Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Toby Saul reviews the memoir of an African master
Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Harvill Secker, £10.99)
The Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o and the Nigerian Chinua Achebe are the two greatest names in the modern African novel. Both worked on the self-imposed task of creating a continent-wide literature that would serve African societies as they emerged from colonialism.
It is worth remembering that, in addition to evaluating the nature of imperialism, Ngugi so successfully analysed the post-colonial problems of Africa that the enraged Kenyan dictator Daniel Arap Moi had the novelist imprisoned. When that didn’t shut Ngugi up, the despot tried every means of harassment up to and including attempted assassination.
Born in 1938 in Kenya, his parents’ and grandparents’ generations were moulded by both the First and Second global conflicts. War, then, provided a constant hum of background noise to his childhood. That noise was to be raised to screaming pitch when the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya’s hideously violent challenge to British colonial rule, broke out in the author’s fourteenth year.
But Ngugi has written a book that is far less grim than the period of history he lived through might have produced. The portrait of Gikuyu society as seen by a bright and thoughtful boy does not allow the undertones of war to dominate the narrative. If Ngugi points out that Kenya’s contribution to the war economy meant strict government controls of the production and internal movement of food, which in turn led to shortages and famine in some areas, he also gives an affectionate account of what small-town East African society was like in the middle of the last century.
It was a society that sometimes struggled to contain both its traditional roots and modernity. Ngugi’s father was a socially substantial figure. A landowner, his claims to property were based on nothing more than a spoken agreement, all that was needed in that originally oral culture. When his claim was disputed by another man who held a written contract, tradition and modernity clashed, though with little serious doubt as to the outcome of the battle. Following irrefutable logic, the colonial system perpetrated a perfect injustice. The father’s rightful oral claim to the land was usurped by one that was false but inscribed, so how could the former claim ever be proved against the latter? If you want to know the sort of childhood events that forge a novelist, it seems fairly likely that, in Ngugi’s case, his father’s impoverishment provided the necessary psychological strain and motivation.
As Ngugi reaches adolescence the Mau Mau rebellion breaks out and engulfs members of his immediate family. In the book, however, much of the violence – and it should be remembered that the seven years of Mau Mau produced horrendous cruelties, perpetrated by all sides – takes place offstage. Ngugi and his family were involved at one remove. For them the uprising produced a series of disturbing spectacles: groups of men rounded up and forced to squat in the dust with their hands behind their heads; the distant but regular sound of gunfire as soldiers hunted fleeing suspects; a fortified police post and the secret but vividly imagined atrocities that took place inside it. Ngugi was caught up in one curious but terrifying encounter with the British army. It was common at the time for large numbers of Africans to be pulled off the streets and held for questioning by soldiers. Ngugi, snatched in one of these round-ups, was presented to a hooded and shrouded figure. This curious and disturbing piece of theatre was staged so that the hidden character – a local man with local knowledge who had either been paid or blackmailed into collaborating with the authorities – could indicate whether the prisoner before him was a member of Mau Mau. A positive identification could mean deportation to a concentration camp followed, possibly, by torture and death.
What happens to a society when such a radical and pervasive element of betrayal is introduced into it? The men and women who fought on opposing sides of Mau Mau were from the same communities and from within the same families. Many of Ngugi’s novels addressed this question. This book gives an account of the angle from which he approached it.