Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Books & Culture.
In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir
Ngugi wa Thiong’o
256 pp., $25.95
If things had gone slightly differently for Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he might have become a living, breathing vindication of the British Empire’s good intentions. Despite having grown up in straitened circumstances on his mother’s small agricultural homestead, he was selected on the basis of his test scores to attend a prestigious Rugby-style boarding school for Africans twelve miles outside Nairobi—this at a time when there were not many peasant sons of single mothers at Rugby back in Britain. His earliest attempts at fiction were promoted by the colonial government’s Literature Bureau, which sponsored various publications and contests for native authors, and he first came to the attention of European audiences when he won the bureau’s fiction prize. Later he wrote radio plays for the BBC. At every step of his early career, from the mid-1950s to the early ’60s, Ngugi was encouraged and underwritten by well-meaning Englishmen who sincerely believed that Africans not only could be but should be educated in the same way as Europeans. Theirs was the old civilizing mission, and for a time it seemed that Ngugi was poised to become a shining example of their success.
Then, at some point in his young adulthood, Ngugi stopped barreling down the trajectory laid out for him and veered off in a different direction. He embraced Fanon, Marx, and Mao. He visited the Soviet Union. He abandoned the name he had been given at baptism, James Ngugi, and started going by his traditional Kikuyu patronymic. After independence, he agitated against the continued inclusion of English authors in the Kenyan school curriculum—an ironic turn for a man who had been professor of English literature at the University of Nairobi. Later in life he adopted as his personal crusade the cause of traditional African languages, deriding as sell-outs those African authors like Chinua Achebe who wrote in the language of the oppressor. He became, in effect, a crusader against the English language in Africa. A more decisive repudiation of his early education could hardly be imagined.
That early education is the subject of the second volume of his memoirs, In the House of the Interpreter, which opens on his first year at boarding school and closes shortly after his graduation. Like its predecessor, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, the book is largely apolitical, and he avoids the trap of projecting his adult opinions onto his teenage self, an especially admirable accomplishment for a writer with such strong ideological commitments.
Instead Ngugi focuses on ordinary schoolboy stuff like the personalities of the masters and head boys, the sermons at chapel, and how he made his name in the school debate club. In many ways In the House of the Interpreter has more in common with British prep-school reminiscences like Roald Dahl’s and George Orwell’s than with African memoirs like Wole Soyinka’s and Camara Laye’s. The only thing differentiating this book from its Etonian counterparts is the absence of tortures and privations—no savage beatings, no aggressively unpleasant living quarters, no conscription into semi-slavery at the hands of upperclassmen. The biggest complaint Ngugi has is the growing suspicion that his native culture is being humiliated, that alienation from his family and his past is not just the effect of his education but its purpose. The examples he offers of this are fairly minor, but perhaps the whole point of the book is to demonstrate that these small humiliations can be harder to bear than being caned for flubbing your Latin declensions.
In an early chapter, Ngugi tells of how his English teacher, on the first day of class, took the boys up to his bungalow and walked them through the basic elements of an Englishman’s home: the fixtures in the bathroom; the devices in the kitchen; the furniture in the parlor—specifically, which ones were for sitting on and which not. The lesson ended with a grand tour of dinner table etiquette, precepts which were not immediately embraced by his pupils. “How would we eat githeri, irio, and ugali with forks and knives?” Ngugi writes. “The pleasures of eating ugali lay in touch and taste: dipping fingers into the smoking dish and letting it cool in your mouth.” Another student explains that their teacher “was talking about English food and English manners,” to which their teacher responds that, quite the opposite, “table manners had no race or color. Good manners, like cleanliness, were pathways to God.”
One can think of many good reasons why this teacher might have chosen to start the year with a lesson so condescending (though not as condescending as you might think; most of his pupils really hadn’t seen a toilet before). This was the most selective black secondary school in Kenya, and a feeder school for the most prestigious university in East Africa. He probably didn’t want these boys, when they became government ministers or international businessmen, to discomfit tablemates from England—or for that matter France, Japan, and Russia—by slurping their soup and lunging for the salt. To this argument a mature Ngugi might respond that, as visitors, these foreigners should adapt themselves to African table manners. The young Ngugi could only bristle at the implication that his ways were barbaric and his teacher’s somehow more civilized.
Most of these humiliating gestures had their root less in active hostility toward African culture than in simple failures of understanding, on both sides. The first debate club meeting Ngugi attended tackled the motion Should Germany’s colonial claims be accepted by Britain—a serious and challenging topic, no doubt, but one that indicates real tone-deafness in whoever selected it for a group of black students in the middle of the Mau Mau insurgency. (Though it does suggest that, far from infantilizing their students, European educators in Kenya were willing to cultivate their political awareness.)
The irony, Ngugi says, was evident to them at the time—but then so was the irony of an anti-imperialist speech he himself gave in favor of the resolution Western education has done more harm than good. “I held a pencil in the air. All eyes were fixed on it. I told a story. A person comes to your house. He takes your land. In exchange he gives you a pencil. Is this fair exchange? I would rather he kept his pencil and I kept my land.” He then admits, “The contradiction was clear: all of us, for and against the motion, were at Alliance in pursuit of the Western education we had censured.”
The tenderness with which Ngugi describes his schooldays suggests that he does not regret his education quite as much as his politics would oblige him to—he may be adamant that future Kenyans should never be forced to learn Shakespeare, but he is not really sorry that he was. He reserves his greatest tenderness for the headmaster, Edward Carey Francis, obe, a man who “accepted Jesus as the center of his life” and instilled in his students an attitude of service. The title of the book comes from a story out of Pilgrim’s Progress that was the subject of one of Francis’ best sermons.
Ngugi contrasts the “Franciscan” way with that of the Billy Graham crusaders, who he joined for a short period: “Christianity for [Francis] was like a long-distance race, and he often talked of pacing oneself. … For him acts and conduct that proclaimed faith were more important than words that shouted belief.” Ngugi first grew disillusioned with the evangelicals when he felt himself looked down on for not having a sufficiently shameful narrative of his pre-Christian immorality—they only respected you if you had been really debauched before, he felt, which was probably unfair to the crusaders—and he abandoned them completely when one of their star converts got a girl pregnant and then refused to marry her. The ethic of Carey Francis he never abandoned at all.
For those familiar with his passionate Marxism, it seems a little strange that Ngugi should be so soft toward a man who, according to his philosophy, was an agent of oppression. Perhaps he has learned to see things from his old headmaster’s point of view; perhaps he has simply mellowed with age. Whatever it is that has inclined Ngugi to view his experience of colonialism with warmth and some small measure of forgiveness, there is certainly a lesson in it.