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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, born January 5, 1938 in Kenya, is one of Africa’s finest award winning and world renowned writers. Ngugi’s original name was James Thiong’o Ngugi, which he later changed after being exposed to the effects of colonialism in Africa in 1967. This exposure led him to the adoption of his traditional name, NgũgĩWa Thiong’o. It was at this period that he also renounced his religion, Christianity and the usage of English in his writings. He started to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili.
As a young boy, Ngũgĩ’s writings were influenced by the Mau Mau War of Independence of (1952 – 1962). His literary journey began at the University of Uganda in the early 1960s. As a big fan of the school’s literary magazine back then, he was captivated by fame when he met one of the school’s writers that he could only mutter few words. Star stricken Ngũgĩ blurted out – ‘I have written a short story – would you like to look at it?’” The school writer said, ‘Yes! Do you have it?’ Surprisingly, Ngũgĩ had never written any but that night, he went back to his dormitory and came up with something called a story. Afterwards, Ngũgĩ writings started to dwell on the radical changes that came with the end of the colonial exploitation; his stories were that of hope, which ironically was seen as ‘false hope’ by many. He rose to prominence with the performance of his first major play titled “The Black Hermit” which was held in 1962 at the National Theater in Kampala, Uganda, as part of the celebration marking the independence of Uganda.
Born 5 January 1938
Place of birth Kamiriithu, Kenya
Language English, Kikuyu
Alma mater Makerere University
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s works were highly critical of the post-colonial Kenya and its leaders; however, his writings only became threats when he wrote in his native language, Gikuyu. Ngũgĩ helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre in 1976 and they also organised African Theatre in the area. But in 1977, the uncensored political message of his play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which he co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, who ordered his arrest.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s early writings were strictly based on the concept of national identity and individualism. He believed in the common interest of Africa and advocated for a sense of oneness among African countries.
Ngũgĩ was concerned about the mind of a typical African, whose sense of judgment and reason shows that of a mind that has been colonized and neo-colonized by Euro-American “capitalist modernity.”
He believed that “Political Pan-Africanism should make the continent a base where African peoples, meaning continentals and people of African descent, can feel truly at home. He had a stringent view of Pan Africanism and he believes that if Africa, as a continent is to achieve all of her dreams, then priority has to be placed on her language.
Early writings were strictly based on the concept of national identity and individualism. He believed in the common interest of Africa and advocated for a sense of oneness among African countries. Ngũgĩ was concerned about the mind of a typical African, whose sense of judgment and reason shows that of a mind that has been colonized and neo-colonized by Euro-American “capitalist modernity.”
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s “Weep Not Child” (1964) was the first novel by an East African to be written in English. In the book, Ngugi exposes the travails of the Africans in the hands of the colonialists. He clearly illustrated how a society gets crumbled because of its exposure to the West. Also, the impact of cultural division was carefully examined and the sow of discord among Kenyans was revealed. This was an act, used by the colonialists to divide and rule the masses; a strategy that also worked in other African countries.
Currently, we still battle with some of the effects of colonization today, even as a continent. We are yet to wake from the slumber colonialism led us into. Ngũgĩ believed that Pan Africanism is uniting together to form a common force and fight against the hangovers of the imperialists. While we have been wounded, battered and almost reduced to heaps, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o believes it is time to weep no more. Africa had to take what is rightfully hers in the scheme of things.
However, he warned that the sense of unity had to be a sincere one; because our minds are far entrenched in the virtues of the colonialists that we can no longer think independently of the elements we acquired from them. While it looks like a difficult goal to reach, it is equally attainable if all hands are put on desk. It is attainable if we put our minds to it. While there might be calls to put a halt to this progressive step to regaining freedom, it is only the committed and dedicated that would see it to the end. It remains our choice to see how committed we are to the growth of Africa.
Ngugi’s second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965. A figurative reference to the disconnect between Christians and non-Christians during the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya, the book was written by Ngugi while studying at the University of Leeds (to which he was admitted after winning a scholarship in late 1964). The novel also hints at the impossibility of reuniting a culturally divided community by means of Western education. While still in Leeds, the author wrote A Grain of Wheat (1964), whose story is set during the days before and during Kenya’s celebration of her independence, along with the tribal, moral and social issues the struggle for independence brought about.
In July 1977, Ngugi wa Thiong’o published his first novel in ten years: Petals of Blood, a critically acclaimed piece of work that painted an unsparing picture of neo-colonial Kenya that was exploitative of its peasants and workers.
Ngũgĩ helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre in 1976 and they also organised African Theatre in the area. But in 1977, the uncensored political message of his play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which he co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, who ordered his arrest.
While in prison, he put down his ordeals on prison-issued toilet paper. These were first published as a memoir in 1981: Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. It censures religious hypocrisy, capitalism and corruption among Kenya’s economic elite. It is while in detention at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison that Ngugi decided to commit to doing his creative writing in Gikuyu instead of English. This birthed his first Gikuyu-written novel titled Caitaani Mitharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross), a cross-genre account of a meeting between the Devil and various villains whose agenda is to exploit the poor. It focuses on politically challenging the role of international money and culture in the wake of Kenya’s independence. He later self-translated it to English.
Keeping a level of vocality that was displeasing to the Kenyan government even after his imprisonment (and a later adoption by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience plus his subsequent release), Ngugi wa Thiong’o was driven into exile in 1982. This was followed by a relentless cat and mouse chase, with assassins on his tail, his native country’s regime hounding him and even, laughably, “arresting” his critical novel Matigari ma Njiruungi (1987). His return home in 2004 was no merry either, as his home was raided by armed people.
In 1982, expressing his linguistic ideologies, Ngugi wrote Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language (1986), a satirical collection of essays advocating for linguistic decolonization; and for African writers to be writing in their native languages rather than in English, as one way of going against the imperialist wave.
Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 2009, was written in the same vein. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o declared his farewell to English Language when he wrote the book “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.”
In the quest for freedom and the ceaseless battles of the Africans to liberate themselves from the shackles of the imperialists, it was important to have a hold on their language for creativity and self-identity. Ngugi believed that the loss of the African languages was not an option as we would become vulnerable to losing all that we were known and stand for.
For Africans to be able to creatively tell their own stories, it was important not to lose control over her original linguistic elements. He believed that language remained the only powerful tool that could allow Africans break the hold of Western influence. This called for the need of a literature that rightly conveyed the true experience of Africa, from the view of the locals and not that of an intruder. Ngugi believed that language is a carrier of culture and as the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history; it was not to be tampered with.
What is fascinating is that this timeline doesn’t even begin to sum up all of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s published work.
Aside from being an author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s contribution to the literary scene has been vast. As a professor of English Literature at the University of Nairobi (for ten years), he spurred a discussion to abolish the university’s English department and instead teach African literature. He was also a fellow in creative writing at Makerere, lectured at Northwestern University and was a visiting Professor at Byreuth University, writer in residence for the Borough of Islington, London among others.
Additionally, the writer worked with the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya while in exile in an effort to champion Kenyans’ human and democratic rights. Now an editor for a number of literary journals (including the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri that he founded), Ngugi is also currently a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California. He also continues his role as distinguished speaker in universities around the world.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the recipient of numerous honors, including the 2001 Nonino International Prize for Literature and seven honorary doctorates.
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