Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o ((IPA: nɡʊɡi wá ðiɔŋɔ ); born James Ngugi; 5 January 1938) is a Kenyan writer and academic who writes primarily in Gikuyu. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri. His short story The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, is translated into 98 languages from around the world.
In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be “the general bourgeois education system”, by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances. His project sought to “demystify” the theatrical process, and to avoid the “process of alienation [that] produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers” which, according to Ngũgĩ, encourages passivity in “ordinary people”. Although his landmark play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.
Ngũgĩ was subsequently imprisoned for over a year. Adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, the artist was released from prison, and fled Kenya. In the United States, he taught at Yale University for some years, and has since also taught at New York University, with a dual professorship in Comparative literature and Performance Studies, and at the University of California, Irvine. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his children are the authors Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Biography
Early years and education
Ngũgĩ was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru in Kiambu district, Kenya, of Kikuyu descent, and baptised James Ngugi. His family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising; his half-brother Mwangi was actively involved in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, and his mother was tortured at Kamiriithu home guard post.
He went to the Alliance High School, and went on to study at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. As a student he attended the African Writers Conference held at Makerere in June 1962, and his play The Black Hermit premiered as part of the event at The National Theatre. At the conference Ngũgĩ asked Chinua Achebe to read the manuscripts of his novels The River Between and Weep Not, Child, which would subsequently be published in Heinemann’s African Writers Series, launched in London that year, with Achebe as its first advisory editor. Ngũgĩ received his B.A. in English from Makerere University College in 1963.
First publications and studies in England
His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was published in May 1964, becoming the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa.
Later that year, having won a scholarship to the University of Leeds to study for an MA, Ngũgĩ travelled to England, where he was when his second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965. The River Between, which has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and described an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya’s national secondary school syllabus. He left Leeds without completing his thesis on Caribbean literature, for which his studies had focused on George Lamming, about whom Ngũgĩ said in his 1972 collection of essays Homecoming: “He evoked for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords [sic] deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence.”
Change of name, ideology and teaching
Ngũgĩ’s 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat marked his embrace of Fanonist Marxism. He subsequently renounced Christianity, writing in English, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist; he changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and began to write in his native Gikuyu. In 1967, Ngũgĩ also began teaching at the University of Nairobi as a professor of English literature. He continued to teach at the university for ten years while serving as a Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere. During this time, he also guest lectured at Northwestern University in the department of English and African Studies for a year.
While a professor at the University of Nairobi, Ngũgĩ was the catalyst of the discussion to abolish the English department. He argued that after the end of colonialism, it was imperative that a university in Africa teach African literature, including oral literature, and that such should be done with the realization of the richness of African languages.
In 1976 he helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which, among other things, organised African Theatre in the area. The uncensored political message of his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi to order his arrest. While detained in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngũgĩ wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross (Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ), on prison-issued toilet paper.
After his release in December 1978, he was not reinstated to his job as professor at Nairobi University, and his family was harassed. Due to his writing about the injustices of the dictatorial government at the time, Ngugi and his family were forced to live in exile. Only after Arap Moi retired after serving his second and last term in 2002, 22 years later, was it safe for them to return.
During his time in prison, Ngũgĩ made the decision to cease writing his plays and other works in English and began writing all his creative works in his native tongue, Gikuyu.
His time in prison also inspired the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976). He wrote this in collaboration with Micere Githae Mugo.
While in exile, Ngugi worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (1982–98). Matigari ma Njiruungi (translated by Wangui wa Goro into English as Matigari) was published at this time. In 1984, he was Visiting Professor at Bayreuth University, and the following year was Writer-in-Residence for the Borough of Islington in London. He also studied film at Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden (1986).
His later works include Detained, his prison diary (1981), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), an essay arguing for African writers’ expression in their native languages rather than European languages, in order to renounce lingering colonial ties and to build an authentic African literature, and Matigari (translated by Wangui wa Goro), (1987), one of his most famous works, a satire based on a Gikuyu folk tale.
Ngũgĩ was Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University between 1989 and 1992. In 1992, he was guest at the Congress of South African Writers and spent time in Zwide Township with Mzi Mahola, the year he became a professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University, where he held the Erich Maria Remarque Chair. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as having been the first director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.
On 8 August 2004, Ngũgĩ returned to Kenya as part of a month-long tour of East Africa. On 11 August, robbers broke into his high-security apartment: they assaulted Ngũgĩ, sexually assaulted his wife and stole various items of value. When Ngũgĩ returned to America at the end of his month trip, five men were arrested on suspicion of the crime, including Ngũgĩ’s own nephew. In the summer 2006 the American publishing firm Random House published his first new novel in nearly two decades, Wizard of the Crow, translated to English from Gikuyu by the author.
