Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
BornJames Ngugi
(1938-01-05) 5 January 1938 (age 86)
Kamiriithu, Kenya Colony (present-day Kiambu County, Kenya)
LanguageEnglish, Kiswahili, Kikuyu
EducationMakerere University (BA)
University of Leeds
ChildrenMũkoma, Wanjiku and others
Official website

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Gikuyu pronunciation: [ᵑɡoɣe ðiɔŋɔ];[1] born James Ngugi; 5 January 1938)[2] is a Kenyan author and academic, who has been described as "East Africa's leading novelist".[3] He began writing in English, switching to write primarily in Gikuyu. His work includes novels, plays, short stories, and essays, ranging from literary and social criticism to children's literature. He is the founder and editor of the Gikuyu-language journal Mũtĩiri. His short story The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright has been translated into 100[4] languages.[5]

In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in Kenya that sought to liberate the theatrical process from what he held to be "the general bourgeois education system", by encouraging spontaneity and audience participation in the performances.[6] His project sought to "demystify" the theatrical process, and to avoid the "process of alienation [that] produces a gallery of active stars and an undifferentiated mass of grateful admirers" which, according to Ngũgĩ, encourages passivity in "ordinary people".[6] Although his landmark play Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.[6]

Ngũgĩ was subsequently imprisoned for over a year. Adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, the artist was released from prison, and fled Kenya.[7] He was appointed Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine. He previously taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, and New York University. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[8][9][10] He won the 2001 International Nonino Prize in Italy, and the 2016 Park Kyong-ni Prize. Among his children are authors Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ[11] and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.[12]


Early years and education[edit]

Ngũgĩ was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru[13] in Kiambu district, Kenya, of Kikuyu descent, and baptised James Ngugi. His family was caught up in the Mau Mau Uprising; his half-brother Mwangi was actively involved in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (in which he was killed), another brother was shot during the State of Emergency, and his mother was tortured at Kamiriithu home guard post.[14][15]

He went to the Alliance High School, and went on to study at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda. As a student he attended the African Writers Conference held at Makerere in June 1962,[16][17][18][19] and his play The Black Hermit premiered as part of the event at The National Theatre.[20][21] At the conference Ngũgĩ asked Chinua Achebe to read the manuscripts of his novels The River Between and Weep Not, Child, which would subsequently be published in Heinemann's African Writers Series, launched in London that year, with Achebe as its first advisory editor.[22] Ngũgĩ received his B.A. in English from Makerere University College, Uganda, in 1963.

First publications and studies in England[edit]

His debut novel, Weep Not, Child, was published in May 1964, becoming the first novel in English to be published by a writer from East Africa.[23][22]

Later that year, having won a scholarship to the University of Leeds to study for an MA, Ngũgĩ travelled to England, where he was when his second novel, The River Between, came out in 1965.[22] The River Between, which has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and describes an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya's national secondary school syllabus.[24][25][26] He left Leeds without completing his thesis on Caribbean literature,[27] for which his studies had focused on George Lamming, about whom Ngũgĩ said in his 1972 collection of essays Homecoming: "He evoked for me, an unforgettable picture of a peasant revolt in a white-dominated world. And suddenly I knew that a novel could be made to speak to me, could, with a compelling urgency, touch cords [sic] deep down in me. His world was not as strange to me as that of Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, D. H. Lawrence."[22]

Change of name, ideology and teaching[edit]

Ngũgĩ's 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat marked his embrace of Fanonist Marxism.[28] He subsequently renounced writing in English, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist;[29] by 1970 he had changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o,[30] and began to write in his native Gikuyu.[31] In 1967, Ngũgĩ also began teaching at the University of Nairobi as a professor of English literature. He continued to teach at the university for ten years while serving as a Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere. During this time, he also guest lectured at Northwestern University in the department of English and African Studies for a year.[21]

While a professor at the University of Nairobi, Ngũgĩ was the catalyst of the discussion to abolish the English department. He argued that after the end of colonialism, it was imperative that a university in Africa teach African literature, including oral literature, and that such should be done with the realization of the richness of African languages.[32] In the late 60s, these efforts resulted in the university dropping English Literature as a course of study, and replacing it with one that positioned African Literature, oral and written, at the centre.[33]


