Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: An unparalleled academic and literature trailblazer
KENYAN author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family.
He was educated at Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools; Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain.
The Kenya of his birth and youth was a British settler colony (1895-1963). As an adolescent, he lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence (1952-1962), the central historical episode in the making of modern Kenya and a major theme in his early works.
Ngũgĩ burst onto the literary scene in East Africa with the performance of his first major play, The Black Hermit, at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962, as part of the celebration of Uganda’s Independence. “Ngũgĩ Speaks for the Continent,” headlined The Makererian, the Student newspaper, in a review of the performance by Trevor Whittock, one of the professors.
In a highly productive literary period, Ngũgĩ wrote additionally eight short stories, two one act plays, two novels, and a regular column for the Sunday Nation under the title, As I See It. One of the novels, Weep Not Child, was published to critical acclaim in 1964; followed by the second novel, The River Between (1965).
His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works. Multi-narrative lines and multi-viewpoints unfolding at different times and spaces replace the linear temporal unfolding of the plot from a single viewpoint. The collective replaces the individual as the center of history.
In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi. He taught there until 1977 while, in-between, also serving as Fellow in Creative writing at Makerere (1969-1970), and as Visiting Associate Professor of English and African Studies at Northwestern University (1970-1971).
During his tenure at Nairobi, Ngũgĩ was at the center of the politics of English departments in Africa, championing the change of name from English to simply Literature to reflect world literature with African and third world literatures at the center.
He, with Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba, authored the polemical declaration, On the Abolition of the English Department, setting in motion a continental and global debate and practices that later became the heart of postcolonial theories.
“If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?” they asked.
The text is carried in his first volume of literary essays, Homecoming, which appeared in print in 1969. These were to be followed, in later years, by other volumes including Writers in Politics (1981 and 1997); Decolonising the Mind (1986); Moving the Center (1994); and Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams (1998).
The year 1977 forced dramatic turns in Ngũgĩ’s life and career. His first novel in ten years, Petals of Blood, was published in July of that year. The novel painted a harsh and unsparing picture of life in neo-colonial Kenya.
It was received with even more emphatic critical acclaim in Kenya and abroad. The Kenya Weekly Review described it as “this bomb shell” and the Sunday Times of London as capturing every form and shape that power can take.
The same year Ngũgĩ’s controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was performed at Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru, in an open air theatre, with actors from the workers and peasants of the village.
Sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, publicly identified with unequivocally championing the cause of ordinary Kenyans, and committed to communicating with them in the languages of their daily lives, Ngũgĩ was arrested and imprisoned without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison at the end of the year, December 31, 1977.
An account of those experiences is to be found in his memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982). It was at Kamiti Maximum Prison that Ngũgĩ made the decision to abandon English as his primary language of creative writing and committed himself to writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue.
In prison, and following that decision, he wrote, on toilet paper, the novel, Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).
After Amnesty International named him a Prisoner of Conscience, an international campaign secured his release a year later, December 1978. However, the Moi dictatorship barred him from jobs at colleges and university in the country.
He resumed his writing and his activities in the theater and in so doing, continued to be an uncomfortable voice for the Moi dictatorship. While Ngũgĩ was in Britain for the launch and promotion of Devil on the Cross, he learned about the Moi regime’s plot to eliminate him on his return, or as coded, give a red carpet welcome on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta Airport.
This forced him into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. after (1989-2002), during which time, the Moi dictatorship hounded him trying, unsuccessfully, to get him expelled from London and from other countries he visited.
In 1986, at a conference in Harare, an assassination squad outside his hotel in Harare was thwarted by the Zimbwean security. His next Gikuyu novel, Matigari, was published in 1986. Thinking that the novel’s main character was a real living person, Dictator Moi issued an arrest warrant for his arrest but on learning that the character was fictional, he had the novel “arrested;” instead.
Undercover police went to all the bookshops in the country and the Publishers warehouse and took the novel away. So, between 1986 and 1996, Matigari could not be sold in Kenyan bookshops. The dictatorship also had all Ngũgĩ’s books removed from all educational institutions.
In exile, Ngũgĩ worked with the London based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (1982-1998), which championed the cause of democratic and human rights in Kenya. In between, he was Visiting Professor at Byreuth University (1984); and Writer in Residence, for the Borough of Islington, London (1985) and took time to study film, at Dramatiska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden. (1986).
After 1988, Ngũgĩ became Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale (1989-1992) in between holding The Five Colleges (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, New Hampshire, Smith, East Massachusetts) Visiting Distinguished Professor of English and African Literature (Fall 1991).
He then became Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University (1992–2002) where he also held the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of languages, from where he moved to his present position at the University of California Irvine.
He remained in exile for the duration of the Moi Dictatorship 1982-2002. When he and his wife, Njeeri, returned to Kenya in 2004 after twenty-two years in exile, they were attacked by four hired gunmen and narrowly escaped with their lives.
Ngũgĩ has continued to write prolifically, publishing, in 2006, what some have described as his crowning achievement, Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. Ngũgĩ’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages and they continue to be the subject of books, critical monographs, and dissertations.
Paralleling his academic and literary life has been his role in the production of literature, providing, as an editor, a platform for other people’s voices. He has edited the following literary journals: Penpoint (1963-64); Zuka (1965 -1970); Ghala (guest editor for one issue, 1964?); and Mutiiri (1992-).
He has also continued to speak around the world at numerous universities and as a distinguished speaker. These appearances include: the 1984 Robb Lectures at Auckland University in New Zealand; the1996 Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University; the 1999 Ashby Lecture at Cambridge; and the 2006 MacMillan Stewart Lectures at Harvard.
He is recipient of many honors, including the 2001 Nonino International Prize for Literature and eleven honorary doctorates.
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Albright College
- Honorary PhD, Roskilde, Denmark
- Doctor of Letters honoris causa, University of Leeds, 2004
- Honorary Doctor of Literature and Philosophy, Walter Sisulu University, 2004
- Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, CSU Dominguez Hills, 2005
- Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Dillard University, 2005
- Honorary Doctor of Literature, University of Auckland, 2005
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, New York University, 2008
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Dar es Saalam, 2013
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Bayreuth, 2014
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, Yale University, 2017
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is also an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2003 and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2014.
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