Freedom and Exile

Introducing Dissident African Writers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chris Abani

by Felicia M. Tomasko

Exiled Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s voice has a musicality to it, a tonal rhythm that emanates from the sound of his native tongue, Kĩkũyũ. He wrote his latest novel, Wizard of the Crow, in Kĩkũyũ, making it the longest book ever written in a sub-Saharan African language. He then translated the book — titled Mũrogi wa Kagogo in Kĩkũyũ — into English.

Thiong’o’s commitment to writing in the indigenous languages of his continent dates back to 1978, when he was placed in a maximum security prison in Kenya after writing the critical novel Petals of Blood and writing and presenting the controversial play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). While in prison, he continued to write in Kĩkũyũ, on toilet paper, producing the acclaimed Devil on the Cross. His commitment is driven by a desire “to stress the importance of intellectual production in marginalized languages. These are the languages spoken by millions of people in the world.” Thiong’o’s work at UC Irvine, where he is a distinguished professor of English and the director of the International Center for Writing and Translation, further promotes this commitment.

Exile has strengthened his resolve. Thiong’o left Kenya for Britain in the early 1980s, after discovering that Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi was planning to have him arrested or killed for his outspokenness. Speaking out, though, is integral to Thiong’o’s role. He explained, “As a writer, we have to be, and have always been, a social conscience of the nation.”

At first glance, Wizard may seem to be a novel about oppression, despots, and the darker side of government, but Thiong’o stressed that it contains an uplifting ideal. “At the end of the novel,” he said, “the character of the Wizard of the Crow hears voices from all over the world singing, ‘Let them not kill our future; let them not kill our hope.’ This is one of the roles of the writer, to provide hope.”

Thiong’o called Wizard a global epic from Africa, a fictionalized and fantasized account of the Ruler, an unnamed dictator in the imaginary postcolonial nation of Aburiria. Thiong’o used exaggeration to bring out the reality of authoritarian regimes. For example, the Ruler’s sycophants go so far as to have plastic surgery (enlarging eyes and ears) to prove their vigilance. While in the midst of economic and moral bankruptcy, the regime seeks funds from a Global Bank to build a tower to God. Throughout the book, critics and tricksters — including the reluctant wizard — foil the Ruler and illustrate the power of the people. Thiong’o drew on many contemporary examples to paint the Ruler’s portrait, from Moi of Kenya, to Idi Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre, and beyond Africa to Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. These dictators, Thiong’o noted, were manufactured by the West, but once unleashed, “were like genies out of the bottle; accountable to no one, wreaking havoc.”

There is hope, Thiong’o insisted. As the wizard speaks out, so must the world outside the novel. “My hope is that people will increasingly fight for their agency, the right to be able to affect political and government policies to their own benefit.” This outspokenness will be in full force when Thiong’o and exiled Nigerian writer Chris Abani (author of Graceland and Becoming Abigail) trade stories and hope in Victoria Hall Theater next Wednesday.

4•1•1 Ngu˜gı˜ wa Thiong’o and Chris Abani will talk at Victoria Hall Theater on Wednesday, November 15, at 8 p.m. The event is free. Call 893-3535 or see

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