An Evening with Ngūgĩ wa Thiong’o


>>Eugene Flanagan: Good to
see everybody here tonight. I’m Eugene Flanagan,
director of general and international collections
here at the Library of Congress. And it’s my great
pleasure to welcome you to the Jefferson
Building in particular, a gateway to 1,000 years of
world history and culture. And tonight we are shining a
light on one significant aspect of that cultural heritage:
African poets and writers. Paying tribute to one author in
particular, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Tonight’s program is
the latest installment in the popular Conversations
with African Poets and Writers series, created
by the African Section of the African and
Middle Eastern Division. Our African Program advises
the Library’s acquisitions, provides references and
bibliographic services and networks with other research
and teaching institutions across the United
States and abroad. All in the service of supporting
a vibrant community of learning and inclusion and deeper
cultural understanding. The Conversations series is
in keeping with this intent and has its origins in the
Library’s tribute in 2008 to Chinua Achebe on
the 50th anniversary of his iconic novel,
Things Fall Apart. In 2011, the series
was officially launched by another renowned
Kenyan author and historian, the
late Ali Mazrui. Since then, the series
has engaged emerging and established novelists
and poets in discussion on a wide range of topics
related to African literature. And it has become an
established stop for the winner of the annual Caine Prize
for African literature. And I want you to know that all
these conversations are freely available online at the Library’s
website at www.loc.gov. This evening we honor a great
African novelist, playwright and scholar on the
occasion of the publication of his 34th book,
Minutes of Glory. Ngugi wa Thiong’o is arguably
the most renowned living African author today, and more than 50
years after Weep Not, Child, the first novel to be published
in English by an east African, remains a literary super star and perennial favorite
for the Nobel Prize. And of that famous prize, the Washington Post observed
a couple of year ago, “The Nobel committee
got it wrong. Ngugi Thiong’o is the
writer the world needs now.” We’re fortunate to have him now. But before we get into
the program proper, I would like to acknowledge
the partners who helped bring this
program to the public. The Africa Society of the
National Summit on Africa under Ambassador Pamela
Bridgewater — thank you. And Howard University’s
Department of African Studies, absolutely. [ Applause ] Well-deserved. And Howard University’s
Department of African Studies under Chair Mbye Cham. And thank you, too. [ Applause ] I would also like to thank
in advance Patricia Baine, president of the Africa Society who will be MCing tonight’s
multifaceted program and celebration. But to get us started,
please join me in welcoming to the stage His Excellency
Ambassador David Gacheru of the Embassy of Kenya. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Ambassador David
Gacheru: Thank you very much. On the on-sent Professor
Ngugi, I want to thank you. I want to thank the Africa
Society team who worked on the project pro
bono and worked to make this project a fruition. On behalf of the Kenya Embassy,
we want to welcome everybody who has come here for us
as a historical moment to recognize our great
professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Professor Ngugi, your
institution for truth, your honesty and your writing. You were an inspiration for
us as we were growing up, and on behalf of the Kenyan
Embassy and my team here, I in the presence of the
audience, I have a presentation from our government,
our political and programmatic
secretary Abazra Tamamulo. I don’t know whether
you are in the audience. If you could stand up. Thank you. [ Applause ] It’s an honor to
have this presence and we really thank the
African Society team, Susan and Patricia. And we kept back
and forth and now at some point we
always dreamed of, how can we have Ngugi
wa Thiong’o come to the Library of Congress? And for us it’s a dream and
this will stay in memory. I think also my daughter
is in the audience. Her name is Warigia and I
know she is really excited to come and meet with you. So on behalf of that, I just
want to take a little more time. We are here for you. We want to listen to you. In this case I want to
welcome Professor Gikandi from Princeton University to
come and give opening remarks. Thank you very much. [ Applause ]>>Patricia Baine: On
behalf of the directors of the Africa Society Board — I know that my chairman
Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater has already been recognized. Ambassador. My name is Patricia Baine. I’m the president of
the Africa Society. It’s our distinct
honor, Professor Ngugi, for us to have you with us this
evening as our featured speaker in the Conversations with
African Poets and Writers. If you wonder why we are
extraordinarily happy this evening, we have been
planning your coming to the library for
over eight years. To borrow from Chimamanda
Adichie’s words, because I share her
sentiment, it’s an honor to have you with
us this evening. Because we believe
that you are one of the greatest writers
of our time. We’re honored to have you. [ Applause ] And without further
ado, I will invite out the two lovely students
for our youth tribute. Thanks. [ Applause ]>>Jasmine Mbari: On
behalf of our generation, the youth of the continent of
Africa and young Kenyans –>>Gerald Maina:
We say thank you. Your extraordinary achievements that will inspire our
generations for all time.>>Jasmine Mbari: I will
be reading Minutes of Glory and Other Stories by
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Maguma. Makami stood
at the door. Slowly and sorrowfully,
she turned her head and looked at the hearth. A momentary hesitation,
the smoldering fire and the small stool by the
fireside calling her back. No. She made up her mind. She must go. With a smooth oiled upper
garment pulled tightly over her otherwise bare head
and then falling over her slim, youthful shoulders, she plunged into the lone and
savage darkness. All was quiet and a sort
of magic pervaded the air. Yet she felt a threatening. She felt awed by the immensity
of the darkness, unseeing, unfeeling that enveloped her. Quickly, she moved across the
courtyard she knew so well, fearing to make the
slightest sound. The courtyard, the four
huts belonging to her Aru, the silhouette of her man’s
hut and even her own seemed to have joined together
in one’s eternal chorus of mute condemnation
of her action. “You are leaving your man. Come back,” they pleaded in their silence of
pitying contempt. Defiantly, she crossed the
courtyard and took the path that led down to the left gate. Slowly, she opened the
gate and then shut it. She stood at the moment. In that second, Makami
realized that with the shutting of the gate she had shut
off a part of her existence. Tears were imminent as with a
heavy heart she turned her back no her rightful place
and began to move. But where was she going? She did not know and she
did not very much care, as she was to escape and go. Go — go anywhere. Masailand or Ukumbani. She wanted to go get away from
the hearth, the courtyard, the huts and the people. Away from everything
