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Memoir and Ngugi’s unique side

By - | May 11th 2013 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Many know him as a serious writer, one who could be weeping all the time, but as JOHN KARIUKI argues, the author portrays his hilarious image in the book

 Like me, many fans of Ngugi wa Thiong’o are likely to be nonplussed to learn that he was saved and a staunch member of the Balokole, a movement of Jesus-is-my-personal-saviour adherents, while at Alliance High School between 1955-58! It hit me as ironic that Ngugi, who, through his works has distinguished himself, as Kenya’s foremost critic of the hypocrisy with which we practise brand Kenya Christianity, would spend his secondary school years trying to win souls on behalf of the Lord!

   It’s equally puzzling to learn that by Form Four, Ngugi had appeared in several of Shakespeare’s productions at Alliance and read Edgar Wallace’s thrillers, Sherlock Holmes (and made a fiasco in trying a few of this detective’s tricks!), Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country and Booker T Washington’s biography, Up From Slavery and Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Youth and Boyhood trilogy among others- a feat really.

And did you know that Ngugi was a dorm prefect, chairman of the rather insensitively named Inter-Tribal Society, played chess and participated in the scouting movement and did volunteer work?

These are some of the many profound and hilarious revelations that he makes in his memoirs, In the House of the Interpreter (EAEP 2013), which is retailing at Sh800.

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   There have been some sentiments that younger generation of readers often find the works of older African writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Okot p’Bitek and Ngugi, among others as difficult or too serious. Their works are perceived to be based on cultural and thematic motifs that few of them can identify with. But In the House of the Interpreter absolves this view by its hilarity and incisive snapshots into Ngugi’s eventful early life.

   In this memoir, the angst, restlessness and skepticism that would inform Ngugi’s future writing come to the fore. Siriana Mission, which he would allude to in Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross, is actually Alliance High School though he doesn’t give the coordinates of his ubiquitous fictional locale Ilmorog! And through his sometimes fractious interactions with some of his schoolmates, one can see the rich repertoire of characters that populates his fiction titles. In the House of the Interpreter is a chronicle of Ngugi’s journey in the quest for education against a backdrop of displacement, the Mau Mau uprising and excesses of the colonial government.

Self discovery

 It is a journey of Ngugi’s self discovery as he examines the prevailing mzungu (Whiteman) beliefs, pathos and ethos through the microcosm of the Alliance community.

  This was a period when many things were in, apparently, a self-negating mode to the young and critical Ngugi. For example, as he sought wisdom at the mzungu’s then citadel of academic excellence, his brother, Good Wallace, was a fighter within the Mau Mau ranks.

 Despite wearing the Alliance High School uniform (a veritable pass in itself) all the time when going out of school, Ngugi would be puzzled by the many brushes with the colonial authorities and their home guard accomplices, culmination in an actual arrest and arraignment in court!

 Ngugi is puzzled too by the Whiteman’s education that would come wholesale, like all other products made in England. They were following a syllabus lad out by the Cambridge Examination Board.

 “The pedagogy may have had some unintended benefits: the glamour of the far away and long ago contrasted sharply with the gloom of the near and present. An escape into wintry snow, flowers of spring, mountain chalets, and piracy on the high seas of those times and places carried my mind away from the anxieties of the moment,” he says. Yet he would excel at it and proceed to Makerere University.   And a near fight between an armed colonial soldier and a bishop is firmly etched in his memory along other contradictions! The reason: the two wazungu (Whiteman) are on opposite sides of the British government’s moral justification of its occupation of Kenya!  The legendary Alliance principal, Edward Carey Francis, a Franciscan missionary, also comes across as a monument of inconsistencies to Ngugi’s critical eye. As Ngugi says, Alliance was Carey Francis and Carey Francis was Alliance. His personality was stamped on everything. It was common, then, for him to inspect the students, the teachers and their wives during a normal school assembly! He would then lead the entire school community to the school chapel where he would don a cloak of resident preacher and give a weekly homily!

   Ngugi says that despite working for the Empire, Carey Francis, believed that the Mau Mau was evil through and through, and had done much harm to Africans and Europeans alike; but it was a resistance movement waging a legitimate nationalist struggle against foreign occupation. Beneath his veneer of toughness, Carey Francis was a magician of sorts, conjuring up rabbit-out-hat tricks to the mesmerised students!

He would too announce any big international event whenever it occurred.  And he had some prophetic advice for Ngugi upon completion of his four-year course: “whatever you do, don’t be a politician.” He had qualified: “all politicians, black, white, and brown are unmitigated scoundrels!”

   By deviating from his characteristic deep thematic concerns, Ngugi comes out at his most hilarious in In the House of the Interpreter. This book is a testament that all great writers often pack a set of unique personal qualities, chief among them an unrepentant penchant for refusing to take all things at their face value!

Writer is the author of Mystery of the ‘Red Mountain’, teaches Biology/Chemistry at Nyandarua School.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o Carey Francis Alliance High School Chinua Achebe Wole Soyinka
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