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4.0 out of 5 stars Growing up in Kenya as British colonialism begins its death spiral, March 26, 2010
This review is from: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (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. 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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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 26, 2010 4:06:19 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 26, 2010 4:07:17 PM PDT
Bryan Byrd says:
In what seems like a startling bit of synchronicity to me, I had never heard of this author until this morning, when I was searching around the internet for a site that gave phonetic pronunciation guides for foreign names. Ngugi wa Thiong'o's name came up on the site, and because it was the only African name, and a bit of a tongue twister - at least for me - I idled away a few seconds trying to get it right. Then, a bare 8 hours later, I casually looked to see if you had written anything new, and here is Mr. Thiong'o again.

Well, I suppose that bit of backstory is only interesting to me, but I was still startled to see it, and felt I had to comment. Nice review.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 27, 2010 8:44:01 AM PDT
No, that's sufficiently coincidental to be remarkable. And how might Jungian theory explain that synchronicity?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 28, 2010 5:01:07 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 28, 2010 5:02:37 AM PDT
Bryan Byrd says:
Thinking about it some more, I suppose it isn't as startling as I first thought - after all, literature of all types is one of my primary interests. The surprising thing was running into an unknown author twice in such close conjunction.

As far as Jung goes, I suppose he would point to this as a hint toward an underlying, hidden framework of reality - a framework that might suggest that Bryan Byrd is likely to buy more books.

Posted on Apr 5, 2010 12:48:29 PM PDT
TheCardinal says:
thank you for the great review. I must admit that the only reason that I heard of the author was because he was in our local indie bookstore promoting his then latest release "The Wizard of the Crow." I normally don't read fiction, much less fiction that is African in nature but loved the book. Yes, it was a bit long but it was funny, sentimental, sad and was very much like life. I highly recommend. Is it a classic? Perhaps not, but it is good and well worth the time.

Posted on Aug 12, 2010 5:32:12 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 12, 2010 5:33:22 PM PDT
Mike, while looking for Rilke I come across this excellent review. The book is sitting on my shelf. In contrast to many others, I have been familiar with his work, both fiction and non- and his political activities later in life. Without doubt an extraordinary brain and personality. You may be interested in reading Wangari Maathai's memoir in comparison. She is also Kenyan from comparable background and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Her book is Unbowed: A Memoir (Vintage) Friederike

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 13, 2010 5:37:13 AM PDT
Thanks for the recommendation. It is now on my Amazon "Wish List" for the next time I go virtual shopping.
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