that reminded her of Mahoroni Ridge
and its inhabitants. She would go and
never return to him. Her hus — no, not her
husband, but the man who wanted to kill her, who would have
her crushed by her sole. He would no longer
be her husband, though he was the
very same man she so much admitted how
she loathed him now.>>Gerald Maina: And I will
be reading [Foreign name] by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. [ Speaking foreign language ] Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Ndirangu Wachanga:
Good evening.>>Good evening.>>Ndirangu Wachanga:
The year is 1938. Right on the equator
in central Kenya, a little boy announces his
arrival with an infant cry. He is named Ngugi. From the center of the
world, Ngugi isn’t aware of the unfolding global events
that would transform the history of his country and the
future of his world. Unlike his soft cry, these events are perceptibly
explosive and blatantly tragic. The United States, Europe and
Asia are gusting for breath on the eve of the
Second World War. Under the weight of
unprecedented destruction, the world is only a few
years away from adding to its biography the cataclysmic
consequences of a nuclear bomb. In Africa, colonial powers
had arrived with a bang, with an obscene lust for power,
insatiable greed for resources and a devilish desire to kill. They plundered the
continent in ways that continue to haunt to date. In Ngugi’s Kenya, the British
attempted to destroy everything. Kenyan land was taken away. The unit of the family
was broken. Values that held communities
together were ridiculed. Sons denied their fathers and daughters became
strangers to their mothers. But the refusal to be defined as
less human was not negotiable, and Kenyans fought back. Born in a time of war, Ngugi
inherited global consequences of the Second World War. He was of Parks Britannica,
Kenya’s epic resistance to colonialism, dreams
and disillusionment of political independence and a world controlled
by powerful men. For more than half a
century, Ngugi has served as the continental
moral conscience, connecting those
global histories through powerful narratives
that engage our past and the crises of the present. His words are rooted in
esthetics of pan-Africanism and cut across transnational
literary and moral ethics. The biography of Ngugi
provides revealing insight about the deployment of
memory and the role of memory in the evolution of the
African nation-state. His biography allows us to
evaluate the relationship between the state and the
African memory project. The processes of becoming
the most colonized and enslaved nations
have been defined by officially-sanctioned
programs of forgetting. Ngugi’s biography
invites the public to resist that urge to forget. To remember. Ngugi’s words, to make those
memories a member again. Ngugi’s compatriot Ali Mazrui
was a political scientist with a literary bent. Ngugi, as he has said,
he is a literary artist with a political bent. I am honored to serve as
his documentary biographer and to work with one of
his students and my mentor, Professor Simon Gikandi
of Princeton University. Ngugi, I call him [foreign
name], a seeker of justice and a spring of knowledge,
my teacher, my friend and my fellow Kenyan. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s
a brief story of Ngugi, the son of Wachiko and Thiong’o. [ Applause ] [ Music ]>>I was born in 1938 in Namuru, Kenya in a [inaudible]
community. My father had four wives. My mother was the third
wife of my father. We lived on land owned
by an African landlord, and then later my mother
separated from my father and she went to live
in her father’s land, after whom I’m named,
Ngugi wa Ekwenya. [ Music ]>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of
the world’s foremost writers and most significant political,
social and cultural thinkers. [ Music ] You have shown us what it
means to create cultures, to reinstate cultures, and how
one may take back one’s culture. [ Music ]>>I have long passages that
do not have illustrations. In the process, I read
over and over again. And suddenly, one day I start
hearing music in the words. [ Music ] As I write — I know it’s very
interesting — but as a writer, as a novelist, one is always
trying to find oneself. I would say what you don’t
know is what I also don’t know about myself, because I’m trying
to find myself all the time. [ Music ]>>When I hear the name Ngugi
wa Thiong’o, I think of course of the first and
most important writer to have come out of east Africa.>>It is inconceivable
for me to broach some of the things that
I’m broaching. As a gay Ethiopian who’s
writing about sexuality openly in Ethiopia in English
and Amharic, I couldn’t do that without somebody like Ngugi
wa Thiong’o silently telling me, “Be brave. Speak truth to power.”>>Wow, you know,
Ngugi wa Thiong’o — in many ways, Ngugi
taught us how to think. Because my generation,
we were literally the independence generation.>>An epoch of 68
years is closing, years in which a wilderness
became a thriving country. At Nairobi, the Duke
of Edinburgh and Mr. Kimyata received
the freedom of the city. At midnight, the Union Jack
was lowered for the last time. And Kenya ceased to be a
colony and became independent.>>Ngugi’s generation, they
fought either culturally or militarily or
politically to liberate us. [ Music ]>>I think of him as a
teacher and as a scholar. I think of him as someone I
met first through his books and the importance
of those books in recovering our histories,
cultures or traditions. [ Music ]>>Author, playwright,
activist and scholar, you have shown us the power
of words to change the world. You have written in English and
in your Kenyan language, Kikuyu. You have worked in
prison cells and in exile, and you have survived
assassination attempts all to bring attention to the
plight of ordinary people in Kenya and around the world. Brave wordsmith for
breaking down barriers, for showing us the
potential of literature to incite change
and promote justice. For helping us decolonize
our minds and open them to new ideas, we are privileged to award you this degree
of Doctor of Letters. [ Applause ]>>People will think of, you
know, fathers and sons — you know, in America they
bond through baseball. You know, so possibly if you
asked the American child, what’s your favorite
image of your father? They would say playing
catch, right? For me it would be
playing with words.>>He’s been a very
important figure in my intellectual formation, but also in a very
personal way, you know?>>A man who agonizes
over words, you know, but at the same time believes
his writing should have a commitment to saying something
about the historical conditions or the present conditions.>>I read his books as my
father, but both like seeing him as a scholar and my
father at the same time.>>Given the tremendous
political pressure that was weighing down on
us like right now, you know, I would say as a father
he did a good job. You know, every day
[inaudible], you know? [Laughs] Especially
when he’s here. [ Music ]>>Cultural and political
critic of immense power, you have shown us what it
means to create cultures, to reinstate cultures and how
one may take back one’s culture. [ Music ]>>Something that you guys
might not know about dad, something that he might even
keep very well under wraps. My dad is a very
talented dancer. [ Music ] [ Singing ]>>He has changed the
