The Homecoming

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

Questions abound. Why, first of all, would Ngugi's own nephew be involved? For months, speculation surrounded the fact that Ngugi, during his exile, did not return to Kenya for the funerals of his mother or his first wife, considered by some a grave insult to the families, but such talk peters out: obviously, Ngugi didn't return during the Moi years because it was too dangerous for him to do so. Look what happened to him even after Moi was gone. What other motives could Kiragu have had? What are Kiragu's connections, if any, to the "old regime" of Daniel arop Moi? (Before his arrest, he was being groomed for national office, and some politicos on his side alleged that his arrest was a smear campaign against him to prevent him from running.) If the four men were only arrested for robbery (one was additionally charged with "unnatural acts" with Njeeri), how does one explain the curious waiting around of the attackers after they'd robbed Ngugi and Njeeri? Who or what were they waiting around for? Who was in that red car in the apartment courtyard?

That the ultimate motives behind the attacks are political seems obvious, but you won't hear a peep about it in the Kenyan press. The press there, perhaps taking the lead of a timid team of prosecutors, seems to be operating under an unspoken dictate that no one beyond the four suspects will be implicated in the crime. The case—now entering its third year—has only recently entered the phase where the defense is presenting its side, and press coverage is frankly bizarre. Strange facts are reported—that, for instance, witnesses for the prosecution have been threatened into silence, or that Kiragu has spent the last few months not in jail (like the other three suspects) but in a "top-of-the-range" luxury Nairobi hospital apparently nursing wounds that he had no record of suffering during the attacks. But these facts aren't followed up in any significant way, and eventually they just become useless pieces of what appears to be an uncompleteable puzzle. Everything about the case, from the attacks themselves to the trial and the way it's all been dealt with in the press, suggests behind-the-scenes machinations and intrigues by a thick skein of shadowy powers. And everybody seems to be playing the same game of not mentioning the elephant in the room.

4. The Unreachable Truth
For the empirically inclined, for those who like a good set of undeniable, irreducible facts to hang their hats on, the Ngugi case is maddening. But it doesn't seem so for Ngugi or Njeeri. They keep patiently returning to Nairobi to testify, watch the trial or consult with attorneys—Njeeri jokes that she's used up all her vacation time at UCI to make return trips—but neither seems to hope for more than that the courts will convict the four men involved in the attacks. The rest—the politics, the intrigue, the truth behind the attacks? They seem to accept that those things don't seem to be the province of the Kenyan courts, or for that matter, the press. In the end, for Ngugi, the truth of what happened in that hotel room in Nairobi two years ago may be unreachable—except perhaps in the province of the imagination, in exactly the realm of the kind of fiction that Ngugi himself specializes in: an aggrieved magical realism, where the factual and "the real" can only be understood in light of the magical, the perversely transformed and cruel, or the divine.

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

Meanwhile, the couple wait for some kind of verdict, and they live, work and raise their two children in the precisely etched and pretty landscapes of University Hills and UCI, an environment that, with its sunny skies and clement weather, reminds Ngugi, strangely enough, of the Kenyan highlands where he grew up. The weather here "is very warm and comfortable, very much like in Kenya" he says; it gives "the feeling of home." Amazing: even for writers of Ngugi's experience and stature, amidst the manifold pains of returning home, the power of nostalgia remains.

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