Wrestling with the Devil by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This review was first published in the Fall 2018 issue of Rain Taxi Review of Books. (I have kept the page references in that are provided for the Rain Taxi copyeditors, but which are cut from the printed version.)

At the end of December 1977, police arrived at the home of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in Limuru, Kenya. He was sent to the Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison under a detention order signed by the Minister for Home Affairs, Daniel arap Moi. He had no right to a lawyer, there was no trial, there was no sentence. For two weeks, no-one outside the government and police forces, including his family, knew where he was, or even if he was still alive. (Later, family visits were occasionally permitted, but they were rare and extremely short.) He could be detained for a day or for the rest of his life, his access to any news of the outside world severely restricted, his recourse to anything resembling due process limited to brief appearances before biannual review tribunals that might as well have been designed by Kafka.

Though the reason for his detention was never explained, everyone knew why Ngũgĩ was sent to prison. He was an internationally heralded writer who had gained significant attention in Kenya for his work with the Kamĩrĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Centre, with whom he co-wrote a play in the Gĩkũyũ language, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). The play was produced with local villagers on the stage and behind the scenes. After the play opened to great success, inspiring other groups to start similar grassroots arts projects, the government withdrew the play’s license, citing vague reasons of public safety. A few weeks later, the police showed up at Ngũgĩ’s home.

Wrestling with the Devil is a re-edited version of Ngũgĩ’s 1981 book Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (Heinemann, 1981). In a note at the beginning, Ngũgĩ writes that the new edition is “shorter and leaner because shorn of many dated historical references and documents”—which is true, as the original edition included letters Ngũgĩ wrote to various officials as well as a section of documents related to his attempt to get his job back at the University of Nairobi. But Ngũgĩ has also taken the opportunity of a new edition to tone down some of his judgments and to bring the book more in line with his three recent memoirs Dreams in a Time of War (Harvill Secker, 2010), In the House of the Interpreter (Pantheon, 2012), and Birth of a Dream Weaver (The New Press, 2018). Where Detained, for instance, includes pages analyzing President Jomo Kenyatta’s transformation from an inspiring icon of freedom into a neocolonial oppressor, Wrestling with the Devil cuts most of this material and adds a footnote: “On looking back, I realize I was too harsh. Kenyatta’s life, October 20, 1891-August 22, 1978, spanned the entire history of Kenya, precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial. He embodied that history and all its contradictions. Remarkably, from the 1920s to 1963, he remained the symbolic head of the anticolonial resistance, and nothing can take away from the fact he led us into independence.”

Like other excised passages, the pages about Kenyatta today feel extraneous and belabored both because Ngũgĩ covers the ground well in Wrestling with the Devil and because the three other memoirs vividly show what liberation meant to Kenyans. Any reader who comes to Wrestling with the Devil after the other memoirs will not need Ngũgĩ to write at length about the bitter pain of Kenyatta’s betrayal of the Kenyan people’s hopes.

Wrestling with the Devil is not quite a sequel to the other memoirs, however. It is still, for the most part, Detained, a book in which each chapter works as an almost independent essay. (Indeed, that sense is heightened in Wrestling, where Ngũgĩ has provided each chapter with a title, whereas in Detained they are only numbered.) Many of the chapters are devoted not to Ngũgĩ’s own detainment but to the colonial and neo-colonial history of detainment in Kenya. Always fond of a dialectic, Ngũgĩ posits two types of detainees in Kenyan history: those who remained determined to fight against colonialism and oppression, and those who in one way or another gave in to a colonial mindset. Detainment, he shows, was a system created by the brutal British colonial regime, then taken over and used by the new Kenyan government to solidify its power and silence critics. Kenyatta himself had been a political prisoner, and yet he emerged from prison as a centrist, a position that allowed him to build his personal power and wealth at the expense of the Kenyans he was supposedly helping to liberate. Ngũgĩ writes:

 “the Kenyatta who came out of detention and imprisonment in 1961 was talking an entirely different language from the one he used to speak when he was ‘the burning spear’ of nationalistic politics. The new Kenyatta now went to Nakuru, the heartland of white colonial settlerdom . . . and he actually asked the erstwhile imperialist murderers and sadists to forgive him for whatever wrongs he had done them . . .”

