The Homecoming

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

Ngugi, Njeeri and Kiragu were wrestled into separate rooms, and there followed a period of horrific strangeness: the robbers had seemingly gotten what they wanted—why wouldn't they leave? At first they just seemed to be waiting for something. Then they began to move from room to room, kicking and beating Ngugi and Njeeri in turn. Despite her own terror, Njeeri was especially concerned for her husband, who only three weeks before had undergone surgery on his neck to clear a blockage in an artery. The attackers were kicking and stomping on Ngugi's face and neck, and she feared the surgical wound would open and that he'd bleed to death. And then the torture began.

"The way of attack," Njeeri says, "even beyond sodomizing me, was so cruel. One of the attackers took a cigarette and burned [Ngugi] above the eye and took the skin off. My injuries I could hide, could put clothes on, but he had to walk around like a branded man." This is self-effacement, of course, to a heroic degree: Njeeri's injuries may be the kind you can clothe, but they can't be hidden, certainly not from oneself. (Later she says, "You can't close your eyes for a minute when the night comes without seeing them.") The culmination of being beaten—which included a one-inch deep stab wound on the underside of the forearm from the machete—and listening to her husband being burned in the other room was that one of the attackers, with the others holding her down, turned her over and began to sodomize her.

Njeeri screamed. And then began what the couple think of as the "divine intervention" that saved them. The 66-year-old Ngugi, though severely beaten and burned, and in a delirium of rage, roused himself from the floor and found himself speeding for the front door. When he opened it, he screamed over and over into the courtyard, "Why don't you kill me?"

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

"I yelled and yelled until I thought someone had to come, but no one came," Ngugi says. Still, yelling turned out to be exactly the right thing to have done. For the attackers stopped raping Njeeri and headed out onto the veranda outside the front door to shut Ngugi up. Njeeri, amazingly, followed them out onto the veranda so she could join her husband, who she discovered now had a gun to his head.

"The worst thing [for the attackers] was to make noise, to make a fracas," Ngugi explains, and to scream out as he did not only stopped the rape but evidently stopped the entire operation, whatever it was. By screaming, "we interrupted something bigger, I can tell you that," Ngugi says.

What that bigger something was isn't wholly clear, but he suspects it involved his "elimination, disappearance." Who would want him disappeared, now that the old government who despised him and his work was out of power? "Forces of the old regime, the Moi regime," Ngugi answers. "The Moi apparatus is still in place. The old machinery, the secret police is still in place." If the attackers were bent on killing him, why didn't they do so on the veranda, or earlier back in the apartment? "I honestly believed that the attackers were waiting for instructions" from someone outside the apartment, Ngugi says, possibly from a strange occupied red car parked in the courtyard below them. But he can't be sure. The red car—filled with Moi's thugs?—is something both he and Njeeri note they saw when they made their separate reports to the police, but it hasn't been followed up on by law enforcement officials or the courts. All sorts of details, it turns out, and most crucially larger motives behind the entire episode, remain frustratingly mysterious, despite a trial that's gone on for a year and a half.

What followed on the veranda, however, is clear. The attackers seemed ready to shoot Ngugi, who was still making a fracas, though Njeeri had her hand glued to the gunman's arm, desperate to prevent him from killing her husband. Knowing she wasn't strong enough to hold off the goon for long, she offered to go back into the apartment with the attackers. (Think about this.) They told her to let go of the gunman's arm. She said she would let go when they were back in the apartment. The attackers, themselves desperate to stop the couple from making all this noise, agreed. Ngugi entered the narrow doorway first, followed by Njeeri, who in a movement that seems right out of a thriller—perhaps a divinely plotted one—entered the apartment, let go of the gunman's arm and managed to swing the front door shut on the attackers. The small elderly Ngugi and his middle-aged wife leaned against the door with all their might and started screaming again. For a while, the attackers tried to push their way in—they didn't, significantly, shoot their way in, though they easily could have—and then seemed to abandon the enterprise as botched, and stole down a stairway and disappeared.

And, then, as Thomas Pynchon daintily put it in The Crying of Lot 49, "Things then did not delay in turning curious." The police finally arrived, and Ngugi, Njeeri and Kiragu were taken to the hospital, though Kiragu, who was either trapped or cowering beneath a heavy couch during most of the attack, seemed unhurt. The first press reports spoke only of robbers and attackers, and omitted the rape, which outrages Njeeri. (She and Ngugi would clarify things in the following days to a Kenyan press clearly reluctant to publicly discuss sexual assault.) The Ngugi children, who just happened to have spent the night of the attack at a relative's house, heard of the events on the radio. After a few days of convalescence but before any arrests were made, Ngugi and Njeeri, remarkably, decided to brave on with the lecture tour; Kiragu continued to travel with them. Ministers of state made profound public apologies on behalf of the whole nation. The crowds at Ngugi's lectures grew even larger than before. Finally, the police announced that they'd apprehended their suspects: three security guards of the apartment complex and nephew Kiragu, who was implicated by his private driver as well as cell phone records that show he was in frequent contact with the security guards before the attack.

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