Last Thursday, Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched a new book, the first in a four-volume autobiographical series. It was an elite affair, with Kenya’s intellects, activists and educated citizens. You can definitely expect such a crowd since the event was held at the National Museum of Kenya in the Parklands area of Nairobi.
Let me take a few steps back, back to the beginning.
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Reading is an important part of my life, a habit formed in my childhood and nurtured by my parents. In my father’s old collection of books, I saw Things Fall Apart and other titles, some more obscure than others. I began reading my father’s books and then collecting my own to begin filling my own bookshelf. In these African books I could escape into a land of thick forests, mud huts, ancient ceremonial traditions and emerging urban centers. Day after day, week after week, my nose was often hidden between the covers of a book. Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease; Michael Veal’s Fela: The Life and Times of an African Musical Icon; Buchi Emecheta’s The Joy of Motherhood; Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower; Nancy Farmer’s A Girl Named Disaster; Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story; Beverly Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth; Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana; Fauziya Kassindja’s Do They Hear You When You Cry?
These books weren’t just words on papers. They really were my friends. And I took them with me…on playgrounds, in school cafeterias, in public restrooms, in my bedroom, at church, you get the picture.
And among these great books, I’d always see the name Ngugi wa Thiong’o and in every list of great African books, I saw Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petal of Blood. Though I had never read any of Thiongo’ books, I knew he was held in the same regard as Achebe, Soyinka and Aidoo.
So, when Moraa Gitaa (Tom’s sister) told me that he is launching a new book, my curiosity led me to begin researching more about this man.
Thiong’o is well loved by Kenyans and was at one point feared by the government during the tumultuous years of the Daniel Arap Moi administration, an administration that efficiently suppressed opposition for more than two decades. Ngugi was a like a thorn in the side for the Moi administration. His words aroused fiery sentiment among the rural poor and society’s intellectuals. Thiong’o became popular when he began writing in the Gikuyu (also known as Kikuyu) language. He is credited for being the first to write a modern-day novel in the Gikuyu language. By writing in Gikuyu, Thiong’o was speaking directly to the people, as the Gikuyu comprise the largest ethnic group in Kenya. His first book, Weep Not, Child (1964) launched his career as an African writer to recognize. Then came The River Between in 1965, A Grain of Wheat in 1967, Petals of Blood in 1977 and over a dozen other works.
For fear of his life, Thiong’o left Kenya during Moi’s presidency. He is now a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation at the University of California at Irvine.
The event began at 7pm. Accompanied by Tom and Moraa, I joined others as P.L.O. Lumumba, guest of honor and the new head of Kenya’s Anti Corruption commission, spoke passionate words of praise about Thiong’o.
“I am amazed by your ability to always discover yourself…If you were an animal in the jungle, you’d be a lion…those of you who want to learn greatness, read Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War, greet him and don’t wash your hands for several days…I also encourage you that when you read Dreams in a Time of War, that you should also wake up and realize your own dream.”
Lumumba greatly impressed me. He’s a fiery, petite man with a strong jawline and a tight, round mouth, the type of mouth that seems to be holding something large inside. A colleague of mine at K24 and I have been trying to get an interview with Lumumba to do a story about his rise, but he is a busy man. Tom greeted him and gestured toward me. Lumumba smiled at me and I introduced myself as a reporter with K24. He raised his eyebrows and said he knows we have been trying to get in touch with him. His speech reminded me of that of an African-American Baptist preacher, with rich crescendos and dramatic pauses. He made references to Patrice Lumumba, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Gandhi and other freedom fighters.
Back to Thiong’o.
The book, Dreams in a Time of War is a childhood memoir that movingly captures the zeitgeist and political happenings of the time. He also writes about the Mau Mau, a revolutionary, now legendary, army of Gikuyu guerrilla freedom fighters who sought to preserve their African traditions in the face of colonial suppression and hardship.
Thiong’o introduced his wife, Njeeri, his brother and sister-in-law. I just may be overtly sentimental, I know, sometimes even maudlin, but I couldn’t help but get a little teary-eyed watching Thiong’o and his elderly relatives. These people were among the many who fought for black Kenyans while their black brothers and sisters were in bondage by the white colonialists who were taking away the ancestral lands of the blacks.
So, of course I bought the book and grabbed another, more-lighthearted read entitled, How to Be a Kenyan by Wahome Mutahi.