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."

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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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