Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o writes truth to power, speaking a language it can understand. Trouble is, sometimes power answers back.

(Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 17, 2006

He was 12 when it happened, when Ngugi wa Thiong'o witnessed the beating. Teachers at his British colonial school in the "white highlands" of Kenya caught one of his school chums speaking Gikuyu. The indigenous language wasn't allowed at school. Only English was to be spoken. Punishment was in order.

In front of a student assembly, two teachers held the boy down. They called him "monkey" while another teacher lashed him. The whip cut his skin. Blood appeared. Ngugi, in the assembly, was frightened. He registered, even then, that Gikuyu was not only a forbidden thing but a thing that brought pain and humiliation.

Only much later, he says, did he realize how the boy's screams and the shouts of "monkey" were the building blocks of the "linguistic prison" into which generations of colonized Africans were thrust.

Ngugi, who became a celebrated novelist, would land in a real prison, too. Years after Kenya's 1963 independence, when he decided to break free from the British-enforced cultural practices, he was jailed after writing and performing a play in Gikuyu that introduced rural peasant people to a critique of the post-colonial order under President Jomo Kenyatta and his soon-to-be successor, Daniel arap Moi. It only made matters worse that Ngugi's fourth novel, the English-language "Petals of Blood," published that same year, 1977, also offered a harsh portrait of Kenyan life.

Though imprisoned for a year without charge or trial, Ngugi did not let up. On the prison's rough toilet paper, he wrote "Devil on the Cross," the first of a series of novels he would write in Gikuyu.

His latest Gikuyu novel, published in the United States in English last month, is called "Wizard of the Crow," a dense and hilarious political satire of dictatorship. As he read excerpts of it Thursday night in a jampacked lecture hall at Howard University's Blackburn Center, Ngugi directed his audience to one line in particular.

"That is really the most beautiful sentence in the entire novel, if you ask me," he said playfully of the line that reads simply but defiantly: "A translation from Gikuyu by the author."

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Every inch the rumpled intellectual, Ngugi (pronounced Goo-gy) is a small, understated but intense man of 68, slightly gray, slightly stooped, with the absent-minded demeanor of one with many ideas in his brain. That his eyes are set deep beneath a heavy brow lends a touch of inscrutability to his face, except when he laughs, usually at his own wry humor (like the one about that abrasive prison toilet paper: "What was meant to punish our bodies was good as writing material").

He is author of seven novels, sold in Kenya in both English and Gikuyu (gi-KOO-yu), the language of Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. His other early classics were "Weep Not, Child" and "A Grain of Wheat," and he has published several plays, essays and various other works of nonfiction. "Wizard" is his first novel in nearly 20 years. Literary critics speak of him in the same sentence as such literary greats as Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His lifetime spans much of what Africa has been in the last century: colonized, liberated through independence wars, adrift under the misrule of many post-colonial leaders, struggling to achieve stability and development.

He saw British settlers occupying land they'd taken from Africans. He saw his older brother and others fight in the Mau Mau rebellion. He witnessed and felt the jubilation and promise of independence, the election of Kenyatta, one of Africa's leading nationalists who, like so many others, went on to centralize power and crush dissent. Thus, Ngugi's yearlong imprisonment.

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