Ngugi wa Thiong'o
(pronounced GU-gi wa-ti-ONG-go) was born into a
large peasant family, in the Kiambu
district of Kenya in 1938. He was the
fifth child of the third of his father's
four wives and is of Kikuyu descent. He
was baptized James Ngugi, and later
became a devout Christian while at
missionary school; but around 1967 he
rejected his baptismal name, and changed
his name to Ngugi wa Thiong'o. His
family was caught up in the Mau Mau
rebellion (an insurgency by Kenyan
freedom fighters against the British
colonial administration (1952 - 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 1964 his novel, Weep Not Child, was published to critical acclaim (apparently, it was 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 Marxism.
Between 1967 and 1977 he was a university lecturer. In 1977 his first novel in ten years, Petals of Blood, was published. It painted a harsh and unsparing picture of life in neo-colonial Kenya and was received with critical acclaim in Kenya and abroad. The same year his controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was performed; it was sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society. Soon after, wa Thiong'o was arrested and imprisoned without charge in a maximum security prison.
In prison, he wrote the novel Caitaani Mutharabaini on prison-issued toilet paper, later translated into 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, but he was barred by the State from holding a job at any university or college. He stayed in Kenya, continuing to work and voicing his opinions, but in 1982 he learned of plans to arrest him, so he and his family left for Britain, later moving to the USA in 1989. He has continued to write prolifically, and his books have been translated into more than thirty languages.
He is now a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. He married his first wife, Nyambura, in 1961 with whom he had six children, Thiong'o, Kimunya, Nduchu, Mukoma, Wanjiku and Njoki. Kimunya graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Nairobi, the rest attended US universities. Following Nyambura's death, wa Thiong'o is now married to Njeeri, with whom he has two children, 10-year-old Mumbi-Wanjiku and Thiong'o, aged nine years. Njeeri also has an older daughter.
For more about Kenya, see the "BookBrowse Says" for Unbowed by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai.
This article was originally published in November 2006, and has been updated for the
August 2007 paperback release.
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