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.

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is the EPA Hazardous to Your Health?
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
John Eskow
How Can We Live With All of This Rage?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Armed Propaganda
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring