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Catching up with Ngugi

From Planet 215

Ned Thomas looks back at his connections with the work of Ngugi wa Thiongo’o, via the Mau Mau Emergency, editing Planet and teaching literature in Wales. What does Ngugi’s work say about inequality in the world we live in now?

This article selects themes from three recent books by the Kenyan novelist, playwright, critic, academic and social activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir, translated from the Gikuyu (2010), In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire (2013) and Globalectics: Theory of the Politics of Knowing (2012). It does so in the spirit of his own injunction to allow a text, from whatever time and place it may come to speak to our own cultural present even as we read it from our own cultural present.

My own reading of Ngugi goes back some way. In the mid 1970s I was teaching in the English department at Aberystwyth University which was not quite ready to address what was then called ‘Commonwealth Literature’. However, I was able to offer a Welsh-medium course to students of the Welsh department which I advertised with the more revolutionary-sounding title Llenyddiaeth y Trydydd Byd (Third World Literature) – mainly West African, East African and Caribbean. My father, after retiring from his job in Britain, had spent some years teaching law in Nkrumah’s newly-independent Ghana, so I had been aware quite early on of independence struggles on the African continent and had met some of his former students when they came to Britain. Shortly after completing a mainstream English degree I had even published and edited a well-intentioned but best-forgotten very slim and short-lived magazine called Afro-British Review, but I was in no sense a specialist in the field I now proposed to teach. I was also acutely aware that I could very easily have been sent to Kenya during my national service which fell within the years of the Emergency there…



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