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Ngugi wa Thiong'o (b. 1938; formerly known as James Ngugi)


Kenyan teacher, novelist, essayist, and playwright, whose works function as an important link between the pioneers of African writing and the younger generation of postcolonial writers. After imprisonment in 1978, Ngugi abandoned using English as the primary language of his work in favor of Gikuyu, his native tongue. The transition from colonialism to postcoloniality and the crisis of modernity has been a central issues in a great deal of Ngugi's writings.

Again the owl cried. Twice!
'A warning to her,' Njorege thought. And again his whole soul rose in anger  anger against all those with a white skin, all those foreign elements that had displaced the true sons of the land from their God-given place. Had God not promised Gekoyo that he would give all the land to the father of the tribe  he and his posterity? Now all the land had been taken away.
(from 'The Martyr,' in African Literature, ed. by Lennart Sörensen, 1971)

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kiambu District, the fifth child of the third of his father's four wives. At that time Kenya was under British rule, which ended in 1963. Ngugi's family belonged to the Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Gikuyu. His father, Thiong'o wa Nducu, was a peasant farmer, who was forced to become a squatter after the British Imperial Act of 1915. Ngugi attended the mission-run school at Kamaandura in Limuru, Karinga school in Maanguu, and Alliance High School in Kikuyu. During these years Ngugi became a devout Christian. However, at school he also learned about the Gikuyu values and history and underwent the Gikuyu rite of passage ceremony. Later he rejected Christianity, and changed his original name in 1976 from James Ngugi, which he saw as a sign of colonialism, to Ngugi wa Thiong'o in honor of his Gikuyu heritage.

In 1962 Ngugi's play The Black Hermit was produced in Kampala. To pursue graduate studies he left in 1964 for England, entering the Leeds University. After receiving a B.A. in English at Makerere University College in Kampala (Uganda) in 1963, Ngugi worked briefly as a journalist in Nairobi. He married in 1961. Over the next seventeen years his first wife, Nyambura, gave birth to six children. His second wife, Njeeri wa Ngugi, he met in 1987. She had moved at the age of 17 to the United States, where she studied at New Jersey City State University and later worked at the New Jersey State Division of Youth and Family Services. In 2002 she was appointed director of the UCI Faculty and Staff Counseling Center.

The most prominent theme in Ngugi's early work was the conflict between the individual and the community. As a novelist Ngugi made his debut with Weep Not, Child (1964), which he started to write while he was at school in England. It was the first novel in English to be published by an East African author. Ngugi used the Bildungsroman form to tell the story of a young man, Njoroge. He loses his opportunity for further education when he is caught between idealistic dreams and the violent reality of the colonial exploitation. The River Between (1965) had as its background the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1956). The story was set in the late 1920s and 1930s and depicted an unhappy love affair in a rural community divided between Christian converts and non-Christians.

A Grain of Wheat (1967) marked Ngugi's break with cultural nationalism and his embracing of Fanonist Marxism. Ngugi refers in the title to the biblical theme of self-sacrifice, a part of the new birth: "unless a grain of wheat die." The allegorical story of one man's mistaken heroism and a search for the betrayer of a Mau Mau leader is set in a village, which has been destroyed in the war. The author's family was involved in the Mau Mau uprising. Ngugi's older brother had joined the movement, his stepbrother was killed, and his mother was arrested and tortured. Ngugi's village suffered in a campaign.

In the 1960s Ngugi was a reporter for the Nairobi Daily Nation and editor of Zuka from 1965 to 1970. He worked as a lecturer at several universities - at the University College in Nairobi (1967-69), at the Makerere University in Kampala (1969-70), and at the Northwestern University in Evanston in the United States (1970-71). Ngugi resigned from his post at Nairobi University as a protest against government interference in the university, though he joined the faculty again in 1973, becoming an associate professor and chairman of the department of literature. His resignation was response to his and his colleagues' criticism of English - the British government had made in the 1950s instruction in English mandatory. Ngugi had asked in an article, written with Taban lo Liyong and Henry Owuor-Anyumba, "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?" (from 'On the Abolition of the English Department', 1968) Acknowledging the influence of European literatures on African writing, Ngugi and his coauthors emphasized the importance of the oral tradition, Swahili literature, and the Caribbean novel and poetry.

