Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Kenyan Writer Dedicated to Opposing All Oppression

November 2, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Ngugi Wa Thiong'oNgũgĩ has said of Revolution Books:
“I think what’s so beautiful and wonderful about Revolution Books is that even when you close your eyes and go to any of the shelves here and pick any one of the books, it is likely that it will contain the kind of dreams that Martin Carter was talking about when he said, ‘And so if you see me looking in your hand, listening when you speak, marching in your ranks, you must know, I do not sleep to dream, but dream to change the world.’”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer and intellectual. He is one of the most prolific and beloved writers in the world today. His work includes novels, play, memoirs, and numerous theoretical works focused on the cultural and political necessity for oppressed people to develop their own literary movement in opposition to the dominance of imperialist culture and thinking in the nations dominated by imperialism. Ngũgĩ has dedicated his life and his work to opposing imperialism and all of the oppression it brings down on the people of the world.

Ngũgĩ was born in 1938 in a rural part of Kenya populated by the Gikuyu people. Two forces were in motion in Kenya at the time and both deeply impacted the Ngũgĩ’s thinking. First, Kenya was a British colony and British colonial rule in Kenya was savage—concentration camps, wanton slaughter, and the total suppression of any form of indigenous culture in the country. In the early 1950s, the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army, a peasant-based group that included Ngũgĩ’s older brother, launched and fought the Mau Mau War of Independence until it was defeated 1962. In 1963, Britain pulled back from direct colonial rule of Kenya to rule through the establishment of a neo-colonial regime that was formally independent but in reality was entirely dependent on British imperialism for its survival. This regime was first led by Jomo Kenyatta and then by Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled until 2002. Daniel Arap Moi considered Ngũgĩ and his work a major threat against his regime.

Ngũgĩ attended college at the University of Makerere in Uganda, where he first met other African intellectuals and artists struggling against British colonial rule. It was here that Ngũgĩ’s first major play, The Black Hermit, was produced as part of the celebration of the end of Britain’s direct colonial rule in Uganda. It was during this time that Ngũgĩ really exploded on the literary scene in Africa and Britain, writing eight short stories, two one-act plays, two novels, and a regular newspaper column, all rooted in his developing critique of imperialism and neo-colonialism and its impact on oppressed peoples. His third novel, A Grain of Wheat, written in 1967, marked a turning point in the form and ideological direction of his work, with a big emphasis on the collective replacing the individual as the center of history. And it was during this period that Ngũgĩ began to develop his theoretical work as well, focusing on the need for writers and artists from oppressed nations to work in their own culture and language as opposed to, and struggling against, the domination of British and other imperialist countries. Over the next 30 years, Ngũgĩ continued to develop his theoretical work and his arguments concerning the importance of artists in the struggle for liberation and it was during this period that Ngũgĩ wrote both his seminal works on this question: Decolonizing the Mind and Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams.

1977 was a hallmark year for Ngũgĩ and his work with the publication of his novel Petals of Blood, which painted the harshest depiction of life for the people in neo-colonial Kenya yet. During this same period, Ngũgĩ (together with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii) wrote and staged the play I Will Marry When I Want, again painting a scathing picture of the inequality and oppression that was life for the Kenyan people. The play attacked capitalism, religious corruption and corruption in neo-colonial Kenya. This play was a hallmark in Ngũgĩ’s life and work. Influenced by a reading of Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Ngũgĩ not only stood with the Kenyan people, but he worked with the peasants and laborers to tell the truth about their lives. The play was written in Gikuyu and the people contributed to the entire process, from overseeing the content to building the theater and developing the staging of the play. The Kenyan government quickly moved to shut the play down and destroy the theater. Ngũgĩ was also arrested at this time and spent one year in a Kenyan prison camp. During his time in prison, Ngũgĩ wrote his novel Devil on the Cross on toilet paper provided by a friendly prison guard. His case became an international campaign, with Amnesty International declaring Ngũgĩ a prisoner of conscience. He was released in 1978.

At this point, Ngũgĩ was forced into exile as a result of the Kenyan government’s efforts to isolate, attack and even kill him. Ngũgĩ continued his writing and in 1986 published his novel Matigari, another powerful critique of neo-colonialism in Kenya that unfolded around the main character, Matigari, traveling around the country talking with people about their lives in neo-colonial Kenya and coming to the conclusion that Kenya needs a revolution to be liberated. Moi, the Kenyan dictator, thought that Matigari was a real person and issued an order for his arrest! When Moi learned that Matigari was a fictional character in Ngũgĩ’s novel, he arrested the book, sending undercover police to bookshops all over the country.

In 2004, Ngũgĩ was finally able to visit Kenya after 22 years in exile. While in Kenya, Ngũgĩ and his wife, Njeeri, were brutally assaulted in a very suspicious attack in their room inside a high security hotel. Ngũgĩ and Njeeri narrowly escaped with their lives.

During his time in exile, Ngũgĩ has worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya and he has taught at numerous universities around the world. From 1992 -2002, Ngũgĩ taught at New York University. It was during this period that Ngũgĩ discovered Revolution Books. Since 2002, Ngũgĩ has been teaching at the University of California, Irvine and has continued his work, including speaking at various universities and conferences around the world. In 2006, Ngũgĩ published Wizard of the Crow, a no-holds-barred and howlingly funny critique of modern day neo-colonialism and capitalism. He has also published two memoirs and other theoretical work, and he continues to write, teach and speak around the world today.


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