Ngugi: Reflections on his Life of Writing

“Imaginative writer, educator of decolonization, fearless activist”, Ndirangu Wachanga, Ngugi’s authorized documentary biographer, offers personal anecdotes and insights into the power of the Kenyan writer’s work.

I met Ngugi wa Thiong’o through his books at a time when repressive mechanisms were being deployed in Kenya during Moi’s dictatorship. I was in primary school. My mother, a teacher, had given me a copy of Weep Not, Child, to help strengthen my writing skills in English and to sharpen my creative faculties. I read this novel when provincial administrators were mobilizing the citizenry – including primary school children – to join political demonstrations, which almost always climaxed with the burning of effigies of those who were considered political dissidents. Ngugi wa Thiong’o had been condemned as one of the enemies of the people and of the government. He had been described in repulsive vocabulary that court poets had culled from the grammar of dictatorship. He was a rebel; a lawbreaker who wanted to overthrow the government. I had heard these phrases repeatedly on radio. My teachers had used them when announcing the venues for weekends’ demonstrations. I was conflicted: Why is this man who writes so well an enemy of the people? Why are school children, accompanied by villagers, being asked to participate in violent acts while being cheered on by local chiefs and District Officers? 

Reading the novel, I remember getting petrified when I encountered the unbridled violence and unspeakable pain that Njoroge suffers in the hands of Mr. Howlands, fearing that I could face similar violence if the local administrators found out what I was reading. Years later, I told Ngugi this story. He laughed, especially because earlier that day in Amherst, Massachusetts, a woman had informed us that a section in Wizard of the Crow was going to be read at her wedding that weekend. 

Reflections on his Life of Writing

Edited by Simon Gikandi and Ndirangu Wachanga

In 2010, Ngũgĩ authorized me to record his biography in form of a documentary film for four years. For the last eight years, I have recorded interviews across the globe, which are punctuated with as personal anecdotes as the one shared earlier this year in Amherst. There is a man with disability in India who got inspired by Ngugi’s unbreakable spirit to a point of naming his one of his sons after him. There is a gay professor in New York who considers Ngugi’s work as a powerful manifesto for all marginalized groups. When Wangui wa Goro read Weep Not, Child, she saw herself in Mwihaki. “That is how I entered literature. I am Mwihaki,” she said in 2014. “The landscape in the novel is so familiar. I read the book in Gikuyu,” she added. For Grant Farred, Cornell University professor, it is A Grain of Wheatthat made him change his dreams of becoming a lawyer. “I went home and told my mum: I can’t be a lawyer. Ngugi is the reason I pursued a PhD in literature,” he said in my 2013 interview. In Hawaii, they claim Decolonizing the Mind as their own. And there are others who assume that Ngugi wrote Things Fall Apart

In 2014, I joined a group of scholars in Johannesburg to mark 50 years since the publication of Weep Not, Child, the novel that, despite my young age and untrained eye, exposed me to the painful anxieties that gave birth to post-colonial Kenya and its post-colonial subjects. These anxieties are punctuated with a mixture of dreams of opportunities offered by decolonization and disillusionment of unfulfilled promises of political independence. 

Discussing Weep Not, Child became an invitation to think of literary careers from their beginnings, and the circumstances that inform these beginnings. Such a reading of Weep Not, Child, allowed the panelists to understand Ngũgĩ’s struggles with the anxieties of his beginnings as a writer as well as a post-colonial subject. Let us remember that Ngũgĩ started writing at a time of change and transformation, and more importantly, when no one seemed to know what that change meant. It is precisely this anxiety that seems to powerfully drive his early work. 

Weep Not, Child is a painful expose of the devastating effects of the Mau Mau war: unspeakable fear that terrorized, chilling suspicion that dehumanized, violence that displaced and destroyed, uncertainty that alienated, suppressed collective memory that haunted, and befuddling change whose inevitability dislocated as it estranged. 

One of the instrumental mentors in my documentary project has been Ngugi’s own student, Simon Gikandi, who is a leading expert on Ngugi. In our several meetings, Gikandi and I have reflected on the role of Ngugi the imaginative writer, educator of decolonization, fearless activist, an indefatigable public intellectual and a courageous defender of indigenous languages. In my numerous interviews with readers of Ngugi, his critics, and fellow writers and activists, there is a conspicuous motif of Ngugi as an indestructible spirit. 

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Owing to his indissoluble commitment in chronicling the process of becoming of African states through the art of the imaginary during one of the most violent periods of Kenya’s history, Ngugi occupies a unique and iconic place in the history of letters and in global dialogues about human rights, social transformation and economic justice. 

Together with Gikandi, we started a conversation on how to hail Ngugi at 80. We engaged in a project that would probe further and go beyond the everyday image of Ngugi. We invited reflections from those who have been witnesses to Ngugi’s multiple levels of formation and transformation. 

What we have put together, Ngugi: Reflections on His Life of Writing, is a multifaceted collection of essays which, as we note in the preface, present “Ngugi’s role outside the academy in the world of education, the mass media, community theater, and activism, places where we have encountered him many times.” 

This volume serves an important historical and political role. Political because Ngugi was for a long period demonized as a dissident intellectual and a firewall was erected with the intention to conceal the ideals that he stood for, and suffered for it. Historical because the essays are a call to resist selfish political quests to arrest and control the past and its meaning. 

Ndirangu Wachanga is Professor of Media Studies and Information Science at the University of Wisconsin. He is also the authorized documentary biographer of Professors Ali A. Mazrui, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Micere Mugo, Willy Mutunga and Henry Chakava.

This article by Ndirangu Wachanga was originally featured on the African Griot. If you would like to subscribe to out biannual newsletter covering all aspects of African Study, exclusive discounts, latest publications, brochures and more then please don’t hesitate to sign-up here.

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