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In the shadow of Mau Mau

When the Kenyan human rights campaigner, Maina Kiai, recently addressed the House of Commons, his list of policy recommendations probably surprised many MPs.

24 March 2010

12:00 AM

24 March 2010

12:00 AM

Dreams in a Time of War Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Harvill Secker, pp.256, 12.99

When the Kenyan human rights campaigner, Maina Kiai, recently addressed the House of Commons, his list of policy recommendations probably surprised many MPs. Be tough on Kenya’s fractious government, he urged. Crack down on British companies which bribe African politicians. And it was well past time, he added, that Britain made a formal apology for Mau Mau.

A chasm yawns between the soft-focus memories of a former colonial master and the less happy recollections of the colonised. Never more so than with Mau Mau, the 1950s uprising against white rule which traumatised the Kikuyu community, the country’s biggest tribe, eventually paving the way for independence. Anyone puzzled by the chorus of contemptuous snorts that sounded when Gordon Brown gave a misjudged speech calling for a celebration of the British empire should read this book.

At 72, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has reached the age for memoirs, and Dreams in a Time of War is a far more substantial affair than the slim volume recently published by Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, the continent’s other literary colossus. Whereas Achebe contented himself with a collection of old speeches, Ngugi has returned to his roots to produce something delicate, fresh and scrupulously honest.

He recalls a boyhood spent in a typical Kikuyu compound outside a burgeoning Nairobi: a polygamous father a little too fond of drink, four wives, 24 kids and a bevy of sheep and goats. Most authors see themselves as outsiders, and Ngugi’s life is shaped by a parental fight which sends his mother running back to the in-laws and permanently exiles Ngugi from siblings and former home.


The pain of losing his father’s blessing is soon dwarfed, however, by greater traumas. Kenya in the 1940s is in a state of ferment. Africans who fought in the second world war have returned with higher expectations than the British are ready to meet, demanding land, education and political power. Jomo Kenyatta is tried and detained. The Kikuyus are cantoned into protected villages — more like prison camps, complete with watchtowers and moats — and subjected to regular screenings at which hooded informers point out suspected terrorists. Others are summarily shot. Ngugi’s beloved older brother, who has just fathered a child, joins the guerrillas, and one senses a looming tragedy.

Although he meticulously walks the reader through the anti-imperial arguments of the day, Ngugi keeps his own anger carefully in check. While highlighting the daily humiliations imposed by colonialism, he never wavers in his belief that one of its imports, at least — formal education — represents a transformative, unqualified human good.

His reaction to circumcision, a rite of passage for the young Kikuyu male, will surprise anyone tempted to romanticise Africa before the arrival of the missionary and the steam engine. Thrilled to be entering the adult world, he nonetheless concludes: ‘For our times, education and learning, not a mark on the flesh, are the way to empower men and women.’

And he is equally honest about an issue often delicately omitted from official ceremonies commemorating Mau Mau: what made this episode so very painful was not the numbers interned and killed, but the fact that the Kikuyu community split, with many men signing up for a loyalist Home Guard which enthusiastically hunted down former schoolmates, colleagues and brothers who had joined the guerrillas. ‘How do I make sense of these contradictions in a struggle, which … I had seen as one between anti-colonial and the colonial, good and evil?’, Ngugi ponders. ‘What is now emerging around me is murky.’ Civil wars always are.

The book closes with the author winning a precious place at Alliance High School, through whose gates so many of Kenya’s key thinkers passed, and boarding the train he has pined to ride all his life. Before leaving, on what he must sense is a one-way journey away from simple rural existence, he goes to see his estranged father, who relents long enough to offer some paternal advice.

‘In my heart I say thank you. I am free. I am not a prisoner of anger or any resentment anymore,’ writes Ngugi. The magnanimity is directed at his father, but one senses, in this calm and mature work, that they could equally be addressed to another patriarchal presence: Kenya’s former colonial master. As this book illustrates, it is possible to forgive, while never forgetting, even when a desired apology is not on offer.

Michela Wrong is the author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower, published by Harper Collins.

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