In 1976, Thiong'o helped to establish The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which, among other things, organised African Theatre in the area. The following year saw the publication of Petals of Blood. Its strong political message, and that of his play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii and also published in 1977, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi to order his arrest. Along with copies of his play, books by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin were confiscated.[15] He was sent to Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, and kept there without a trial for nearly a year.[15]

He was imprisoned in a cell with other political prisoners. During part of their imprisonment, they were allowed one hour of sunlight a day. Ngũgĩ writes "The compound used to be for the mentally deranged convicts before it was put to better use as a cage for 'the politically deranged." He found solace in writing and wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross (Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ), on prison-issued toilet paper.[15]

After his release in December 1978,[21] he was not reinstated to his job as professor at Nairobi University, and his family was harassed. Due to his writing about the injustices of the dictatorial government at the time, Ngũgĩ and his family were forced to live in exile. Only after Arap Moi, the longest-serving Kenyan president, retired in 2002, was it safe for them to return.[34]

During his time in prison, Ngũgĩ decided to cease writing his plays and other works in English and began writing all his creative works in his native tongue, Gikuyu.[21]

His time in prison also inspired the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976). He wrote this in collaboration with Micere Githae Mugo.[35]


While in exile, Ngũgĩ worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (1982–98).[21][7] Matigari ma Njiruungi (translated by Wangui wa Goro into English as Matigari) was published at this time. In 1984, he was Visiting Professor at Bayreuth University, and the following year was Writer-in-Residence for the Borough of Islington in London.[21] He also studied film at Dramatiska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden (1986).[21]

His later works include Detained, his prison diary (1981), Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), an essay arguing for African writers' expression in their native languages rather than European languages, in order to renounce lingering colonial ties and to build authentic African literature, and Matigari (translated by Wangui wa Goro), (1987), one of his most famous works, a satire based on a Gikuyu folk tale.

Ngũgĩ was Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University between 1989 and 1992.[21] In 1992, he was a guest at the Congress of South African Writers and spent time in Zwide Township with Mzi Mahola, the year he became a professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University, where he held the Erich Maria Remarque Chair. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature as well as having been the first director of the International Center for Writing and Translation[36] at the University of California, Irvine.

21st century[edit]

Ngũgĩ reading at the Library of Congress in 2019

On 8 August 2004, Ngũgĩ returned to Kenya as part of a month-long tour of East Africa. On 11 August, robbers broke into his high-security apartment: they assaulted Ngũgĩ, sexually assaulted his wife and stole various items of value.[37] When Ngũgĩ returned to America at the end of his month trip, five men were arrested on suspicion of the crime, including a nephew of Ngũgĩ.[34] In the northern hemisphere summer of 2006 the American publishing firm Random House published his first new novel in nearly two decades, Wizard of the Crow, translated to English from Gikuyu by the author.

On 10 November 2006, while in San Francisco at Hotel Vitale at the Embarcadero, Ngũgĩ was harassed and ordered to leave the hotel by an employee. The event led to a public outcry and angered both African-Americans and members of the African diaspora living in America,[38][39] which led to an apology by the hotel.[40]

His later books include Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2012), and Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, a collection of essays published in 2009 making the argument for the crucial role of African languages in "the resurrection of African memory", about which Publishers Weekly said: "Ngugi's language is fresh; the questions he raises are profound, the argument he makes is clear: 'To starve or kill a language is to starve and kill a people's memory bank.'"[41] This was followed by two well-received autobiographical works: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010)[42][43][44][45][46] and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), which was described as "brilliant and essential" by the Los Angeles Times,[47] among other positive reviews.[48][49][50]

His book The Perfect Nine, originally written and published in Gikuyu as Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi (2019), was translated into English by Ngũgĩ for its 2020 publication, and is a reimagining in epic poetry of his people's origin story.[51] It was described by the Los Angeles Times as "a quest novel-in-verse that explores folklore, myth and allegory through a decidedly feminist and pan-African lens."[52] The review in World Literature Today said:

"Ngũgĩ crafts a beautiful retelling of the Gĩkũyũ myth that emphasizes the noble pursuit of beauty, the necessity of personal courage, the importance of filial piety, and a sense of the Giver Supreme—a being who represents divinity, and unity, across world religions. All these things coalesce into dynamic verse to make The Perfect Nine a story of miracles and perseverance; a chronicle of modernity and myth; a meditation on beginnings and endings; and a palimpsest of ancient and contemporary memory, as Ngũgĩ overlays the Perfect Nine's feminine power onto the origin myth of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya in a moving rendition of the epic form."[53]

