German university honors Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The University of Bayreuth in Southern Germany awarded Kenyan writer and literary scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o an honorary doctorate on Monday (05.05.2014). According to the college, Ngugi’s work within the realms of literature merit such an honor.
The tertiary institution said it recognized Ngugi’s “outstanding contribution to the profiling of African literatures, especially in African languages.”
Through his writings he “opened a fundamental change in terms of the relationship between Africa and the world,” the University of Bayreuth added.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o studied at Uganda’s prestigious Makerere University and Leeds in the United Kingdom. Later, however, he decided to publish his works exclusively in his Kikuyu mother tongue.
“Weep Not, Child” published in 1964, was the first novel by an East African author in English.
Drama in mother tongue
In 1976 Ngugi and his fellow writer Ngugi wa Mirii were commissioned to write a play. It was a production by a popular theater in Limuru near Kenya’s capital Nairobi. At that time Ngugi worked as a professor of literature at the city’s university. They decided together which language would be appropriate for the piece.
Later, Ngugi wa Thiong’o reflected,” just the fact that we had to ask ourselves in what language we would write the drama, says a lot about how far removed we were from our homeland.” The logical answer was to write the piece in Kikuyu. With more than six million speakers, it is the most widespread native language in Kenya.
The play in Kikuyu language, “Ngaahika Ndeenda” translated to “I will marry when I want,” became an instant success.
The story is an attack against neo-coloniliasm and examines how those who fought for Kenya’s independence grew corrupt with power and colluded with the imperialists.
However, in the eyes of the government, Ngugi’s influence as a critical thinker had gone too far. The regime banned the drama after only nine shows. Ngugi was subsequently arrested and detained for a year.
Writing on toilet paper
Detention only strengthened Ngugi’s resolve to write in his native language. While in prison he wrote his first Kikuyu novel “Caitaani Mutharaba-ini” translated and published as “Devil on the cross.” Ngugi wrote the entire book secretly on toilet paper.
“Toilet paper in prison is meant to punish prisoners, so it is very coarse,” the author explained some years later. “But what is bad for the body, can sometimes be very good writing material.”
Ngugi’s departure from writing in English sparked a heated debate. Facing him were writers such as the late Nigerian Chinua Achebe who is considered one of Africa’s literary giants. However, for Ngugi, colonial languages are a symbol of neo-colonial oppression.
Upon learning of a murder plot against him by the government of former President Daniel arap Moi in 1982, Ngugi fled the East African nation for self-imposed exile in England.
Tragic return home
The acclaimed author returned to Kenya in 2004 after Moi had left power.
Thousands of Kenyans greeted him enthusiastically, but shortly afterwards armed thugs invaded his apartment. They tortured the writer and raped his wife. Three suspects were caught and sentenced to death for rape and theft. Ngugi suspected a political link with the attack and left the country again.
Ngugi’s vision is that “works that are written in African languages such as Luo or Yoruba, be directly translated to other African languages without going through English.” The writer believes doing so would mean that African languages are communicating directly with each other.
Currently, the multiple honorary doctor and professor of English and Comparative Literature lives in the United States, where he teaches at the University of California.