I got a call. The man on the other end of the line said. “Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o is coming into town next month. Would you like to sit down with him?”
“Sure. For the Business Daily?” I asked.
“No, for your blog.”
Of course I said I’d love to sit down with him. It would be a great honour. I mean, are there people who would have said, “Ngugi? What does he want?”
After the phone call, I sat there thinking, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o? Blimey! How do you interview Ngugi wa Thiong’o? What can you possibly write about him that will capture his width, his person? Who are you to write about the godfather of literature? Should I write my piece and send it to him to mark? What the hell do you wear to meet Ngugi wa Thiong’o? What do you eat for breakfast before you go? You don’t want to eat something that will cause your stomach to make noises in the middle of the interview and force you to stop Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o mid-sentence (gasp) to go find the washroom. “I will eat a piece of mushroom,” I decided.
There are people you refer to with one name – Obama, Oprah, Kagame, Rehema (she sells me socks), Rudisha – but then there are others that, out of reverence, you have to refer to by both names. You can’t go around calling Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o Ngugi, as if he’s an uber driver. He’s a distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature. He has written seven novels. Four plays. Six non-fiction books. Three children’s books. He has four honorary degrees. Seven international literature awards. Amidst all this, he made time to have and helped raise nine children. (Yeah, what’s your excuse?). He’s the lighthouse of literature. I mean, when Weep Not Child came out in 1964, my father was still a student.
The man on the phone told me that they would inform me when “Prof” (that’s how they refer to him) would be in town, and block his calendar for me. So I waited. I waited like it was a date. A month passed. Then I thought, ah, Prof must have checked out my blog and work and changed his mind. Maybe he wanted a serious writer, someone who doesn’t use cuss words in his writing. Because saying “shit” must be somewhat a betrayal of our African-ness. (I wonder how our great great grandfathers cursed?) Or maybe he had asked his people, “Why are you sending someone called Jackson Biko to interview me? Can’t we get someone without an English name?” Like Makau Mbula. Or Kariuki Kariuki. Nyongesa Nafula.
One afternoon, the gentleman calls again and says, “Prof is here. He has Saturday morning and Thursday afternoon open, what works for you?” I choose Saturday morning. I will be required to go out to Karen where he’s staying during this visit. The gentleman says he will send me directions Saturday morning.
That morning I drive out with my son, Kim, because Tamms is out on her Saturday horse riding classes. These schools entice our children with these activities. I don’t see how useful riding a horse will be for her in future. I don’t see her living on a sprawling farm. Does horse riding teach children to “stay on the saddle?” Does it teach them not to “look at a gift horse in the mouth?” Will she be as “hungry as a horse” to eat life with a big spoon?
Anyway, I take Kim along because one day I will want Kim to keep the picture of me, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and himself in his house and tell his guests, “This was me. I was only 5-years when I met Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o.”
“Which year was this?”
“This was 2019.” There will be gasps because it will be 2050. Someone will ask, “What is that your dad is wearing; my God, shady! And what did they use to take that picture, an iPhone 8?” and they will laugh because an iPhone 8 will be like a landline then.
Kim loves the idea of getting to a place with the help of Google Maps and hearing the lady say, “In two hundred meters, turn left into Chui Lane.” He likes to think he’s the one leading us. It makes him feel like those explorers who came to Africa and declared themselves to be the first people to discover Lake Victoria.
We stop at a massive gate of a gated community. Kim, obviously never having been to a place like that says, almost suspiciously, “Papa, your friend lives here?” I say, “He’s not my friend. I’m going to interview him.” He says, “You will write about him?” I say, “Only if he’s as interesting as you.” He smiles hard. Kim is easy to impress. I never have to work hard to get a smile. Plus he’s vain.
We drive in, past elegant homes with green lawns, trimmed hedges, driveways with cars the size of small hills, men watering flowers, sprinklers shimmering in the morning sun. Finally the app says, “You have arrived at your destination.” A guard opens the gate for me. The car has attracted the attention of a couple of dogs, which come to stare at the car expectantly. Kim, who you’d imagine would protect his father from harm, looks at me worriedly. I want to tell him, “Oh, you get out first. Maybe they don’t like human meat.”
We get out. He clings onto my hand. A young man who looks like he hadn’t been awake for long receives us and takes us to the backyard where he settles us on the verandah and says Prof. will be out in a moment. A few minutes later he returns and says, “It’s too cold for Prof. to sit outside, so perhaps we can go inside?” Inside turns out to be a study with walls upon walls of books: African Philosophy by Theophile Obenga, Chinua Achebe, Sowing the Mustard Seed by YK Museveni, Nothing But the Truth by Yusuk K Dawood, Tom Mboya by David Goldsworthy, The Land Belongs to Us by Peter Delius, The Poetry of Robert Frost, My Life by Bill Clinton, One Life by Richard Leakey, An Appraisal by Wole Soyinka, Black Writers, White Audience by Egejuru; it’s books upon books, endless in their journey of words. I run my fingers against their spines.
