Authors: Ngugi wa Thiong’o

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Kenyan novelist, playwright, and essayist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Weep Not, Child, 1964

The River Between, 1965

A Grain of Wheat, 1967

Secret Lives, 1974

Petals of Blood, 1977

Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini, 1980 (Devil on the Cross, 1982)

Matigari ma Njiruungi, 1986 (Matigari, 1989)

Short Fiction:

Secret Lives, and Other Stories, 1975


The Black Hermit, pr. 1962

This Time Tomorrow: Three Plays, pb. 1970 (includes The Rebels, The Wound in My Heart, and This Time Tomorrow)

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, pr. 1974 (with Micere Githae-Mugo)

Ngaahika Ndeenda, pr. 1977 (with Ngugiwa Mirii; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982)

Maitu Njugira, pb. 1982 (with Ngugi wa Mirii; Mother, Sing for Me, 1986)


Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, 1972

Writers in Politics, 1981, revised 1997

Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, 1981

Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya, 1983

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986

Writing Against Neocolonialism, 1986

Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, 1993

Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa, 1998


The World of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1995 (Charles Cantalupo, editor; essays, poems, and interviews)


Along with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (ehn-GEW-gee wah tee-ONG-goh) of Kenya is one of the increasing number of African writers of international stature and reputation. Born James Ngugi in Kamiriithu village, twelve miles northeast of Nairobi, to Thiong’o wa Nducu and one of his four wives, Ngugi came of age during the Mau Mau resistance to British colonial rule. His father was one of many Gikuyu farmers who, dispossessed of their land in the Kiambu District, were forced to become laborers on their own farms. One of twenty-eight children in the extended family, Ngugi was until the age of nine raised with a mixture of Gikuyu traditional customs and Christian values. From 1947 to 1949, he attended the mission school in nearby Limuru, and he completed his primary education in Maanguu at one of the schools founded in the Independence Schools Movement, a cooperative undertaking by those who viewed education as essential in their fight for freedom from British rule.{$I[AN]9810000887}{$I[A]Ngugi wa Thiong’o}{$S[A]Ngugi, James;Ngugi wa Thiong’o}{$I[geo]KENYA;Ngugi wa Thiong’o}{$I[tim]1938;Ngugi wa Thiong’o}

Ngugi’s secondary education continued his development of dual perspectives inherent in the colonial and nationalistic curricula at the previous schools. From 1948 to 1954, he studied at Alliance High School in Kikuyu, eight miles northwest of Nairobi. There he encountered the missionary headmaster Carey Francis, whose rigid views and disdain for Gikuyu customs Ngugi later depicted in fictional form. Although Ngugi eventually acquired a complex religious but humanistic sensibility through his examination of biblical lore and Christian teachings, the Protestant bias against Africans and their beliefs left a bitter legacy that influenced him long after his adolescent years. During this period, Ngugi’s family was engaged in the Mau Mau struggle. His brother, Wallace Mwangi, fought with Mau Mau forces from 1954 to 1956. His parents and other relatives were detained as subversives, and a stepbrother was killed in the fighting. His entire home village was relocated by the British during the warfare between 1952 and 1956. Although he himself did not fight because of his young age and the responsibility to pursue his education, Ngugi came to view the Mau Mau struggle as a model of the heroic quest for independence and as an idealized example of the worldwide fight against social injustice. Indeed, the Mau Mau war became the central theme and subject for much of his later fiction and drama.

After he graduated from high school, Ngugi in 1963 completed work in the honors English program at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda, then the only school in East Africa that conferred degrees in English literature. Productive in his own creative efforts, Ngugi drafted his first two novels, several short stories, his first play, and two additional one-act plays. He was also active in literary circles and contributing to the Nairobi newspaper Daily Nation, and in his creative writing he showed the influence of the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad; he did not seem to object to the conventional colonial syllabus under which he studied. In 1961, he had married Nyambura, and during this time they had two sons, the first of five children. In 1964, Ngugi left Africa to pursue a degree in English studies at Leeds University in England. There his exposure to socialism and the radical views of students who openly debated issues of social and political justice set him on a transformatory journey. He had reached a point of crisis, and, pondering the issue of universal values, he began to question the value of continuing to write in English. He traveled to literary conferences in New York and Moscow, meeting several radical writers, and also began to study Caribbean literature. Work on his novel A Grain of Wheat, which he began drafting at this time, helped him define his systematic model of the Mau Mau years as a paradigm of resistance to colonial rule. His first two novels–Weep Not, Child and The River Between–were a cultural and political chronicle of the Gikuyu from precolonial rule to the Mau Mau years. In A Grain of Wheat, he found an aesthetic complexity of multiple points of view that permitted him to compare Mau Mau resistance fighters with those Kenyans who collaborated with the British. Ngugi returned to Kenya in 1967 without finishing his degree but with a growing international reputation, having been the first East African to publish novels in English.

Taking up a teaching post at Nairobi University, Ngugi set about reforming the curriculum from the British canon to an African-based program of study that included the diverse oral traditions that had never been considered literature in the colonial university. In 1969, siding with students who were protesting the lack of academic freedom, he resigned in protest. In many senses Ngugi was carrying out his own intellectual Mau Mau war against the legacies of British education in East Africa, just as his heroes had done throughout his first three novels. By 1970, Ngugi was at Makerere University once more, as a fellow in creative writing; there he helped conclude curriculum revisions along the lines of those at Nairobi and organized a writers’ workshop. That same year, he renounced his Christian name and took the traditional Gikuyu name. In 1970, he taught African literature at Northwestern University in the United States. While in Chicago, he witnessed the degradation of African Americans and came to deplore the conditions of ghetto life, convinced that American racism was the result not only of a long history of psychological conditioning but also of systematic political and economic exploitation. He returned to Nairobi University in 1971 to head the English Department and complete the curriculum changes he had initiated two years earlier. While teaching there for the next five years, he became recognized as the leading proponent of a radical Marxist-humanist East African literature.

