Journalism in the service of society

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: three days with a giant of African literature

The Kenyan novelist’s life and work has intersected with many of the biggest events of the past century. At 85, he reflects on his long, uncompromising life in writing

By Carey Baraka


IN October, I flew to Irvine to meet the novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I had spent the previous few weeks in cold and windy Iowa, and the sunshine and warmth of California was a balm. I sat in the back seat of my cab, quiet. Outside, huge American trucks thundered past, the tangy smell of the ocean in the air.

Ngũgĩ is a giant of African writing, and to a Kenyan writer like me he looms especially large. Alongside writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, he was part of a literary scene that flourished in the 1950s and 60s, during the last years of colonialism on the continent. If Achebe was the prime mover who captured the deep feeling of displacement that colonisation had wreaked, and Soyinka the witty, guileful intellectual who tried to make sense of the collision between African tradition and western ideas of freedom, then Ngũgĩ was the unabashed militant. His writing was direct and cutting, his books a weapon – first against the colonial state, and later against the failures and corruption of Kenya’s post-independence ruling elite.

I was six or seven the first time I read Ngũgĩ, borrowing a children’s book he’d written from my primary school’s library. When I was 10, I came across a worn copy of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, a play he co-wrote with Micere Githae Mugo, on my grandfather’s bookshelf. I read it again and again, captivated by the story of this leader of Kenya’s independence struggle challenging the right of a colonial court to try him. (Kimathi, who led the armed rebellion against the British, was executed in 1957.) I studied Ngũgĩ all through high school, as have generations of Kenyan students. My uncle, an academic, wrote a book about him, which I read as a teenager without properly understanding it. It was about a revolution Ngũgĩ had led at the University of Nairobi in the late 60s, which had resulted in the university dropping English Literature as a course of study, and replacing it with one that positioned African Literatures, oral and written, at the centre. A decade later, Ngũgĩ famously ceased writing his novels in English, instead doing all his creative work in the language he grew up speaking, Gĩkũyũ. I fell in love with the idea of Ngũgĩ as a fighter for African Literature, and so, naturally, I decided to go to the University of Nairobi and majored in the very degree he had fought for. There, in the early 2010s, there were even more Ngũgĩ novels and plays to write papers on, and sit exams on.

So much of the 20th century seems contained within Ngũgĩ’s life. He was born just before the second world war, when Kenya was still a British colony. He grew up under the shadow of a violent war for independence. He went to university in Uganda, at a time of political and literary ferment across Africa, and he came of age as first Uganda (in 1962), then Kenya (1963), gained their independence. Over the years that followed, he saw with horror how people’s pre-independence hopes were dashed. He was thrown in jail by the Kenyan government for his writing. After his release, he continued his writing and political activism, first in Kenya, then in exile in London, then, finally, in the US, where he has been a professor of literature for the past 30 years. He has become known not just as a novelist but as a major postcolonial theorist, whose 1986 essay collection, Decolonising the Mind – an attack on the hold of colonial languages, such as French and English, over former colonies – has become a set text for university students around the world. It is now an annual tradition to predict that Ngũgĩ will finally receive this year’s Nobel prize for literature, and then to lament that it hasn’t happened.

In short, approaching Ngũgĩ’s house in California, I felt nervous, my body a hotbed of cliches: hands shaky, palms clammy, heart racing. The plan had been to write a profile, taking the measure of this legendary author, who was now 84, and entering the final phase of his life.

Ngũgĩ had suggested that I stay with him during my time in Irvine. His health was poor and he would be having surgery, he said. If I stayed, it would be easier to speak. It was a strange arrangement, not exactly befitting the journalistic objectivity I had hoped to cultivate. But I wanted as much time with him as possible, and besides, I reasoned, I’d keep things professional.

And now here I was, pulling into his driveway, walking up to his redbrick bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac and ringing the bell.

Getting the napkins

I had never met Ngũgĩ before. I had seen him only once, at the launch of a translation project in Nairobi in 2017, and now he was before me. At the event, he’d spoken about the Nobel and how, the previous year, in expectation of his winning the award, a group of journalists had camped outside his house from the very early morning. When he didn’t win, he and his wife had given the journalists tea and comforted them. Today he was lounging in a shirt, trousers, slippers and a bathrobe, and I thought, Well, what did you expect, coming to his house at 9am? He bade me join him at the dining table, where he was doing some work. Around us, everything was cream and grey: the walls, the couch, the chairs, the rug. It felt too clean, too stark, devoid of personality.

Before we talked, he said, he needed to know more about me, to know what my motivations were. He asked me to tell him about my writing. I talked about some articles I’d written, and mentioned the novel I had been working on for a few years. “Like yours, it’s about religion and politics,” I said. I hoped, with this, to signal to him that he and I had similar interests in our fiction. He didn’t respond to this. Instead, he asked if I was making enough from my writing to earn a living. I told him I was. “That’s good,” he said. “I was never able to do that.”

