Ngugi wa Thiong'o (born 1938) was Kenya's most famous writer. Best-known as a novelist, he also wrote plays, literary criticism, and essays on cultural and political topics.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o (formerly James Ngugi and known generally as Ngugi) was born in Limuru, Kenya, on January 5, 1938. Educated initially at a mission school and then at a Gikuyu independent school during the Mau Mau insurgency, he went on to attend Alliance High School in 1955-1959 and Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, in 1959-1964. After earning a B.A. in English he worked as a journalist for Nairobi's Daily Nation for half a year before leaving to continue his studies in literature at the University of Leeds in England.
He returned to Kenya in 1967 and taught in the English department at Nairobi University College until January 1969, when he resigned in protest during a students' strike. He lectured in African literature at Northwestern University in Illinois from 1970 through 1971, then resumed teaching at Nairobi University College, where he soon was appointed acting head of the English Department. In December 1977 he was arrested by the Kenyan government and detained for a year; no formal charges were ever filed against him, but it is assumed that his involvement in an adult literacy campaign aimed at raising the political consciousness of peasants and workers in his hometown of Limuru led to his imprisonment. When he was released he was unable to regain his position at the university. In 1982 he went to England at the invitation of his publisher (Heinemann Educational Books) to launch a novel he had written while in detention. During his absence there was an attempted coup in Kenya, after which a number of his friends and associates fled the country. Ngugi wa Thiong'o chose to live in exile in London.
Ngugi came to the United States, teaching at Yale University and Amherst College before becoming the Erich Maria Remarque professor of comparative literature and a professor of performance studies at New York University, New York City, New York.
Ngugi's literary works were concerned with major social, cultural, and political problems in Kenya, past and present. His first two novels, Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965), set in the colonial period of his childhood, focussed on the traumatic effects of the Mau Mau uprising on Gikuyu family life and on the impact of the independent schools movement on rural Gikuyu society. His third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), combined memories of the Mau Mau era with a depiction of Kenya on the eve of independence—a time of great bitterness, Ngugi claimed, "for the peasants who fought the British yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side." In Petals of Blood (1977), his longest and most complex novel, he described in even greater detail the exploitation of Kenya's masses by its own established elite.
Ngugi always sympathized with the oppressed and underprivileged people in his nation. Before independence this included most Kenyans, for the country was being ruled by foreigners; but after independence he showed that the poor, rural, working-class people continued to suffer—this time at the hands of their more fortunately placed fellow countrymen who controlled all the levers of political and economic power. So Ngugi's primary target of criticism shifted from the colonial government to the neo-colonial government.
This was most evident in the works he wrote after Petals of Blood. For the adult literacy campaign in Limuru he coauthored in Gikuyu a musical, Ngaahika Ndeenda (1980), later translated and published as I Will Marry When I Want, (1982), which exposed the hardships of the landless poor and the greed and arrogance of wealthy landowners. In a subsequent Gikuyu novel, Caitaani Mũtharaba-inĩ (1980), translated and published as Devil on the Cross (1982), he turned to allegory and transparent symbolism to indict the evils of capitalism in contemporary Kenya. Another of his Gikuyu musical dramas that stirred controversy in Kenya in 1981, Maitu Njugira (Mother, Sing for Me), was immediately published. Ngugi said that it was his imprisonment that persuaded him to persist in writing novels and plays in Gikuyu so that he could convey his message directly to the exploited masses among his people.
However, he continued to write his political and cultural essays in English in order to reach a broad international audience. These miscellaneous pieces have been collected in four volumes: Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics (1971), Writers in Politics (1981), Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and Moving the Centers: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom (1993). He also produced an autobiographical work based on his year behind bars: Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981). He also wrote two children's books Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus and Njamba Nene's Pistol, both in 1995.
For his literary accomplishment, Ngugi has received many awards. He received the Distinguished Africanist Award from the New York African Studies Association (1996), the Fonlon-Nichols prize (1996), the Zora Neale Hurston-Paul Robeson Award (1993), the Lotus prize for Afro-Asian literature (1973), UNESCO first prize (1963), and the East Africa Novel Prize (1962).
In all of his writings Ngugi attacked injustice and oppression and championed the cause of the poor and dispossessed in Kenya. He "set out to develop a national literature for Kenya in the immediate wake of that nation's liberation from British rule," wrote Theodore Pelton in the Humanist (March-April 1993). He was East Africa's most prolific and most politically engaged author.
There have been three books devoted to Ngugi's works: C. B. Robson, Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1979); G. D. Killam, An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi (1980); and David Cook and Michael Okenimpke, Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings (1982); a collection of essays entitled Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1985), G. D. Killam, ed.