Out of exile: Freedom lights Kenyan’s path

Times Staff Writer

On the day in December when President Daniel Arap Moi’s ruling party was swept out of power, Kenya’s most famous dissident stood up in his tract house on a treeless hill in Irvine and declared that his 20-year exile was over.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, considered one of the giants of African literature, jubilantly announced that he would soon visit his homeland. No longer would he worry about being shadowed in foreign capitals by Moi’s intelligence officers.

He spoke about returning to his rural village, famous for its lush tea and coffee plantations. How he longed to walk in Nairobi’s marketplaces, to hear the hubbub of the matatu -- minivan taxi -- stands and to listen to the voices of Kenyans speaking their different languages.

“I want to look into the faces of the people,” the 64-year-old Ngugi said. “I want to see for myself if the fear, reflected in despair, that was so present when I left, is no longer there.” His singular celebration was another cruelty of exile. Ngugi, who, more than any other writer, chronicled Kenyan society -- from colonialism to independence to disillusionment with its corrupt leaders -- was left out of the country’s most euphoric celebration since its 1963 independence from Britain.


Moi, the Big Man who lorded over Kenya for a quarter century, was gone, having exhausted his term limits. His ruling party had been voted out, so Moi would have no backroom influence. People were celebrating in the streets. Ngugi (pronounced GOO-gy) followed the fete via the Internet several thousand miles away, in Irvine’s community of Turtle Rock.

In a recent interview at his home, Ngugi, who heads UC Irvine’s International Center for Writing and Translation, warned about the dangers of “Moism without Moi,” about the need to rebuild Kenya’s institutions and why Kenya’s new leaders should seize on this mood of optimism.

The election of new President Mwai Kibaki reflects a sea change in several African countries. In his numerous novels and nonfiction books, Ngugi has documented how many countries on the continent had moved from colonialism to neo-colonialism, a stage in which independence leaders installed ruling black elites that were as villainous as their former white oppressors.

Now, Kenya and other African countries are experiencing something new, a phenomenon in which people are more likely to hold their government accountable, Ngugi said. “This is the end of the era of post-colonial dictatorship in Africa,” he said. “We are now in the new democratic transition. We don’t know yet what we are transitioning toward. We don’t yet understand what this era means.”



A hiring coup

Ngugi is still getting used to his Orange County home after leaving an endowed chair at New York University for UC Irvine last summer. Many academics considered his hiring a coup for the California school.

UC Irvine officials say he is ideally suited for his new job as director of the year-old Center for Writing and Translation. Among other projects, the center will help to restore literary works to their original languages. It also plans to support writers who seek to publish in their own and other widely spoken languages.

If you could translate someone like Nigerian-born Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka into the African languages of Zulu, Gikuyu and Yoruba, “imagine what it would mean for local publishing,” Ngugi said.

On a recent day, he strode into a small classroom to discuss Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” with a dozen or so graduate students, most of whom were not yet born when Ngugi published his first novel in 1964, “Weep Not, Child,” which looked at the effects of Kenya’s war for independence on ordinary people.

Ngugi took his seat at the head of a long table. Wearing khaki slacks and a greenish kitenge -- Kenya’s version of the dashiki -- Ngugi looked the part of a ‘60s campus radical. Before the discussion began, he passed around a copy of a new journal by some Indian and Malaysian intellectuals. It was called Kamirithu after Ngugi’s village near Nairobi, where he and his colleagues wrote and performed plays in their native Gikuyu language. In 1982, Moi’s government, fearing that Ngugi’s plays were becoming too subversive, sent truckloads of policemen to demolish the Kamirithu Open Air Theatre.

That this poor rural village had become the intellectual inspiration for an academic publication a quarter of a century later was not lost on Ngugi. “It just goes to show that an idea doesn’t die,” he told the class. “You can bring police and bulldozers, but an idea....”


Five years before the police descended on the theater, then-Vice President Moi had signed detention papers that kept Ngugi in a maximum-security prison for a year without trial. He was released after Amnesty International and people around the world adopted him as their prisoner of conscience.

Ngugi used the solitude of confinement to write (on toilet paper) his now-famous novel, “Devil on the Cross,” a farcical story about a competition among seven thieves to determine who could best pilfer from the people. The book proved to be a searing condemnation of African leaders who used state machinery to loot national resources.

