It takes a village to raise a writer. Against improbable odds, a Kenyan village raised a superb one in wa Thiong’o (English and Comparative Literature/Univ. of California, Irvine; Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, 2009, etc.).
Thanks to books by Ishmael Beah, Joseph Sebarenzi and others, readers outside Africa have a good sense of the face of modern wars on the continent. Firsthand accounts of colonial-era conflicts are fewer, which makes the author’s memoir of the Mau-Mau conflict against British rule in Kenya all the more valuable. His book opens in 1954, with hunger: “I had not had lunch that day,” he writes, “and my tummy had forgotten the porridge I had gobbled that morning before the six-mile run to…school.” When the other children unwrapped their lunches or went home for a midday meal, the author retreated into the shade to read a book, “any book, not that there were many of them, but even class notes were a welcome distraction.” The young man also had to reckon with the political consequences of having a brother who disappeared into the mountains, ghostlike, to fight the colonists. He did, however, have a healthy support system, the result of living in a household of multiple wives and many half-siblings and cousins—to say nothing of a mother who, among other things, saved him from carbon monoxide poisoning. Against this affectionate anarchy, wa Thiong’o juxtaposes encounters with colonial administrators, bureaucrats who insisted that a young native such as he use the lordly address effendi. When he did not and received a rain of blows as a consequence, readers will instantly comprehend why other young men are fighting a guerrilla war against their tormentors—and why the author’s winning of a scholarship to high school was such a triumph for himself and his family.
Evenhanded, evocative account of distant times and places—a strong contribution to both the literature of colonialism and modern African literature in English.