Dreams In a Time of War

Acclaimed novelist and playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes of his Kenyan childhood.

Dreams In a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir By Ngugi wa Thiong’o Pantheon Books 256 pp., $24.95

The title of this evocative memoir, by the internationally acclaimed novelist and playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o, comes from a pact he once made with his mother – to continue dreaming even in a time of war. Born in 1938, in the shadow of World War II, the author grew up in rural Kenya, where he was one of his father’s 24 children (among four wives). Ngugi was the fifth child of Wanjiku wa Ngugi, his father’s third wife.

His father, Thiong’o wa Nducu, was neither divorced nor widowed. “My earliest recollection of home was of a large courtyard, five huts forming a semicircle,” explains Ngugi. “One of these was my father’s, where goats also slept at night.” Ngugi’s father was a man who was served and waited on by his wives, but he was a largely absent, aloof figure in his children’s lives. As a result, Ngugi was deeply attached to his mother, and if she went anywhere without him, he cried for hours until she returned.

Dreams in a Time of War is a collection of stories from the author’s childhood, with each chapter serving as an episode of sorts. Whether recalling joyful or challenging times, Ngugi displays a plainspoken yet beautiful prose style.

Although the complex family dynamic could be confusing at times, it functioned fairly well. “The four women forged a strong alliance vis-à-vis the outside world, their husband, and even their children,” Ngugi writes. “Any of them could rebuke and discipline any one of us kids, the culprit likely to get additional punishment if she complained to the biological mother.”

Life was in some ways idyllic, until Ngugi’s father became violent with his mother and suddenly banished Wanjiku and her children from their community. (They went to live with her parents instead.) Ngugi developed a closeness with his grandfather that he had never known with his own father.

A recurring pleasure in Ngugi’s childhood is the African tradition of storytelling. Some stories were humorous and magical; others were narratives of war, famine, and abuses suffered at the hands of the colonial government.

One of the book’s most poignant moments occurs in 1947, when Ngugi is 9 years old. His mother approaches him one evening with a simple question: “Would you like to go to school?” He was so stunned by the question – school was for wealthy families, not peasants – that his mother had to ask him again, and he eagerly accepted her offer. “You know we are poor,” she added, telling him that going to school meant that he would not always get a midday meal. His subsequent efforts to keep up his education – and what he was willing to do toward that goal – may seem shocking to most Americans, for whom education is a right rather than a privilege.

Ngugi recounts his passion for reading, and his discovery that “written words can also sing,” which he learned upon finding a copy of the Old Testament. He carried it with him constantly, yet his nighttime reading was limited – a frustrating reality of poverty. “I read by the light of an unreliable and coverless kerosene lantern,” he writes. “Paraffin means money and there are days when the lamp has no oil.” Despite austere circumstances, his is a childhood of boundless love and (what seems like) abundance.

His efforts at education and self-reliance mirror the will of Africa itself to achieve independence from British colonial rule. Ngugi relates the exciting surge of African independent schools, established in opposition to the proselytizing missionary centers that were the dominant source of education. The missionary schools glorified whites and offered false, revisionist stories of African history.

Growing up, Ngugi saw national traditions become criminalized. Lands were seized, independent schools were “banned,” and other brutal measures were taken by the colonial government to stifle independence. He recalls how, at the African-founded Kenyan College, “the biggest blow to the collective psyche” occurred when the campus was converted into a prison camp where rebels were hanged.

After World War I, English soldiers were rewarded with African land, Ngugi writes, and in World War II, more Africans contributed to the war effort than the world would ever know – yet they were “rewarded” by having their land stolen yet again.

The atrocities suffered during Ngugi’s adolescence, in the years of the Mau Mau uprising, are startling and vivid, yet through it all he finds solace in his close-knit family. And, as he writes toward the end of the book, “I seek refuge in learning.”

Today, Ngugi is a world away from his Kenyan childhood: An accomplished novelist, playwright, and social activist, he holds the title of distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine. His inspiring story is a testament to his extraordinary resilience and stubborn refusal to surrender his dreams.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.

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