The story of Ngugi, Achebe

The story of Ngugi, Achebe

When I went to school in the 1980’s, Chinua Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiongo and other prominent African writers’ photographs and names were all over the place, on the wall in the school library and in the classrooms. Maybe that is why, somehow, we assumed that Ngugi and Achebe must be from the same place and that they met every day and told stories.


To us, Ngugi and Achebe were Africa’s two great authors and when you mentioned either writer or author, their Heinemann African Writers Series images tended to run across one’s mind. Titles like Things fall apart and The River Between were everywhere and often read aloud during English lessons.


As a result, I never thought a day would come when Ngugi Wa Thiong’o would talk about his first and second and even third time to meet Chinua Achebe, like he did in his Tribute to Chinua Achebe published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14) pp 52-53. Achebe died on 21 March 2013 in Boston, US, at the age of 82.


Ngugi’s actual words are, “I first met Chinua Achebe in 1961 at Makerere University in Kampala. His (Achebe’s) novel, Things Fall Apart, had come out, two years before.” More shocking is the revelation that Ngugi was then only a second year student, almost with no published work to his name, except one story, Mugumo published in Penpoint, the literary magazine of the English Department at Makerere!


In 1961, Achebe was aged 31 and Ngugi only 23. We often do not notice that our heroes are people, from very humble beginnings like us.
At Ngugi’s request, Achebe looked at Ngugi’s short story and Ngugi says Achebe made some encouraging remarks. What Ngugi did not tell Achebe was that he was in the middle of his first novel for a writing competition organised by the East African Literature Bureau; a novel that would later be published as The River Between.


In The River Between, Ngugi writes about the struggles of a young leader, Waiyaki, to unite the two villages of Kameno and Makuyu through sacrifice and pain. The novel is set during the colonial period, when white settlers arrived in Kenya’s “White Highlands” and has a mountainuos setting.
Ngugi says that his second encounter with Achebe was a year later at the same Makerere at the now famous 1962 conference of writers of English expression. The African writers and critics who gathered at Makerere in Uganda in June 1962 at a conference called: “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression” faced the fundamental question of determining who qualified as an African writer and what qualified as African writing.


Was African literature only the literature produced in Africa or about Africa? Could African literature be on any subject, or must it have an African theme? Should it embrace the whole continent or South of the Sahara, or just black Africa? Should African Literature be only literature in indigenous African languages or should it include literature in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Afrikaans, and so on?


Ngugi says about this encounter, “My next encounter was more dramatic, for my part, at least, and would impact my life and literary career, profoundly.” He says that Chinua Achebe was among other literary luminaries of Africa, that included Wole Soyinka, J P Clark, the late Eski’a Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane and others. The East African contingent consisted of Grace Ogot, Jonathan Kariara, John Nagenda and Ngugi.


Ngugi’s invitation was on the strength of his short stories published in Penpoint and in Transition. Ngugi says Achebe was so prominent that the novel most discussed in the Conference as a model of literary restraint and excellence was Things Fall Apart.


Things fall Apart, is a narrative about Africa’s cataclysmic encounter with Europe as it establishes a colonial presence on the continent. A wealthy and fearless Igbo warrior of Umuofia in the late 1800s, Things Fall Apart explores one man’s futile resistance to the devaluing of his Igbo traditions by British colonialists. Achebe Things Fall Apart, As we speak, this pioneering novel of Achebe is also estimated to have sold millions of copies.


In this tribute to Achebe, Ngugi writes intimately about the prospects of meeting Achebe at the Makerere conference, “But what most attracted me was not my being invited there as ‘writer’ but the fact that I would be able to show Achebe the manuscript of my second novel, what would later become Weep Not Child.”


Ngugi continues and says that it was very generous of Achebe to agree to look at the Weep Not Child manuscript because, Achebe was already busy then writing his other novel, Arrow of God. “Because of that and his involvement in the conference, Achebe could not read the whole manuscript, but he read enough to give some useful suggestions.”


More importantly, Ngugi says, Achebe talked about the Weep Not Child manuscript to his publishers, William Heinemann, represented at the conference by June Milne, who expressed an interest in the work. Weep Not Child would later be published by William Heinemann and the paperback by Heinemann education publishers, the fourth in the now famous African Writers Series, of which Achebe was the Editorial Adviser.


Weep Not Child is a moving novel about the effects of the Mau Mau uprising on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family particularly the brothers, Njoroge and Kamau.

Ngugi was working with the Nation newspapers when Weep Not Child eventually came out in April of 1964. It was Kenya’s first modern novel in English by a Kenyan African. Ngugi says that the novel was well publicised in the Kenyan newspapers, “with the Sunday Nation even carrying my interview by de Villiers, one of its senior feature writers. I assumed that every educated Kenyan would have heard about the novel.”Ngugi says that he was woken to reality “when I entered a club, the most frequented by the new African elite at the time, who all greeted me as their Kenyan author of Things Fall Apart.”


