On Oct. 7, 2010, Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o walks into his “Colonialism and the Rise of African Literature” class to the sound of his students’ applause. Smiling graciously, he sets his armful of books and his briefcase on the lectern at the front of the classroom and waits for his students to quiet. “I am sorry for being late,” he says, wiping his brow, “I took a nap and did not hear my alarm.” It is understandable; the announcement of the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature had come at 4 a.m. PST and Ngugi had been awoken to hear it.
“We learned that [Mario Vargas] Llosa got the prize. The photographers [who were waiting outside my door] looked so sad.” He mimes tears flowing down a face and chuckles quietly, joking, “You know, I was the one comforting them, they were so disappointed.”
Born in Kenya in 1938, Ngugi’s early life was filled with storytelling, which left him enamored of the word.
“I was not myself a good storyteller,” he says with a shrug. “I was a very good listener.”
Reading and writing were natural outcomes of his initial interest in words. It wasn’t until he attended Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, that he “discovered” himself as a writer. During his five-year undergraduate career, he wrote two manuscripts that later became his books “Weep Not, Child” and “The River Between,” as well as numerous features articles for Sandy Nation, a major Kenyan newspaper.
“I always tell my students – because I really believe it – that they don’t have to measure themselves simply by class standards. They have to measure themselves by the standards of life … it’s something that really helped me as an undergraduate,” he insists, leaning forward with intensity. “Students have to measure themselves by the standards of life.”
Though he considers himself primarily a novelist and claims the novel as his “first love,” Ngugi admits readily that his work as a playwright has had the most dramatic impact on his personal, political and intellectual life. “The Black Hermit,” which he wrote and directed, debuted at Kampala National Theatre in 1962, and was the first play written by an East African performed at the venue.
His next major play, “I Will Marry When I Want,” was written with a friend and colleague, Ngugi wa Mirii, and was produced in 1977. The colonial government of Kenya at the time was not very happy with it.
“It’s a play that sent me to prison, more or less,” Ngugi muses thoughtfully.
On the eve of December 1977, not long after the government forcibly stopped the play, he was arrested from his home in the middle of the night. Ngugi did not receive a trial – fair or otherwise – and soon found himself in a maximum-security prison. Subsequently, he spent one year as a political prisoner in complete isolation, cut off from his family and the outside world.
To cope with his feelings of frustration and anger, Ngugi penned the novel “Devil on the Cross,” a scathing portrayal of Kenyan politics and society. Denied access to paper, he wrote his manuscript on pieces of toilet paper, similar in feel to that of the tissue paper used to wrap gifts.
“It was probably meant to punish us prisoners,” he says, in reference to its less-than-pleasant texture, “but it was very good writing material.”
The words on Ngugi’s toilet-paper manuscript are small in size, neat and in Gikuyu, his native language. This was to be his first book of many to come that was entirely in the language, and was a comment on the dominance of English, French and Portuguese in African writing.
“You cannot think of French literature in Zulu or English literature in Gikuyu,” he says, explaining his view that African literature ought to be written in African languages.
Upon his release from prison in December 1978, the government of Daniel arap Moi barred Ngugi from jobs at colleges and universities. Finally, in 1982, while in London for the promotion of “Devil on the Cross,” Ngugi received a startling phone call.
“A red carpet awaits you at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport on your return.” Translation: The government intends to assassinate you.
This marked the beginning of 22 years in exile, as well as the beginning of Ngugi’s teaching career at institutions such as Yale University and New York University, among others.
In 2002, Ngugi was offered the position of Director for the International Center for Writing and Translation, which ultimately brought him to UC Irvine, where he was made Distinguished Professor of English and comparative literature. He has been at UCI ever since.
When asked what he enjoys most about teaching, Ngugi becomes animated, gesturing enthusiastically and raising his voice slightly with the passion behind his words.
“I find the exchange in the classroom very fascinating and very rewarding. When I tell my students they have unique ideas as well, I want them to believe me because I believe it! … If I can inspire people to believe in themselves and in their potential, then I feel very happy as a teacher.”
At first glance, Ngugi cuts the figure of a kind older man with a friendly face and a penchant for bright colors that offset his dark skin. But his wide smile and warm nature belie the uncompromising voice he presents in his literary and scholarly works, offering critical insight into post-colonial African society and its problems. He has faced political opposition to his work with resiliency and grace, and has let nothing deter him from speaking up.
As for this most recent Nobel nomination – the latest of several he has received – Ngugi smiles beatifically. “I was particularly touched by the reactions of the campus here, my colleagues, my students, the entire community.”
“My real Nobel was from all the sentiments here, from you.”