Born in 1938, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of Kenya’s greatest critics, academics, and artists. With an incredible grasp of words and a strong spirit, Thiong’o has tried his hand in many mediums. His works are found not only in novels and essays but in plays, journals, academic papers and activist rallies 1. He is Kenya’s voice preaching the importance of language, and he fights to encourage African writers to write in their native language, and to spread their works.
He was born James Thiong’o Ngugi in Kamirithu, Kenya, one of 28 children 6. His early years were coloured by the Mau Mau War of Independence 1, a civil war that raged for eight years between 1952 and 1960. While the Kenyan peoples fought against the British for independence and labeled the war a fight for land and freedom, the British labeled it a “meaningless” or “nothing” war, determined to show them their efforts were useless6. Thiong’o says that this was the first time he recognized the power and importance of language.
His brother joined the Land and Freedom army when he was young and their family was torn apart by the effects of the war. His mother was tortured, and Ngugi’s writings are unafraid to remember such violence and injustices.
Ngugi studied at Makerere University in Uganda and furthered his education in England at Leeds University. Since then he has earned 10 Honourary Doctorates and has taught all over the world, including the US’ own Yale, New York University, and UC Irvine1. His writings have earned him a place as a contender for a Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times 2, as well as at least 6 other international awards.
His life has since continued the controversial and difficult pattern of his early years. His novels and plays, including Petals of Blood and “Ngaahika Ndeenda” (I Will Marry When I Want), often “sharply critique neo-colonial Kenya… and the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society“1. In 1977, he was arrested by the military without charge and detained for a whole year until rescued by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience1. He was later forced into exile in 1982 at the risk of a bloody welcome should he return. It would last for 22 years6.
When Thiong’o did eventually return to visit Kenya in 2004, he was attacked by a group of armed men in his apartment. He and his wife were brutally beaten, burned and assaulted1. They left once more soon after, and despite all the troubles, he still yearns for his home country7.
Language is a thing Thiong’o holds close to his heart. Ever since he recognized the power of words, he has worked to develop his own skill with them and righteously defends their use. In the middle of his career, he decided he would no longer write in English but instead choose to write in his native tongue, Gikuyu , and to later translate his works for other audiences2. His own short story “Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ” or “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright” is the “single most translated short story in the history of African writing”, boasting publication in an astounding 30+ languages3.
In 1986, he wrote an essay titled Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature6. In it, he argues that “African writers must express their thoughts and stories in their native languages rather than European languages, in order to renounce lingering colonial ties and to build an authentic African literature”6: “The bullet was the means of physical subjugation, language was the means of spiritual subjugation.” And with that belief follows that language would be the key to releasing them of that spiritual subjugation3. Today, he continues his fight to give Africa an authentic voice and shares criticisms based on his own experiences.
- “Biography.” Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, www.ngugiwathiongo.com Accessed 22 Mar. 2017. Web.
- Dahir, Abdi Latif. “The Kenyan Author Who’s Done More for Literature than Bob Dylan, and Should Have Won the Nobel.” Quartz, Quartz, 26 Oct. 2016. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017. Web.
- Flood, Alison. “Short Story by Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o Translated into over 30 Languages in One Publication.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Mar. 2016. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017. Web.
- MacLeod, Murdo. “Ngugi Wa Thiong’o Pictured at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2006.” The Guardian, Edinburg, 29 Mar. 2016. Photo.
- Maina, Simon. In 1982 I learnt that the Kenyan dictatorship led by Daniel arap Moi planned to eliminate me. 2015. The Guardian. Photo.
- Munshi, Neil. “’It Was Defiance’: an Interview with Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 16 Nov. 2016. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017. Web.
- Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. “Despite Decades of Exile, I Still Feel the Pull of My Homeland.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Sept. 2015. Accessed 22 Mar. 2017. Web.