Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngugi lived through the wrenching cultural change he writes about in Petals of Blood. His parents separated when he was a boy, and his education veered from one centered on Kenya’s native Gikuyu language to instruction in English. It was under English schooling that Ngugi fell in love with writing—he emphasizes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treausure Island as a book that “set my imagination flying.” A gifted child, Ngugi gained admission to an elite high school, and there he became politically radicalized. His whole life was filtered through his Christian faith, his campaigning for more Afrocentric education, and his obsession with writing. In 1955, he returned home from school to a less cerebral agitation: his home village had been ripped apart by an antiguerrilla campaign.
Ngugi’s mother would be tortured for three months because of her suspected collaboration with the guerrillas. It is a testament to Ngugi’s faith in the power of education that, faced with trauma like this, he threw himself into his studies and continued to distinguish himself academically. At Uganda’s Makerere University Ngugi edited magazines, wrote fiction and plays, and became a columnist for Kenya’s flagship newspaper the Daily Nation. After graduating from Makerere, he attended Leeds University in England, where he was introduced to Marxist and anticolonial writers.
Ngugi’s fierce intellect as well as his ideas on labor and African authenticity made him a professional star. In the late ’60s, he became the first African lecturer in Nairobi College’s English department, and eventually moved the department’s emphasis from English to literature in languages from across the African diaspora. He began publishing award-winning novels, and in 1970 he started Petals of Blood, which he finished five years later at the Soviet Writers Union in Yalta.
At the 1977 book launch for Petals, Kenyan Vice President Mwai Kibaki (Kenya’s current president) cited his own attendance as evidence that Kenya was a defender of free speech. But that same year, Ngugi was detained for a year “for possessing banned books.” While in detention, writing parts of a new book on toilet paper, his youngest child was born, and was dubbed Wamuinigi by locals of his hometown: “she who belongs to the people.”
Ngugi faced harassment thereafter but never again as seriously. In the mid-’80s, he began writing in the Gikuyu language of his family and his first school, and has continued to the present. Today he is an A-list academic, making the rounds at prestigious English departments around the world.