In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir
256 pp., $25.95
A Measure of Forgiveness
If things had gone slightly differently for Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, he might have become a living, breathing vindication of the British Empire's good intentions. Despite having grown up in straitened circumstances on his mother's small agricultural homestead, he was selected on the basis of his test scores to attend a prestigious Rugby-style boarding school for Africans twelve miles outside Nairobi—this at a time when there were not many peasant sons of single mothers at Rugby back in Britain. His earliest attempts at fiction were promoted by the colonial government's Literature Bureau, which sponsored various publications and contests for native authors, and he first came to the attention of European audiences when he won the bureau's fiction prize. Later he wrote radio plays for the BBC. At every step of his early career, from the mid-1950s to the early '60s, Ngũgĩ was encouraged and underwritten by well-meaning Englishmen who sincerely believed that Africans not only could be but should be educated in the same way as Europeans. Theirs was the old civilizing mission, and for a time it seemed that Ngũgĩ was poised to become a shining example of their success.
Then, at some point in his young adulthood, Ngũgĩ stopped barreling down the trajectory laid out for him and veered off in a different direction. He embraced Fanon, Marx, and Mao. He visited the Soviet Union. He abandoned the name he had been given at baptism, James Ngũgĩ, and started going by his traditional Kikuyu patronymic. After independence, he agitated against the continued inclusion of English authors in the Kenyan school curriculum—an ironic turn for a man who had been professor of English literature at the University of Nairobi. Later in life he adopted as his personal crusade the cause of traditional African languages, deriding as sell-outs those African authors like Chinua Achebe who wrote in the language of the oppressor. He became, in effect, a crusader against the English language in Africa. A more decisive repudiation of his early education could hardly be imagined.
That early education is the subject of the second volume of his memoirs, In the House of the Interpreter, which opens on his first year at boarding school and closes shortly after his graduation. Like its predecessor, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, the book is largely apolitical, and he avoids the trap of projecting his adult opinions onto his teenage self, an especially admirable accomplishment for a writer with such strong ideological commitments.
Instead Ngũgĩ focuses on ordinary schoolboy stuff like the personalities of the masters and head boys, the sermons at chapel, and how he made his name in the school debate club. In many ways In the House of the Interpreter has more in common with British prep-school reminiscences like Roald Dahl's and George Orwell's than with African memoirs like Wole Soyinka's and Camara Laye's. The only thing differentiating this book from its Etonian counterparts is the absence of tortures and privations—no savage beatings, no aggressively unpleasant living quarters, no conscription into semi-slavery at the hands of upperclassmen. The biggest complaint Ngũgĩ has is the growing suspicion that his native culture is being humiliated, that alienation from his family and his past is not just the effect of his education but its purpose. The examples he offers of this are fairly minor, but perhaps the whole point of the book is to demonstrate that these small humiliations can be harder to bear than being caned for flubbing your Latin declensions.
In an early chapter, Ngũgĩ tells of how his English teacher, on the first day of class, took the boys up to his bungalow and walked them through the basic elements of an Englishman's home: the fixtures in the bathroom; the devices in the kitchen; the furniture in the parlor—specifically, which ones were for sitting on and which not. The lesson ended with a grand tour of dinner table etiquette, precepts which were not immediately embraced by his pupils. "How would we eat githeri, irio, and ugali with forks and knives?" Ngũgĩ writes. "The pleasures of eating ugali lay in touch and taste: dipping fingers into the smoking dish and letting it cool in your mouth." Another student explains that their teacher "was talking about English food and English manners," to which their teacher responds that, quite the opposite, "table manners had no race or color. Good manners, like cleanliness, were pathways to God."
One can think of many good reasons why this teacher might have chosen to start the year with a lesson so condescending (though not as condescending as you might think; most of his pupils really hadn't seen a toilet before). This was the most selective black secondary school in Kenya, and a feeder school for the most prestigious university in East Africa. He probably didn't want these boys, when they became government ministers or international businessmen, to discomfit tablemates from England—or for that matter France, Japan, and Russia—by slurping their soup and lunging for the salt. To this argument a mature Ngũgĩ might respond that, as visitors, these foreigners should adapt themselves to African table manners. The young Ngũgĩ could only bristle at the implication that his ways were barbaric and his teacher's somehow more civilized.