I weep for mother but I do not love my father any less, writes Ngugi's son

Renowned academic and former political detainee Prof Ngugi Wa Thiongo (third left) with his children. [Fidelis Kabunyi, Standard]

Mukoma wa Ngugi holds the view that African culture should not be used as a cover for injustice.

“A statement that is now being used against my speaking up is cia mucii ti como – meaning one does not parade dirty linen in public. I grew up in a quiet part of Limuru. Late at night, I could hear women screaming (kuga ngemi) from a neighbouring village that was up on a hill (ngaririga). To me, it is psychosis that people can get on social media and publicly declare that wife beating was Kikuyu culture,” said Mukoma.

I first met Mukoma when I hosted him as chair of the communication department at St Paul’s University during his winter break in 2019. I recall suggesting to him about hosting a high-impact literary gathering during his stay at the institution. He was enthusiastic, stating that his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, would be arriving in Kenya in a few weeks’ time and they could hold a joint event.

Throughout our planning correspondences, Mukoma affectionately referred to Ngugi as baba. When Ngugi finally arrived in Kenya, he promptly emailed Mukoma and me, confirming his participation in the event. Ngugi playfully remarked, “You arrived here before me, so I am following in your footsteps, the case of the father following son’s footsteps.”

On the day of the event I dubbed ‘Duel on the Ridges’, Mukoma called to say his father was now at his campus residence. When I arrived, I saw Ngugi seated with his back to me. He was a small-bodied man. Slowly, he turned to face me, granting me his full attention as I introduced myself. My gaze lingered on his African print shirt, and my words faltered.

Ngugi is a canonical African writer who looms large to a Kenyan writer like me. I could have expressed how I admired him throughout my formative years as a writer, how he stood as my hero. I might have mentioned how Weep Not, Child moved me to tears as a first-year literature student, or my experience writing a guide to The River Between which I authored as a high school teacher, or visiting famed Kamirithu immediately after I joined St Paul’s University in Limuru as faculty. Yet, silence prevailed in that moment between admiration and awe. 

Ngugi declared that he wanted to show Limuru town to his granddaughter, Nyambura wa Mukoma, who was in the company of her mother, Dr Maureen Burke. Despite time constraints, we adjusted our itinerary to accommodate this last-minute request–after all, family came first. It therefore came as a shocker to me when Mukoma revealed on X that his father physically abused his late mother, Nyambura, forcing her to seek refuge at her mother’s house. Evidently, these traumatic memories from his childhood continue to impact him, even now as a full professor at Cornell University.

This is not the first time a high-profile figure has spoken about the physical abuse of a parent. Writing in The Guardian in 2014, Desmond Tutu, the social activist and retired Anglican archbishop wrote about seeing his father abuse his mother when he was a child. “I see my mother’s face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted on her,” he wrote. “I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child,” he added.

A distinguishing fact about Tutu’s revelation is that he wrote about a deceased father. Tutu laments that he never had a chance to tell his father how what he did to his mother affected him. While Ngugi has not come out publicly to give his side of the story, Mukoma has received both admiration and condemnation on social media.

Mukoma has been very protective of his father. During the ‘Duel on the Ridges’” event, Mukoma did not throw jabs at his father or his writing. Some critics accused Dr Joyce Nyairo, whom we had selected as event moderator, of not stirring a fight between Ngugi and his son. Dr Nyairo responded by saying she never believed that scions should waste a lifetime trying to punish the failures of their parents, or vice-versa. She said she attempted to make their contest a playful game about the practice of writing, rather than a vicious fight about (dis)abilities.

When a Kenyan journalist, Carey Baraka, wrote an essay on Ngugi which was published in The Guardian last year, Mukoma was the first to call the writing ‘unethical’. Baraka published a long, reflective essay about the renowned novelist’s health issues, alleged neglect and apparently, ongoing divorce.

Almost a year later, Mukoma has laid it all bare about Ngugi physically assaulting his wife, allegations that have brought the literary world to a standstill. Mukoma received support from Kenyans on X as well as literary greats on and off the continent. Prof Carole Boyce Davies, a renowned literary critic and Mukoma’s colleague at Cornell, expressed her support noting that the declaration demanded major reconsiderations. Zakes Mda, a South African novelist and poet wrote, “This is the bravest thing any son of an icon can do.” Other Kenyans on X accused Mukoma of sullying his father’s legacy, and diminishing his chances of winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

I contacted Mukoma to address allegations that could potentially impact both his and his father’s literary careers. My initial question was whether it was true that his father had outlived his usefulness, prompting Mukoma to call him out. However, Mukoma said he was currently more concerned for his mother, Nyambura. She, he emphasized, had made significant sacrifices for the family. Despite her pivotal role in holding the family together during Ngugi’s detention, her suffering remains largely unacknowledged in public discourse.

It has long been rumoured that Mukoma’s mother was a spy for the Kenyatta and Moi regimes, which ultimately led to his father’s detention and subsequent exile. Mukoma vehemently denies these claims.

Critics accused Mukoma of seeking cheap publicity. Mukoma was quick to point out that he doesn’t need publicity.

“I am at a point in my life where I value truth. I worry that we live in a celebrity culture–we are all flawed human beings full of contradictions,” he said. On whether it was the wrong timing for him to tweet about his father, who is old, frail and sick, Mukoma argued that people’s reactions would have been the same regardless. He adds that he has zero illusions about the fact that we are all here in this world for a short time.

As a community, we are yet to give childhood trauma the rightful attention it deserves, with some Kenyans on social media trivialising childhood experiences. If literary production is anything go by, we have few psychological novels, with possibly fewer on childhood trauma by Kenyan writers.

To his credit, Ngugi, writing in A Grain of Wheat depicts Muhoya, a boy who experiences trauma seeing his abusive father beat up his mother. When Muhoya comes of age, he courageously defends his mother during one of these violent episodes. To his utter shock, his mother turns against him, taking her husband’s side. Muhoya, bewildered and tearful, exclaims, “I don’t understand; I cannot understand it.” Yet, this episodic narrative merely scratches the surface, failing to fully convey the profound and enduring trauma that Muhoya carries throughout his life.

Mukoma noted that Kenyans have had to suffer different kinds of trauma which are layered–political, societal and personal. “Some of my earliest memories are police raiding us, or political thugs attacking us. But I do want to say I do not regret any of it and I am immensely proud that my father spoke up against the Kenyatta and Moi dictatorships. I have met children whose parents supported the dictatorship and they carry so much guilt with them,” he said.

On lessons learnt since his coming out, Mukoma is grateful that people have told him their stories. He says he has learned that there is more pain in the world than he knew. Tutu noted that the traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them. However, Tutu saw forgiveness as a way of healing his boyhood trauma.

Mukoma has turned to charity as a way of commemorating his mother. “For 12 years now I have been running a Nyambura scholarship for Limuru kids,” he said. “I am also building a kitchen–to be called Nyambura’s Kitchen, for a school in Kibera slum. It has been heartening to see others jump on board, so it is becoming a collective effort,” he said.

In his parting shot, Mukoma says he has no desire to see his father cancelled. “I think the work he has done on decolonization is fundamental. And it has had a huge impact on me, on my work and how I see the world,” he said. Amid the controversy and simmering tensions, Mukoma declared, “I love my father and will never love him less”.

The writer is chair of the Humanities Department at Murang’a University of Technology and co-founder of Kikwetu Literary Journal