Today I write to valourise Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s greatest literary artist — alive or dead. But Prof wa Thiong’o isn’t just a Kenyan icon. No — he’s one of Africa’s most accomplished writers. I can think of only two other Africans in his rarefied league — the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and his incomparable countryman, the late Chinua Achebe. In my view, they are the Magnificent Three — no argument.
They rank among the very select few who’ve transformed our world through literature. I could as well have titled this column An Open Letter to the Nobel Committee. That’s because I — and the literary world — can’t understand why Prof Thiong’o hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I am not accusing the Nobel Committee of racism, but the number of black people to win the Nobel in any category is paltry — 14, if you count the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat as black. Prof Ralph Bunche, the Howard University political scientist-cum-diplomat, was the first black person ever to win a Nobel in any category when he was awarded the Peace Prize in 1950.
South Africa’s Albert Luthuli was the first black African winner when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960. Author Toni Morrison made history as the first black woman to win with a Nobel in Literature in 1993. Environmentalist Wangari Maathai broke the barrier for black African women with the Peace Prize in 2004.
I would remiss not to mention that the late great South African author Nadine Gordimer, who is white, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Mr Soyinka became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. But my pique is with the Nobel Committee for overlooking Prof Thiong’o for reasons I can’t fathom. This isn’t to take away from any other laureates. Nyet — I am not diminishing any winner who’s come before Prof Thiong’o. I will hazard this educated guess — I don’t think you will find many Nobel-calibre authors who’ve travelled the torturous and epic journey that Prof Thiong’o has trodden to get where he is today. In my view, there’s none.
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Let’s go down memory lane. Prof Thiong’o was born in Kamirithu in present-day Kiambu County. But that’s not what’s important. He was born in an apartheid state — the Colony of Kenya. He wasn’t even a first, second, or third-class citizen. He was a subject of the British Empire, not a citizen. Yet —this man from humble roots — managed to graduate from Makerere University in 1963 with a BA in English. That was before Kenya’s independence on December 12 of that year. Here’s another nugget — The Black Hermit, his play, was produced in Kampala in 1962. His first novel, the unforgettable Weep Not, Child, was published in 1964. From then, he’s unleashed a torrent of world literature.
If that’s not pure resilience and genius of the human spirit, then I don’t know what is. How likely is it that a child born of humble origins in a racist state — where his humanity didn’t count — could publish such works before he was 27? The rest is history, as they say. The River Between came in 1965 and A Grain of Wheat in 1967.
Soon the man known as James Ngugi rejected that colonialist name for his native Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He started to write in his native Gikuyu and Kiswahili. Prof Thiong’o, then a professor at the University of Nairobi, had become a Fanonist-Marxist revolutionary. In 1976, he founded Kamirithu Community and Education Cultural Centre.
It was Kamirithu and Prof Thiong’o’s patriotic Left politics that put him at loggerheads with the conservative Kenyatta state. His 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda [I will Marry When I Want] was the last straw. He was thrown into Kamiti Maximum Prison where he wrote a masterpiece, Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini [Devil on the Cross] on toilet issue. He was released after an international outcry but denied his job at the University of Nairobi which forced him into exile. He didn’t return to Kenya until NARC ousted KANU from power. He wrote prodigiously while in exile and settled into New York University as the Erich Maria Remarque Chair in Literature. He’s been honoured the world over by leading universities, except in his native Kenya.
Prof Thiong’o is now Distinguished Professor at the University of California-Irvine. His towering literary contributions span six decades. Some, like Decolonizing the Mind, Petals of Blood, and Wizard of the Crow, are etched in history.
His return to writing in Gikuyu is most courageous. He’s defied an imperialist mindset to save Gikuyu — an African language — and give it literary chops. I can’t think of another writer of his stature who’s done that. His acclaimed and commanding literary works and his insightful rendition of the African spirit deserve the Nobel.