Ngugi’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi continued his celebration of the Mau Mau resistance, and it found popular reception among Kenyans for its examination of heroic leadership. The publication of Petals of Blood in 1977, however, disturbed many of Kenya’s neocolonial leaders. Written in the format of a detective novel and continuing the chronicle of the earlier three novels into the postindependence era, the book suggested that many of the leaders were corrupt and interested in maintaining a colonial relationship with the West. Ngugi’s activism did not evoke the full wrath of the authorities until his staging of I Will Marry When I Want at the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Center in Limuru. A depiction of “proletarization of the peasantry in a neocolonial society,” the play portrayed a government in collusion with Western petrochemical corporations and suggested that contemporary leaders were acting essentially as the British did before independence in depriving peasants of their lands while encouraging the dispossessed to work as laborers for the Western companies at very low wages. The play also emphasized the large gap between the wealthy class and the Kenyan masses, and, through a celebration of the Mau Mau legacy, came just short of calling for political revolution. Crowds jammed the roads between Limuru and Nairobi to see performances until the authorities banned the play. Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charges on December 31, 1977.

Despite international protests and appeals, Ngugi was held incommunicado until mid-December, 1978. His release was not accompanied by reinstatement in his post at the university, which had been terminated at the time of his detention. Ironically, the next two years of government-enforced unemployment and isolation, which were intended to silence him, proved to be his most prolific since his student days at Makerere. Unflinchingly didactic as he had been in much of his fiction and in his plays, Ngugi published his memoirs of prison, set about writing and collecting three books of essays, and renewed his early interests in education by recasting his Mau Mau stories in a series of books for children. Ngugi’s themes center on the necessity of leadership, education, and socialist reforms in an open democracy. His novels and plays constitute an ongoing critique of colonial betrayal and neocolonial corruption. His social and literary criticism of the 1980’s and 1990’s centers on his calculated use of Gikuyu and Kiswahili as languages of literary creation, a choice confirmed during his detention and begun in 1978 with the classic prison novel Devil on the Cross, which was originally written in Gikuyu on toilet paper. Although English is no longer the language in which he creates, Ngugi continues to translate his work into English. Although he is sometimes criticized for his didacticism and repetitive subject matter and themes, most of his critics and readers find that his skillful characterization, plotting, and use of cultural details overcome any didactic weight. Ngugi has won a lasting place in literary history as one of the most important African writers of the century.

BibliographyCantalupo, Charles, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Texts and Contexts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. A selection of contributions from a major conference held in 1994 to honor and examine Ngugi’s work. Although the emphasis is on the prose works, the criticism touches on issues, including Ngugi’s status as an exile and his use of the Gikuyu language, that also inform the drama.Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: An Exploration of His Writings. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1997. Part of the Studies in African Literature series, this volume offers insightful comments about Ngugi’s work.Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Examines each of Ngugi’s works in the context of its historical background and in the light of Ngugi’s life. Gikandi asserts that Ngugi’s novels are of primary importance to Ngugi himself, and that the drama and criticism are meant to supplement the novels.Killam, G. D. An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi. London: Heinemann, 1980. A good starting point for the study of Ngugi, with a biographical outline, an introduction, individual chapters devoted to one title, a bibliography, and an index.Killam, G. D. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” In The Writing of East and Central Africa. London: Heinemann, 1984. The three parts of this volume contain chapters surveying writing in six countries, chapters on genres, and chapters on individual authors. A useful study for those who wish to understand authors in these contexts. Includes an index.Lovesey, Oliver. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Twayne, 2000. The best introduction to Ngugi’s life and work for the general reader. Among its five chapters of criticism and analysis is one on “Performing Revolution: Plays and Film.” Also includes a chronology and annotated bibliography.Moore, Gerald. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Towards Uhuru.” In Twelve African Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. The introduction provides a quick overview of issues in studying African literature. The twelve authors, selected for their longevity as writers, are appraised individually and comparatively. Contains references, a bibliography of primary sources, a suggested reading list, and an index.Nazareth, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Twayne, 2000. A collection of essays, most of them previously published, that examine themes, language use, and use of the oral tradition in Ngugi’s novels.Ndigirigi, Gicingiri. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Drama and the Kamiriithu Popular Theater Experiment. Lawrenceville: Africa World Press, 2000. The only book-length critical study devoted entirely to Ngugi’s drama, this book treats the plays individually and as a continuum revealing the author’s search for social relevance.Parker, Michael, and Roger Starkey, eds. Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. The works of Ngugi, Chinua Achebe, Anita Desai, and Derek Walcott are discussed in this thoughtful volume. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Research in African Literature 16, no. 2 (1985). A special issue on Ngugi that provides important criticism on Ngugi’s work.Sharma, Govind Narain. “Socialism and Civilization: The Revolutionary Traditionalism of Ngugi wa Thiong’o.” Ariel 19 (April, 1988): 21-30. Offers comments on Ngugi’s commitment to Marxism, his contempt for the middle class, and his observations on the Mau Mau uprising. Deals extensively with I Will Marry When I Want and Devil on the Cross, dividing African history into pre-and postimperialist eras.Sicherman, Carol. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1957-1987. London: Hans Zell, 1989. A treasure for the scholar, with citations of Ngugi’s works in the original languages, manuscripts and other unpublished material, translations, secondary sources, undated material, nonprint media, and indexes of authors, editors, translators, titles, interviews, and subjects. Includes a brief introduction and preface.Williams, Patrick. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000. Examines all Ngugi’s writing through Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. Includes detailed analysis of all the major plays, in accessible and stimulating language.
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