Orignally posted on: Nytimes.com – October 23rd 2016
The best memoirs operate at two levels. On one, the author simply recalls past experiences in all their raw subjectivity. The second involves a certain analytical distance, as the writer — wryly, perhaps, or with amusement — watches his younger self coming to terms with a society and an era, subjecting this immature version to the same meticulous scrutiny as the epoch in which he was raised.
“Dreams in a Time of War” (2010), the first in a series of autobiographical volumes being written by Kenya’s most celebrated novelist, performed effortlessly at that more sophisticated level. In it, Ngugi wa Thiong’o recalled a boyhood growing up in a Kikuyu compound outside Nairobi in the 1940s and ’50s, when the Mau Mau uprising challenged British rule. He exposed the imperial project’s inherent racism while acknowledging its transformative impact on reluctant subjects. The tone was calm and nuanced, with his polygamous father’s cruelty toward his mother coming in for as much criticism as the arrogance of British officialdom, and due recognition paid white teachers at Alliance High School, who opened up the world to questing African pupils.
In this, his third memoir, that critical distance has gone. Ngugi is now in neighboring Uganda, attending the prestigious Makerere University. One gets a sense that Ngugi’s worldview in his early 20s differed only superficially from his worldview today, now that he is in his late 70s, so perhaps detachment has become impossible. This is an angry book, peppered with memories of slights, insults and arguments that may date back more than half a century but clearly have lost none of their bite.
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It opens with a slap-in-the-face incident. The National Theater in Kampala has refused to stage a one-act play the student Ngugi has written — “The Wound in the Heart” — because the story features the rape of a Mau Mau rebel’s wife by a white district officer. The British Council, he is told, does not believe a British officer “can do that.” Ngugi, whose family spent years in one of the fortresslike “protected” villages created to curb Mau Mau’s reach and whose own brother joined the movement, knows better.
It proves a temporary reversal, but sets the scene. The book tracks the blossoming of a politically conscious young writer’s talent in the nurturing environment that was Makerere in its prime. Egged on by fellow students, encouraged by the progressive dean Hugh Dinwiddy and offered tips by a visiting Chinua Achebe, Ngugi finds his creative voice just as a continent is finding its freedom. The convictions he forms will last a lifetime: the quest for African dignity and self-realization, a rejection of Western hegemony, a passionate call for Africans to tell their own story in their own indigenous languages.
There’s no denying the injustices perpetrated during British rule, but undigested fury does not always make for good reading. So keen is Ngugi on landing anti-imperial punches that at times his touch becomes leaden. He rails against Waitina, a British official who defiles both men and women, while admitting the character may be no more than a generic boogeyman. He also gets things wrong. Joseph Mobutu never rechristened himself “Leopard Mobutu” in conscious or unconscious echo of Belgium’s repressive King Leopold. He actually rebaptized himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga — “The rooster that watches over all the hens”; “the Leopard” was a glorifying nickname adopted by his subjects.
It will be interesting to see whether Ngugi’s next memoir will be set in postindependence Kenya and be equally feisty. While colonialism presents African writers with the softest of targets, criticizing still-living African politicians and modern-day regimes is fraught with risk. During the regime of former President Daniel arap Moi, Ngugi’s writing got him imprisoned and forced into exile; when he returned to Kenya in 2004 during the presidency of Mwai Kibaki, he was attacked by armed robbers and his wife raped. Plenty of material there for rage, I would think, and not much likelihood of distancing.