The Homecoming

One terrifying night in Nairobi, UCI professor Ngugi wa Thiongo proved that changing the world means you might have to scream

1. The Pain of Going Home
Consider the word nostalgia. What comes to mind is the tendency to cast the past in a sort of sweet, Pine-Sol-colored light. But break the word down from the Greek, and you get nostos—meaning "to return home"—and algesia, meaning "pain." Tylenol, for instance, is an an-algesic, or pain reliever. So, nostalgia: the pain of going home. Most of us, no matter how difficult our histories really are, do, indeed, color the past a warm, pale gold, but that just might be a psychologically necessary whitewash of the actual: much of what we remember, we remember fondly, as sweet or even as bittersweet—as golden—because we need to, and because there's something mysterious in us that loves the lives we have led for no other reason than that they are ours. Nostalgia is the trick our minds play on us to cope with the sad and irrevocable loss involved in the fact that the past is gone. We've even played the trick on the word itself, so that we've buried the pain that's right there in the root meaning. It takes a little etymology to remind us of the dangers of all our returns home.

3. "Why Don't You Kill Me?"
Ngugi isn't a big guy, at maybe 5 feet 6 inches tall and 140 pounds. He shuffles into his office with a little bow and a quiet explanation for why he's late. He's a little stooped, a little grey and a little tired, though he's quick to warm up to the topics at hand: his biography, his writing, especially the disastrous Kenyan homecoming in 2004. His smile is inviting though it evidences a lifetime of dental neglect. He has an extraordinarily touching and perhaps unconscious tendency to run his hand a couple of inches in front of his face, as if he were clearing cobwebs that have clung to it, or pantomiming a shy effort to hide.

Njeeri, on the other hand, walks into a room and carries with her a gale of fresh air. Friendly, alert, large-eyed, crisply dressed, she sits up very straight on a couch, hands in her lap, and emanates self-command. Her English, like Ngugi's, is British-inflected, but her voice is clearer than his is and it carries: in her position as the director of the campus's Staff and Faculty Counseling Center, she is used to public speaking, which, incidentally, she's been doing a lot of since the attack in 2004. Trained in social work and psychological counseling, she has decided that the only way she can heal from her rape is to talk and talk about it—to campus groups, women's groups and even to strangers like me. She is disarmingly, almost shockingly, frank about what those brutes did to her and her husband, and narrates the events of that hour and the events that led to and from it with a passion and a horror that yearns for accurate portrayal of events, catharsis and, most of all, justice.

When it came time to tell the story, Ngugi began but Njeeri soon took over, and there was plenty of cross-talk between them, clarifying details and shaping a narrative that they have evidently spent a good deal of time in private trying to figure out. What happened, according to the victims, goes like this:

At home . . . in Irvine. Photo by Tenaya Hills
At home . . . in Irvine. Photo by Tenaya Hills
Enjoying the sunshine. Photo by Tenaya Hills
Enjoying the sunshine. Photo by Tenaya Hills

The couple were spending the night at the Norfolk Towers, an apartment complex in central Nairobi which was known as one of the most secure spots in the city. On one side of the complex was the central police station; on the other, the headquarters of a major Kenyan TV network. The compound, shaped like a rectangle with the apartment front doors facing a courtyard in the middle, like many American motels, is surrounded by an electric fence and employs a number of guards to police the grounds. There were guard dogs too.

Security was vital for this famous couple, not just because of Ngugi's controversial status, but because crime is an uncontrollable fact of life in modern Kenya, and the government didn't want to be embarrassed during this high-profile visit. Ngugi and Njeeri had a guest for the evening, Kiragu Chege, Ngugi's nephew by his first marriage, who had two years earlier urged Ngugi with considerable passion to return to Kenya and who in fact was in charge of arranging all the logistics of the "Reviving the Spirit" speaking tour. At about midnight, Ngugi and Njeeri were saying their goodbyes to Kiragu when they opened the door and were confronted by three men, brandishing guns and a machete, standing right outside.

The three of them were pushed back inside the apartment—Kiragu pretending that he was himself a victim, though the robbers were calling to Kiragu by name—and the door shut behind them. Ngugi and Njeeri were stripped of their wedding rings and jewelry—significantly, Kiragu's gold watch wasn't taken from him, a key and stupid mistake by the robbers if they had intended to keep Kiragu's role as conspirator out of this. The robbers roamed the apartment looking for money, computers and anything else of worth.

But something was especially chilling about these thieves: in Kenya, robbers always wear hoods when they go about their business—convicted robbers are put to death. But these men's faces were clearly in view. Why? Because this was evidently no ordinary robbery. "These guys were confident," Ngugi insists, that there would be no surviving witnesses to their crimes.

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