Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Writing, Resistance, and Community

Bronwyn Mills

Ngũgĩ in the American Imperium, Ed. Tim Reiss

A number of years ago, when I was still a doctoral student and Ngũgĩ was still teaching at NYU, I published an article about Ngũgĩ in the now defunct online journal, Frigatezine.  It was part of a series on ‘Africa in Exile’ focussing on African writers in exile and written before Ngũgĩ and his wife made a their ill-fated return visit to Kenya, after longest-serving president Daniel Arap Moi’s presidency ended: there they experienced a vicious attack on both of them, clearly politically motivated but at whose initiative remains unknown. 

More exile….

In that same essay I refer to a number of his 20th century novels; and for those readers who are less familiar with his writing, my focus on those initially written in Gikuyu, his mother tongue, does not mean a dismissal of his English language earlier work—Weep Not Child, The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood—all of which established his reputation as an international writer, backgrounded by the turmoil of the Kenyan struggle for independence from British colonialism.  Colonialism is not just a material phenomenon: and I have also looked at Ngũgĩ’s thought regarding the colonisation of the mind and the enforced prohibition of using one’s mother tongue.  When that prohibition is defied, as Ngũgĩ has done in choosing to write his creative work in Gikuyu, his mother tongue, what follows is/was his own questioning as to how, coming from such a rich tradition of orature, one would create a written novel in Gikuyu.  I am reminded of the fabulist, fable-like quality which such work employed and employs still; and, to put this into context, I quote from that early interview at length:

In my mind’s eye, I carry an indelible picture of Ngũgĩ a few years ago, sitting in his New York University office, where two academic departments, Performance Studies and Comparative Literature, claim him.

I have just asked about the present situation in Africa— Ngũgĩ puts his head in his hands. “— aagh! Things are so bad I think the only way to write about it is utter fantasy, fable—it is so awful!”

Earlier this month, I email him about that statement. He replies,

What I meant was the critical realism of 19th century fiction and then, say, socialist realism, which means a readily recognizable similitude between the reflection and the object of reflection becomes inadequate where truth is starker than fiction. How does one write about massacres, for instance, in a way that would shock the reader when in reality thousands and thousands of people have been slaughtered in our lifetime? An almost annual 20th century occurrence? A novelist has to find ways of addressing the issues, but how? The fantastical, the fable, is just one possibility. — 9/21/00

Ngũgĩ’s exile, in short, was never one of a privileged Western artist going to Paris to be ‘free’ (never mind from what), to genuflect before the gods of European ancestors. It is quite different to be among those disenfranchised by these gods, for centuries at risk of life and limb. (Mills, “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Exile and Resistance“)

Consider the way stories are told, as opposed to the way they are written. Who is the audience? So often a book—and, mind, I am especially an advocate of real, printed books—a book presumes an audience of one.  Granted, the thoughtful author also considers his or her ‘audience’ as that unspecified yet cumulative number of readers who would be interested in the contents; but this ‘audience’ is not, ipso facto, all in one spot where, la voila!, the reading also takes place at once.  I can take up a book and go off in a corner somewhere and read it, all by my lonesome.  Later, I can lavish praise on it for my reading friends. Commonly the orally delivered story presumes an audience of several to many persons, gathered together to hear it unfold. These events are even performed, for a whole community and as part of a collective tradition.  

Now, some time ago —two previous incarnations ago when we were The Wall—we oh-too-briefly mentioned both Devil on the Cross and Ngũgĩ’s more recent Wizard of the Crow in Issue Eight’s “Remarkable Reads/Summer Reads” section; more fully, in issue 14 of Witty Partition, we reviewed Perfect Nine, which uses the origin myth of the Gikuyu and other groups now comprising the nation of Kenya, with a departure of emphasis:  in this case upon women.  For as our and others’ more extensive reviews have stressed, Perfect Nine also vanquishes the clouds that have obscured female agency and power, advancing women as heroes, even warriors, and just as essential to the formation of a community, a whole people, as men. Suffice it to say, though Perfect Nine may be read on the surface as a traditional use of the myth of origins, it also masterfully combines both oral, performative and readerly forms.

