Ngugi wa Thiong'o Biography
Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born in the Kiambu district of Kenya in 1938, into a
large peasant family; he is the fifth child of the third of his father's four
wives and is of Kĩkũyũ descent. He was baptized James Ngugi, and while at mission school became a devout Christian. His family was caught up in the
Mau Mau rebellion (an insurgency by Kenyan freedom fighters against the British
colonial administration, 1952 to 1960); he lost his stepbrother, and his mother
He burst onto the literary scene in East Africa with the performance of his
first major play, The Black Hermit, at the National Theatre in Kampala,
Uganda, in 1962, while he was still at university. The following year Kenya
gained its independence from Britain. In a highly productive literary
period, Ngugi published and wrote stories, plays, novels, and a Sunday newspaper
column. In that period, his novel, Weep Not Child, was published to
critical acclaim in 1964 (apparently, the first novel in English to be published
by an East African). This was followed by The River Between and A
Grain of Wheat, which represented a turning point in the formal and
ideological direction of his works - rejecting English colonialism and embracing
In 1967, he became a lecturer in English Literature at the University of
Nairobi, eventually becoming Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of
Literature. He taught there until 1977 while also serving as Fellow in Creative
writing at Makerere in 1969-1970, and as Visiting Associate Professor at
Northwestern University in 1970-1971. In 1969, his first volume of literary
essays, Homecoming, appeared in print. Around 1967 he
rejected his baptismal name, and changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.
1977 forced dramatic turns in Ngugi's life and career. His first novel in ten
years, Petals of Blood, was published in July of that year. The novel
painted a harsh and unsparing picture of life in neo-colonial Kenya. It was
received with even more emphatic critical acclaim in Kenya and abroad. That year
Ngugi's controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want),
written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was performed in an open air theatre in Limuru,
with actors from the workers and peasants of the area. Sharply critical of the
inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, publicly identified with
unequivocally championing the cause of ordinary Kenyans, and committed to
communicating with them in the languages of their daily lives, Ngugi was
arrested and imprisoned without charge in a maximum security prison at the end
of the year.
In prison, Ngugi wrote the novel Caitaani Mutharabaini (on
prison-issued toilet paper), later translated in English as Devil on the
Cross. He also wrote down notes that later became the basis of his memoir,
Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. After Amnesty International named him
a Prisoner of Conscience, an international campaign secured his release a year
later. He was barred by the State from jobs at colleges and university in the
country. He resumed his writing, however, and activities in the theater. More
works followed; Ngugi continued to be an uncomfortable voice for the government.
In 1982, while Ngugi was in Britain for the launching of Devil on the Cross,
he learned about plans for his arrest and imprisonment or worse. He stayed on in
Britain, in exile, during the 1980's and moved to the U.S. in 1989. His next
Gikuyu novel, Matigari, was published in 1986. The Kenyan
government issued an arrest warrant for the main character, Matigari, but,
finding he was a fictional character in a book, the government "arrested" the
novel; between 1986 and 1996, the book could not be sold in Kenyan bookshops.
Ngugi has continued to write prolifically and to speak around the world at
numerous universities and as a distinguished speaker. These appearances include:
the 1984 Robb Lectures at Auckland University, New Zealand; the 1996 Clarendon
Lecture at Oxford University; and the 1999 Ashby Lecture at Cambridge. He has
spoken in many different countries and held visiting appointments at varied
universities including Temple, Amherst, Smith, and Yale. He is the recipient,
recently, of the 2001 Nonino Prize. His books have been translated into more
than thirty languages.
Since his appointment at UC Irvine (where he is currently Distinguished
Professor of English and Comparative Literature) Ngugi has been awarded the
Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Cabinet. In addition, he delivered
the Fourth Memorial Steve Biko Lecture in South Africa in September 2003; he has
also been recently inducted as a foreign honorary member at the American Academy
of Arts and Letters. In December 2003, he was given honorary life membership in
the Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa (CODESRIA)
and was inducted in Dakar, Senegal. Recent distinctions include an honorary
doctorate from his alma mater, University of Leeds, and an honorary doctorate in
Literature and Philosophy from the University of Transkei.
He returned to Kenya for the first time in August 2004 as part of a
month-long book tour of East Africa. A few days after his arrival, his apartment
was broken into, his money and computer were stolen, he was beaten up and his
wife was raped. The book he was promoting was Murogi wa Kagogo,
a thought-provoking satirical novel that gives a surgical examination of the
cult of dictatorship in Africa and the rest of the world. Narrated in Six
Volumes, the story of Murogi wa Kagogo is set in an imaginary country called
Aburiria, which is under the leadership of His Excellency President the Second.
The English version of the novel, Wizard of the Crow, translated by Ngugi,
was published in August 2006.
He married his first wife, Nyambura in 1961 with whom he had six children. Following Nyambura's death, he is now married to Njeeri, with whom he has two children.
This biography was last updated on 11/02/2006.
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