Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of Africa’s leading literary stars and a well-known spokesperson for the socially oppressed people of his native Kenya, and indeed for all of Africa. He is the author of over ten novels; he is best known for his novels Weep Not, Child, The River Between, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood. Ngugi was detained without trial in 1978 because of a play he produced in the Gikuyu language. Before his detention he was head of the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi.
Nugugi wa Thiong’o was in town this past week as a participant in the International Festival of Authors. The Varsity caught up with him and he gladly consented to grant us an interview
Lanchester Anderson: It is frequently argued that African writers are too preoccupied with social and political issues; could you respond?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Literature is a form of art and art must be concerned with all aspects of people’s lives. Art and literature for that matter must concern itself with political injustices, racial injustices, economic injustices and social injustices. The way I see it, African writers are fulfilling their mandate. You see, literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum; it is given shape, impetus and direction by what is going on in a particular society.
Lanchester Anderson: You have been at the forefront of the struggle for liberation in Kenya, through mediums such as writing and plays. Is the theatre still alive in Kenya today?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: I don’t really know. In the mid-’70s, and especially from 1977 to 1986, writers, actors, and the theatre suffered a great deal at the hands of the authorities. In 1982, the open air thatre was completely destroyed under orders from President Moi. Several playwrights were detained and many writers were forced into exile. People, however, will always find new ways of organizing.
Lanchester Anderson: In societies such as Africa, Latin America, and some Eastern European countries, the writer is curtailed by the various oppressive systems of government; how can these writers speak effectively to the people?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: We must be careful when we compare Africa to the West. This is because those oppressive governments in Africa such as South Africa, Zaire, Ivory Coast, and Kenya are very closely associated with the West. Most of them are one-party governments and the oppressive stance they are taking is indeed on behalf of the West. However, as I have state before, the people will not be silenced. They will always find a new way to express themselves.
Lanchester Anderson: You have analyzed the struggles of the Kenyan people and indeed all oppressed Africans by drawing upon certain Marxist paradigms. Do you see a socialist revolution as a viable solution to Kenya’s liberation?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: In Kenya today you will not find an ounce of democracy. People must be in a position to say this is what we want. The struggle for democracy must be linked with the struggle against neo-colonialism. There must be a shift in the economy, which is dominated by foreign institutions. And so the liberation of people should come about by any means necessary.
Lanchester Anderson: You have been pushing for a national African language. Has there been any support from other African writers towards this movement?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Language is very important and the issue of a national language is still being contested even today. As you know, before recent times, African writers thought that they must write in English, French, and Portuguese. This perception is changing now. More and more writers are writing in languages other than those languages I mentioned before. It is a slow process and it will take some time but the important thing is that it is still being debated.
Lanchester Anderson: You have stated that the Kenyan people were shortchanged after independence. What actions have the Kenyan people taken to register their disappointment?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: In 1970 Kenya became a de facto one-party state. After this happened the pyramidal structure of the country was further entrenched. By this I mean you have a small minority of whites at the top, the Asians in the middle and the small African traders at the bottom. The Kenyan people have shown their concern about the arrangement over and over. They continue to struggle against the system. What is important also is that Kenyans in exile are also organizing themselves.
Lanchester Anderson: Is it difficult to get your work published in Africa?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Publishing is a problem, since the national base of the economy is very weak. The publishing industries are dominated by multinational firms and local African firms are not very strong.
Lanchester Anderson: How much time do you devote to teaching?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: In January and June of each year I teach in the English department at Yale. The other times I spend in London writing and so on.
Lanchester Anderson: Your most recent work, Matigari, got a lot of attention especially from the Kenyan authorities. Did you expect the action they took?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Matigari is quite interesting. The book was written when I was in exile. It was published in Kenya in 1986. 1986 was a very bad year with regards to political repression in Kenya. There were wide-scale arrests of intellectuals. They were imprisoned and false charges were brought against them. It was then that the book came out. The fictional character in the book by the name of Matigari who goes around demanding to know where he can find truth and justice.
President Moi heard about this Matigari who was daring to go around the country asking these kinds of questions. The president therefore ordered his immediate arrest. The police soon discovered, however, that this Matigari was only a character in a book. Moi ordered the book be arrested instead.
In 1987 the police raided all the bookshops in the country and took every single copy of the book. They also confiscated those copies in the publisher’s warehouse. The book therefore is only available in English and even then outside Kenya. Thus one could argue that the book and the character have joined their author in exile.