There are framed pictures on the wall of Moi and Jomo Kenyatta and the owner of the home. A heater on the floor warms the room. We sit and wait. Rather, I sit. Kim runs off into the other room to explore, discover and claim. I have a notepad and a pen. I don’t have questions. I never have questions until the moment arrives. My phone is on flight mode. The recorder is ready. I do this thing I read about where you can completely let the muscles of your whole body go limp while you only focus on only breathing. I call it “going into power saving mode.” It helps me get calm. I check my heart rate on my watch; 75 BPM. Not bad, I guess.
Kim comes in and says, “I want a cookie.” I tell him to grow up. No, I don’t. I tell him he’ll get one when we leave. He darts off again, like a dog off to fetch a bone. I sit for two minutes when suddenly a shadow shows up at the door. I rise to my feet. It’s Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the flesh. The first thing that strikes me is his height; he’s short and small-bodied. There is no gale blowing through the room. The next thing I notice is that he’s old. Yes, he’s 81-years old but you never imagine that legends age. You almost imagine that even time would be scared to touch them.
He shuffles into the room with immense presence, coming in like a man who is used to walking into rooms that wait for him, a man who never has to touch the handle of a door. He’s wearing a brown woollen coat over an expensive and comfortable-looking blue cotton tracksuit. He’s wearing open sandals. His hair is peppered with white. His handshake is warm and leathery. His eyes look like they are lubricated by warm milk. Even Kim must realise that he’s in the presence of greatness because he sits next to Prof. and they start playing, ignoring me. Prof. tells him, “You are now going to be called Ngugi and I will be called Kim.” Kim squeals, “Nooo!” Prof says, “Yes, don’t you like the name Ngugi?” Kim says, “Noo, I like my name. You are Ngugi.” He’s poking Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the arm. Prof says, “No, I’m Kim and you are Ngugi.” Kim laughs and says, “Nooo, that’s my name.” It goes on like this. I want to tell Kim to just interview him then. Finally, the young man brings Kim cookies and juice and that distracts him.
When the niceties are over, I ask Prof if he misses his name James and how James Ngugi is different from Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He starts off with an interesting story because he’s the über storyteller. He says, “Do you know the history of Ireland?” I don’t, but I think everybody remembers bombs going off in Belfast and the Irish being called “terrorists.”
He says, “Oh, where do I even begin? Names have a long history. Names and colonial domination go together. British settlers for a long time could not conquer the Irish. They knew they were not going to conquer them using arms. So they came up with ways, one of which was the naming system. Your name is your identity; get rid of their identity and soon they will forget who they are. In other words, it becomes a program, really, for deletion of the Irish memory. I’m not saying it necessarily succeeded, I’m just saying that you can see it being used consciously as a weapon against the mind of the conquered.”
He’s just warming up. I can tell he likes these kinds of conversations.
“Take the Africans who were taken to be enslaved in plantations in the Caribbean and America. Apart from the capture and other terrible things done to our bodies, the first thing to go were names! Each enslaved person had to abandon their own name and was given the name of the plantation owner. If they changed masters from Brown to Smith, they became Smith. African languages were banned in the plantation and people were even hanged for speaking African languages. When I realized that slaves were forced to acquire the names of their slave masters, I said ‘No, not James for me anymore.’ I dropped the name. They used their names to brand us, like you would brand cows. For me, James had to go. I put it in an envelope and wrote on the top, ‘Return to sender.’ ” He laughs.
How does Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o laugh, you may ask? Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o laughs like Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Kim leaves the room.
I tell Prof, “Here you are fighting the ideologies and methods of the white man, then things get hairy in your homeland and you run off to this same white man’s land, and perhaps you had to conform in many ways to survive in his land. How was that for you and is there some irony there?
He smirks. “Remember that I was forced into exile. I did not choose exile, exile chose me. I wanted to work here, in the village with peasants, I wanted to teach in the university…but instead I was shipwrecked in exile. I was staying alive in exile. Kenya has always been my base.”
In 1967, the same year he renounced his name, James, he also released the novel A Grain of Wheat, and also renounced Christianity and writing in English. I ask him what his reasons for renouncing Christianity were. “I am not a Christian but I believe in spirituality,” he says. “Beyond materiality, we strive for something higher. I believe all religions, at the centre of their being, embody this search for spirituality. They come up with rituals to help people in their spiritual strivings. But later, the rituals become more important than the spirituality, consequently drowning it. So a lot of established religions are actually devoid of the spirituality that is the real thing. Spirituality is very important. It’s what makes us. Usually, it is what makes us human and what makes human life. Human life is not simply about eating and reproducing. It started for something more than the materiality of just living.”
Having said that, he doesn’t go to church. He’s not averse to the idea of attending church entirely; he will if the occasion calls for his presence, just as he will visit a mosque. He has been to a Hindu temple and to a synagogue. He prays. “Prayer is just prayer. When we pray, we are talking about our own issues, right? What we are articulating are our wishes for a better life.”
He asks me if Kim is my only child and I tell him I have another one. A prettier one who is at a school activity. That gives me the cue to ask him if he thinks he was a good father to his nine children. “I wish I was the best,” he laughs. “I know that for now I can’t claim that. Only they can tell. Only they can talk about it. But I know my family has suffered a lot because of my political choices. You make certain choices but those choices also affect your family and children. If you are in prison, they have no father around. When you are forced into exile it means a father not around or a father drowning them into conditioned exile…yeah.”
