viernes, 5 de octubre de 2012

Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Put simply, Dreams In A Time Of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a beautiful book. But it is also challenging, engaging, shocking, endearing and enraging at the same time. It also offers truly enlightening insight into the psychology, motivation and eventual expression of a great writer. Anyone who has admired Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat will adore Dreams In A Time Of War, because the fiction that rendered the novel such a complex and rewarding read is here as reality, in all its greater rawness of immediacy, contradiction and conflict.

Dreams In A Time Of War is an autobiography, covering Ngugi’s infant and childhood memories until the day he left home, as an adolescent primary school graduate, to join Alliance High School. Thus we journey in Ngugi’s account from a homestead shared with a father, four wives and numerous siblings to the start of a Western education with its subject boundaries and prescribed canals of thinking. It would be easy to suggest that this represented a journey from the traditional to the modern, but that would be naïve. It would also miss the point.

Tradition, in Ngugi’s recollections, is extremely important, especially the magic of language. Words, clearly, were always for him much more than labels. The Kikuyu language that was his birthright offered a richness of expression and meaning - not to mention an identity - that fired his imagination from a very young age. It was also a language that was denied and derided by at least part of an education system that proselytised on behalf of the colonial, the modern. Throughout Dreams In A Time Of War we are aware of this potential for conflict, where the clearly academically gifted young Ngugi yearns to read and learn, but is regularly reminded that the only acceptable vehicle for that activity was the English language. For some who emerged through the vicious selection for entry into the educated elite, this denial of identity led to a rejection of birthright, origin and perhaps culture, so that they might more completely and convincingly adopt the new status to which they aspired. In Ngugi’s case, this demanded denial of his own background led him to appreciate it, its values and its worth more acutely. It is a mark of the book and equally the man’s complexity, however, that he not only retained an insider’s appreciation and understanding of his birthright, but also embraced the English language and education to become one of the language’s greatest writers.

Ngugi’s description of tradition is never static. At the same time, his view of modernity is never uni-dimensional. He recognises that his people’s ceremonies have changed over the years and that their significance has altered. Old men’s stories may still enthral the young, but the world described has already changed. Farmers have been driven from their land. Estates growing crops for cash and bounded by fences have been established. Factories offering wage labour have opened. Many of the structures that bound families and communities together have been transformed, perhaps not broken down, but have at least been challenged by new allegiances and aspirations.

Equally the modern is not presented as a monolith. Two different education systems coexist, one that transmits only Christianity and European values, and one that admits local language and learning. In the same way that individuals are influenced by what they are taught, they are also transformed by their experience of employment, of nurture by institutions and comradeship. In Kenya, for some this included loyalty to King and country via service in two world wars, acceptance of Christianity, responsibility to exacting employers and land owners, as well as, for others, acknowledgement of and adherence to tradition, family values and kinship transmitted by oral culture. And the reality that Ngugi portrays so beautifully in this book is that these apparently opposing poles were often mixed up within the individual, almost every individual.

If there is still anyone who retains the notion that British Imperialism was tantamount to spreading pixie dust, then such a person ought to read Ngugi’s childhood memoir. Here are descriptions of hooded informers - no doubt paid to say the right names, of indiscriminate detention, concentration camps and cold-blooded murder. And all this was backed up by a wholly unjustified and erroneous assumption of racial superiority. By the way, it’s about the same way they treated the working class back home, even down to denying most of them access to the educational goodies that legitimise social class identity.

Readers please do not be put off by the difficulties posed by the Kikuyu names and words. If they are unfamiliar, then find a way of summarising and merely recognising them. But do read this beautiful childhood memoir and thus do understand a little more of the experiences that motivate writers - and others – to explain. The view is partial, of course, that is why it is both entertaining and illuminating.

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