Ngugi wa Thiong'o
A Grain of Wheat
Heinemann, (African Writers Series), 1967, 210 pages

"A Grain of Wheat is about Kenya on the verge of Independence. Africans and Europeans alike pause, in the lull between the fighting and the new world, to see what they have gained and lost. They examine their motives, and find them dubious, and their achievements, which often amount to very little. Mr. Ngugi writes well and has a real talent for portraying the African background." (Western Mail)

Other noted books by Ngugi include The River Between, Petals of Blood, and the narrative of his imprisonment, Detained.


Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Devil on the Cross
Heinemann, (African Writers Series), 1982, 250 pages

One evening in Nairobi in the mid 80’s I spent an uncomfortable dinner party defending this book to a bunch of outraged white folks. Well, Ngugi had it a bit worse. For the crime of producing a play in Kikuyu and for having ordinary folk be in it, and, of course, for the play expressing some irritation at the idea that a few should have all the money, he was jailed and his play confiscated.

As a result of his imprisonment, perhaps, this is not a happy book. Using allegory and parable he constructs a fabulous tale critiquing the existing order. He lays into the wealthy, the white colonialists and anyone else getting well off or acquiescing in the current regime of theft and greed.

Some of the outrage people have at this book came from Nugui’s imaginative retelling of Jesus' parables. “For the Kingdom of Earthly Wiles can be likened unto a ruler who foresaw that the day would come when we would be thrown out of a certain country by the masses and their guerrilla freedom fighters” begins a parable loosely based on The Parable of the Talents.

It looks like he's attacking Jesus -- if you think Jesus was just telling pious little "be good" stories. On the other hand, if you really listen to Jesus, you'll think Ngugi is right on target.

This is an African version of Liberation Theology.

Meja Mwangi
Going down River Road
Heinemann, (African Writers Series), 1976, 210 pages

Mwangi was also well known in Kenya. He was, at that time, one of the few authors willing to take a look at urban life in and of itself - not as the foil for the young man's journey from his innocent village. His tale focuses on River Road, one of the poorest sections of Nairobi where Ben lives with his girlfriend Wini and their new son. It is a slice of life tale of what life is like for the urban poor in the shadow of wealth as they survive from day to day, taking pleasure when it is offered, and surviving the rest of the time. It was not a comfortable book to read, not much in way of uplift - but that's his point.




H. R. Ole Kulet
To Become a Man
Longman Kenya, 1972, 135 pages

As far as I know, this book and author never got much publicity. However, this is a good take on a classic form of fiction in a developing country: the journey from village and traditional ways as they encounter the new urban, developed, (and European) ways.

Ole Kulet's name tells you he is a Massaii, a member of a nomadic, warrior tribe. The Massaii have (or had) strong traditions of honor and manhood. It was said repeatedly when I was in Kenya that you could give a Massaii 500,000 shillings in cash to take somewhere and it would get there, without a shilling missing, or the warrior would die in the attempt.

Ole Kulet's protagonist, Leshao, wants to finish school and get a job. His father tries to control him, the village youth want to force him back to the old ways. There is no romanticizing of either traditional life in a small village with its inbred distrust of anyone different or of the new life run by Europeans.

This book is full of the proverbs, sayings and rituals of Massaii life.

Last modified 9/2/08; posted 6/2/99; original content © 2008, 1999 John P. Nordin