Biography of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (born James wa Thiong’o Ngũgĩ; also known as James Ngũgĩ) is a Kenyan writer, academic, and social activist, born on January 5, 1938 in Limuru, Kenya. During his early youth, Ngũgĩ lived in a Kenya dominated by British settler colonialism. His father, like many subjects in Ngũgĩ's own novels, was a peasant laborer on a wealthy African landowner's estate. His mother was one of his father's four wives, and Ngũgĩ grew up with more than 20 brothers and sisters. Though he expected at an early age to spend his entire life keeping up with farm work, Ngũgĩ's life changed when his mother, who was herself illiterate, took charge of her son's education around the age of 9. His mother's encouragement sustained him in making education a top priority of his youth, and Ngũgĩ attended Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools before graduating from Alliance High School, a Western-style school with Christian leanings. Against the backdrop of Ngũgĩ's education, however, was Kenya's Mau Mau Uprising—a violent struggle by several of Kenya's ethnic groups against the colonial rule of England, as well as several auxiliary forces and local sympathizers. Many of Ngũgĩ's own family members participated in the Mau Mau wars, and as a result his parents were arrested, and his stepbrother was killed.

While the conflict raged, however, Ngũgĩ moved to Uganda in 1958 to attend Makerere College. While enrolled at Makerere, Ngũgĩ began a relationship with Nyambura, whom he later married and had 5 children with. Also while in college, Ngũgĩ prolifically completed the writing for his first novel, authored many short stories, and penned many plays. One of these plays, The Black Hermit (1962), was Ngũgĩ's first major work, earning him repute and prestige in the local literary scene. After graduating from Makere in 1963, the same year that Kenya earned its independence, Ngũgĩ worked briefly as a journalist in Nairobi before attending Leeds University in England. While there, Ngũgĩ became the first East African to publish a major in English when he published Weep Not, Child in 1964 to critical acclaim. The following year, he published his second novel, The River Between. Also while at Leeds, Ngũgĩ began to associate with a series of intellectuals and radicals that shaped his interest in the political, who also moved Ngũgĩ to begin to engage with Marxist thought. Fittingly, this ideological development in Ngũgĩ was accompanied by a shift in his narrative technique: in 1967, Ngũgĩ published A Grain of Wheat, a text in which multiple storylines unfold across a variety of temporalities. To quote Ngũgĩ's own personal website on this transition in narratology, in A Grain of Wheat, "the collective replaces the individual as the center of history."

By the time A Grain of Wheat was published, Ngũgĩ had already returned to Kenya without finishing his thesis on Caribbean literature at Leeds. Instead, he worked as a lecturer in the English Literature department at the University of Nairobi, where he championed the need to remove "English" from the department's title to emphasize inclusion and the prioritization of global literatures. He had already begun to question at this point one of the central foci of his adult academic career: what is African literature, and how can it be prioritized in academic spaces, since even in Africa, local customs and art forms have been discarded in favor of an international canon? In 1969, he resigned from Nairobi University, served briefly on the faculty of Northwestern University, and then returned to Nairobi University, where he became the chair of the English Literature Department, continuing his crusade of placing African literature at the center of the African literary curriculum. He served as the department head from 1972 until 1977, when he published his novel Petals of Blood. It was at this time that Ngũgĩ also discarded his english name, James, in favor of being called Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Additionally, in 1976 Ngũgĩ co-authored the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi with his colleague Micere Githae Mugo, a harsh depiction of how the British state had the revolutionary Kimathi killed in 1957 for his Mau-Mau-era freedom fighting. This play is considered by many to be Ngũgĩ's masterpiece.

1977 was a very consequential year for Ngũgĩ. Not only was Petals of Blood, with its harsh depictions of neocolonial Kenyan life, received with critical fervor as a bombshell text both within Kenya and abroad, but it was also the year that Ngũgĩ cowrote a very controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). This play, staged in an open-air theater in Limuru, was also unsparing in its critique of the Kenyan regime, specifically its exploitation of the poor and of everyday, working people. As a result of the play, Ngũgĩ was arrested and detained at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. While incarcerated, Ngũgĩ made the decision to abandon English as the primary language of his writing, a decision he would later write about in Decolonising the Mind (1986), and it was also during his imprisonment that Ngũgĩ wrote the novel Caitani Mutharabaini (Devil on the Cross), published in Gĩkũyũ in 1980 and English in 1982. Even after Amnesty International lobbied to have Ngũgĩ released from prison in 1978, he was unable to find work in the country due to the harsh dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi. Ngũgĩ moved voluntarily to England to promote Devil on the Cross in the early 1980s, but upon learning that Moi was to have him assassinated upon returning to the country, Ngũgĩ began a period of exile abroad.

In 1986, Ngũgĩ published the novel Matigari ma Njiruungi, which also enraged the Moi government. Thinking that its central character, Matigari, was a real living person, the Moi government issued a warrant for the character's arrest; upon learning that the character was fictional, however, Moi's government banned the book and had it removed from Kenyan bookstores. Moi's regime also attempted to have Ngũgĩ expelled from the U.K., and later the U.S., where Ngũgĩ moved in the late 1980s to teach Comparative Literature, African Literature, and English literature at institutions as diverse as Yale, NYU, and the University of California Irvine, where he currently is a professor. Only in 2004 was Ngũgĩ able to return to Kenya with his wife Njeeri. Even so, they were attacked by 4 hired guns and nearly died, even 2 years after the decline of Moi's regime.

In the time since, Ngũgĩ has continued to publish—Ngũgĩ wrote what many consider to be his masterpiece, Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), publishing it in 2006; Dreams in a Time of War (2010), a memoir of his youth; In the House of the Interpreter (2012), a tale of the Mau Mau Rebellion; Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Writer’s Awakening (2016), which depicts Ngũgĩ's time at Makerere University; and Wrestling with the Devil (2018), an account of his time in prison. He has continued also to edit literary journals, advocate for political transparency and freedom, and he has earned many literary academic awards including 11 honorary doctorates. He is frequently listed among the potential recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and his works have been translated into over 30 languages.


Study Guides on Works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o