Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Dreams in a time of war

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Reproduced for archival purposes. First published in 2010

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s newly minted childhood memoir, Dreams in a Time of War is quite simply brilliant and enchanting. Every thinking human being should have a copy of this wondrous memoir. Ngugi returns with full force to the playground of ideas and shames those who suspect he is a spent force. He puts together many ingredients of a lived experience and serves the world a delightful stew of recollections. It is impossible to put this book down. The man can tell a story.

Dreams in a Time of War is a graceful, moving, freshly minted ode to the relentless pursuit of enlightenment by a child born into the war that passes for life in sub-Saharan Africa. The writers Barack Hussein Obama, Chinua Achebe, Toyin Falola and Wole Soyinka have explored the same theme with uncommon eloquence and pathos in their memoirs and novels. Ngugi simply adds a stunning, powerful salvo to that repertoire of musings.

This is a memoir narrated simply, prose shorn of gimmickry and most importantly, bitterness. Ngugi has mellowed and this attitude provides graceful wings to a soaring delivery. He also performs the very sly trick of making the reader bear the burden of becoming really angry about all of the unnecessary roughness that Africans of Ngugi’s generation had to bear just to live through the day. Brilliant. Even the title says a lot about Ngugi’s generosity of spirit. Upon reading the memoir, a mere mortal would be forgiven for calling it Nightmares in a Time of War.

Born in 1938 into World War II and precolonial Kenya, there were so many anxieties hovering around Ngugi as a child: The descent of his father into despair and decrepitude, the resulting marital abuse and separation and the rejection of Ngugi and his siblings on his mother’s side; the brothers’ struggles for survival during World War II and the Mau Mau uprising; and the challenge of holding on to family bonds as Ngugi and his mother coped with tragedies and trauma. These stresses shaped Ngugi’s childhood and his world view. And yet by all accounts he proved to be a star student, excelling under conditions that would be considered appalling in the West

This is a highly disciplined documentary of Ngugi’s early childhood. We see a precocious child, a student of the Old Testament, weaving tales of his childhood experiences and the tortured history of his ancestral clan with similar tales from the bible. The sense of wonder his ancestors must have felt upon stumbling into a modern city like Nairobi makes the reader gasp with the same emotion. “Before their eyes were stone buildings of various heights, paths crowded with carriages of different shapes and people of various colors from black to white. Some of the people sat in carriages pulled and pushed by black men. These must be the white spirits, the mizungu, and this, the Nairobi they had heard about as having sprung from the bowels of the earth. But nothing had prepared them for the railway lines and the terrifying monster that vomited fire and occasionally made a blood curdling cry.”

Ngugi fashions a gorgeous tapestry of stories that pulls together all the racial and ethnic relationships and tensions in pre-colonial Kenya, the result is a carefully scripted documentation of oral history fused with the written. Clear-eyed observations of the human condition politely but insistently brush aside subversive symptoms to hammer home crystal clear conclusions. This is not only about Kenya; it connects the dots of our shared humanity everywhere in the globe. There are few books that I have read in my lifetime that radiated from a single locus and connected all these dots everywhere without losing their focus.

His relationship with his mother Wanjiku wa Ngugi is exceedingly moving. It hearkened to Obama’s narrative about his mother Stanley Ann Dunham Soetero (Dreams From My Father). They shared the same traits: that gentle push for excellence and a fierce nurturing spirit. Throughout the book, Ngugi’s mother is the guiding spiritual force holding the book together. This is motherhood at its best peeping fiercely through the mean legs of patriarchy. In return, Ngugi doted on his mother and loved and lived to please her. We also see strong similarities in temperament between Ngugi’s father and Obama’s Kenyan father.

The book’s editing is a delight, kudos to the publishers, Pantheon Books of New York. There are minor quibbles: the chapters are strangely not numbered and it was tough keeping up with the cast of characters in Ngugi’s clan. A genealogical chart would have been helpful. Regardless, this is an important book, full of authentic history. It reminds us that we should not take for granted the valiant struggles of our warriors of old. They fought the good fight, for us and the land. They were not perfect people, but they had heart. Let it not be said of Ngugi’s generation and mine that we failed to lead and fight. May the birth of this pretty book inspire us to pursue anew the dream that our ancestors fought and died for.