Once or twice a year, an enthusiastic student will launch herself breathlessly through a door to inform one or other of us that she has discovered our names in the preface to Ngũgĩ's Decolonising the Mind. It's always amusing that such students seem to think they are telling us something we don't know, but also a pleasure to be reminded of how our lives became intertwined with Ngũgĩ's, especially between 1982, when the writer was forced into exile, and 1993, when he took up a permanent academic position at New York University. When a writer achieves the kind of status Ngũgĩ now enjoys, it's easy to forget how tenuous their intellectual and personal survival once may have seemed. Those struggles and the people and institutions that provided assistance, help shape a writer's work. As Ngũgĩ's generous acknowledgements in the preface to Decolonising the Mind remind us, ‘any work, even a literary creative work, is not the result of individual genius but the result of collective effort. There are so many inputs in the actual formation of an image, an idea. The very words we use are a product of a collective history’ (x–xi). In mapping the moments when our lives intersected with Ngũgĩ's during his years of exile, we hope to provide some insight into how those scattered encounters enriched us all.
Reinhard's friendship with Ngũgĩ dates back to the early 1970s, when Ngũgĩ spent a year at Northwestern University. Between 1967 and 1969, while Ngũgĩ was a lecturer in English at the University of Kenya at Nairobi, he had proposed the abolition of Nairobi's English Department, and in 1970 the University changed its name and scope from the Department of English to the Department of African Literature and Languages. By 1969, however, Ngũgĩ had resigned from the university in protest over violations of academic freedom (see Sander and Lindfors xix). At that point, he had published three novels – Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967) – and had established an international reputation in Africa, Britain and the British Commonwealth. A 1969–70 fellowship at Makerere and a 1970–71 visiting appointment at Northwestern University in Illinois provided him with funding and space to write at a moment of significant professional vulnerability.