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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Growing up in Kenya as British colonialism begins its death spiral
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...
Published on March 26, 2010 by R. M. Peterson

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2 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Kindle price makes no sense!
How can an electronic version of a book - which costs a fraction to produce and cannot be shared - costs more than the paperback version? Publishers need to understand the new reality. I prefer to read books electronically and am willing to pay $10 to ensure authors have an incentive to continue writing. But I will not purchase a book whose pricing doesn't make sense...
Published on December 30, 2010 by Amazon Customer


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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Growing up in Kenya as British colonialism begins its death spiral, March 26, 2010
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. It also contains much anecdotal evidence of the cruelty and thickheadedness of the waning years of British rule and the divisive consequences among the Kenyans themselves. (Ngugi's older brother Wallace joined the Mau Mau guerillas; half-brothers of his served the British colonial interests as members of the Home Guard.)

The British tried to tighten the screws on the Kenyans in many ways in the years immediately after World War II. One of their efforts to check the ever-spreading, gradually intensifying impulse for independence was to attempt taking iron-fisted control of African education, including outlawing independent African-run schools and mandating a revisionist curriculum in history. As part of that curriculum, "We learned that white people had discovered Mount Kenya and many of our lakes, including Lake Victoria. In the old school, Kenya was a black man's country. In the new school, Kenya, like South Africa, was represented as having been sparsely populated before the whites arrived [which, of course, was false], and so whites occupied the uninhabited areas [also false]. Where, as in * * * Limuru, they had taken African lands, the previous occupants had been compensated [once again false]." Just another example of rear-guard revisionist history, an endeavor that politically or religiously inspired groups continue to undertake from time to time, quite recently in the enlightened state of Texas. Plus ça change.