To write in keeping with orature, the term Ngũgĩ and his associates coined to signify the great body of oral stories, fables, etc. which comprise that tradition and which are every bit as extensive as some other cultures’ written literary work—to write thus not only affects the choice of story but also the language.  How does a writer signify the multi-sensoriness of oral delivery? (“Listen my children and you shall hear….”) Further, and importantly, what form best allows the story to unfold? As retelling of a traditional folktale, or myth? A riddle? Quite literally, a fable, refashioned? Ngũgĩ’s first book written in prison and in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross, for example, was based on the form of a traditional competition between storytellers. In this case, which competitor was the best malevolent con artist. Clearly that form, which mocked the postcolonial regime of dictator Jomo Kenyatta under whom Daniel Arap Moi served before he, himself, became president—the use of fabulism was and is a perfect vehicle for political commentary, at times outright satire, and for advancing the story itself. But—how fabulist!—written when in exile, Ngũgĩ’s next, Matigari, or Matigari ma Njirungi in Gĩkũyũ, was published in Kenya in 1986; and the then dictator Arap Moi when he heard talk on the street of a survivor of the wars of liberation who went about asking probing questions about “truth and justice,” issued a warrant for the man’s arrest—as it turned out, the book’s fictional protagonist, Matagari.

Here, however, I would like to turn to Wizard of the Crow for a bit, a work exemplifying the amplifications of Ngũgĩ’s suggested use of oral tropes and the fantastical as stated above. Wizard uses the format of the tale, as told orally of course, to accomplish its end:

In the spirit of the dead, the living, and the unborn,

Empty your ears of all impurities, o listener,

That you may hear my story

Interestingly, and if one may put it that way, the above also throws down the gauntlet re: the reader. Pay Attention!

Wizard‘s chapters are listed as Books One to Six, rather than chapters, and as titles, Daemons of Power, Male, Female, Bearded, and so on. Within that format the elasticity of the form brilliantly allows for satire, dare I say even rage, as well as a good story.  Mind, the book does not attempt to be consistent in terms of recreating a certain period of time; for, while the form may be one which, in many cultures, goes back centuries, it is not being used to reify a particular period or a particular history. The elasticity of the fable, of the fabulous, is one of its beauties: it can serve to satirize the here and now as well as the enduring foibles of our species.  I believe it serves much better than a fanatical—dare I say even fundamentalist—adherence to so-called social realism.

Now, as readers, we are accustomed to imagining a world in our heads:  it is soundless, intangible (save for its means of delivery, the book we hold in our hands,) invisible to the outside but, as we enter the imagination, nonetheless “real.” Very specifically, as the epigram for Wizard beckons to us, with sources from orature, we are invited to listen, to hear in that selfsame world of imagination. That implies simultaneity, imagining you are apprehending this with others, with your community. I.e., the fabulist form does not strive to limit the reading to a fictive one-on-one relationship of author and reader, nor is the subject(s) itself a verbal selfie, narcissistically crying “Look at me! Look at me!” from an author thinly disguised as the central and (they wish!) riveting character. Rather, the emphasis is on peoples. Plural. Multiple ‘listeners.’ Though often dealing with abuses of power, the various kinds of malaise that infects a people, the tale(s) and those listeners, are brought together to sense commonality—in culture, in matters of concern, of just plain humanity. Rugged individualism, among the maladies affecting a community, is there nothing to be proud of.

