My take on Ngugi Wa Thiong’o Autobiography, Dreams in a Time of War

In the next few weeks, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o will be in Kenya to launch the first series of  his 4 volume Autobiography, Dreams in a Time of War.

I am no scholar of Ngugi but having read many of his books, I identify alot with his writing especially in the appreciation of ourselves as Africans through knowledge of our customs, traditions and language. Many have, and still contest this ideology of Re-Membering as he termed it in his published volume, Remembering Africa. which was published last year following a series of lectures he gave in Kenya in 2007 at the University of Nairobi’s Taifa Hall and in many other Universities all  over the world.

When I got his latest book, I had more or less assumed what I’d find in it; A natural born radical child who from a modest family whose father shaped his thoughts about life and himself in general. I guess I didn’t know Ngugi as well as I thought or maybe the book does actually reveal a part of Ngugi that most have never known.

Dreams in a Time of War does exactly that; let you get an understanding of Ngugi that you probably have never before. We all to tend to think that Ngugi a radical who is too pragmatic about use of his mothertongue only drawing his characters from his rural setting and seeming to only acknowledge his community without mention of other tribes in Kenya or even their contribution to the Kenyan freedom struggle.

Finding just names of individuals from other Kenyan communities, the Maasai, Kamba, Somali or Kisii or their stories – which would symbolically communicate conviviality and shared national dreams – is a hard (t)ask. Isn’t it individuals in stories – identified by name, which name takes on significant value – who project an author’s intentions?

Also, the Mau Mau story, the backbone of all his writing, has to be more complicated by the fact that many Kenyans contributed to the struggle for Kenya’s freedom in one way or another. Again, these are the individuals that one struggles to identify in Ngugi’s fiction.(an excerpt from a review by Dr. Tom Odhiambo in the Sunday Nation 18th July, 2010)

Having just published a collection of poems, I can tell you that most of them are from personal experience or through very close encounters with the subjects. I find it quite hard writing about something I have not experienced or observed and I tend to  think that this is the story every writer can tell.

Thus even for Ngugi, his childhood memories and experiences were the sources of his characters, settings and  to a large extent his ideologies.

In his Autobiography, it is quite evident that time and distance have done little to erase his pristine memory of his childhood, being born in a polygamous family, the separation of his parents, his encounter with Christianity through their neighbour, his quest to join school and many other encounters which act like a map or a jigsaw puzzle that one can put together to come up with a setting, a fictional character, a thought in his fictional works like ‘A Grain of Wheat, or ‘The River Between’.

His story at the beginning is the story of every Kikuyu boy growing up at the same time yet some of the decisions he took, most of them not fully comprehending why he was, put him on a different path; like when he chose to stand up against his neighbour’s wife, for unfair treatment by a Christian or when he chose not to miss school in order to accompany the mother in a train to her hometown.

Some of his encounters remind me of my own childhood, something that I think makes the book so appealing to read. One can almost identify with him in some aspects of his youth.

Is it possible that Ngugi might have just  unlocked the mystery to the understanding of his sometimes hard to grasp imagination? I will let you decide that once you read ‘Dreams in a Time of War’.

A  local edition of the book published by EAEP is available in bookshops at Ksh. 650. They also have it for sale online.

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