In 1977, he, together with some chap called Ngugi wa Mirii wrote the play I Will Marry When I Want. The powers of the day were pissed off and in an office, Vice President Arap Moi pounded the table angrily and said, “How dare that smartass be allowed to run around writing offensive plays? Don’t just stand there with your wooden rifles, do something!” So Ngugi was thrown in jail under charges of “activities” and “utterances” dangerous for the good of the Government of Kenya and its institutions. He was hosted in Kamiti Maximum prison for a year. There, he killed time by writing the book Devil On The Cross. He wrote the entire book on toilet paper.
I ask him if he was bitter or angry writing that book under grey, dead light. “My book, Detained, which I have reissued in America under the title Wrestling with the Devil is a bit more of an accurate theme for that period,” he says. “I say this because I was wrestling with the demons of bitterness, and you don’t want to let bitterness overcome you. Bitterness can be very corrosive. You don’t want that. You don’t want self-pity either. Or anger. But there are other things that you can’t adequately imprison, like creativity and imagination. My memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, is really more or less in praise of imagination. Imagination is what saved me in prison. It is what makes us more human because we can imagine houses and build them, we can imagine a past, we can imagine conversing with God [giggles]. You know we can imagine heaven, right? We can do so many things with our imagination.”
“Have you ever met that gentleman up there?” I ask, pointing at Moi’s portrait on the wall, staring down at us defiantly with that cold badass look. I was sure he would point us with that club of his and say, “Nyinyi, acheni kuongea juu yangu.”
“No, I have never met him,” he says.
“Have you ever corresponded with him?”
“Have you forgiven him?”
“There is nothing to forgive.” He sighs and says, “Honestly, some things may be difficult to describe. I don’t think my clashes with him were personal. It’s not as if we were quarrelling over property. [He laughs] It was more ideological. I wish I could convert him to how I look at things, you know?! But, well, not everybody has to have the same outlook. So, I’m not angry with him. I refused to carry the burden of trying to individualize the issues because we only had ideological differences.”
I wonder what it feels like to be him. To have such a great body of work. To be self-actualized. To have nine children, all with African names except one. To be 81. To have people want to take pictures together with you and their son as a memento, something to cherish and keep and gloat about. What would one regret at that stage in their life? “What would you do differently?” I ask, and he comes alive with that question. He says, “The one thing I regret is that I did not start writing in Gikuyu from the beginning. I don’t mourn about it, but I wish I had. I’m glad I wrote The River Between, Weep Not, Child and all that. I was able to show that East Africa can also write novels. But if there is one thing I would change if I was in control of the circumstances it would be to be able to have started writing in Gikuyu right from the beginning. Why can’t we write in our African languages and still be visible to the world? You know, there is an element of regret…or rather a sense of feeling like I may have contributed to the misleading of the younger generation by my visibility as a writer in English. That’s the one thing I could change if I was to change something about my life.”
He is big on African language. Never use the word “local languages” near him, he will slap you on the wrist. He detests the words “local” and “tribe.” Is English a local language in New York? Local sounds inferior. You don’t say local, you say Kenyan. You don’t say tribe, you say community. You don’t say bread, you say Superloaf. (I loved that tagline).
“Why does the intellectual community in Kenya and Africa do their intellectual production in European languages?” he asks looking at me through those probing eyes. I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh, I’m not the bad guy here, I can speak my language and write it. Hell, if I could write this blog in Luo and people would understand I would.”
“We have to look at the colonial roots,“ he continues. “It is an inheritance, an inheritance of the colonial distortions about languages. This is a cancer. The soul of Kenya will shrivel if we continue with this trend. We should sing in our language. We should write in our language. We should talk in our language. It says we are proud to be Africans and we are proud of our language. It’s great that the government has reintroduced African languages in Kenyan schools, and that is why, by the way, I’m here; to help in promoting books which have been published by the East African Education Publishers to meet the reading needs of those who read the African languages and the needs of the new curriculum.”
My time is up – an hour and half later – because Kim is tired and bored. I ask him if there is any of his books he wishes he hadn’t written. “Not really, because you learn from the experience. When you are doing a novel, you are doing the best you can. I will do the best novel that I can or the best short story that I can, and every time I complete one I feel that I could have done it better. That perfection eludes me. So I write another book and I keep wanting to get it right each time.
He’s closing the conversation and he wants to say just one more thing before we drop anchor. “I will keep repeating this, because I think it sums up everything I’m saying; If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental, it is enslavement, self-enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue and add all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.’”
He doesn’t see why we can’t be proud of our languages. Why we feel that speaking English makes you be seen in better light than speaking your community language. Why give your child all African names and make them learn French or Spanish and not their Kenyan language? He gets up slowly, like only a 81-year old can. We go outside in the morning sun and take pictures.
I have no announcement to make here today other than to ask anyone if they know many fun ways in which someone can make guacamole in five minutes.[Also; Men and Marriage resumes next week with a happy marriage].