In 1976 Ngugi chaired the cultural committee of the Kamiriithu Community Edcational and Cultural Centre, a collective that a ran a public theatre. The government denied its permission for performances in 1982. At the end of December 1977 Daniel arap Moi, then vice-president, ordered Ngugi detained in Mamiti Maximum Security Prison. Ngugi was imprisoned under Public Security Act for a year without trial for his involvement with a communal theatre in his home village.

Behind his arrest was the uncensored political message of his popular play Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977, I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngugi wa Mirii. Moreover, Ngugi's novel Petals of Blood (1978) drew attention with its keen sense of contemporary political events. It reflected change in Ngugi's work from portraying the colonial era to focusing on exploit and corruption in present-day Kenya. The story dealt with an investigation of the murder of three representatives of the new society, who have profited from neocolonialism. Ngugi's short story 'Minutes of Glory' examined the backside of economic progress - the life of women who were teared off from their villages and doomed to work as prostitutes in cities. The protagonist, Beatrice, is an exploited barmaid. "Her life was here in the bar among this crowd of lost strangers. Fallen from grace, fallen from grace. She was part of a generation which would never again be one with the soil, the crops, the wind and the moon. Not for them that whispering in dark hedges, not for her that dance and love-making under the glare of the moon, with the hills of TumuTumu rising to touch the sky." (from 'Minutes of Glory,' in Secret Lives, 1976) Beatrice steals from a fellow victim, a lorry driver, and has her few minutes of freedom and admiration, before she is arrested.

After being released, Ngugi was not reinstated in his university post, and his family were subjected to frequent harassment. In 1980 Ngugi published the first modern novel written in Gikuyu, Caitaani Muthara-ini (Devil on the Cross). He argued that literature written by Africans in a colonial language is not African literature, but "Afro-European literature." Writers must use their native languages to give the African literature its own genealogy and grammar.

Ngugi's prison diary Detained, written in English, came out in 1981. Barred from jobs in colleges and at the university, he left Kenya in 1982 to live in self-imposed exile in London. Ngugi continued to write prolifically. In his book  Decolonising the Mind The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) he said that African writers should express themselves in indigenous languages in order to reach the African masses. For the younger generation of readers he wrote three stories of the adventures of Njamba Nene, whose name could be translated as "Big Hero" and whose life is deeply connected with the history of anti-colonial resistance. In the first story Njamba Nene rescues a busload of children (Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus), he then transports a concealed pistol to a Mau Mau leader, General Ruheni (Njamba Nene's Pistol), and at the end of the trilogy he a venges his mother's torture and murder (Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief).

Among Ngugi's most important works is Matigari  (1987), in which the author builds his narrative on a famous Gikuyu folktale. In the satirical moral fable Martigari, a freedom fighter, emerges from the forest in the political dawn of post-independence Kenya. Searching for his family and a new future, he finds little has changed and vows to use force of arms to achieve his true liberation. According to a rumor, Matigari was taken seriously by Kenyan authorities as a revolutionary agitator plotting to overthrow the government, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

In the 1990s, Ngugi published mostly non-fiction. Before becoming professor of comparative literature and performance studies at New York University (1992 2002), where he also held the Erich Maria Remarque Chair, Ngugi taught at the University of Bayreuth, Yale University and Amherst College. A respected speaker and internationally acclaimed author and activist, he has lectured at Auckland University, Oxford University, Cambridge, and Harvad. Ngugi is currently distinguished professor of comparative literature and English at the University of California, Irvine.

