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Review of ‘Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir’

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s latest publication, ‘Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir’, is ‘a treasure-house of childhood memories’, writes Peter Wuteh Vakunta. ‘It is an informative and didactic memoir written with the intent of taking the reader down memory lane. The story of Ngugi’s travails through life, it lends credence to the wise saying that epic characters are often associated with humble beginnings.’

‘Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir’ begins Ngugi’s narrative precisely where stories of epic heroes always begin – with the place, time, and circumstances of his birth: ‘I was born in 1938, under the shadow of war, the Second World War, to Thiong’o wa Nducu, my father , and Wanjiku wa Ngugi, my mother. I don’t know where I ranked, in terms of years, among the twenty-four children of my father and his four wives, but I was the fifth child of my mother’s house’(p9). Having been born in a polygamous family with too many mouths to feed, young Ngugi often suffered pangs of hunger: ‘I had not had lunch that day, and my tummy had forgotten the porridge I had gobbled that morning before the six-mile run to Kinyogori Intermediate School’(p3). Not only did the youngster have to dispense with food on occasion; he had to walk an incredibly long distance each day in quest of the knowledge he so badly needed to improve his lot in life. Knowing who Ngugi is today, it is shocking to learn that he never owned a pair of shoes until he was admitted into high school: ‘I had walked barefoot all my life’ (p245).

Ngugi’s adolescent years were formative, characterised by rites of passage: ‘My grandmother turned to me: “And my husband here?” She called me husband because I was named after my grandfather… The idea of circumcision was very far from my mind. But for some reason she would not let the matter go, and a few days later she brought up the subject, reiterating that Ndungu who was my age, could not become a man and leave me behind a boy’(p163). The initiation school sometimes referred to as an unsafe ordeal by westerners is highly regarded in Kenya and beyond. Circumcision is a practice whereby the loose skin at the end of a boy’s penis is cut off. The initiation school is viewed as a nursery where moral rectitude is inculcated in the minds of initiates who are taught life skills such as courage, resilience, stoicism, creative thinking, and respect. Most importantly, the rite of passage is perceived as a coming of age, an inevitable bridge between boyhood and manhood. As Ngugi puts it, rites of passage were not only ‘initiations from one phase of life to another but also forms of social education’ (p83).

Indeed, Ngugi portrays himself as a cultural hybrid, having undergone initiation in the indigenous and western senses of the word: ‘One evening, my mother asked me: ‘Would you like to go to school?’ It was in 1947’ (p49). This moment marks the genesis of Ngugi’s initiation into the white man’s school, a school that had tonic effect on the growing youngster: ‘…at lunchtime when other kids took out the food they had brought…to eat during the midday break…I would often pretend that I was going someplace, but really it was to any shade of a tree or cover of a bush, far from the other kids, just to read a book, any book…’(p3).

‘Dreams in a Time of War’ is homage paid to Kenya’s nationalists, many of whom paid the supreme price in the struggle to free their country from British colonial yoke. Ngugi sheds ample light on the seminal role played by the Mau Mau in the liberation struggle: ‘The guerillas are under strict orders from Marshall Dedan Kimathi not to kill at random. The guerrillas could not survive without support from the people… there were hundreds of others who did not survive, butchered by the colonial forces…’ (p182).

The historical significance of Ngugi’s memoir resides not only in allusions to historical figures like Dedan Kimathi, Jomo Kenyatta, Eisenhower, Hitler and Winston Churchill among others, but also to the question of settler colonialism in Kenya and the irksome land misappropriation that surfaced in its wake: ‘I had learned that down beyond the forest was the Limuru Township and across the railway line, white-owned plantations where my older siblings went to pick tea leaves for pay…I had learned that our land was not quite our land; that we were now ahoi, tenants at will. How did we come to be ahoi on our own land?’(p10).

