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Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Biography

Formerly wrote as James T. Ngugi. Nationality: Kenyan. Born: Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kiambu District, 1938. Education: Kamaandũra School, Limuru; Karing'a School, Maanguũ; Alliance High School, Kikuyu; University College, Kampala, Uganda (editor, Penpoint), 1959-63, B.A. 1963; Leeds University, Yorkshire, 1964-67, B.A. 1964. Career: Columnist ("As I See It"), early 1960s, and reporter, 1964, Nairobi Daily Nation; editor, Zuka, Nairobi, 1965-70; lecturer in English, University College, Nairobi, 1967-69; Fellow in Creative Writing, Makerere University, Kampala, 1969-70; visiting lecturer, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1970-71; senior lecturer, associate professor, and chairman of the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, 1972-77; imprisoned under Public Security Act, 1977-78; left Kenya, 1982; now lives in London. Awards: East African Literature Bureau award, 1964.



Weep Not, Child. London, Heinemann, 1964; New York, Collier, 1969.

The River Between. London, Heinemann, 1965.

A Grain of Wheat. London, Heinemann, 1967.

Petals of Blood. London, Heinemann, 1977; New York, Dutton, 1978.

Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (in Kikuyu). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1980; asDevil on the Cross, London, Heinemann, 1982.

Matigari (in Kikuyu). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1986; translated byWangui wa Goro, London, Heinemann, 1989.

Short Stories

Secret Lives and Other Stories. London, Heinemann, and New York, Hill, 1975.


The Black Hermit (produced Kampala, Uganda, 1962; London, 1988). London, Heinemann, 1968.

This Time Tomorrow (broadcast 1967). Included in This Time Tomorrow, 1970.

This Time Tomorrow (includes The Rebels and The Wound in the Heart). Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau, 1970.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, with Micere Mugo (produced London, 1984). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1976; London, Heinemann, 1977.

Ngaahika Ndeenda (in Kikuyu), with Ngugi wa Mirii (producedLimuru, 1977). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1980; as I Will Marry When I Want, London, Heinemann, 1982.

Radio Play:

This Time Tomorrow, 1967.


Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics. London, Heinemann, 1972; New York, Hill, 1973.

The Independence of Africa and Cultural Decolonisation, with The Poverty of African Historiography, by A.E. Afigbo. Lagos, Afrografika, 1977.

Writers in Politics: Essays. London, Heinemann, 1981; published asWriters in Politics: A Re-Engagement with Issues of Literature and Society. Oxford, England and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1997.

Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. London, Heinemann, 1981.

Education for a National Culture. Harare, Zimbabwe PublishingHouse, 1981.

Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. London, New Beacon, and Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1983.

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London, Currey, 1986.

Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (for children). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1986.

Njamba Nene's Pistol (for children). Nairobi, Heinemann, 1986.

Writing Against Neocolonialism. London, Vita, 1986.

Walter Rodney's Influence on the African Continent. London, Friends of Bogle, 1987.

Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London, Currey, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1993.

Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa. Oxford, Clarendon Press and New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.



Ngugi wa Thiong'o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources 1957-1987 by Carol Sicherman, London, Zell, 1989.

Critical Studies:

Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Clifford Robson, London, Macmillan, 1979, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1980; An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi by G.D. Killam, London, Heinemann, 1980; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings by David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe, London, Heinemann, 1983; East African Writing in English by Angela Smith, London, Macmillan, 1989; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel: A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance by Carol Sicherman, 1990; The Novel as Transformation Myth: A Study of the Novels of Mongo Beti and Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Kandioura Dram, Syracuse, New York, Syracuse University, 1990; "Justice for the Oppressed—": The Polictical Dimension in the Language Use of Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Herta Meyer, Essen, Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1991; African Independence from Francophone and Anglophone Voices: A Comparative Study of the Post-Independence Novels by Ngugi and Sembene by Clara Tsabedze, New York, Lang, 1994; The Novels of Achebe and Ngugi: A Study in the Dialectics of Commitment by K. Indrasena Reddy, New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1994; Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott, edited by Michael Parker and Roger Starkey, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Text and Contexts, edited by Charles Cantalupo, Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1995; Politics As Fiction: The Novels of Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Harish Narang, New Delhi, Creative Books, 1995; Ngugi and African Post-colonial Narrative: The Novel as Oral Narrative in Multi-Genre Performance by F. Odun Balogun, St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, World Heritage Press, 1997; Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings by David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe, Oxford, J. Currey, 1997; Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1997; Post-Colonial African Fiction: The Crisis of Consciousness by Mala Pandurang, Delhi, Pencraft International, 1997; A Teacher's Guide to African Narratives by Sara Talis O'Brien, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1998; Ngugi's Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation by James Ogude, London and Sterling, Virginia, Pluto Press, 1999; Critical Essays: Achebe, Baldwin, Cullen, Ngugi, and Tutuola by Sydney E. Onyeberechi, Hyattsville, Maryland, Rising Star Publishers, 1999; Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Simon Gikandi, Cambridge, England, and New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000; Ngugi wa Thiong'o by Oliver Lovesey, New York, Twayne Publishers, 2000.