Ngugi's memoir is both informative and touching. Despite the highly charged conditions of Ngugi's life, the book never takes on the character of a political or revolutionary tract. Ngugi appears to have been graced with unusual intelligence, atypical earnestness, and inherent goodness. DREAMS IN A TIME OF WAR is straightforward, relatively informal, and decently written. I do not regard it to be a classic among memoirs, but it was well worth my time. It ends rather abruptly with Ngugi's arrival at secondary school, suggesting to me that Ngugi intends to continue his life story in one or more future books. If so, I am a prospective reader.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Childhood Memoir, January 26, 2011
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
5.0 out of 5 stars TOWARD AN AFRICAN RENAISSANCE, November 23, 2010
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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. But for some reason she would not let the matter go, and a few days later she brought up the subject, reiterating that Ndungu who was my age, could not become a man and leave me behind a boy"(163). The initiation school sometimes referred to as an unsafe ordeal by westerners is highly regarded in Kenya and beyond. Circumcision is a practice whereby the loose skin at the end of a boy's penis is cut off. The initiation school is viewed as a nursery where moral rectitude is inculcated in the minds of initiates who are taught life skills such as courage, resilience, stoicism, creative thinking, and respect. Most importantly, rite of passage is perceived as a coming of age, an inevitable bridge between boyhood and manhood. As Ngugi puts it, rite of passage was not only "initiations from one phase of life to another but also forms of social education" (83).
Indeed, Ngugi portrays himself as a cultural hybrid, having undergone initiation in the indigenous and western senses of the word: "One evening, my mother asked me: `Would you like to go to school?' It was in 1947" (49). This moment marks the genesis of Ngugi's initiation into the White man's school, a school that had tonic effect on the growing youngster: "...at lunchtime when other kids took out the food they had brought... to eat during the midday break...I would often pretend that I was going someplace, but really it was to any shade of a tree or cover of a bush, far from the other kids, just to read a book, any book..."(3)
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir is homage paid to Kenya's nationalists, many of whom paid the supreme price in the struggle to free their country from British colonial yoke. Ngugi sheds ample light on the seminal role played by the Mau Mau in the liberation struggle: "The guerillas are under strict orders from Marshall Dedan Kimathi not to kill at random. The guerrillas could not survive without support from the people... there were hundreds of others who did not survive, butchered by the colonial forces... "(182. The historical significance of Ngugi's memoir resides not only in allusions to historical figures like Dedan Kimathi, Jomo Kenyatta, Eisenhower, Hitler, and Winston Churchill among others but also to the question of settler colonialism in Kenya and the irksome land misappropriation that surfaced in its wake: "I had learned that down beyond the forest was the Limuru Township and across the railway line, white-owned plantations where my older siblings went to pick tea leaves for pay...I had learned that our land was not quite our land; that we were now ahoi, tenants at will. How did we come to be ahoi on our own land?"(10). Western imperialism in Kenya went farther than mere land grabbing. The colonialists owned means of production as this example indicates: "...white people owned the tea plantation on the other side of the railway, and I had even heard that there were white owners of the Limuru Bata Shoe factory..." (39) Thus, this book is a lampoon on how Europe underdeveloped Kenya. It is a rap on colonialism and its attendant ills. Ngugi believes that the disintegration of the African continent began at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885 "that divided Africa into spheres of influence among European powers..." (15)
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir is captivating in several respects but the quality that grips the reader's attention is the writer's continual recourse to the literary device of intertextuality. He resorts to cross-references in a bid to prove salient points. For example, on page 111, Ngugi refers to Theodore Natsoulas' article " The Rise and Fall of the Kikuyu Karing'a Education Association in Kenya, 1929-1952" published in the Journal of African and Asian Studies 23.3-4(1988):220-21 to underscore the colluding role played by Western religions in the cultural alienation of Africans. In the same vein, he alludes to Winston Churchill's My African Journey (1968) on page 14 to lambaste the cantankerous role the British played in the dismemberment of Kenya. Ngugi takes the West to task for the spoliation of Africa, particularly the theft of Africa's lands. On page 227 he refers to Stevenson's Treasure Island, a book that counts among his favorites in his adolescence. Charles Dicken's Great Expectations (p.219) belongs in this category as well.
Clash of cultures is a leitmotif in Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir. Ngugi discusses the uneasy cohabitation of modernism with tradition in Kenya as follows: "Baba Mukuru's house was antithetical to Kahahu's. He was as confident in the ways of his ancestors as Kahahu was in the ways of his Christian ancestors. For him, tradition was sacrosanct." (82-3) A little further, the narrator sheds more light: "Baba Mukuru poured a libation for the ancestral spirits that they might be with the living and the newly born" (83). Cultural hybridity is manifest throughout the book in the form of indigenization of language. Ngugi straddles the linguistic divide by drawing from both his indigenous language and English as this example illustrates: "It was the main hut not because of its size but because it was set apart and equidistant from the other four. It was called a thingira."(9) Code-switching enables him to express cultural specificities. Sometimes, Ngugi employs vernacular language words in order to underline otherness: "These must the white spirits, the mizungu, and this, the Nairobi had heard about as having sprung from the bowels of the earth" (14). In his attempt to transpose the speech mannerisms of Kenyans into written English he resorts to the alternate use of languages, including everything from the introduction of a single unassimilated word up to a complete sentence as this other example shows: "... which he Gikuyunized as mburaribuu, kaniga gaka, mbaga ino, and which he used freely to address any of his children at whom he was angry" (18).
Quite apart from Africanisms, Ngugi makes abundant use of proverbial expressions to translate the worldview of the Kikuyu into a European language: "... I comfort myself, because I don't have to tell my stories to listeners eager to eat from the palm of my hand" (232). Another insightful maxim used by Ngugi for the purpose of translating Gikuyu sagacity into English is: "The Gikuyu have a saying that out of the same womb come both a killer and a healer" (215). Throughout the narrative, he uses Gikuyu apothegmatic expressions--proverbs, idioms, ideophones and interjections for the purpose of self-expression. His memoir reads like an oral tale. The reason is that he strives to translate orality into the written oral word. The book is replete with songs culled from the author's childhood memories. The one on page 34 is particularly interesting because it captures the servile obedience characteristic of colonial subjects:
We are marching on
We are marching on
At whose order?
The king's orders
Let's march on.
Ngugi goes to great lengths to translate the discursive orality of his maternal tongue into written English. He simulates the Gikuku storyteller by creating the spontaneity of oral performance. In sum, the publication of this nonfictional book after the voluminous Wizard of the Crow (2006, 768 pages) is welcome relief for readers who are intimidated by sheer length. True to himself, Ngugi has proven once again to be a true master of the word.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Through a Child's Eyes, February 21, 2012
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booknblueslady (Woodland, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (Paperback)
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye opening, December 27, 2010
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I loved this book by Nugi wa Thiongo. It was a very interesting read and gives the reader a glimpse of what life was like for a child living in the colonial era in Kenya. The story of the pain and loss suffered by Kenyans (and other African countries) when the colonialists arrived seems to be forgotten or not told enough. Many times, the story is told from the European perspective, painting an image that the Europeans came to help and save the poor Africans who were without education. More stories need to be written, told and taught from the African perspective. Excellent work Ngugi and I've already bought the book as a gift for my sister and highly recommended it to many people.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Memoir of a dream's genesis, June 21, 2014
This review is from: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (Paperback)
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (2010) commences in 1954 in Limuru, Kenya, with the “disappearance” of the narrator’s older brother, Wallace Mwangi, better known as Good Wallace. Police caught him with a pocketful of bullets. He eluded the police, narrowly escaped death, and fled to the mountains.

To understand the actions of Good Wallace, Thiong’o takes the reader back to his own Kenyan childhood, and the year of his birth, 1938. He was the fifth child of his father’s third wife (of four wives), among 24 of his father’s children. He was born into “an already functioning community of wives, grown-up brothers, sisters, children about my age, and a single patriarch, and into settled conventions about how we acknowledged our relation to one another.”

His father was born “sometime between 1890 and 1896” when Britain ruled Kenya, before independence. His mother, Wanjiku, was a thinker and a listener, but above all she was a great storyteller. In 1947 his mother asked him if he wanted to go to school – and this is the main theme in the novel. It is about his school days – from primary school to the “dreaded” Kenya African Preliminary Exams to reach secondary school.

Throughout the novel is the historical context of colonisation, poverty, discrimination, racism, but also of great dreams to “read and write.” There were daily challenges, but the turning point was the downfall of his father. There came a time when his father’s goats and cows caught “a strange illness” and died. “The man who had everything now lost all,” which led to his expulsion from the community, and his excessive drinking. And it upset the delicate balance of power that his father’s wives had established. His mother, younger brother Njinju, and himself were evicted and sent to live with his maternal grandfather. “From a polygamous community we became a single-parent family” - but Good Wallace used to visit often. Thiong’o admired his much older brother, the first in his family to go to school.

Amid white rule, Jomo Kenyatta was his hero (who became the leader of Kenya after independence in 1963). In 1952, Kenyatta and other activists were arrested and a state of emergency was declared. This is the time of war that gives the novel its title. Thiong’o seeks refuge in learning and the company of his best friend, Kenneth Mbugua.

And now we return to the beginning of his memoir. At the end of primary school in 1954, while waiting for his exam results, he searches for Good Wallace, who fled an inevitable prison sentence that year. But Thiong’o could find no trace of his brother. Thiong’o is accepted into the best secondary school in the country, but then came “the brute reality. My mother cannot afford the tuition.” Aid comes unexpectedly, and from an unlikely source.

This is a memoir about growing up with an unspoken dream, and in a quiet way, of achieving it through persistence and determination in adversity, the years before independence and the Mau Mau insurgency. But what became of Good Wallace? This is revealed at the end. But the novel is also an account of family, extended family, relationships, friendships, and the encouragement of his steadfast mother. Readers know the author’s destination – for Thiong’o attains his dreams to become an author. This is story of the early years, the dream’s genesis, and the beginning of the author’s journey.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Stunningly beautiful, October 5, 2012
This review is from: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (Paperback)
Put simply, Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a beautiful book. But it is also challenging, engaging, shocking, endearing and enraging at the same time. It also offers truly enlightening insight into the psychology, motivation and eventual expression of a great writer. Anyone who has admired Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat will adore Dreams In A Time Of War, because the fiction that rendered the novel such a complex and rewarding read is here as reality, in all its greater rawness of immediacy, contradiction and conflict.

