For four days last week, one of Africa’s greatest writers, Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o of Kenya, was in Abeokuta, Nigeria, for Ake Book and Arts Festival. He shared his time with Edozie Udeze, mostly on his prison experience in 1977 and how it has so far fired his zeal to write more profound stories and lots more.
Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is obviously one of the most prolific and audacious and foremost African writers in the last fifty years or so. A Kenyan of the Gikuyu tribe by birth, he has been involved in works that have shaken authorities and opened the eyes of the common people not only in the Kenyan society but world-over. For four days last week, he was in Nigeria as the special guest of the Ake Book and Arts Festival held in Abeokuta, Ogun State.
Ngugi was at his best, feeling relaxed and free to interact with people. His foremost attention was on younger writers who constantly sought his views and advice on writing and the sort. However, in the session where he was asked to address the audience specifically titled, Prison Stories and Literature of Resistance, Ngugi was at liberty to discuss his life as a writer hounded in prison then by the Kenyan authorities. He also said much on the role of local African languages in the promotion and dissemination of African literature.
In his opening remarks, Ngugi said, “I have been privileged and honoured in this festival. Here, I met young writers who have been writing or are prepared to write in their native tongues. I met one who is set to write in Tiv language. I also met another who is already writing in Yoruba. I took down their names and it is my duty now to see how to encourage them; how to prod them on to live their dreams. I just could not believe it. For me, I’d say, let people begin in earnest to write in their mother tongue. There’s one writer here who’s already versed in Hausa/Fulani language. She told me her thoughts often come to her first in this language.”
Ngugi was enthralled to meet these young writers whose zeal for literature in local languages can help to preserve these languages in the best way possible. He said further: “For me, I discovered on time it was better for me to write in my native Gikuyu language. This is what I’ve been doing almost all my writing life. To begin with, I denounced both English and Christianity. I rejected my English name James, for African names have to be promoted and cherished. And I say to you: let no one criminalize your language. Do not allow them to brand your cultures as inferior. If you do, then be ready and sure that in no time you’d lose your identity and then Western culture would take hold of you.”
Ngugi then narrowed his attention to his early days in Kenya when the government of Jomo Kenyatta arrested him for his play titled Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry when I want) “Oh, yes,” he said, grinning effusively, “I was arrested on the midnight of the New Year in 1977. It was due to this play, and I was put in prison among hardened criminals – those on death roll and those doing life.” By this time, he had embarked on a project to use theatre to liberate his native Kenyans. He said: “I wanted to lessen the hold of the general bourgeois education system by encouraging participation in theatre performances. This was to involve the ordinary people. This was indeed embedded in the play Ngaahika Ndeenda, which was later shutdown by the dictatorial government of Jomo Kenyatta.”
Ngugi was to remain in prison for over a year where he used toilet papers supplied for their use in prison to write one of his best books titled, Devil on the Cross. “And here was I, from being a professor of English at the University of Nairobi, to being a prisoner without a name. I was imprisoned by an African leader, a fellow Gikuyu for writing a play in my native tongue. If I was imprisoned by a European, it would have been understandable. If you conquer a people, the first thing you do is to suppress both their local languages and other cultural elements. This is what I have resisted all my life,” he said.
In Detained (Prison Diary) 1981, he recounted the sordid account of those painful days in prison. He said more: “when they conquer you, they impose their own ideas, languages and cultures on you. Japan did it to Korea. England did it in Africa so that you would hate your names and assume new ones. It is a way to subdue your culture and retain their own naming system. By this, your memory of what you have been will soon belong to the dustbin of history. Indeed, part of the Slave Trade was to disconnect Africa from their people and it is still happening today. It is part of mental and psychological torture.”
As a sequel to Devil on the Cross, in 1986, he wrote Matigari, based on a Gikuyu folktale but being the story of an imaginary messiah who came to liberate the people. In it, the Kenyan government found its nemesis, hoping to get at the messiah and put him in prison for ever. “Even though Devil on the Cross was written on toilet papers, I tried to replicate more of that experience in Matigari as a sequel in exile. While in prison my daughter was born. In prison, her picture was brought to me and I’d look at her from time to time. It helped to strengthen me because other prisoners were barred from talking to me. Today, the love I have for my daughter is indescribable.
“Oh, yes, I grew up on the Bible. This reflected in Weep Not, Child and some of my early works. The Bible is part of the prophetic tradition. Yes, writers too are part of the prophetic tradition. You wrote and someone comes to you to say, oh, how did you know that what you wrote had an echo in other people’s lives? So the Bible and the Koran can be allies to writers. When you write, you project what others are in their own respective lives just because you are also a prophet. Today I can conveniently argue with any pastor on the Bible because I actually grew up on it,” he reminisced, grinning.
Born in January of 1938, Ngugi’s works include novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticisms to children’s literature. In 1962, he wrote The Black Hermit, a play to mark Ugadan’s independence. Then in 1964, Weep Not, Child, followed in 1965 by The River Between. These works conveyed the softer side of Ngugi as a Christian-child, battling to extricate himself from the deep Christian life imposed on him by the colonisers, the British overlords.
However, in his subsequent works, he became more involved in political stories revolving around the dictatorial tendencies of African leaders. These include Petals of Blood, 1977, The Trials of Dedan Kimathi 1976, Secret Lives, 1976, A Grain of Wheat 1967, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986, Arguing for African Writers’ Expression in their Native Language, Wizard of the Crow, 2006, Dream in a Time of War. A Childhood Memoire, 2010, In the House of Interpreters: A memoire, 2012, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoire of a Writer’s Awakening, 2016 and lots more.
Now, a Professor of Literature at the University of California, USA, Ngugi has been in exile for over thirty years. “Often, what you see and experience when you are gagged enriches your works. No form of restriction or imprisonment is good for anybody. But what do you do? When it comes, you take it and you move on. At times, stories come out of it,” he reasoned, smiling broadly for effect.