In The House Of The Interpreter

In The House Of The Interpreter. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Harvill Secker, London, 2012. Pp. 240. ISBN. 978 1 84655 6289 (hb). £16.99.

Reviewing the first volume of memoirs by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Dreams in a Time of War (LB No. 72), a chronicle of a journey from childhood to ritual manhood, I said ‘let’s hope there’s more to follow’. That hope is richly rewarded in this second memoir that follows Ngugi into secondary education at the prestigious Alliance High School, at the doors of which he has arrived at the end of the first volume.

One of the intriguing aspects of this memoir is the identification, by Ngugi, of incidents in his schooldays that were to emerge later in his novels. For instance, cross-country running ‘made me understand why the metaphor of running the good race was central to the Francisan Christian ideal. Years later running would become an important symbol in my books, especially in A Grain of Wheat.’. An incident in Weep Not Child, a discussion between the fictional Njoroge and Stephen, is identified as being based on that between the young Ngugi and a white Kenyan youth at a Quaker organised camp. Ngugi also chronicles the rich resources of the Alliance school library. (‘I swore I would read all the books in the library’). Building on his earlier discovery of Lorna Doone, Great Expectations and Treasure Island he now devours ‘G.A.Henty’s historical empire-building heroics’, and the Biggles novels of Captain W.E. Johns, and Rider Haggard. These encounters also provoked questions. ‘It was only when I came to Biggles in Africa that I started to feel uncomfortable with the portrayal of non-English characters. Biggles was an RAF pilot, and he reminded me of the same force dropping bombs on Mau Mau guerrillas on Mount Kenya’. King Solomon’s Mines created ‘the same odd feelings…. Haggard and other popular writers, when it came to my continent, were penning from the same dictum: imperialism was normal, resistance to it immoral.’

Alliance was clearly an exciting if somewhat alarming educational experience, guided by the devout and eccentric headmaster Carey Francis, with a team of mostly white teachers.  Here the young Ngugi performed, debated, boxed – albeit only once, as, though winning by a fluke, ‘I just couldn’t see myself as victorious for hurting another, even in sport’ – and developed his political thinking. He encountered Shakespeare, both as reader and performer. Shakespeare, he noted, ‘may have been beloved by the colonial establishment…but his portrayal of blatant power struggles, like conflicts between the feudal and the new social order dramatized in King Lear, spoke directly to the struggles for power in Kenya at the time.’ Not, one suspects, the message the Alliance teachers wanted to convey, despite their dedication to their students.

There is a cruel twist to this fascinating chronicle of Ngugi’s generally positive experience of his secondary education, in the final chapter, entitled ‘A Tale of the Hounds at the Gate’. Four months after leaving Alliance, with his acceptance for Makerere confirmed, the young student teacher Ngugi, travelling between Nairobi and Limuru, is – along with the other passengers – hauled off the bus at gunpoint at an army checkpoint.  Accused of not having correct tax papers he and other passengers are detained in a local home guard post. The next morning he is interrogated by the soldiers’ commanding officer – a young white boy ‘looking harmless except for the pistol hanging from his hip, which he keeps touching as if he is afraid  of his own officers’. Ngugi nicknames him ‘Johnny the Red’:



Bound for College, I see?


Johnny the Red leans back, seemingly relaxed, as if ready to hold conversation on a theme more to his taste than the sordid business of probing if poor farmers, men older than him, have paid taxes or are telling the truth.

You have beaten me to it, he says, with something like a smile. I am waiting to hear if I have been accepted at Oxford. I am a graduate of Duke of York, your nemesis in hockey, he adds with a hint of pride.

But Ngugi’s feeling that he was about to be released was soon dashed:

Johnny the Red, the hockey-loving-college-student-in-waiting has resumed his authoritarian look of a British colonial officer determined to enforce law and order.

He has found something more morally uplifting to enforce than chasing poor farmers for poll tax.

So you were resisting arrest? Even fighting my own officers? Do you think that Alliance has given you license to attack a police officer doing his duty?

On these trumped up charges the young Ngugi was thrown into prison for day after humiliating day, Johnny the Red is graphically described as ‘a white cat playing with a black mouse….[L]ittle did I know that this ordeal would turn out to be a rehearsal for others ahead’.

This volume closes with Ngugi, in 1959, setting off by train to Kampala, to enrol at Makerere University College. The third promised volume of these extraordinary memoirs will centre on the Makerere years. Perhaps one may hope that Johnny the Red may read them.

Reviewed by: Martin Banham, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 103-105]