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16 - Fear & Trepidation in Asmara: Meeting Ngũgĩ

from Part II - Memories, Recollections & Tributes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 July 2019

Jane Plastow
Affiliation:
professor of African Theatre at the University of Leeds, UK.
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Summary

When I first met Ngũgĩ in January 2000, in Africa's most beautiful capital city of Asmara, Eritrea, he had long been for me a beneficent but slightly terrifying haunting. Given that the core of my academic research has been on East African theatre I could hardly avoid making Ngũgĩ's work in Kamĩrĩĩthũ a central point of reference. When I began working in the late 1980s for a PhD on political theatre in Africa – from a position of considerable ignorance – I remember Martin Banham, the then font of all wisdom on African theatre in England, most kindly telling me that I really should read Ngũgĩ's Decolonising the Mind. I can no longer recollect the order, but over the following years, I would read the novels, the plays and much of the polemic, and then begin to teach them; engaging with the restless intelligence that constantly sought new forms to express ever more accurately the history of the multiple on-going oppressions of the African everyman, by both black and white, of the capitalist, Christian establishment. I was also humbled by knowledge of the price Ngũgĩ had paid for his integrity, from the minor loss of western critical approbation when he turned his back on the well-made novel, to the major traumas of imprisonment without trial, enforced exile and the abuse of members of his family.

When I went to the University of Leeds in 1994 to teach in the Workshop Theatre of the School of English, I found Ngũgĩ had preceded me, having enrolled a couple of decades earlier on an MA he never completed because he had been preoccupied with finishing the novel A Grain of Wheat. He was beneficent because I agreed so strongly with much, though not all, of his political analysis, and because he wrote and engaged with life and people with such artistry and passion. He was slightly terrifying because of all the opprobrium he poured on white people working in Africa and on the comfortable middleclasses. I was undeniably a member of both groups.

What I could not have then known was that at the same time I was reading Ngũgĩ he was also becoming a favourite author of an Eritrean freedom fighter named Alemseged Tesfai, a tegadalai (freedom fighter) living in the northern mountains on little more than bread and lentils.

Type
Chapter
Information
Ngugi
Reflections on his Life of Writing
, pp. 91 - 96
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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