 Photograph: Michael Tyrone Delaney/The Guardian

 Photograph: Michael Tyrone Delaney/The Guardian

We were interrupted by the doorbell. Two people came in: they were there to do his cleaning, cooking and shopping. In a few hours, he told me, a health aide would come to check his vitals. As Ngũgĩ has grown older, his health has deteriorated. In 1995, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he survived, despite a grim medical forecast that gave him three months to live. In December 2019, he underwent triple bypass heart surgery. Around the same period he began to suffer from kidney failure, the same condition that killed one of his brothers. By the time I visited, he wasn’t able to leave the house much, apart from his three dialysis appointments each week. “I can’t move now because of my illness. You have to come to me. I’m the king,” he said.

Violence has loomed over much of Ngũgĩ’s past, yet now he lives a relatively genteel existence in American suburbia. Since 2002, he has been a professor of comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine, where his wife, Njeeri, also works. He has nine children – six from his first marriage – and many grandchildren, and he talks to his family every day. His days are largely spent at home, reading, taking calls and practising his Spanish with his cooking and cleaning help. Every few months, he is awarded another prize.

His phone rang, his assistant on the line. Ngũgĩ was supposed to be doing a video call with a group of South African academics who wanted to discuss decolonisation. Ngũgĩ told her he had been unable to log in. “But I have a young person here with me,” he said. “Baraka. He’ll be able to help me.” He handed me the phone.

I got to work, the savvy young person helping an 84-year-old man figure out technology. I handed the laptop to Ngũgĩ, who apologised to the academics for being late. As they talked, he asked me to get him some napkins. He wiped the sweat off his forehead. “It’s hot in California,” he told the academics. “I’m not sweating because of your questions.”

Normalised abnormality

After the call, I ​​played Ngũgĩ a song that had become a hit in Kenya in the months after the 2022 Kenyan general elections. The song, Vaida, is in Lunyore, a language neither Ngũgĩ nor I speak. Yet pretty soon he was dancing to it, bopping his head, shifting his shoulders on his chair. In his day, he said, a song in an African language would not have become a national hit. “During my time, if you heard an African song on the radio, you switched it off. What you were waiting for was Jimmie Rodgers,” he said. This was part of what he called the “normalised abnormality” of the postcolonial condition. The colonised had their language taken from them, and a foreign language put in its space.

“But what of Kenyan English or Nigerian English?” I asked him. “Aren’t these now local languages?”

He looked at me, aghast. “It’s like the enslaved being happy that theirs is a local version of enslavement,” he said. “English is not an African language. French is not. Spanish is not. Kenyan or Nigerian English is nonsense. That’s an example of normalised abnormality. The colonised trying to claim the coloniser’s language is a sign of the success of enslavement. It’s very embarrassing.”

He covered his eyes. “I read someone saying he is writing in French so that he can subvert it. I thought, wait a minute. He is the one being subverted.”

As he spoke, I cringed. I wondered what Ngũgĩ made of the fact that I wrote in English, or that I, a Kenyan writer, was here to profile him on assignment from a British newspaper. Was I also one of the enslaved?

Limuru, where it all begins

One morning a few years ago, I was hiking near the place where Ngũgĩ was born and grew up: Limuru, a town 18 miles away from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The cold bit into my face, and the red soil crunched beneath my boots. Then my guide stopped. “Look at all this,” he said. “This used to be my grandfather’s land.” Around us were rows of neatly manicured tea plants, stretching out into the distance, waiting to be picked. I asked him if the family had tried to recover their land. Yes, he said, but state power had been so firmly against them that there was little they could do.

Land has been the centre of politics in Kenya since the end of the 19th century, when Britain established a protectorate here. Kenya was envisioned as a settlers’ frontier, where wealthy Europeans would hunt, farm and live a gilded existence in “wild” Africa. In places such as Limuru, the land that the British had grabbed from African communities was used to grow tea and coffee, the cash crops that financed the administration of the colony. Ngũgĩ was born in 1938, to a poor peasant family who belonged to Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Agĩkũyũ, which today accounts for around 20% of Kenya’s population. The family had been rendered destitute by these landgrabs, and Ngũgĩ’s father descended into alcoholism and cruelty towards his wives and 24 children. It was Ngũgĩ’s mother, Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ, who encouraged the children to go to school, even as the guerrilla war against the British raged around them from the 1940s onwards.

The story of the Land and Freedom Army – better known by the derogatory name the British adopted for the group, the Mau Mau – is the foundation of much of Ngũgĩ’s most important work. Some of Ngũgĩ’s family were part of the LFA-led resistance in Limuru, while others collaborated with the British. Ngũgĩ’s older brother, Good Wallace, was a member. Another brother, Kabae, who had fought for the British in Myanmar during the second world war, worked for the British against the LFA. Another brother, Tumbo, was a low-level police informant. Another brother, Gitogo, who was deaf, was fatally shot in the back by the British, after he failed to respond to a command to halt during a police dragnet search for LFA fighters in Limuru.

One day, when Ngũgĩ was a teenager, he and a friend were caught up in one of these police searches. In the daytime, local informants, their heads covered in white hoods with narrow eyeslits, would walk the street with British soldiers and squads comprised of Home Guards – a paramilitary force drawn from loyalist members of the Agĩkũyũ community and led by junior colonial officers. This group would forcibly detain whoever they met, regardless of age, and the hooded informants would identify LFA members and sympathisers by a nod of the head. (Ngũgĩ’s third novel, A Grain of Wheat, tells the story of a fictionalised informant.) Ngũgĩ and his friend were interrogated by the British officers but eventually let go. As they walked away, not daring to look back, they heard gunshots and screams: executions of people who had either been identified by the informants or refused to answer questions.

A few months later, in 1955, after his first term at the elite boarding school Alliance – for which his family had scrimped to pay tuition, before he was awarded a scholarship – Ngũgĩ returned to his home village and made a shocking discovery. “I stop, put down the box, and look around me,” he wrote in one of his memoirs. “The hedge of ashy leaves that we planted looks the same, but beyond it our homestead is a rubble of burnt dry mud, splinters of wood and grass. My mother’s hut and my brother’s house on stilts have been razed to the ground. My home, from where I set out for Alliance three months ago, is no more.” The British had destroyed the entire village and moved its inhabitants to a fortified new site where the activities of the inhabitants were closely monitored. It wasn’t quite a prison camp, because the inhabitants could leave, but as Ngũgĩ writes, “For all practical purposes, the line between the prison, the concentration camp and the village had been erased.” At night, soldiers would pull villagers from their homes, interrogating and sometimes executing those who they believed supported the LFA.

James and Ngũgĩ

Ngũgĩ’s career is often divided neatly into two parts. There’s the first Ngũgĩ, whose work as a published writer began at Makerere University in Uganda in the late 1950s and continued until the end of the 60s. This Ngũgĩ was called James Ngugi (sometimes JT Ngugi) and he wrote in English. His novels were political and critical of the colonial state, but subtly so. His protagonists grappled with the effects of colonialism, but saw western education as a tool that could be harnessed against the colonists; they weren’t explicitly anti-Christian and dreamed of uniting local traditions with the best western ideals. Ultimately, though, they failed.

The second Ngũgĩ emerged in the 70s. Ngũgĩ dropped his English name, and later rejected English as his primary literary language. Influenced by his reading of Marx and Frantz Fanon, in these later works he began to engage much more directly with the state, with class, with education, with every aspect of postcolonial life. Petals of Bloodpublished in 1977, attacked the new political elite in independent Kenya. It was the first of his works published as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the last novel he wrote in English. In this novel, education is no longer a tool of liberation; it is the educated elite who betray the people. This was the first salvo from what the critic Nikil Saval has described as “the rageful midperiod Ngũgĩ, who excoriates the Kenyan bourgeoisie, with their golf clubs and other ersatz re-creations of the colonial world they once abjured”.

James Ngugi had been obsessed with the art of writing. He had deliberated over style, about where to place a word, where to place a sentence. His writing hero was Joseph Conrad. “The majesty and musicality of his well-structured sentences had so thrilled me as a young writer that I could cure a bout of writer’s block simply by listening to the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or reading the opening pages of Conrad’s Nostromo,” he later wrote. For Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, style was secondary to his politics. His work attacked western religion and education, language and the betrayal of Kenya by the post-independence leadership.

The first Ngũgĩ wrote A Grain of Wheat; the second Ngũgĩ revised it decades later. In one of the most important scenes of the novel, a group of LFA fighters attack and rape a British settler. This scene only exists in the first edition. Later, when Ngũgĩ revised the text, the rape was removed and the LFA fighters came to seem purer in their actions. When I asked Ngũgĩ why he had made this edit, he told me: “There was never a single instance of any white person in Kenya being so raped. A historian pointed out this to me, and I did not want my novel to lie about Kenya’s history of struggle.”

The language question

Ngũgĩ’s health aide came at around midday. I am squeamish about medical procedures and scared of needles, so I motioned to move away to give them space to do what they needed to do, but Ngũgĩ signalled to me that I could stay. I registered with alarm that he intended to have me there with him as she did her work. She took out a syringe. Ngũgĩ talked to me. I didn’t hear what he said. My mind was frozen, struck at the horror of the syringe before me. I focused on the aide’s tattoo, an image on her arm of the Disney character Stitch.

After she had left and I was breathing more easily, Ngũgĩ and I ate lunch together, his food a mushy, saltless mix of chicken and vegetables. “This is what my body can handle now,” he said. As he ate, we continued to talk, our conversation less the interview that I’d planned than a discourse on colonialism, art and language. After the meal, he stood up from the dining table and walked to his bedroom. Ngũgĩ, who has lost inches he could barely afford to lose to a stoop, walks haltingly in shuffling steps, with his hands folded behind his back. Sometimes, he uses a walking stick, and on even rarer occasions a walker. He seems to dress entirely in a collection of never-ending kitenge shirts with embroidered collars, which are easy to move or remove when he needs to change his dressing for the catheter in his belly.

Ngũgĩ has a slow, slightly croaky voice. He talks in a Gĩkũyũ accent mixed with traces of the English one he picked up while living in England, often stressing the last word in a sentence. He peppers his sentences with “oh my God”, which he uses to register incredulity at opinions he takes to be absurd. He has a way of being dismissive without being rude, taking a strong stance without quite silencing you. He is quick to laugh, and when he laughs at something he finds ridiculous, he buries his face in his hands, while shaking his head and saying, “Oh my God.” When he laughs at something he finds funny, he lifts his hand to the top of his head – bald except for grey tufts of hair above his ears – but then winces, for that movement can be painful for him. Sometimes, the laugh can descend into a hacking cough, which exacerbates the pain of the incisions he has in his belly from multiple surgeries.

