Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Gikuyu pronunciation: [ᵑɡoɣe wá ðiɔŋɔ]; born James Ngugi; 5 January 1938)[1] is a Kenyan writer and academic who writes 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, is translated into 94 languages from around the world.[2]

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Ngũgĩ at the 2012 Festivaletteratura
Ngũgĩ at the 2012 Festivaletteratura
BornJames Ngugi
(1938-01-05) 5 January 1938 (age 83)
Kamiriithu, Kenya Colony
LanguageEnglish, Kikuyu
Alma materMakerere University

In 1977, Ngũgĩ embarked upon a novel form of theatre in his native 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.[3] 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".[3] Although his landmark play, Ngaahika Ndeenda, co-written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was a commercial success, it was shut down by the authoritarian Kenyan regime six weeks after its opening.[3]

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.[4] In the United States, he taught at Yale University for some years, and has since also taught at New York University, with a dual professorship in Comparative literature and Performance Studies, and at the University of California, Irvine. Ngũgĩ has frequently been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.[5][6][7] Among his children is the author Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ.[8]


Early years and educationEdit

Ngũgĩ was born in Kamiriithu, near Limuru[9] 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, and his mother was tortured at Kamiriithu home guard post.[10]

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,[11][12][13][14] and his play The Black Hermit premiered as part of the event at The National Theatre.[15][16] 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.[17] Ngũgĩ received his B.A. in English from Makerere University College in 1963.

First publications and studies in EnglandEdit

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.[18][17]

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.[17] The River Between, which has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and described an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya's national secondary school syllabus.[19][20][21] He left Leeds without completing his thesis on Caribbean literature,[22] 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."[17]

Change of name, ideology and teachingEdit

Ngũgĩ's 1967 novel A Grain of Wheat marked his embrace of Fanonist Marxism. He subsequently renounced Christianity, writing in English, and the name James Ngugi as colonialist; he changed his name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, and began to write in his native Gikuyu.[23] In 1967, Thiong'o 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.[24]

While a professor at the University of Nairobi, Thiong'o 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.[25]


In 1976 he helped set up The Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre which, among other things, organised African Theatre in the area. The uncensored political message of his 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), co-written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, provoked the then Kenyan Vice-President Daniel arap Moi to order his arrest. While detained in the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngũgĩ wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross (Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ), on prison-issued toilet paper.

After his release in December 1978,[26] 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, Ngugi and his family were forced to live in exile. Only after Arap Moi retired after serving his second and last term in 2002, 22 years later, was it safe for them to return.[27]

During his time in prison, Thiong'o made the decision to cease writing his plays and other works in English and began writing all his creative works in his native tongue, Gikuyu.[24]

His time in prison also inspired the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi(1976). He wrote this in collaboration with Micere Githae Mugo.[28]


While in exile, Ngugi worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya (1982–98).[26][4] 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.[26] He also studied film at Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden (1986).[26]

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 an 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.[26] In 1992, he was 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[29] at the University of California, Irvine.


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.[30] When Ngũgĩ returned to America at the end of his month trip, five men were arrested on suspicion of the crime, including Thiong'o's own nephew.[27] In the summer 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,[31][32] prompting an apology by the hotel.[33]

His most recent books are 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.'"[34] This was followed by two well received autobiographical works: Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir (2010)[35][36][37][38][39] and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (2012), which was described as "brilliant and essential" by the Los Angeles Times,[40] among other positive reviews.[41][42][43]


Four of his children are also published authors: Tee Ngũgĩ, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Nducu wa Ngũgĩ, and Wanjiku wa Ngũgĩ.[44]

Awards and honoursEdit

Honorary degreesEdit



  • Weep Not, Child, (1964) ISBN 1-4050-7331-4
  • 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, 2004) ISBN 9966-25-162-6
  • The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi (2020)

Short story collectionsEdit

  • A Meeting in the Dark (1974)
  • Secret Lives, and Other Stories, (1976, 1992) ISBN 0-435-90975-4
  • Minutes of Glory and Other Stories (2019)




Other nonfictionEdit

Children's booksEdit

  • Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus (translated by Wangui wa Goro)" Njamba Nene na Mbaathi i Mathagu, 1986)
  • Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief (translated by Wangui wa Goro) (Njamba Nene na Chibu King'ang'i, 1988)
  • Njamba Nene's Pistol (Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene, 1990) ISBN 0-86543-081-0

