Ngugi and the Nobel Prize

There’s a problem with the list of Nobel laureates in Literature. It is a who’s who of European authors, with a spattering of other flavours, seemingly for the sake of it. The conspicuous absence of non-European laureates provides food for thought. It poses the disquieting question of intercultural unintelligibility and the aptitude (or disposition?) of the Swedish Academy to bridge this divide.

As a youth attending school in Nairobi, William Shakespeare, Nikolai Gogol and George Eliot were spoon-fed to me. It was a disparaging, if not enlightening, experience. Not because they were “foreigners” but because they belonged to an erstwhile era, an age that was difficult to imagine and harder still to fathom. Yet, it provided us with insight into folklore spanning the ages and broadened our cultural horizons.
Because my teenage mind found it easier to identify with the cultural and social dimensions captured in their seminal works, I was far more comfortable with Chinua Achebe and Elechi Amadi. Their novels – Things Fall Apart and The Concubine – captivated my youthful mind and sent my budding imagination on a delightful adventure of African culture, values and abundance. For that reason they remain, to date, two of my all-time favourites.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, of course, was not on our literary menu. He caused not ripples but a veritable tsunami with his in-your-face attitude towards academic Eurocentrism and political despotism. For satirising the corridors of power, Ngugi was incarcerated and banished to intellectual and physical exile by the fatuous regime of the day – whose utter inanity went as far as to attempt to arrest one of his literary characters, Matigari. Then the West stepped in and claimed this incredible intellect.
Ngugi spurned Eurocentrism. He renounced his Christian name and made the groundbreaking decision to write in his mother tongue, Gikuyu, rejecting English so that, in his words, ordinary people could understand. His novels address consequential subjects, drawing directly from history and his personal experiences. His stories are captivating and infectious, rich in metaphors and symbolism. They are a rude and painful reminder of the political and social realities of postcolonial Africa. Ngugi’s self-proclaimed aim has been to decolonise the mind.
A Grain of Wheat (1967) is a compelling account of the Mau Mau rebellion revolving around the theme of loyalty and betrayal; and the realisation that one oppressor has simply been replaced by another.
Under the veil of a murder mystery, Petals of Blood (1977) explores the extent to which a rapidly modernizing independent Kenya perpetuates colonial tyranny and paints a picture of a frustrated people whose leaders have let them down time after time.
Wizard of the Crow (2006), his first novel in 20 years, is a satirical and sporadically hilarious allegory of political corruption and dictatorial culture under Daniel arap Moi, Ngugi’s one-time persecutor.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o should, indeed, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not this year but ages ago. Though we may lament the decision by the Swedish Academy, Ngugi may very well be indifferent to not having being awarded this European accolade.
Or not. It is the Nobel Prize, after all.
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