In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Willy Maley reviews an acclaimed Kenyan writer’s memoirs

January 31, 2013

This is Kenyan writer and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s second memoir - following the 2010 volume Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir - and he’s still only 21 by the end of it. It is slow going for an autobiography but there’s much to ponder here in the painful journey of a boy into adulthood and a country - Kenya - towards independence.

Covering his education at Alliance High School from 1955, a time when the Shakespeare-loving Sunday School volunteer and Boy Scout saluted the Union Jack and sang God Save the Queen while his older brother hid in the mountains with the Mau Mau, it charts the education of a native son haunted by the fear of “the hounds at the gate”, with the British baying for blood in the wake of the declaration of the State of Emergency in 1952. By 1959, Ngũgĩ - the primary school teacher and prospective Makerere University student - is incarcerated on a trumped-up charge and being visited by his recently liberated brother.

In between, we have the tale of a boy from a “concentration village”, where “the line between the prison, the concentration camp, and the village had been erased” - part of the British colonial policy of “villagization” or “forced internal displacement … bulldozing people’s homes or torching them when the owners refused to participate in the demolition”. Ngũgĩ’s first homecoming from secondary school was to the sight of “a rubble of burnt dry mud, splinters of wood, and grass”. His was not the only home levelled: “The whole of central Kenya was destroyed, in the name of isolating and starving the anti-colonial guerrillas in the mountains.” Ngũgĩ never pulls his punches, asserting that “Churchill’s Conservatives … reproduced, in Kenya, Hitler’s concentration camps”.

Although he insists that “passing comments and fleeting images, often outside the formal classroom, would leave a lasting, sometimes pivotal mark on [his] life”, Shakespeare and the Bible - he was an enthusiastic convert to Christianity - also loom large in Ngũgĩ’s story. The schoolmaster telling them that Jesus “spoke very simple English” prompted Ngũgĩ’s observation that “the Bible was a translation”. With Shakespeare, Ngũgĩ was first struck by “the sight of Africans dressed in sixteenth- century English costumes, speaking in iambic pentameter”, but more so by the continuing relevance of a writer who died 350 years earlier. Watching As You Like It, he “could not help comparing the pairs of exiles in Arden to my brother … wandering in the forests of Nyandarwa and Mount Kenya”. A Midsummer Night’s Dream conjured up the African oral tradition, while King Lear captured the changing political scene in Kenya.

The winds of change blowing through Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan and Ghana in the 1950s were keenly felt in Kenya, as the scramble for Africa became a “scram from Africa”. Ngũgĩ, as always, was in two minds. The same Boy Scout who waved his flag loyally as Princess Margaret’s cavalcade swept past in Nairobi spoke at a school debate in favour of the motion, “Western education has done more harm than good in Africa”, through a simple 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.” Ngũgĩ recognised the contradiction: he and his fellow pupils were taking the pencil, and turning it against their rulers.

Reading Leo Tolstoy’s autobiographical works Childhood, Boyhood and Youth inspired Ngũgĩ to write one of his own. His title is borrowed from John Bunyan, but it was through an eclectic colonial reading list ranging from the Bible to the Brontes and Biggles that he slowly found a voice as a writer. Coming-of-age works by other African writers, including Wole Soyinka, have covered similar ground in the lead-up to decolonisation, but every nation’s experience of that process is distinct, and In the House of the Interpreter stands out as a particularly powerful indictment of British colonialism and a lasting testament to the healing power of literature. Never bitter or one-sided, tempered throughout by a love of language that cuts across deep cultural divisions, including inter-tribal rivalry, this memoir leaves the reader eager for the next instalment.

In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir

By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Harvill Secker, 256pp, £16.99

ISBN 9781846556289

Published 8 November 2012

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