Book Review: Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

A childhood Memoir.

I would like to remind you that whether you’re a fast or slow reader, it doesn’t matter. Whether you take one day or one month to read a book, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day what matters is that you read the book and you immerse yourself in it. That you allow it to momentarily transport you to a time, to a place or to a people who now inhabit your mind and you just experience it in its entirety till ‘the end.’

About Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I first heard of him when we were in High School and we were doing our English Literature set books. His book ‘The River Between’ had been a set book some years back and we were encouraged to read it to flex our literature muscles. And to read it we did. Only that I don’t remember the half of it. Did I ever mention to you how much I didn’t like languages in school (hides in embarrassment)? I really didn’t, so I had to put in so much effort into reading those books and interpreting the themes, the personas and all, because failing was never an option. I guess I just wanted to read and enjoy the book for what it is and I’m glad that I do that now.

I later learnt of how he was jailed after a performance of one of his plays upset government leaders, because they didn’t like the content. It was a critique of post-colonial life. Then very recently, of him being a language warrior for marginalized languages. Where he champions the necessity for authors to write in their mother tongue. That Africa speaks African languages and they have a right to cultural products written in their language.

Source. Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o is also a Professor at University of California, Irvine.

For his book, Dreams in A Time of War, it was my book club’s July read. I’m really glad that they selected it, because I don’t know if I had have selected it of my own accord. Given my history with set book like books or authors, in as much as I have been saying I want to re-read them for fun, saying has been one thing and doing it another. But here we are now, and it has been so exciting reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s childhood memoir. He takes us back to the 1940’s and 1950’s and all the drama in between.

He was born in Limuru in 1938 under the shadow of the Second World War, to Thiong’o was Nducu, his father and Wanjiku wa Ngugi, his mother. He was among the twenty-four children borne of his father and his four wives and was the fifth in his mother’s house. Talk of a big family and the full patriarchal setting. He paints a picture of how it was for them and the roles of each of the wives in the family. Like how Njeri, the gutsy and outspoken youngest wife, was the undeclared defense minister of the homestead. Ngugi’s mother Wanjiku, a good thinker and listener, was respected for her legendary capacity for work. Gacoki, shy and conflict-free, was the minister for peace. Wangari, the eldest, was minister of culture, a philosopher who drew from experience and cited proverbs to make a point. She was a great storyteller who would host story sessions every evening when the children gathered around the fireplace in her hut.

I looked forward to these evenings; it seemed to me a glorious wonder that such beautiful and sometimes scary stories could issue from their mouths. Best for me were those stories in which the audience would join in the singing of the chorus. The melody was invariably captivating; it felt like I had been transported to another world of endless harmony even in sadness.

Daylight, our mothers always told us, drove stories away.

Ngugi grew up in Limuru which was an area that had been set aside as White Highlands in those colonial days. The railway that brought European settlers and Indian workers, while forcing the Africans off their land. The railway also provided a platform for social activity, as people converged on the Sunday train and that’s where we clearly see the classism and segregation that existed then.

I had never been to the platform to witness the romance of the train, but of course we had heard many alluring stories about it. The passenger train was divided into sections: first class for Europeans only, second class for Indians only, and third class for Africans. I longed to be there, to see it all for myself. And here, at long last, was a chance not simply to stand on a platform and stare at a passing train, but to become a passenger myself.

Later on, they become a tightly-knit one-parent family after being driven from the polygamous household by the father’s domestic violence towards his mother, Wanjiku. She then single-handedly works and raises enough money to give Ngugi the chance to attend school, provided he will always do his best, despite likely hunger and hardship. He narrates his experience of starting school and what it meant to him, because for him it was a far-fetched dream. That he was being taken to a school where the Landlords children went, rather than a far and much cheaper school which his brother had attended really puzzled him. But what he mostly cared about was the mere fact that he going to have a school uniform like the landlord’s children. As he narrates his experience he brings out the face of poverty and tradition in those days. For him school and home were two completely contrasting environments.

School remains an environment totally different from the one of my ordinary living. I feel an outsider in our world, to which everyone else seems to belong.

