Re-reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o

I stopped reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o when I went to high school. By that time, I had been entranced by The River Between, so much so that it features in my current dissertation, and I was taken with the beauty of Weep Not Child. Perhaps those two spoke the most to me because they were ideal for a child: bold, sweeping, romantic, and didactic in the best sense of the word.

My break at the time was ideological. Those who have read Thiong’o on ideology will understand the irony. I relished his romantic vision. I even, as far as I could, shared his critique of the petty bourgeoisie; a sense of Marxist radicalism provided one way to chastise my parents and their friends. Sotto voce, of course. But I could not reconcile myself to his atheism. He was a case of Christian potential gone awry. I wanted him to be more like Waiyaki: open to the possibilities of redemption.

I returned to him shortly after high school, this time focusing on Detained. No doubt, I was influenced by the then-emerging multi-party system, though it seemed a case of bad seeds disseminating themselves. Detained offered one of the first glimpses of what it meant to be a political prisoner. If memory serves, it was around this time that Kenneth Matiba, one of the most eloquent of the tainted seeds, featured prominently in the media, his broken mind and body a testament to the “peaceful repression” of which our leaders boasted. Kenya, they intoned, has never had a civil war, unlike our neighbors.

Comparison is a dangerous game that effaces the here and now. And, of course, given the absence of streets patrolled by guards, though the GSU were quick to show up when called, we were convinced that psychic fears and sentiments had no basis in reality. “How can you feel oppressed when you are not in prison?” The illogic seemed unassailable, unless one dared to unmask it.

Although I remember re-reading The River Between (the ending, I can’t get over the ending) again in college, I put off a re-engagement with Thiong’o’s work, primarily due to my distrust of nostalgia. Nostalgia, I thought then and increasingly do now, would turn me into one of the many Africans who refused to leave the enclaves of tribe or nation, who gathered in corners and satirized the West (and it needs capital letters), convinced of their own inherent, untainted superiority as they bandied around stories of Western decadence. Perhaps I had already been too seduced by the West, but I couldn’t take part in such conversations.

My sense of the world remained a little more precarious, not necessarily open, just more tentative. I knew some doors would remain shut; race, class, sexuality, gender, nationality, intelligence, each of these could have been and probably was some kind of liability. But knowing that made the open doors seem ever so much more appealing. And I stepped through them gladly and repeatedly.

Coming back to Thiong’o after 6 or 7 years away does not feel like a homecoming. His work never yields that easily. Instead, I am compelled by his prescient sense of what independent Kenya would be like. I am, I confess, much less compelled by his later novels, Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross, Matigari, not because, as I once believed, they sacrifice artistry for politics; that argument seems far too simple. Indeed, anyone with an ear for Ngugi’s work will recognize, even in the works originally written in English, his intense indebtedness to sound and rhythm, what we often call oral culture.

For me, Waiyaki from The River Between continues to be Thiong’o’s most fascinating character. It is not simply the classic motif of the young man whose innocence is betrayed by the community. It is, instead, Thiong’o’s ability to capture ambivalence as the particular legacy of the independence and post-independence generations. Although Waiyaki is located in the colonial period, The River Between muses on the ongoing pull between then and now, here and there, categories so general that they encompass colonial and post-colonial generations.

Waiyaki’s inability to choose between his political allegiances and his love for Nyambura, says less about any inherent flaw in his character or training, and much more about the rigid society that expels those it cannot discipline. In The River Between, Thiong’o illustrated this theme through sexuality; in his later work, he develops it to comment on political and social repression. Of course, here my framework might seem a little too Foucauldian—discipline, identity, sexuality, community. And I cannot deny my debt to Foucault. But I would insist I less apply Foucault than put him into what might be termed a dialectical relation to Thiong’o. (I need to stop reading those Marxist critics!)

What I have found useful in Thiong’o is a way to think about the construction of independent and post-independent Kenya in particular, Africa in general; a way, via literature, to understand the uneasy formation of the social and its continual resistance to change. I also understand a little more clearly the formation of a particular kind of ambivalent subject, the necessary formation of this ethical subject. It is this more than anything else I treasure in reading Thiong’o.

Now, of course, it might be argued that I ran into The River Between with a two-sided mirror, found my image, and saw that it was good. Identification, as I repeatedly tell my students, tends to be the easiest and frequently worst reading strategy. And certainly, my privileging of ambivalence suggests a certain waffling on my part. But it is precisely what ambivalence may enable, a tentative groping, a continual reaching out, that I find so useful. Strictly speaking, ambivalence may be the wrong name for this reach toward the other. For now, it suffices.

2 thoughts on “Re-reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o

  1. I have not read much of Ngugi’s work but am tempted to read “Wizard of the Crow”. I gather that Ngugi had socialist leanings in his earlier works. Has the rise of globalization and economic liberalization made a dent in this thinking, or he is still tied in the old ways?

  2. I have not followed Ngugi’s political thought. I tend to be wary of the label “socialist,” especially since it was used in such specific ways during the Kenyatta-Moi era, as a label to discredit any form of political opposition.

    I’d need to spend more time with Ngugi’s essays and speeches and interviews to answer your question. My sense is that his thinking has always been much more supple and complex than we are willing to credit. Simon Gikandi has a critical study that may be illuminating.

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