to earn a second one from the University of Leeds. By this point, his first play, The Black Hermit, had already been produced in Nairobi, Kenyas capital. It was part of a resurgence in African culture taking place at the time, for Kenyas status as a British possession ended in December of 1963 when independence was formally granted after more than a decade of unrest, wa Thiongos first novel, Weep Not, Child, fictionalizes a crucial period in the Kenyan struggle, the Mau Mau emergency (1952-56). In this rebellion, Kenyans took arms against the English colonial government, which had relegated them to work as laborers or subsistence farmers. The novel won its young author the 1965 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts prize.

During the mid-1960s, wa Thiongo taught school and wrote in his spare time. Subsequent novels include The River Between, published in 1965, and A Grain of Wheat, which appeared two years later. The latter work deals with the aftermath of the Mau Mau uprising, and the changes that took place in Kenya and among Kenyans themselves as the country moved toward independence day. In 1967, wa Thiongo became a lecturer in English literature at the University of Nairobi, but soon involved himself in a burgeoning African nationalist movement there, and successfully campaigned to force the institution to change its English Department into the Department of African Languages and Literature. Around this time he abandoned his Christian name, James, in favor of Ngugi.

Nationalized the National Theatre

wa Thiongo eventually became senior lecturer and chair of the literature department at the University of

At a Glance

Born James Thiongo Ngugi on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya; married; children: five. Education: Makerere University, B.A., 1963; University of Leeds, B.A., 1964.

Career: 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; Makerere University, creative writing fellow, 1969-70; Northwestern University, visiting lecturer, 1970-71; New York University, New York City, professor of African and Caribbean literatures, theater, film, and cultural theory, early 1990s-.

Awards: Recipient of awards from the 1965 Dakar Festival of Negro Arts and the East African Literature Bureau, both for Weep Not, Child.

Addresses: Office Africana Studies Program, New York University, 269 Mercer St., Suite 601, New York, NY 10003-6687. Agent c/o William Heinemann Ltd., 15 Queen St., London W1X 8BE, England.

Nairobi, a position that placed him in the vanguard of the countrys intellectual elite, but his prestige did not protect him from official harassment when he grew increasingly critical of Kenyan politics. In 1976 he co-wrote a play with university colleague Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, that won a competition. Kimathi had led the Mau Mau uprising, and was executed for it by British colonial authorities in 1957. But an attempt to schedule the play at Kenyas National Theatre to coincide with a UNESCO general conference in Nairobi was thwarted by the venues European management, who had scheduled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for that month. As wa Thiongo recalled several years later, the conflict over the performance space was also a struggle over which cultural symbols and activities would represent the new Kenya, according to an excerpt of his 1996 Oxford University lecture found in TDR.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was eventually granted a four-night schedule, and each performance sold out. But the dramatic highlight still belonged to the opening night, wa Thiongo recalled in his Oxford University lecture. As the actors performed their last song and dance through the middle aisle of the auditorium, they were joined by the audience. They all went outside the theatre building, still dancing. What had been confined to the stage had spilled out into the open air, and there was no longer any distinction between actors and audience. Afterward, wa Thiongo and another playwright whose work had also premiered that month were invited to appear before Kenyas Criminal Investigation Department at its Nairobi Headquarters. They were posed the question: Why were we interfering with European performances at the National Theatre?, as he recalled in his Oxford University lecture.

A Year behind Bars

wa Thiongos 1977 novel, Petals of Blood, landed him in particular disfavor, for its portrayal of a postcolonial Kenya riven by corruption and disillusionment cast much of the blame on the political leaders who had emerged since independence. The novel recounts the stories of four characters, all jailed for murder; one is a teacher and union activist named Karega; Munira was once headmaster of a school; Abdulla is a half-Indian shopkeeper who participated in the war for independence; and Wanja, once a prostitute, works instead as a barmaid. At the time of the novels publication, wa Thiongos play, Ngaahika Ndena (translated as I Will Marry When I Want), co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii, was banned as incendiary, wa Thiongo soon became the victim of an official harassment campaign: his home was searched, his library of books confiscated, and he was jailed without trial for a year. He also lost his post at the University of Nairobi.

