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.

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?"

"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.

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.

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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Anaheim Concert Tickets
Loading...