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Out of exile: Freedom lights Kenyan's path

Author Ngugi is cautiously optimistic for his homeland.

June 06, 2003|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

On the day in December when President Daniel Arap Moi's ruling party was swept out of power, Kenya's most famous dissident stood up in his tract house on a treeless hill in Irvine and declared that his 20-year exile was over.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, considered one of the giants of African literature, jubilantly announced that he would soon visit his homeland. No longer would he worry about being shadowed in foreign capitals by Moi's intelligence officers.

He spoke about returning to his rural village, famous for its lush tea and coffee plantations. How he longed to walk in Nairobi's marketplaces, to hear the hubbub of the matatu -- minivan taxi -- stands and to listen to the voices of Kenyans speaking their different languages.

"I want to look into the faces of the people," the 64-year-old Ngugi said. "I want to see for myself if the fear, reflected in despair, that was so present when I left, is no longer there." His singular celebration was another cruelty of exile. Ngugi, who, more than any other writer, chronicled Kenyan society -- from colonialism to independence to disillusionment with its corrupt leaders -- was left out of the country's most euphoric celebration since its 1963 independence from Britain.

Moi, the Big Man who lorded over Kenya for a quarter century, was gone, having exhausted his term limits. His ruling party had been voted out, so Moi would have no backroom influence. People were celebrating in the streets. Ngugi (pronounced GOO-gy) followed the fete via the Internet several thousand miles away, in Irvine's community of Turtle Rock.

In a recent interview at his home, Ngugi, who heads UC Irvine's International Center for Writing and Translation, warned about the dangers of "Moism without Moi," about the need to rebuild Kenya's institutions and why Kenya's new leaders should seize on this mood of optimism.

The election of new President Mwai Kibaki reflects a sea change in several African countries. In his numerous novels and nonfiction books, Ngugi has documented how many countries on the continent had moved from colonialism to neo-colonialism, a stage in which independence leaders installed ruling black elites that were as villainous as their former white oppressors.

Now, Kenya and other African countries are experiencing something new, a phenomenon in which people are more likely to hold their government accountable, Ngugi said. "This is the end of the era of post-colonial dictatorship in Africa," he said. "We are now in the new democratic transition. We don't know yet what we are transitioning toward. We don't yet understand what this era means."

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A hiring coup

Ngugi is still getting used to his Orange County home after leaving an endowed chair at New York University for UC Irvine last summer. Many academics considered his hiring a coup for the California school.

UC Irvine officials say he is ideally suited for his new job as director of the year-old Center for Writing and Translation. Among other projects, the center will help to restore literary works to their original languages. It also plans to support writers who seek to publish in their own and other widely spoken languages.

If you could translate someone like Nigerian-born Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka into the African languages of Zulu, Gikuyu and Yoruba, "imagine what it would mean for local publishing," Ngugi said.

On a recent day, he strode into a small classroom to discuss Frantz Fanon's "Wretched of the Earth" with a dozen or so graduate students, most of whom were not yet born when Ngugi published his first novel in 1964, "Weep Not, Child," which looked at the effects of Kenya's war for independence on ordinary people.

Ngugi took his seat at the head of a long table. Wearing khaki slacks and a greenish kitenge -- Kenya's version of the dashiki -- Ngugi looked the part of a '60s campus radical. Before the discussion began, he passed around a copy of a new journal by some Indian and Malaysian intellectuals. It was called Kamirithu after Ngugi's village near Nairobi, where he and his colleagues wrote and performed plays in their native Gikuyu language. In 1982, Moi's government, fearing that Ngugi's plays were becoming too subversive, sent truckloads of policemen to demolish the Kamirithu Open Air Theatre.

That this poor rural village had become the intellectual inspiration for an academic publication a quarter of a century later was not lost on Ngugi. "It just goes to show that an idea doesn't die," he told the class. "You can bring police and bulldozers, but an idea...."

Five years before the police descended on the theater, then-Vice President Moi had signed detention papers that kept Ngugi in a maximum-security prison for a year without trial. He was released after Amnesty International and people around the world adopted him as their prisoner of conscience.

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