In the midst of this troubling time, wa Thiongo announced that he would write only in Gikuyu or Swahili from this point forward. His first work in Gikuyu was published abroad as Caitaani utharaba-ini in 1980, with a translation by the author appearing three years later as Devil on the Cross, wa Thiongo viewed the decision to switch languages as critical to his ultimate objective as a writerusing literature to incite change. When you use a language, you are also choosing an audience, he said in an interview with Research in African Literatures. When I used English, I was choosing English-speaking audience. Now I can use a story, a myth, and not always explain because I can assume that the [Gikuyu] readers are familiar with this. I can play with word sounds and images, I can rely more and more on songs, proverbs, riddles, anecdotes. I maintain multiple centers, in a sense, simplify structures.

Government Hunted for Protagonist

In the early 1980s, wa Thiongo moved to England. He continued to write both fiction and nonfiction there, including three works that have become staples for students of African literary criticism: Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Writing against Neocolonialism (1986). His second novel in Gikuyu, Matigarima Njiruungi, attracted a great deal of controversy back in Kenya, which by then had become a one-party dictatorship. Matigarima Njiruungi means the patriots who survived the bullets, and the plot revolves around a man, Matigari, who has been living in an East African forest for some time, but decides to return to his home to reunite his sundered family. On the way, Matigari is arrested and jailed in the oppressive political atmosphere, but escapes to continue his crusade for peace. He then lands in a mental hospital, but once again eludes his captors. Matigari decides that an armed uprising of the people is the only route to justice in his country. The publication of Matigarima Njiruungi caused such a furor in Kenya that authorities briefly believed that Matigari was a real person and launched a search for him.

wa Thiongo and his wife, Jerry, founded a literary journal in the Gikuyu language, and though he had once delivered conference papers and wrote an important critical essay for Yale Journal of Criticism in it, he began using English again in the late 1980s in his academic career. In the early 1990s, he accepted a professorship at New York Universitys Africana Studies Program, and in 1996 he was invited to deliver the prestigious Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University. The four essays were published the following year as Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State of Africa.

Though he has not published any works of fiction since his childrens Njamba Nene books in the late 1980s, wa Thiongo continued to examine East African culture and politics in his scholarly work, and he has become the subject of several scholarly works by others. Though living far from his home, he continued to work toward leading Kenya into a new era. What we see is after independenceeven after post-cold war situationis, quite frankly, the continued deprivation of people, he told the Research in African Literatures. [I]n fact, the gulf between the poorer nations and richer nations of the West is widening and within each of those nations, particularly Africa, the gulf between the poor and rich is becoming really enormous. When I travel from New York to other parts of the world I see that the whole world is connectedbut in the image of the beggar. You see the beggar and the homeless persons in every capital city in the world.

Selected writings

(As James T. Ngugi)

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

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

The River Between (novel), Humanities, 1965.

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

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.

(As Ngugi wa Thiongo)

Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, Heinemann, 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.

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

Writers in Politics: Essays, Heinemann, 1981, revised and enlarged as Writers in Politics: A Re-Engagement with Issues of Literature and Society, James Currey (Oxford), 1997.

Detained: A Writers Prison Diary, Heinemann, 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), Heinemann, 1982.

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

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Heinemann, 1986.

Writing against Neocolonialism, Vita, 1986.

Matigari ma Njiruungi, Heinemann, 1986, translation by Wangui published as Matigari, Heinemann, 1989.

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

Njamba Nenes Pistol (juvenile), translation by Waugui, Africa World, 1989.

Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Heinemann, 1992.

Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State of Africa, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sources

Books

Ngugi Wa Thiono, Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, Heinemann, 1992.

Periodicals

American Visions, April/May 1994, p. 11.

Research in African Literatures, spring 1999, p. 162; summer 2000, p. 194.

TDR, fall 1997, p. 11.

Other

Additional material was obtained online from The Biography Resource Center Online, Gale.

Carol Brennan

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

BORN: 1938, Kamiriithu, Kenya

NATIONALITY: Kenyan

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama

MAJOR WORKS:
A Grain of Wheat (1967)
Devil on the Cross (1980)
Wizard of the Crow (2004–2006)

Overview

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a pioneer in the literature of Africa. He published the first English language novel by an East African, Weep Not, Child (1964), and wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, a Kenyan language, Devil on the Cross (1980). Writing in Gikuyu enables him to communicate with the peasants and workers of Kenya.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Political Unrest during Childhood Born James Thiong'o Ngugi on January 5, 1938, Ngugi wa Thiong'o was the son of Thiong'o wa Nduucu and Wanjika wa Ngugi. Ngugi was the fifth child of the third of Thiong'o's four wives. Ngugi grew up in the city of Limuru in Kenya, a British colony at the time, as it had been since the late nineteenth century. Starting in 1952 with a rebellion against the British, a state of emergency was imposed throughout the country. English then became the language of instruction, and Ngugi learned English.

The state of emergency arose from the armed revolt of the Land and Freedom Army (called the “Mau Mau” by the British and made up of certain Kenyan tribes) against the injustices—particularly the unequal distribution of land—of the colonial system. The revolt was also caused by a growing sense of nationalism and a rejection of European dominance over Kenya. Ngugi's elder brother joined the guerrillas between 1954 and 1956. As a consequence, Ngugi's mother was detained for three months and tortured. On his return home after his first term at school, Ngugi found that, as part of the colonial forces' anti-insurgency “protected” village strategy, his home had simply disappeared. The state of emergency lasted until 1959, and by its end, more than thirteen thousand civilians had been killed, nearly all African.

Ngugi attended Makerere University in Uganda and then the University of Leeds in England, where he was exposed to West Indian-born social theorist Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, in which Fanon argues that political independence for oppressed peoples must be won—often violently—before genuine social and economic change is able to be achieved. But more influential were works by communism's original theorists, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. By the early 1960s, he was writing for a living as a regular columnist for such Kenyan newspapers as the Sunday Post, the Daily Nation, and the Sunday Nation.

During this time, Kenya had achieved independence from Great Britain. After major Kenyan political parties agreed on a constitution in 1962, Kenya became independent on December 12, 1963. A year later, Kenya became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of independent sovereign states many of which had been British colonies or dependencies.

Published Early Novels During this time also, Ngugi began writing works that criticized Kenyan society and politics. Ngugi's first novel, Weep Not, Child, is the most autobiographical of his fictional works and was written while a student at Makerere. Its four main characters embody the forces unleashed in central Kenya with the 1952 declaration of the state of emergency. The novel, written in English, was the first published English language novel by an East African writer.

In his second novel, The River Between (1965), Ngugi examined the relationship between education and political activism, and the relationship between private commitment and public responsibility. A Grain of Wheat (1967) followed. The four main characters of this novel reflect upon the Mau Mau rebellion and its consequences as they await “Uhuru Day,” or the day of Kenyan independence, achieved in 1963. Where A Grain of Wheat breaks most significantly with the earlier novels is in the abandonment of the idea of education as the key to solving Kenya's problems and the acceptance, at least in the abstract, of the need for armed struggle. After writing A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi rejected the Christian name of James and began writing under the name Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

In 1968, Ngugi—then an instructor at the University of Nairobi—and several colleagues successfully campaigned to transform the university's English Department into the Department of African Languages and Literature. Ngugi was named chairman of the new department. He became a vocal advocate of African literature written in African languages. Ngugi next accepted a year's visiting professorship in African literature at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, before returning to University College in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1971. Before long, he was acting chairman and then chairman of the department.

Wrote Significant Plays While Ngugi had written full-length plays as early as 1962—namely, The Black Hermit—he began focusing more attention on them in the mid-1970s. He began translating his play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) into Gikuyu in 1978, and, with fellow Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Mirii, wrote another play in Gikuyu, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977). It was translated into English as I Will Marry When I Want in 1982. Ngugi published his last English language novel, Petals ofBlood, in 1977. That same year, in response to Ngaahika Ndeenda, the Kenyan government arrested and detained him for one year.

Wrote in Gikuyu While Detained In detention, Ngugi wrote Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981). He also began writing his first Gikuyu language novel, Caitaani mutharaba-ini (1980) on sheets of toilet paper. Ngugi was never given any reason for his detention. Upon his release, he lost his position at the University of Nairobi. Although he continued to write nonfiction in English after this point, Ngugi wrote his novels and plays in Gikuyu and translated some of his works into other African languages.

Ngugi was occupied for the next two years with the English translation of Caitaani mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross, 1982) and his second collection of essays, Writers in Politics (1981). This collection is made up of thirteen essays, written between 1970 and 1980, the main concern of which is summed up by Ngugi in the preface: “What's the relevance of literature to life?”

Lived in Exile In 1982, Ngugi left his country for a self-imposed exile. While Kenya had been very politically stable through the decades, the country's National Assembly voted to formally make Kenya a one-party state in 1982. Later that same year, a group of junior air force officers, supported by university students and urban workers, tried and failed to impose a military coup. During his exile, Ngugi lectured at Auckland University in New Zealand, and those lectures were published as Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986). This collection condenses many of his earlier arguments on language, literature, and society into four, often informatively autobiographical, essays.

In 1986, Ngugi announced that he would bid a complete “farewell to English.” Ngugi then published three children's books in Gikuyu and a booklet, Writing Against Neocolonialism (1986), as well as a second novel in Gikuyu, Matigari ma Njiruungi (1986; translated as Matigari in 1989), which was banned in Kenya for a decade.

Since 1989, Ngugi has lived in the United States, teaching at universities in New York and California. In 2006, he published Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of his Gikuyu novel, Murogi wa Kagogo (2004), to glowing reviews. It is a political satire with elements of magical realism.

Works in Literary Context

Ngugi has singled out three works as having impressed and influenced him in particular: Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin (1953), and Peter Abrahams's Tell Freedom (1954). Informally, Ngugi's political thinking was revolutionized by his exposure to works by Karl Marx and Franz Fanon and by socialist academics. Apart from the West Indian writers on whom Ngugi's university research focused, the specific literary influences to which he was first exposed at Leeds were German dramatist Bertolt Brecht's plays and Irish-British novelist Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), described by Ime Ikiddeh as a “major influence” on Ngugi.

History Like their counterparts in other postcolonial settings, African writers confront a history that has been written about them by outsiders, a set of defining (often derogative) tropes and stories to which they often feel compelled to respond. They need to “remember” a history that his effectively been dismembered as a result of the violent encounter of colonialism. Thus revisiting Kenyan and Gikuyu history plays a central role in Ngugi's works. His first novels are set in the recent colonial past; the middle novels, while set at the time of independence and after, feature extensive flashbacks as an integral part of their structure. Traditional Gikuyu stories, songs, myths, and customs, along with the stories and songs of the resistance movement before and after independence, are also key elements in this urge to recover an obscured or misrepresented past.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Thiong'o's famous contemporaries include:

Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian novelist who chose to write in English in order to reclaim the language from its association with the British colonizers of Africa. His novels include Things Fall Apart (1958).

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–): Kenyan environmental activist and member of Parliament who, in 2004, became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–): Colombian novelist and writer with radical political views and father of the “magical realist” movement in literature. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. His novels include One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Daniel arap Moi (1924–): president of Kenya, 1978– 2002, and ardent anti-Marxist, he established a singleparty state and presided over human rights abuses and a major corruption scandal.

Gao Xingjian (1940–): Chinese novelist, playwright, critic, and artist living in France, whose work is banned in China. In 2000, he became the first Chinese writer awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His plays include Signal Alarm (1982).

Such an oral tradition can be found in Devil on the Cross. In formal terms, the writing of this novel in Gikuyu has resulted in a far heavier reliance on devices drawn from, and deliberately signaling the novel's relationship with, an oral tradition. The narrator refers to himself as “Prophet of Justice” and is addressed as “Gicaandi Player” on the opening page. Extensive use is made of proverbs and riddles in the dialogue; figurative language almost always has a local reference. Songs, particularly Mau Mau liberation songs, are integrated into the narrative.

Christian Imagery Christian imagery and allusions feature prominently in all of Ngugi's work. If this seems surprising from someone who does not call himself a Christian, it must be remembered that, as Ngugi regularly points out, Kenyans and especially the Gikuyu are widely Christianized, and the Bible is probably the one text with which a largely illiterate population is familiar. The Bible thus offers a rich and handy store of characters, events, and symbols for a writer to exploit. Ngugi's cast of characters contains a wealth of Moses, Messiah, and Judas figures alongside allusions and quotations from the book of Psalms, the prophets, and Gospel parables.

Works in Critical Context

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 attempt to give a literary voice to the poor of Kenya, and its consistent critique of colonization and oppressive regimes. Critics have also praised Ngugi's role as an influential postcolonial African writer, particularly in his portrayal of corrupt postliberation African governments.

AGrain of Wheat A Grain of Wheat is widely considered by critics to be Ngugi's most successful novel, as he had honed the skills that were less evenly displayed in his first two books. Angus Calder wrote that A Grain of Wheat “is arguably the best, and certainly the most underrated novel to come from Black Africa.” Taking A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood together, Gerald Moore asserts that these two novels “form the most impressive and original achievement yet, in African fiction.”

Wizard of the Crow This novel has received near universal praise from critics. Stuart Kelley wrote that he had “every expectation that [Ngugi's] new novel, Wizard of the Crow, will be seen in years to come as the equal of [Salman Rushdie's] Midnight's Children, [Gunter Grass's] The Tin Drum, or [Gabriel García Márquez's] One Hundred Years of Solitude; a magisterial magic realist account of 20th-century African history. It is unreservedly a masterpiece.”