definition of a writer. What you should do, what you
do as a writer is you be tough and survive and write. And I think Ngugi has
played it out to the hilt. And I think that is a
very great inspiration. And of course, many more. His contribution to the canon of east African literature
is remarkable. [ Music ]>>You look at my work,
generally, you know, my novels and you know, although they
talk about Kenyan history and other histories, but as
a writer I draw upon myself, my resources. But still you find there’s so many things you
don’t understand. You think you know, and then you
find you don’t actually know. Okay, so writing novels and
say fiction generally is a way of kind of exploration. Both intellectual exploration
but also emotional exploration. So I would assume that even
I don’t know myself yet.>>Ngugi’s also struggling
with himself. Here’s the first
translation, right, from James Ngugi to
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He’s struggling within
himself to find a place in modernity that’s not
fully accepting of him, has never been fully
accepting of him as a black colonial subject
who’s now no longer a black colonial subject who
cannot transcend the moment of having been a black
colonial subject. Translation is struggle. That’s what it is. It’s struggle secondarily
with language. It’s firstly struggle
with thinking. That’s what Ngugi’s
brilliant at. That’s what he brings to mind. That’s what he brings
us to think. [ Music ] [ Applause ]>>Simon Gikandi: I am Simon
Gikandi, professor of English at Princeton University. And it’s my great pleasure
to introduce Ngugi today. I have been told that I
have exactly three minutes to do this, and that’s
impossible. [ Laughter ] It’s impossible because Ngugi
has had a long and good life. He’s 81 years old and he’s
been writing for 60 years. And he has written over 50 books
and maybe 50 scholarly articles. And I’ve also known
him for 40 years, which means there are lots of
things I could say about him. But for those of us
here in the audience who have not known Ngugi that
long, I think the best way to introduce him is
through his works. Almost everyone, at least those
of you from Africa, east Africa and Kenya in particular, are
familiar with Ngugi’s works. The River Between; Weep Not,
Child; The Black Hermit; A Grain of Wheat; Petals
of Blood; [Foreign name]; The Wizard of the Crow. And more recently,
[Foreign name]. As he has also been writing,
Ngugi has been a great teacher. That’s the first way in which
I met him, as a teacher. He’s been an author. He has been an intellectual
and he has also been a citizen, a very important
citizen of Kenya. And for this reason
especially I’m grateful that the Kenyan Embassy has
been involved in this event. Because I think this is one
of the first recognitions by the Kenyan state of Ngugi’s
significance in our culture. I’m also especially delighted
that Ngugi has been invited to the Library of Congress,
this great institution. The last time I was
here on a podium was to talk about Chinua Achebe. So it’s only fitting that Ngugi
should follow the footsteps of that other great
African writer. So ladies and gentlemen,
welcome — let’s all welcome
Ngugi wa Thiong’o. [ Applause ]>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you. Okay. Thank you very much
for this great welcome. Thank you, Library of
Congress and Africa Society, you know, for the welcome. And thank you for your
words of introduction. I am particularly happy that
there are so many people here with whom I have
interacted in my life, some of my colleagues,
students and so on. So it’s really wonderful
to see all of you. Thank you very much. Yeah. I’d like also to mention
I really appreciate the presence of Dr. Ferdinand Tiang. Is he here? Matangi? Oh, not here? All right. Yeah. Yeah, some minister
from Kenya who was supposed to be here, and I
appreciate their coming over. But in their place of course
there is Ambassador David Gacheru who met me last night,
you know, at the airport and ensured I am
happily ensconced in my hotel room and so on. But I can’t forget of
course Simon Gikandi, his wife Wanda —
is that correct? Wanda Gikandi and their
wonderful daughter who is not here,
Halima, who is in Kenya. And of course [Inaudible]
who showed the film. Our [inaudible] Patricia
Baine, correct? Not “Bane”; Baine. [ Laughter ] Was my chauffer. It is not every day that you
get chauffeured by a president. [ Laughter ] And she did so and I
really appreciate it. I appreciate also
my fellow writers who are here, in
particular Waberi. Waberi, are you here?>>Yes.>>Yeah. Waberi. [ Applause ] Who gave me his book
Naming the Dawn. He’s already a very
well-known, you know, poet. But this is the book
he has written since we last met in California. He was in California and
then he abandoned me there in a rural outpost and he
came to the capital of power. So it’s nice to see him today. Now, I can’t mention all of you
by name really, because we have so many of you, you know. But really, I appreciate
everything you have done for me now and in
interactions in the past. But I can’t help just mention
one last time I was here. It was for an event and I think
there were three writers having an event here. And we were snowed out. [ Laughter ] Literally. We had to stay in our hotel and watch the snow
and then return home. But thank you very much for inviting us here
and for that event. And now you’ve made it whole. But the fact now
we are back here, although I don’t have
the others with me. But I represent their spirit. So I thought that I’d
do a few readings, starting with my new book. I know many of you don’t
know that I am a poet. I know you have been whispering
that, “He says he’s a poet, but I have never seen what
he has written,” right? So today I thought that
being the Congress, right, and African Society, I want
to prove that I am a poet by reading from my first
published book of poems. Don’t tell anyone, but
there are just six of — there are only six poems. [ Laughter ] But they’re in book form, okay? Yeah. So now these will prove
that I am actually a poet, okay? Yeah. And we are going to — I call them Poems of a
Nation, or Venice Poems. And I’m going to ask some
friends to help me read. I’m going to ask Gikandi
to come over here. Pietro Kahiga. Is Kahiga here? Pietro, can you come
over here, please? Once I finish, I’ll give you. Yeah. Okay. I don’t have — People always ask me, “If you
write in African languages, what about we others who don’t
either understand African languages or don’t understand
the Kikuyu language?” You know, of course I’m
always surprised by this, because they will never ask a
French person why they write in French. [ Laughter ] Or Japanese why he
writes in Japanese and not in Yuzulu or in Yoruba. If I were a Chinese writer,
“You write in Chinese. Why?” [ Laughter ] But an African writer, you say, “You write in an
African language,” and they ask you why, right? Yeah. So I write in
Kikuyu language these days, but I keep on saying that
languages can connect, can network with each other, particularly through
translations. So I want to read a poem. I got this idea actually
from when Professor Gikandi and his wife received us
in Princeton the other day. And they had my poems read in
English and Kikuyu I think, and also Swahili and Portuguese. In so many languages, you know. And people seemed to enjoy that. So I thought we would try
