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Review of Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir / Christopher Okigbo: Thirsting for Sunlight


By Martin Banham

Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Harvill Secker, London , 2010. Pp. 256. ISBN. 978 1 84655 3776 (hb). £12.99.

Christopher Okigbo: Thirsting for Sunlight. Obi Nwakanma. James Currey/Boydel and Brewer and HEBN, Woodbridge, Suffolk/ Rochester NY and Ibadan, 2010. Pp. 276. ISBN. 978 1 84701 0131 1 (hb). £55.

In this wonderful (and hopefully, first) volume of autobiography, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o traces the early days of his life from the late 1930s, with his determination to fulfil the pact that he made with his greatly loved and influential mother to pursue her dreams for his education. The volume ends with the young Ngugi having won a prized scholarship to secondary school, but these early years of his life are described with extraordinary and informative detail, and constantly enriched by the novelist’s eye and ear. There are wonderful moral anecdotes, such as the two young brothers who fight over bananas, both wanting the biggest: a dispute resolved by an old man offering to adjudicate, and eating both. There are insights into the young Ngugi’s voracious appetite for reading, from the adventures of John and Joan, who lived in Oxford and went to school in Reading (enviably, by train!) to Great Expectations, Lorna Doone and – especially – Treasure Island. Being told tales in childhood, Ngugi records, he hated it when others interrupted the storyteller as ‘I was keen to hear what happened next even when I already knew the story’. But although there is an endearing innocence in recounting his childhood, it was also one scarred by family breakdown and eventually by traumatic divisions between those loyal to the colonial government and those – especially his greatly admired older brother Good Wallace – who joined to fight with the Mau Mau. One of the powerful features of the memoir is the experience of a young child living through times of often bewildering violence – sometimes directly experienced. There is an appalling incident of the young Ngugi and a school friend being rounded up at gunpoint with others by white police officers and interrogated about their families by ‘a man wrapped from top to bottom in a white sheet, two slits for eyes. This was the dreaded gakunia, the man in the hood.’

From the innocence of childhood, to the passion for education, from the caring observation of the culture of his people, to the growing awareness of a violent colonial struggle, this chronicle of Ngugi’s early years engages us with the novelist’s sensitive observation and informs us through the author’s rich memory. A journey from childhood to ritual manhood. To go back to where I started: let’s hope that there is more to follow.

Obi Nwakanma’s authoritative biography of Christopher Okigbo makes an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of Nigerian creative writing from 1960 onwards, but it is also a fitting tribute to the man. There is no comparable critical or biographical study of Okigbo, a major poet with a reputation well beyond West Africa, an artist who in his life and work flew tantalisingly close to the flame. Okigbo was a man of many talents and – in his short but mercurial life – many trades. He was a civil servant, teacher, librarian, publisher as well as a poet, passionate in all that he did. Nwakanma’s intimate study also helps us to understand what drew Okigbo into the perils of war, and his almost predictably crazy but courageous death.

The strength of this study is in its organisation and detail, offering eight chronological chapters from 1930 to Okigbo’s death in 1967 fighting on the Biafran side in the Nigerian Civil War. The author has researched his subject with enormous thoroughness, interviewing a range of people who knew Okigbo either intimately or by reputation, and building an energetic chronicle of Okigbo’s life and times and, in parallel, the Nigerian academic and artistic world in which he thrived. His personal life – never less than colourful and complicated – is detailed (perhaps too detailed?), and the world around him, in those most combustious decades of recent Nigerian history, brought strongly to life. To some extent the study is stronger on the life than – in a critical sense – the poetry, but Okigbo’s poetry is sensitively brought into the biographical narrative.

This is a sometimes breathless, sometimes overcrowded biography, but it is hugely well-informed, and is an indispensable reference not only to the work of a fine poet and a man who lives vividly in the memory of all of us fortunate enough to have known him, but also to the buoyant and sometimes dangerous times in which he lived.

A footnote: the volume has the most striking dust-jacket image, based on a painting by the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor that itself derives from Okigbo’s poetry collection Labyrinths. Almost worth buying the book for on its own!

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 125-126]

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