We spent a few hours at that table, Ngũgĩ ever the professor, sharing his thoughts on his favourite topics: language and class. (“I don’t see the world through ethnicity or race,” Ngũgĩ told me at one point. “Race can come into it, but as a consequence of class.” He gave the example of the US supreme court justice, Clarence Thomas. “He’s as black as me, but every law he passes is against black people – but not the black middle class. The black working class.”)

Outside, it turned dark, the harsh California sun fading into dusk. Ngũgĩ tapped the table. “In Gĩkũyũ, this is metha,” he said. “Where is this word from?”

“Kiswahili,” I said.

“And where do the Swahili borrow it from?”

I didn’t know.

“From the Portuguese,” Ngũgĩ said. “This is how languages work; they borrow from each other.”

“Is it possible to have multiple first languages?” I asked. “I’ve been thinking of English, Kiswahili, Sheng’ and Dholuo as all being my first languages, since I speak all of them with native fluency.”

“I think,” said Ngũgĩ, “you are lying to yourself.”

A man called Carey

In Kenya, many people are trilingual, able to switch between the various languages different parts of your identity call for: English and Swahili are the official languages, the languages of school, the law and politics, though English is used more often than Swahili, and dominates the education system; but there’s also Sheng’, which is an urban creole mostly spoken by the youth, and which derives from Swahili, English and the other languages in Kenya. I speak the three languages, but I also speak Dholuo, which is the language of the community I am from – the Luo.

Most African writers I know publish in colonial languages. But where two or more African writers are gathered, the conversation often veers to the question of whether it is possible to have a literary career writing in African languages. I told Ngũgĩ about this despair and asked him if he’d had similar struggles. He had, but then he added that writing in Gĩkũyũ had given him a freedom he hadn’t had early in his career. Ngũgĩ was not the first person to write creatively in Gĩkũyũ. What marks him out is his career trajectory: first garnering success in the West in English before reverting to an African language.

After Petals of Blood, he has written all his novels first in Gĩkũyũ, then later translated them into English. He told me he was in the process of translating his first two novels into Gĩkũyũ. I mentioned that I’d recently seen his early books on an acquaintance’s shelf, the books he had published as James Ngugi. “Oh my God, I’m so ashamed,” he said. “But the advantage of that is that when I want to make fun of the colonised, I can make fun of James Ngugi and no one gets offended.”

Ngũgĩ asked me what my English name was.

“Carey,” I said.

“Oh, you should definitely drop that,” he said.

In Kenya, most men named Carey are named after an Englishman, Edward Carey Francis, who is perhaps the most important figure in Kenyan colonial education. (As it happens, I wasn’t named after Carey Francis, but my father once told me he regretted choosing the name, because that was the inevitable assumption.) Francis was a Cambridge professor of mathematics who, in 1928, abandoned his academic career to join a British missionary society that sent him to Kenya as a teacher.

Francis taught first at Maseno School in western Kenya, where he soon became headmaster. He believed his duty was to produce obedient and disciplined students who would uphold the system. One of his students was a boy called Oginga Odinga, who later returned to the school to teach maths. In his memoir, Odinga later described his clashes with his old teacher, who was now his boss. Among Francis’s principles was that African students and teachers should have to wear shorts rather than trousers, to remind them of their place in the colonial hierarchy (Odinga refused to follow Francis’s edict, wearing suits on Sundays). African teaching staff were not allowed to have overnight visitors, and they were supposed to buy only third-class train tickets. When Odinga bought his family second-class tickets, Francis reprimanded him and Odinga quit. The two never spoke again. Odinga later became the first vice president of independent Kenya.

In 1940, Francis was appointed headmaster of Alliance High School, a position he held until 1962. Alliance, a boys’ boarding school near Limuru, was designed to train the few Africans whom the British would allow to be part of their government. Ngũgĩ arrived at the school aged 17. At Alliance, the students were cushioned from the realities of British violence. In town, their uniforms protected them from police attention. As Ngũgĩ writes in In the House of the Interpreter, “boys were trained in the habit of being waited upon”.

Ngugi 3
Photograph: Michael Tyrone Delaney/The Guardian

 Ngũgĩ was the model Alliance student. The first piece of writing he ever published appeared in the school’s magazine in 1957. In the essay, JT Ngugi, Form 3A, praised British education and expressed his gratitude for Christianity, “the greatest civilising influence”, which had led the Gĩkũyũ away from witchcraft. During school assemblies, he would sing God Save the Queen, while his brother was in the forest fighting the terror unleashed by her soldiers.

The last time Ngũgĩ saw Carey Francis was in 1964, a year after Kenya’s independence. Ngũgĩ, whose first novel had just been published, was giving a talk to students at a secondary school in Nairobi. There, sharing a desk with a student, was Francis. After retiring as principal of Alliance, he had taken a position at this school as an ordinary teacher. He listened to Ngũgĩ speak and then asked questions along with the students. What advice could he give a person who dreamed of being a writer? How did the writer balance the demands of the imagination and those of the political moment?

