Ngu gi’s moving memoir of childhood

2010-06-23 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Dreams in a Time of War

Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Harvill Secker

ONE of Africa’s most important writers, now in his 70s, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has here written a memoir of his childhood years in Limuru, Kenya. He grew up under colonial rule, and witnessed the Mau Mau uprising in the early fifties, an event that saw one of his half-brothers, who was profoundly deaf, shot in the back for refusing to obey an order to stop running. Another brother went into hiding with the Mau Mau fighters, while other family members sided with the colonial power. It was indeed a time of war, dividing families and setting brother against brother.

Ngugi describes his early childhood in the polygamous setting of his ­father’s homestead. One of his ­father’s wives was the chief storyteller, and all the half-siblings would gather in her hut in the evenings to hear her tales — something that ­immediately fired the writer’s young imagination. Later, when he was a schoolboy, and beginning to take note of the political situation, the stories and rumours that circulated in the marketplace showed him how to mix fact and fiction, something he has used to great effect in later writings.

It was a childhood of deprivation, though, as he writes: “a human normalizes the unusual in order to survive”. His mother eventually left his father because of his violence, and took her children to her father’s home, where she was in a somewhat anomalous position. She was determined to see her son go to school, ­despite extreme poverty. He was a clever child, and the book takes his story to his first ever railway journey when he is accepted to the top secondary boarding school — for black children — in Kenya.

Ngugi writes with an elegant simplicity, and his story is often moving, and its parallels with South African childhoods that continue to this day, are profound. But, for readers used to Ngugi’s verbal fireworks, it is surprisingly low key.

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