A Childhood Memoir
By Ngugi wa Thiong’o
In Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi deftly etches a bygone era, capturing the landscape, the people, and their culture; the social and political vicissitudes of life under colonialism and war; and the troubled relationship between an emerging Christianized middle class and the rural poor.
And he shows how the Mau Mau armed struggle for Kenya’s independence against the British informed not only his own life but also the lives of those closest to him.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o was born in 1938 in rural Kenya to a father whose four wives bore him more than a score of children. The man who would become one of Africa’s leading writers was the fifth child of the third wife.
Even as World War II affected the lives of Africans under British colonial rule in particularly unexpected ways, Ngugi spent his childhood as very much the apple of his mother’s eye before attending school to slake what was then considered a bizarre thirst for learning.
Ngugi recounts a similarly harrowing childhood with a ruthlessly demanding father and four long-suffering mothers. Alongside 23 siblings, the boy grew up in the twilight of British colonialism, just as the bloody Mau Mau Rebellion threatened to swallow the country whole.
Young Ngugi, however, proved to be bright beyond his years. His mother, alert to his abilities, offered to send him to school. She exacted a promise from him that if she were to invest her hard-won money in his education, he would do his best, never miss a day of school and never bring shame on her. He agreed. That pledge, undertaken when he was 9, would guide the boy to manhood.
Then, Rumor had it that whites had a master plan to take control of the entire continent, from Cape to Cairo; that a Eugenics Society was “plotting to kill black babies at birth,” sparing only the feeble-minded.
With so much fear in the air, a revolutionary fervor mounted. Jomo Kenyatta became the president of the Kenya African Union, a grass-roots organization established to monitor British offenses.
Within two years, the Mau Mau Society, a radical anti-colonial movement, was operating at full throttle, targeting British properties. The government declared a state of emergency.
British officers were ordered to execute the most prominent political figures and comb the countryside for rebels. Those deemed suspicious were shuttled off to concentration camps. One of Ngugi’s half brothers, “Good Wallace,” joined the insurrection and headed for the hills.
But for all these references to the mounting chaos, Ngugi’s memoir is not about the world adults had made. “Dreams in a Time of War” hews to the promise the boy made his mother. Young Ngugi carries on his studies, despite all possible adversity. He marches off to school, takes joy in his ability to read, memorizes poetry, sits at the front of every classroom.
The picture of Kenya that he presents, in other words, is admirably free of cant or sentimentality, and yet it is enough to make you weep. Here is a child, against the backdrop of a terrible war -- traveling a bloodied land with pen and paper -- thinking a dream can forge a better world.
Like all good memoirs, “Dreams in a Time of War” is imbued with the reflections of the adult author yet hews closely to its time-frame of Ngũgĩ’s childhood in Kenya Colony, which begins with his birth in 1938 and ends with his coming-of-age circumcision in 1954. His dreams center around obtaining an education.
The wars are World War II, in which Africans are conscripted to fight for the colonial powers on each side and the Mau Mau War of Independence against the British.
But there are many more personal wars in this memoir: conflicts between fathers and sons; mothers and daughters; psycho dynamics between siblings and friends.