Dreams In A Time Of War is an autobiography, covering Ngugi's infant and childhood memories until the day he left home, as an adolescent primary school graduate, to join Alliance High School. Thus we journey in Ngugi's account from a homestead shared with a father, four wives and numerous siblings to the start of a Western education with its subject boundaries and prescribed canals of thinking. It would be easy to suggest that this represented a journey from the traditional to the modern, but that would be naïve. It would also miss the point.

Tradition, in Ngugi's recollections, is extremely important, especially the magic of language. Words, clearly, were always for him much more than labels. The Kikuyu language that was his birthright offered a richness of expression and meaning - not to mention an identity - that fired his imagination from a very young age. It was also a language that was denied and derided by at least part of an education system that proselytised on behalf of the colonial, the modern. Throughout Dreams In A Time Of War we are aware of this potential for conflict, where the clearly academically gifted young Ngugi yearns to read and learn, but is regularly reminded that the only acceptable vehicle for that activity was the English language. For some who emerged through the vicious selection for entry into the educated elite, this denial of identity led to a rejection of birthright, origin and perhaps culture, so that they might more completely and convincingly adopt the new status to which they aspired. In Ngugi's case, this demanded denial of his own background led him to appreciate it, its values and its worth more acutely. It is a mark of the book and equally the man's complexity, however, that he not only retained an insider's appreciation and understanding of his birthright, but also embraced the English language and education to become one of the language's greatest writers.

Ngugi's description of tradition is never static. At the same time, his view of modernity is never uni-dimensional. He recognises that his people's ceremonies have changed over the years and that their significance has altered. Old men's stories may still enthral the young, but the world described has already changed. Farmers have been driven from their land. Estates growing crops for cash and bounded by fences have been established. Factories offering wage labour have opened. Many of the structures that bound families and communities together have been transformed, perhaps not broken down, but have at least been challenged by new allegiances and aspirations.

Equally the modern is not presented as a monolith. Two different education systems coexist, one that transmits only Christianity and European values, and one that admits local language and learning. In the same way that individuals are influenced by what they are taught, they are also transformed by their experience of employment, of nurture by institutions and comradeship. In Kenya, for some this included loyalty to King and country via service in two world wars, acceptance of Christianity, responsibility to exacting employers and land owners, as well as, for others, acknowledgement of and adherence to tradition, family values and kinship transmitted by oral culture. And the reality that Ngugi portrays so beautifully in this book is that these apparently opposing poles were often mixed up within the individual, almost every individual.

If there is still anyone who retains the notion that British Imperialism was tantamount to spreading pixie dust, then such a person ought to read Ngugi's childhood memoir. Here are descriptions of hooded informers - no doubt paid to say the right names, of indiscriminate detention, concentration camps and cold-blooded murder. And all this was backed up by a wholly unjustified and erroneous assumption of racial superiority. By the way, it's about the same way they treated the working class back home, even down to denying most of them access to the educational goodies that legitimise social class identity.

Readers please do not be put off by the difficulties posed by the Kikuyu names and words. If they are unfamiliar, then find a way of summarising and merely recognising them. But do read this beautiful childhood memoir and thus do understand a little more of the experiences that motivate writers - and others - to explain. The view is partial, of course, that is why it is both entertaining and illuminating.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book, March 6, 2013
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Great Read,as I have come to expect fro this author.This is a must read for anyone looking to understand Kenyan history better.
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5.0 out of 5 stars poetic, deceptively simple prose, October 31, 2013
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Another amazing piece by wa Thiong'o that kicks off a remarkable trilogy - read especially if you are interested in schooling and childhood in the context of colonialism. As with all wa Thiong'o's thinking / writing, this is not a story about victimry nor good/evil binaries.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading!!, April 26, 2012
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Great real life story. Totally worth reading. The book witnesses to the fact that where you begin, is not necessarily where you will end. The end, is many times out of your hands, but hope is there. It is encouraging.
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Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiongo (Paperback - March 8, 2011)
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