Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Kenyan Memoir

In the House of the Interpreter – a memoir by Ngugi wa Thiongo, Pantheon Book, NY, 2012

This is the second installment of a memoir by the noted Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo.  In the first book Dreams in a Time of War (reviewed on this site in May 2010) Ngugi recounted his childhood in Limuru as first WWII then the Mau Mau insurgency swept down upon his family.  In the House of the Interpreter picks up where that memoir left off. Now we find Ngugi on his way to the renown Alliance High School.  At the time the only, and perhaps still today, the most prestigious secondary school for Africans.   He explains the origins of Alliance in the 1920s as a vocational school organized by a consortium of missionary organizations designed to educate and create an elite group of African males.

By the 1950s when Ngugi enrolled, Alliance was indeed doing that. A knowledgeable reader will recognize names,  which Ngugi drops often, as those of men who went on to prominence in Kenyan society.  But to his credit Ngugi does not remark upon what these boys became, rather he elucidates what they were then – how they impressed or not – their colleagues and teachers.

For village boys like Ngugi, Alliance was another world. He was unfamiliar with European accoutrements such as eating utensils, flush toilets, hot showers, and a bed of his own.  Nonetheless, he and his fellows quickly adjusted.  Under the strict tutelage of headmaster Cary Francis, the school ran like clock work. Academics were foremost and the day was devoted to learning.  Not unsurprisingly,  Ngugi excelled. He was always near the top of his class.  The odd title of the book comes from the fact that for Kenyan youngsters (a handful of girls were enrolled), Alliance High School was the place where western knowledge – science, literature, manners and mores were interpreted for them.

Yet Alliance was more than a school, especially for the Kikuyu kids, it was a refuge from the Mau Mau nastiness going on around them in the late 1950s.  An Alliance uniform drew great respect from most Africans and indeed recognition from Europeans. It provided a sort of cloak of immunity from the harassment that was a regular part of life.  For example, on his first visit home, Ngugi found that his family home, indeed his whole village had been razed by colonial authorities.  Soon passes and passbooks were needed for all movement. Ngugi feared he would be denied these because his brother was a Mau Mau fighter.  Culminating this reign of terror,  in spite of his Alliance association Ngugi was on one occasion arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned.

Such incidents give heft to the memoir as Ngugi recalls his formative and coming of age years.  Alliance truly opened the door to a bigger world for him and for all of his cohorts.  His description of it all is a worthy read.