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Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir Hardcover – March 9, 2010

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Read an excerpt from Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o [PDF].

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (March 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307378837
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307378835
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,169,085 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Celebrated African author and activist Thiong'o tells no ordinary coming-of-age tale. The fifth child of his father's third wife—one of an extended family whose collective experiences range from rural farming and carpentry to WWII rifleman—Ngugi skillfully recounts the challenges and calamities of growing up in British-occupied Kenya. Born in 1938, he recalls a boyhood framed by his pursuit of education (he had a unspoken pact with his mother to always do his best) and by his developing awareness of nationalist politics. Through teachers and local storytellers he hears of such world figures as Winston Churchill, Jomo Kenyatta, and Jesse Owens; at home he eventually discovers that within his own family there are both Mau Mau rebels and colonial sympathizers. Tensions between tradition and modernity, a theme Ngugi explored in his first novel, 1964's Weep Not Child), become apparent in his fascination with the Old Testament and Christianity, and his fear when he is interrogated by military authorities. For readers, sequential time surrenders to a sense of narrative and an engaging humanity. (May)
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From Booklist

When Ngugi is accepted into an elite high school in Kenya, worried about where to get a pair of shoes, his brother is a Mau Mau guerrilla in the mountains. The world-renowned Kenyan writer looks back at his growing up in the 1950s in this crisp, clearly told memoir, which evokes the rising African nationalism of the era in all its conflict and complexity. The many fans of Ngugi’s fiction will feel the truth of the young man’s viewpoint and applaud his blasting of stereotypes about the country the whites had “discovered.” Marcus Garvey is Ngugi’s inspiration, both for his sense of self-reliance and for his ideas about nationalism versus the missionary and colonial projects, “which always assumed the fragility of the African mind.” He remembers “settler newspapers” that portray terrorist massacre “without rhyme or reason” while the freedom fighters have no media to voice their side. A fascinating look at twentieth-century African history, but also a moving intellectual odyssey in which Ngugi learns to revere both modernity and tradition but to reserve a healthy skepticism of both. --Hazel Rochman

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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Great real life story.
Tradition, in Ngugi's recollections, is extremely important, especially the magic of language.
Philip Spires
This is a must read for anyone looking to understand Kenyan history better.
Keziah Kibata

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Ngugi wa Thiong'o is reputedly one of the greatest living African writers of fiction. ("Reputedly", because I have not read any of Ngugi's fiction nor much of other noted African authors, such as Peter Abrahams and Chinua Achebe.) Ngugi was born in 1938 in Kenya, and grew up in Limuru, a town about one hour from Nairobi. By virtue of being born when he was, Ngugi, as a youth and young adult, lived amidst the turmoil of social and political life in Kenya as it went from oppressive colonialism, through revolution, and on into oppressive post-colonial dictatorship. Ngugi left Kenya in 1977, since when he has lived in the United States, teaching at Yale, NYU, and University of California, Irvine.

DREAMS IN A TIME OF WAR is Ngugi's memoir of his childhood, until, at the age of 16, he left home to begin secondary education at a highly selective high school. His father had four wives and 24 children. During Ngugi's youth, his father and mother became estranged, and she left the homestead to live with her father, taking Ngugi and a younger brother with her. His mother clearly was an unusual woman of considerable fortitude and character. She helped fan within Ngugi a burning desire for education and then sacrificed herself in various ways to enable him to pursue that education. But their dreams of education had to be pursued during parlous times of unrest and violence, and hence the title of Ngugi's memoir.

For me, the chief value of the book is the picture it gives of native Kenyan life in a rapidly changing world - of such matters as family customs within an extended, polygamous family, traditional rites like circumcision, and communal story-telling.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By J. D Morrow on January 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In his work "Dreams in a Time of War," Wa Thiong'o evaluates his childhood with the eye of a veteran writer (who is now 72). Yet he keeps the freshness of the child just learning of the world.

Born in 1938, Ngugi was a small child during WWII and an adolescent during the beginning of the Mau Mau uprising. He experienced these events as I experienced the Iran Hostage Crisis - through stories told by my parents and others and snipets of news sources.

Yet, through his memories, and parenthetical explanations written by the 72 year old, we receive the flavor of life in late colonial Kenya. Interestingly, he defines the end of childhood not at his circumcision ceremony or any of the Western ages of "adulthood", instead he ends his "Childhood Memoir" at the point he enters high school.

Through this work we get a child's image of the themes that will permeate Wa Thiong'o's adult writings - Christianity, Colonialism, Traditionalism and the balance between the world Britain stole and the modern world.

Wa Thiong'o is still the master storyteller we met a half a century ago in A Grain of Wheat or The River Between. This story of a child who weaves his way into the modern world kept me excited to read the next section and disappointed when my subway stop would come and make me suspend reading. 4 ½ stars!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Vakunta on November 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ngugi's latest publication Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir is a treasure-house of childhood memories. It is an informative and didactic memoir written with the intent of taking the reader down memory lane. The story of Ngugi's travails through life lends credence to the wise saying that epic characters are often associated with humble beginnings. The narrator begins his narrative precisely where stories of epic heroes always begin: with the place, time, and circumstances of his birth: "I was born in 1938, under the shadow of war, the Second World War, to Thiong'o wa Nducu, my father , and Wanjiku wa Ngugi, my mother. I don't know where I ranked, in terms of years, among the twenty-four children of my father and his four wives, but I was the fifth child of my mother's house"(9). Having been born in a polygamous family with too many mouths to feed, young Ngugi often suffered pangs of hunger : "I had not had lunch that day, and my tummy had forgotten the porridge I had gobbled that morning before the six-mile run to Kinyogori Intermediate School"(3). Not only did the youngster have to dispense with food on occasion; he had to walk an incredibly long distance each day in quest of the knowledge he so badly needed to improve his lot in life. Knowing who Ngugi is today, it is shocking to learn that he never owned a pair of shoes until he was admitted into high school: "I had walked barefoot all my life" (245).
Ngugi's adolescent years were formative characterized by rites of passage: "My grandmother turned to me: `And my husband here? She called me husband because I was named after my grandfather... The idea of circumcision was very far from my mind.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By booknblueslady on February 21, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa'Thiong'o describes his childhood and coming of age in Kenya in the 1940's and 1950's. It is a really touching story of a young boy's thirst for knowledge and clearly provides the perspective of a native of Kenya.

Ngugi describes what life was like for him growing up in Kenya in a polygamous family. His father had four wives and many children. Ngugi's mother was the third wife and Ngugi lived in her hut with his full siblings. The wives formed close relationships with each other as did the children. Early in life, Ngugi made a solemn promise to his mother to attend school and to his best possible if she would make the sacrifices necessary for him to go to school.

This book really presents what life was like for Ngugi through the innocence of a child's eyes. We learn about who his friends were and what he did for fun. We also discover his heartbreak and travails when his father divorced his mother and she returned to live with her father. We begin to see the unfairness of the colonial rule when Ngugi's brother returns to Kenya after fighting in Burma in World War II and these former soldiers are not given equal treatment or justly credited or rewarded for their assistance.

Dreams in a Time of War describes the beginnings of what is commonly termed the Mau Mau Rebellion through a child's eyes and the confusion of having members of his family on different sides during the rebellion.

This was an enlightening read for me and I appreciated being able to see this through the innocence of a child.
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