• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

CounterPunch needs you. piggybank-icon You need us. The cost of keeping the site alive and running is growing fast, as more and more readers visit. We want you to stick around, but it eats up bandwidth and costs us a bundle. Help us reach our modest goal (we are half way there!) so we can keep CounterPunch going. Donate today!
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Hijacking Education’s Sanctuary

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.

 

More articles by:

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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
May 24, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Iran, Venezuela and the Throes of Empire
Melvin Goodman
The Dangerous Demise of Disarmament
Jeffrey St. Clair
“The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man:” How the Wolf Got Caged
Richard Moser
War is War on Mother Earth
Andrew Levine
The (Small-d) Democrat’s Dilemma
Russell Mokhiber
The Boeing Way: Blaming Dead Pilots
Rev. William Alberts
Gaslighters of God
Phyllis Bennis
The Amputation Crisis in Gaza: a US-Funded Atrocity
David Rosen
21st Century Conglomerate Trusts 
Jonathan Latham
As a GMO Stunt, Professor Tasted a Pesticide and Gave It to Students
Binoy Kampmark
The Espionage Act and Julian Assange
Kathy Deacon
Liberals Fall Into Line: a Recurring Phenomenon
Jill Richardson
The Disparity Behind Anti-Abortion Laws
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Chelsea Manning is Showing Us What Real Resistance Looks Like
Zhivko Illeieff
Russiagate and the Dry Rot in American Journalism
Norman Solomon
Will Biden’s Dog Whistles for Racism Catch Up with Him?
Yanis Varoufakis
The Left Refuses to Get Its Act Together in the Face of Neofascism
Lawrence Davidson
Senator Schumer’s Divine Mission
Thomas Knapp
War Crimes Pardons: A Terrible Memorial Day Idea
Renee Parsons
Dump Bolton before He Starts the Next War
Yves Engler
Canada’s Meddling in Venezuela
Katie Singer
Controlling 5G: A Course in Obstacles
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Beauty of Trees
Jesse Jackson
Extremist Laws, Like Alabama’s, Will Hit Poor Women the Hardest
Andrew Bacevich
The “Forever Wars” Enshrined
Ron Jacobs
Another One Moves On: Roz Payne, Presente!
Christopher Brauchli
The Offal Office
Daniel Falcone
Where the ‘Democratic Left’ Goes to Die: Staten Island NYC and the Forgotten Primaries   
Julia Paley
Life After Deportation
Sarah Anderson
America Needs a Long-Term Care Program for Seniors
Seiji Yamada – John Witeck
Stop U.S. Funding for Human Rights Abuses in the Philippines
Shane Doyle, A.J. Not Afraid and Adrian Bird, Jr.
The Crazy Mountains Deserve Preservation
Charlie Nash
Will Generation Z Introduce a Wizard Renaissance?
Ron Ridenour
Denmark Peace-Justice Conference Based on Activism in Many Countries
Douglas Bevington
Why California’s Costly (and Destructive) Logging Plan for Wildfires Will Fail
Gary Leupp
“Escalating Tensions” with Iran
Jonathan Power
Making the World More Equal
Cesar Chelala
The Social Burden of Depression in Japan
Stephen Cooper
Imbibe Culture and Consciousness with Cocoa Tea (The Interview)
Stacy Bannerman
End This Hidden Threat to Military Families
Kevin Basl
Time to Rethink That POW/MIA Flag
Nicky Reid
Pledging Allegiance to the Divided States of America
Louis Proyect
A Second Look at Neflix
Martin Billheimer
Closed Shave: T. O. Bobe, the Girl and Curl
David Yearsley
Hard Bop and Bezos’ Balls
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail