Ode to Ngugi wa Thiong’o at 86

He has helped preserve linguistic heritage of Kenya and Africa at large

In Summary

• The distinguished author and academic is as relevant today as he was 60 years ago

Author Ngugi wa Thiongo addresses authors and publishers during the launch of his books translated to the Dholuo language
Author Ngugi wa Thiongo addresses authors and publishers during the launch of his books translated to the Dholuo language
Image: FILE

Ngugi wa Thiong’o was born James Ngugi in a small village near Limuru town on January 5, 1938. He turned 86 years old last weekend, and the world of letters was awash with good wishes to the eminent scribe.

The distinguished Kenyan author and academic is as relevant today as he was 60 years ago, when he embarked on his historic journey of creative writing and cultural philosophising.

As the founder and editor of the apex Gikuyu-language literary journal Mutiiri, Ngugi has played a pivotal role in promoting and preserving the cultural and linguistic heritage of our motherland and Africa at large.

His literary repertoire includes seminal works that traverse diverse genres of writing, reflecting his mastery in storytelling, social critique and cultural exploration. His ability to convey intricate narratives in both English and Gikuyu demonstrates a profound linguistic and creative prowess of this giant of our times.

As a cultural rights champion, Professor has been a vanguard in championing indigenous language and culture of the Global South. His commitment to preserving indigenous languages aligns with his broader vision of cultural decolonisation.

His transition from English to Gikuyu way back in the 1970s is not merely a personal choice in the arc of a literary career, but a paradigmatic shift that challenges prevailing colonial legacies. This linguistic decolonisation is a cornerstone of his intellectual contributions.

His critical and creative literary output since 1962 engages with historical and contemporary issues, offering profound insights into the human condition. Through his writings, Ngugi delves into the sociopolitical landscape of postcolonies of the Global South, addressing issues of oppression, neocolonialism and the struggle for independence. His socially conscious narratives contribute to a deeper understanding of our lived challenges and triumphs.

Some of his philosophical works as a thinker, such as Decolonising the Mind and Moving the Centre, are pivotal in shaping post-colonial discourse. His intellectual reflections on language, culture and identity remain influential in contemporary African thought as he forges ties with new-generation writers of Kenya, such as those around Jalada Africa, the sci-fi novelist Bonface Nyamweya, who penned the first sci-fi novel in a Kenyan language last year.

The act of translating his own works and others into Gikuyu underscores Ngugi’s commitment to linguistic diversity. This practice challenges the dominance of European languages in African literature, fostering a richer literary landscape.

His has been a literary career that emphasises the role of education in shaping cultural consciousness. His advocacy for an education that reflects indigenous values is inspiring scholars and policymakers alike.

As an elder in African knowledge systems, our champion bridges the gap between traditional wisdom and contemporary challenges. His writings serve as a repository of cultural insights and a guide for navigating the complexities of our changing homeland.

In this 86-year-old gentleman of the belle-lettres, we behold a literary giant whose multifaceted contributions extend beyond the realms of writing. His significance in our literary thought as a writer, social commentator, thinker, translator, educator and elder is underscored by a body of work that can best be celebrated as an epic of sorts.


Song to the Son of Thiong’o. Three cheers to the icon of our literary cultures. Happy Birthday, Son of Thiong’o! Behold, a philosophical luminary whose 60-year journey with the quill has been a stream of enduring grace. His ink, an unyielding beacon, flows with an eternal knowing that transcends time.

Your initial utterance unfolded publicly as Weep Not, Child, where your narrative weaves a tale of our struggle intricately shaped by the forces of history. Following this, The River Between presented a cultural dance, bridging gaps and enacting an ancestral trance that connects our past and present.

In the bend around the hill of narration, A Grain of Wheat sowed seeds of revolution, while Petals of Blood witnesses the triumph of real hustlers and overthrow of tyranny. Caitaani Mutharaba-Ini, also known as Devil on the Cross, ululated in voices in rebellion, embossed against the backdrop of societal challenges.

Enter Matigari, a seeker of justice and truth, an unwavering sleuth amidst the heart of struggle. Murogi wa Kagogo, also called Wizard of the Crow, a critique of our operations since the lowering of the Union Jack but doused in the typical humour so characteristic of Kenyan social and public talk.

The Perfect Nine unfolds as an epic, recounting the story of our ancestors Gikuyu and Mumbi. Short stories, such as A Meeting in the Dark and Secret Lives, whisper with plots of wonder as threads of the whirlwind of life and ironies it offers. The plays The Black Hermit and This Time Tomorrow unite rebels in flight, crafting a narrative of cultural resistance.

Enter your earliest essays as Homecoming, Ngugi here you reflect on African and Caribbean literature, culture and politics. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi emerges as a justice beast, whose tether is in the arms of fallen Micere Mugo, accompanied by Ngaahika Ndeenda, a play co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii, who Kenya chose to exile rather than make a voice of conscience that he was in the dark age of the 1980s.

Memoirs you have enchanted with also exist, Ngugi. They unfold earliest with Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, where you showed us that mambo ni matatu is not empty rhetoric here.  In Dreams in a Time of War, you eloquently gave us glimpses into some of the ingredients in Kenya, including confrontations, which make solid scribes. In the House of the Interpreter, Birth of a Dream Weaver, and Wrestling with the Devil, we see petals of wonder that announce your life and literary awakening.

Other nonfiction works echo your commitment to freedom and cultural identity. My favourite remains Decolonising the Mind, loved by Africans and the postcolonial world as your stand on cultural poetics and politics. In Moving the Centre and Penpoints, Gunpoints, Dreams, you delve tirelessly into the performance of literature and power in post-colonial Africa.

Something Torn and New marks an African rebirth, and Globalectics delves into the theory and politics of knowing. Secure the Base places Africa on the global stage, and The Language of Languages still brand new and smelling fresh serves as your testimony of linguistic wisdom.

Let us rest here for now, yet we can go on and on about how the ageing son of Thiong’o of Limuru of old is our strongest wielder of the pen. Is it not him who has crafted this golden narrative fit for all Toms, Harrises and others, that transcends childhood tales and reaches the hearts of mankind near and far?

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