this by also introducing one of my poems I wrote
about Venice. What happened was this. I was invited to Venice by
the University of Venice to stay there for
about three weeks. And I had never been in a
city without cars or bicycles. And most important,
without roads. You know, every street
was a waterway. And the only travel
from one place to another was either you
walked through so many bridges, you know, or you took
a boat in the water. So there were all these rivers of water everywhere,
canals, you know. And this impressed
me quite a lot. And I wrote a series
of poems in Kikuyu. I want to read only one because
there are other things too. The book has been
published in Venice. I don’t know if it
is available here, but believe me, I’m
not hiding it. I’m sure it’s simply that
the publisher has not managed to get the copies over here. So this is called
[Foreign name]. [ Speaking foreign language ] Now we shall hear it
in Italian I think. Pietro is my neighbor in
California, but he abandoned me and came to the capital
of power. [ Laughter ]>>Pietro Galassetti:
In Italian. [ Speaking foreign language ]>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o:
Now in English.>>Pietro Galassetti: And this
is the English Translation. It’s called Quick Judgement. “In a restaurant near
my place in [inaudible], I told them I wanted their
specialty so that on returning to Africa I would sing Gloria
to the taste of Italian food. They brought me fish
and spaghetti with black ink all over it. What kind of people are these? They flood my food with black
ink just because I’m black? [ Laughter ] I walked back to
[inaudible] angry and hungry. Another day, my guide
Lucio de Capitani, took me to Tortollia de Yoni. I ordered lamb and
hastened to tell them not to add anything to the meal. Lucio asked for the
dish he loved most. They brought in fish and spaghetti flooded
with black ink. “This is the most beloved
dish in Venice,” he told me. “And the black ink is
what we love most.” It’s not pen ink. It’s a black liquid
squeezed out of a squid. [ Applause ]>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o:
Okay, thank you. Thank you, Pietro. I’m going to see if I can sort
of read a few more sections from some of my books
and then, you know, after several small sections, I brought in a very big one
called Wizard of the Crow. But I promise you I’m not
going to read the whole novel. [ Laughter ] So don’t leave, okay? Yeah. And I was very
grateful for — who was the lady who read
from Minutes of Glory? Huh? Yeah. What’s her name?>>Jasmine.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Jasmine. Yeah, thank you very
much for that. She just happened to read
my very favorite story ever which I wrote in 1960. I was — I think I was
a first-year student at Makerere University, college. And I want to read a little bit
from my memoir called The Birth of a Dream Weaver as
to how that came about. And just because in
Makerere we had — oh. I’ll just narrate and then
I’ll read another section. We had a city magazine
called Pen Point. Called Pen Point because the
point of a pen makes a point. And the writers who were
there, they were like — for we first-years
it’s like they were like little gods, you know. How is it possible that I
could write something and be, you know, printed on a page? So one of them was from Kenya
and his name was Jonava Karera. He has passed on. But I always remember our
first encounter which I talk about in my memoir, The
Birth of a Dream Weaver. And of course meeting
him, I wanted to — we had just met and then
I had very few words. But I wanted to keep on talking
to him, but no words would flow. So the second time I meet
him, I know I’m going to lose my chance, you know. But again words escaped me. So I say the first words
that come to my mouth. “Excuse me, Mr. Karera,
I’ve written a short story. Would you like to look at it?” Yeah, right? “Would you like to look at it?” And he says, “Yes, of course. And then, “Oh, do you
have it with you?” “Excuse me, actually I should
have said I was thinking of writing it.” [ Laughter ] So when I do the
finishing touches, I’ll bring it someday, you know. So that night I had to sit
down and write that story which is [Foreign
name] the one you read. And I start it literally
with the words you read. Okay? So you reminded
me of my history, okay? But the second section I want
to read is again connected with also stories
from Minutes of Glory. That story is in
Minutes of Glory. But I’m going to read another
section from my memoir, that memoir called
Birth of a Dream Weaver. It really talks about my college
days and how I came to write, including that story of my first
short story which was fiction. Then I turned fiction
into fact — or I don’t know which
is which, okay? Then I wrote another
story called The Return. Again, you can find
it in this book. And this story The Return
actually got some traction and was published in a new
journal which had been started by [foreign name] in
Kampala called Tradition. Tradition still continues
strongly in Harvard now, and so it’s continued many, many years after [foreign
name] has passed on. But this was a short story which
I believe made me get invited to the first Conference
of African Writers of English Expression
at Makerere in 1962. I remember I was still a student and at this time
second-year student and the university
had been gathering which brought together Chinua
Achebe, Wallace Shaying, Ezekiel Palela, [Foreign
name] and all of them had been published. But me, only two stories. I had actually finished
two manuscripts of a novel, but nobody knew about
them, okay? And among those who came to
the conference, guess who? Have you ever heard of a
writer called Langston Hughes? You’re sure? You’re sure you have? [ Laughter ] Okay. He was there at
the conference, okay? Right. Yeah. So you know, he connected
that conference in a way intellectually to other
congresses of black writers in Rome and Paris and so on. But this was one of the first,
really the first to be held in Africa on the continent. And his presence
was very important. Now, remember, I’m a
second-year student. It’s during the vacation when other students had
gone for their vacation. But we writers —
see what I’m saying? We writers. [ Laughter ] We writers were left,
you know, to — well, to use some
of their rooms now. And we didn’t know then — huh? Now among of course
[inaudible] was the first that my short story The Return
was going to be discussed. Well, but the bit I want to tell
you is about Langston Hughes. Because Langston Hughes
once asked me to take him on a tour of the city. And I’m thinking, “Me, take this
icon of the Harlem Renaissance on a tour of the city I loved?” And I tried to map
out the route. Where to start? Now for those who
live in Kampala, you know Kampala is built
on hills like Rome itself. And it’s got incredible
cathedrals, you know, Anglican, Catholic, you know,
and Muslim temples. It’s really very,
very beautiful. So I was thinking that
the best thing is for me to take this icon on the
most modern parts of Kampala. I wanted him to see how
modern Kampala was, okay? Yeah. So not knowing how I was
going to accomplish all this with uncertain public transport,
we walked down the hill and turned left on
Makerere Hill to Wandigea. Now Wandigea is like — you
know, in the modern world — you know how in the modern
