There is nothing fishy about the coincidences, but the first time I met Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, we both had rock shrimp for lunch. The setting was California, in December 2003, when he was still an exile, a dissident isolated from his motherland for over two decades.
This week, in Nairobi, we both had fish for dinner — something going by the fancy name of barracuda — but which proved such a chewy affair, my eyes were teary when I was done.
On both occasions, Ngugi picked the tab. The only difference is that this week, he segregated the bills: my meal and those accompanying me would be settled using his credit card; his meal and his wife, Njeeri’s, would be charged to his hotel room account.
Again, nothing sinister about this arrangement save for that the hotel bill will be paid by the Government of Kenya. Reason, Ngugi is in the country as a guest of the State.
“From the airport, we had a police escort with a siren wailing,” Njeeri chimes in, “it wailed all the way to the hotel.”
The last time Ngugi enjoyed a similar status, that is, a guest of the State, was in December 1977, when he was taken into custody and detained without trial. His jailor: President Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya. Ngugi’s crime remains unknown to this day, although speculation is rife that his play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which ridicules the emergent, political elite with a ravenous appetite for public resources, may have precipitated his incarceration.
Ngugi’s host on this trip is President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta. Ngugi’s engagement with Uhuru, started in June this year, when the author arrived to mark 50 years of the publication of his seminal novel, Weep Not, Child.
Ngugi paid a courtesy call on the President, followed by a second, private visit, during which Uhuru invited him to participate in the official re-opening of the Kenya National Theatre, which was recently refurbished at a cost of Sh100 million.
The KNT is the hallowed space that Ngugi could not easily access in 1977 to stage plays such as The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, co-authored with Micere Mugo.
“At a time when theatre in Kenya is trying to reflect national history and a national struggle,” Ngugi wrote in the Daily Nation in October, 1977, and reproduced in his essay collection, Writers in Politics, “The foreign management of our cultural centre is selling Christmas cards that commemorate the KNT as it was in 1952, flying a colonial flag… ”
MOVED THE CENTRE
Ngugi then decided to move the centre, by joining hands with other villagers and some academics from the University of Nairobi, to establish a community theatre in Kamiriithu, in his village in Limuru, and stage Ngaahika Ndeenda.
The play enjoyed massive attendance during its short run before its licence was revoked and the makeshift structure demolished by armed policemen. The rehearsals of Ngugi’s post-detention play, Maitu Njugira (Mother Sing for Me) at the University of Nairobi, was similarly disrupted in 1980.
“There were armed policemen waiting outside the Norfolk, while others waited outside the Central Police station,” Ngugi says, pointing in the direction of the two establishments, his hand touching his forehead, lingering on for a moment, rubbing the eyes, before he stared ahead in a blazing, clear gaze. It’s a gesture that Ngugi repeats over the next three hours as I seek to know what he makes of the overtures from the President and what that says of our political evolution. Ngugi is returning to the KNT, where he was banished 35 years ago. And the son of the man who jailed him is now his host. The dissident has become the distinguished.
What does all this mean to him? Is the son atoning for the sins of the father?
“It means learning from history,” Ngugi says quietly, before his gaze turns to his glass of water. There is a fizz inside. An insect has dipped in before he can take the first sip.
As the waiter disappears to fetch a fresh glass, I ask of Jomo, which somewhat explains his dalliance with his son. Kenyatta, after all, is the mythical figure in his seminal novel, Weep Not, Child, while kiama, the party, which echoes the independent party, Kanu, provides one of the controlling metaphors in A Grain of Wheat.
“The old Kanu was a very progressive party,” Ngugi says, explaining its tenets were to eradicate poverty, ignorance and disease. And the man who led it, Jomo Kenyatta, had different facets to him: Kenyatta the pan-Africanist, who took the Kenyan cause beyond its shores; Kenyatta the nationalist, who was jailed in Kapenguria, and Kenyatta the community leader who served as the first principal of the Githunguri College.
“The year 1952 was very crucial,” Ngugi says, fixing his gaze beyond the stylish Lamu door before his hand returns to the eyes. “It was the year that the campaign to crush locals’ efforts at self-reliance began in earnest.”
Ngugi enumerates the destruction of the Githunguri College, the towering symbol of indigenous efforts to educate Kenyans, was turned into a gaol where the Mau Mau fighters were hanged; a towering symbol of hope reduced to a monument of shame.
Ngugi says his return to the KNT “is very important,” and he is grateful the President has opened the door for him.
Some critics claim Ngugi’s dalliance with the President reflects a “softening” of his once radical stance. The answer to this question is deductible from his observations, as he rode from the airport.
“Is there any pride in saying, the Chinese built this or that for us? Are the Chinese training local engineers, so that there is skill transfer to ensure we manage our affairs, in a few years?
“I’m not saying it is wrong to have connections with others, but it’s important to do things for ourselves because, what happens when the foreigners go away, or withhold their support?
“The foundation of this country was self-reliance. The Mau Mau struggle against the British did not enjoy external support. It relied upon local support. Kamiriithu was about self-reliance. We fuelled our vehicles to drive there, and paid for the theatre construction using our resources.”
Ngugi pauses, looks wistfully ahead: “When foreigners mark our land to claim their role in this or that project, that’s modern-day slavery. It’s the master marking his name on the slave body.”
Some food for thought. Ngugi has finished his barracuda; I give up on mine. He takes a sip of his tea but pushes it away; he says it is too strong and will keep him up all night.
I claim his tea-pot and ask for a fresh cup. I take the tea. As he ushers us out, Ngugi makes an order for peppermint with honey to be dispatched to his room.
Quite some mellowing, I think; Africa’s greatest living writer will need some good night sleep. I want to stay up and contemplate his words.
The KNT will be reopened on Saturday, September 5.