Entrepreneurial Hero: Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The High Priest of African Literature

The stubborn scribe still wrestles with the devil, battling for the Nobel Prize in Literature

Despite being handcuffed and locked away at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison for possessing banned books in December of 1977, he was convicted without court or trial for a year in Kenya.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, vividly remembers writing his novel “Devil on the Cross” which was published in 1980 – on rough toilet paper – while tucked away in his cell. He didn’t want the prison guards to discover his manuscript. He later managed to smuggle out his opus from the “Kamiti Downs,” the prison’s original name.

Back then, Amnesty International dubbed Ngugi: “A political prisoner of conscience.” An international campaign resulted in his release in December of 1978. In exile, he fled to Britain and worked with the London-based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya.

Several years ago, during a telephone interview from his home in California, Ngugi talked about his memoir, “Wrestling with the Devil,” where he discussed his long odyssey as a prisoner and exiled novelist, virtually speaking truth to power about Kenya’s elite, while lambasting the country’s troubled leadership.

Ngugi argued that “Devil on the Cross,” focused mainly on those leaders who favored a sort of elite class in Kenya. “People robbed from Kenya. But it wasn’t that they were hungry, or not because they were without clothes,” he explained. “They robbed millions of dollars, and it was just a competition. So, this competition was being organized by the Devil,” he added with a faint laugh. “I was just having fun with this novel.”

Ngugi said that Kenya was a big folly under colonial rule. “For every oppressive act, there is a reaction,” he argued. “But, nevertheless, the oppressive act leaves scars on the oppressed as well as the oppressor. The damage done in the minds of an imagined African middle-class affects both Blacks and Whites.”

He referenced Jomo Kenyatta, a Kenyan anti-colonial activist and politician who served as Kenya’s Prime Minister from 1963-1964, and then later became president of Kenya from 1964 until his death in 1978. Under his rule, Kenya experienced economic growth for a short period.

However, Ngugi said Kenyatta’s policies eventually led to high disparities of wealth, which many critics claimed remained in the hands of the Kenyatta family and close associates.

“Colonialism is like a pyramid,” Ngugi said, referring to the Kenyatta regime. “The people at the top benefit and the Africans suffer. So, the pyramid was fractured because of this inherited colonial affair. There are only a few people that can get to the top.”

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is one of the most prolific of all the African novelists, including premier writers, Chinua Achebe (who published 20 books and has never won a Nobel Prize) and Wole Soyinka (who penned 50 books and did earn a Nobel Prize). So far, Ngugi has published 30 books in his lifetime. But, still, there is no writer in African Literature that is more worthy of the Prize. Yet, for the past 23 years, Ngugi has been overlooked, passed over, and made to look as if he’s the invisible man. The Nobel Prize Committee, based-out of Sweden, refuses to honor him.


His story is straight out of an Alexandre Dumas novel. He’s more like the “Count of Monte Cristo.” But, Ngugi is part Mahatma Gandhi, who helped free India from British rule, and part Steven Biko, the anti-Apartheid Freedom Fighter who died under police custody – except Ngugi lived to tell the tale. And in 1964, one year after Kenya's independence, Ngugi published “Weep Not, Child,” chronicling the Mau-Mau Rebellion, under British Colonialism.

That’s why Ngugi is a fighter, oftentimes, throwing a few jabs in the air, suggesting he’s no push-over. He’s a heavyweight in the business: his work has been translated in over 100 languages, globally. Ngugi’s net worth is $60 million which he earned through his writing and teaching career and speaking engagements. He's a professional writer who has built a solid reputation, using his pen as a weapon to criticize and lampoon world dictatorships in Africa and
even Latin America. He’s a distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine and the director of the International Center for Writing and Translation.

At age 85, Ngugi is a veteran novelist, author of short-stories, a poet, essayist, playwright, and journalist who was a columnist for newspapers and several magazines. A gifted storyteller, who as a writer delves into the human condition.

Undeniably, a top-tier writer, Ngugi was vehemently attacked when he wrote a play in Gikuyu (his native language) introducing rural people to critique the post-colonial order under President Jomo Kenyatta. And, over the years, Ngugi felt the heat from the Daniel arap Moi regime.

But, Ngugi's most magical moment, a novel called “Wizard of the Crow,” – a satire of the worst dictatorships which included: Mobutu Sese seko of Congo-Zaire, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, and Augusto Pinochet of Chile. A world so pathetic that the ruler is surrounded by mere sycophants, and idiots.

Over the years, Ngugi churned out a voluminous body of work. There's the "Perfect Nine," "Birth of a Dream Weaver," "In the Name of the Mother," "In the House of the Interpreter," and countless others.

Yet, after being denied by the Nobel Prize in Literature for so many years, he continues to write with the passion and dedication of an old scribe. “My position is this,” he said. “I am a writer first and foremost; I have nothing to do with the jury. All I can do is write and write, and write, in my native Gikuyu language. Because writing in your native language is a prize in itself…” He pauses mid-sentence, then continues, “...because writing from the heart in your mother tongue is the true prize.”

After reaching out to the Nobel Prize Committee of Literature, via email, they refused to comment about Ngugi’s perennial denial into the Swedish canon.

But Ngugi wa Thiong’o doesn’t have to worry anymore. He's in good company. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French novelist and philosopher declined the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964. He said he didn’t want to be “institutionalized” by the prize. He believed that it would limit the impact of his writing. One thing is for sure. Ngugi has the Nobel Prize in his heart already. He doesn’t have to look outside of himself.

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L.A. Rivera is a Writer-At-Large for Advisors Magazine. He's a veteran journalist who worked with Reporter Jack Anderson, considered one of the founders of modern investigative journalism. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Village Voice, Vibe Magazine, and the New York Daily News, and other publications. He’s written two novels, “Living in the Shadows of Che Guevara,” and “Lucky Street Chronicles.” 

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