Ngugi dared to dream big in a time of war

Monday March 15 2010

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Photo/FILE

Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Photo/FILE 


In his poem, Homesick in Heaven, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Where we love is home, home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” But Oscar Wilde as usual had the last word, “You cannot go home again.”

In his new book, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, celebrated Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o tries to “go home again.”

It is a nostalgic return to a familiar, albeit changed landscape, as Ngugi reminisces about his childhood.

It has been correctly said that childhood is a welter of impressions, small events, accidents, close shaves, misunderstandings, broken promises, smells, sounds, and feelings — all blending into innocent wonder, curious adventure and amazing discovery.

We all have childhood memories; whether it is laughter of a friend long gone, or the warmth suddenly recalled of a long-forgotten embrace from a parent no longer in the land of the living.

But what was it like growing up in Ngugi’s time?

Apparently, some things are universal in childhood.

And as we read the book, Ngugi reminds us of our own childhood dreams in technicolour — with idealistic aspirations of love, school, careers and living happily ever after.

That is, until the scares of adulthood shatter our youthful innocence and our dreams fall by the wayside as the realities of life bite.

Suddenly, gone are the dream wedding, the Rolls Royce career, the carriage rides and voyages to faraway lands.

Prince Charming turns into a frog and the Fairy Queen never really appears.

We feel cheated. We enter the cruel, cynical world of adults, of shattered dreams and faded hopes.

It is then that we realise with a sigh, that the world is an unjust and lonely place.

Following a trend

Ngugi seems to be following in the footsteps of Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who has already written his childhood memoirs, Ake: the Years of Childhood.

Soyinka’s childhood memoirs are of stunning beauty — one boy’s attempt to grasp the often controversial, irrational and even hypocritical world of adults — a world that repels and seduces him at once.

Soyinka tells everything from a child’s point of view in magnificent detail: From his addiction to powdered milk, his curiosity that leads him to get lost as he follows a police band, to stewing a snake and learning how to love books.

The book closes with an 11-year-old Soyinka preparing to enrol in a government school, declaring it is “time to commence the mental shifts for admittance to yet another irrational world of adults and their discipline.”

Soyinka has written another memoir to cover the rest of his life — You Must Set Forth at Dawn, which focuses more on his political activism than his art.

Ngugi’s memoirs are a celebration of the wonder of childhood; an episodic narration following the patchiness of childhood memories.

Starting in 1938, just before World War II, which was to be fought far away from Limuru, the book ends in the midst of another war, the Mau Mau uprising, fought in Ngugi’s backyard.

Ngugi’s childhood memories are dominated by images of the Mau Mau insurgency as he came of age during the state of emergency (1952-1961).

His elder brother, Wallace Mwangi, was a Mau Mau fighter and he remembers him running for cover into the forest under a hail of bullets from colonial policemen.

In a touching episode, Mwangi risks his life by leaving the security of the forest and visiting Ngugi to wish him luck before an exam.

It is the kind of gesture one remembers long afterwards — actually forever.

And Ngugi recalls other Mau Mau fighters who never returned home from the forests — uncles and villagers murdered by the colonial war machine.

Apart from the chaos caused by the Mau Mau battles, there was equally deadly chaos closer to him, right in his father’s house as family conflicts caused great domestic tension.

Family ties

Ngugi was the fifth born child of his father’s third wife, one of 24 children from four mothers.

Those of us who grew up in polygamous families can instantly identify with him — and the clamour for love and attention from one father.

As the Mau Mau war rages on, Ngugi’s father loses all his property, the stress takes its toll on him and he takes it out on Ngugi’s mother and the children by disowning them.

Ngugi poignantly describes this in the book when he writes, “It is not a good thing to have your own father deny you as one of his children.”

Life was difficult for the young Ngugi but he enjoyed going to school.

One evening, his mother calls him and solemnly tells him there will be days “you may not always get a midday meal” because they are now poor.

He makes a decision that no matter the obstacles, he will always do his best.

Most readers who grew up in the rural areas without electricity will identify with Ngugi when he recalls “the nights I could not read because we had run out of firewood and paraffin.”

His boyhood fortitude and resolve is remarkable — it is what has made many academic giants rise from ashes to sit in places of honour.

Apart from their literary value, Ngugi’s childhood memoirs (which end just before he joins Alliance High School) are like a motivational book, encouraging us to dream big and maximise our potential — for it doesn’t matter what background we came from — we can all become great men and women like Ngugi has done.

He rose from a poor peasant family into world literary fame — with his books studied in universities across the world.

Ngugi shares some experiences that parallel our own, others that are at odds with today’s fast changing world, but always, the bottom line is that he dared to dream big in a most improbable time — in a time of war.

The writer is the publishing manager of Macmillan Kenya Publishers.