Kenya in Another Tongue

Alex Webb/Magnum Images
Kenya, 1984

On December 30, 1977, the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was arrested. In the middle of the night, bulky Land Rovers and flashing police cars stormed his yard in Limuru, Kenya. They were brimming with men armed with pistols, rifles, and machine guns. As the officers searched his library, Ngũgĩ asked if he was under arrest. The officers said no. He was simply being asked to accompany them to the police station, where he would be given the task of cataloging the books and pamphlets the officers were plucking from his shelves: titles by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and so on. They also confiscated about twenty-five copies of Ngũgĩ’s own play, cowritten in Gĩkũyũ with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ, entitled Ngaahika Ndeenda, or I Will Marry When I Want.

The two writers and the locals of a village called Kamĩrĩĩthũ had staged the play in a community-built open-air theater. Its five-month run had been immensely popular, drawing large crowds from afar. But on November 16, 1977, the Ministry of Housing and Social Services had essentially banned further performances of the play by withdrawing the license for any public gathering at the Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre. This, Ngũgĩ assumed, was why, when he reached the police station, he was handed a detainment order signed by the then Vice President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. In the early morning hours of December 31, 1977, Ngũgĩ was driven to Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi. He would be kept there without a trial for nearly a year.

Ngũgĩ has detailed his prison experiences in Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary. He lost his name—he became detainee K6,77—and lived in Cell 16 in a block with a handful of other political prisoners. For a time, they were given only one hour of light a day. They took it in a bare compound where they chatted and played chess and sought prophecies in the pages of the Koran or the obscure flights of doves. Mostly, Ngũgĩ says, they moved in “erratic, aimless circles and wanderings, going everywhere and nowhere…. The compound used to be for the mentally deranged convicts before it was put to better use as a cage for ‘the politically deranged.’” For many prisoners, reading and writing were palliative. Ngũgĩ notes with amusement that he had always found the idea of toilet paper manuscripts “romantic and unreal.” But if the coarse toilet paper at Kamĩtĩ was meant to be punishing, “what was bad for the body was good for the pen.” Ngũgĩ wrote the notes that became Detained on that toilet paper. He also wrote the classic novel Devil on the Cross, which has been published in a new edition by Penguin.

Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ, or Devil on the Cross, came into being at a crossroads in Ngũgĩ’s life and in the life of the country that he loved enough to criticize. In 1952, when the Mau Mau Rebellion began—members of the largely Gĩkũyũ Kenya Land and Freedom Army revolted against British rule, sometimes with extreme acts of violence—the British declared a State of Emergency. By the time Ngũgĩ was fourteen years old, the colonial regime had taken over Kenya’s national schools. English, already widely used to enforce submission to colonialism and conversion to Christianity, became the language of instruction. This meant that young Kenyans were introduced to classics of English literature like Shakespeare’s plays. But they were also forcibly exposed to the incongruous, racist, and mediocre works of colonial writers like Elspeth Huxley.

In his well-known collection of essays Decolonising the Mind (1986), Ngũgĩ provides telling anecdotes about his childhood inculcation in linguistic imperialism. Refusal or inability to speak English was punished in both corporal and psychological fashion: strokes of the cane upon the buttocks; metal plates around the neck saying I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Each time a student spoke in a mother tongue, they would receive a button; they would hand it on when they overheard the next culprit; at the end of the day, the students would sing the names of whoever had passed them the button; all the offenders would then be punished. In this way, cultural shame was both internalized and self-regulating.

Ngũgĩ had grown up speaking Gĩkũyũ at home. This was how he first encountered stories, riddles, proverbs, and what he calls the “music of language.” He was the son of a farmer and the brother of a political dissident. His brother, a member of the Mau Mau movement, was killed; another brother, deaf and mute, was shot during the State of Emergency; Ngũgĩ’s mother was held in solitary confinement for three months. Both of these facts—his class upbringing and his family’s politics—served as marks against him, but Ngũgĩ managed to gain admission to Makerere University College, in Kampala, Uganda, in 1959. There, in 1962, he attended “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” a historic meeting of black writers that included Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Es’kia Mphahlele. Ngũgĩ, who at the time went by James Ngugi, had written but not yet published his early novels Weep Not, Child and A River Between. Ngũgĩ was stirred by the debates at the conference. The very first item on the agenda was “What is African literature?” This zombie question—still often raised, never fully dead—naturally led to a discussion of language. Why was most so-called African literature written in European languages?

