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His Spirit Is Tested and Found Willing to Believe in Kenya

Exiled author Ngugi wa Thiongo and his wife met with brutal violence in a visit to their homeland. They are scarred but undaunted.

August 20, 2004|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — When one of the giants of African literature, Ngugi wa Thiongo, returned here to his homeland after 20 years in exile, he kissed the soil, breathed deep the air, listened to the sounds he had missed so dearly.

But the theme of his lecture tour, "Reviving the Spirit," was savagely destroyed when thugs armed with guns and a machete burst into the Nairobi apartment where he and his wife, Mary Njeri, were staying, robbed, beat and tortured him and raped her. When he tried to protect her, he said, they burned his face with cigarettes.

The aim of last week's attack, Ngugi said, was the deepest humiliation, the kind that would scar for life. Ngugi, a distinguished professor in the school of humanities at UC Irvine and director of its International Center for Writing and Translation, is known for many works, including a collection of essays titled "Homecoming."

The attack stunned the country. "From being the most optimistic nation in the world, we have grown into a country which assaults its returning hero and rapes his wife," Gladwell Otieno, director of the Kenya office of the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International, said Thursday.

The couple's decision to speak openly about the rape and to press on with Ngugi's monthlong lecture tour has rekindled the hope for which he was searching.

"The scars will always be there, of course. But because of the 'Reviving the Spirit' theme, we cannot let these kinds of things down us. We have to keep rising up, rising up, rising up," Ngugi said Thursday in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. In the days after the attack, the couple had requested privacy and time to heal.

"I think what helped me, you see, was people coming up to me in the street and saying, 'We are sorry,' and some actually crying. And letters from women from all over the country saying, 'We are with you.' That's healing, quite frankly."

Many women wrote to tell the couple that their openness about the rape had released their own pain. More letters of sympathy arrived from around the world.

"I am really very appreciative of the solidarity. But I don't feel happy when I see the kind of image of Kenya that people now have," Ngugi said.

"Instead of the image of being welcome in our country, we have an image of being rejected in our country. And it's not true. The Kenyans who attacked me do not represent the spirit of the new Kenya."

Ngugi believes he and his wife were deliberately targeted. He believes the assault was political but not carried out by the state, and said he couldn't speculate beyond that.

During the presidency of Daniel Arap Moi, which was marked by corruption and tyranny, Ngugi was imprisoned without trial for a year in the 1970s. He wrote notes for his book "Devil on the Cross" on his cell wall.

Violence is one theme of his books, which explore Kenyan society from colonialism to independence and the corruption and disappointment that followed.

In Nairobi on Thursday, Ngugi was once more doing what he values most: connecting with young Kenyan writers, at a workshop organized by the Ford Foundation, making the impassioned plea that is his life's campaign -- write in your own languages. Since his imprisonment, Ngugi has written in Kikuyu.

"We have a responsibility to enlarge the imagination of the community, to enlarge their capacity to dream of the possible. I think in Africa we have lost the ground on which to provide that vision to our communities. How are we to provide and share that vision to the community when we are disdainful of our languages?"

One writer at Thursday's workshop, Rasna Warah, said that when Ngugi left the country in 1982, he left young Kenyan writers with a sense of betrayal and abandonment. Some felt that what he wrote overseas was less relevant to them.

Speaking in his soft, even voice, Ngugi replied that his exile was not self-imposed, as has often been reported, but forced on him.

"It's like being shipwrecked. You always try to find the shore" of home.

He wrote the novel "Matigari" in Kikuyu in a London apartment. "It was my little offering to Kenyans to say, 'I exist, I may be adrift, but this is my voice coming across to you.' "

At first, Kenyan authorities unleashed a nationwide manhunt for the book's title character, who takes part in violence to liberate his people from dictatorship and exploitation as part of a quest for truth and justice. When officials realized Matigari was fictional, they seized the books.

"Matigari could not exist in his own African language in his own country. He had to take refuge in England, in the English language," Ngugi said.

Ngugi said he returned to Kenya from California with an open mind, an open heart and open arms, simply to absorb the sounds and sights of his beloved homeland and to learn.

"All I wanted was to breathe the air of Kenya again, to walk in the streets, to go to the marketplaces -- just to be here.

"Coming home revived me in spirit, which is very important."

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