In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir
In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir
Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Pantheon, 2012
256 pp., $25.95

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Helen Rittelmeyer

A Measure of Forgiveness

Memories of a British education in Kenya.

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Most of these humiliating gestures had their root less in active hostility toward African culture than in simple failures of understanding, on both sides. The first debate club meeting Ngũgĩ attended tackled the motion Should Germany's colonial claims be accepted by Britain—a serious and challenging topic, no doubt, but one that indicates real tone-deafness in whoever selected it for a group of black students in the middle of the Mau Mau insurgency. (Though it does suggest that, far from infantilizing their students, European educators in Kenya were willing to cultivate their political awareness.)

The irony, Ngũgĩ says, was evident to them at the time—but then so was the irony of an anti-imperialist speech he himself gave in favor of the resolution Western education has done more harm than good. "I held a pencil in the air. All eyes were fixed on it. I told a story. A person comes to your house. He takes your land. In exchange he gives you a pencil. Is this fair exchange? I would rather he kept his pencil and I kept my land." He then admits, "The contradiction was clear: all of us, for and against the motion, were at Alliance in pursuit of the Western education we had censured."

The tenderness with which Ngũgĩ describes his schooldays suggests that he does not regret his education quite as much as his politics would oblige him to—he may be adamant that future Kenyans should never be forced to learn Shakespeare, but he is not really sorry that he was. He reserves his greatest tenderness for the headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, obe, a man who "accepted Jesus as the center of his life" and instilled in his students an attitude of service. The title of the book comes from a story out of Pilgrim's Progress that was the subject of one of Francis' best sermons.

Ngũgĩ contrasts the "Franciscan" way with that of the Billy Graham crusaders, who he joined for a short period: "Christianity for [Francis] was like a long-distance race, and he often talked of pacing oneself …. For him acts and conduct that proclaimed faith were more important than words that shouted belief." Ngũgĩ first grew disillusioned with the evangelicals when he felt himself looked down on for not having a sufficiently shameful narrative of his pre-Christian immorality—they only respected you if you had been really debauched before, he felt, which was probably unfair to the crusaders—and he abandoned them completely when one of their star converts got a girl pregnant and then refused to marry her. The ethic of Carey Francis he never abandoned at all.

For those familiar with his passionate Marxism, it seems a little strange that Ngũgĩ should be so soft toward a man who, according to his philosophy, was an agent of oppression. Perhaps he has learned to see things from his old headmaster's point of view; perhaps he has simply mellowed with age. Whatever it is that has inclined Ngũgĩ to view his experience of colonialism with warmth and some small measure of forgiveness, there is certainly a lesson in it.

Helen Rittelmeyer is a blogger for First Things.

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