These questions haunted Ngũgĩ. But he continued to write and publish novels in English, including A Grain of Wheat (1967), and to teach in English as an associate professor and chairman of the literature department at Nairobi. Ten years later, an old woman in Kamĩrĩĩthũ, a village near the suburb where he lived, asked Ngũgĩ to help rehabilitate the local cultural center. Only then did Ngũgĩ begin to write in Gĩkũyũ, which is spoken by only about 22 percent of Kenyans and is read by far fewer. The play that sparked his arrest was also his reawakening to his mother tongue. Ngũgĩ’s theater initiative at Kamĩrĩĩthũ was registered as a self-help project with the Department of Community Development of the Ministry of Housing and Social Services. The form of the play—which incorporated Gĩkũyũ song, dance, and folklore—and its staging in a community-built theater seemed to suit the new government’s aim to promote Kenya’s culture and history. But its substance—its vehement Marxist critique of that government and what Ngũgĩ called its “neocolonial” regime of cynical and capitalistic oppression—was deemed inflammatory and he was arrested. Already in prison for writing a play in his mother tongue, Ngũgĩ decided to write a novel in Gĩkũyũ instead.

Ngũgĩ describes Devil on the Cross as the story of “two main journeys over virtually the same ground. Warĩĩnga”—the novel’s heroine—“moves in a matatũ taxi from the capital city Nairobi to Ilmorog, a fictional rural outpost. Then Warĩĩnga makes a second journey in a car from Nairobi to Ilmorog to Nakuru. A gap of two years separates the two journeys.” The central conceit is that Warĩĩnga and the others on the matatũ—the driver, a village woman, a worker, a lecturer, and a businessman—are all headed to the same event in Ilmorog’s Golden Heights: a “Competition in Modern Theft and Robbery,” allegedly sponsored by the Devil. There, fantastically grotesque businessmen perorate on their exploitative skills and propose innovations in vampiric capitalist ploys. The most horrific of these borders on science fiction: a factory that will manufacture spare parts of the human body for the rich, so that they may be immortal. University students and unionized workers storm the competition in protest; there is a riot; arrests and unjust trials follow.

Devil on the Cross is rampantly hybrid and adamantly unpredictable. It veers into the past and the future, skips years in a paragraph, lingers over a matatũ journey for fifty-odd pages. At one point we read a dry, highly technical description of how an engine works. The novel is often marvelously vivid and whimsical:

It looked as if Mwau˜ra’s Matatũ Matata Matamu Model T Ford, registration number MMM 333, was the very first motor vehicle to have been made on Earth. The engine moaned and screamed like several hundred dented axes being ground simultaneously. The car’s body shook like a reed in the wind. The whole vehicle waddled along the road like a duck up a mountain. In the morning, before starting, the matatũ gave spectators a wonderful treat. The engine would growl, then cough as if a piece of metal were stuck in its throat, then it rasped as if it had asthma.

Though Ngũgĩ’s writing is steeped in material reality, the profusion of similes—all deft, all vibrant—in passages like this lends a surreal air to Devil on the Cross. One businessman at the Robbers’ Den has a mouth the shape of a kingstock’s beak; another has eyes “the size of two large red electric bulbs.” A devilish voice speaks to Warĩĩnga, offering her “a ride in a car that moves smoothly over tarmac highways with the grace of a young man sliding across the perfumed body of a woman.” This metaphor illustrates even as it enacts the smooth sliding of parallel planes in the novel—reality and fantasy.

