Why Humans walk upright; The Author

Africa is packed with great talented authors, authors with a difference. These authors are gifts to Africa. Meet one of the African gifts.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born 5th January, 1938. He is a Kenyan writer and academic who writes primarily in Gikuyu. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children’s literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri. His short story The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, is translated into 94 languages from around the world.

In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be “the general bourgeois education system”, by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances. His project sought to “demystify” the theatrical process, and to avoid the “process of alienation [that] produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers” which, according to Ngũgĩ, encourages passivity in “ordinary people”. Although his landmark play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.


Ngũgĩ was subsequently imprisoned for over a year. Adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, the artist was released from prison, and fled Kenya. In the United States, he taught at Yale University for some years, and has since also taught at New York University, with a dual professorship in Comparative literature and Performance Studies, and at the University of California, Irvine. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among his children is the author Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ.

Ngũgĩ was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru in Kiambu district, Kenya, of Kikuyu descent, and baptised James Ngugi. His family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising; his half-brother Mwangi was actively involved in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, and his mother was tortured at Kamiriithu home guard post.

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He went to the Alliance High School, and went on to study at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. As a student he attended the African Writers Conference held at Makerere in June 1962, and his play The Black Hermit premiered as part of the event at The National Theatre. At the conference Ngũgĩ asked Chinua Achebe to read the manuscripts of his novels The River Between and Weep Not, Child, which would subsequently be published in Heinemann’s African Writers Series, launched in London that year, with Achebe as its first advisory editor. Ngũgĩ received his B.A. in English from Makerere University College in 1963.


His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was published in May 1964, becoming the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa. Later that year, having won a scholarship to the University of Leeds to study for an MA, Ngũgĩ travelled to England, where he was when his second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965.

The River Between, which has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and described an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya’s national secondary school syllabus. He left Leeds without completing his thesis on Caribbean literature, for which his studies had focused on George Lamming, about whom Ngũgĩ said in his 1972 collection of essays Homecoming: “He evoked for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords [sic] deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence.”

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Ngũgĩ’s 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat marked his embrace of Fanonist Marxism. He subsequently renounced Christianity, writing in English, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist; he changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and began to write in his native Gikuy. In 1967, Thiong’o also began teaching at the University of Nairobi as a professor of English literature. He continued to teach at the university for ten years while serving as a Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere.


In 1976 he helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which, among other things, organised African Theatre in the area. The uncensored political message of his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi to order his arrest. While detained in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngũgĩ wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross (Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ), on prison-issued toilet paper.


After his release in December 1978, he was not reinstated to his job as professor at Nairobi University, and his family was harassed. Due to his writing about the injustices of the dictatorial government at the time, Ngugi and his family were forced to live in exile. Only after Arap Moi retired after serving his second and last term in 2002, 22 years later, was it safe for them to return. Even in exile, Ngugi was making waves, he is a fighter.


His most recent books are Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), and Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 2009 making the argument for the crucial role of African languages in “the resurrection of African memory”, about which said: “Ngugi’s language is fresh; the questions he raises are profound, the argument he makes is clear: ‘To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people’s memory bank.'” This was followed by two well received autobiographical works: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010) and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), which was described as “brilliant and essential” by the Los Angeles Times, among other positive reviews.

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Some his awards include; Lotus Prize for Literature in (1973), Nonino International Prize for Literature (2001), He was Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2009. He also has the National Book Critics Circle Award (finalist Autobiography) for In the House of the Interpreter (2012), the 2014 Nicolás Guillén Lifetime Achievement Award for Philosophical Literature, the 2016 Park Kyong-ni Prize, Grand Prix des mécènes of the GPLA 2018, for his entire body of work and amidst others, the 2019, Premi Internacional de Catalunya Award for his Courageous work and Advocacy for African languages.
He deserves a Nobel prize.


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