Last year, when the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o entered a packed auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he immediately received a standing ovation. The audience whistled and hollered, their fists jabbing the air as they cheered: “Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ! Ngũgĩ!” More than 50 years after Weep Not, Child, the first novel to be published in English by an East African, he remains a literary superstar and perennial favorite for the Nobel Prize
Ngũgĩ was born into a large peasant family in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya, at the height of the Mau Mau rebellion. He was educated at primary schools in Kenya, and earned his bachelor degrees at Makerere University in Uganda and University of Leeds in England. His debut novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), detailing the Mau Mau uprising, was published to wide acclaim. He quickly followed it up with The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967). After a 10-year gap, Ngũgĩ published Petals of Blood in 1977. Later that year, after he published the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) about inequalities and injustices in Kenyan society, written in Kikuyu, his mother tongue, the government arrested and imprisoned him. While in prison, Ngũgĩ abandoned English as a literary language and committed himself to writing in Kikuyu. He wrote Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982), from his cell on the only thing available—squares of toilet paper.
After his exile from Kenya in 1982, Ngũgĩ headed to the United States, where he’s lived and taught for more than three decades, establishing himself as a fierce critic of Western imperialism and neoliberalism.
At 80, Ngũgĩ is warm, funny and deeply generous. Our conversation took place over two sittings, at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. —Rohit Inani
Rohit Inani: In 1977, you published Petals of Blood about a peasant uprising in a neocolonial Kenyan society. Immediately after, you published a controversial play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in Kikuyu, your native language. Did you write the play in Kikuyu because Petals of Blood failed to connect with the people you were writing about?
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: It’s true. There is a reality in Africa that 90 percent of the population speaks different languages. And if you think, as I do, that people are an engine of change, then the question of their access to information and skills is very important. When you write a novel in English—no matter how radical, no matter how progressive—it can only reach people in a trickle-down fashion.