In 1962 the young Ngugi wa Thiong’o had a piece of good fortune. He had left Kenya for Uganda, where he was enrolled as an undergraduate at Makerere, in Kampala. As he explains in Birth of a Dream Weaver, the third of his memoirs, the university was hosting a conference on ‘African writers of English expression’, and he was invited to join a panel on the strength of a handful of short stories published by a local press in Kenya. At the conference he approached Chinua Achebe, one of the stars of the event, whose novel Things Fall Apart had appeared four years earlier in Britain and gone on to become the first, and most enduring, title in the newly established Heinemann African Writers Series. Ngugi had the manuscript of a novel in progress and asked Achebe to take a look. He had no idea that Achebe had been appointed general editor of the series and was scouting for new writers. Two years later, Weep Not, Child became the first English-language novel by a black Kenyan writer. Two more novels quickly followed – The River Between and A Grain of Wheat – and Ngugi became an international bestseller.
Like Achebe, Ngugi came of age at the moment of independence from British colonial rule. Both were rare examples of ‘natives’ with a university degree. Makerere, Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and Ibadan – Achebe’s Nigerian alma mater – were the only institutions of higher learning in the whole of British-ruled Africa. The British had founded Ibadan and upgraded Makerere in the late 1940s, as the US dismantled the old imperial order and the Soviet Union looked on with an ambitious eye. It did no harm to set the tone for a postcolonial relationship, the British believed, by moulding an indigenous cadre in the image of the departing power. In the mid-1950s Molly Mahood, a Shakespeare scholar from Oxford, told students and faculty at Ibadan that ‘a country does not attain nationhood without a literature, and Nigeria has not yet a literature.’ She meant a literature in English, and pointed to Ireland, whose writers had long ago abandoned their native language, as an instructive precedent.
This was not a condescending comparison. Nigeria, like Kenya, owed its territorial identity, and its lingua franca, to the colonial power that had subjugated a range of indigenous peoples and confined them within a single border. Yet those ethnicities had rich oral traditions that were held in high regard by their audiences, just as the novel, written verse and drama were valued in the colonising countries. (In Nigeria, whether Mahood knew it or not, there had also been a turn to print during the 1930s, as authors began writing novels and plays in local languages.) By the time of the Makerere conference, with independence already won by Nigeria and Ghana, and looming for Kenya and Uganda, the West was eager for a role in the postcolonial future. For Britain – and the US – this meant stressing the vitality and relevance of English. It turned out that the conference was convened under the auspices of the CIA’s cultural wing, the Congress of Cultural Freedom, as Ngugi discovered later.
The neo-colonial drift of Makerere was apparent to more forward-thinking, or radical, delegates in Kampala. As Ngugi recalls, the discussion quickly turned to the subject of what, exactly, constituted African literature. He revisits a famous article by the Nigerian activist and intellectual Obi Wali, ‘The Dead End of African Literature?’ (1963), which argues that ‘any true African literature must be written in the African languages.’ This was the position that Ngugi eventually adopted in his own, equally famous collection of essays, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), a ‘farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings’. ‘European’ languages, Ngugi insisted, inscribe a neo-colonial dependency in African cultures that use them: freedom can only be achieved through the medium of languages that contain the ‘collective experience’ of Africans.
Ngugi’s anxieties about language have been shared by many African writers. Achebe, whose reputation is based on a famous trilogy of novels in English, was also worried that writers who took up the colonial language were guilty of a ‘dreadful betrayal’: he was thinking of Leavis’s view, which Ngugi shares, that language is not simply ‘an analogue for a culture’ but its ‘essential life’. Achebe’s approach was to say that the African writer ‘should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost’. Yet that same writer must also fashion ‘an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience’. This was either an elegant fudge or an impossible demand. Can a language, and the way it’s used, be both particular and universal? Universal for whom? For graduates of Makerere and Ibadan, schooled in Leavis’s great tradition? Or for Ngugi’s Gikuyu mother, who neither read nor wrote in her own language and spoke no English? Dealing mostly with life at Makerere, as well as Ngugi’s short stint as a journalist before studying at Leeds, Birth of a Dream-Weaver prowls around this dilemma, but stops well short of the point at which Ngugi, by then nearly forty, tried to resolve it. I’m not sure how long we’ll have to wait for another volume, to get us to that crucial moment, both for Ngugi and for the literary scene in Africa, so we may as well address it now.
