Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Is the Lion In Exile

When most Americans think of Kenya, they envision safaris, long-distance runners and the snowcapped peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro (which is actually in Tanzania). They probably don't think about bloody revolutions, warlords and dictators, topics that make up the life's work of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, the UC Irvine professor of comparative literature who is one of Africa's leading intellectuals and activists.

Thiong'o has taught in Nairobi and England, as well as at Yale and New York University, and has authored dozens of novels, plays and essays that have been translated into 30 languages and landed him on many short lists for the Nobel Prize in Literature. For that work, he has been imprisoned, forced into exile, censored and targeted for assassination. In 2004, during his first visit to Kenya in 22 years, he was attacked and beaten by assailants he believes were politically motivated.

But through it all, he has continued to write and teach, and this weekend, his 1976 play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, receives a production courtesy of the UCI Theater Department. The script is a freewheeling mélange of prose, poetry, music and dance that, while loosely recounting the drummed-up trial of a real person executed for his role in the 1950s Kenyan Mau-Mau uprising against the last vestiges of British colonialism, was as much about repression in mid-1970s post-colonial Kenya and, by extension, oppression anywhere in our globalized world.

“Yes, it is a play that deals with a historical event of someone involved in the struggle for liberation, but it's also a work of art that applies to anyone going against forces that seem, at the time, invincible,” says Thiong'o. “To see the struggle that [the protagonist] had to go through, fighting against the British Empire still near its height, that's a David-versus-Goliath story, and that kind of message and struggle is always relevant.”

In the forward to the play, Thiong'o and co-author Micere Mugo wrote that it was “an imaginative re-creation and interpretation of the collective will of the Kenyan peasants and workers in their refusal to break under 60 years of colonial torture and ruthless oppression by the British ruling classes and their continued determination to resist exploitation, oppression and new forms of enslavement.”

A year after writing the play, his first novel in 10 years, Petals of Blood, was released to great critical claim in Kenya and Great Britain, along with his play, I Will Marry When I Want. Both were stirring indictments of social injustice in contemporary Kenyan society and championed the rights of ordinary Africans. That made him no friends among Kenya's ruling elite, and on Dec. 31, 1977, he was confined with no charges to a maximum-security prison. Still, he refused to be silenced; he wrote a novel in his native language, Gikuyu, on toilet paper while in prison. He was released the next year after an international campaign spearheaded by Amnesty International. However, he was barred from teaching in the nation's universities. He continued to write, and in 1982, while in Great Britain promoting the English translation of Devil On the Cross, he learned the Moi dictatorship, which solidified its hold on the country in 1978, was planning to kill him upon his return to Kenya.

Forced into exile, his books banned from educational institutions in his own country, he continued to tirelessly write, teach and work on behalf of releasing political prisoners in Kenya. After 10 years as an NYU professor, he moved to Irvine in 2002, the same year the Moi dictatorship ended and he was free to at least visit Kenya.

Now 76, Thiong'o has earned the right to reflect, and he remains “hopeful” for his native country and that massive, complex continent. “I'm a very optimistic person,” he says. “I knew where we were when I was born in 1938—how any white person could stop you and slap you and ask you for your identification—and where we are now.”

And if there's one thing that fuels his optimism, it's the knowledge of the potency of communication through art, something that has brought him so far and allowed him to overcome so many obstacles.

“The reason art comes from all kinds of people, from the Swahili of Kenya to people in India to people in England, is that it speaks and is nourished by the human imagination, which is the most crucial quality of the human,” he says. “It's only through imagination that we create possibilities, whether in science, architecture or journalism or anything. So music, sculpture, theater, fiction—they're not external. They're integral to our social existence and the possibility of our being human beings, whether in America or in Kenya.”



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