“Any of you know that? How to conquer time and space? I’ll teach you how.”
This is how Ngugi wa Thiong'o opened his lecture at the Rose Hills Theatre at Pomona College Tuesday evening, Oct. 6. It was a significant task, but one would expect no less from a man whose writings have affected not only Africa, but how the world perceives and understands African literature and culture.
He took the podium in the theatre with ease and took the stage with a easy grace that indicated his familiarity with talks like this. As with most people whose reputation precedes them, Thiong’o appeared smaller in person than he did in the mind, as though all his prizes and accolades swelled him to a size not nearly human.
Once he began to speak, it was as though he took up much more space in the room. He murmured in Swahili to the side, and then described the language as “good food,” a rare but deeply enjoyed dish. It was with this beautiful image in the audience’s mind that he then proclaimed to know how to conquer time and space.
Thiong’o was born and educated in Kenya and also attended schools in Uganda and Britain. He lived through the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, an event that shaped modern-day Kenya as well as many of Thiong’o’s older works.
During the event, Thiong’o told the story of how he learned to read. School was his haven from the outside world that was being ravaged by uprisings and war. He described how he was “aware of some sort of bloodhounds outside.”
But within the deceptively safe walls of his schoolhouse, Thiong’o discovered that there was music within the written word. Thiong’o continued to be fascinated by this discovery he made decades ago, eager to infect the audience with the same sort of awe. Listening to Thiong’o was a very active experience, listening to the cadence of his words, each one carefully chosen.
Imagination! was his constant refrain throughout the speech. Stories are a product of relaying the imagination, he explained, that daring entity that fills us all.
“Imagination does not know gender, age, race,” he poignantly said, one of the most lasting statements of the talk. It cannot be imprisoned. The room now buzzed with energy.
Everyone was thinking they knew what he was about to describe: his time imprisoned at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in 1977. Thiong’o was imprisoned without charge following the release of his play “Ngaahika Ndeenda” (I Will Marry When I Want), which highlights the inequalities and injustices found within Kenyan society, championing the cause of the average citizen.
“They wouldn’t let us know if it was raining outside,” Thiong’o says of his time in prison. “I learned to escape from prison in my imagination.”
While imprisoned, Thiong’o wrote the novel “Caitani Mutharabaini” (Devil on the Cross) on prison-issued toilet paper. The crowd murmured with laughter as Thiong’o relayed the story of how prison guards raided his room for the hoarded toilet paper, snatched it away, and how it was just barely reclaimed from the bottom of a trash barrel about to be thrown out. But underlying the humorous anecdote was the idea of imagination as savior.
While imprisoned, he made the decision to commit to writing only in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, to encourage a move away from the Western literature canon. All his works seek to bolster the African voice.
“I come from an African family, so storytelling is very relevant in my family and my background,” Malaika Ogukwe PO ’19 said. “I was able to relate to the stories through my parents' experiences.”
Throughout the talk, Thiong’o read out several stories from his life. One of the most visceral images he painted was the story of his family. With four of his fingers, he represented his four mothers. Set apart, perpendicular to the other fingers, was his thumb, his father. They all lived apart, united by his palm, the center of the house.
“What nourishes the imagination?” asked Thiong’o. “Art, in general. What nourishes art? Stories.”
In another story he told, he described coming home from university and finding his village in ruins. Zach Abilsath PO ’19 talked about how this story stuck with him the most, as Thiong’o addressed “issues of colonialism, capturing that idea of displacement in a creative and compelling way.”
And the most significant take-away from the talk?
“Imagination is an escape,” said Ogukwe. “A beautiful escape.”