world what you call modernity is largely splendor. You see these wonderful
buildings, you know, everywhere, all over the world,
and splendor. Actually literally
build on squalor. Yeah. So the same thing in a way
for the University of Makerere. It was very, very beautiful. It was on a hill. And so next to it, literally,
was this place called Wandigea which was really a rundown area,
you know, where artisans were, you know, making
tools and so on. You know, or making things with
the few tools which they had. Yeah. So we walked down
Makerere Hill Road to Wandigea where I hoped we’d
catch a taxi or a bus to the center of the city. Wandigea literally next door to
the college was a rundown area with a cacophony of
sounds for the multitude of artisans hammering
scrap iron and aluminum into different shapes to
make household utensils. And from human voices of ragged,
trousered clients in and out of numerous tiny bars that
sold mataki — mataki is food. Banana, beer, what is a very
strong distilled hard liquor, homemade. You know, it could
knock you off like that. [ Laughter ] Now this milling crowd, its
wales and shouts and laughter, you know, and the voice from
the radio, all that seemed to fascinate Langston Hughes. And no talk of monuments
would dislodge him from there. Actually, in his casual
wear, Langston Hughes blended into the scene more than I did with my gray governing
trousers and black blazer. By the way, in Makerere
we used to dress as if we were perpetually on
our way to a cocktail party. [ Laughter ] He tasted the warig
brew, just a sip, and the mataki, just a taste. Otherwise, for the one hour that
we roamed from shop to shop, one pile of goods to another
in the open-air street market, bumping against one
drunk and another, he seemed more interested
in observing the atmosphere of harmony and dissonance
that surrounded us. Perhaps reminding him of his new
release called Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. Yeah. It was a scene which
I’ll never forget, yeah. And now — [ Applause ] I want to read a little bit
from again Minutes of Glory. Minutes of Glory is actually
like my later autobiography in the sense that it contains
all of the stories I’ve written over a period of years. From the one I began to write
at Makerere to the last two which I wrote in Irvine as
a distinguished professor of English and comparative
literature at the University of
California Irvine. Okay. One is called actually
The Ghost of Michael Jackson. I will not read from that one. But I want to read one called
Without a Shadow of Doubt: My First Lesson in Art and Film. Let me explain the background. In my home in California,
I tried this trick of — well, with my children
I wanted to — and [inaudible] in the film
talks about this a little bit — tell them stories
instead of material gift. And they liked it, but still that material gift was
important, but nevertheless. [ Laughter ] Yeah. And I thought I
would start with me. So when it would get to
my birthday, I would say, “Don’t buy me anything. Just write me a story or a poem or do a performance
on the piano. Or show anything
which you have done with your hands or, you know.” Okay? But then they turned
the tables around when it gets to my buying them gifts. Like Thiong, the
youngest, one day he waited until literally it was Christmas
the following day and he told me for a gift he wanted
a story from me. [ Laughter ] Right. So that’s how I
start writing some stories for them, you know. This was written for my daughter
Mombi, and I was in [inaudible] when I remembered it was either
her birthday or Christmas and I had to write this
story very quickly. It’s called Without
a Shadow of a Doubt. Let me read a few paragraphs. Ginjo my younger brother claimed
he could capture his own shadow. Older by a year, I
was not about to admit that I was any less able. A rivalry of sorts grew
into a sibling race to be the first to
achieve that fate. With the grim but eager
determination of bounty hunters, we set out to capture
our shadows. They proved very cunning. They would run away from us, but
annoyingly kept the same speed as we did, accelerating when we
did, slowing down when we did and stopping when we did. Okay, we’ll just
run away from them. The same pattern ensued. They followed us,
doing whatever we did, literally at the same time
and speed that we did it. Let us carry a load on
our heads, in our hands, on our backs or push the
rim of a bicycle wheel. Our shadows would come
up with an exact replica. On moonlit nights, they were
there walking behind us, in front of us, beside
us, mocking our failure to turn them into captors. We escaped them only
when it became dark. Initially, a matter of
pride at our doing it. But as soon as we sat by the
fireside, they were back. Alas, it was not we who had
escaped them, but rather they who had hidden in the darkness
only to reappear suddenly and dramatically at
storytelling time. They played on the walls,
on our faces, and depending on the flames, they
would actually dance. Sometimes they would
multiply themselves and continue mocking
us in moves and waves that seemed choreographed
to achieve maximum mockery. But [inaudible] by the
shadows in different ways and eventually we began to argue
about the ontology of shadows. You know, the shadow in the
mirror is the same thing as the shadow in the water. You know, what is it? You know, huh? And then most important
argument — because we always took
different sides on the question. We argued about the
color of shadows. We disagreed on the
color of human shadows. Noting that ours were
black, were always black, my brother stated with absolute
certainty that it was simply because we were black. Black shadows were for
black people, he said. White shadows for white people. Brown for brown people. The shadows after all
imitated us in everything; why not in the color
of the skin? When I pointed out the shadows
from plants were also dark, he said it was because
they were plants. Human shadows were different. After all, plant
shadows were stationary. Huh. We could only settle the
dispute by checking with humans. Now there are no
whites in our village. They lived on the other
side of the railway line, hidden behind big
houses in big plantations and inside automobiles. Our best hope was with Indians. Now they may not have been as
white as the whites from Europe, but we could draw a
logical conclusion from any difference we detected between African and
Indian shadows. So one day we set out to the
Indian shopping center two miles from our village. In keeping with the
solemnity of our mission, we had our single calico wear
washed properly and dried by the fireside the
night before. Thus we dressed in
our clean best. We did not whisper the intent
of our journey of exploration to our parents or any
other of our siblings. And although I took a
different view of the matter, I was not averse to my
brother being right. Really, when you
come to think of it, a white shadow would
be something to behold. And so it was with great
curiosity and anticipation that we looked out at our
first Indian encounters. Children outside their shops. Their shadows behaved in
the same way that ours did. Their avatars followed
and ran away but never completely detaching
themselves from the body of the Indian original. And they were black. Maybe — huh. Maybe that’s because they
were shadows of children. But it turned out to be the