Whatever his misgivings at Makerere and after, Ngugi continued writing in English. A Grain of Wheat was followed by three plays, a collection of essays, a book of short stories and another play. In 1977 Heinemann published Petals of Blood, his first novel for ten years, and in the same year he set about producing a play he had written in Gikuyu. Ngaahika Ndeenda (‘I Will Marry When I Want’) was partly cast – and partly rewritten in rehearsal – in Kamirithu, his birthplace in the former ‘white highlands’ of Kenya. Ngugi’s intention was to bring local people into active dialogue with the events and characters of the play, and circumvent the ‘bourgeois’ processes of conventional, city-based theatre. ‘The people in the village,’ Ngugi recalled later,
knew their language better than we did, so they began to offer comments on the script. They would say: ‘Oh, this image is wrong here, or that type of language is inappropriate there. An old man doesn’t speak like this: if you want him to have dignity, he must use a different kind of speech. Oh my God, you are making him speak like a child! You university people, what kind of learning have you had?’
The play was performed at the local community centre but was quickly banned by the authorities: it depicted the postcolonial black ruling class as swindlers in league with Western neo-imperialist masters, doing peasants and workers out of their land and rights. The theatre was burned down and Ngugi was imprisoned for a year without charge or trial, which convinced him he had been onto something by composing and staging a play in an indigenous language. During his imprisonment he wrote the first of his novels in Gikuyu – Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (‘Devil on the Cross’) – and although his memoirs are in English, his subsequent fiction was all composed and published in Gikuyu, most of it also appearing in English versions of his own.
The force of the argument for indigenous languages is striking, even if it raises obvious questions that Ngugi doesn’t address. Are Things Fall Apart and A Grain of Wheat – and the many African novels currently published in London and New York to great acclaim – merely additions to what he calls ‘Afro-European literature’? Is English, along with French and Portuguese, and Spanish, for that matter, less of an African language than Gikuyu? There are millions of Africans for whom English is a first, sometimes an only language, a language that, whether we like it or not, is a monument to our recent history (the Irish endured a far longer onslaught from the English). I’m one of them: my mother was British and my father Yoruba. Instead of encouraging his children to be bilingual, he made sure that we grew up speaking the Queen’s English. He disparaged his own language as ‘bush’. Then, too, there are speakers of minority languages which were dying out long before the end of the colonial era, as modernity closed in. And what of writers like Nadine Gordimer or Mia Couto, writing only in a European language? Are we meant to dismiss them as non-Africans?
Ngugi’s real objection is to the power and prestige of European languages, and the way teachers hammered them into their pupils. He also saw, correctly, that colonial education forbade students to make their first discoveries of the civilisations around them from a secure position at the centre of their own. In Decolonising the Mind, he recalls an admission in the late 1960s by the head of the English department at Nairobi, James Stewart, that English was bound to become ‘less British’ as it opened up to the inflections of its former colonies, including the US. Stewart welcomed the change, but Ngugi still put the question: ‘Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?’ That simple query threatened to engulf the university, and might have led to the abolition of the English department were it not for the awkward fact that African writers were still busy composing in English, whether or not it was their first language and no matter how great the betrayal was made out to be.
Stewart’s unwillingness to catch up with reality and Ngugi’s residual objections both ignored the fact that there were flourishing literatures in indigenous languages. Nigeria was typical. By the time Ngugi handed his manuscript to Achebe in Kampala, the revival of Yoruba travelling theatre had been underway for twenty years. One of the first and most famous examples was Hubert Ogunde’s troupe of players. In 1944, attending the rehearsal of a play about ‘a man who signed a pact with an evil spirit in order to be wealthy’, an enthusiastic British official got ‘the greatest surprise of my life’: ‘To see the cast rehearsing the Opera dances, to hear the cheap Native drums supplying the music with precision without any mechanical aid, the clapping of hands, and the high standards of discipline maintained throughout is to think one is back at a London theatre.’
There were around a hundred of these travelling companies by the 1960s. They were still flourishing in the 1970s, when Ulli Beier – ‘one of the three European scholars,’ according to this memoir, ‘who took a serious look at the emerging literature from the continent’ – attended a play in Ibadan by E.K. Ogunmola’s troupe: ‘The nightclub which sometimes serves as a theatre for Yoruba Operas could normally hold perhaps three hundred people, but on this occasion there must have been at least a thousand, tightly packed, filling out every square inch … and crowding the street outside. The excitement and the noise were incredible.’ The inheritors of the colonial state quickly discovered that these performances and their audiences were a nuisance. In 1964, Ogunde’s productions were banned for two years by the regional government after his play, Yoruba Ronu (‘Yoruba Think’), criticised the Yoruba leadership for its divide-and-rule policies. (His response was to write a new play in Yoruba, Otito Koro: ‘Truth Is Bitter’.)
