Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Ngugi Wa Thiong'o was a school boy in Kenya during World War II and the struggle for independence that followed. His father was a wealthy herdsman with four wives of which Ngugi's mother was the third and so Ngugi had many siblings one of whom- “Good Wallace” was a Mau Mau guerrilla but another a soldier in the colonial Home Guard. During the period immediately following the War Ngugi's father lost the best portions of his grazing lands and then his herd was destroyed by disease. He became embittered and began beating Ngugi's mother who then returned to her father's home to which Ngugi was also sent shortly thereafter. Ngugi's grandfather was an important clan chief with many wives and social obligations so Ggugi had to complete his early education in the impoverished circumstances of a single- parent household. Never-the-less, he passed his exams with flying colors and was accepted into the best high school in Kenya at the time. This was in 1954, when General Giap defeated the French forces in Indochina at Dien Bien Pu and President Eisenhower, following 'something called Brown vs the Board of Education', ordered the end of segregation of schools in America. Here Ngugi describes how he became informed about the public events of his childhood.


For me the trial of Jomo Kenyatta was a vast oral performance narrated and directed with the ease and authority of an eyewitness. I presume that Ngandi had to read between the lines of the white-owned newspapers and government radio, enriching what he could glean here and there with creative interpretation and his conviction that Kenyatta would win. This more than anything helped his listeners to willingly suspend all disbelief.

Ngandi had never been to Kapenguria, or any part of Turkana, but began by setting the scene: a couple of shops, a narrow dusty road, a dilapidated schoolhouse turned into a courtroom in a vast arid land of stunted grass, cactus, a thorn tree here and there, and herdsmen with their goats and cows, who suddenly look up to see cars, armed police, white police they had not seen before, come and go, every day for weeks and months.

He introduces the cast of international and local players. Heading the cast is one who is actually absent: Mbiyu Koinange – the brilliant mind that once organized Kenya's own Teachers' College at Githunguri- the genius behind the formidable cast of defense lawyers, aided, no doubt, by his old friends Fenner Brockway and others of the British Labor Party. D.N. Pritt, the lead defense attorney is no ordinary lawyer; he is QC, Queen's Counsel, which means that he advises the head of the British Empire, Ngandi explains, strongly hinting that the queen may not have been very pleased with Governor Baring's hasty act of arresting Kenyatta.

Other members of the defense team have come from all parts of the empire, including Dudley Thompson from Jamaica and H.O. Davies from Nigeria. Others from all corners of the world have been denied entry at the airport in their attempt to work with the local lawyers. Jawaharlal Nehru himself, the prime minister of India, has sent Chaman Lall, a member of parliament. This is a very significant contribution to Ngandi's certainty of victory. Led by Gandhi and Nehru, the Indian people demanded their independence. Just like our people are doing now, led by Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange. They got theirs in 1947, Ngandi continues with his infectious optimism, there is no reason we should not get ours. Gandhi fought the British with truth; Kenyatta will smite the British Empire with his call for justice.

Ngandi tells the story of India's long relationship to Kenya. Against demurring voices, for his listeners have not seen any local Indian involved in public affairs or take up any of the the burdens of colonial rule, Ngandi talks positively about the Indian contribution to the Kenya struggle and cites case after case. Every worker's strike from Harry Thuku's times to 1947 had had Indian support, Ngandi asserts.

From Ngandi's lips, the trial of Jomo Kenyatta becomes geography, history, politics, civics, and above all myth. In his retelling, the places mentioned in the trial- Manchester, Moscow, Denmark- become huge a fictional territory in which Ngundi engages the inhabitants, sometimes in embrace, sometimes in fury. He takes sides in the struggle between his characters. He has nothing but contempt for Thacker, an old settler, retrieved from the dump yard of retirement to sit, on behalf of the settler community, in judgment of a nationalist. Having already made up his mind, Thacker does not even pretend to listen to the evidence: Instead he plays with his glasses, nods off, occasionally waking up to say no to motions by the defense and yes to those by the prosecution. Ngandi argues with the prosecutor and his witnesses. Louis Leaky, the court interpreter, arouses in him genuine anger. He grew up among us, befriended the Koinange family. Mbiyu was best man at his wedding to Mary. He is a spy, a “hawk”, a Trojan horse.

