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Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Ph.D. '94, didn't want to be a writer. But family history, social responsibility, and an interest in literature and communication—not to mention natural talent—are awfully strong forces to resist.
At 41, Ngugi has produced an incredibly diverse body of work. He writes political and social commentary about Africa and America as well as about literature in both scholarly venues and popular media including The Guardian and the International Herald Tribune. His short stories have appeared in the Kenyon Review, among many other publications. He has a book of poetry, Hurling Words at Consciousness, and two detective novels, Nairobi Heat (to be a film directed by Oz Scott) and the forthcoming Finding Sahara. His work has been shortlisted for both the Caine Prize and the Penguin Prize for African Writing. This fall he begins a new
Not bad for a guy who wanted to be an engineer.
Ngugi has spent his life on two continents, which is important in understanding his work. But to tell his story, we really must begin with his father, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Thiong'o, arguably Kenya's preeminent author, was teaching at Northwestern University when Ngugi was born. The family returned to Kenya where Ngugi grew up on the family farm outside of Nairobi.
When Ngugi was six, Thiong'o was imprisoned without trial by the repressive regime of Jomo Kenyatta for his politically critical writings. Although freed a year later by the new government of Daniel arap Moi, this regime soon proved equally repressive. Thiong'o's books were banned and by 1982 he was forced into political exile in England and the U.S.
With his family held hostage by the regime, Ngugi didn't see his father for eight years. Although Ngugi is an American citizen, it wasn't until the second wave of Kenyan democracy in the late 1980s that his family began to slowly trickle to America.
Ready for college, Ngugi went along when his father lectured at Albright. Feeling immediately at home he selected Albright, majoring in English and political science.
(A highlight for both father and son was that Thiong'o was the speaker and received an honorary doctorate at Ngugi's commencement.)
The African students at Albright wanted to delve into African writers. "We enjoyed other literature but wanted to study writers who spoke to our issues," Ngugi says, expressing appreciation to professors Al Cacicedo, Kathleen Greenfield and Mary Jane and Dick Androne, who supported their interest. "We never formally studied those books in class, but they created an avenue for us to meet and discuss, in a serious way, African literature." In fact, Mary Jane Androne credits those students with opening new horizons for faculty as well, since modern African writers have become a key part of her scholarship and teaching.
Ngugi credits a student organization, Albright Unity, and his professors with awakening his social awareness. Then-professor Kathleen Greenfield "told us we all had to take responsibility for the things outside of the College happening to humanity," he says.
Professor Al Cacicedo, Ph.D., chair of the English department, recalls, "My most vivid memories of Mukoma and his good buddy Kanyo Gqulu involve time we spent at the Albright Unity retreats. Unity was an organization intended to work through racial and ethnic differences… Mukoma was very active during those retreats, discussing and arguing, not only about the American experience, but extending the issues we considered to the African diaspora and, ultimately, the colonial and postcolonial experience… I think he was instrumental in helping a great many students, and faculty as well, to begin to think in those kinds of global dimensions, and to think critically about the representations of white and black in literature."
Professor Kathleen Greenfield "told us we all had to take responsibility for the things outside of the College happening to humanity."
- Mukoma Wa Ngugi '94
Ngugi's work today is a reflection of all of these threads of his history. "Writing has a social responsibility," he says. While writing is about beauty, it is much more than that, "especially where people have been denied a voice. My father says, 'The moment you give up your own voice is the moment the bad guys win.'"
Being transnational brings richness and complexity to his work as he writes about topics as diverse as healthcare reform, economic disenfranchisement, candidates for the Kenyan presidency and U.S. President Obama's international challenges. In Nairobi Heat, the main character, Ishmael, is an African-American police detective from Wisconsin who travels to Kenya as part of a murder investigation and discovers more about himself than he bargained for. The depictions of Nairobi are infused with all the heat, color and vitality of that teeming city.
In poetry, he tends to write more about growing up in a rural Kenyan landscape. One poem, "Letter to my Nephew," is about the destruction of the environment in Nigeria by oil companies and the murder of activists. "In some ways my growing up had the paradox of political turmoil— my father being detained and eventually being forced into exile, police raids, social ostracization as former family friends became scared of being associated with my family—juxtaposed to being in this very visually striking environment."
Much of his work aims to create better understanding of issues facing people on both continents. "African literature is important because it is important for Americans to understand Africa and for people on both continents to dispense with stereotypes of each other." He laughs as he recalls how a fellow student once asked if his family lived in trees.
"I think accepting each other's humanity, or actually reaching a place where we take each other's humanity for granted, as a given, is the ideal," he says. "In this way, Americans don't have to know everything about African cultures, or the names of all the capital cities, they need to take for granted that Africans want the same things as everyone else. So we can move to a place of empathy in place of pity… Pity is outward and requires nothing beyond the occasional donation to an NGO. Empathy on the other hand leads to solidarity, to the realization that our fates are intertwined.
"African literature is important because it allows Americans to first and foremost see Africans talking about their worlds, and about other worlds, that is naming things for themselves, and equally important it allows the American reader to ask questions such as: How do we resolve questions of gender, race, class, sexuality?"
But Ngugi has discovered that being transnational is not without its challenges.
"My identity was always in opposition of something," he says. "I couldn't say I was American because of my accent and my name, even though I was born here. I felt I needed an identity that was solidly mine. But identity becomes a prison. You stop seeing things around you. I needed another way of thinking about my life."
He realized that "part of the problem with words like transnational and cosmopolitan or even world citizen, words that I have used, is that they tend to hide the hard work of claiming more than one culture, or rather accepting that fact of life. In my case, looking back now, part of being transnational was doing the hard of work of maintaining old relationships while building new ones." Now, he says with a laugh, "Well, who says I can't have more than one identity?"
Mukoma Wa Ngugi's article, "Attending the Trial: Home is Home" appeared in The Albright Reporter in 2006. Go to www.albright.edu/reporter/winter2006/mukoma.html
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