same with Indian adults. Dark shadows. But wait a minute, but wait. Real whites. Real white shadows. And then good luck fell upon us. A white couple drove
past in a car. And you can read the rest
from Minutes of Glory. [ Applause ] Yes. Can I do one more, please?>>One more.>>I will do one more piece. Because this one is about you
guys, you know, all of you. I mean, I’ll tell you why. Let me see what I can find. Oh yes. Now — Are there children
here in the audience? All right, I don’t
see anything red. Huh? But something
we are going to — listen, you need to
listen carefully, because it happened to you. Okay? But it happened
to your parents. You can ask them
quietly, you know, when they first met, right? Okay. So I’ll give you a secret
when they first met, okay? Right. They have not told you. And all of you actually, not
only them, but even you, yeah. Now the reason I’m saying this
is because I’m always fascinated by sometimes you have known
a person for a long time or you’ve been [inaudible], but one day something
happens, you know. Like you see them
in a different light in something, you know, right? You see someone that’s
like, “Yes, I remember.” [ Laughter ] Okay. This is about
you, Gikandi, and Wanda. Okay? Right. Now this concerns one — this comes from the
novel Wizard of the Crow. And it concerns a dictatorship
which wants to build a house that reaches heaven so he can
be a neighbor to God, okay? Although the payment — they borrowed money
from the Global Bank. And of course the people of that
country who’ll pay back the loan and all that, you know. Naturally there is resistance to that project called
marching to heaven. And it’s led by a
woman called Nowera. But she has also a friend called
Kamiti who is educated in India and he doesn’t quite believe
in this sort of organized. He’s read some Indian
[inaudible] and Mabharata and he believes in finding
oneself, you know, go to forest and find yourself,
that kind of thing. Nowera on the other hand
believes in organizing, right? In organizing. And she’s a leader,
secret leader of the voice for the movement of the people. But they are friends. And one day she goes to seek
him in the forest to talk about this business
of finding herself in the forest instead
of among the people. To tell him that no matter
how you find yourself in the forest alone, it’s not
going to change the reality of a dictatorship, okay? But otherwise, they
were like-minded about so many things, you know. And they had been together, you
know, just friends, you know. And they talked,
they told stories and that kind of
thing, you know. And then they go
to this location. They even talk and in unison
sang a song about the animals, this counting song about zebra, rat and others and
so on, you know. But they sang it together just as they were used
to doing, okay? It was a song that helped
them count up to ten, but the logic was in
the rhythm instead of the meaning of the words. Once again, they
laughed together. And as they looked
in each other’s eyes, they were suddenly
without words. They resumed their
walk in silence, taken up by the light they
saw in each other’s eyes. Love was everywhere. It was there in the
tree branches where the nests of
real birds hung. In the frond where the little
bird had left two long black tail feathers. It was there in the
murmurings of the elder river as it flowed eastward
before turning into a roaring waterfall. It was there in the
sun’s rays which pierced through the waterfall, splitting into the seven colors
of the rainbow. It was there in the still
waters of a small lake made by the river where Kamiti and
Nowera now swam and bathed and chased each other,
splashing water on each other. It was there in the black
jacks, the goose grass and other plants,
the flowers and seeds of which stuck to
their wet clothes. It was there in the movement
of porcupines and hedgehogs. It was there in the wings or the
helmeted and crested guinea fowl that scampered away after
stealing glances at the couple. It was there in the honeybees
and butterflies hopping from flower to flower. It was there in the cooing of
the doves, in the mating calls of the river frogs from among
the reeds and water lilies. Love was there among the
creeping plants that twined around the tree trunks. Yes. It was there
in the blackberries, some of which they plucked
and fed to each other. Love was there in the breeze that made the leaves
sway ever so gently. Love was everywhere
in this forest. But neither Nowera nor Kamiti
mentioned the word love. Thank you. [ Applause ] I’m done. [ Applause ] Oh, sorry. I was looking for you.>>Eve Ferguson: Okay. This one is working. And then — can you
hear me on this one? Yes?>>Yes.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Hello. Hello. Testing. Five, four, three, two. Oh, it’s working. Okay. [Laughs]>>Eve Ferguson:
Well, I have to say that this is the
culmination of a dream for me. Ever since we had Chinua
Achebe in here in 2008, I said the next one has
to be Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I’m quite sure his family and friends have told me
I’ve been chasing him all over the world. And it’s just such an honor for
me to have you here tonight. Thank you so much for coming.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Thank you.>>Eve Ferguson:
As a writer myself who has not written a book, this is an inspiration
and a culmination. So I’m going to abbreviate
my questions because we would rather
hear from you than from me. So I’m going to ask you a few
questions for our Conversations with African Poets and Writers. So you write in many
different genres. Why is that?>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yeah. As you write, you
try to kind of — it’s always challenging oneself. But sometimes you
don’t choose, you know. Some things organize themselves around the actual
story, you know. And in the case of poetry for
instance, it’s not something which I do consciously. Like Venice in this
time was so — I just couldn’t find
any other way of talking about Venice except through
those, you know, poems. Yeah, and I’ve done that. Especially since I started
writing in Kikuyu language, poetry counts — in English,
I find it very difficult to write a poem in
English, you know, because the sound systems
don’t have the same resonance for me in English. But in Kikuyu I can play
around with alliteration. Like for some of you
who were able to follow from my new book [foreign
name] or the Perfect Nine. And I’m going to tell
you about it, by the way. If you listen to the young man
who read very, very well — and thank you very much. Kimani? What was his name again? Not Kimani. Yes, thank you very
much for your reading. You actually read very well. You could hear the
sounds, you know. I play around with the
alliteration, you know, when I’m writing in Kikuyu. Yeah. So it depends,
you know, on the mood. But it’s such a challenge
to try different things. I write theory. I’m very fascinated by
theory, but not theory in the abstract sense. I like theory that comes
from practice, you know. So people are surprised
when they read a book — like not surprised really, but I
think they’re fascinated by say when I write Decolonising
the Mind. It’s a book of theory, yes. But it draws from
personal experiences. You connect with what you have. Yeah. So that’s how
I try different — like, you know, right