Daniel Anderson
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 2010

An important change in Ngũgĩ’s thinking when he was writing Devil on the Cross was a new focus on his audience: “I knew whom I was writing about, but whom was I writing for?” He chose the material most relevant to the Kenyan public he wished to reach—“the historical reality of a neocolony.” He thought this “new kind of reader”—the kind who would go on to read Devil on the Cross out loud in bars and on matatũs, on factory lunch breaks or after family suppers, the kind who would force the book into a second and third printing—these members of the urban and rural underclass would be familiar with an oral tradition. This tradition encompasses the digressions, proverbs, riddles, and outlandish fables that make the novel such a wild—and hybrid—ride.

This kind of reader would also understand, Ngũgĩ thought, that in the Kenyan neocolony “reality is stranger than fiction.” To this extent, then, the formal distortion in Devil on the Cross is meant to reflect the distortion—the absurdity and grotesquerie—of the neocolonial regime that Ngũgĩ wished to satirize. The novel is reminiscent of Mikhail Bulgakov’s brilliant censored masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, which Ngũgĩ cites as an influence. Like that Russian novel, Devil on the Cross manipulates scripture—the Devil’s temptation of Christ and the Parable of the Talents—palpating it into weird forms that illuminate structures of power and violence. Ngũgĩ also picks up filaments from Gĩkũyũ folklore that translate handily into a critique of capitalism. The man-eating marimũ, for example, ogres with two mouths and long hair, are said to live on the labor of men. In this sense, it is not that Ngũgĩ chose to filter his political message through an absurdist form; his political views determined that form.

This is not so surprising. Ngũgĩ is nothing if not a Marxist, and aspects of his Marxism permeate his work. The most manifest of these is his habit of articulating the world in terms of duality, pitting thesis against antithesis in a dialectical mode. In Devil on the Cross, there are two of everything: bags, shadows, paths, pots, halves, mouths, forces, hearts, roads, ways. The novel opposes man and woman, love and hate, good and evil, life and death, the managers and the managed, producers and parasites. When Gatũıria describes his oratorio, he says, “there is music and the music; there is song and the song.” Naturally, the oratorio takes two years to complete and comprises two hundred sheets of music. Duality is almost a tic in Ngũgĩ’s work—not just in his fiction, but in his essays, too, where language has a “dual character”; an “imperialist tradition” opposes a “resistance tradition”; folklore depicts our “twin struggle” against other animals and nature; and “two dialectically opposed traditions of Kenyan history, culture, and aesthetics” are responsible for raising “colonial Lazarus from the dead.”

Ngũgĩ’s division of the world into opposed binaries does not constrain the novel; rather, it propels its activity, even its impulsiveness. I would suggest that this inevitable movement of the dialectic—the energy produced by opposition and dualism—is why the novel is not reducible to its stated Marxism. The art of Devil on the Cross does not rise above its politics. It is set into motion by them.

The most crucial political and artistic decision that Ngũgĩ made before sitting down in Cell 16 of Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison to write Devil on the Cross was to write it in Gĩkũyũ. The decision has struck some as insular, if not Sisyphean. Reviewing Devil on the Cross in 1982, in the London Review of Books, Victoria Brittain wrote, “It will be tragic if his response to the political polarization in his society is to turn his energies inward, so that he writes only in Kikuyu for a peasant audience, and refuses to address the outside world.” When Ngũgĩ was rumored to be a contender for the 2010 Nobel Prize, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote an op-ed in The New York Times bemoaning Ngũgĩ’s continued commitment to writing in Gĩkũyũ: “I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him.” In Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ explains his reasoning for this controversial and consequential choice. For him, language is a means of communication and a carrier of culture. On one hand, language reflects reality and literature holds a “mirror” to the world. On the other, language creates reality and “communication creates culture.” To write in Gĩkũyũ was thus both to reflect reality—his and his readers’—and to create reality, to make a truly African literature, rather than the Afro-European texts that constituted the canon at the time.