Fiona Sampson writing in The Guardian concluded that it is "a beautiful work of integration that not only refuses distinctions between 'high art' and traditional storytelling, but supplies that all-too rare human necessity: the sense that life has meaning."[54]

In March 2021, The Perfect Nine became the first work written in an indigenous African language to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize, with Ngũgĩ becoming the first nominee as both the author and translator of the book.[55][56]

When asked in 2023 if Kenyan English or Nigerian English were now local languages, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o responded "It's like the enslaved being happy that theirs is a local version of enslavement. English is not an African language. French is not. Spanish is not. Kenyan or Nigerian English is nonsense. That's an example of normalised abnormality. The colonised trying to claim the coloniser's language is a sign of the success of enslavement."[29]


Four of his children are also published authors: Tee Ngũgĩ, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.[57][52] In March 2024, Mũkoma posted on Twitter that his father had physically abused his mother, now deceased.[58][59]

Awards and honours[edit]

Honorary degrees[edit]



  • Weep Not, Child (1964), ISBN 978-0143026242
  • The River Between (1965), ISBN 0-435-90548-1
  • A Grain of Wheat (1967, 1992), ISBN 0-14-118699-2
  • Petals of Blood (1977), ISBN 0-14-118702-6
  • Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini (Devil on the Cross, 1980)
  • Matigari ma Njiruungi, 1986 (Matigari, translated into English by Wangui wa Goro, 1989), ISBN 0-435-90546-5
  • Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow, 2006), ISBN 9966-25-162-6
  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi (2020)

Short story collections[edit]



Other nonfiction[edit]

Children's books[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: 'Europe and the West must also be decolonised'". YouTube. 10 September 2019.
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  3. ^ Scheub, Harold; Wynne Gunner, Elizabeth Ann (2 December 2022). "African literature; search for Ngugi wa Thiong'o". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. ^ Kilolo, Moses (2 June 2020). "The single most translated short story in the history of African writing: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and the Jalada writers' collective". The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9781315149660-21. ISBN 978-1-315-14966-0. S2CID 219925787. Retrieved 28 September 2021.
  5. ^ "Jalada Translation Issue 01: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". Jalada. 22 March 2016.
  6. ^ a b c Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1994, pp. 57–59.
  7. ^ a b "Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya Collection: 1975-1998". George Padmore Institute. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  8. ^ Evan Mwangi, "Despite the Criticism, Ngugi is 'Still Best Writer'". AllAfrica, 8 November 2010.
  9. ^ Page, Benedicte, "Kenyan author sweeps in as late favourite in Nobel prize for literature", The Guardian, 5 October 2010.
  10. ^ Provost, Claire, "Ngugi wa Thiong'o: a major storyteller with a resonant development message", The Guardian, 6 October 2010.
  12. ^ "A Family Affair at Calabash: Lit Fest hosts First Family of Kenyan Letters". Jamaica Observer. 18 May 2014. Archived from the original on 17 April 2021. Retrieved 4 April 2021.
  13. ^ "Biografski dodaci" [Biographic appendices]. Republika: Časopis Za Kulturu I Društvena Pitanja (Izbor Iz Novije Afričke Književnosti) (in Serbo-Croatian). XXXIV (12). Zagreb, SR Croatia: 1424–1427. December 1978.
  14. ^ Nicholls, Brendon. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, gender, and the ethics of postcolonial reading, 2010, p. 89.
  15. ^ a b c d Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo (2017). Devil on the cross. New York, New York. ISBN 978-0-14-310736-1. OCLC 861673589.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
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  88. ^ Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo (2018). Wrestling with the devil : a prison memoir. New York, NY. ISBN 978-1-62097-333-2. OCLC 990850151.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  89. ^ "Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa". Oxford Academic. 1998. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198183907.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-818390-7.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Toh, Zorobi Philippe. “Linguistic Mystifications in Discourse: Case of Proverbs in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Matigari”. Imaginaire et représentations socioculturelles dans les proverbes africains, edited by Lèfara Silué and Paul Samsia, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2020, pp. 63–71.
  • Wise, Christopher. 1997. "Resurrecting the Devil: Notes on Ngũgĩ's Theory of the Oral-Aural African Novel." Research in African Literatures 28.1:134–140.

External links[edit]