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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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