This is my review of Dreams in a Time of War – A Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Pantheon Books, NY, 2010
This memoir by Kenya’s most famous author is exactly what it purports to be: a recounting of childhood in Limuru, just outside of Nairobi. Indeed the times – World War II followed by the Mau Mau emergency – were a time of war in Ngugi’s Kikuyu home. The uncertainty of far off, and not so far off, events impacted upon rural society. Matching that were the changes wrought by modernization – the railroad, education, colonialism, religious controversy, wage employment and burgeoning political awareness.
These were the times Ngugi recalls, and who better to do it than him. Kenya’s changes and history as seen through the eyes of a child and adolescent are redolent with innocence and, like all childhoods, a reminiscence for things past. Ngugi tells about this family, his mother Wanjiku, the third wife of his father Thiong’o wa Nducu, his other mothers, the three other wives, his immediate brothers and sisters, plus scads of step siblings, then grandparents, cousins and other relations. All in this constellation had influence on him. He portrays a rich family life, albeit with an erratic patriarchal father.
Folks around Limuru were mostly farmers, although wage laborers worked at the Bata shoe factory and many picked tea on neighboring European plantations. Ngugi’s half brother went off to war. Italian POWs built the escarpment road. The government seized more African land to settle British soldiers. Later, another brother fled to the forest to join Mau Mau. Atrocities, especially colonial over-reactions, mass executions and interrogations terrorized the inhabitants. The inner Kikuyu rift, which divided pro-missionary, pro-government individuals from Kikuyu nationalists, became a life and death equation during the emergency and wreaked havoc on stable society. Throughout, young Ngugi was finding his way, particularly by dedicating himself to school. Determined to be the very best, he modestly tells of his successes. Readers see him grow from a child with a child’s perspective to become more aware of the greater world around him.
I did not know what to expect from this book, but what I found was an excellent history of the times as seen from a very narrow perspective. There is a small bit of a plot line as troubles come and go, but that is an extra bonus to the chronicle. I learned much about traditional Kikuyu life and how rural people lived. Of course, being Ngugi’s work, it is well written and contains thoughtful reflections, pithy observations and good quotations. Speaking of the dichotomy between fact and fiction, despair and hope, Ngugi notes, “Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive even in times of war.”
Obviously everyone’s childhood shapes them. Ngugi’s did him. He grew up to be independent, thoughtful and observant, incidentally with material for several good books.
Readers with some knowledge of Kenya will readily relate to events and the society described, but others too will find this an intriguing entry into another time and place. Reading is recommended.