Ngũgĩ smiled at the memory. This was part of the dilemma of Francis, he said. “He was a contradictory figure,” Ngũgĩ said. He was committed to African education, but the point of that education was to produce boys who would never question the colonial system. He had bullied them at Alliance, but then here was, humbly seated with students, asking Ngũgĩ genuine questions about his writing.

In 1966, Francis died, and was buried in the school grounds at Alliance high school. At his funeral, the pallbearers were all Alliance alumni who had become key political figures. Nine of the 15 members of Kenya’s first post-independence cabinet were former Alliance students. So, too, were the first attorney general, first central bank governor and first police commissioner.

I asked Ngũgĩ if there’s such a thing as good colonialist.

“Oh my God,” he said. “There’s no such thing. Colonialism is a system. It doesn’t matter if you’re carrying a gun or a Bible, you’re still a colonialist.” He laughed. “Of course I’d rather face the colonialist with the Bible than the one with a gun, but in the end, both the Bible-carrier and the gun-carrier are espousing the same thing.”

The conference

In 1959, Ngũgĩ arrived in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, to begin his studies in English at east Africa’s most prestigious university, Makerere. To Ngũgĩ, Kampala was a revelation. This was, as he puts it, his “first encounter with a modern city dominated by black presence”. At the time, it was the literary capital of east Africa, partly thanks to the university, which produced a generation of extraordinary writers. Alongside Ngũgĩ were the distinguished critic Peter Nazareth, the Kenyan poet Jonathan Kariara, the Ugandan writer John Nagenda, and Pio and Elvania Zirimu, who met at Makerere and later married.

In June 1962, the university hosted an event that would prove formative not just for Ngũgĩ personally but for the future of African literature. The African Writers’ Conference was the first organised gathering of writers from across the continent. Ngũgĩ was thrilled to hang out with authors he admired – Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark, Ezekiel Mphahlele (later Es’kia) – and to guide the American poet Langston Hughes, who had also been invited, through Kampala.

In the evenings, the writers would go out on the town. Describing the conference in the literary journal Transition, Nagenda detailed a night spent listening to a writer read a grisly short story about a grandfather eating his child’s liver. Afterwards, everyone headed to Top Life, one of Kampala’s most popular clubs, where patrons adhered to a strict dress code – men in suits or tuxedos, women in evening dresses – and the music was a high-tenor mix of Congolese rumba, or jazz. On the dancefloor, the writers waltzed, fox-trotted or moved in time to the rumba. Soyinka impressed with both his dancing and his guitar skills when he got up to play with the band.

During the day, discussions revolved around the great issue of the moment, decolonisation, and the place of African literature within this new paradigm. Could the writer address political questions without compromising their artistic impulses? Was there even such a thing as African writing, or was there only Ugandan writing, Ghanaian writing, South African writing, and so on?

From the start, the conference was controversial. This was an attempt to define African literature, yet novelists and poets who had long been working in African languages such as Swahili, Igbo, Zulu and Amharic were left out. The fiercest criticism of the conference came from the Nigerian critic Obi Wali.

Writing in Transition in 1963, Wali declared that true African literature could only be written in African languages. In his view, any African literature that was written in colonial languages could only be, at best, a minor branch of European literature.

“The student of Yoruba for instance, has no play available to him in that language, for Wole Soyinka, the most gifted Nigerian playwright at the moment, does not consider Yoruba suitable,” Wali wrote.

In the issues of Transition that followed, attenders responded. Mphahlele argued that English and French could be used as a unifying force against white oppressors. Soyinka, acerbic, wrote: “I learn a great deal about my opinions every day, and it was a new revelation that I do ‘not consider Yoruba suitable’ for any of my plays. But what about Igbo? May I know what Obi Wali has done to translate my plays or others’ into Igbo or whatever language he professes to speak.”

Ngũgĩ struggled with Wali’s criticism. He had begun working on his third novel, A Grain of Wheat, and would shortly after go to Leeds University, on a British Council scholarship, to do postgraduate research on the Barbadian writer George Lamming. Wali’s argument “kept on pursuing me through Leeds and after”, wrote Ngũgĩ in Decolonising the Mind. “I underwent a crisis. I knew whom I was writing about, but whom was I writing for?”

Reflecting on the conference today, Ngũgĩ acknowledged its importance to him as a writer, not least because it was the beginning of his close relationship with Achebe – whose novel Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, he greatly admired. Ngũgĩ shared the manuscript for Weep Not, Child with him, and Achebe in turn sent it to his publisher in Britain, William Heinemann. The novel became the seventh title in the vaunted African Writers Series, which introduced many international readers to contemporary African writing.

Some years later, however, the friendship between Ngũgĩ and Achebe soured as Ngũgĩ shifted towards Wali’s position on language. In Decolonising the Mindhe included Achebe among the African writers he criticised for writing in European languages. “Achebe said English was a gift. I disagreed,” Ngũgĩ told me. “But I wasn’t attacking him in a personal way, because I admired him as a person and as a writer, what he was doing with his novels. I realised he was angry at me, because in the first edition of one of his books, he had quoted me at length, but in the second he removed me completely.”

