In his latest of many books, the expatriate Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o tells of an episode from the colonial era in which he grew up. Kamawe Musunge, the “houseboy” of the British-born Peter Poole, was riding a bicycle when Poole’s dogs attacked him. The African tried to defend himself with a rock, and the settler shot him dead. So far, so routine; British East Africa was perhaps the most arrogantly run of Britain’s overseas possessions, and this was 1959, during the extra-repressive late stage of the Mau Mau rebellion. But for the first and only time in the country’s history, a white person was hanged (albeit to hysterical white protest) for the murder of a black one. “Two men died. Two dogs survived,” Ngugi remarks.
At this point in the book, my uneasiness broke out into exasperation. No, not even dogs come out okay in the long run in Africa. In the early years of this century, the most pitiful of reports reaching South Africa from Zimbabwe were about dogs — not only the enormous, often vicious guard dogs, but ordinary pets left to farm invaders when the white owners fled for their lives. Cross-border rescue initiatives would offer for adoption a hound who was adjusting well after his blinding, or a terrier who was of course never going to be the same after every bone in his body had been broken but who needed a kind home for just that reason.
Back in the U.S. more than ten years later, clutching Ngugi’s book, I was suddenly sick of the endlessness of Africa, of vengeful violence that seems to be the one inexhaustible natural resource and looks likely to survive all foreign and indigenous tyranny and plunder and to be there, merely redirected and redecorated, long after the rest of the world has entered into something new.
As a writer, I’m particularly bitter about the way Africa burns literary careers; and I can’t even get away with just a debatable, contingent political bitterness. I know the consuming fire is one of love as well as of hatred. African writers love, in their bones, not only their highly communal but constantly disrupted cultures, but also the land itself, with its sweeping, intricate, fragile beauty. And it’s white as well as black authors who suffer. For nearly all, there’s a disfiguring ideological and aesthetic whipsaw as they try to keep themselves attached (somehow) to what is more and more barrenly chaotic; or there’s an insistent but steadily less convincing repetition of the various discoveries of youth; or there’s a wordy drift into global or interpersonal or abstract issues that are relatively uninteresting. It is no continent for old men (or women), and it imposes more than the usual late-career exhaustion. J. M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Sindiwe Magona, and Ben Okri ceased in the prime of life (if not before) to speak eloquently (if at all) for Africa.
Cohorts of this literature’s popular readership, especially when compared with readers of some authors from other parts of the developing world (Gabriel García Márquez and Khaled Hosseini come to mind), are enervated in parallel — those cohorts that existed in the first place, that is. Readers have their desires, too, albeit milder ones; but these may be more implacable for being mild: “We want at least some help in deciding what to think about Africa. We want Heart of Darkness or Cry, the Beloved Country, but for the present era. Is that too much to ask?”
Yes, say the (after a certain time) automatic-looking literary prizes, reverent critical treatment, and academic honors and positions for African writers. (With my access to an excellent academic library, it is, shockingly, easier to get books about Ngugi than to get Ngugi’s actual books.) Students, who are consequently made to consider these writers, tend to react dishonestly or mulishly at best; at worst, there are additions to the popular rage against political correctness, a rage that is a sort of pencil etching of Africa’s carved-in, high-relief hatreds.
If we want to do anything about this American rage, then we should acknowledge one source of it, which is the forcing of people into roles they are no longer willing to play. In an episode of the sitcom My Name Is Earl, an African-American character named Liberty pressures the redneck Randy into masquerading as her Klanish pro-wrestling opponent. He gets whammed as he recites from a script about, inter alia, conspiring to make standardized tests “rake-ially” biased; the audience howls against him. Randy is upset, but it’s Liberty’s story, her show, her enterprise. Outside the ring, his protests of regard for black people only confirm that he must respect her judgment and go along with her scheme to depict an inexorable racism he can’t verify or comprehend, let alone be fairly accused of taking part in.
I felt a little like Randy while I was reading Birth of a Dream Weaver. With other books, Ngugi has made me love him. Dreams in a Time of War (2010) is about his boyhood triumph over poverty, violence, oppression, and his family’s near-dissolution. His novels, such as Petals of Blood (1977) and Wizard of the Crow (2006), drive home the violent, tender, and absurdist paradoxes of Africa. Birth of a Dream Weaver, an account (with many digressions) of his university years and beginnings as a writer, is different, often descending into pure indictments of the West. For example, though a younger Ngugi took meaningful stands against female circumcision, he now makes out that for Africans the practice was always integral and understandable, whereas the opposition from whites was nothing but brutal and ignorant.
Ngugi is especially hostile to Christianity. He indicts John Newton — the repentant ex-slaver who wrote the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” and joined the British abolitionists — as a partial hypocrite over a long period; which he was. But that angle would be impressive only by contrast with an early, single-minded, African-led anti-slavery movement.
Such bias is good only for jagged trains of thought, unconvincing tributes, and unprocessed scenes. For instance, a respected former teacher confronts Ngugi about his sweeping jargon and the cartoonish, bullying priest he has made a major character in a play. “Are you saying that we oppressed you at Alliance [High School]?” asks the teacher. “No, no,” responds Ngugi; he seems to have meant that “no.” But he adds, to the present-day reader: “I felt like screaming.” Right: The teacher couldn’t grasp, any more than I do, all that the boy went through, and how limited the West’s help was. This inner scream of frustration, as among Arab youth today, is sympathetic. But the judgment that has to emerge in the long run, if we are to have any common future, is that there’s something better than the scream. Here is an African song quoted in the earlier Dreams in a Time of War:
Great Love I saw there
Among women and children
When a morsel was picked from the ground
It was shared equally among us
Pray to him fervently
Beseech him fervently
He is the God eternal.
– Sarah Ruden is the author of the forthcoming book The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and the translator of a forthcoming edition of Augustine’s Confessions.