Childhood memories of war and colonialism

By Kevin O’Kelly
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2010

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Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memoir of growing up in British-ruled Kenya, “Dreams in a Time of War,’’ vividly evokes the colonial era as experienced by Africans, and the resulting clash of cultures that produced one of the most significant African writers of our time.

Set against the backdrop of World War II and the nation’s battle for independence, the work covers the period from Ngugi’s birth to his departure from his village for boarding school during his teens.

Ngugi, a novelist and literature professor at the University of California-Irvine, was born in 1938, the fifth child of his father’s third wife. He spent his first years in a dirt-floor hut his family shared with sheep and goats — a circumstance that bespeaks unimaginable poverty to American readers but in Ngugi’s world signified wealth: livestock and land, not money, were the primary currency of colonial-era Kenyans. However, it was a wealth that was soon to disappear. His father purchased land by oral contract, which was perfectly normal according to the traditions of the region but not recognized by British courts. Legal title to the land was acquired by a neighboring African who was the product of Presbyterian missionary education and knew the ways of British law, and who then denied Ngugi’s father grazing and farming rights.

Dispossession by the British, or by their laws, is one of the central themes of this book. Throughout Ngugi’s childhood he witnesses native Kenyans (many of them veterans of the British Army) being moved off their ancestral lands to make room for white settlement. But more importantly, dispossession creates the poverty that marks Ngugi’s upbringing. As a boy he works harvesting tea and picking flowers. He walks six miles to school each day, going without lunch. Sometimes his only light for studying at night is a fire of dry cornstalks.

That poverty, and the knowledge that school was attainable only because of his family’s sacrifices, sets much of the emotional tone of “Dreams in a Time of War.’’ The joy with which Ngugi writes about getting his first Western-style shirt to wear to school, or his recollection of the night his guerrilla fighter brother risked his life to sneak back into their village to wish Ngugi luck on high school entrance exams will move the most cynical of readers.

But Ngugi’s greatest literary achievement in this book is to re-create, with almost uncanny success, how the world looked through mid-century African eyes. You can feel the wonder with which he and his brothers gazed on the local train, whose sounds they heard as TO-UGAN-DA, and his curiosity at noticing photos of Gandhi in all the local Indian shops. His mother tells him the “thin man with glasses’’ is “an Indian god.’’ In a later chapter on his early teens, his terror at his impending circumcision is palpable.

And to see through African eyes was also to see the injustices of colonialism. He soon learned what became of his father’s wealth. The train that so mesmerized him had three classes of seating: first for whites, second for Indians, third for blacks. And as World War II ends and the Kenyan independence movement gains momentum, British troops conduct random daytime raids, and people in his community are shot or sent to internment camps.

Yet this book is not dominated by fear or bitterness. Ngugi’s ties to friends and family held steadfast through poverty and war, and his love of learning was his refuge during the most terrifying times. “Dreams in a Time of War’’ is a testament to the resilience of youth and the strength of hope.

Kevin O’Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe.

DREAMS IN A TIME OF WAR: A Childhood Memoir By Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Pantheon, 272 pp., $24.95