words, the language is like a musical instrument. Just like musicians, some try
even though they are classical pianist for instance — but sometimes when
they play the guitar, they may try it a
little bit, you know. Or they try the flute
and other things. Actually, it is the same
with various genres. Yeah.>>Eve Ferguson: Okay. I guess I got so excited up here
I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Eve Ferguson. I’m the reference librarian
for east Africa and Ghana here at the Library of Congress. We study Ngugi wa Thiong’o all
the way through my undergrad in Howard and grad school. And so now you know why. I can go on with the questions.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o:
Oh, thank you.>>Eve Ferguson: You’ve long
led the movement to write in African languages
in the mother tongue. Have your thoughts or trajectory
changed about this over time?>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: No, I’ve
become even stronger about it. I’ve really come
to believe so much in not just African languages. I’ve come to realize actually
it’s not just African languages, you know. One of the problems we have
in the world is a hierarchy of languages, saying that some
languages are inherently more a language than others. And I can tell you, it’s
absolute and utter nonsense. There’s no language which
is more of a language than any other language, okay? That’s where, you know — [ Applause ] The question of language
hierarchy is a question of power relationship. Nothing more. You know, is one
power, you know, clearly suppressing the language
of the dominated, but as a means of dominating them, right? And you can see this. I’ve now looked at
Spanish colonialism. I’ve looked at, you
know, British colonialism on islands, colonial islands. Settlement here in
America, the treatment of Native American languages. The Mauri languages in
New Zealand and Australia, also in Japan, occupied
Korea, the same pattern. You know, power, you know,
they find it important to suppress the language
and humiliate the people. Not only suppress,
humiliate them, punish them for speaking
their mother tongue, okay? Today, and I can prove
this in five seconds. Can I prove this
in five seconds?>>Eve Ferguson: Yes.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yeah. We’re next to Georgetown
University, yeah. You go to Georgetown
University, or Princeton since Gikandi is here
— Gikandi’s asking, “What about Princeton?” Yeah. So say Princeton, you
know, or Georgetown University. You can actually, you can learn
to speak French for instance and even get a degree
in Spanish. But they don’t tell you
that you must first give up the English you have. Right? If you go to
study in France, French, and you speak Japanese,
they don’t tell you to give up Japanese as a condition
of learning French. But in all colonial situations,
all — and I’m saying all — they always humiliate people
speaking their mother tongue, punish people speaking
their mother tongue. Violence against people
speaking their mother tongue. And that one has no educational
value whatsoever, right? It does not make them say
better English speakers or knowledge or whatever. Because you can know Norwegian
and come to study English but you don’t have
to give up Norwegian. But in all colonial situations,
they always make the colony give up their language and humiliate
them about their language, make them feel ashamed,
distance themselves from their language and so on. Because it’s a question
of power. Right? It’s a question
of turning, creating colonies of the mind. People are not sure about
themselves, you know, about their history, about whatever is
created by that language. But the other way around is,
if you know one language, your mother tongue, the
language of your culture and you add other languages to
it, it’s very, very powerful. I mean, doors are opened to you. It’s power. But many colonies people are
— like they have two legs and they’re told to give
up one of their legs, that they are better off
when they’re hopping on one. [ Applause ] When they are hopping on
one leg, and [inaudible]. [ Laughter ] And we [inaudible] no more. No, it’s not. We really have to fight
very strongly against this. I believe very strongly. And wherever I go in the world, I talk about this
terrible thing, the damage, the trauma that this does
to people who are subject to that kind of violence
or humiliation about the language
produced by their mothers and fathers and so on. You know, it’s like
a wound in the heart, so to speak, you know. And it stays there
for a long time. It can be seen as — we can turn
abnormalities into normalities. We normalize abnormality. And for Africa, we have
to undo this abnormality. And in fact, not only Africa, all over the world we really
should make sure it is made illegal for anybody to
perpetuate violence on anybody for them speaking
their mother tongue. That should be illegal and it should be banned
all over the world. Yeah. There’s no room
for humiliating a person because they’re speaking a
language which their father and mother are speaking. It’s horrible, a trauma, okay? So I have become a believer
in that even more, all right?>>Eve Ferguson: Okay.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yeah. [ Applause ] And by the way, I
must tell you this — because there are some
benefits of course. I don’t just — you know, there are some benefits,
you know, like this. Like on discovery
I made recently. It’s a secret, but
let me tell it to you. Oh, okay. They can hear? Okay. See, when I
wrote my epic — I wrote an epic for
the first time, the one from which
they read, you know, this [inaudible] is
actually the origins, the myth of origins
of the Kikuyu people. And it goes like this. [Inaudible] were the
original father and mother of the Kikuyu community. And they had nine daughters. Actually there were ten
but it was said nine. And when anyone says ten,
you say, perfect nine. Okay? Perfect nine
means ten, okay? Now, when it comes to —
they didn’t have brothers. When it came to marriage, apparently there were
no young men around. So the father went to the
mountain to ask God to send about nine handsome young
men around, you know. But where do they come
from, I ask myself. And then I was actually
in Irvine when — I’m telling you I
just had a revelation. This is how it went in my mind. These girls, see the ten of
them, by the time they were of marriageable status, marriage
status, they had no brothers. So these girls were
doing everything. They had to build, make clothes, know how to defend
themselves, you know. Plant everything
themselves, you know, because they had
nobody to depend upon. They had no brothers to say, “Your brother will
do this for you. Your brother will go
and hunt for you.” So they made things,
they built houses. They made weapons of war. They knew how to
defend themselves. So there’s a revelation. Have you ever heard
of the word feminism? Feminism? Feminism? You have heard that? Feminism. Actually, the
secret is those were the original feminists. [ Laughter ] Yeah. [ Applause ] So the book is now out
[foreign name] in Kenya. And it will come out next
year, I hope, in English. And the title, The Perfect Nine. So if you want to talk about the
original feminists, get a copy and tell your friends
to get a copy, okay? But the secret is
an open secret. You can pass it on. [ Laughter ] Yeah, thank you.>>Eve Ferguson: Okay. There’s been explosion
