Literature of Exile: Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

To read global literature is to accept the compromise of translation. Even the most polyglot among us cannot hope to read everything that interests us in its original language. English has become the somewhat grudgingly accepted lingu franca for most of the world, yet to read and write in English is to speak the colonizer’s tongue. Rejecting English can be seen as a revolutionary act of anti-colonialism.

Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a linguistic revolutionary. Born in 1938, he changed his birth name in 1976 from James Ngũgĩ, which he saw as a sign of colonialism, to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in honor of his Gikuyu heritage. As a professor at Nairobi university, he protested against mandatory instruction in English. When he co-wrote and produced a play in Gikuyu satirizing the rule of autocrat Daniel Moi, he was imprisoned. It was at this point that Ngũgĩ’ committed to writing only in his native language, composing his first Gikuyu novel, Devil on the Cross, on prison toilet paper. “If I meet an English person, and he says, ‘I write in English,’ I don’t ask him ‘Why are you writing in English?’ If I meet a French writer, I don’t ask him, ‘Why don’t you write in Vietnamese?’ But I am asked over and over again, ‘Why do you write in Gikuyu?’

“The moment we lost our languages was also the moment we lost our bodies, our gold, diamonds, copper, coffee, tea. The moment we accepted (or being made to accept) that we could not do things with our languages was the moment we accepted that we could not make things with our vast resources”.

Ngũgĩ’ fled Kenya in 1980, refusing to return while Moi and his party remained in power. In the intervening decades, he was written over 20 books, including several novels, many centering on the corrosive effect of global capitalism on post colonial Africa. His most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow (2006) is a sprawling, comic satire set in the mythical Free Republic of Aburiria, a fictitious African dictatorship that bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenya under Moi, and to many such “strong man” regimes.

Yet this is not a simple take-down of clueless native corruption. “When people talk about Africa,” Ngũgĩ’ says, “they often only talk about it through one lens – so they blame its lack of progress on its people, or its landscape. In this book I wanted to show everything – the influence of aid, the neocolonialism of capital, and how this affects things for the people.”

The despotism of Western capitalism permeates the novel. In the opening chapter, Abruriria’s citizens are summoned to a birthday celebration for “The Ruler” (he is never named) at which they learn that his ministers plan to erect in his honor a modern day Tower of Babel reaching to heaven…to be funded by the Global Bank in exchange for ruinous interest. To secure financing, one minister suggests:

“We should volunteer Aburiria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corporony, the first in the new global order.”

The sycophancy of The Ruler’s advisors is literally carved on their bodies: one has plastic surgery to enlarge his eyes to the size of light bulbs, “to make them ferociously sharp, or as he put it in Kiswahili, Yawe Macho Kali, so that he would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places”. A rival spymaster has his ears made “larger than a rabbit’s and always primed to detect danger at any time and from any direction”, while a third has his tongue elongated “so that in echoing the Ruler’s commands, his words could reach every soldier in the country and his threats to his enemies…”. See evil, hear evil, speak evil.

Like his ministers, the Ruler’s body morphs into a reflection of his true nature; swelling with self satisfaction and ego like a gas-filled balloon, eventually popping, Alien like in an obscene parody of birth and communal destruction. Meanwhile the novel’s skinny protagonist Kamiti, (whose university education has left him with no marketable skills other than begging) manages to evade the secret police by convincing them that he is a powerful magician and prophet, the “wizard of crows”. Kamiti’s girlfriend, Nyawira, an idealistic resistance leader, convinces him to use his “powers’ for the common good, because,

“The life of even the least among us should be sacred, and it will not do for any region or community to keep silent when the people of another region and community are being slaughtered. The wealth of science, technology and arts should enrich peoples’ lives, not enable their slaughter.”

The ludicrous antics of The Ruler in Wizard of Crows are only slightly more bizarre than actual events in postcolonial Kenya. For example, when Ngũgĩ’s novel, Matigari, featuring a revolutionary prophet who inspires a freedom struggle, was published in 1986, dictator Moi issued an arrest warrant for “Matigari’s” arrest, not realizing that the character was fictional. Later, Moi had the novel “arrested” instead, removing all copies from bookshops and warehouses and removing all copies of Ngũgĩ’s books from schools and universities. “What is so devastating in a dictatorship is the taking away of a voice,” Ngũgĩ’ says.

After living so long in the UK and the US, why does Ngũgĩ continue to write only about Kenya?

I return again and again, in person, and in my writing, for the same reason that I have clung to my Kenyan passport, like a religious relic, that reminds me of the unfulfilled dream the caged men and women once sung about…One day I will unpack the suitcase in the mind and write about America and Europe, but I hope I will still find inspiration from those caged men and women whose melody of defiance embodies the dreams of all those who dream to change the world for the empowerment of the least among us.

For more on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the Moi dictatorship see:

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o website

Despite decades of exile, I still feel the pull of my homeland

Don’t forget era of dictatorship, Kenyan author says

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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