Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ngugi's Third Installment

Birth of a Dream Weaver - A   Writer’s Awakening,  by Ngugi wa Thiong’o,  The New Press, NY, 2016.

In this third installment of his memoirs Ngugi reminisces about Makerere University in Kampala where he matriculated in 1959.  His five years there encompassed the transition throughout East Africa from colony to independence.  Ngugi writes eloquently about the politics of the era, especially the contrasts between settler-free Uganda and settler-run Kenya. The constraints of race and oppression were nowhere near as obtrusive in the former, so the Kenyan students at Makerere felt truly liberated for the first time in their lives. 

The University too was much different from Ngugi’s Alliance secondary school, which demanded conformity and discipline. At Makerere he could seek “truth” as he took a university oath to do.  Ngugi became such a seeker and a questioner of the status quo and the colonial mind set.  Certainly the university opened students’ eyes to a much wider world.  Ngugi found fellow travelers there and he mentions most of them by name.  Indeed Makerere was the intellectual center of the region where many future leaders received their education and made lifelong contacts with one another. The memoir describes Makerere, what life was like - competition between houses, music and dancing, formal dress, distinctions between gown and town, the harmony and intermixing between tribes and races, and the influences - both positive and negative - of various faculty members. 

At Makerere Ngugi began to find his literary voice. Drawing on his life’s experiences, he wrote plays and short pieces for university presentation and publications, culminating in a three act drama, The Black Hermit, that was staged at Kampala’s prestigious National Theater.  In the memoir Ngugi relates how characters and plots came to him, first as fleeting ideas that then jelled into concrete reality as he wrote and rewrote away. During this period Ngugi composed his first two novels, but neither was published prior to his graduation.  

 During summers Ngugi held several part-time jobs because he sorely needed income to support his family. His summer stint at the Nation newspaper in Nairobi morphed into a full time position, but just as his second novel Weep Not Child was published, he resigned in order to further his education in England.

Readers interested in East Africa during this period will find this memoir instructive as to what young intellectuals were up to, what they thought and how they were beginning to take over the reins of power.  Writers will enjoy Ngugi’s various comments about the literary craft.  Given that this book is the third in a series, undoubtedly, there will be more.

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