The third time that Ngugi encounters Achebe came years later at Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations at Bard College attended by Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka, among others. At that event, Ngugi told the story of how Achebe’s name had haunted his (Ngugi’s) life. “When Soyinka’s turn to speak came, he said that I had taken the story from his mouth: he had been similarly been mistaken for Chinua Achebe,” Ngugi adds.


Ngugi argues that Achebe became synonymous with the Heinemann African writers series and African writing as a whole. “There’s hardly any African writer of my generation who has not been mistaken for Chinua Achebe,” Ngugi repeats. “I have had a few such encounters. Every African novel became Things Fall Apart, and every writer some sort of Chinua Achebe. Even a protestation to the contrary was not always successful.”
Ngugi says the other such encounter he had with Achebe was not a real physical meeting. It was in 2010 at Jomo Kenyatta Airport.

Ngugi’s fourth son, Mukoma, the author of Nairobi Heat, and Ngugi had been invited for the Kwani festival whose theme was inter-generational dialogue. Mukoma fitted the bill perfectly. As Ngugi and Mukoma walked towards the immigration, Ngugi says a man came towards them. His hands were literally trembling as he identified himself as a professor of literature from Zambia.


“Excuse me Mr Achebe,” the man says to Ngugi, “somebody pointed you out to me. I have long wanted to meet you.”
“No, I am not the one,” Ngugi had said, “but here is Mr Achebe,” Ngugi jokingly added, pointing at his son, Mukoma WaNgugi.


Ngugi actually thought the obvious youth of his son, Mukoma, who was then only 39 years of age would easily tell the admirer that Ngugi was only joking! “But no, our Professor grabbed Mukoma’s hands, before Mukoma could protest, grateful that he had at last shaken hands with his hero. The case of mistaken identity as late as 2010 shows how Achebe had become a mythical figure, and rightly so.”


Ngugi says that Achebe was the single most important figure in the development of modern African literature as writer, editor, and quite simply a human being. Ngugi points out that Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is the most widely read novel in the history of African literature and that since its publication in 1958, it became an inspiring model.


“As the general editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, Achebe had a hand in the emergence of many other writers and their publication. As a human being, he embodied wisdom that comes from a commitment to the middle way between extremes. And of course courage in the face of personal tragedy!” Ngugi declares.


Ngugi says that the last time that he met face to face with Achebe was at Achebe’s 70th birthday celebrations held at Bard College. With Ngugi was wife Njeeri, and their then five-year-old son Thiongo and six-year-old daughter, Mumbi. When Ngugi introduced James Currey, and mentioned that he had been Achebe’s publisher, he says the boy Thiongo decided to write his own novel on the spot. On a piece of paper, he made many marks, folded the piece, and handed the one page manuscript to James Currey. Ngugi says James politely accepted it. Within the next one hour Thiongo wrote several other one page novels and began rushing them to the publisher.

James Currey resorted to avoiding his new writer for the rest of the party. Mumbi reacted differently, drawing a portrait of Chinua Achebe, and gave it to him when Njeeri took them to be photographed with Uncle Chinua. Ngugi says Mumbi, now a second year college student, recalled that encounter and the line drawing, when I told her about Achebe’s passing on.

Ngugi says that Achebe bestrides generations and geographies. “Every country in the continent claims him as their author. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain a universal wisdom.” When Ngugi’s book, Dreams in a Time of War, was launched in Nairobi a year or so ago, the guest speaker PO Lumumba interspersed his speech with proverbs. They were all taken from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart! Ngugi says Achebe’s passing marks the beginning of the end of an epoch. “But his spirit lives on to continue inspiring yet more African writers and scholars of African literature the world over,” Ngugi said.


The academic and social activist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He was born in Kenya in 1938 into a large peasant family. He was educated at Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain. He is recipient of seven Honorary Doctorates The Kenya of his birth and youth was a British settler colony (1895-1963). As an adolescent, he lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence (1952-1962), the central historical episode in the making of modern Kenya and a major theme in his early works.


One of the novels, Weep Not Child, was published to critical acclaim in 1964; followed by the second novel, The River Between (1965). His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works. In 1967, Ngugi became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi. He taught there until 1977 while, in-between, also serving as Fellow in Creative writing at Makerere (1969-1970), and as Visiting Associate Professor of English and African Studies at Northwestern University (1970-1971). In later years, he published other volumes of critical works including Writers in Politics (1981 and 1997); Decolonising the Mind (1986); Moving the Center (1994); and Penpoints Gunpoints and Dreams (1998).

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