Biography of Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a Kenyan novelist and playwright. One of the most celebrated living African novelists, he has also developed a reputation as a post-colonial theorist and has taught at universities worldwide.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru, Kenya, in 1938. Baptized James Ngugi, Ngũgĩ grew up amidst the Mau Mau Uprising, during which two of his brothers were killed, and his mother was tortured. These traumatic events influenced Ngũgĩ's writing and post-colonial philosophy.

He studied at Makerere University in Uganda. As a student, he published his first short stories and presented his play, The Black Hermit, at the 1962 African Writer's Conference. After graduating in 1963, he pursued a Master's degree at Leeds University in England but left before completing his thesis.

During his advanced studies, Ngũgĩ became interested in Fanonist Marxism, the anti-colonialist philosophy developed by Pan-Africanist psychiatrist Frantz Omar Fanon. Ngũgĩ dropped his Western first name, adopting his current name to emphasize his cultural pride. This is why some editions of his early books—including Weep Not, Child, and The River Betweenare published under "James Ngugi." Since then, he has published most of his novels in Gĩkũyũ before translating them for English-speaking audiences abroad.

Despite his stylistic shifts, Ngũgĩ's interest in the legacy of colonialism has remained consistent. His work is often highly political, which has caused much controversy in Kenya. While teaching at the University of Nairobi, he campaigned for the university to prioritize African literature, including oral traditions, and revitalize diverse African languages in the process. These arguments led the university to drop the English Literature program in the 1960s.

In 1976, Ngũgĩ organized The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre, which hosted African Theatre. Then-Vice President Daniel Arap Moi called for Ngũgĩ's arrest after Ngũgĩ's political plays and novel Petals of Blood gained renown. In his theatre, Ngũgĩ attempted to involve the audience directly, making his political messages more threatening to authorities. Ngũgĩ' was imprisoned in 1977 and held without trial for a year with other political prisoners in inhumane conditions. During his imprisonment, Ngũgĩ' penned the novel Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (Devil on the Cross) on toilet paper, deciding to only write in his native language, Gĩkũyũ, from then on.

Though Ngũgĩ' was released from prison in 1978, he lost his academic position, and his family was harassed, forcing him to live in exile in Europe and America until Arap Moi stepped down in 2002. During this time, Ngũgĩ' taught at Bayreuth University and Yale University.

In 2004, Ngũgĩ and his wife returned to Kenya on tour, only to be assaulted in their home in what is believed to have been a political attack. After, in 2006, Ngũgĩ was harassed in San Francisco. Since then, Ngũgĩ has published prolifically, including memoirs and essays.

Ngũgĩ currently holds a post as Distinguished Professor in Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. Four of his children, Tee Ngũgĩ, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ, are published authors. Ngũgĩ has been awarded numerous literary honors and holds fourteen honorary degrees from prestigious universities. In recent years, Ngũgĩ has been considered a frontrunner to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Study Guides on Works by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Published in 1986 in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's native language, Gĩkũyũ, Matigari ma Njiruungi follows the story of a mythologized revolutionary who survives a revolution in an unnamed country. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o wrote Matigari largely in exile in a...