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: A Profile of a Literary and Social Activist". Archived from the original on 29 March 2009. Retrieved 20 March 2009.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature, 1994, pp. 57–59.
  4. ^ a b "Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya Collection: 1975-1998". George Padmore Institute. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  5. ^ Evan Mwangi, "Despite the Criticism, Ngugi is 'Still Best Writer'". AllAfrica, 8 November 2010.
  6. ^ Page, Benedicte, "Kenyan author sweeps in as late favourite in Nobel prize for literature", The Guardian, 5 October 2010.
  7. ^ Provost, Claire, "Ngugi wa Thiong'o: a major storyteller with a resonant development message", The Guardian, 6 October 2010.
  9. ^ "Biografski dodaci" [Biographic appendices]. Republika: Časopis Za Kulturu I Društvena Pitanja (Izbor Iz Novije Afričke Književnosti) (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb, SR Croatia. XXXIV (12): 1424–1427. December 1978.
  10. ^ Nicholls, Brendon. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, gender, and the ethics of postcolonial reading, 2010, p. 89.
  11. ^ "The First Makerere African Writers Conference 1962". Makerere University. Retrieved 13 May 2018.
  12. ^ Kahora, Billy (18 April 2017). "Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: A history of creative writing instruction in East Africa". Chimurenga Chronic. Chimurenga Who No Know Go Know.
  13. ^ Frederick Philander, "Namibian Literature at the Cross Roads", New Era, 18 April 2008.
  14. ^ Robert Gates, "African Writers, Readers, Historians Gather In London", PM News, 27 October 2017.
  15. ^ John Roger Kurtz (1998). Urban Obsessions, Urban Fears: The Postcolonial Kenyan Novel. Africa World Press. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0-86543-657-2.
  16. ^ Ngugi wa Thiong'o
  17. ^ a b c d James Currey, "Ngũgĩ, Leeds and the Establishment of African Literature", in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 48–62.
  18. ^ Hans M. Zell, Carol Bundy, Virginia Coulon, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, Heinemann Educational Books, 1983, p. 188.
  19. ^ Wachira, Muchemi (2 April 2008). "Kenya: Publishers Losing Millions to Pirates". The Daily Nation.
  20. ^ Ngunjiri, Joseph (25 November 2007). "Kenya: Ngugi Book Causes Rift Between Publishers". The Daily Nation.
  21. ^ "Ngugi Wa Thiong'o Man of Letters". Leeds: Magazine for alumni of the University of Leeds UK. No. 12, Winter 2012/13. Leeds: University of Leeds. 15 February 2013. pp. 22–23.
  22. ^ "Author Biography", in A Study Guide for Ngugi wa Thiong'o's "Petals of Blood", Gale, 2000.
  23. ^
  24. ^ a b "ABOUT".
  25. ^ K. Narayana Chandran (2005). Texts and Their Worlds Ii. Foundation Press. p. 207. ISBN 9788175962880.
  26. ^ a b c d e . "About", Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o website.
  27. ^ a b "Kenya exile ends troubled visit". BBC. 30 August 2004.
  28. ^ Brendon Nicholls (2013). Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading. Ashgate Publishing. p. 151. ISBN 9781409475699.
  29. ^ "Out of Africa, a literary voice". Orange County Register. 11 November 2013. Retrieved 25 December 2020.
  30. ^ Jaggi, Maya (26 January 2006). "The Outsider: an interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  31. ^ "The Incident at Hotel Vitale, San Francisco, California, Friday, November 10, 2006". Africa Resource. 10 November 2006.
  32. ^ Coker, Matt (6 December 2006). "ROUGHED UP ON THE WATERFRONT". OC Weekly. Retrieved 4 February 2019.
  33. ^ "The Hotel Responds to the Racist Treatment of Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o". Africa Resource. 10 November 2006.
  34. ^ "Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance" (review), Publishers Weekly, 26 January 2009.
  35. ^ Busby, Margaret, "Dreams in a Time of War, By Ngugi wa Thiong'o" (review), The Independent, 26 March 2010.
  36. ^ Jaggi, Maya, "Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o" (review), The Guardian, 3 July 2010.
  37. ^ Payne, Tom, "Dreams in a Time of War: a Childhood Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o: review", The Telegraph, 27 April 2010.
  38. ^ Arana, Marie, "Marie Arana reviews 'Dreams in a Time of War' by Ngugi wa Thiong'o", Washington Post, 10 March 2010.
  39. ^ Dreams in a Time of War at The Complete Review.
  40. ^ Tobar, Hector, "Ngugi wa Thiong'o soars 'In the House of the Interpreter'", Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2012.
  41. ^ Busby, Margaret, "In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, By Ngugi wa Thiong'o" (review), The Independent, 1 December 2012.
  42. ^ "In the House of the Interpreter" review, Kirkus Reviews, 29 August 2012.
  43. ^ Mushava, Stanely, "A portrait of the dissident as a young man", The Herald (Zimbabwe), 10 August 2015.
  44. ^ Waweru, Peter Kimani and Kiundu. "Return of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o with his writing children". The Standard. Retrieved 8 December 2018.
  45. ^ Rollyson, Carl Edmund; Magill, Frank Northen (June 2003). Critical Survey of Drama: Jane Martin – Lennox Robinson. Salem Press. p. 2466. ISBN 978-1-58765-107-6.
  46. ^ "Some of the Prize Winners". Nonino Distillatori S.p.A. Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  47. ^ a b "Ehrendoktorwürde der Universität Bayreuth für Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (German)". University of Bayreuth. Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  48. ^ "Ngugi Wa Thiong’o" Archived 23 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine Booker Prize Foundation. Accessed 22 October 2016
  49. ^ Flood, Alison, "James Kelman is UK's hope for Man Booker international prize", The Guardian, 18 March 2009. Accessed 22 October 2016.
  50. ^ John Williams (14 January 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names 2012 Award Finalists". The New York Times.
  51. ^ "The Nicolas Guillén Philosophical Literature Prize". Caribbean Philosophical Association. Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  52. ^ "Ngugi Wa Thiongo wins 6th Pak Kyong-ni Literature Award". September 21, 2016.
  53. ^ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, lauréat du Grand Prix des Mécènes / Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o awarded Grand Prix des mécènes:
  54. ^ "43rd graduation" (PDF). University of Dar es Salaam. November 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 July 2014.
  55. ^ "Yale awards honorary degrees to eight individuals for their achievements". Yale News. 18 May 2017.
  56. ^ "Honorary Graduates in 2019". The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 9 July 2019.
  57. ^ Mwangi, Evan, "Queries over Ngugi's appeal to save African languages, culture", Daily Nation, Lifestyle Magazine, 13 June 2009.

Further readingEdit

  • 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 linksEdit