Why we are celebrating Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Celebrated Kenyan author and scholar Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Ngugi’s work deepened my understanding of resistance.
  • His impact on literature in Africa cannot be overstated.

Growing up in Baricho, Kirinyaga, my early years were shaped by the captivating stories of Barbara Kimenye and Cynthia Hunter.

Kimenye’s series on a character named Moses mirrored the trials of a young boy navigating his formative years, while Hunter’s books sparked my imagination as a young reader.

The moment I discovered Meja Mwangi's Across the Bridge, with its unforgettable characters like Chikuri and Kisangi, my passion for reading deepened.

I was embarking on a journey to uncover the beauty of language and its power as a form of expression.

Years later, a friend introduced me to the seminal work of Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Barrel of a Pen.

He cautioned me against reading it in public due to its ban by the Daniel Moi regime. This book opened my eyes to the powerful play Trial of Dedan Kimathi, co-written by Ngugi and Micere Mugo.

The play vividly depicted a resolute Dedan Kĩmathi, steadfastly rejecting a plea deal and challenging the legitimacy of colonial laws.

This encounter with Ngugi’s work deepened my understanding of resistance and ignited a profound respect for the power of literature to confront injustice

I craved more of Ngugi’s work, and like any admirer, I dreamed of meeting Ngugi in person.

I longed to tell him how Barrel of a Pen had awakened my awareness of Kenya’s struggle for independence and the daunting challenges faced by its pioneers in the post-independence era.

His writings had not only educated me but also ignited a deeper consciousness about our nation’s turbulent journey to freedom.

In 2012, my childhood dream came true when I had the chance to meet the Professor. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga was hosting an event for Kenyans in Los Angeles, and Ngugi was one of the honoured guests and keynote speakers.

Later that evening, I finally got close to Mwalimu Ngugi. I yearned to tell him how Barrel of a Pen had profoundly influenced me and share how my neighbour had introduced me to his work.

But as he hurried past, I found myself star-struck and tongue-tied, unable to express the depth of my admiration.

I never imagined I would meet Ngugi again after that event. Fortunately, I've had the privilege of meeting him several times this year.

We've delved into conversations about life, marriage, the now-famous Guardian article, and his books. We also explored music and the artistry of musicians like Makibi James, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift.

One discussion that stood out was about Beyoncé’s new country song, “Texas Hold ‘Em.” Ngugi’s ability to dissect her lyrics revealed an unexpected facet of his artistic insight. He highlighted how the song plays with the historical divide between Black culture and the cowboy ethos.

The cowboy image, often seen as emblematic of white American masculinity, has deep, often overlooked roots in Black history. His perspectives shed new light on the cultural intersections in music and history, showcasing the professor's profound and multifaceted understanding of art.

Mwalimu Ngugi is the epitome of resilience and vision. Born in Limuru, Kenya, to peasant parents devastated by land grabbers, he was propelled by his mother’s insistence on education. He excelled in school, driven by a relentless pursuit of knowledge and justice.

Emerging as a pivotal figure in the vibrant literary scene of the 1950s and 1960s, Ngugi wielded his pen as a weapon. Initially, he targeted the colonial regime, and later, he turned his sharp critique towards the corruption and failures of Kenya’s post-independence elite. Ngugi didn’t wait for change; he fought for it, unflinchingly, from the trenches.

Ngugi's fearless writing landed him in jail, but his spirit remained unbroken. Upon release, he continued his social justice advocacy in exile.

His journey, marked by relentless struggle and resilience, ultimately led to a fulfilling career as a professor of literature for the past 30 years, most recently at the University of California, Irvine

Ngugi, described by former US president Barack Obama as one of “Africa’s best writers and thinkers,” has helped give visibility to our languages and the dignity that comes with them.

While awarding Ngugi with a degree of Doctor of Letters alongside former Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry, musician Stevie Wonder, and Congressman John R. Lewis, Yale University President Peter Salovey described Ngugi as follows: “You have shown us the power of words to change the world. You have written in English and in your Kenyan language, Gĩkũyũ; you have worked in prison cells and in exile; and you have survived assassination attempts — all to bring attention to the plight of ordinary people in Kenya and around the world.”

The Nobel Prize in Literature has eluded Ngugi, yet in the few times I have spent with him, it appears not to trouble him.

His true concern lies in surrounding himself with individuals who share his heritage, speak his language, and appreciate the profound depth and breadth of African culture

Ngugi’s impact on literature in Africa and the world cannot be overstated. His bold decision to write in Gĩkũyũ, his native language, challenged the dominance of colonial languages and paved the way for other African writers to embrace their linguistic heritage.

His works, rich with themes of resistance, identity, and social justice, have not only shaped the literary landscape but also inspired movements for cultural and political change.

Through novels, plays, and essays, Ngugi has illuminated the struggles and triumphs of African people, making significant contributions to postcolonial studies and world literature.

For all the accolades and recognition that Ngugi has achieved and received worldwide, he is not celebrated in his home country, and by his own people.

Only two African universities have awarded him a Doctor of Letters: one in Kenya, and another in Tanzania. His alma mater, the University of Nairobi, has not.

Ngugi is 86 years old. While he is in great health and shape, the Kenyan community in America is looking to celebrate him with a special event today in Atlanta, Georgia.

The event seeks to recognise and pay tribute to a legend whose literary works and words have inspired millions, agitated for the decolonisation of minds, and forced us to confront the wounds of imperialism and colonialism we still carry.

The event will also aim to provide a platform for intergenerational dialogue and to introduce the writings of Ngũgĩ to young readers who might not have encountered his work.

This could not be more timely: Giving Prof Ngugi Wa Thiong’o his flowers while he can still smell them.

Mukurima Muriuki is a conflict consultant based in Los Angeles and also co-founder of Joro Coffee Company