While touring in Kenya in 2004 with his wife, Ngugi was assaulted by robbers who broke into their apartment. During the assault Ngugi was beaten up and tortured with cigarettes and his wife was stabbed and raped. Among Ngugi's later novels is Murogi wa Kagogo (2004-07), originally published in a series of instalmenst. The first volume, translated as Wizard of the Crow, is set in the corrupted fictional Republic of Aburiria, where the Ruler's bodily functions are a national news  from eating, shitting, sneezing, or blowing his nose to yawning. In the House of the Interpreter (2012) was the second volume of his memoirs, began with Dreams in a Time of War (2010).

For further reading: Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Clifford B. Robson (1979); An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi wa Thiong'o by G.D. Killam (1980); Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings by David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe (1983); Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat by Muchigu Kiiru (1985); Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel by Carol Sicherman (1990); Ngugi wa Thiong'o: L'homme et l'ouvre by Jacqueline Bardolph (1990) Ngugi Wa Thiong O: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1957-1987 by Carol Sicherman (1991); The Words of Ngugi by C. Nwandwo (1992); The World of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, ed. by Charles Cantalupo (1993); The Novels of Achebe and Ngugi by K. Indrasena Reddy (1994); Ngugi was Thiong'o: Text and Context, ed. by Charles Cantalupo (1995); Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Ideology of Form by Simon Gikandi (1998); Critical Essays: Achebe, Baldwin, Cullen, Ngugi, and Tutuola by Sydney Onyeberechi (1999); Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Patrick Williams (1999); Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Oliver Lovesey (2000); Ngugi wa Thiongo Speaks: Interviews with the Kenyan Writer, eds. Reinhard Sander & Bernth Lindfors (2006); Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading by Brendon Nicholls (2010)  

Selected works:

  • The Black Hermit, 1963 (play)
  • Weep Not, Child, 1964
  • The River Between, 1965
  • A Grain of Wheat, 1967
    - Nisun jyvä (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1972)
  • Mtawa mweusi, 1970
  • This Time Tomorrow, 1970 (three plays, including the title play, The Reels, and The Wound in the Heart)
  • Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, 1972
  • Secret Lives, and Other Stories, 1976
  • The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, 1976 (with Micere Githae Mugo)
  • Ngaahika ndeenda, 1977 (play, with Ngugi wa Mirii)
    - I Will Marry When I Want (translated by the authors, 1982)
  • Petals of Blood, 1977
  • Caitaani Mutharaba-ini, 1980 
    - Devil on the Cross (translated by the author, 1982)
    - Paholainen ristillä (suom. Mika Tiirinen, 1994)
  • Writers in Politics: Essays, 1981 (2nd ed., 1997)
  • Education for a National Culture, 1981
  • Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary, 1981
  • Njamba Nene na Mbaathi i Malhagu, 1982 (children's book, illustrated by Emmanuel Kariuki)
    - Adventures of Njamba Nere: Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (translated by Wangui wa Goro, 1986)
  • Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, 1983
  • Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene, 1984 (illustrations by Emmanuel Kariuki)
    - Njamba Nene's Pistol (translated by Wangui wa Goro, 1986
  • Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986
  • Writing against Neo-Colonialism, 1986
  • Njamba Nene na Chibu King'ang'i, 1986 (children's book; Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief)
  • The First Walter Rodney Memorial Lecture, 1987
  • Matigari ma Njiruungi, 1987
    - Matigari (translated into English by Wangui wa Goro, 1990)
  • Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom, 1993
  • Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: The Performance on Literature and Power in Post-Colonial Africa, 1998
  • Murogi wa Kagogo, 2004-2007 (6 vols.)  
    - Wizard of the Crow: A novel, 2006 (volume 1)
    - Variksen Velho (suom. Seppo Loponen, 2007)
  • Re-Membering Africa, 2009
  • Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, 2009  
  • Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, 2010
  • Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, 2012
  • In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, 2012  

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