of literary activity in Africa throughout
the past years with many more literary
festivals and prizes, specifically for
African writers. Are you involved
in this movement? And how?>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yeah,
that’s what a prize is. Okay, now I’m not
discouraging prizes. If you read my memoir, the
Birth of a Dream Weaver, you know I wrote my
first novel for a prize. So I’m not discouraging prizes. But it’s very interesting
when you come to think of it, how come all these
prizes are there to promote African
literature but on condition that they don’t write
in African languages? Right? You know,
this is so absurd. It’s like creating a prize
again for French writers to produce French
literature but on condition that they don’t submit
their works in French. They submit in Chinese. Then they are promoting
French literature, right? So those prizes are
very wonderful, and as I said, I
wrote for a prize. But taken in totality, you
can see how they are also contributing to all this
making this absurdity normal and actually desirable, right? But it’s not only prizes. Of course African governments
themselves, you know. That’s why I hope that
ministers were here from Kenya. But [inaudible] as well. “Here, please take this
to your government.” You know, African
governments must come up with positive policies
towards African languages. They must ban the violence
against African kids for speaking their
mother tongues. [ Applause ] And most important, African
governments put resources into the learning and perpetuation of
African languages. And I’ll end up with
what I said. If you know all the
languages of the world and you don’t know your
mother tongue or the language of your culture, there’s
like still the elimination, you know, or enslavement. But if you know your mother
tongue or the language of your culture, then add all
the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment,
you know. And what you really
want in empowerment — the whole point of learning and knowledge is not
to disable somebody. You know, but rather
to empower them, right? Yeah. So really it’s
empowerment of African languages to me is very, very
important, you know. And all those of you who are
here connected to governments and so on, please pass on the
word to African governments to come up with positive
policies backed by resources towards
African languages here. [ Applause ]>>Eve Ferguson: And because we
are swiftly running out of time, I’ll make this my last question and it might be one
that makes you happy. You’re the patriarch of
what could be referred to as a writing dynasty.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Oh.>>Eve Ferguson: Can you tell us about the next generation
of your progeny?>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Oh. The next what?>>Eve Ferguson:
The next generation.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o:
Oh, I think she’s talking about the [inaudible]. Four of my kids are
published authors. One of them — [ Applause ] One of them I think
preceded me here. He has already given a talk here at the Library of
Congress, okay? He’s now a professor of
English at Carnegie University. He has about six books
to his credit, you know. But others as well. You know, there’s on
called [inaudible] who resides in New York. And he actually — in a way
he’s a professional writer. He sits at home to write and
looks after their on baby. His wife, a doctor,
goes to work. He does the writing. [ Laughter ] And looks after the baby, right? He has two novels. I think he has two novels now
out and he’s got three or four in the process of
coming out, you know. And Wanjiku Ngogi my daughter
you know also has a novel, The Fall of Saints. And she’s also very well
known in [inaudible] known as a short story writer. So apart from The
Fall of Saints, she has a number
of short stories. She was included
in the past days, the New Daughters of Africa. Right? So I hope they continue
writing and challenge me. But as I said, “Uh-oh,
now you challenge me.” You know, if we — okay,
I’ll tell you another one. We certainly have contests. And there was one
contest we had. Actually this was one of my
sons called Bjorn who lives with a Swedish mother
in Gothenburg. And he went to Stockholm
and was eating some food at the restaurant where he
was having wine, you know, red wine or white wine. And then someone, I don’t
know how this came up, but he challenged
me into a contest. Write a story using
two glasses of wine. The story must take
place in the restaurant where we were in
Stockholm, right? You know, but from there
it can go anywhere. Whenever kids heard about this,
they said they also wanted to join the competition. [ Laughter ] So actually in the end
only four were able to join in the contest. And I do have an incredible
collection of short stories, five of them, all
based in Stockholm. And some of the best
are those stories — like one written by my
older son called Tee — he calls himself Tee Ngugi. And I don’t think Thiong’o or Tee Nugi has ever
been to Stockholm. But the feel of the place — if you’re in Stockholm
and you read it, you realize it’s [inaudible]. You don’t believe that
he’s never been there. Yeah. So it’s really
wonderful what you can do with imagination. Yeah. So that’s the
latest in the family. The title of the collection
will be called The Glass — not a class struggle —
but a Glass Struggle. [ Laughter ] Yeah. And by the way,
I wrote mine in Kikuyu. I wrote it in Kikuyu and
translated it into English. Okay? Yeah. They wrote in English. Of course they don’t always obey
me when it comes to language. [ Laughter ]>>Eve Ferguson: Well,
I know that you’re proud of your writing children and
all of your other children. And the children who you
did not create but inspired, all of the African writers
who have looked up to you. And because of that, we
want to honor you tonight with a very special recognition
now that we finally got you into the Library of Congress.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o:
While we’re talking about the younger generation, I
met a young — where’s Kimani? Has he left?>>Eve Ferguson: He might have
had to go to school tomorrow.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Okay. I talked to young Kimani and I taught him
Kikuyu in five minutes.>>Eve Ferguson: Yeah.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: How
to read the Kikuyu language.>>Eve Ferguson: Because you
are [inaudible], the teacher.>>Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Yeah. Thank you, yeah.>>Eve Ferguson: Thank you. Okay, so we have
something special for you.>>Sarah Kuroswo:
I’m Sarah Kuroswo with the African Society. Before I present this award, I would like to have all the
partners come up front please. The Africa Society, the
Library of Congress, Howard, Dr. Gikandi, Dr. Orishanga. Professor Ngugi, it’s
with great pleasure — It’s with great pleasure that
I present to you this award on behalf of all of us for the
great work that you’ve done that continues to
inspire all of us. The inscription reads, “Presented to Professor
Ngugi wa Thiong’o for unprecedented contributions
to the continent of Africa and the literary world on
the occasion of participation in Conversations with
African Poets and Writers, the Library of Congress,
May 9, 2019.”

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