Mind, Wizard of the Crow is still a printed book of narratives, both drawing from the fabulist nature of orature and sometimes following in the readerly footsteps of someone engaged in an unfolding series of actions, engagements, and relationships. It is not as if there are no characters, albeit those are sometimes painted with a broad brush. These could be like a hero or a mythic figure of significance or of little or no importance. Sometimes the tales resemble the picaresque, with a protagonist who is lowborn, but, unlike in the more ‘conventional’ picaresque narratives, not a rogue. Further, the line between orature-derived and the more conventional narrative blurs; after all, we who must read rather than sit at the feet of a storyteller sometimes need a path to follow.

The story begins with the absurd:  a narcissistic (aren’t they all?) dictator for life who is painted, as said, with a broad brush and who wishes to build Marching to Heaven, a more perfect tower of Babel serving as a conveyance for the Ruler to come and go to heaven as he wished.  When I wrote this, the arraignment of ex-President Donald Trump in New York City had just made the news:  a reminder of his displays, that monstrous ego, the bigotry and venom he spews (and spewed back at his garish residence in Florida,) the sycophants and ignorant who, as we speak, are sucking up to him. In comparison, the fictive characterization of Wizard‘s Ruler hardly seemed, or seems, an exaggeration. 

Opposed to the Ruler is the clandestine Movement for the Voice of the People.  In a celebration of the Ruler living in his palace, ‘Paradise,’ and after a sudden proliferation of plastic snakes released by them, members of the Movement and some beggars are chased away by police and security guards. In one instance two among them repel their pursuers through the inventiveness of Kamĩtĩ, an out of work, educated fellow from the lower class masquerading a one of the beggars.  Upon arriving at the home of Nyawĩra, who has briefly offered him shelter, Kamĩtĩ takes some cardboard, rags, and a string, ties them together and writes on the cardboard,


Here begins the intrusion of the Wizard into the plans of the Ruler.  The policeman who has chased the two, Nyawĩra and Kamĩtĩ, returns as a visitor to the Wizard, and upon consultation, believes that the latter has favorably changed his life.  Soon others follow. The [pseudo-]wizard makes use of a mirror to provoke the imagination of self and changes to the self in these visitors; and they go away inspired to become even more of whatever they are—a more rigorous cop, a more energetic pursuer of the Ruler’s designated enemies, and so on.  Oddly reminiscent of Ngũgĩ’s comments in that long-ago article—”the reflection and the object of reflection becomes inadequate where truth is starker than fiction“—the mirrors do not genuinely improve those who are reflected in them.

Then, suddenly, as it seems to Nyawĩra, Kamĩtĩ abandons his Wizard-practice, retreating to a wilderness to commune, almost Buddhistically, with nature, or at the least, to retrieve a sense of direction. At some point she follows, though still connected to the movement against the Ruler’s dictatorship but disappearing under the radar of the his supporters. Thus the story shifts to the actions of some of the other characters, though be assured that the characters and the narratives are by no means abandoned. I will say no more, in terms of the novel unfolding, but urge you, dear reader, to explore the book in its totality.

Mind, however, when we speak of the political, of dictatorship, of abuses of power, of mass protest, we are not speaking of one on one, individual relationships, but of our (one has to use the collective adjective) relationship to others, to community.  In the case of Africa,[1] colonialism and the imposition of the colonizer’s language and culture brutally damaged, even destroyed many of its cultures and peoples, not only in the use of colonialism to aggrandise Western nations through the practice and profits of slavery, but also with the internalized destruction of a people’s mother tongue and mother culture, their minds, as Ngũgĩ would phrase it, colonised…  As Wizard rues the all-too-frequent destructive damage postcolonially—the springing up of dictators, the trials of those who resist, a subsequent undemocratic state rising up out of the ashes of emancipation from those foreign powers—even so, let the reader, in this case, not think that such aberrations are limited only to the colonizers’ former colonies.[2]

As I have also mentioned elsewhere, let us not forget Trinidadian Eric Williams’ assertion that the transatlantic slavery trade financed the industrial revolution, and, I should add, the efflorescence of, as Ian Watt’s description of the Western novel in the Rise of the Novel (1957!) puts it,  “…the power of new social systems pegged on commodities….” where individualism and the individuals are “agents of social transformation” (29-30), not the community

Now, even in cities, so many of our cultural commodities that supposedly serve us merely serve the individual. So many of our formerly collective experiences have become individual ones.  Who of us routinely goes to a movie theatre to share the experience of a drama, a film, simultaneously with others?  When we can sit home alone and watch on TV or, more and more, watch on our computers?  Rather than go to, say, Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center, or a jazz club, how many listen to a recording of a concert, or musical performance, alone? Should we attempt community and join others—advocacy groups, say, to demonstrate for or against this or that, we do it in part I think, not only for the ’cause’ but out of a yearning for community.  Dictators, oligarchs, populist ‘leaders’ and demagogues instinctively get this and appeal both to that yearning and to the deep insecurities of those variously deprived, with simplistic answers that, in truth solve nothing. Just as the Wizard’s mirrors only intensified the original, rather than change, “the reflection and the object of reflection becomes inadequate where truth is starker than fiction….”

In the face of poverty and hunger, the climate crisis, it may seem slight to return to literature, to culture, but culture is one of those things that can bind us, communally.  In the case of Wizard of the Crow and Ngũgĩ’s larger body of work, I maintain that the fabulist tropes he uses, automatically imply and speak to an us rather than a mere I. Yes, the political considerations are there in plain sight, but interestingly not in a polemical fashion; and indeed, in the words of Sierra Leonean critic, Handel Kashope Wright, just as “Ngũgĩ… has always epitomized the inextricable link between the creative and the political,” in his choice of means and method, he accomplishes it without haranguing his readers. 

Now that is a great writer.

[1] But not, alas, limited to the Mother Continent.

[2] In our own time, even in colonising nations, the imbalances of powers have created havoc at home and abroad.

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For information about Ngũgĩ and links to purchase his latest books, see Ngũgĩ’s website,, as well as,

  • Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir, 2018
  • Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening, 2016
  • Secure the Base, 2016
  • In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire, 2013
  • In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, 2012
  • Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing, 2012
  • Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, 2010
  • Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, 2009
  • Wizard of the Crow, 2006
  • Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), 2004
  • Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams: The Performance of Literature and Power in Post-Colonial Africa, 1998
  • Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom, 1993
  • Njamba Nene’s Pistol (Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene),  1990 (children’s book)
  • Matigari (English translation), 1989
  • Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (Njamba Nene na Chibu King’ang’i), 1988 (children’s book)
  • Matigari ma Njiruungi, 1986
  • Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (Njamba Nene na Mbaathi i Mathagu), 1986 (children’s book)
  • Writing against Neo-Colonialism, 1986
  • Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986
  • Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, 1983
  • Devil on the Cross (English translation), 1982
  • Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, 1981
  • Education for a National Culture, 1981
  • Writers in Politics: Essays, 1981
  • Caitaani mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross), 1980
  • Petals of Blood, 1977
  • I Will Marry When I Want (Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria ngerekano), 1977 (play; with Ngugi wa Mirii)
  • The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, 1976, (play; with Micere Githae Mugo and Njaka)
  • Secret Lives, and Other Stories, 1976
  • A Meeting in the Dark, 1974
  • Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, 1972
  • This Time Tomorrow (three plays), c. 1970
  • The Black Hermit, 1968
  • A Grain of Wheat, 1967
  • The River Between, 1965
  • Weep Not, Child, 1964

Many of his titles can also be found at USA and in the UK. Readers who may wish to see/hear something of those who contributed to Ngũgĩ  in the American Imperium, ed. Tim Reiss, here is a YouTube recording of UC Irvine’s webinar celebrating its publication.

(Below we include a note, as referenced in Darker Nature, on inequality of impoverishment, which some argue is at least and in part an effect of colonialism)

A Note on the Anglosphere