The question of English continues to haunt Ngũgĩ. “I can never think of my first novels without thinking of the language issue,” he told me. “How could I have these African characters and have them all speaking perfect English?

“When I wrote my first book, I wrote it in a language my mother couldn’t access. I rewarded her for taking me to school by writing in a language she can’t read or write.”

His voice went soft. “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just wrong about the language issue.” He paused. “No, I don’t think I’m wrong.”

Voices silent, faces gone

Later that night, we sat at his dining table in California, reflecting on the writers he studied with at Makerere. “For you it must be history,” he said. “For me, this is quite recent.” He turned to his laptop, on the table in front of him. He Googled one writer after another – John Nagenda, Peter Nazareth, Jonathan Kariara, Piu and Elvania Zirimu – only to find scraps about their lives and work. He shook his head in sadness. So many of his contemporaries forgotten, their works out of print. I thought of them in Makerere in the 60s, all “bright and eager-looking”, trying to be writers. A few weeks earlier, I’d told a friend that no one’s story made me sadder than that of Kariara, whose poetry I had studied at university and who has largely faded into obscurity. Now, looking at Ngũgĩ as he scrolled through Wikipedia, I understood that he and I shared this grief.


The next morning, when I came out from my bedroom, Ngũgĩ was up already. He was seated at the dining table, sheaves of papers around him, his laptop open, on the phone with one of his kids. After that call, he took a call from another of his children, then another, all of the conversations conducted in Gĩkũyũ. I served myself breakfast, then joined him at the table.

He asked me what else we should discuss for my story. I asked him about Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya. As a boy, Kenyatta had been a hero to Ngũgĩ because of his fight for Gĩkũyũ land rights. After he became president, Kenyatta reneged on his promises. Rather than restoring stolen land to its rightful owners, he and his cronies acquired more for themselves. Kenyatta, Ngũgĩ told me, had merely wanted to replace the colonialists at the top, rather than doing away with the entire colonial structure. “To Kenyatta,” he said, “having black landowners, black police officers, a black government – that was freedom.”

In 1977, Ngũgĩ published the furious novel Petals of Blood, a clear attack on Kenyatta’s government. But it was a different work, the same year, that led to his arrest. The play Ngaahika Ndenda (I Will Marry When I Want), which Ngũgĩ had co-written, was no more obviously critical of the ruling classes in Kenya than the novel, but there was one crucial difference: as Abdulrazak Gurnah writes, because the play was written in Gĩkũyũ, it “was comprehensible to ordinary citizens, and was therefore ‘subversive’”.

In Kamĩtĩ maximum-security prison, Ngũgĩ was held in a detention block with 18 other political prisoners. In his prison memoir, he writes, “Here I have no name. I am just a number in a file: K6,77.” There, on rolls of toilet paper, he began to write his first novel in Gĩkũyũ, Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (Devil on the Cross). The process was extremely difficult “because I was breaking away from my dependence on English”, Ngũgĩ told the Paris Review in 2022. “The main problem I faced in prison was that there was this little devil who used to come to me – a devil dressed in English robes. There is almost no written tradition in Gĩkũyũ, so I’d be struggling away with the vocabulary – some word like imperialism, say – and this little devil would come to me and say, Oh, why struggle so hard? I’m right here …

“There’s a slipperiness to the Gĩkũyũ language. I’d write a sentence, read it the following morning, and find that it could mean something else. There was always the temptation to give up. But another voice would talk to me, in Gĩkũyũ, telling me to struggle.”

King of the castle

I was staying with Ngũgĩ for professional purposes, a vulture there to pick over the details of his daily life for my own writing career. But that I am Kenyan and young, and Ngũgĩ is Kenyan and old, meant that in the time I was in his house, I found myself taking on a different role. I became, during the days I spent with him, a sort of roving assistant and, against all my instincts, an amateur homecare aide. I became the quick-to-help young person I am with my grandparents.

At around 11 o’clock on my second morning in his house, Ngũgĩ had to start getting ready. His homecare aide was coming by shortly to drive him to his dialysis appointment. One of the things he hated about his illness was the fact that he couldn’t drive himself anywhere any more. Before leaving, Ngũgĩ handed me the house keys. “You’re in charge now,” he said. “I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Now I was alone, the king of the castle. I wandered the corridors of the house, tracing my fingers along the spines of his books. I sat in the living room and played the piano. I walked outside to his back garden. I had taken a book from his library and I sat on a chair, the sun on my face. On a shelf behind the kitchen window were a tin of violets, brown and dying. Other plants in his back garden were flourishing in delightful hues – the simmering pink of the bougainvillea, the lush green of his climbing fig, the bright yellow of his lantanas. A few metres away from the flowers in his garden were some rows of maize. These, and the bougainvillaea, are very common in Kenya, and I felt a sudden rush of homesickness, standing in this slice of Kenya in California.

Carnegie Hall

When Ngũgĩ came back in the afternoon, I was sitting at the piano, playing. He stood there quietly listening, and then he decided to play something himself. He had started playing three years earlier, because his wife, Njeeri, missed the sound of music in the house after their kids abandoned the piano.

Reading the sheet music, Ngũgĩ played Morning Mood from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. As he played, he kept on making a mistake at the end of the first bar. He tried again, and again, and again, failing each time, but then it clicked, and he played through to the end. “Maybe all these people asking when you’re getting a Nobel should ask you when you’re getting a Grammy,” I joked.