Western imperialism in Kenya went farther than mere land grabbing. The colonialists owned the means of production as this example indicates: ‘…white people owned the tea plantation on the other side of the railway, and I had even heard that there were white owners of the Limuru Bata Shoe factory…’ (p39). Thus, this book is a lampoon on how Europe underdeveloped Kenya. It is a rap on colonialism and its attendant ills. Ngugi believes that the disintegration of the African continent began at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885 ‘that divided Africa into spheres of influence among European powers…’ (p15).

‘Dreams in a Time of War’ is captivating in several respects, but the quality that grips the reader’s attention is the writer’s continual recourse to the literary device of intertextuality. He resorts to cross-references in a bid to prove salient points. For example, on p111, Ngugi refers to Theodore Natsoulas’ article ‘The Rise and Fall of the Kikuyu Karing’a Education Association in Kenya, 1929-1952’, published in the Journal of African and Asian Studies 23.3-4(1988):220-21, to underscore the colluding role played by Western religions in the cultural alienation of Africans. In the same vein, he alludes to Winston Churchill’s ‘My African Journey’ (1968) on p14, to lambaste the cantankerous role the British played in the dismemberment of Kenya. Ngugi takes the West to task for the spoliation of Africa, particularly the theft of Africa’s lands. On p227 he refers to Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’, a book that he counted among his favourites in his adolescence. Charles Dicken’s ‘Great Expectations’ (p219) belongs in this category as well.

Clash of cultures is a leitmotif in the book. Ngugi discusses the uneasy cohabitation of modernism with tradition in Kenya as follows: ‘Baba Mukuru’s house was antithetical to Kahahu’s. He was as confident in the ways of his ancestors as Kahahu was in the ways of his Christian ancestors. For him, tradition was sacrosanct.’ (p82-3) A little further, the narrator sheds more light: ‘Baba Mukuru poured a libation for the ancestral spirits that they might be with the living and the newly born’ (p83).

Cultural hybridity is manifest throughout the book in the form of indigenisation of language. Ngugi straddles the linguistic divide by drawing from both his indigenous language and English as this example illustrates: ‘It was the main hut not because of its size but because it was set apart and equidistant from the other four. It was called a thingira’ (p9). Code-switching enables him to express cultural specificities. Sometimes, Ngugi employs vernacular language words in order to underline otherness: ‘These must the white spirits, the mizungu, and this, the Nairobi had heard about as having sprung from the bowels of the earth’ (p14). In his attempt to transpose the speech mannerisms of Kenyans into written English, he resorts to the alternate use of languages, including everything from the introduction of a single unassimilated word up to a complete sentence as this other example shows: ‘…which he Gikuyunized as mburaribuu, kaniga gaka, mbaga ino, and which he used freely to address any of his children at whom he was angry’ (p18).

Quite apart from Africanisms, Ngugi makes abundant use of proverbial expressions to translate the worldview of the Kikuyu into a European language: ‘…I comfort myself, because I don’t have to tell my stories to listeners eager to eat from the palm of my hand’ (p232). Another insightful maxim used by Ngugi for the purpose of translating Gikuyu sagacity into English is: ‘The Gikuyu have a saying that out of the same womb come both a killer and a healer’ (p215). Throughout the narrative, he uses Gikuyu apothegmatic expressions – proverbs, idioms, ideophones and interjections for the purpose of self-expression. His memoir reads like an oral tale. The reason is that he strives to translate orality into the written oral word. The book is replete with songs culled from the author’s childhood memories. The one on p34 is particularly interesting because it captures the servile obedience characteristic of colonial subjects:

We are marching on
We are marching on
At whose order?
The king’s orders
Let’s march on.

Ngugi goes to great lengths to translate the discursive orality of his maternal tongue into written English. He simulates the Gikuku storyteller by creating the spontaneity of oral performance. In sum, the publication of this nonfictional book after the voluminous Wizard of the Crow (2006, 768 pages) is welcome relief for readers who are intimidated by sheer length. True to himself, Ngugi has proven once again to be a true master of the word.


* Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, is published by Panthon Books, New York, 2010 (ISBN 978-0-307-37883-5).
* Peter Wuteh Vakunta is visiting assistant professor in the Department of African Languages and Literature, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.