Pros: An engaging and touching memoir and a subject I knew little about
Cons: Doesn't have wide appeal
The Bottom Line: Engaging tale of the author's childhood expriences in Kenya
The interest in the lives of unfortunate children has created the publishing phenomenon nicknamed 'misery memoirs'. Happily for readers of Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s Dreams in a Time of War memories of the author’s often difficult childhood are presented as a tale of triumph and empowerment rather than anger and self-pity.
It’s an account of Ngugi’s early years, until his sixteenth birthday when he takes his first ever train journey in order to attend one of Kenya’s most respected schools. That his parents separated when he was young is nothing out of the ordinary, but it is the fact that he grew up a child of his father’s fourth wife, in a domestic environment of twenty four children, that makes his story stand out. Ngugi and his brother went, with their mother, to live with their maternal grandfather. For a woman who was a wife in a polygamous marriage, leaving was an unusual thing to do and Ngugi’s mother proved herself to have considerable strength and determination, setting out to instil in her sons a desire to learn, encouraging them to aim high.
The author paints a colourful picture of life in rural Kenya but it is a way of life under pressure from modernisation and from the internal troubles within the country. Still there is much warmth amid the tension. The tragedy of an accident that leaves a sister disabled is set against memories of the girl’s extraordinary talent for story telling while a brother who is sorely missed while fighting for the British Empire returns with tales of places far away.
Ngugi likens the hierarchy within the family – all the wives lived separately but within the same enclosure – to a mini government, assigning each wife to a ministerial post. His own industrious mother heads up the ministry for works while the quietest wife, Gacoki is the minister for peace and Wangari, the first wife and an expert story teller fills the role of minister for culture.
This is as much a portrait of family life as it is an account of turbulent years in Kenya’s history. After the Second World War – during which encounter many African men had served in the Kings African Rifles – the British made a point of tightening their hold on Kenya in order to subdue the growing calls for independence. This assertion of power is both subtle and harsh. The warmth and vitality of the stories of family life are all the more poignant set against the shadow of political tension.
At first I found the references to the political background too subtle and felt that a lot of the content was going to pass me by for lack of knowledge of the situation. However, as Ngugi gets older, the telling of the story becomes more detailed as he himself understands more of what is happening. At school, history lessons are revised to describe Kenya as a country with virtually nothing until white settlers arrived; at home, the family loses a son when one of the oldest, Wallace, goes off to join the Mau Mau in the mountains.
“Dreams in a Time of War” took me to a place and time I know relatively little about. In spite of knowing little about the author, I found that I enjoyed this memoir on several levels. It is a vibrant and eye-opening account on a way of life that is not often heard about. Ngugi’s vignettes hang together beautifully to demonstrate the value of story telling and how the art can be manipulated. This engaging and touching memoir has certainly inspired me to learn more about the author and his own fiction.
The Man Booker International Prize-nominated author of <IT>Wizard of the Crow <RO>recounts the story of his childhood, covering his early years in World War II-era Kenya as the fifth child of a third wife, the atypical thirst for learning that singled him out and the political struggles that shaped his home life.