In a life filled with an outrageous quantity of trouble, perhaps the best way to hold onto a portion of tranquility is to focus on the humble act of truth-telling. Such discipline runs throughout Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War. The memoir’s quietly straightforward demeanor goes a long way towards rending the veil of exoticism through which Westerners might otherwise view its assorted scenes of hardship, which range from female castration to the necessity of walking miles to school barefoot.
Born in Kenya, in 1938, Ngũgĩ was one of twenty-four children sired by his father, a taciturn man who had four wives, and saw his agrarian estate effectively stolen by an unscrupulous realtor manipulating new British colonial laws. The trauma inflicted by this dispossession led to the dissolution of the patriarch’s self-control. To escape her husband’s abusive behavior, Ngũgĩ’s mother retreated to her parents’ home, where it was expected that he would eventually drift in to sue for forgiveness. This was not to be the case. Unrepentant, Ngũgĩ’s father bade him and his younger brother to go and live with their mother.
With the eye of a social scientist, Ngũgĩ situates the vicissitudes of his family’s wellbeing in the larger context of the fractious political environment that surrounded his childhood. In striving to evoke the tensions that pitted traditionalists against progressives, and supporters of the colonial state against those who took up arms to overthrow it, he avoids depicting any one side as solely justified. In a roundabout way, he spells out the ethos of his book by alluding to one of his earlier works: “Years later, in my novel Weep Not, Child I would give to the young fictional Njoroge an aura of fact and rumor, certainty and doubt, despair and hope, but I am not sure if I was able truly to capture the intricate web of the mundane and the dramatic, the surreal normality of ordinary living under extraordinary times in a country at war… Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive even in times of war.”
The moral core of Ngũgĩ’s memoir can be found near his conclusion, “I want my actions to speak for me, positive deeds to be my only form of vengeance.” One comes away from this book impressed by the author’s ability to do justice to the complexity of life — noting the inventiveness that poverty can occasion, and, in a rare incidence of practicing what one preaches, as Ngũgĩ’cites the good deeds of his political adversaries. Dreams in a Time of War is an inspirational book deserving of a diverse readership.