Ngugi wa Thiong’o: ‘Resistance is the best style of maintaining alive’

The Kenyan author was incarcerated without trial for a year in 1978 and with the re-release of his prison memoir, he talks about the importance of resisting injustice

Ngugi wa Thiong’o believes in the imagination. Perhaps that seems obvious for the decorated Kenyan novelist, scholar and playwright, who’s been publishing for over 50 years. But imagination, and all art, for him, is not just a form of creativity; it’s a form of resistance. In his suit, once imprisoned for his political notion, it was his most important possession in a brutal environment meant to break him.

His memoir, Wrestling with the Devil seems back at his year-long imprisonment in 1978, when, after being arrested in the middle of the night, he was held without trial, in a maximum-security prison. The memoir is a trimmer version of the original work, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, published in 1982. Asked why he chose to publish this updated version now, he replied,” The topic of resistance, and writing in prison, is eternal .”

He committed many acts of resistance while he was jailed, but the memoir deals with the most significant one: the writing of his novel Devil on the Cross on thick, scratchy, prison-issued toilet paper. The legend of the book has become as much a part of its story as the plot itself, about a young lady dealing with racial and gender persecution in neocolonial Kenya.

Because Ngugi was never charged, tried or sentenced, he had no way of knowing how long he would be held. The fiction was ” a kind of spiritual survival”, he says.

” It’s hard to say how I would have reacted after 10 years. But I was scheming as to how I’d survive. I was believing I’d write the fiction in Gikuyu. I didn’t know how long that would take. If it took a year, I guessed I’d take another year translating it into Kiswahili or English. I was scheming ahead, even then .”

The state’s goal in jailing him, he surmises, was to make an example of an outspoken intellectual. He was arrested for his role in the writing and staging of a play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (” I Will Marriage When I Want “), produced by and starring local peasants, who had no previous theater experience, and limited economic entails. For Ngugi, who was openly opposed to the government, it was clear what his jailing entail. In the memoir, he writes,” If the state can violate such progressive patriots, if they can build them come out of prison weeping,’ I am sorry for all my sins ,’ such an unprincipled about-face would corroborate the wisdom of the ruling clique in the population division of the populace into the passive innocent millions and the disgruntled subversive few .”

Ngũgĩ Photograph: Mark Boster/ LA Times via Getty Images

” They would come and ask me why I was detained. It was very annoying ,” he says with a laugh.” They were seeking some kind of confession. They wanted me to confess my sins, and I had no sins to confess, in a political sense .”

He was advised early on in his stay by another captive,” Don’t let them transgress you .” Understanding how dire the situation was- he and others weren’t allowed books, radios, pen, paper; food was often bug-infested; the latter are kept in their cells 23 hours a day – it’s clear the special importance for him of maintaining his clairvoyant integrity and beliefs.

For him, those notions were rooted in Kenyan independence from the British, the right of the people to live on their own terms, instead of what had come to pass in the late 19 th century: British settlers taking over the land and resources, hauling native Kenyans into detention camp, forcing Kenyans to give up their culture and replace it with theirs.

Over time, Ngugi worked to decolonize his own intellect- renouncing his baptismal James, and Christianity; ceasing to write in English. It’s that last decision that many people still question.

” If I gratify an English person, and he says,’ I write in English ,’ I don’t ask him’ Why are you writing in English ?’ If I gratify a French novelist, I don’t ask him,’ Why don’t you write in Vietnamese ?’ But I am asked over and over again,’ Why do you write in Gikuyu ?’ For Africans, the view is there is something wrong about writing in an African speech .”

For years, he’s advocated for African writers to write in their mother tongues, including in his seminal run Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Speech in African Literature, because he understands how integral speech is to culture and identity.

” Remember that the first thing that happened to African people[ in the Americas] was forced loss of language and names ,” he says, speaking of the transatlantic slave trade. He says he’s gained great inspiration over the years from African Americans, in culture and politics.” The resistance of African American people is one of the greatest narratives of resistance in history. Because against all those arduous conditions they were able to create … a new linguistic system out of which emerges spirituals, jazz, hip-hop, and many other things .”

It’s hard to hear the word ” resistance” and not think of the current US presidential administration, the straining away from it that so many feeling. But for Ngugi, though he notes the” rightwing wind blowing over the world”, it goes beyond a single country or a single moment in time. Returning to language, he notes how ideas of Africa,” the so-called developing world” are shaped by western thought.

” Ninety percent of Africa’s resources are devoured in the west. But somehow the vocabulary has turned it the other way around – it’s the west that’ helps’ Africa. A few things are returned and they call it’ assistance ‘,” he tells.” Africa has been the eternal donor to the west .” He calls it” the route the world normalizes abnormality “.

In Wrestling with the Devil, he laments the Kenyans who sold out their own people to join the ranks of golfing, hunting, country-clubbing British settlers( he literally calls them “Draculan” ), who came to Kenya to take over, and give back a pittance to the indigenous peoples. For some, that new, shiny pittance felt like a fortune.

” If you can control the subconsciou of a people, then in a sense, you don’t even have to have a police force ,” he says.

It goes back to speaking one’s own speech, practicing one’s own culture, the investment in what is inherently yours , not what has been falsely dedicated back to you. Or, what oppressed people around the world have learned: that colonial forces want what you render , not who you are.

Ngugi Photograph: The Washington Post/ Washington Post/ Getty Images

” I believe African people, Latin American people, Asian people, must find a way of relating to each other a bit more and being able to say one thing: let us stimulate things with our resources. And then exchange with others on the basis of equal devote and equal take .”

This investment in one’s own culture and resources is what he calls” securing the base”( He published a volume titled Securing the Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe in 2016 ). He makes it clear that he still believes in culture exchange, including literature in translation, but that you have to ensure a stable foundation in your own culture first.

” We should be able to connect to our base … and then connect to the world from our base. Our own bodies, our own languages, our own hair. When you want to launch a rocket into outer space, you make sure the base is very strong and solid. As African people, we[ must] make sure our languages, our resources- the totality of our being is the base from which we launch ourselves into the world .”

Wrestling with the Devil displays, in part, Ngugi’s further awakening to this essential need for African people. He offers his literal imprisonment as a metaphor for the restrict of the human spirit; arts and imagination, he says, are a the ways and means of transgressing free.

Though his imprisonment was one of his most challenging experiences, he shares some of the good he takes from it- that it’s the reason he committed to writing in Gikuyu; that the novel he produced, Devil on the Cross, was the first to be written in his language. Pressure builds diamonds, so runs the telling; and resisting tyranny generates something else: if you’re lucky, as Ngugi describes himself, a chance at liberation.

” Resistance is the best route of keeping alive. It can take even the smallest form of saying no to injustice. If you really think you’re right, you stick to your faiths, and they help you to survive .”

Wrestling with the Devil is out now in the US and on 5 April in the UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *