270. Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Stories of the atrocities and ills committed during colonialism most often seem fictional to people's ears, especially those who never lived within the period and never directly experienced them. To those twice removed from the action, it sounds like a fantastic tale told to children around the firelight, beneath the full moon. This might have occurred because for the larger part of the twentieth century, this has been the motif for several African writers - poets, novelists, dramatists. However, nothing is as real as the wanton devastation of the people by the colonists and colonialists in their bid to own the land and subjugate, or in their own way civilise, the people. It is through the biographies and memoirs of those who lived the times that the true effects of what was meted out to our fathers and grandfathers come alive. It is easy for one to disregard fiction, but not too easy to ignore a memoir. 

And in the childhood memoir of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, one of Africa's eminent chronicler of socioeconomic changes, the atrocities come alive at a rate that discombobulate the reader. Dreams in a Time of War (Vintage, 2011 (FP: 2010), 257) tracks Ngugi's life from his father's compound to his mother's-cum-grandfather's compound to the point where he miraculously left for school. It deals with loss and rejection, and a mother's foresight to educate a son, at all cost.

Ngugi's true tale of his life in a Kenyan village clearly showed the role of the church in the colonisation of the indigenes - or the natives, as they were derogatorily referred to by the settlers. It emphasises that what we have read all too often in works of fiction, including the author's own oeuvre, are not mere writers' fantasies. If anything at all, they are watered-down versions, for most often facts are stranger than what fiction could conjure. The role of the church in subjugating the people, through their religious tales, through their preaching, which dehumanises blacks, through the portrayal of their seafarers who landed on the shores Africa, in the classrooms they monopolised and in their churches, cannot in no way be underestimated. In having the sole control of education, they were armed with the single most effective tool of subjugation. It is for this reason why some believe that the Christian God is a white god, and cannot represent blacks.

Even when the natives showed leadership and foresight by creating their own schooling system teaching their students their own syllabuses, the colonialists closed it down when they realised that the nationalists elements are overreaching their bounds; allowing those that agreed to teach the colonialist's approved subjects and syllabuses to open. The priests who manned the religious-schools progressively proselytised all their students and staff, demanding of them to shed all traditional and cultural entrapment, regarding those that imbibed European culture and sensibilities as the avant-gardes. They became the 'path clearers' for the colonial administration. In most African countries, baptismal certificates became the only official document the colonial government accepted when one was dealing with the state. The role of these priests is treated in Mongo Beti's The Poor Christ of Bomba, though unlike Father Superior Drumont, most of these priests never gave.

Reflecting on Ngugi's memoir, it becomes clear that every country has done to another that which it has at one point in time itself fought against. It became clearer that people do not fight oppression because they are entirely anti-oppression or that they abhor, strongly detest, oppression. People do fight oppression because they think they are superior and above oppression. Not others. Most often, when such anti-oppression fighters gain their freedom, succeed in their fight, the very first thing they do is to implement what they had fought against on others they feel superior to, sometimes on the very people they have just defeated. Whilst the British fought Hitler and this occupation of European countries and spread of Nazism, they were at the same time implementing equally draconian and Nazi-like segregation, apartheid, eviction, and occupation in their colonies. If Nazism is racism, what is segregation, apartheid, black land-confiscation?

After the African soldiers - Kenyan soldiers in this specific case - helped the British in a war they had nothing to do with - the Second World War, they - the British colonial government - took lands away from the natives to settle their white soldiers as payment for their war efforts. Thus, while the white soldiers came home to large tracts of land, the black soldiers came home to displaced families. This is a universal phenomenon and it is one that confound exceedingly. After that abominable holocaust and the Jews' return to 'their homeland', they displaced the Palestinians in a blitzkrieg that shocked and still shocks the world. The world is not about fairness or equality. It has never been and might never be. Regardless of what one thinks, the Orwellian principle of Animal Farm reigns. Fairness and Equality are concepts the strong proposes to subject the weak, whose weakness prevents them from retaliating the fairness and equality. A prejudiced mind, a mind of racial and tribal superiority, of religious fundamentalism, of birthers and truthers, a mind which defines brotherhood not in humanity but in other concepts that eliminates others can never ever beget fairness and equality. Asking such a mind to do so is like asking darkness to produce light.

How different therefore was the colonialist's behaviour in Africa during the struggle for independence, especially in Kenya, different from the atrocities carried out the world over? They killed en masse, people disappeared during the night, people were arrested and killed without trial, they wiped out villages, they engaged numerous spies, they hauled resources, they psychologically destroyed people, they dehumanised the natives. Was this not another genocide? What is it called, when a country sets out to destroy another by surgically destroying its history, identity - through controlled manipulations in classrooms, by confiscating its land (to the African land is more than just a piece of the earth), and by killing them en masse at the least resistance? Were these not exactly what the communist countries were accused of?