His real ire is mostly directed at the African witnesses for the prosecution. How can any African ever agree to testify against his own people? But now and then he tempers his anger by saying, Lord forgive them for they know not what they are doing.

Ngandi's representation of things seen and yet unseen, repeated over many days, helps replace the gloom of despair with the glow of hope. Looked at from every conceivable angle, the case for Kenyatta's release will prevail. In time I come to share the same certainty: Kenyatta and the rest of the Kapenguria Six, as the defendants have been dubbed, shall win.

So when, on April 8, 1953, it emerges that Kenyatta and the others have been found guilty and sentenced to seven years of hard labor, my heart fell. What went wrong? Bewildered I turn Ngandi, as if questioning his authority as a storyteller.

But Ngandi is not daunted. Listen carefully to Kenyatta's words in the court; “Our activities have been against the injustices suffered by the African people as human beings... What we have done, and what we shall continue to do, is to demand the rights of the African people as human beings..” Do you think he was talking to the Prosecutor or Judge? What would be the point? His words are a signal to Mbiyu and Kimanthi to continue and intensify the struggle. He will be free for greater glory; Remember that Kenyatta's friend Kwame Nkrumah came from prison when he became Prime Minister of the Gold Coast only a year ago. PG, prison graduate, he called himself. And Nehru? Was he not a prison graduate?

I also note how in time the main characters in his story change. It is now Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, his generals, their guerrilla army, who are the movers of history. To lull skeptical eyes and ears Ngandi tells the story of how Dedan Kimathi once disguised himself as a white police officer and went to dine with the governor, how he can crawl on his belly for miles and miles; how he makes enemies think they have seen him, but before they can pull out their guns they don't see him, they see a leopard glaring at them before leaping into the bush.

Black Americans have already been involved in our fight, Ngundi insists. He mentions Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois and the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester. Ralph Bunche, a big man in the United Nations, was Chief Koinange's best friend.

I am amazed by the extent of Ngandi's knowledge- Githunguri must have been a really good college- and even more so by how freely Ngandi can move from the natural to the supernatural and back without batting an eyelid. Fact or fiction or both, he makes sense of it all, in his matter-of-fact tone and with his occasional irony, not to mention whistling to himself.

Years later, in my novel Weep Not, Child I would give to the young fictional Njoroge an aura of fact and rumor, certainty and doubt, despair and hope, but I am not sure if I was truly able to capture the intricate web of the mundane and the dramatic, the surreal normality living under extraordinary times in a country at war. In the facts and rumors of the trial and imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta and the heroic exploits of Dedan Kimathi, the real and the surreal were one. Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive even in times of war.

1 comment:

  1. One evening, my mother asked me: would you like to go to school?” It was 1947. I can't recall the day or the month. I remember being wordless at first. But the question and the scene are forever engraved on my mind...

    Though I had nursed the desire for schooling in silence, it was something way beyond me, something for those older than I, or those who came from a wealthy family. I never thought about it as a possibility for me. I never imagined I could inhabit the world of the Lord Reverend Kahuhu Njambi though I worked in their fields. The Kahuhu estate of motor vehicles, churchgoing, economic power, modernity and education was a different than ours, a reservation of hard work, poverty, and tradition, despite the exploits of my brother in the War and my father's wealth in cows and goats and his lip service to our ancestry.

    It was an offer of the impossible that deprived me of words. My mother had to ask the question again.

    “Yes, yes” I said quickly in case she changed her mind.

    “You know we are poor”


    “And so you may not always get a midday meal.?”

    “Yes, Mother.”

    “Promise me that you'll not bring shame to me by one day refusing to go to school because of hunger or other hardships”?

    “Yes, yes!”

    “ And that you will always try your best?”

    I would have promised anything at that moment. But when I looked at her and said yes, I knew deep inside me that she and I had made a pact: I would always try my best what ever the hardship, whatever the barrier.

    “You will start in Kamandura school.”

    'Dreams in a Time of War; A Childhood Memoir” by Ngugi Was Thiong'o; Pantheon Books, N.Y. 2010.

    Ngugi Wa Thong'o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His books include “Petals of Blood”, “Wizard of the Crow”, “Devil on the Cross” and "Decolonising the Mind”