January 5, 2023, marked the 85th birthday of arguably Kenya's foremost man of letters, Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
Born James Ngugi in 1938, in Kamiriithu, Kiambu County, he is Kenya and East Africa's most venerable author, with a rich literary oeuvre that spans novels, plays, short stories, essays and children's books.
In a decades-long career that first began during his time as a college student at Makerere University, Uganda (where he went for his undergraduate studies), in the early 1960s, Prof Ngugi is artistically famed for his literary iconoclasm and social criticism.
Between stints as a college professor, including at the University of Nairobi, Northwestern University, Yale University, New York University and, currently, the University of California, Irvine, Ngugi has been churning out, and winning awards for, literary works, including Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Petals of Blood (1977), Matigari ma Njiruungi (1986, translated into English by Wangui wa Goro in 1989), Wizard of the Crow (2004) and The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi (2020).
His other literary works include the short story anthologies, A Meeting in the Dark (1974), Secret Lives and Other Stories (1976) and Minutes of Glory and Other Stories (2019); plays, The Black Hermit (1963), This Time Tomorrow (1970), Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (1972), The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976, co-authored with Micere Githae Mugo) and I Will Marry When I Want (1977, co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii); and memoirs, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (2010), In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer's Awakening (2016) and Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir (2018).
He’s also been prolific in the writing and publication of nonfiction and children's books including Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (1986, translated into English by Wangui wa Goro), Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (1988, translated into English by Wangui wa Goro), Njamba Nene's Pistol (1990) and The Upright Revolution, Or Why Humans Walk Upright (2019).
This article is a reproach to our underrecognition and undercelebration of the contribution to society’s betterment of the men and women who remain "unseeable beings" to the public eye for as long as they live.
But why Ngugi? Ngugi is one of the most visible ambassadors of our collective persona. And because he is one of the more easily recognisable 'victims' of our inconstancy above. In a long list that includes, among others, Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, JM Kariuki and Wangari Maathai, Ngugi stands out as an unsung hero, a casualty even, of our nation's protracted struggle for political and socio-economic idyll.
As a public intellectual and literary talent minded to represent and problematise the multi-form entropy in his own society, he is had a brush with the tyranny of the State, been looked upon with derogation, if not spite, by his intellectual coevals and even passed by for recognition by awards academies.
His critics often cite the fact that he's yet to win any of the world's major literary awards - such as the prestigious and cachet-tinged Nobel Prize for Literature - as the peg to hang their opinion and estimation of him on.
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Ngugi has been, for decades now, Kenya's sole representative in the foreground of the global literary scene. And this article is not even acclaimatory enough a paean to him. Nonetheless, he puts a face on our collective reputation, as a people, for indifference to our heroes and heroines' devotion to this country and the ultimate fulfillment of its promise.
As a person, and through his art, he has long represented, and projected to the world, alongside our athletes, our collective character, conscientious and moral hue as a people, nation and even civilisation.
Naming one of our universities’ literature departments after him, for instance, would go a long way to show our appreciation for him.
-Mr Baraza is the author of the play The Woman in the Messenger's Jacket (2017). [email protected]