Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, novelist and theorist of post-colonial literature. He is currently a distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, USA. He was born in Kenya in 1938 into a large peasant family. Educated at Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools; Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College, Uganda and the University of Leeds, Britain.
As an adolescent, he lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence (1952-1962), the central historical episode in the making of modern Kenya and a major theme in his early works.
During the celebration of Independence in Uganda in 1962, Ngũgĩ burst onto the literary scene with the performance of his major play, The Black Hermit at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda. “Ngũgĩ Speaks for the Continent,” headlined The Makererian, the Student newspaper, in a review of the performance by Trevor Whittock, one of the professors. In a highly productive literary period, Ngũgĩ wrote additionally eight short stories, two one act plays, two novels and a regular column for the Sunday Nation under the title, As I See It. ‘Weep Not Child’ being one of the novels was published to critical acclaim in 1964 followed by the second novel, The River Between (1965). His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967) was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works.
In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi. He taught there until 1977 while also serving as Fellow in Creative writing at Makerere (1969-1970), and as Visiting Associate Professor of English and African Studies at Northwestern University (1970-1971). During that time, Ngugi was at the center of the politics of English departments in Africa, championing the change of name from English to simply Literature to reflect world literature with African and third world literatures at the center. He, with Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba, authored the polemical declaration on the abolition of the English Department, setting in motion a continental and global debate and practices that later became the heart of postcolonial theories. “If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?” they asked. The text is carried in his first volume of literary essays, Homecoming, which appeared in print in 1969. These were to be followed in later years by other volumes including Writers in Politics (1981 and 1997), Decolonising the Mind (1986), Moving the Center (1994) and Penpoints Gunpoints and Dreams (1998).
The year 1977 forced dramatic turns in Ngũgĩ’s life and career. Ngũgĩ helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which among other things, organised African Theatre in the area. The uncensored political message of his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi to order his arrest. While detained in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngũgĩ wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (Devil on the Cross) on prison-issued toilet paper.
After Amnesty International named him a Prisoner of Conscience, an international campaign secured his release a year later, December 1978. However, the Moi regime barred him from jobs at colleges and university in the country. He resumed his writing and his activities in the theater and in so doing, continued to be an uncomfortable voice for the Moi regime. While Ngũgĩ was in Britain for the launch and promotion of Devil on the Cross, he learned about the Moi regime’s plot to eliminate him on his return, or as coded, give a red carpet welcome on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. This forced him into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. after (1989-2002), during which time, the Moi regime hounded him trying, unsuccessfully, to get him expelled from London and from other countries he visited. In 1986, at a conference in Harare, an assassination squad outside his hotel in Harare was thwarted by the Zimbwean security.
His next Gikuyu novel, Matigari, was published in 1986. Thinking that the novel’s main character was a real living person, Moi issued an arrest warrant for his arrest but on learning that the character was fictional, undercover police went to all the bookshops in the country and the Publishers warehouse and took the novel away. Matigari could not be sold in Kenyan bookshops between 1986 and 1996.
During his exile, Ngũgĩ worked with the London based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (1982-1998), which championed the cause of democratic and human rights in Kenya. After 1988, Ngũgĩ became visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale (1989-1992) in between holding the five Colleges (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, New Hampshire, Smith and East Massachusetts) visiting distinguished Professor of English and African Literature (Fall 1991). He then became Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University (1992 –2002) where he also held the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of languages, from where he moved to his present position at the University of California Irvine. He remained in exile for the duration of the Moi regime (1982-2002).
After twenty two years in exile, Ngũgĩ and his wife returned to Kenya in 2004. They were attacked by four gunmen and narrowly escaped with their lives.
Ngũgĩ has continued to write prolifically, publishing, in 2006, what some have described as his crowning achievement, Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. Ngũgĩ’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages and they continue to be the subject of books, critical monographs, and dissertations.
Orie Rogo Manduli, A True Kenyan Gem
Philip Boit, Kenya’s first Winter Olympian
#TBT Jaramogi Oginga Odinga