On 10 November 2006, while in San Francisco at Hotel Vitale at the Embarcadero, Ngũgĩ was harassed and ordered to leave the hotel by an employee. The event led to a public outcry and angered both African-Americans and members of the African diaspora living in America prompting an apology by the hotel.
His recent books include Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), and Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 2009 making the argument for the crucial role of African languages in “the resurrection of African memory”, about which Publishers Weekly said: “Ngugi’s language is fresh; the questions he raises are profound, the argument he makes is clear: ‘To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank.'” This was followed by two well received autobiographical works: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), which was described as “brilliant and essential” by the Los Angeles Times, among other positive reviews.
His book The Perfect Nine, originally written and published in Gikuyu as Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (2019), was translated into English by Ngũgĩ for its 2020 publication, and is a reimagining in epic poetry of his people’s origin story. It was described by the Los Angeles Times as “a quest novel-in-verse that explores folklore, myth and allegory through a decidedly feminist and pan-African lens.” The review in World Literature Today said:
“Ngũgĩ crafts a beautiful retelling of the Gĩkũyũ myth that emphasizes the noble pursuit of beauty, the necessity of personal courage, the importance of filial piety, and a sense of the Giver Supreme—a being who represents divinity, and unity, across world religions. All these things coalesce into dynamic verse to make The Perfect Nine a story of miracles and perseverance; a chronicle of modernity and myth; a meditation on beginnings and endings; and a palimpsest of ancient and contemporary memory, as Ngũgĩ overlays the Perfect Nine’s feminine power onto the origin myth of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya in a moving rendition of the epic form.”
Fiona Sampson writing in The Guardian concluded that it is “a beautiful work of integration that not only refuses distinctions between ‘high art’ and traditional storytelling, but supplies that all-too rare human necessity: the sense that life has meaning.”
In March 2021, The Perfect Nine became the first work written in an indigenous African language to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize, with Ngũgĩ becoming the first nominee as both the author and translator of the same book
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Family
Four of his children are also published authors: Tee Ngũgĩ, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Awards and honours
- University of Leeds, Honorary doctorate of Letters (LittD), 2004
- University of Auckland, Honorary doctorate of Letters (LittD), 2005
- University of Dar es Salaam, Honorary doctorate in Literature, 2013
- University of Bayreuth, Honorary doctorate (Dr. phil. h.c.), 2014
- Yale University, Honorary doctorate (D.Litt. h.c.), 2017
- University of Edinburgh, Honorary doctorate (D.Litt.), 201
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Works
- Weep Not, Child (1964), ISBN 1-4050-7331-4
- The River Between (1965), ISBN 0-435-90548-1
- A Grain of Wheat (1967, 1992), ISBN 0-14-118699-2
- Petals of Blood (1977), ISBN 0-14-118702-6
- Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross, 1980)
- Matigari ma Njiruungi, 1986 (Matigari, translated into English by Wangui wa Goro, 1989), ISBN 0-435-90546-5
- Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow, 2004), ISBN 9966-25-162-6
- The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi (2020)
Short story collections
- A Meeting in the Dark (1974)
- Secret Lives, and Other Stories, (1976, 1992), ISBN 0-435-90975-4
- Minutes of Glory and Other Stories (2019)
- Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972), ISBN 0-435-18580-2
- Writers in Politics: Essays (1981), ISBN 978-0-85255-541-5 (UK), ISBN 978-0-435-08985-6 (U.S.)
- Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), ISBN 978-0-85255-501-9 (UK), ISBN 978-0-435-08016-7 (U.S.)
- Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom (1993), ISBN 978-0-435-08079-2 (U.S.), ISBN 978-0-85255-530-9 (UK)
- Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: The Performance of Literature and Power in Post-Colonial Africa (The Clarendon Lectures in English Literature 1996), Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-19-818390-9
- Secure the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe (2016), ISBN 9780857423139
- Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (translated by Wangui wa Goro) (Njamba Nene na Mbaathi i Mathagu, 1986)
- Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (translated by Wangui wa Goro) (Njamba Nene na Chibu King’ang’i, 1988)
- Njamba Nene’s Pistol (Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene, 1990), ISBN 0-86543-081-0
- The Upright Revolution, Or Why Humans Walk Upright, Seagull Press, 2019, ISBN 9780857426475
- Official website
- Leonard Lopate, “Writing in Exile”, 12 September 2006. Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo on The Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, New York public radio, following publication of Wizard of the Crow.
- Petri Liukkonen. “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o”. Books and Writers
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – Overview
- biography and booklist
- The Language of Scholarship in Africa, 2012 lecture by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 42–47.
- ‘Publishing Ngũgĩ’ by James Currey, in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 68 (May 2006), pp. 26–54.
- Wise, Christopher. 1997. “Resurrecting the Devil: Notes on Ngũgĩ’s Theory of the Oral-Aural African Novel.” Research in African Literatures 28.1:134-140.
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