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Review of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening


By Martin Banham

Birth of a Dream Weaver. A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The New Press, New York and London, 2016. Pp. 235. ISBN 978-1-62097-240-3. (hb) $25.95. [Also published by Harvill Secker, 2016, Pp 256, £14.99, ISBN 978 1 84655989].

The first two volumes of autobiography from Ngugi wa Thiong’o, ‘Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir’ (2010), and ‘In the House of the Interpreter’ (2012) (reviewed in volumes 72 and 75 of the Bulletin respectively) trace the writer’s childhood – living through times of often bewildering violence – and his education at the prestigious Alliance High School. The second volume ends with him setting off in 1959 by train from Kenya to Uganda, specifically to take up his scholarship to what was then Makerere University College, and which, as the title of this third volume implies, was the place and time of the writer’s awakening.

Makerere, described then as the Oxbridge of Africa, had all the nostalgic trappings - red gowns for the students (a touch of the St. Andrews’?) and, as Ngugi describes it, ‘a life fraught with friendly rivalries in arenas from sports to drama, and every winning play in the inter-hall English competition on the Hill had always been re-presented at the only major theatre in town. Having the drama appear on a national stage was the most coveted outcome of a win.’ In 1961 his first one-act play, ‘The Rebels’, came second (to Peter Nazareth’s ‘Brave New Cosmos’) but in 1962 Ngugi won with ‘The Wound in the Heart’. ‘My stars were well-aligned. On to the National Theatre we go, I thought’. But silence followed and the anticipated production failed to materialise. The play, as Ngugi describes it, ‘is set in Kenya during the armed liberation struggle against the settler British state.’ It features an LFA fighter who returns home from a concentration camp to find that his wife has been raped by a white District Officer. Ngugi set out to find why his play was being declined production. Eventually a sympathetic and clearly embarrassed lecturer had to tell him that the play had been denied production on the grounds that ‘They don’t think a British officer can do that.’

The hurt and anger caused by this comment runs through this volume. ‘Why then, with all the excitement of learning, did denial of a national stage for a one-act drama bother me so much?...The ban told a lie. Unanswered, the compliance would merely cover up the lie’. Ngugi persevered with his writing, often through the medium of newspaper journalism, ‘my first major foray into writing’, but an invitation to join the famous First International Conference of Writers of English Expression held at Makerere in June 1962, prompted by the publication of his short story, ‘The Return’ in ‘Transition’ reinvigorated Ngugi’s creative writing. Already his novel ‘Weep Not Child’ had been completed and was seeking a publisher. With his creative writing Ngugi has, in his own words, ‘redefined the limits of what it meant to be a student’.

This extraordinary memoir bursts with creative energy: ‘I entered Makerere in the 1959 academic year, a colonial subject, and left in 1964, a citizen of an independent Kenya. In these few years a writer was born. I had a novel out, ‘Weep Not, Child’; a second, ‘The River Between’, in the pipeline; a three act play, ‘The Black Hermit’, two one-act plays; and over sixty pieces of journalism in newspapers and magazines.’ And now, savouring the irony, ‘the British Council, which once smashed my dreams with an alleged hand in denying my play, ‘The Wound in the Heart’ a space at the Kampala National Theatre because “British officers could not do such a thing”, now had a big hand in enabling me to pursue my dreams in Leeds, in Yorkshire, the land of Emily Bronte of ‘Wuthering Heights’.’

We have to look forward to further instalments of these brilliant and passionate memoirs.

Martin Banham, University of Leeds

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 78 (Winter 2016/17), pp.187-88]

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