Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is one of Kenya’s most famous writers. Over the years, I’ve read a few of his novels — The River Between (1965), Petals of Blood (1977), and the masterful Wizard of the Crow (2006). Both of the earlier two novels are set against the backdrop of the Mau Mau rebellion, an uprising against the British colonial government by Kenyans – mostly Kikuyus – in the 1950s.
Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, tells the story of Thiong’o’s early life, through the mid-1950s when he was admitted to high school. As with several of Thiong’o’s novels, this story also takes place against the backdrop of Mau Mau. It’s a fascinating account, and it balances the personal with the political. On the personal side, Thiong’o tells of growing up in a polygamous household and of his mother’s efforts to get him to school. His mother and father split when he was a child, and he becomes the scribe to his maternal grandfather. He gives an account — the first I’ve read — of going through the circumcision ceremony, the rite of passage that makes him a man.
At the same time, he describes the political excitement and tension of the time. In the course of Mau Mau, his uncle goes to the mountains to fight, and Thiong’o himself is detained by colonial police on the way home from a religious meeting. The political and the personal intersect repeatedly.
With little access to newspapers – and those filtered by colonial authorities – he and his friends rely on semi-informed and highly creative informants: “Ngandi, like some of his audience, has to read between the lines of the settler-owned newspapers and government radio. But he enriches what he gleans here and there with rich creative interpretation.” Still, as Thiong’o underlines, “Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive in times of war.”
I listened to the unabridged audiobook (from Audible), narrated by Hakeen Kae-Kazim. I highly recommend the book, the audiobook, and Thiong’o’s other work, especially Wizard of the Crow.