Ngũgĩ admits that to write a novel in Gĩkũyũ was also a great struggle. There was the matter of his detainment at Kamĩtĩ, of course, where the only paper was toilet paper and “one had to keep on playing a game of write-and-hide.” But “there were other problems that had nothing to do with the fact that the room of one’s own was Cell 16. Words for instance. Sentences. Paragraphs.” Ngũgĩ quotes T.S. Eliot on the slipperiness of words, which “crack…break…slip, slide, perish.” Ngũgĩ was confounded by basic questions: tense, time, space, orthography, tonal variations. “Yes, words did slip and slide under my own eyes,” he says. “They would not stay in place. They would not stay still.” There was also the perennial problem of “finding the appropriate ‘fiction language,’ that is with fiction itself taken as a form of language.” There is a truly heartstopping moment in Detained when Ngũgĩ’s cell is searched and his painstakingly drafted manuscript is confiscated. After three depressive weeks, a senior officer returns it to him: “I see nothing wrong with it,” he says. “You write in very difficult Kikuyu!”

Perhaps the officer simply wasn’t familiar with the language. I wouldn’t know, having read the novel only in English. One of the ironies of Ngũgĩ’s decision to write in Gĩkũyũ is the inevitability of its English translation. This is not merely an exigency of an Anglocentric publishing world, against which Ngũgĩ often rails. It was also built into his initial decision: “I had planned to finish the Gĩkũyũ version by the end of 1978. In line with my new thinking on Kenya’s national languages, I would embark on a Swahili version in 1979…. In 1980, I would attempt an English version. English was a foreign language, but it was an important language in the history of Kenya.” When we learn that the original pages of Devil on the Cross, drafted before his detainment, were in English; that he wrote the novel in “difficult” Gĩkũyũ; and that he himself translated it into English, we see the complexity of this seemingly univocal decision. Its aesthetic, political, and personal implications are as layered as Samuel Beckett’s decision to write in French, or Zora Neale Hurston’s decision to write in African-American dialect. Ngũgĩ’s choice to write in Gĩkũyũ has proved political not only as a return to his African roots but also as a landmark in global translation. When we read Devil on the Cross in English, certain words are italicized—those that appeared in English, French, Latin, and Swahili in the original Gĩkũyũ text. Ngũgĩ’s novel reminds us there is no pure or ur-language, not even the one your mother spoke.

Ngũgĩ recently wrote what may be the most translated short story of all time, “Itũıka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ” (“The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright”) for Jalada, an online literary journal published by a Kenyan collective of young African writers. You can read the story in more than thirty languages, and more translations are being commissioned. It is a lovely, lively fable about a competition between the arms and the legs. It easily translates, so to speak, into an allegory about the need for socialist cooperation in a body politic, the idea that, as Ngũgĩ writes in Decolonising the Mind, “work, from each according to his ability for a collective vision, was the great democratic equalizer.” Delightful details emerge when the story’s momentum diverts it from this total vision. So, when the hands try to walk along the ground, the thumbs are stretched away from the other fingers: “far from the separated thumb making the hands less efficient, it enhanced their…grasping power. What’s this? Deformity transformed into the power of forming!”

Ngũgĩ is all too familiar with the way words can forge a reality, the way they can have formative—or deadly—effects. Your ability to speak the Queen’s English used to determine your placement in Kenyan exams and, therefore, your prospects for employment. Ngũgĩ almost died of an asthma attack once when he was in Senegal because he did not know enough French to ask for help. His detainment order, written in vague legalese, consigned him to prison without trial for a year, and was eventually deemed an “Act of State” that kept him from resuming his university position upon release. And when, during his subsequent exile in the United Kingdom—another ironic consequence of his decision to write in Gĩkũyũ—he published his novel Matigari (1987), the Kenyan government issued a warrant for his arrest. Matigari’s, that is. When it was discovered that Matigari was a fictional character, the eponymous novel was banned for ten years. Ngũgĩ had written a political fugitive into being, in the body of a book.


Adapted from Namwali Serpell’s introduction to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross, just published in a new edition by Penguin Classics