Detainees who join with their oppressors and continue the oppression may do so for various reasons, but Ngũgĩ sees the cases he discusses most fully as failures of class sympathy—educated by missionaries, identifying with the petit bourgeois, and aspiring for power and wealth, these men could not ultimately bring themselves to identify with the lower classes. “Kenyatta,” he says, “was always torn between the power and might of imperialism and the power and might of the masses. He was therefore strong or weak depending on which individuals or groups were closest to him, pro-imperialist or anti-imperialist.”

Ngũgĩ also tells the stories of people who resisted the temptations of the ruling powers throughout their lives, and who often paid for this resistance with decades of imprisonment, with torture of both themselves and their friends and families, and, in more than a few cases, with death. These stories are sobering for an imprisoned Ngũgĩ, but they also fortify him. His resistance is linked to a long and noble history. Throughout his memoirs and other writings, Ngũgĩ’s sense of the Kenyan and African past is that of a patriotic mythography in which the true Kenyan, the true African, is always a resistance fighter who identifies with the most downtrodden and oppressed people, the wretched of the Earth. In Ngũgĩ’s telling, a Kenyan or an African who sides with the ruling classes is a person who betrays all of what makes nationalist and Africanist history an invigorating, meaningful alternative to the brutalities of imperialism.

It is in the long seventh chapter, here titled “Meditations,” that Ngũgĩ describes his daily life in prison and begins to chronicle perhaps the most famous result of his imprisonment: the writing of his novel Devil on the Cross. Having only a few pieces of scrap paper and a pen with which the prison guards wanted him to write a confession, Ngũgĩ wrote most of the novel on pieces of rough toilet paper that “turned out to be great writing material, really holding up to the ballpoint pen very well. What was hard for the body was hardy for writing on.” The language he wrote Devil on the Cross in was even more notable than the paper it was written on. All of Ngũgĩ’s previous novels were written in English, but he had for some time been advocating for African writers to write in African languages. Now, sitting in prison for collaborating on a play written and performed in Gĩkũyũ, he could not return to writing in the language of the colonizer. He wrote Devil on the Cross and his subsequent novels in Gĩkũyũ. Prison officials eventually found out what he was doing and confiscated the manuscript, but after reading it, the warden did not declare it forbidden, and returned it to Ngũgĩ. (It was nearly lost, though—not because of censorship, but because the guards did not recognize that it was a manuscript, and tossed it in a large pile of other packets of unused toilet paper. An intrepid prisoner guessed what had happened, investigated, and found the complete manuscript.)

Jomo Kenyatta died in August 1978, Daniel arap Moi became Kenya’s second president, and in December, almost one year after he was arrested, Ngũgĩ was released. Wrestling with the Devil stops there. Readers familiar with Kenyan history and Ngũgĩ’s life know the joy at the end sings briefly, and much hardship follows both for Ngũgĩ and for Kenya. Moi rules the country for twenty-four more years, effectively instituting a dictatorship, and his security forces will be more feared and more repressive than Kenyatta’s. Ngũgĩ remains barred from working at a university. Just before Devil on the Cross (Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ) is first published in Kenya, its publisher is attacked, a finger chopped off by machete. In 1987, Moi issues an arrest warrant for the protagonist of Ngũgĩ’s novel Matigari, having misunderstood conversations about the novel to be conversations about a real person. Ngũgĩ goes into exile in the United States, and when he returns for the publication of his novel Mũrogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow) in 2003, men with guns and machetes ferociously attack him and his wife in their hotel room. They survive the attack and return to Kenya again in 2015, where Ngũgĩ is hosted by President Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Jomo Kenyatta), who asks him to return to stay, but Ngũgĩ continues to live in the United States, where in January 2018 he celebrates his 80th birthday.   

All of that comes later, and it is all outside the scope of Wrestling with the Devil. Like his previous memoirs, Wrestling with the Devil focuses on a relatively short period in Ngũgĩ’s life, from which he extrapolates ideas about history, politics, and literature, allowing the narrow timeframe of the personal experiences he relates to illustrate much more than an individual life ever could. In the separate books, the effect can be frustrating—none of the memoirs on their own is as powerful as any one of Ngũgĩ’s novels—but read together, the memoirs gain resonance and accumulate force. In that way, they remind me of another serial autobiography begun in the late years of life, Leonard Woolf’s, which spanned five small volumes published throughout Woolf’s eighties. With luck, Ngũgĩ will live at least as long as Leonard Woolf did, and will write at least as many memoirs.

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