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The return home of the internationally acclaimed Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o his wife, Njeeri, after 22 years of exile is the subject of Manthia Diawara’s documentary film, “Who Is Afraid of Ngugi?” The film will celebrate its New York premiere on November 17th, 6 p.m. at New York University’s Cantor Film Center, Theater 101. The film will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by poet Sonia Sanchez.
On November 18th, at 5 p.m., Ngugi will read from his seventh novel, the highly praised Wizard of the Crow. Translated into English from Gikuyu, the dense political satire of dictatorship, ten years in the making, is the first novel by the legendary writer in 20 years. The reading will take place at the Cantor Film Center, room 315.
Born in Kamiriithu village, just north of Nairobi, in 1938, Ngugi wa Thiong’o ‘s adolescence was marked by the Mau Mau War of Independence, the keystone of modern Kenyan history. In the rebellion, he lost a brother and his mother was tortured. His literary reputation took flight with his first play, The Black Hermit, produced in Kampala in 1962. His 1964 first novel, Weep Not, Child, written while he attended Leeds University in England, was the first novel in English to be published by an East African. In 1967, with the publishing of A Grain of Wheat, he embraced Fanon Marxism, renounced English and began to write in his native Gikuyu and Swahili. Petals of Blood, his 1977 novel, was an unflinching look at neo-colonial Kenya, and was followed by a co-written controversial play, I Will Marry When I Want, which prompted his arrest. For his sharp criticism of Kenyan society, his activism on behalf of ordinary Kenyans, and his commitment to writing in their languages, Ngugi was imprisoned without charge. During that year spent in a maximum-security prison, he wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross, on toilet paper. After his release, the State barred him from teaching, but he continued to write, stage theater pieces and criticize Moi’s dictatorship. He chose to go into exile on June 5, 1982, when, during a book tour in Britain, he learned of the Moi regime’s plans to imprison him without trial, and, possibly, assassinate him. He remained in Britain during the 1980s, then, after 1989, in the United States. Ngugi’s later works include Detained, his prison diary (1981), Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), and one of his most famous works, Matagari (1986), a satire based on a Gikuyu folktale. The Moi government issued an arrest for the main character and upon learning he was fictional, banned the novel.
Filmmaker Manthia Diawara is a professor of comparative literature and film and director of New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs. His documentary films include the widely acclaimed Rouch in Reverse (1995), Diaspora Conversation (1999), Bamako Sigi Kan ( 2001) and Conakry Kas (2004).
When Diawara followed the controversial Ngugi wa Thiong’o back to Kenya in July of 2004 to witness his homecoming, he did not bargain for the two-pronged surprise he got: the huge crowds of joyous well-wishers who reveled in greeting Ngugi (a scene unknown to western writers), and the tragic events in the weeks that followed. On August 11th, Ngugi and Njeeri were brutally attacked. Four armed robbers broke into the high-security apartment complex where they were renting, stole cash, jewelry and Ngugi’s laptop. Ngugi was beaten and his face repeatedly burned with cigarettes when he tried to stop the rape and stabbing of Njeeri. The writer and his wife were hospitalized and Kenya was stunned. Njeeri took the crime to yet another level when she made the decision to publicly confront the rape, breaking a powerful taboo.
“It wasn’t a simple robbery,” Ngugi told the Guardian. “It was political-whether by remnants of the old regime or part of the new state outside the main current. They hung around as though waiting for something, and the whole thing was meant to humiliate, if not eliminate, us We think there’s a bigger circle of forces-not just those who attacked us.”
Three security guards and a nephew of Ngugi’s from his first marriage were apprehended. The trial is ongoing and Ngugi and Njeeri have traveled back and forth to Kenya to give evidence. Whenever they are there, they are now protected by government security.
Diawara’s nuanced camera captures the emotional shadings of the many events, their aftermath and the changes the couple experienced, in Kenya and later, back home in California, where Ngugi is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at University of California, Irvine. Njeeri is director of the faculty counseling program.
Ngugi’s homecoming in 2004 saw President Kibaki’s democratically elected government in Kenya. Yet, in light of the extreme reactions surrounding his visit, the question of the film’s title resounds loudly.