Kenya’s Dissident

Victoria Brittain

  • Devil on the Cross by Ngugi wa Thiongo
    Heinemann, 224 pp, £7.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 435 90200 8
  • Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary by Ngugi wa Thiongo
    Heinemann, 232 pp, £7.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 435 90650 X
  • Writers in Politics by Ngugi wa Thiongo
    Heinemann, 320 pp, £6.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 435 91752 8
  • Ake: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka
    Rex Collings, 230 pp, £7.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 86036 155 1

On 14 December 1978 small groups of people loomed out of the Kenya highland mist, as they headed down the narrow path churned into mud by the police truck which had brought Ngugi wa Thiongo home from the year in detention where he produced these books. Finding his house among the muddy maize plots north of Limuru, 20 miles from Nairobi, was easy: a single telephone-wire crossed the small-holdings and ended at his house. It is a symbol of Ngugi’s unique position in his peasant community. He is the man who speaks to the outside world of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, and beyond to the rest of Africa and to Europe. That day Ngugi sat quietly outside his house, returning to life from silence. His children shouted, and cajoled the loaded donkey-cart through the slippery gateway of the compound. Half Limuru seemed to have made the pilgrimage, bringing him a live sheep and other presents. Chickens and goats were shooed away from the plates of stew his wife produced for the visitors. But Nairobi’s élite was not there. Just two friends from the university and one newspaper reporter. The day illustrated the strengths and the weakness of Ngugi’s position as East Africa’s greatest novelist. His strength is his empathy with the peasants who are the people of his art. His weakness is his increasing intellectual isolation, evident in these books, which is likely to become permanent now that it seems the regime will not allow him to return to his job as chairman of the Literature Department at Nairobi University.

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