In 1982, Ngugi was in London to launch “Devil on the Cross” and “Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary” when he learned about Moi’s plan to “arrest, imprison and even eliminate” him upon his return to Kenya. The early 1980s marked a time when Moi’s secret police tortured and killed dozens of people in the basement of Nyayo House, a dingy government building in the center of Nairobi.

Ngugi stayed in London, where he tried to draw international attention to human rights violations in Kenya. “It was a difficult time,” he recounted. “Because of the Cold War and Kenya’s warm, good relations with America and Britain, no one would believe us that they were killing and torturing people in Kenya.”

Even in exile, Moi’s government tried to persecute Ngugi and his work, Ngugi said. The attempts underscored the caliber of the men who became his dogged detractors. Ngugi likes to tell the story about his novel “Matigari,” whose central character is a man who wanders around his native country searching for truth and justice. Apparently threatened by this trouble-making character, Moi’s police searched the country for the wanderer and even issued a warrant for his arrest. After they realized they could not imprison a fictitious person, they seized all copies of “Matigari” from bookstores.

For Ngugi, separation from Kenya constituted the bitterest torture. Since 1977, he has written only in Gikuyu, a language spoken by the Kikuyu ethnic group, which represents about 20% of Kenya’s 33 million people. Gikuyu became a written language only after British missionaries transcribed it and published the Bible in the 19th century. Critics who recognize Ngugi as one of the greatest African writers alive accuse him of excluding large numbers of readers by forgoing English-language books.

Ngugi, however, has steadfastly defended his choice. Someone needed to revitalize African languages and to give dignity to them, he said. Ordinary Africans, he argued, would be able to enjoy novels once they are embraced as readers.

“Devil on a Cross,” Ngugi’s first novel in Gikuyu, sold 15,000 copies in its first printing. Its publication in 1980 sparked a “mutual learning process” in which young literates who had lost touch with their mother tongue read the book to older illiterate people, who in turn explained the nuances of the language and culture, Ngugi said.


Many critics agree that Ngugi has remained true to his principles, advocating on behalf of ordinary workers and imploring Africans to rise up and seize their own destiny. Others say that despite his international acclaim, Ngugi still needs to transcend his Kenyan stage and speak to a broader audience. That criticism will be answered in his upcoming novel, “The Wizard of the Crow,” a 1,200-page tome to be published later this year in Gikuyu and Swahili by East African Publishing House, then in English by Pantheon.


Africa, in sum

The novel, which Ngugi described as “a global epic of the modern world,” seeks to sum up Africa in the 20th century, particularly since slavery. It is set on the African continent but switches settings to New York, India and Trinidad, among others. It tackles the themes of democracy and globalization.

“When I was done, I called my wife, Njeri, and told her that it was over. She said: ‘Congratulations, now can we go to the movies?’ Parts of the story deal with what is happening in Kenya today with the change in government,” he said. “People will accuse me of writing it after the election, but it came well before.”

Ngugi has Kenya on his mind. On a recent day he drove his new silver Toyota Sequoia to Turtle Rock Elementary School, where he picked up his children, 8-year-old Mumbi and her 7-year-old brother, Thiongo. (He has four grown children from a previous relationship.)

Njeri, director of staff programs at UC Irvine, said, “We’re all smelling home. We can’t wait to return as a family.” Njeri and the two children made several trips to Kenya in the last few years.

On each return to the U.S., Ngugi would ask her to describe the landscape, the people and the changes she witnessed. “Twenty years is a long time to stay away from a country and people you love,” he said.

Does he expect the new government to do better?

Moi is gone, Ngugi said, but Kenya needs to be wary of Moism, a condition in which the state is seen as a vehicle for looting the nation, in which ethnic hatred is promoted and national initiatives are crushed. But his friends there say there is reason to hope. Kibaki is opening the torture cells. There are plans to establish the grounds of Nyayo House as a Museum of Shame.

Ngugi is often reminded that in 1977 Kibaki defended literary and intellectual freedom when, as minister of finance, he helped to promote Ngugi’s “Petals of Blood,” a novel of corruption in Kenya. Cautiously optimistic, Ngugi said the Kibaki government “is saying the right things,” but he worries that Kenyans have too high expectations that the new government will quickly right a quarter-century of malaise.

For now, he is eager to set foot as early as this month on the red Kenyan soil for the first time in 20 years. “Their eyes, I want to look into the people’s eyes,” he said. “I think I will see hope.”