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Dreams in a Time of War

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On his website, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o describes himself as a literary and social activist. It is an apt summation of a writing life that has encompassed novels, plays, journalism, social commentary and political polemic, and which has seen the author imprisoned and exiled by the regime of the Kenyan dictator Daniel arap Moi.

In this beautifully written memoir of his childhood, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o paints a vivid portrait of a society undergoing violent social upheaval. Born in 1938, as the Second World War loomed, Ngugi was the fifth child of his father’s third wife and he grew up in a household that included 23 children. His childhood was shaped by the forces of reaction and rebellion engendered by British colonial rule. Supported by his mother, Ngugi avidly pursued an education and, as his consciousness grew, he became aware of the social pressures that were to culminate in the Mau Mau uprising, a liberation struggle that was to have a profound impact on his own family. The book ends in the 1950s with Ngugi leaving home to attend high school, aware that the world as he had known it is ending forever.

Dreams in a Time of War is steeped in the oral tradition and draws heavily on the stories of the author’s parents and grandparents. In telling of one boy’s life, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o evokes a society and a nation trembling on the cusp of momentous change. This is a luminous and thought-provoking memoir that reinforces the author’s reputation as one of the towering figures of African literature.

*PW*

New Internationalist issue 432 magazine cover This article is from the May 2010 issue of New Internationalist.
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