No Country for Yes Men

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: colonial and neocolonial rule cannot survive without the work that prisons perform.

Ngugi Wa'Thiong'o reading at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2008. Via Flickr

In the late 1970s the Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa’ Thiong’o, was imprisoned for the unorthodox crime of writing a play. Ngaahika Ndeenda, or I Will Marry When I Want, was an incendiary work about land deprivation, collectively produced by peasants and workers from Kamĩrĩthũ village. Banned within six weeks of its first showing, the play landed Ngũgĩ in Kamĩtĩ maximum security prison, where he would spend a whole year, and this experience inspires his memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, published in March 2018. Ngũgĩ’s book, despite its prison theme, is not simply a memoir of that time, but envisions the emotive and intellectual lineage of political imprisonment, exploring in individual and social terms the relation between writer and prison.

The subtitle is a misnomer: Wrestling with the Devil is less a personal account than a meditation on the imprint prison has left on Kenya’s psychological and political landscape. Partitioned into short sections, the chapters shift from personal interactions with ambivalent guards and fellow prisoners to the history of anti-oppressive struggle in colonial and postcolonial Kenya. This movement from the one to the many empowers Ngũgĩ’s aesthetic project. He imagines the political prisoner anew, not as a figure cut off from society but as the member of a unique historical community, one amassed from the persistent solidarity of unrelenting prisoners across time. In Wrestling with the Devil, Ngũgĩ has revised and pared down Detained, his 1981 diary of the same experience, to hone in on what is essential: the historical dimension of political imprisonment, and its relation to artistic production. He forsakes Detained’s excessive narrative detail, and its many appended documents, to produce a memoir demonstrative of the literary work’s ability to both reflect and reflect upon social life.

Ngũgĩ ventures that colonial and neo-colonial rule cannot survive without the work prisons perform. By abetting a “reactionary culture of silence and fear,” prisons secure complicity or domination as required. In the chapter “Colonial Lazarus Rises from the Dead,” Ngũgĩ shares the stories of Ngunju wa Gakere, Waiyaki wa Hinga, and Me Katilili—only some in a long line of recalcitrant rebels whom the colonial state subdued with substantial prison sentences. More effective than detention, though, was the complicity extracted from men like Harry Thuku and Jomo Kenyatta, who entered prison as staunch anti-colonial activists, but left with a more ambivalent politics toward the colonial enterprise. Prison created a new Kenyatta, who “finally said yes to the colonial culture of fear,” and who would later use his presidency over an independent Kenya to mould national politics in the erstwhile colonial state’s image. Supported by laws for censorship and public control that persisted into the supposedly postcolonial period, Kenyatta’s political career shows how prisons nurture the practical and ideological continuities that help form a neo-colonial state. It was precisely this kind of state, after all, that could possess the legal framework for imprisoning Ngũgĩ on the basis of his categorization as a threat to public security.

The fortunes of past political prisoners form the memoir’s intellectual fodder: from Jomo Kenyatta to Barsirian Arap Manyei (possibly Kenya’s longest imprisoned political prisoner), Ngũgĩ writes their history. He considers their lives in light of their status as public symbols and alongside the despondency they faced alone in the prison cell, assailed by the whole gamut of state institutions from the consensual to the coercive. Around these men and women, Wrestling with the Devil wills a moral universe into being. The state demands the captive be complicit, that they reject the very political commitment which warranted their arrest. This locks prison and captive in willful struggle. The devil, chief negotiator, arrives in thoughts of surrender and in the gentle pleas of state officials. “Yes. No. Ndio. La.” To say yes is to be transformed, saved even. But to say no is to hold “submissive acquiescence” at bay. Ngũgĩ thoughtfully recounts the desperation of imprisoned life, even validating the advantages of capitulation to authority. Yet his memoir insists on the moral choice each prisoner must make, which in the end is always a dichotomy: in electing to say yes or no, to be willingly transformed or not, one chooses “a particular world and a particular future.”