He turned to me, deadpan. “What I actually want to do is to play at Carnegie Hall.”

In the air hung a question I knew I ought to ask, but hesitated to, because in Kenyan culture, you do not ask people almost 60 years older than you about their marriages. Ngũgĩ seemed to sense that an explanation of some kind was needed because he said, unprompted, “I know I look like a bachelor, but I’m not.”

He and his wife were going through a divorce. Before the two of them separated, they lived in University Hills, a part of Irvine where a lot of university faculty stay, near the beach. He’d drive out to look at the Pacific Ocean often. His most recent book, The Perfect Nine, came to him during one of those drives. But then he’d moved out, and now he was bereft of the smell and sight of the ocean that had inspired his writing, living alone, far from the beach, unable to drive.

He walked to the dining table, his gait slow and careful. Ngũgĩ has made peace with the physical difficulties of growing old, but he has not got used to the memory lapses. “Sometimes it frightens me when this happens,” he said, “and I think: ‘This is it.’”

The odds

“Ngũgĩ was a rank outsider when we first looked at the candidates but we fear we’ve got it horribly wrong. Punters can’t get enough of him and we’re dreading him being announced the winner.”Ladbrokes spokesman, October 2010

“If this morning’s surge in bets is a clue, then Ngũgĩ could soon be heading to Stockholm.”
The Atlantic, September 2013

“With just three days to go before the 2014 Nobel prize for literature is awarded, Haruki Murakami and the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are joint favourites to win the literary world’s greatest honour.”
The Guardian, October 2014

“Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, formerly the favourite at Ladbrokes, has now been usurped by Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.”
The Guardian, October 2016

“Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the favourite to win the Nobel prize in literature – again.”
The Johannesburg Review of Books, October 2017

“Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o failure to win 2019 Nobel prize for literature shock pipo.”
BBC News Pidgin, October 2019

“Ngũgĩ, 82, has been tipped to win for a decade. But this year seems timely for the Kenyan writer whose work chimes with the global focus on Black lives, focusing on the struggle against colonialism and its legacy.”
New York Times, October 2020

“Heartbreak for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o fans as French author bags literature Nobel prize”
The Daily Nation, October 2022

Stockholm syndrome

Only the Swedish Academy knows why Ngũgĩ has never been awarded the prize. Perhaps his mistake was not to grow a serious, grand-old-man-of-letters beard, unlike other the two previous Black African winners, Wole Soyinka (1986) and Abdulrazak Gurnah (2021). Perhaps it was that his writing became too radical and revolutionary. Partly for this reason, Devil On the Cross was rejected by numerous US publishers. One editor at Norton described it as “so passionate in its political convictions and so enamoured of the Brechtian political rhetorical devices it uses to display its points that its audience is exclusively those who care about current developments in contemporary African literature or current Marxist thought”.

Others agree that Ngũgĩ’s political commitments have sometimes undermined his writing. “The decision to write in Gĩkũyũ exacted a heavy price,” the Nigerian critic Adewale Maja-Pearce has written. “The artistry that had earned his English-language novels so much praise was now abandoned in favour of the crudest possible politics.” The Ugandan novelist Jennifer Makumbi told me that, while Ngũgĩ was, for her, “the go-to when it came to sustained anti-colonial and post-independence disillusionment literature”, she and her peers tended to agree that his plays let him down. “They did not rise above propaganda,” she said.

The morning before the Nobel was awarded in 2022, I called Ngũgĩ and asked him if he was thinking about the prize. He told me he was not – that the Nobel committee was not interested in people who wrote in African languages. When responding to the inevitable Nobel question, Ngũgĩ often suggests it is not of great significance to him, but his son, the novelist Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, commented after the 2022 award: “The Nobel literature prize should in reality be called the Nobel prize for European Literature and the Occasional Other Friends.”

The surgery

Ngũgĩ was having surgery in the morning. It was late on my third day with him, and we sat at his dining table, our conversation on writing derailed, going over the instructions he’d been given to prepare for the operation. Ngũgĩ was very excited about the operation, which promised to simplify the dialysis process and opened up the possibility of him being able to travel back to Kenya for the first time since 2019. As he changed the dressing on the catheter wound on his stomach – I was careful to glance anywhere but at his belly – he said: “After tomorrow, no more of this.”

We went through the list of things he had to do before surgery. Ngũgĩ called his grandson Miringu to arrange an early-morning pickup. He called his daughter Ngina, who lives in Georgia. “After this I can come to Atlanta any time,” he told her.

In the morning, Ngũgĩ rose very early. After his shower, he struggled to change his dressing, his hands shaking. I stepped in to help. Ngũgĩ’s grandson was almost here. It was 5am.

As he got ready for the hospital, Ngũgĩ began to sing the old song they sang at Alliance: “Wash me father, and I shall be white as snow.”


The surgery went as planned, and there was no need to stay at hospital after it was done. At 11am, his grandson wheeled him back into his home. Ngũgĩ wanted to go outside so that he could sit on the patio and feel the sun on his face, but Miringu overruled him. “You should lie down and rest,” he said. Ngũgĩ agreed to go to his room, but called me in. “We need to talk some more,” he said.