Wole Soyinka was another young luminary at the conference at Makerere, and by then an established dramatist. The Yoruba revival had set him on his path as a playwright. Not long after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 he was asked whether he considered himself a Yoruba writer, despite the fact that his prolific output was exclusively in English. ‘To go back and say that you will write only in your local language,’ he replied, ‘is, for me, very defeatist … Why should I speak only to the Yoruba alone? … I will be willing and ready to use a language that not only reaches all those people within the continent, but actually expands outside the continent.’ The words ‘local’ and ‘only to the Yoruba’ seem dismissive now – maybe they did at the time – and it’s understandable that Ngugi found the anglophone defence so frustrating: ‘How did we, as African writers, come to be so feeble towards the claims of our languages on us,’ he asked in Decolonising the Mind, ‘and so aggressive in our claims on other languages, particularly the languages of our colonisation?’
How to be ‘universal’ yet true to the ‘peculiar experience’ of a single culture or linguistic group isn’t as clear as Achebe suggested it might be. Being ‘local’, after all, being willing to speak ‘only’ to the Yoruba, would amount to a universalising programme if you thought that only the Yoruba were worth speaking to. As for the accusation of ‘a dreadful betrayal’, Unesco predicts that Igbo, Achebe’s language, will be extinct by 2025, and the controversy with it. In the meantime, a vigorous Hausa-language literature is flourishing in Nigeria, its writers indifferent, apparently, to the ‘universal’ audience Achebe and Soyinka have been so anxious to reach. Hausa, it’s true, has more than 120 million speakers, but Yoruba has 40 million and Igbo 32 million: far more than Danish, say, or Dutch, which sustain a national literature, even if both accept the inevitability of English in public life. It is the writers, in the end, who determine whether a language lives or dies, and with it the culture they claim to value.
The violence of the authorities and settlers in Kenya gave the case for writing in an indigenous language more force for Ngugi, even after independence, than it ever had for his Nigerian counterparts. In an episode from an earlier childhood memoir, In the House of the Interpreter (2012), he returns from boarding school to find that the British have demolished his home. ‘The hedge of ashy leaves that we planted looks the same, but beyond it our homestead is a rubble of burnt dry mud, splinters of wood and grass. My mother’s hut and my brother’s house on stilts have been razed to the ground.’ It turns out that the entire village has been razed because the land is wanted by the settlers. In the new memoir the teenage Ngugi is unable to make sense of the systematic violence of the colonisers. ‘The wanton massacres, the mass incarcerations, and the violent mass relocations; these were too large to take in wholly at the time. It’s the singular … and the bizarre that creep to mind.’
He tells the story of a black servant trotting beside a horse for 17 miles in order to deliver his white master’s guest to his destination. Instead of walking back the way he came, the servant decided to ride the horse. When news reached his master, he had the servant flogged in public – flogging natives was a spectator sport – and chained up overnight in a barn, where he was found dead the next morning. The incident – it took place in 1923 – became a cause célèbre in the narrow world of the settler community. And because in his final moments the victim had said, ‘I am dead,’ a court concluded that he had brought his fate on himself. In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen seemed to agree that his last words were an invocation, not a description. To her mind, he typified ‘the fugitiveness of the wild things who are, in the hour of need, conscious of a refuge somewhere in existence, who go when they like; of whom we can never get hold’. Ngugi is scathing. ‘Death from torture becomes a thing of beauty,’ he writes.
When Ngugi travelled to the writers’ conference in Kampala, a few months after Uganda’s independence, he was struck by ‘the incredible sight of black people who did not walk as if they were strangers in their city’. A ruthless liberation war was raging in his own country. His brother and an uncle were interned in a British concentration camp – his use of the term is unapologetic – designed to break the ‘Mau Mau’, or as he prefers, the Land and Freedom Army. The worst of these camps was at Hola where, in March 1959, 11 men were bludgeoned to death and dozens more maimed for refusing to work on the grounds that they were political prisoners. The authorities claimed that the men had died from drinking contaminated water. No one was ever prosecuted. The full truth only came out three years ago, when secret Foreign Office files were made public. At the time, Enoch Powell was one of the few MPs to deplore what had happened: ‘We cannot say, “We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home” … We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere.’
Ngugi was not to know that independence would come as quickly as it did; Rhodesia, also a settler colony, was destined to fight a liberation war for another twenty years, to say nothing of South Africa or the Portuguese colonies. The stakes, to his mind, were higher than they could ever have been for Achebe, the star he was eager to meet in Kampala, already ensconced in a cushy government job – complete with chauffeur-driven car – which he had seamlessly inherited from a colonial civil servant who had left Nigeria after independence. In Things Fall Apart Achebe depicts a pristine African past in order to show that ‘African people did not hear about culture for the first time from Europeans.’ Ngugi was more concerned that he wouldn’t have a culture left if the British got their way.