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o was a Kikuyu adolescent in Kenya during the Mau Mau Rebellion, and the events of those years, of the larger issues of black dispossession by white settlers, and of the history of the Kikuyu from pre-colonial times to the present, lie at the center of his novels and most of his short stories. He was the first Anglophone African writer to give in fiction a Kikuyu view of the bitter colonial war that the British called the Mau Mau Emergency—a healthy corrective to other fictional accounts, like Robert Ruark's, from a white man's point of view. Ngugi's attitudes to larger political questions are by no means unambiguous in his first two novels (hence some considerable uncertainty of craftsmanship in them) but what emerges clearly from The River Between (the first to be written, but the second published) is a deep sense of African deprivation and of the desire to win back a lost heritage. It is expressed in Weep Not, Child through Ngotho's religious attachment to the land of his ancestors taken from him by Mr. Howlands, and through his older sons' determination to fight for their lands by joining the Mau Mau. But Ngugi is also aware of another part of the African heritage diminished by white colonialism—the Kikuyu religion and tribal culture; it is this aspect of their disinheritance that figures particularly in The River Between.

The river is a symbol of sustenance and growth, but it also divides the christianized half of the tribe from the adherents of the traditional tribal ways, soon after the advent of colonialism. Waiyaki, the hero, is an idealistic youth, who dreams with messianic fervor of leading his people out of colonial tutelage, peacefully, by acquiring the white man's education. He would also reconcile the two religiously divided villages; though associated with the traditionalists, he loves a daughter of the fanatical Christian Kikuyu pastor. But Waiyaki's enthusiasm for Western education blinds him to political methods, and he is rejected by his people. The weakness of the novel is that Ngugi romanticizes and glamorizes Waiyaki: his tribal opponents are presented as vindictive personal enemies; their different political approach is not seriously considered.

Njoroge in Weep Not, Child is another self-centered youth with mission-school education and messianic ambitions, whose hopes are destroyed when his brothers' involvement in Mau Mau forces him out of school, but again self-centeredness is not part of any ironic regarding of the hero by the novelist. Yet Weep Not, Child is a better novel, for Ngugi develops some complexity of structure. There are ironic parallels between the African devotion to ancestral lands and the white settler's love of the soil he has acquired, with the opposed characters oblivious to their common human suffering. Such ironical treatment is a great advance in Ngugi's technique, as are the convincing portraits of subsidiary characters who betray the very values they struggle to achieve, or who suffer constant frustration.

A Grain of Wheat is a novel of mature outlook and much subtler technique. Ostensibly about the Uhuru celebrations of Kenya's independence in 1963, it keeps flashing back to individual sufferings in Mau Mau days. There is no single, central hero this time, but four major characters, each guilty of betraying himself and others when sorely tried in the Rebellion. Mugo, regarded by his people as a Mau Mau hero, has messianic visions before the Rebellion, but his jealousy of the real leader led him to betray him to the British. At last Ngugi is able to treat a messianic figure with detachment, but also with humane sympathy: the years of Mugo's lonely, conscience-ridden life are movingly conveyed. Other characters who also committed acts of betrayal painfully learn, first, the depths of utter disillusion, and then, the harrowing experience of coming to terms with their own limitations. Mugo's public confession brings him peace of mind, and helps them to face the future with some hope. A great strength of this finely orchestrated novel is Ngugi's skillful use of disrupted time sequence to indicate the interrelatedness of the characters' behavior in the Rebellion and the state of their lives (and of the nation) at Independence. Ngugi's maturity appears also in his sober attitude both to the struggle for, and attainment of, Independence; there are signs of the new African politicians already betraying the ordinary people who suffered under colonialism. Though a disturbing novel, it proclaims hope for the regenerative capabilities of ordinary human nature.

In his critical essays in Homecoming, Ngugi argues the vital social function of literature in Africa, and the Third World generally. In Petals of Blood he impressively puts this belief into practice. A convincing attack, often Marxist in language, upon neocolonialism in Independent Africa is achieved fictionally by indicating powerfully and effectively how the lives of dispossessed little people are all but broken by an imported capitalist system. The four major characters, each a misfit in Independent Kenyan society, have come to the distant village of Ilmorog to seek personal peace and modest new beginnings. Long associated with heroic Kikuyu legends, Ilmorog becomes a living presence in the novel. In the grip of prolonged drought, and ignored by the M.P. who had begged their votes, the desperate villagers undertake an epic march to the capital to lay their troubles before the authorities. Subsequently religious, political, and economic exploiters swarm upon Ilmorog to "develop" it, and using such devices as foreclosed loans eventually dispossess the local inhabitants and establish New Ilmorog. The ample detail with which Ngugi conveys the ruthless stripping of already deprived ordinary people gains power from a sophisticated narrative technique that enables Kenya's history since 1963 to be felt through the consciousness of its social victims. Petals of Blood is an angry novel but it does affirm the potentialities of native communality for a just, humane African polity.

With greater fervor of feeling and rhetoric, Ngugi renews in Devil on the Cross his attack upon neocolonial exploiters of ordinary Kenyan people. The story of the economically and sexually exploited young woman, Warīīnga, is given some of the drama of fantasy by being told by "Gīcaandī Player, Prophet of Justice," a figure drawn from the oral tradition, who uses language emotively and didactically in ways reminiscent of Armah's novel Two Thousand Seasons (1973). While the device allows Ngugi to employ a variety of highly charged rhetorical modes, it is questionable whether he deploys them as convincingly as he might have. Would such a narrator use not only songs, incantations, the very idiom of oral tradition, but also echoes and parodies of Bible stories and biblical English, together with Marxist analysis and denunciation of capitalism? Ngugi doesn't seem to have tried very hard to disguise his authorial voice, or perhaps it is the effect of translating from his own original Kikuyu. While in Devil on the Cross he combines the biblical linguistic and moral flavor of his first two novels with the acerbic political tones of Petals of Blood, the cost is much wordy reiteration. Nevertheless, the catastrophic effects of the Western economic stranglehold on many African nations is starkly revealed in the misery of the destitute and starving and the monstrosity of the new Kenyan affluent class.

Arthur Ravenscroft

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