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.
Released from prison in 1978 after Kenyatta's death, Ngugi endured harassment under the Moi regime. He went into exile in 1982 and taught, among other places, at Amherst College, Yale and New York University, where he spent a decade. He ultimately became distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine, where he also directs the International Center for Writing and Translation. His second wife, Njeeri wa Ngugi, is a university administrator there. (His first marriage ended in divorce.)
Though the traumas of his colonial youth are distant, there would be more blows to suffer, more humiliations to absorb for the sake of his literature, his resistance.
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It took 10 years to write "Wizard of the Crow" in Gikuyu and translate it into English. The challenge, he has said, was to render the playfulness and rhythm of Gikuyu into English.
Though Ngugi has faced some criticism for excluding non-Gikuyu readers from his books published in that language, others credit him for sparking a revitalization of the language, with "Devil on the Cross" reportedly selling 15,000 copies in its first Gikuyu printing in 1980.
He is not attempting to exclusively promote Gikuyu in some ethnocentric or chauvinistic way, he says. It just happens to be his mother tongue.
Rather, his point is that African languages as a whole were suppressed during the colonial era and were left in eclipse once independence was won.
The imposition of colonial languages, be they English, French, or Portuguese, was "abnormal," Ngugi says in an interview over breakfast Friday morning. And yet the "abnormalities" remained a systemic part of life after the colonists were gone.
"Germans write in German. Italians write in Italian. Russians write in Russian. Swedes write in Swedish. Why is it that we on the continent are expected to write in a language other than ours?"
That is the essence of the neo-colonialism he sees in varying degrees all over Africa today: nations focused more on what the world wants from them than on tending to their own development. As Ngugi sees it, this neo-colonialism was reinforced by the client relations that many African nations had with resource-hungry Western nations during the Cold War and continues to be reinforced by the stratifying impact of the global economy.
It is abnormal for African nations not to control their resources, their language, their skills base, so Ngugi says his mission is clear.
"I'm fighting against the normalization of the abnormal," he says. And his weapon is the written word.
With his own Gikuyu as an example, he champions a conversion of the African literary canon into African languages wherever and whenever possible.
"I'm using my language as a base from which to talk about the world," he says. "I'm not going to the English language as a beggar. I have my own language. I write in it."
He calls it practicing the "aesthetics of resistance," he told his Howard audience. It is "that attempt to rise up, to rise again and keep rising," to reconstitute the cultural base that was fragmented from colonial times and remains under assault by the pressures of globalization.
It is a theme he returns to again and again. At one point while seated in the chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car hired by his publisher, he fakes a boxer's crouch and punches the air, saying playfully, "There's a point I'm trying to make. I'm at war. I'm at war. I'm at war."
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For "Wizard of the Crow," published by Pantheon, reviews have ranged from "magisterial" to "a journey without a destination." It is an allegory of Africa in the 20th century, the use of storytelling as a cultural bomb against dictatorship.
It features a dictator called "the Ruler" who is a composite, says Ngugi, of such iconic figures as Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo-Zaire, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Moi of Ngugi's Kenya.
The Ruler is surrounded by sycophants so pathetic that one has his ears surgically enlarged to the size of a rabbit's, the better to hear any nasty plots that may be afoot; another has his eyes enlarged to the size of light bulbs, the better to see all that is going on around the Ruler.
The Ruler and his crew want to erect a towering skyscraper, called "Marching to Heaven," to place the Ruler on par with God. But he needs the "Global Bank" to fund the project because his old patrons of the Cold War days no longer find him useful and thus can no longer be extorted.
Along the way, magic comes into play, with the Wizard of the Crow emerging by happenstance to solve a never-ending trail of outlandishly rendered problems. A businessman goes mute, and the Wizard calls the malady "whiteache," or the desire to be European. The Ruler himself turns into a massive floating being who has to be tied down to keep from drifting away.
Dictatorship, Ngugi told a group of students at American University on Thursday afternoon, is sometimes "tragedy manifesting itself as comedy."
Take the legendary story of Matigari, the title character of a Ngugi novel published 20 years ago. Matigari was a charismatic leader, a critic of those in power. Moi's government issued an arrest warrant for him. But he wasn't real.
Lucky for Ngugi, he was already in exile when the Matigari manhunt happened. He would remain away from his country for 22 years.
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In 2004, two years after Moi stepped down and Mwai Kibaki was elected president, Ngugi and his wife made a joyous trip home. He received a hero's welcome, complete with processions of traditional singers and dancers.
"I come back with an open mind, an open heart and open arms. I have come to touch base. I have come to learn," he told the crowds of well wishers.
He'd intended to launch the Gikuyu version of "Wizard of the Crow," to hold lectures, to tour the country and to have a traditional marriage ceremony with Njeeri. But the celebration of his return turned terribly tragic the night three intruders armed with guns and a machete invaded their rented apartment in Nairobi, Kenya's capital city.
Ngugi and Njeeri were brutally assaulted. The attackers beat Ngugi and burned his face with cigarettes. They raped his wife and stabbed her. They robbed them of money and jewelry and then fled.
The celebrated author and his wife were hospitalized. And Kenya was in shock.
Newspapers denounced the attacks and lamented the couple's suffering, especially the rape -- about which Njeeri spoke publicly, breaking a cultural taboo.
Ngugi believes his attackers were "hired hands" representing the agenda of someone more powerful, though he has no definitive proof.
"There were those who attacked us, and some others from outside it," is how he describes the alleged conspiracy. But the case grew more mystifying when one of the suspects turned out to be a nephew of Ngugi's from his first marriage. No motive has clearly emerged.
Ngugi and Njeeri returned to their adopted home in Irvine. But they have traveled back and forth to Kenya to tend to legal issues surrounding the ongoing trial.
One day he would like to live at home again. He would like to breathe Kenya, to absorb it again. There is new "democratic space" under Kibaki, Moi's successor. Putting aside the attack on him, he sees reasons to be hopeful.
"Nobody is being imprisoned for disagreeing with the government. Nobody's being killed, exiled or having their family harassed," Ngugi says.
Still, he is comfortably ensconced in Irvine. And the time may not yet be right for a move back to Kenya.
"I don't want to be a martyr," he says.
When he travels there now, the government protects him with state security.