To stray off, and jump Ngugi - for I know this would definitely appear in his other memoirs, some of the African leaders who led the fight for independence, or who forcefully took power right after independence, behaved similarly. These folks only wanted to be like the white rulers - to enjoy the perks of power, the position and rewards it affords, not necessarily to remove the yoke from their people's necks. In Dreams in a Time of War, a classic example would be Rev Stanley Kahahu, who after becoming a priest, thought he had scaled a wall higher than his people, and armed with the colonial knowledge he had gained and with the backing of the colonial administration he supported, took lands away from their rightful owners. His wife was worst, for she treated everybody, especially the non-Christians, as dirt - cheating them as and when she deemed fit. And one shivers when one realises that one is not reading Weep Not Child, or A Grain of Wheat or any fiction for that matter, but a memoir - a true account of events. Thus, a person does not lose his character when he acquires power. His traits become pronounced. A wicked person may be humble only because he is poor, his real character comes to the fore when he is in a position of power.

Just as not all whites behaved like the colonialists, not all blacks supported the nationalists in their fight for an independent Kenya. In fact, the most brutal colonial force - those who descended heavily physically and emotionally - on the Mau Mau fighters and their families was the Home Guards, which consisted of natives sympathetic to the colonial cause. These folks, living among the people, sometimes from the same womb, developed tortured their kin in droves. And do we not have such elements in our midst today as we pretend to fight neo-colonialism? Are there not Africans out there who say we cannot and should not think of going beyond our means? Are there not Africans who have sold Africa and continue to sell it for their sole benefits?

This war, which Ngugi lived under, which destroyed homes, families, friendships, would turn brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour. It will cause a rift within families and villages. The victims were thus divided, as each takes a stand in the colonialists versus the nationalists struggle. No one would leave the turf unscathed.

Ngugi also talked about the nascent transportation infrastructure that was taking place in the country, with a child's fascination. At a point in time, he had to choose between fulfilling his desire to ride in a train and his pact with her mother to stay at school. All through Africa, in colonial period, the construction of roads and rails meant further oppression from the colonialists. Usually these transport systems were directed at areas with huge resource reserve. It also paved the way, literally, for the evangelical works of the church, which precedes and prepare the people for colonial administration. 

Dreams in a Time of War treats politics, as a pre-teen-early-teen child saw it, and socioeconomic changes that followed rapid colonisation and the war that ensued. It captures the nuances of life - the sad times (a father's rejection; a brother's flight into the bush; an education that was nearly lost), the happy times (gaining admission into one of the best schools; participating in the rite of passage), the emotional moments (beaten by a British soldier for not adding the respectful 'effendi' to statements; having to go without food in the quest for education), and youthful carelessness (the near-asphyxiation; the life-goes-on regardless of the 'bush war').

The writing and narrative style - past and present - put the reader right in the midst of the actions as Ngugi describes them. This makes the reader's emotions synchronous with the emotions exuding from the pages of this magnificent book. The reader goes through all the topsy-turvy moments, living with the figures (not characters), the near misses, the deaths, and pain of realising you have been sold out by a brother, a friend. Reading this book, one has to remind himself that he is reading a memoir and not a work of fiction. It is the reservoir from which Ngugi draws out his work of fiction and anyone who has read any of Ngugi's works will understand it better after reading this work. This work - and may be the others that follow like In the House of Interpreters - encapsulates the essence of Ngugi's oeuvre. 

Individuals who lived within this period of Africa's history - the period when the struggles against the colonialists were at their peak - have a lot to tell. For in their lives is the real history of Africa and Africans. Their lives provide the human side of the struggles narrated in History text books, which is sometimes skewed - told to make some others look macho and important, to exaggerate the roles of sellouts and people who did nothing, or even to water-down the atrocities of the colonialists. These stories expose the evil of colonial rule and the native stooges of the time. And it is these that we must fight; that we do not do to ourselves that which we have fought ferociously against. That we shall no more become colonised, but fight neo-colonism, and whilst doing so prevent the return of the Bokassas, the Mobutu Sese Sekos, the Idi Amins, and such barbaric rulers that shattered the continent. And finally, be wise not to be caught up in any East-West struggle, the like of the Cold War era.

More importantly, these memoirs show that the journey of life is not smooth. It has its bumps and anyone who wants to take a ride must know and appreciate this. They also show us the volume of work that is left or needed to be done. The struggles that Ngugi went through to get education should not be seen in Kenya today. These are the markers against which progress will be measured. Our failures and achievements would be determined by the rate at which we can distinguish between life under colonial rule and life under independence.

This is a quintessential Ngugi book, one that I will recommend to all.


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