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In the House of the Interpreter: A memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

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Young Ngugi is away studying at a prestigious high school for Africans. He’s being primed to be assimilated into a civilisation which humiliates and dehumanises his kind. But, he isn’t spared of the torment as the guerilla movement and the colonial power both assume a policy of collective punishment. Confused as to whose side he’s on, he becomes trapped between the two worlds, a potential prey for either.

“In the House of the Interpreter” relates the world-renowned Kenyan writer’s experience of the turmoil as it happened in his native Kenya in the 1950s, covering his four-year stint at Alliance. The memoir is the second volume in the series, following the wake of Dreams in the Time of War. 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a child of Gikuyu parents. The Gikuyus connive with their Embu and Meru ethnic cousins and threaten to claim their lands from white settlers and to “seize [political] power from the British empire.” His elder brother is a guerilla fighter while young Ngugi is being estranged from his people. 

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Ngugi’s first encounter with the trouble is heartrending. Triumphant over his exploits in his first term in school, he has good news to share, especially with his mother. The unsuspecting student is unfortunately homing to rubbles and charred remains in what once was community full of life!

Villagisation, as the colonial state refers to it, is underway in Central Kenya, the nucleus of the Mau Mau guerilla movement. Homesteads are bulldozed and villagers are forcefully relocated to a “common site”. This forced internal displacement is “to isolate and starve the guerillas.”

“Concentrations” are created in the wake. There’re concentration villages populated by women and children. Then the concentration camps, a remote version of Hitler’s Nazi regime’s, play host to thousands of mainly men, real and perceived enemies of the colonial power. 

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However, fear, paranoia and suspicion are common among the inhabitants of all these segregated communities, including the white settlers under heavy armed guards and the guerillas in the mountains. 

It’s in that thick air of apprehension that Ngugi leaves for “In the House of the Interpreter,” a kind of ironclad sanctuary where he sees only in his imagination the “crouching and panting” of wild forces waiting outside the walls of the school. 

The story of the bloody power struggle between Kenya’s Mau Mau guerillas and the British Empire is stale news. This is inspite of the fact that the uprising remains a political football in Kenya’s domestic politics, and a trump card which Kenyan politicians are poised to waive against Great Britain in geopolitical wrangling. 

But, like no other literary work I read before, “In the House of the Interpreter” as well enlightens the reader about the struggles of ordinary Kenyans who remain unsung in the songs that glorify the guerillas. Women, including Ngugi’s mother, his sister-in-law who’d been locked up, and the old woman who openly sings banned resistance songs are examples. 

The memoir further exposes the intricacies of the infamous colonial policy of divide and rule. For instance, in the villages, guerilla sympathisers, perceived or real, and colonial sympathisers are segregated. The latter is likely to be wealthier, more educated. This colonial differentiation, as would be witnessed, is inherited by post-independence politicians, who pushed the ethnic boundaries further, triggering the politically motivated ethnic clash in 2007.

But let’s not forget that the book’s title “In the House of the Interpreter” refers to Alliance Boys High School. Ngugi is introduced to the phrase by the school principal who reads out to his assembled students the passage from the play, Pilgrim’s Progress. 

“Edward Carey Francis likened Alliance to the House of the Interpreter where the dust we brought from the outside would be swept away by the law of good behaviour and watered by the Gospel of Christian service,” Ngugi writes. 

Built by Christian missionaries, Alliance has a national character in a diabolically divided country. The school brings together students from diverse ethnic background. Besides, European and African teachers do mingle. This baffles Ngugi. He nonetheless meets inspirational teachers and students. Among these larger-than-life figures his principal Edward Carey Francis, is a towering figure. 

A Briton, Mr Francis is a devout Christian who religiously believes in service for humanity. But he’s also a protagonist of a bitter love tale – he returns home for World War 1 only to discover that his sweetheart has gone to sweeten the life of another man. And Ngugi wonders whether it’s for the love of God or out of love for women that this Oxonian shuns relatively better life in Britain for life in Africa. Yet, Mr Francis is a “man [that] never ceases to amaze” him.

Ngugi is learning to become a card-carrying subject of the British Empire. Ironically, he never was. Like it does to many others, colonial education fails to achieve its intended purpose on him. He takes oaths to serve the empire, against the interest of his brother and co, even when his instinct to rebel and defend the cause of the guerillas often overwhelms him.

The air of change starts blowing. Egypt dares tempt the wrath of French and British empires, and nationalises the Suez Canal. Ghana gains independence – the first in black Africa. In Kenya, politics is brought to the streets, from the mountains. Ngugi is keenly following these events. 

“Alliance is a window through which I could catch glimpses of what was unfolding outside, and a filter through which I could sort out the meaning of what I saw,” he writes.

He’s at pains to understand why British prime minister, Churchill rallies the world to defeat Hitler and guarantees human freedom and sovereignty, when he wishes to cling onto the bondage in Kenya whose troops were sent to help defeat Hitler. He finds such double standards aplenty, for instance, in school songs, and in the “hue and cry from the white community when Russia puts a stray dog onboard their second satellite, Sputnik 2, and ‘sent it into space to die’, even when hunting down stray dogs is an official colonial sport in Kenya. 

This period marks a crucial point in the intellectual awakening, politically, academically and religiously, of the world’s renowned writer, who in 2013 came close to grabbing the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s at Alliance that the Ngugi the world celebrates was made.

“In the house of the interpreter” is well written, easy to read and digest. It’s another un-put-down-able one by Ngugi. Every page turned over takes the reader a step closer to an unknown conclusion, though its prose style allows one to move from the school to the streets and villages and mountains, and back without any stretch in connecting the scenes.

Ngugi, unlike some other African writers, does not whip up people into a froth of narrow nationalistic frenzy. His analysis of issues is objective even though he’s most unjustly affected by them. 

In “In the house of the interpreter”, Ngugi acquaints the reader with previous literary works of his, revealing characters and motivations behind them. 

One thing is sad about the book, though. Ngugi embraces nonviolence. He’s a powerful school prefect who prefers judgment to a sledgehammer. He’s an experimental boxer who throws off his gloves after knocking down the most-feared boxer in his school, for he couldn’t see himself “as the victorious for hurting another, even in sports.” His qualifying of the Mau Mau as a legitimate movement, therefore, is quite regrettable. 


The book, meanwhile, is a must read for anyone interested in African politics and literature. In The House of The Interpreter is available at Timbooktoo Bookshop. 



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