In his book On Evil, the literary critic Terry Eagleton understands the study of ethics as essential to scholarship and politics since it resolves questions of what is to be valued, how, and by how much. This mutually-affirming relationship between ethics, history, and political praxis inspires the seemingly simplistic yes/no dichotomy in Wrestling with the Devil. When Ngũgĩ concludes that the entire complexity of the political prisoner’s situation is effectively a decision between a yes and a no, he simplifies the problem without being reductive. Showing that colonialism depends on the exploitation of native bodies and that it cannot but be rooted in racial supremacy, Ngũgĩ understands colonialism as a “world,” a whole practical and philosophical system of exploitation. It is this complete system of thinking and doing which the prisoner either accepts or rejects, and to which a neo-colonial state becomes party in its deployment of the culture of fear.

In creating an image of the colonial world, Ngũgĩ’s yes/no metaphor also encapsulates two opposed attitudes towards it, whose acceptance or rejection becomes the test of the prisoner under duress. Under these conditions, Ngũgĩ insists the prisoner never cow to oppressive authority because doing so makes them an ideological and practical accomplice to this world and its debasement of others. In Discourse on Colonialism, the author Aimé Césaire writes that colonial conquest “inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it.” Becoming party to this system, even out of self-preservation, changes the colonizer and his collaborator: “he gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.” This transformation is precisely why Ngũgĩ makes the ethical demand that the prisoner never concede. In saying no to repressive colonial and neo-colonial tactics, and yes to safeguarding peoples’ sovereignty, the individual preserves himself spiritually and politically. This spiritual and political preservation, Ngũgĩ suggests, dialectically feeds off and builds upon the prisoner’s bodily health.

The memoir’s publication is timely. As defences of colonial practices re-emerge under the guise of nuance and putatively objective cost-benefit analyses, Ngũgĩ stakes out a politics of refusal that is not the antithesis of intellectual debate, but rather a critical position that synthesizes sound historical inquiry with a genuine ethical praxis. Contrary to the likes of Bruce Gilley and Nigel Biggar, who think the supposed benefits of colonialism can actually outweigh its moral failings, Ngũgĩ’s framework holds human dignity king and will not sacrifice it. He gives no quarter to apologia for colonialism since the latter’s debasement of the human disqualifies it from being a positive force. Such moral and intellectual certainty is refreshing and necessary as educational and cultural institutions continue leaving their doors ajar to discrimination thinly veiled behind jargon and claims to academic rigour.

The history of colonialism is littered with splendidly sordid and racist texts, such as Thomas Carlyle’s “Discourse on the Negro Question,” whose author writes that art, politics, and social development have value only for “[white] men” and not for the “pigs with pumpkins” that were the native West Indians. In some ways typically postcolonial, Wrestling with the Devil writes back to the literature of empire, broadening its scope beyond the prison to explore the prejudices of colonial settlers. With the chapter “Parasites in Paradise,” Ngũgĩ undercuts colonial images of the stupid and bestial native by writing a similar history of the white settler in Kenya. The phrase “a colonial affair” is suggestive: with unadorned playfulness, Ngũgĩ layers the many meanings of the word “affair,” sexual and otherwise, to link the debauchery of colonial officers with their construction of the Kenyan landscape as a white man’s paradise. Showing how colonial settlers spent their time “drugging themselves into sexual fantasies” and how they “produced little. No art, no literature, no culture…,” the memoir is a sardonic inversion of racist colonial tracts like Carlyle’s. Ngũgĩ’s playful but seething criticism shows how seemingly objective disciplines such as history, which was itself once thought scientific, may actively serve the cause of dehumanization.

The real possibility of social change inspires Ngũgĩ’s work. He transforms the Sisyphus myth by changing its narrative focus. Moving against conventional wisdom, Ngũgĩ notes that while Sisyphus’ stone rolls down repeatedly, it is also ceaselessly rolled back up. This is not the original Greek Sisyphus auguring failure, but his new, hopeful, and African incarnation, one that speaks to the “creative fightback culture” of the Kenyan people and to Africa under colonialism. A learned book, Ngũgĩ’s memoir is highly intertextual: he appropriates the world’s imagination as his own, integrating mythology, Sylvia Plath, and Wole Soyinka among others into his broad humanistic vision.

Wrestling with the Devil retains the expressive simplicity and clarity of purpose one expects from the well-seasoned Ngũgĩ wa’ Thiong’o. The author of over forty works of fiction, criticism, drama, and memoir, Ngũgĩ has delivered another provocative and enjoyable book. Incredibly instructive, Ngũgĩ’s memoir shines with the deftness of his touch and the surety of his conviction. It is deserving of a wide, long-lasting readership.

Further Reading