Ngugi books show independence didn’t bring freedom

It is always refreshing to attend a function that is simultaneously fun, educative, thought-provoking, inspiring and relaxing. Last week, the US Library of Congress in Washington DC hosted “Jioni na Ngugi wa Thiong’o”, finally succeeding in getting him there after trying for 10 years. I happened to be in DC and I simply could not miss this! For it is rare that Africans are publicly honored and celebrated in the US. And this was about Ngugi, whose books and exploits, shaped my thinking and orientation in my formative years.

I was still in shorts when Ngugi made headline news for writing, staging and producing the play “Ngaahika Ndeenda” (I will marry when I want) working with ordinary villagers and peasants in Kamirithu, Limuru. The fact that the entire cast was ordinary villagers was spectacular, and even more so when the Jomo Kenyatta regime subsequently banned the play and detained Ngugi and his co-writer Ngugi wa Mirie, without trial.

In those days, anyone detained, or persecuted by the regime, was spoken of in whispered undertones, adding to their mystery and intrigue, but also reflecting the fear within society. Ngugi automatically became larger than life for many people across Kenya, for this daring experiment in challenging oppression and marginalisation. The fact that these were Gikuyu thinkers and intellectuals — from Kiambu to boot — taking on a blatantly Gikuyu-centric (the original “Kiambu mafia” to be precise) regime only enhanced their reputation!

Given this history, it was almost ironical that the Kenyan embassy in Washington signed on as a co-sponsor to the event and was part of the welcoming party. Ngugi is now 81, and has slowed his gait, and shows some frailty when he walks. But once at the podium and is telling stories, he is a man transformed, commanding the space. He is funny, witty and charming, gently reeling his audience in, with stories and “secrets,” making us all feel a part of the creative processes. He did some of his readings in Gikuyu — subsequently translated—but still managed to hold the audience spell bound even though the majority did not understand Gikuyu. His reading in Gikuyu with the appropriate shifts in tenor and cadence was classic African story telling by the fireplace.

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He told the story of his first published work while at Makerere, and how he fought his anxiety and awe when he encountered Jonathan Kariara, who was a year or two ahead of Ngugi at the university, but who published stories in the university literary journal. When he finally managed to talk to Kariara, he blurted out that he had a story he had written, which Kariara asked to look at. At which point, Ngugi clarified that he was writing a story and had not finished. That night, he narrated, he sat up all night writing the promised story to share with Kariara!

He also told the story of meeting the African American writer and poet Langston Hughes in Makerere, who was attending an important gathering of African and black writers that Ngugi, a novice writer at the time, was attending as well. He described the moment in a self-deprecating humorous way that had us all laughing out loud.

Ngugi was tasked with showing Langston Hughes around Kampala one day and told us how he carefully planned the sight-seeing tour for someone so polished and famous.

Man of letters

Langston Hughes came out ready to go in casual clothes, which was a shocker for Ngugi, as at the time Makerere students “always dressed like they were attending a cocktail party.” They had to walk through the neighboring Wandegya area to get to the sites Ngugi had planned—the beautiful cathedrals and mosques that he thought a man of letters like Langston Hughes would appreciate. At the time, Wandegya was a sprawling working-class neighbourhood, with men working with iron and steel, crafting gates, pots and pans, hoes and other household implements. It also had lots of food kiosks, offering up matoke, corn on the cob, and muchomo as Ugandans call nyama choma.

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They never made it out of Wandegya, as Langston Hughes got totally fascinated by the artisans, the colours, smells and noises of the area! Several of Ngugi’s children, beneficiaries of his amazing story telling skills and habits, are writers, with quite a lot of published works, something that he is immensely and obviously proud of. For many of us, The River Between, with its memorable beginning of “The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life…” was our gateway to understanding Kenya and the colonial period. I was privileged to direct and produce the play “The Trial of Dedan Kimathi” which was an ‘A’ levels set book during my Sixth Form. I am now set on reading “Wizard of the Crow” that has gotten raving reviews.

Ngugi’s numerous books are all worth reading and re-reading. The fact that they still speak to the situation in Kenya today (even the pre-independence books) more than 50 years on, should be food for thought. For independence brought us neither freedom nor development.

- The writer is former KNCHR chair. [email protected] 

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Ngugi wa Thiong’oUS Library of CongressKiambu mafia