Other critics praised Ngugi's ability to express the colonial and postcolonial attitudes of Africans as well as his storytelling ability. David Hellman believed that “the effort to throw off the shadow chains of the [colonial] past while establishing an authentically African continuum has been at the thematic center of much African literature, but in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's epic novel, Wizard of the Crow, this theme may well have found its ultimate expression.” And Scottish-African writer and critic Aminatta Forna noted that “Wizard of the Crow is first and foremost a great, spellbinding tale, probably the crowning glory of Ngugi's life's work…. He has turned the power of storytelling into a weapon against totalitarianism.”

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

While imprisoned, Ngugi wrote Detained, his memoir of the experience. Here are some other works written about or during the time their authors were in jail.

Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524), a philosophical treatise by Boethius. Jailed for treason and awaiting trial, the Roman Christian philosopher examines such issues as whether humans have free will and how evil can exist. This work uses classical philosophy to answer its questions and was very influential in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Long Walk to Freedom (1995), an autobiography by Nelson Mandela. Much of this book was secretly written during the twenty-seven years Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa for working against the apartheid regime, which segregated and oppressed nonwhite people. Mandela later became the first elected president of South Africa and received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Night (1958), a memoir by Elie Wiesel. This work by Wiesel, born a Romanian Orthodox Jew, describes his existence in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during World War II, during which his parents and sister died. It is considered a classic of Holocaust literature.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This short novel draws on the author's own experience of eight years in a Soviet labor camp. It was the first widely read work exposing repression in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

This Earth of Mankind (1980), a novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Imprisoned as a political prisoner by Indonesian president Suharto's regime and forbidden to write, Toer dictated this and three other novels to his fellow prisoners. The so-called Buru Quartet, named for the prison, examines the development of Indonesian nationalism.

Responses to Literature

  1. What should the relationship be between education and political activism? Do people have a responsibility to speak up against oppression and for their beliefs? What if speaking out will put them or their families in danger? What would you do? Write an essay that outlines your responses to these complex questions.
  2. Ngugi has asked, “What is the relevance of literature to life?” Write an essay responding to his question. Use specific examples in your response.
  3. Write your own definition of political action. Did you include writing a novel as being a political act? Why or why not?
  4. Research novelist Chinua Achebe's reasons for choosing to write in English. Write an essay analyzing his reasons for doing so, and contrast them with Ngugi's reasons for refusing to write in English. Whose point of view do you agree with more? Why?
  5. Research Martinique revolutionary Franz Fanon's political views in terms of liberation and anticolonial movements. Write an essay summarizing his position, then explain your own opinion.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

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

Gurr, Andrew. Writers in Exile: The Identity of Home in Modern Literature. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester, 1981.

Moore, Gerald. “Towards Uhuru.” In Twelve African Writers. London: Hutchinson, 1980.

Palmer, Eustace. The Growth of the African Novel. London: Heinemann, 1979.

Parker, Michael, and Roger Starkey, eds. Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.

Robson, Clifford B. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Periodicals

Martini, Jurgen, et al. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Interview.” Kunapipi 3, nos. 1 & 2 (1981): 110–16; 135–40.

Mbughuni, L. A. “Old and New Drama from East Africa.” African Literature Today 8 (1976): 85–98.

Reed, John. “James Ngugi and the African Novel.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1 (September 1965): 117–21.

Sicherman, Carol M. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures 20 (1989): 347–70.

Web Sites

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's home page. Ngugi wa Thiong'o.org. Retrieved March 20, 2008, from http://005a660.netsolhost.com/index.html

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Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

NGUGI WA THIONG'O

NGUGI WA THIONG'O. (J(Ames) T. Ngugi). Kenyan, b. 1938. Genres: Novels, Plays/Screenplays, Literary criticism and history, Politics/ Government. Career: Literary and political journalist; contributor, Sunday Nation, Nairobi. Former ed., Penpoint mag., Kampala. Publications: The Black Hermit (play), 1962; This Time Tomorrow (play), 1964; Weep Not, Child, 1964; The River Between, 1965; A Grain of Wheat, 1967; Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics, 1972; Secret Lives, 1974; Petals of Blood, 1977; (with M.G. Mugo) The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, 1977; Writers in Politics, 1980; Devil on the Cross, 1981; Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, 1981; Education for a National Culture, 1981; I Will Marry When I Want (play), 1982; Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, 1983; Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986; Matigari, 1989; Moving the Centre, 1994; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts, 1995; Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, 1998. Address: c/o Heinemann International, Halley Ct, Jordan Hill, Oxford OX2 8EJ, England.

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