Nobody is entitled to a Nobel Prize and many are deserving of the honor. On October 5th though, Kenyans mourned another lost opportunity. Many expected to celebrate their second Nobel Prize winner in the nation’s history. African literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the odds on favorite for the prize in literature, and would have joined environmental activist Wangari Maathai, the first Kenyan, and African woman to win in 2004.
Ngugi’s hopes were sidelined last year by the controversial pick of Bob Dylan and this week by Kazuo Ishiguro. However, the Nobel buzz around Ngugi points to both his seminal contributions to African literature but also his work to kept the memory of Kenya’s divisive past alive. Comparing the life of Kenya’s perennial Nobel frontrunner to that of the country’s sole Nobel Laureate begs the question, just what do these two luminaries in their respective fields have in common? They were both born under the yoke British colonial rule and forged their careers challenging authoritarianism.
Growing up nearly sixty miles apart during the violence of the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya’s Nobel Laureate and perennial Nobel martyr were shaped by a colonial war against inequality, and became staunch critics of a political system still grappling with this legacy today. Placed in the context of Kenya’s contemporary politics, where historical injustice and electoral corruption dominates the news cycle, Ngugi’s and Wangari’s contributions to political change and historical memory at home, likely outweigh their Nobel worthy impact on the politics of language and conservation abroad.
Colonialism and Kenya’s Wars of Liberation
Born in 1938 and 1940, Kenya’s future Nobel finalists grew up during the peak of British colonial occupation among the Kikuyu community. The elder Ngugi outside of Limuru and Wangari near Nyeri, were born into rural farming communities bordered by the racially dominated “White Highlands,” and not far from the colonial capital of Nairobi.
Their mission education challenged local forms of identity and politics. Socialized in a system marked by Christian teachings and colonial evangelism, Ngugi and Wangari recall that children who spoke in their native African language were often beaten by school authorities.
Forced to carefully negotiate their identity in an oppressive system, both went by the baptismal names of James and Mary Josephine during their youth. However, they were also members of the growing class of educated elite, the Athomi or “readers” in Gikuyu. On both sides of an increasing divide, the Athomi used their status to challenge and collaborate with colonial authority.
During their formative teenage years, Kenya plunged into a bitter anti-colonial insurgency. Mau Mau as it was pejoratively called, pitted radical “freedom fighters” again colonial loyalists in a war of liberation which was not simple a black vs white affair. Freedom fighters, drawn mainly from the landless Kikuyu poor, attacked white settlers but also fellow Kenyans who worked for the colonial state, labeled as “loyalists” during the war.
From 1952-1956, at least 20,000 Africans were killed and 10,000s more imprisoned and often tortured in squalid conditions. Less than 50 white settlers were killed and the war’s largest single “battle” known as the Lari Massacre occurred just a few miles from Ngugi’s home. While not a single white settler was among the perpetrators or hundreds of casualties at Lari, the divisive local effects of Kenya’s racist colonial hierarchy were evident. Mau Mau was a war of liberation, but also one which reflected the bitter class divides colonial oppression had sparked within Kenyan society.
Ngugi, Wangari and the athomi, were stuck in the middle of this conflict. At times attacked for the symbols of their elite status, the necktie wearing “Tai Tai” as they were sometimes called, often represented a moderate political voice during Kenya’s struggle for independence. As the war ravaged Ngugi’s and Wangari’s home regions, these young athomi were forced to choose sides and their careers challenging elite authoritarian rule reflects the legacy of Kenya’s brutal struggle for independence.
Authoritarianism and Persecution
When Kenya emerged from colonial rule in 1963 it was the moderate athomi who took power and not the landless poor who had risked their lives as front-line “freedom fighters.” Jomo Kenyatta, though imprisoned during Mau Mau, often distanced himself from the movement and dismissed the divisions of the past. At the 1964 national holiday celebrating the independence struggle Kenyatta claimed: “It is the future, my friends, that is living, the past is dead.”
From 1963-2002 Kenya was ruled by just one political party and two authoritarian leaders, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi. As a de facto one party state from 1969-1991, Ngugi was a harsh critic of both Kenyatta and Moi. Political detention and persecution in the late 1970s forced him into exile in 1982.
Wangari was also shaped by the authoritarian Moi regime. When her Green Belt Movement advocated for environmental conservation and sustainable development by planting trees, her efforts clashed with corrupt officials who routinely grabbed public land and exploited it for political gain. Most famously, her public protests to preserve Nairobi’s Uhuru Park and Karura forest from illegal development put her in violent conflict with Moi during Kenya’s “second liberation” from one party rule.
This ongoing struggle to deal with the past still dominates contemporary politics and shaped Ngugi’s and Wangari’s careers. The memories of the divisive violence of Mau Mau and Kenya’s postcolonial struggles are still vividly alive in many communities where the struggle for land and opportunity are not just memories of the past.
Memory, Fiction and Politics
For Ngugi, Mau Mau and the oppressive corruption of the Kenyatta and Moi regimes was a reoccurring theme throughout much of his literary career at home and in exile in the U.S. As he famously advocated for the promotion of African language to “decolonize the mind,” Kenya’s ongoing, internal struggle for liberation continues.
More than fifty years removed from independence, Mau Mau veterans are still struggling to reveal the human right abuses of British rule, even as British foreign minister Boris Johnson continues to bask in a post-Brexit nostalgia for “empire.” And in Kenya, stories of national heroes like Dedan Kimathi are still being uncovered and reclaimed.
As a teacher, Ngugi’s writings provide a rich window into Kenya’s complex past but also a bridge to the present. Next week my introductory African history class will be reading Ngugi’s classic 1965 novel The River Between. Set in the early years of colonial occupation, the novel is about the growing internal divide Christianity and other colonial impositions sparked within African communities.
The protagonist and athomi characters of the The River Between represents a moderate political bridge between two communities polarized by colonial divisions. Through the tragic voice of young people we learn that Muthoni pays with her life for attempting to live as both a circumcised and Christian woman, and the protagonist Waiyaki is rebuked by both communities for his efforts to unite the opposing ridges. With only one minor white character in the novel, it is an important story of the internal divides of colonial Kenya, which has eerie resonance with contemporary politics.
On October 26th, the sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President will square off to contest the Presidency for a third time. Historical injustices related to unresolved land claims, corruption, political violence and authoritarian rule have loomed large over contemporary electoral politics. With the Kenyan Supreme Court asserting itself as the final arbitrator of bitter electoral disputes, the politics of memory and a violent past continue to dominate Kenyan lives.
As Ngugi argued it in the wake of Kenya’s horrific 2007-2008 post-election violence: “The solution to Kenya’s problems, then, is long term. But ‘the urgency of now’, to use Martin Luther King’s phrase, requires that progressive forces from within and without the warring camps to lean heavily on the leaderships to hearken to the voice of reason and not tear the country apart.”
Ngugi’s elusive Nobel Prize puts a spotlight on the unfinished work of decolonization. His words in 2008 are a firm reminder that the struggles of the past are sometimes dangerously still alive in the present.