Professor Ngugi’s attempt to decolonise the reader’s mind

Renown author Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o during an interview at the Standard Group offices in Nairobi on Thursday. [Beverlyne Musili, Standard]

The giant’s sandals noiselessly tread on the polished tiles, his graying head nodding before a benign smile lights up the face. The glimmer in the eyes betrays the excitement and rush of adrenaline of days gone by.

Wait a minute! Something was missing. Quickly, the sage scanned the expanse newsroom and exclaimed.

“There are no typewriters and that explained why the newsroom was so silent.”

In another life, the room would be full of staccato from numerous typewriters being mercilessly banged by harried journalists eager to beat a deadline.

56 years since

Majority of the scribes at the time were white. These are the circumstances under which James Ngugi was born. Then he had a platform, a weekly column, The Way I see It.

Although it has been 56 years since the journalist last handed in his column, memories of his expectant youth flood back as he slowly walks into the editorial conference, acknowledging a smile here and a greeting there.

Once he eases into a chair, the transformation is fast and astounding. The young journalist transits into a master, a man used to teaching international audiences without power point or notes. Softly and passionately, he delves into his popular subject and behold right before our eyes, Ngugi wa Thiongo is unveiled.

Only an accomplished orator of Ngugi’s status can unceremoniously enter an editorial conference without any prior warning and captivate his audience with his rib tickling titbits for over an hour and waltz out unfazed by stares from admirers wordlessly begging for selfies. Like a proverbial prophet lost in the wildness for almost 40 years, Ngugi bares his soul as he talks of his desire to a motherland he loves although it has more than once brutalised him and his loved ones.

This writer, who fled into exile in 1982 after he learnt that his enemies were planning to harm him candidly announces: “My suitcase is packed and ready to come home. I will definitely come home,” he assures.

But when pressed when exactly he is coming home, he laughs, a mysterious smile dancing in his lips as he responds; “Once I retire I will come home. I do not know when I will retire for I still have a job in California. I want to be the best professor and I am doing my best in writing and teaching.”

At 81, Ngugi, Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine, says he still loves teaching and writing and still dreaming of his homecoming.

“I will never denounce my Kenyan passport. I carry it wherever I go; I have no other passport and I am proud to be Kenyan. Kenya made me who I am today. Ordinary people made me. I can never forget that.”

Although he has been teaching in leading US universities for decades, Ngugi, who married Njeri, an American citizen and has since born children who are also American citizens, declares.

“I have suffered a lot because of my passport when I travel in Europe and around the world. I am asked questions at airports because of it but this affirms my Kenyanness. It is a constant reminder that I do not belong there and my home is Kenya.”

He adds,” I am proud of Kenya’s history, its people and although there are problems, this is where I belong.”

But has this love for the motherland been reciprocal? Ngugi does not think so, considering the nasty reception he got when he came for a visit in 2004.

“It is not pleasant being attacked with guns when you come home. However, I harbour no grudges for what former presidents Jomo Kenyatta and President Daniel Moi did to me. I did not know them personally and I believe there was nothing personal when I was detained and tortured. It is their systems and I think a lot has changed.”

This change, he explains is best captured by the reception he received from President Uhuru Kenyatta, who hosted him in State House and has been calling and is receptive to ideas which can transform Kenya.

America, he however cautions, is not paradise, explaining that to some people it has been hell. He believes Africans need not migrate to Europe or America to change their lives and countries.

But this is not to mean that his once sharp pen which gave those in establishment sleepless nights has gone blunt and neither are oppressors of the ordinary man immune to his criticism.

“I have and will always fight for social justice. This has been my central theme in all my  books. I do not know the exact number but I think I have done more than 30. I have always talked about empowerment of ordinary people in Kenya and Africa. This is evident in my most recent book, Kenda Muiyuru

Ngugi at the same time responds to criticism that he has yet to unpack his bags and write a novel based on his experiences in America as opposed to writing books in Gikuyu about Kenya while he has been in “self exile” for almost half his life.

Infused experiences

He says he has infused some of his experiences in America as exemplified in his book, Wizard of the Crow, a translation of Murogi Wa Kagogo whose character, a dictator of a fictional African State is frequent traveller to New York.

In another book, Nyoni Nyonia Nyone (losely translated to bird show me so that I can see) is also set in America and Ngugi insists that some of his experiences in America are infused in his books.

But for the 36 years he has been away, and writing in Gikuyu, the language which saw him incarcerated in December 1977 when he co-authored  Ngahika Ndeenda with Miceere Mugo, Ngugi believes he somehow achieved the journey that started at the University of Nairobi’s  Literature Department. 

His greatest moment was in 2015 when he wrote a story, Ituika ria Murungaru (Why Human Beings walk Upright), which was published online by Jalada Translation Issue No 1.

The story, Ngugi explains has since been translated into 78 languages while the editor, Moses Kilolo has earned international recognition and was invited for a year’s long project in Viena, Austria in recognition of his contribution to translation.

“I was invited in Munich last year for a seminar, Gikuyu World Literature. We have achieved what we started at UON, Africa is now the centre of our conciousness. The post colonial theories formulated then are now acceptable and oral literature has changed to orature as envisaged by a colleague, Pio Zirimo of Uganda,” the author says.

Ngugi believes Africans have started recognising and accepting what is produced at home and that is why his story in Gikuyu has been translated into many languages.

In his mission to live up to the title of ‘Language Warrior’ bestowed to him by Los Angles Times  Book Review, Ngugi intends to launch his epic Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rw Gikuyu na Mumbi at the Kenya National Theatre on February 11.