Like the one time he got really embarrassed during a sports festival, because he had gone with his younger brother who had donned his usual traditional grab – shorts and a knotted garment. Ngugi had become conscious of the world around him since he first wore new clothes to school and the moment he saw his friends approaching them, he quickly came up with a plan that would save him from the judgment of his new school mates.

The problem, I came to realize, was not in my brother or the other boys but in me. It was inside me. I had lost touch with who I was and where I came from. Belief in yourself is more important than endless worries of what others think of you. Value yourself and others will value you. Validation is best that comes from within. In later tribulations, this thought always helped me to endure and overcome challenges by relying on my own will and resolve when others were skeptical of me. More important, it made me realize that education and lifestyle could influence judgment in a negative way and separate people.

His love for literature was cultivated from such a young age, I think this was influenced by the storytelling in his homestead. He became a troubadour, but that was cut short after the banning of the Mau Mau in 1950. Since even the movement’s songs were banned, along with schools founded on African self-reliance. Some schools were even closed and converted to prisons. Meanwhile, he also shows his relationship with his (best) friend Kenneth, with whom they read classics such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and challenged each other on prospects of publishing a book.

In the new Manguo school, English was still emphasized as the key to modernity, but, whereas in the Karĩng’a Manguo, English and Gĩkũyũ coexisted, now Gĩkũyũ was frowned upon. The witch hunt for those speaking African languages in the school compound began, the consequence rising to bodily punishment in some cases.

People lived under a double fear: of government operations by day and Mau Mau guerrilla activities by night, the difference being that while the guerrillas were fighting for land and freedom, the colonial state was fighting to sustain foreign occupation and protect the prerogatives and wealth of European settlers.

He tells us of Ngandi, the most informed teller of tales. He had background information about historical figures and incidents and mentioned them as if he knew them personally or had been present when certain things had happened in Africa, Europe and America. Talk of history repeating itself because he reminds me so much of our Owaahh. It’s through his stories that I have come to learn some more about some of our freedom fighers, Waiyaki wa Hinga, Kenyatta, Mbiyu Wa Koinange, Dedan Kimathi and so on. Me who has been a tad oblivious about history.

A vast reservoir of general knowledge, Ngandi always carried a newspaper, mostly Mũmenyereri, the popular Gĩkũyũ-language weekly edited by Henry Muoria, well folded and placed inside the outer pocket of his jacket. He would read bits from it to his listeners to make a point, but mostly he just referred to it. He was a kind of itinerant scholar, unfolding his book of vast knowledge wherever he found two or three gathered together. His knowledge extended to songs and he added to my repertoire. His favorite was Come my friend, let’s reason together. For the sake of the future of our children. May darkness in our country end.

He shares the conflicts that happens within his family, when his siblings choose different and conflicting paths. One half-brother, Kabae, is drafted to fight in the Second World War and eventually ends up working for the colonial forces. His elder brother, Good Wallace, joins the Mau Mau resistance supply wing.

Even my father is absorbed in thoughts of his own as if surveying the lands that once belonged to him and the distance he has covered since his flight from Mũrang’a. Or his journey in time from his birth before Kenya was Kenya, before there was Nairobi or Limuru or any town beyond the coast; his journey through the First and Second World Wars and now Mau Mau with his sons fighting on both sides of the conflict.

The Gĩkũyũ have a saying that out of the same womb comes both a killer and a healer.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. It is a well narrated story with a right balance between his personal experiences and historical facts. I felt like I was able to connect with him and have a glimpse of how life was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. There are so many times, I was like, “ya’ll had that struggle too?” Like when he talked of his exam preparation. How he had to seat for his dreaded Kenyan African Preliminary exams, our equivalent of KCPE, because only about 5% of the students taking the tests ever found a place at high schools or teacher training colleges. He vividly describes how nerve-racking it was, especially now that they were in the midst of war.

How to prepare for the exams was a problem. Were the questions going to be based on one year’s work, on the previous two, three, or four years of work?

True, history does sometimes repeat itself. And even with our current election process, as advanced as we are, I feel like a lot of what was happening then is happening now in subtle ways. For now, let’s leave that to Owaahh to decipher it for us.

Happy Reading.

Stay Inspired,