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Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir
Ngugi wa'Thiong'o
Pantheon, 2010
272 pp., 24.95

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Susan VanZanten

A Childhood in Kenya

Preserving "dreams in a time of war."

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o begins his lovely memoir of growing up in colonial Kenya by citing T. S. Eliot's famous line that April is the cruelest month. Given his position as an elder statesman of African literature, known for his controversial demand that African writers write in indigenous languages rather than in English, this opening may come as a surprise. Yet the absorbing story of Ngũgĩ's first sixteen years demonstrates the complex ways in which colonial politics, African history, Gikũyũ storytelling, Western education, and Christianity gave birth to a gifted writer. Readers have long noticed the biblical characters, images, and language in Ngũgĩ's work, from his early realistic novels Weep Not, Child (1964) and Petals of Blood (1977), which depict the conflicts that arose in Gikũyũ culture with the influx of Christian missionaries, to his later Marxist allegories such as Devil on the Cross (1982) and Matigari(1986), which employ biblical echoes and a demythologized gospel narrative to denounce post-independence Kenya's corruption. Dreams in a Time of War, Ngũgĩ's first foray into autobiography, reveals the genesis of his complicated relationship with Christianity.

Born in a rural village in 1938, Ngũgĩ joined a large polygamous family of a patriarch, four wives, and 24 children. From participatory storytelling around the fire in the family compound, Ngũgĩ soaked up the magic of language and the power of narrative. Once a rich man, Ngũgĩ's father lost his cattle to disease and his land in a protracted legal dispute. He had purchased his land with a payment of goats in the traditional system of oral agreement in the presence of witnesses, but the first owner later sold the same land through the colonial legal system, which involved money and signed documents. The purchaser, Lord Stanley Kahahu, was an early Christian convert, and he was eventually awarded the property—a written deed took precedence over an oral deed under colonial law. Ngũgĩ wryly comments on the irony of his father losing his land to a fellow African and wonders if the religious Kahahu knew he was buying land already sold to another. Bitter and aimless, Ngũgĩ's father begins drinking heavily and beating Ngũgĩ's mother. When she leaves the compound, he banishes her children as well.

Ngũgĩ's siblings have little education, but his mother, recognizing his intelligence and imagination, manages to send him to school despite their poverty and makes a pact with him to pursue his dreams no matter how difficult. As the Mau Mau rebellion and resulting state of emergency spread indiscriminate violence throughout the country, Ngũgĩ's remains steadfast to that promise. One brother enlists in the British Home Guard and another, Good Wallace, flees to the mountains to join the Mau Mau guerrillas, while Ngũgĩ moves through four grades of school in less than a year, learns to read, and discovers the music of words. Finding a copy of the Old Testament, he is captivated by the book's ability to tell him stories even when he is alone, and King David, the warrior-poet, becomes his ideal.

Yet the power of communal performance continues to impress him when he moves from Kamandũra, a missionary school, to Manguo, an independent African school. When Kenya became a colonial state in 1895, Protestant and Roman Catholic missionaries were in charge of education, providing training for skilled African labor in woodworking and agriculture along with limited literacy. But their primary focus, according to Ngũgĩ, was to proselytize: "successful conversion was measured by how quickly, deeply, and thoroughly one divested oneself of one's culture and adopted new practices and values." In the 1930s, under the influence of Marcus Garvey and other African American advocates for self-reliance, the African independent schools movement emerged as an alternative system focused on broadly educating Africans, including English-language proficiency. The independent schools were also affiliated with churches (the African Independent Pentecostal Church and the African Orthodox Church), but they attempted to separate Christianity from Western culture and to affirm African culture and tradition.

Although he didn't find much difference in the teaching of English, Ngũgĩ found other contrasts: "When I think back on Kamandũra, what pops up are images of church, silent prayer, and individual achievement; in Manguo, images of performance, public spectacle, and a sense of community." The mission school's Sunday services had staid sermons, standard prayers, and mournful hymns from the Church of Scotland Mission hymnbook translated into Gikũyũ. But the Manguo services featured lively rhythmic hymns accompanied by drums and cymbals. The lyrics were often based on biblical narratives and imagery, such as Daniel in the lion's den or Samson and Delilah, but the hymns inspirationally linked these stories to contemporary events: "What the Lord did then he could do now: give strength to the lowly and scatter their enemies." Ngũgĩ was familiar with this language and imagery from his reading of the Old Testament, but in the voices of a crowd of worshippers who spontaneously moved from solos to unison, from calls-and-responses to antiphonies, he found a sublime power. The weekly sermons were similarly intense dramatic performances: calling for deliverance, building to a powerful crescendo, drawing the audience in through call and response.

When the adolescent Ngũgĩ listens to the political and historical tales delivered by the local market raconteur, he hears those working for Kenyan independence, Kenyatta and Mbiyũ, acclaimed as exemplars along the lines of Gandhi and Nehru, Moses and Aaron. The national trade union strikes, unrest in Nairobi, and the indiscriminate British reprisals suggested to Ngũgĩ "that something unusual, something of biblical proportions, was stirring in the land," and he recalls that he began to interpret contemporary events and anecdotes biblically. He joins the Church of Scotland and is baptized "James Ngũgĩ," a name he is later to reject, but he also undergoes a traditional Gikũyũ circumcision.

And so Gikũyũ tradition, modernism, pan-Africanism, and contrasting expressions of Christianity form the tangled web of Ngũgĩ's life. As for Christianity, he seems most drawn to its lyrical poetry and heroic figures, its power in performance and song, and its affirmation and encouragement of the longing for freedom. He says little about God and faith, sin and salvation, creation and redemption. Instead, Christianity has provided him with a vocabulary, a set of narratives, and a toolbox of images that help him to articulate the realities of African postcolonial life.

The memoir concludes with Ngũgĩ winning admission to the most prestigious high school in Kenya while the chaotic eight-year state of emergency continues. Before he takes the demanding admission exams, Good Wallace steals out of the Mau Mau camp in the mountains to wish him good luck. "Knowledge is our light," he advises his brother. In the final lines of the book, Ngũgĩ enters his new school and hears his mother's voice echo in his head: "Is it the best you can do? I say to her with all my heart, Yes, Mother, because I also know what she really is asking for is my renewal of our pact to have dreams even in a time of war."

Susan VanZanten is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author most recently of Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson, forthcoming from Cascade Books.

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