Lanchester Anderson: In the book you place a lot of emphasis on rebuilding and the bringing of African people together. In your view, are these two aspects very important?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yes. Rebuilding is a form of resisting the neo-colonial regime. You see, the people have to control their own destiny. Africans still need total control of the economy, total control of the political sphere and total control of their images. Africans need to move forward and to control all the tools which are necessary for their liberation.
Lanchester Anderson: In the book Matigari, you allowed Gutherea, the female character, a certain degree of autonomy whereby she was able to lament the position in which women are often placed. Are you always this conscious about gender relations?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Well, you see, in class terms, the women are in the most oppressed sector of the working class. We all have to admit that. Thus I have been arguing, and will continue to argue, that the conditions that will bring about the liberation of the peasant women and other working women would actually come with the liberation of the entire society. So that is why I look at the peasant women. I am not always consistent nor do I claim to look at every aspect of the women question but I am always conscious of it.
Lanchester Anderson: Do you see any comparison between your main character Matigari and Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Not really. But on the other hand there are many comparisons between the various regions in which these books were written. For example, Achebe is writing about Nigerian society and when people in Kenya read his books they might say, “Yes, this character resembles a person from my village.” Also, many African novels are the product of similar social settings. Therefore I am not surprised by the comparison.
Lanchester Anderson: Towards the end of the book we see Matigari putting away his belt of peace and returning to the forest to get his AK-47. He is doing this because, as he said, words alone can never drive the enemy out. “But words plus truth and justice, fully backed with armed power, will certainly drive the enemy out.” What is the message here?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The logic of the argument is quite simple. What we are saying is that unless there is a peaceful change in Kenya, then what is left for us? There is nothing very revolutionary about the argument. We are trying to bring about change through peaceful means. We are saying to the regime that if you do not change, people will be left with no alternative but to use whatever means at their disposal to get their liberation. This, then, is a warning to the government that we will change the system by any means necessary.
Lanchester Anderson: In your book Detained and also in Matigari you spoke of two types of enemies. Who are they?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: There is the colonial enemy and the non-colonial enemy. Western interest under the colonial structure controls the economy. In the case of Kenya the white settler regime controlled every aspect of the society. In a post-colonial or neo-colonial arrangement the same interests control our economy, but this time through what is called a comprador regime. Instead of seeking their role as that which is to transform the economy, these neo-colonials become the supervisors of an outflowing of wealth from Africa. They have done nothing for Africans politically, socially, economically, or otherwise.
Lanchester Anderson: In one of the many dialogues between Matigari and John Boy Jr., it is obvious that they are from two different worlds. Matigari sees John Boy Jr. as a sell-oout and John Boy Jr. sees Matigari as an idealistic old fool living in the past. Can this fictitious situation be applied to today’s African intellectuals and their peasant counterparts?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Intellectuals have always been of two kinds. There are those who see their role as consistent with the needs of the people’s struggle in Africa. There are those, however, who have a worldview which is consistent with the oppressive forces. There are those who switched back and forth between both streams. Nevertheless, those are the two types of intellectuals. It does not matter where these intellectuals got their education. They eventually choose where they stand in relation with the struggle for social justice in Africa.
Lanchester Anderson: Is Muriuki the one who is going to carry on where Matigari left off?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yes. This is always that which is implied. As he picks up the AK-47, he doesn’t start shooting. On the contrary, we are told he hears from the distance the sound of the siren as it calls out all the workers. Then we are told how he recalled the night of the workers’ strike. He hears also the voices of the people singing “Victory shall be ours.” So whatever he does later on, his actions are linked to the wider struggles of the working people.
Lanchester Anderson: Are you Matigari incognito?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Well, no. You see Matigari is a collective worker, he is not an individual in that sense. You remember how he kept changing and taking on different features? For example, when he thinks there is hope, his face becomes very youthful. You remember how he outlined the history of Kenya to John Boy Jr.? He is indeed all of us who aspire to positive change. He is also an artist.
Lanchester Anderson: Isn’t it rather a sad irony that you can state your opinion more freely in England than in Kenya?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yes, those contradictions are always with us. Remember that whether we like it or not, there is in some ways more democracy in the West. The right to have an opinion is generally upheld. The struggles of the Western people for more control of their lives are not inconsistent with the struggles of the African people.