He was in pain. Lying in bed, he called one of his daughters-in-law, who is a doctor. When he put the phone down, his breathing was heavy, and his right hand was on his belly, resting on top of the surgical incision. He asked me to remind him where we’d left the conversation the previous day, then he began to talk about an underground movement he had been part of in Kenya in the 70s.

The December Twelve Movement (DTM) had been formed at a conference of Marxist-Leninists held in Nairobi in 1974. There were strict requirements for joining, with the members instructed to be disciplined. For instance, not being punctual was enough to get you rejected. “Because it was life and death,” Ngũgĩ explained. A key part of the DTM remit was intellectual warfare against the state, publishing openly critical literature and distributing anti-government leaflets across the country. Ngũgĩ told me that the play that led to his imprisonment was a DTM project. Both Ngũgĩ and his co-writer were members of a cell-based in Limuru.

In 1978, when Kenyatta died, he was succeeded by his vice-president, Daniel arap Moi. Desperate to win popular approval, the new president released Ngũgĩ and other political prisoners, but soon his government became as autocratic as Kenyatta’s. In 1982, there was an attempted coup against the government. I asked Ngũgĩ if the DTM was involved. “No,” he said. “DTM believed that politics led the gun, not the gun leading politics.” To them, the only valid way of initiating political change was by popular action, not by military action.

In the wake of the failed coup, DTM members were nonetheless arrested en masse, while others fled the country. At the time, Ngũgĩ was in London for the launch of Devil on the Cross. He was warned that he would be killed if he returned, and so, for the next few years, London became his home. In 1986, he published Matigari, the only novel he would write during this time in England. In the book, an eponymous protagonist organises against a president who has betrayed the country’s dreams, a barely disguised stand-in for Moi. Moi, believing the novel’s protagonist to be a real person, ordered the arrest of Matigari. When the president learned the character was fictional, the novel was banned.

In 1989, Ngũgĩ moved to the US for a professorship at Yale, marking the start of a stay in American universities which eventually led to him to California, where he joined UC Irvine in 2002. That same year, Moi’s rule ended, and in 2004 Ngũgĩ visited Kenya for the first time since 1982 to launch his new novel Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow).

Two weeks into his visit, he and his wife were attacked by an armed gang, and his wife was raped. “It wasn’t a simple robbery,” Ngũgĩ has said. “It was political – whether by remnants of the old regime or part of the new state outside the main current […] the whole thing was meant to humiliate, if not eliminate, us.”

Yet he continued to return to Kenya in the years that followed. He steadfastly holds on to his citizenship, and pays attention to Kenyan politics.

As he spoke of DTM and his memories of Kenyan exiles in London, he coughed, though coughing was extremely painful to him at this moment, and I left him so that he could rest.

The language question, continued

In the months after I left Ngũgĩ’s house, having scrubbed from my memory as much of the medical stuff as I can, I’ve been thinking about Ngũgĩ’s legacy, and wondering what it means that, despite the success of Decolonising the Mind, its central exhortation – to write creatively in African languages – has remained largely unheeded. “Since I wrote Decolonising the Mind, I’ve received everything from open hostility to polite expressions of interest, but no real change in practice,” he acknowledged in 2017.

In conversations with fellow writers, we pondered the language question. One Ghanaian playwright, in despair about the seeming impossibility of abandoning English, pointed out that his language, Dagbani, was spoken by a relatively small group of people in Ghana, and if he wrote in it, he would hardly be read. In any case, the infrastructure to publish in his language did not exist. When I mentioned the example of Ngũgĩ, his rebuttal was swift. “Well, Ngũgĩ is Ngũgĩ,” he said. “You can’t compare me to Ngũgĩ.”

Even Ngũgĩ’s own children’s literary careers exist largely in English. Four of his children – Tee Ngũgĩ, Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ and Mũkoma – are novelists, with Tee living in Kenya, and the rest in the US.

I asked Ngũgĩ if the message of Decolonising the Mind had failed. “No,” he said. “The problem has always been the negative government policies towards African languages and lack of publishers in African languages.”

Now I’m thinking back to Ngũgĩ’s books. Across many of his novels and his plays, the action revolves around a saviour-protagonist – whether the educated hero in his early books who wants to unite society, or the radical who wants revolution. What unites these protagonists is the failure of their efforts. They are rejected by the people they seek to save, and most of them are killed. For a writer whose radical politics are so evident in his books, he has always seemed pessimistic about the success of his characters’ quests.

The morning I left his house, I had found Ngũgĩ up already, seated at his table, his laptop open in front of him. He asked me if my cab was here yet. I told him that I’d just ordered it, and it was a few minutes away. “Do you have everything you need?” “Yes,” I said.

“Don’t forget to write in Dholuo,” he said. “I know it’s hard at first, but you have to try.”

My phone beeped. My cab was here. I went to my room, wheeled out my suitcase, and put my heavy coat, unused these last three days, on my shoulder. I opened the door, shook his hand, and walked out of the grand old Kenyan man of letters’ house.

Reporting for this project was supported by a Silvers Grant for Work in Progress from the Robert B Silvers Foundation

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