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.

Professor Ngugi’s novels, whether written at Makerere, Leeds or Nairobi Universities, have all sprung from an imagination fired by Kenyan politics. But with Detained and Devil on the Cross he has entered into direct confrontation with the regime, and his art has become the vehicle for his political purpose. His earlier novels were set against the conflicts produced in Kenya by British colonial society. The female circumcision crisis of the Thirties (The River Between) and the Mau Mau rebellion (Weep not, child) pointed up the dilemmas of families split between old and new. These novels established his reputation in Europe and America as a craftsman and a storyteller who introduced non-Africans to African personalities and preoccupations. East African writing had previously been the preserve of white settlers. None of these had created a truly African protagonist. In Writers and Politics Ngugi is scathing about the narrowness of such well-known writers as Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen whom he places in ‘the tradition of great racists like Hume, Trollope, Hegel and Trevor-Roper, all arch-priests of privilege, racism and class snobbery’. It is the violence of such sentiments that has caused some people to see Ngugi himself as a racist – an idea that quickly disappears when one meets him.

Writers and Politics gives a strong sense of the man and his political evolution during the 1970s: ‘For me,’ he says, ‘it was a decade of tremendous change, towards the end I had ceased being a teacher and become a student at the feet of the Kenyan peasants and workers.’ In Europe this may read like posturing, but when Ngugi says it, it seems a natural and modest description of his politics. Petals of Blood, published three years ago, prepared the way for his detention by President Kenyatta: it is an ambitious novel which portrays post-colonial Kenya as a cruel, materialistic society in which the weak and poor are mercilessly exploited by the rich and powerful, who include politicians and churchmen as well as businessmen. Few Europeans realised, or even imagined, that this might be what Kenya was like. For Kenyans, however, the novel was a bombshell precisely because it was so close to their unrecorded reality. Some of the Establishment accepted the indictment and Petals of Blood was launched at a party where the guest of honour was the Vice-President and Minister of Finance.

Devil on the Cross takes up the same theme, putting a stronger emphasis on the part played in modern Kenya by foreign capital. It was written on lavatory paper in prison and it is clear from Detained that the creation of Wariinga, the heroine, was Ngugi’s main resource in enduring the detention without trial which he could only expect to end with the death of Kenyatta. (The President alone can detain and release untried prisoners deemed to be security risks.) Wariinga is a classic portrait of a young Kenyan urban woman caught in a pattern of exploitation by a male-chauvinist society. She is made pregnant by the sugar daddy who waits for her after school, leaves the baby with her parents back home in the village, tries to contribute to its upkeep by working as a secretary in Nairobi, but is sacked from her job for refusing to sleep with her boss, and evicted from her miserable lodging by a rapacious developer. She and her boyfriend, Gatuira, a teacher from Nairobi University, are caught up by chance in a gathering, in the town of Ilmorog (familiar to readers of Petals of Blood), of all the great crooks of Kenya meeting to compete for the title of the greatest crook of them all. The meeting, the centrepiece of the novel, sways between satire, farce and nightmare as one businessman after another boasts to the company, fellow crooks and foreign observers, about his skills in selling nothing for something to the poor.

Selling bottled air to peasants is exactly what Ngugi believes Kenyan capitalism is capable of. The one weakness of the book is Wariinga’s transformation into a radical, liberated motor mechanic who forces respect and comradeliness from her fellow workers (male). Perhaps Ngugi meant it as fantasy, like the bottled air, but it detracts from her appeal in the first part of the novel, when she knows there is no way out.

The key to the character of Wariinga is to be found in Ngugi’s work at the community centre at Kamirithu, the village outside Limuru which was the focus of his life for 18 months before his detention. In Detained he tells for the first time in print the story of the community centre and the adult literacy classes he taught. In six months 55 workers and peasants learnt to read and write, and, in a village whose only previous entertainments were the bar and the church, they wanted to put on a play. Ngugi and a university colleague wrote it and the newly literate peasants spent two months rewriting and altering it:

The six months between June and November 1977 were the most exciting in my life and the true beginning of my education. I learnt my language anew. I rediscovered the creative nature and power of collective work ... The whole project became a collective community effort with peasants and workers seizing more and more initiative in revising and adding to the script, in directing dance movements on the stage, and in the general organisation.

