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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s "In the House of the Interpreter"

Hijacking Education’s Sanctuary

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Two incidents in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s richly moving account of his years during secondary school in Kenya, In the House of the Interpreter, bookend the sanctuary the school provided during the country’s Mau Mau revolt and subsequent Emergency.  Both of these incidents are violent, brutal—a quick smack of reality in the face of Ngũgĩ’s safety and isolation at Alliance High School. The young student encountered the first of these reality jolts the day he returned home, to Limuru, at the end of the first semester.  He had had no communication with his family during the three-month term that ended in April.  When he approached his village, this is what he observed:

“I suddenly realize the whole village of homesteads has disappeared.  The paths that had crisscrossed the landscape, linking the scattered dwellings into a community, now lead from one mound of rubble to another, tombs of what has been.  There was not a soul in sight.  Even the birds flying above or chirping in the hedges emphasize the emptiness.  Bewildered, I sit on my box [suitcase] under the pear tree, as if hoping it will share with me what it knows.  The tree, at least, has defied the desolation, and I pick a few ripe pears to eat in baffled silence.  How could a whole village, its people, history, everything, vanish just like that?”

Because of his academic brilliance, in January of 1955, Ngũgĩ had been admitted to Alliance, the finest secondary school in the country, modeled to a certain extent on Tuskegee.  It was the oldest secondary school in Kenya that would admit Africans, located near Nairobi.  But—during the country’s state of Emergency—it was also protective, an artificial refuge from the outside world.  That protection was both a comfort and a distortion of the realities of the turmoil jolting the rest of the country.  Ngũgĩ fictionalized that isolation in his first published novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), one of his finest novels, set during the same era.

The title of  Ngũgĩ’s current book embellishes the isolation within a layering of Christian morality.  The principal of Alliance, Carey Francis, adapted a passage from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “He likened Alliance to the Interpreter’s House, where the dust we had brought from the outside could be swept away by the law of good behavior and watered by the gospel of Christian service.  The word service peppered the entire sermon.  But, he added, it was only Jesus, through mercy, who could grace the outcome of our earthly struggles.”  Ngũgĩ himself became a devout Christian during those years, and when he began writing some years later, he used the name “James Ngũgĩ.”  It wasn’t until years later that he became a staunch nationalist, in matters of politics and faith.  That is no surprise, however, since African education in the colonial years tended to be harnessed to Christianity.  Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka—who have both published recent books—began their schooling within the same context.  The educational ticket came at a price: conversion.

What had happened to Ngũgĩ’s village?

At the time, Kenya’s governing system was not far removed from South Africa system policy of apartheid.  Africans had pass books; their movements were restricted.  About the freedom fighters specifically, “The colonial state refused to see the Mau Mau as a legitimate anticolonial nationalist movement with political goals.” Ngũgĩ’s former village had simply been moved.  “Villiagization, the innocuous name the colonial state gave to the forced houseinterpreterinternal displacement, was sprung on the Kenyan people in 1955, in the middle of my first term at Alliance, but living within the walls of the school, I had not heard about the agents of the state bulldozing people’s homes or torching them when the owners refused to participate in the demolition.  Mau Mau suspects or not, everybody had to relocate to a common site.” Not unlike concentration camps, holding thousands of people.

Most of In the House of the Interpreter chronicles the young Ngũgĩ’s four-year education at Alliance, with occasional cracks in his isolated worldview when he returns home for vacations.  The young man became a skilled debater; he was more interested in the school’s library than its sports field (no surprise there).  His interests were in acting and writing, but there was also the slow movement toward a political consciousness.  His reconstruction of the era is lucid, the incidents he records from these years are vividly recorded; it’s very easy to see the young man slowly changing directions as he becomes one of Africa’s great writers and thinkers—especially, as I said earlier, about African nationalism.  What an extraordinary year it has been for three of the continent’s major writers (including Achebe and Soyinka) to publish, almost simultaneously, three of their most important books.  But I digress.

And then all hell breaks loose once again, within months after Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s graduation from Alliance High School.  What a rude awakening it is for him to discover that in the face of such repression, his colonial education can’t help him much at all.  But I’ll leave that event for the reader to discover.

Ngũgĩ we Thiong’o: In the House of the Interpreter

Pantheon, 240 pp., $25.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.