Yet the decision to write in Gikuyu exacted a heavy price. The artistry that had earned his English-language novels so much praise was now abandoned in favour of the crudest possible politics. This is as true of the new memoir as it is of the novels that followed his conversion. In the chapter on the Kampala conference, we find 29 emergent African writers gathered in one place, a handful destined to achieve great things, yet we get the briefest sketches of what they were like as young men and women. Of Achebe – ‘the person I really wanted to meet’ – we learn only that he was a kind man (anyone who knew him will agree). Soyinka is briefly glimpsed in a night-club ‘dancing the cha-cha-cha’ as ‘other dancing pairs paused to stare and enjoy his moves.’ The only writer who comes to life is not African: Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet, who ‘gave the gathering breadth of geography and depth of history’. Ngugi and Hughes spend the best part of a day together after he asks Ngugi to show him around. Ngugi agonises over where to go, until Hughes resolves the matter by hanging out with the locals in a nearby slum, where ‘he blended into the scene more than I did’:
He tasted the waragi brew, just a sip, and the matoke, just a taste, otherwise for the one hour that we roamed from shop to shop, one pile of goods to another in the open-air street market, bumping against one drunk and another, he seemed more interested in absorbing the atmosphere of harmony in dissonance that surrounded us, perhaps reminding him of his Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz.
More of this would have been welcome, just as one wishes for more of the earlier, English novelist than the later, Gikuyu one, if the translations are anything to go by.
Take Matigari, first published in 1986 and later translated into English by Wangui wa Goro. It tells the story of a freedom fighter who emerges from the bush after years of struggle against the white oppressor to take his place in the new, independent Kenya. He buries his AK-47 and fashions a belt of peace that he ties around his waist. His first thought is to reclaim his house, which was seized by Settler Williams with the help of his servant, John Boy, both of whom pursued him into the bush, where they spent years tracking him until he finally managed to kill them. On his return, Matigari can tell almost immediately that nothing has changed. The country is still subservient to the Western multinationals – ‘they walked past Barclays Bank, American Life Insurance and British-American Tobacco’ – and the police are as ruthless as they were in the old days. He rescues a woman who is about to be flogged in public and proceeds with her and another ally to his home, only to discover that it has been taken over by John Boy’s son in league with Settler Williams’s son, who drive him away. With his two companions he embarks on a disappointing quest for truth and justice and concludes that a new liberation war will have to be fought. He hijacks a Mercedes-Benz belonging to the wife of a government minister (she is having sex with her driver in the rear seat). They drive to his house, which is surrounded by police and soldiers along with an expectant crowd awaiting his return: Matigari is by now a mythical figure. He manages to blow up the house and returns to the bush, to recover his weapon. Whether he makes it or not is left unclear but the people believe he has and this gives them hope that victory will eventually be theirs.
The characters in Matigari rehearse standard political positions for or against the people (i.e. ‘workers’ and ‘peasants’), who are the true guardians of the communal values subverted by the conquerors and their native collaborators. Nothing is left to chance. In a clear reference to Daniel arap Moi, the Kenyan president who slung Ngugi in jail – and told his followers to ‘sing like parrots,’ as he had been obliged to do when he was vice-president to Jomo Kenyatta – the official newspaper in Matigari is called the Daily Parrot. A distinguished professor of Parrotology is always dancing attendance to a minister given to bombastic speeches explaining to cowed workers why they should acquiesce in their own exploitation, on pain of torture and death. The depth of the author’s disgust at what he believed his country had become is not in doubt, but a straightforward manifesto would have won him more converts.
A Grain of Wheat, too, railed against the injustices of a system that exploited labour and stole land, but without losing sight of the individuals to whom these injustices happened. As with Matigari, there is the native collaborator on whom the system depends – a constant theme in Ngugi’s work – but the character in question has multiple motives. Collaborating with the enemy gives him power over the woman who spurns him, but in his moment of triumph he emerges as a tragic figure. When the war against the white oppressor has been won, he exiles himself from his community. In Ngugi’s world, the individual is nothing without the community so lovingly re-created in the early novels. To be estranged from it is to wander the earth without a home.
This human dimension is missing in his Gikuyu novels, which is partly why Matigari achieved an extra-literary mythical status in Kenya, adding weight to Ngugi’s case. Shortly after the novel was published word reached President Moi that a bandit was roaming the land urging the people to rise up against him, and a warrant was issued for Matigari’s arrest. When it was discovered that he was fictitious, the book was arrested instead: all copies that came to light were confiscated. Like the play, which led to Ngugi’s arrest and exile, and like Hubert Ogunde’s seditious plays in Achebe’s Nigeria, the real police hunt for the spectral Matigari testifies to the power of the language of the people who might be considered your primary audience. And nothing stops your book being translated into English (or French or Portuguese or Spanish) if you crave a different kind of ‘universal’ audience. Already assured an international reputation in English, Ngugi could sit back and watch with satisfaction as his later novels sailed forth in the language he had abandoned. It’s a pity they’re so unreadable.