I saw with my own eyes an incredible discipline emerge in keeping time and in cutting down negative social practices. Drinking alcohol, for instance. It was the women’s group who imposed on themselves a ban on drinking alcohol, even a glass, when coming to work at the centre.

This spread to all other groups, including the audience. For a village known for drunken brawls, it was a remarkable achievement of our collective self-discipline.

He goes on to describe how the theatre was built and ‘a torrent of talents hitherto unsuspected even by the owners’ unleashed. Ngugi himself ‘had the role of messenger and a porter, running errands here and there. For myself I learnt a lot.’ It is clear that the experience with the peasants of Kamirithu had a stronger influence on Ngugi than all his previous work in universities at home and abroad. And the importance of those months was highlighted by the Government’s sudden decision to revoke the play’s licence and, within weeks, detain Ngugi indefinitely and without trial.

The play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (‘I shall marry when I wish’), was written in Kikuyu and acted by non-intellectuals in the countryside. Its theme – that the fruits of independence have gone to those who collaborated with the British rather than to those who fought for it – was considered a threat to public security. Petals of Blood had presumably escaped the censor because it is a long, difficult novel written in English. Ngaahika Ndeenda appealed to a mass audience and was a dramatic cultural departure for Kenya – too dramatic for the Government.

Since then, relations between the present government and Kenya’s most distinguished author have deteriorated even further with the physical destruction of Kamirithu by three truck-loads of police in March. Kamirithu Community Centre was banned by the Administration after Ngugi’s latest theatrical production, a musical play about Kenya in the 1930s, was refused a licence. The National Theatre was sold out for days without ever advertising Ngugi’s play, but when the cast of fifty peasants arrived at the theatre armed police patrolled the grounds and the doors never opened. The play was, however, seen, in formal ‘rehearsals’, by ten thousand people over ten evenings in the University theatre, until that too was closed to them. In April Ngugi and his cast were invited to perform the play throughout Zimbabwe as a demonstration of how an adult literacy programme might enlist the talents of a rural community: the group were not given passports. Ngugi’s enforced isolation has thus been pushed a step further. Community theatre was a possible opening, but he now fears he will be forced back into the solitary world of the novelist.

Detained describes the degradation of life in detention – poor food, little exercise, the sadistic use of ill-health to break the prisoners’ spirit. Ngugi himself suffered agonising toothache which was not treated for more than a month. And the book includes a letter from another prisoner who, for two and a half years, instead of getting electrotherapy for a bad back, was treated for mental instability. The book is a wonderful testimony to friendship as Ngugi describes his growing admiration for various detainees who had been there for years before he arrived. The Detainees’ Review Tribunal interviewed prisoners every six months but its members always refused to discuss the initial reason for the detention, merely repeating that they would be able to pass on any message from the prisoner to the Government. The book stands beside that other great African prison testimony, Wole Soyinka’s The man died. Soyinka’s Ake is a retreat from politics and present-day African reality to a lyrical description of a vanished childhood. Mr Soyinka writes as well as ever and, like Camera Laye in The African Child, has the gift of evoking the magic and sense of peaceful continuity which were the strength of small African communities in an earlier generation.

Rural idylls are now over in Africa, ruined by the impact of the cash economy, by Western religious and cultural influences, by the increasing conflict of interests between African élites and the peasants and urban poor. Ngugi gives voice to the realities of this new Africa:

A writer has no choice. Whether or not he is aware of it, his works reflect one or more aspects of the intense economic, political, cultural and ideological struggles in a society. What he can choose is one or the other side in the battlefield: the side of the people or the side of the social forces that try to keep the people down. He cannot remain neutral.

Ngugi has begun to write more in Kikuyu and less in English. (Devil on the Cross was first published in Kikuyu and translated by Ngugi.) This is part of his attempt to help create a ‘Kenyan national patriotic culture’ in reaction to what many Kenyans see as the ‘cultural imperialism’ of teaching their children Jane Austen and Wordsworth. But it will be tragic if his response to the political polarisation in his society is to turn his energies inward, so that he writes only in Kikuyu for a peasant audience, and refuses to address the outside world. As these three books show, his courage as an artist is comparable to that of the Russians who are sent to Siberia or to mental hospitals for their refusal to compromise. The fact that Ngugi is free (though ostracised and unemployed), and that these books can be read in Kenya, is a measure of the country’s relative humanity.