By Marie Arana
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; C04
DREAMS IN A TIME OF WAR
A Childhood Memoir
By Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Pantheon. 272 pp. $24.95
Toward the end of his strikingly frank memoir, "Dreams From My Father," Barack Obama describes how his Kenyan grandfather came to marry his grandmother. A ruthless and demanding man, Hussein Onyango was so fussy about his hut that he rejected a number of wives because they weren't tidy enough, beating them to within an inch of their lives and sending them back to their fathers. The first one he decided to keep was orderly enough, but, as it turned out, she could bear no children. During a night of drinking and revelry in a Nairobi dance hall, his masculinity was so ridiculed that he was prompted to take another wife -- as was the country's custom. He had a beautiful young woman abducted, negotiated a dowry with her father and brought her to live under his roof. This was the president's grandmother, Akumu. Eventually, as "Dreams From My Father" tells it, Hussein Onyango brought yet a third wife into his hut, bestowing on Barack Obama Sr. an abundance of mothers. The pattern held into the next generation: Obama Sr., like his father, would also take three wives.
There is a startling similarity between that story and the one told in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's eye-opening memoir, "Dreams in a Time of War." Born in 1938, two years after Obama Sr. and a mere 100 miles away, Ngugi recounts a similarly harrowing childhood with a ruthlessly demanding father and four long-suffering mothers. Alongside 23 siblings, the boy grew up in the twilight of British colonialism, just as the bloody Mau Mau Rebellion threatened to swallow the country whole.
This is not the first time Ngugi -- a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine -- has written about the Mau Mau Rebellion. He did so most notably in his novels "Weep Not, Child" and "A Grain of Wheat." He has also given us a penetrating portrait of totalitarianism in "Wizard of the Crow," a richly imagined novel that was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize last year. Indeed, for the past half-century Ngugi has been a font of literary productivity, bringing Kenya's difficult history to life in no fewer than 18 books, including a prison journal scribbled on toilet paper. But the work he offers us here is like nothing that's gone before: It is the chronicle of a child's single-minded pursuit of an education.
In prose that never shouts, Ngugi tells how land that once belonged to Kenyans was virtually given away piecemeal to white ex-soldiers after World War I. Overnight, Africans became squatters on their own terrain. British suppression of their rights was brutally decisive. Africans were pressed into forced labor, driven to toil in their former fields. So it was that Ngugi, starting at age 6, along with his many brothers and sisters, worked the pyrethrum farms that were once his birthright.
Young Ngugi, however, proved to be bright beyond his years. His mother, alert to his abilities, offered to send him to school. She exacted a promise from him that if she were to invest her hard-won money in his education, he would do his best, never miss a day of school and never bring shame on her. He agreed. That pledge, undertaken when he was 9, would guide the boy to manhood.
This wasn't as easy as it sounds. It was 1947, Europe was recovering from another world war and, as Ngugi describes, African colonies had been squeezed to help finance the British war effort. There were food shortages, even famines. For a boy who was accustomed to covering himself with a simple length of cloth, a school uniform was a major investment. But the price Ngugi was made to pay was not merely financial: There were human costs as well. He began to feel ashamed to be seen with his own brother, who still dressed in the traditional garb -- naked under the wrap. He grew resentful of Kenya's strict social hierarchy, of the rich reverend's uppity wife.
That sense of shame became extreme when Ngugi's father, who had lost what little wealth he had, began to drink heavily and, eventually, take out his anger and frustration on his four wives. He became violent, particularly toward Ngugi's mother. One day he beat her so cruelly that she ran away, taking refuge in her father's house several villages away. A short while later Ngugi's father called Ngugi away from his games. "I want you to stop playing with my children," he told him. "Go, follow your mother."
Ironically, the boy's banishment marked the beginning of a harsh time for all Africa. Rumor had it that whites had a master plan to take control of the entire continent, from Cape to Cairo; that a Eugenics Society was "plotting to kill black babies at birth," sparing only the feeble-minded. With so much fear in the air, a revolutionary fervor mounted. Jomo Kenyatta became the president of the Kenya African Union, a grass-roots organization established to monitor British offenses. Within two years, the Mau Mau Society, a radical anti-colonial movement, was operating at full throttle, targeting British properties. The government declared a state of emergency. British officers were ordered to execute the most prominent political figures and comb the countryside for rebels. Those deemed suspicious were shuttled off to concentration camps. One of Ngugi's half brothers, "Good Wallace," joined the insurrection and headed for the hills.
But for all these references to the mounting chaos, Ngugi's memoir is not about the world adults had made. "Dreams in a Time of War" hews to the promise the boy made his mother. Young Ngugi carries on his studies, despite all possible adversity. He marches off to school, takes joy in his ability to read, memorizes poetry, sits at the front of every classroom. The picture of Kenya that he presents, in other words, is admirably free of cant or sentimentality, and yet it is enough to make you weep. Here is a child, against the backdrop of a terrible war -- traveling a bloodied land with pen and paper -- thinking a dream can forge a better world.
Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post.