Renowned author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 77, returned to Alliance High School this week with a bright red shuka draped over his shoulder – having been freshly enthroned as an elder – clutching a memoir documenting his time there.
Animated, energised and occasionally, downright humorous, the distinguished academic, provided anecdotes from his student life at the colonial school nearly 60 years ago, providing insights that deepen and extend our understanding of the ideological underpinnings of his writing.
While his talk centred around passing on the baton to the next generation, a theme amplified by the presence of his family of writing children, that futuristic outlook was forcefully swung back to the past when the ding-dong bell, which regulated Ngugi’s student more than half century ago, chimed exactly at 4pm as the revered author and his children displayed copies of their novels in a symbolic launch.
His sons – Tee Ngugi, Nducu wa Ngugi, Mukoma wa Ngugi and daughter Wanjiku wa Ngugi – who are all published authors, a rare distinction in Africa, and a rarity in the world, provided warm on-stage banter that suggested theirs was one big happy family.
All have reported sharing their writings with their siblings and famous father for comments, but the patriarch reminded the audience that writing is an arduous task, often in solitude, and he cannot help even his children develop their works. That has to come from them.
But Ngugi also hailed the power of imagination since the fruits would be there for all to see. Ngugi’s own output is self-evident, some several dozen of fiction, non-fiction, plays and criticism, for which he has been a favourite to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the latest being his second instalment of his memoir, In The House of the Interpreter based on his life at Alliance.
Ngugi read snippets from his seminal novel, Weep Not, Child. Recalling his maiden journey to the school in 1955, with the country engulfed in war as British colonialists and Mau Mau fighters locked horns, Ngugi explained how he had to be smuggled into the school by railway workers hiding in a store without ventilation, as he did not have a Passbook required of all native Kikuyus.
“People ask me if I’m a Marxist,” he chuckled, “But here I was, in this store in the train without any window, at the mercy of workers tools and their sweaty clothes, smuggled to school.”
This agency of ordinary workers’ to subvert an oppressive social order is a hallmark of Ngugi’s work, most significantly in Petals of Blood, preceded by his detention without trial in December 1977.
Of that painful interlude, Ngugi said on Thursday, his hopes were kept with the birth of his daughter, Njoki, who was also present at the lecture, and who is immortalised in his prison memoir, Detained, as the “post-office” baby because he first encountered her in a picture that came in through the prison mail.
But it was the question of “shrubbing,” as students call those whose linguistic pronunciations are handicapped by accents of their indigenous languages that got him evidently animated.
Motioning to a student to explain the term, Ngugi declared the idea of African languages “interfering” with the purity of European languages as an extension of self-hate that must end.
“Let me tell you what’s wrong with Africa,” Ngugi said as he paced up and down, addressing students as “my friends.”
“Europe gave Africa the resources of its accents; Africa gave Europe access to the resources of the continent.” Recalling the British efforts in India to create a middle-class that would think like the English, Ngugi said linguistic enslavement produces a social class that denigrates its own, for the foreign.
Giving the example of Nyeri mechanic Morris Gachamba, who attempted with some degree of success to produce an aircraft, Ngugi said his efforts were sneered at, and ultimately clipped by then Attorney General Charles Njonjo, who led Parliament in crafting a law that prohibited unregulated flights like the ones Gachamba was making, instead of facilitating his endeavour.
Ngugi said his own writing effort, was first met with scorn: “I was sneered at,” he revealed, “How can an African write a book!” but added editors at Heinemann, the precursor to East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), gave him the benefit of the doubt.
But it was a speaker at Alliance who best provided a metaphor of Ngugi’s efforts in extending his writing prowess to his children and others: a candle does not lose its brightness by sharing light with other candles.
Ngugi introduced his eldest son, Tee, as an avid reader and accomplished musician. Tee had his share of experiences to narrate about growing up in the shadow of his famous father, although he skipped the bit truncating his first name, Thiong’o, to discourage the attention that came with being Ngugi’s son. It’s the father who provided that explanation.
Still some teasing was inevitable: “Growing up,” Tee said, “A friend would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Weep not child.’ Another one would add; ‘Give him a grain of wheat,’” he said during a media briefing at the Panafric Hotel earlier in the week.
Ngugi was exuberant as he introduced his children and their writing, who curiously are identifiable by their unique hairstyles, largely left to run wild, like their father’s, speak fluent English as well as Gikuyu, and address him in the traditional Gikuyu manner, Fafa (father).
Ngugi hailed Tee’s collection of short stories, Seasons of Love and Tears as having received critical acclaim in Kenya.
Mukoma wa Ngugi has several titles to his name including The Black Star Nairobi, The Nairobi Heat and the upcoming, Mrs Shaw.
An assistant professor in the English Department at the Cornell University in the United States, Mukoma co-founded the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize. The Prize was started in recognition that there is no literary award celebrating African languages.
During the briefing, it was apparent some of the Ngugis share their passion for African languages, although none of them writes in Gikuyu, with Mukoma expressing his dismay that books like Chinua Achebe’s foundational novel, Things Fall Apart has been translated into 70 languages but Ibo, the author’s mother tongue.
The other of Ngugi’s writing sons is Nducu, whose crime thriller, City Murders, about a serial killer targeting popular personalities, was recently published by EAEP.
Their sister, Wanjiku’s The Fall of Saints, explores the theme of child trafficking and was published in America last year by Simon and Schuster.
What’s remarkable about Wanjiku’s The Fall of Saints, Mukoma’s Nairobi Heat and Nducu’s City Murders is that they are all crime novels, with a detective on the prowl trying to crack the mysteries.
So did Ngugi “impose” writing on his children?
“Oh no,” says Mukoma, “There was a deliberate policy for people to find their own way.” Mukoma adds that not all of his siblings are writers. There is Kimunya, an economist and Ngina Kiarie, an accountant. Mumbi who is finishing her undergraduate wants to be a lawyer.
But there was something about their growing in Limuru that somewhat prepared them for a life in writing: there was no television set at home. “We learnt through observation as father had a library and he reads a lot,” Tee said.
Nducu remembered their childhood where in the evenings they would share stories. “The problem is they all think they are funny, but I am funnier than all of them,” he gloated.
Ngugi conceded no one can impose writing on his children. “You can support and encourage them to be the best in that which they are talented in,” he said, adding “I was more curious about their musical talents.”
Indeed, Ngugi said, Weep Not, Child proved that nothing is impossible, which is the message that he repeated to Alliance students, urging them to embark on their careers with confidence, and letting their imagination flow. Three students were reported to have completed novel manuscripts that Ngugi’s publisher, Henry Chakava, promised to look at.
But the enduring lesson from Alliance, he said, was that nothing is impossible in life, and he challenged students to dare to dream since everything lies in the realm of the possible, a journey best illustrated in his memoir, In The House of the Interpreter.
Yet, what comes through most poignantly from the memoir is the irony of Alliance, a colonial construct, offering refuge for the famous author, away from the social turmoil that the British occupation had instigated in the country.
This contradiction sowed the seeds of a problematic relationship between the author and the Empire. He has been trying to make sense of those contradictions for 50 years, in the process producing great literature that has elevated him to a world-class intellectual, author, activist, and now, father of many writers.