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Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

September 26, 2013

 Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.  Anchor (2011), Paperback, 272 pages.

A memoir by an internationally recognized African author about growing up in rural Kenya and attending school during the 1950s violence there.

The title of this memoir by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o states the major themes of the book.  It is a story of dreaming of reading and education during years of the chaotic violence of Kenyans’ opposition to British rule.

As a young child, Ngugi’s world was primarily the extended family in which he was raised: a family that centered on his father and his four wives, each of whom had her own hut and garden.  Some evenings all would gather for storytelling by various family members.  Entranced by the stories, Ngugi’s early dreams were of becoming a storyteller himself someday.  Then he was given the chance to go to school, an opportunity that was rare in his family, and reading became his passion.

When Ngugi’s father lost his land, life changed in the family.  His mother was sent away, and later he and his brother were sent to live with her on her father’s compound.  The move meant that he went to a different school, one that was created by Africans, and the conflicts within the British colony began to touch his own life.  Still, much of his life went on as before, and he underwent the traditional circumcision ritual that marked him as becoming a man.

Ngugi tells of increasing violence by the British and their Kenyan supporters against people in his neighborhood.  His much admired older brother was almost captured, but he escaped to join guerilla forces in the mountains.  The family became split with two of their half-brothers joining the Home Guard determined to destroy the rebels. Ngugi himself was captured and feared death or concentration camp, but was freed.  In the midst of all this, he does well on the national exams that allow him the rare chance to go to college.  The book ends as his dreams are coming true of a life of more education and eventually the chance to become a storyteller himself.

Dreams in a Time of War is both a warm and slightly formal book– a controlled performance full of understated emotions. Although Ngugi is known for his non-linear novels, his memoir is straight forward and smoothly written.  Seldom have I read a book in which I learned so many details about a culture and country not my own.  For example, I had read that some Africans had strong loyalty to their age-group, but I had never before read exactly how the process worked.  In addition, I not previously read a rebel version of the African uprising of the Mau Maus against the British which identified the violence being done to Africans rather than by them.

At times Ngugi’s story seemed isolated from the rest of the world, hidden in “deepest Africa.”  Then Ngugi would mention people and places that I know well from my own American history.  He wrote about Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist, as having contributed to the strike of African workers in Kenya in the 1920s.  The school which he attended had been created by a man who had studied at Hampton Institute in Virginia, across the bay from where I taught.  Although never claiming to be an historian, Ngugi’s narrative has the international elements that some historians are encouraging today.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has received global attention as an author and a proponent of African culture.  Outspoken against the British and later the Kenyan dictator, he has been imprisoned and exiled from his country.  While in exile and after its end, he has taught at English and American universities.  Ngugi has spoken out strongly on the importance of African languages and written many of his books in Gikuyu, his native language.

I strongly recommend Dreams in a Time of War, especially to those interested in Kenya and African more generally and in African literature.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2013 3:45 am

    Thanks for this review. I have this novel in my TBR for while now. It is high time I purchase it. I have never read anything from Ngugi was Thiong yet. Hopefully, I would soon.

    • September 27, 2013 2:13 pm

      This was the first of his that I have. I liked it very much, but I am not sure how typical it is of his fiction.

  2. November 5, 2013 7:42 am

    Wonderful review, Marilyn. Never heard of this book, though I have read Ngugi’s Petals of Blood and Weep Not Child. Thanks for sharing!

  3. July 30, 2015 7:28 am

    Nice review! I liked this a lot when I read it! I plan to read his second memoir novel ‘In the House of the Interpreter’ soon 🙂

    • August 1, 2015 12:30 pm

      That’s on my want list too. I absolutely loved “Crow.”


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