Thursday, 15 October 2009

When Ngugi wa Thiongo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2009, i.e. in a different world…

Ngugi wa Thiongo, the Kenyan novelist, the theorist of post – colonial literature, the one that in middle age abandoned his Christian name «James» in order to take back the traditional «Ngugi», lies in his bed in the presidential suite of the Grand Hotel Sheraton in Stockholm. His wife Njeeri is on the sightseeing tour organized by the ladies of the Public relations of the Academy, in the Old City, Gamla Stan.

The Public relations officer showed a lot of understanding when the distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at the university of California, Irvine, declared that he would rather spend a quiet afternoon, alone in his hotel. The trip from across the Atlantic had worn him out, and these people showed that they honestly respected his frame of mind. He was in a mood for recollection.

He likes the Swedes. They are smiling, polite, discreet. He has spent a whole year in this country – when was that? – in 1986, in order to study film at the Dramatiska Institute of Stockholm. He remembers the smiling faces in the subway, the blond young men with the long coats and the caps on their heads helping him to lift his suitcase. They had in fact invited him to their club, where he had given a talk about his book. Twenty years had passed since his first novels “The river between”

and “A grain of wheat” had appeared. He was already known in Europe: A writer, a professor of literature – expelled nevertheless from the university of Nairobi for his political beliefs. His book “The devil on the cross”

published in the English language in 1982 had entirely been written in prison, on toilet paper. He had been imprisoned by the authoritarian regime of Arap Moi because he had decided to write and present in Gikuyu (the language of the Kikuyu ethnic group) his theatrical play “I will marry when I want”.

“Why was I not detained before when I wrote in English?”(*), he thought. “ It reminds me of my childhood, when the teacher had caught us not speaking English at school and forced us to stick a sign on our backs, saying “I am an ass”. As a result, many children, especially the girls, afraid that they might forget themselves and speak in heir mother tongue, started to speak English even outside school.

Mau Mau history was always an inspiration to me. I am amazed at how a people who didn’t even have neighbouring bases could sustain a struggle for years. I have come to admire the courage (*)
I have written a theatrical play entitled “The trial of Dedan Kimathi” about the arrest, the trial and the execution of their leader, even though he was sick and with a high temperature.

In my novels written shortly after the independence, I have described what happened in the concentration camps where the British occupation forces have enclosed, using barbed wire, entire villages. All these literary descriptions, are nothing compared to what Caroline Elkins

from Harvard university discloses in her book “Imperial Reckoning” (or “Britain’s Gulag”). Perhaps it is the mention to Gulag that sensitized the Academy and they offered me the Nobel Prize. They are very sensitive to the persecution of dissidents and political refugees. It is not by accident that Solzhenitsyn, that talked about the Soviet Gulag also, received the Nobel prize in Literature.”

Anyway, Ngugi’s case is completely different. Who cares about the ex- socialist countries of Eastern Europe? It is said that even the bloodstained state of Ceauşescu collapsed due to the forged pictures of dead people circulated by the secret services of the West…

The prison book is one of his favourites.

He managed to achieve the delicate balance between political commitment and the search for a new literary form, using traditional means. This novel that was written like an epic poem, is an allegory built with Kikuyu proverbs and riddles.

And now, after twenty years, he finds himself in Stockholm again. He has missed the long walks in Skansen Zoo. He remembers walking there alone, deep in his thoughts, with his head bent towards the ground.
The gathering of the animals at Skansen come to his mind: the animals have arrived in order to watch the famous crane dance.

He had been a witness of this dance in his country, Kenya. The Dane Baroness Karen Blixen in her book “Out of Africa” had described this circular dance with admiration. It was the same dance that the Swedish teacher Selma Lagerlöf - also a Nobel Prize in Literature – saw through the eyes of her hero, in “The wonderful adventures of Nils Holgerson”.

Skansen with its cranes reminded him of Africa.

These birds travelled to the South, as far as his homeland, back to his childhood years at Kamandara, Manguu and Kinyogoro.

And now, the writer whose books are read aloud in the cafés, the villages and the matatus of Kenya, the writer who decided to write in his mother tongue, is here again, in his favourite city. Tomorrow, the Nobel prize in literature, the greatest literary distinction, will be awarded to him.

The text of his speech, translated in English, is already in the hands of the committee. He has decided to deliver his speech in the Concert Hall, in Gikuyu. The language of his tribe, the language spoken in the country of the “dispossessed”(**) will resound on its golden walls.

Ngugi wa Thiongo will speak on behalf of the entire continent. He will speak on behalf of his dead brother who was killed during the Emergency. He was deaf and mute and could not hear the English soldier ordering him to stop.

He will speak on behalf of his other brother who participated in the Mau Mau uprising and was killed in a clash with the colonial occupation forces. He will speak about the messages sent by this brother to little Ngugi, he was called James then, urging him not to drop school. “He was obsessed with my education”, he will tell the audience tomorrow.

His books are well known. They have been are translated into thirty languages. Since 2002, they are already being published in Penguin Classics.

The eighteen elders of the Academy– some of them might have been the blond Swedes with the long coats that he had met twenty years ago - made a wise decision with their choice. They did not lay emphasis on any influences from the Heart of Darkness and the generally agreed truth of the cruelty of a colonial occupation that might have inspired him. They did not lay emphasis on his Marxist – Fanonist beliefs and his unlimited optimism, as in Brecht’s poetry, that people can change the conditions of their lives. The wise people of the Academy have honoured in his person his language, the return to the mother tongue that made his work reach the reader.

“It is not worthwhile talking about” Ceauşescu and Waffen SS (**)

(*) The outsider, Maya Jaggi interviews Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in
(**) According to the Press release of the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2009 is awarded to the German author Herta Müller,

“who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”

(***) According to the Press release of the Swedish Academy, that decides to whom the Nobel Prizes should be awarded, the German author Herta Müller was dismissed from her job during Ceauşescu’s dictatorship and was harassed by the Securitate, while her mother, like many other German – Romanians were deported to the Soviet Union. Her father had served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

According to the wikipedia, Suaves, the German minority of Romania, that had been finally deported by the Soviets after the war, had founded during the war the infamous “7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen” and


Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece


  1. The crane images is being used without permission.

    This image © Fraser Simpson

  2. @Fraser Simpson, Ι have found this picture on the internet. I apologize for using it, without your permission. It is now removed from my post.

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  5. The post is very interesting, detailed and informative. Thanks for sharing the inspiring story of Ngugi wa Thiongo. The people who struggle and work hard are always a hero.