East Africa’s major writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, has written the first of what I hope will be a several-volume account of his life. Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir follows Ngugi through his fifteenth year, just after he learns that he has been accepted for entry to Alliance High School, in Kikuyu, the country’s most prestigious secondary school—not only during colonialism but, also, during the time of war and his circumcision in 1953. The memoir is a story of discovery which calls attention the title by another famous writer whose roots are also in Kenya: Dreams of My Father, by Barack Obama.
Many of the important incidents in Ngugi’s memoir have been fictionalized in his early novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1966). A number of scenes in the former appear in Dreams in a Time of War almost verbatim—no surprise, perhaps, because critics have assumed that these two novels drew heavily on Ngugi’s own childhood, especially his primary education during the Mau Mau revolt, which eventually led to Kenya’s independence in 1960.
There is much to admire in the memoir including the mystique of Jomo Kenyatta. The country’s first president is mentioned numerous times during Ngugi’s formative years. Kenyatta appears frequently enough that he takes on the semblance of a structural device cum cultural icon, especially during the final third of the narrative when he is arrested, taken to trial, and imprisoned. By that time the country is torn asunder—as is Ngugi’s own extended family—by the various political factions, especially the tensions between Africans who fought for independence and those who sided with the British. One of
Ngugi’s own brothers had to flee into the bush.
Hardship, poverty, rejection by his father (like Obama) are three of the obstacles of Ngugi’s early life. His mother—one of his father’s four wives—leaves his father after a fight. Although Ngugi remains in his father’s compound, it isn’t long before he and his younger brother are ordered to leave. In one of the most painful moments in the memoir, Ngugi notes, “The expulsion was, if not from paradise, from the only place I had known. I was baffled more than pained. My mother had always been the head of the immediate household, so home would always be wherever she was, and in that sense I was headed home to Mother. But it is not a good thing to have your own father deny you as one of his children.”
School fees were always a struggle for his mother to raise, but Ngugi was a gifted child from the beginning and recognized as such, which certainly helped during the often precarious collecting of fees from others. He bonds with his mother’s illiterate farther, becoming his grandfather’s scribe. There are vivid scenes in the narrative recording the writer’s elation at receiving his first letter in the mail and the rather unusual commentary he provides about his circumcision,
“Students were looked upon as having been softened by books and modern learning. They cannot take pain. I know that the eyes of the curious are on me,” but he doesn’t flinch. And he concludes, “Though the whole ritual of becoming a man leaves a deep impression on me, I emerge from it convinced more deeply that, for our times, education and learning, not a mark on the flesh, are the way to empower men and women.”
There’s one especially prescient moment in Dreams in a Time of War that I feel compelled to mention. Ngugi was not only an exceptional student but quite early in his life a writer beginning to put words on paper. He confesses to his closest friend, a fellow-student and age mate named Kenneth, that he wants to write stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but he foresees two obstacles. The first was gaining sufficient education to be able to write—presumably in English—and the second was that he would need to have a license to write.
“Kenneth was adamant that one did not need to have a license to write, or any other qualification. I countered by asserting that if one wrote without such permission, one would surely be arrested. I don’t know why this idea of being imprisoned because of one’s writing came to mind.”
The passage is chilling because in 1977, after Ngugi had become an internationally famous writer and a respected academic, and made a bold case for writing in Kikuyu, his indigenous language—instead of in English—he was arrested and imprisoned by the country’s then dictator, Daniel arap Moi.
That’s a completely different story than the one told here and for an account of what happened to Ngugi, you will need to read Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981).
In the meantime, turn to Dreams in a Time of War, a great starting point for understanding any of the other works by one of Africa’s most gifted and important writers.
Dreams in a Time of War
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Pantheon, 257 pp., $24.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.