A first of his many historic milestones was him being the first ever East African writer to have their novel published in English. This was in 1964, with his debut novel Weep Not, Child, which he wrote while he was a student at Makerere University, and was published under the name James Ngugi. A name he would later change after renouncing the name James as colonialist. That along with Christianity and writing in English.
Speaking of which, Ngugi wa Thiong’o primarily writes in Gikuyu. He has published work in the form of memoirs, novels, children’s books, plays, short story collections and essays, among others. The contemporary African writer’s writing mostly revolves around literary and social activism.
His first book, Weep Not, Child is a historical novel that seeks to probe the negative aspects of colonial rule over Kenya and focuses on the Mau Mau Uprising and “the bewildering dispossession of an entire people from their ancestral land.” The book tells the story of a Kikuyu family drawn into the struggle for Kenya’s independence during the state of emergency and the Mau Mau rebellion. It melds the ideologies of nationalism and Gikuyu mythology while at it.
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. It is within this year that he co authored a play (with Ngugi Mirii) that would later lead to his detention for a year by the Kenyan government, without trial. Titled Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), the play was a critical performance on Kenya’s tyrannical injustices and inequalities that affected the common Kenyan mwananchi (citizen).
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. So much for ‘welcome home’!
In 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.
After nearly two decades, he published his first new novel in 2006. Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow) is a magical realist novel that is a political and social satire of corruption in the African society. The book was critically acclaimed worldwide and went on to receive the 2008 Tähtifantasia Award for the best foreign fantasy novel released in Finland in 2007.
Some of the other most notable works by Ngugi include; Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe (a collection of seven essays based on some of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s most thought-provoking lectures), Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (a recount of his Makerere years), Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir and The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi (a narration of the origin of the Agikuyu, in the form of epic poetry). The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright (2019) is the author’s latest publication, a fable that uses folklore and mythology to explain the evolution of humanity. It has been translated to 94 languages from around the world.
What is fascinating is that this timeline doesn’t even begin to sum up all of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s published work.
Aside from being an author, Ngugi 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.