52 pages 1 hour read

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Dreams in a Time of War

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Dreams in a Time of War was originally published in 2010. This study guide uses the 2011 Anchor Books edition, a division of Random House, Inc.

A multilayered and faceted coming-of-age memoir of family, community, and Kenyan society, Dreams in a Time of War details the childhood and early adolescent years of acclaimed writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Set in mid-twentieth century colonial Kenya, the book offers an intimate portrait of Ngũgĩ’s life as it unfolds in a context of extreme political oppression.

The book begins by narrating the 1954 escape of Ngũgĩ’s older brother who evades the police and joins the Mau Mau resistance movement (also known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army) seeking to overturn British colonial rule in Kenya.

The mid-1950s was a time of great political turmoil in Kenya, as the British enacted a state of emergency between the years 1952 and 1959 to repress dissident activity. To better understand this conflict, Ngũgĩ takes the reader back to the nineteenth century, laying down the roots of colonial oppression and its impact on his family up through the mid-twentieth century. Dreams in a Time of War covers many different time periods and kinds of sources—from oral history and personal memories to newspaper accounts and government records—in its analysis of colonial domination, collaboration, and resistance.

The book’s early chapters primarily focus on Ngũgĩ’s family lineage, detailing the courtships, marriages, and offspring of numerous unions. Ngũgĩ’s father, Thiong’o, has four wives and twenty-four children, a sign of social success and prestige in Gĩkũyũ society. Ngũgĩ describes his early childhood years in fairly idyllic terms, noting the relative harmony among the cowives. From them, Ngũgĩ develops a deep love and appreciation for stories, music, and performance. Ngũgĩ’s mother recognizes his eagerness to learn and sends him to school at the age of nine with the promise that he always will try his best—a pact that shapes Ngũgĩ’s outlook in life for the rest of his life.

Ngũgĩ’s idyllic childhood ends when his father’s livestock die unexpectedly. No longer able to support his family, Thiong’o resorts to coercive, patriarchal abuse that ultimately drives Wanjikũ, Ngũgĩ, and his five siblings from their homestead. This banishment from the home foreshadows the forced removals and dislocation of thousands of other Africans from their lands by the colonial state. For Ngũgĩ, the state of emergency makes this coercive violence feel more immediate when the government shuts down all of the African independent schools and repurposes them as government schools. The Kenya Teachers’ College undergoes a more radical transformation when the state turns it into a prison camp to execute African dissidents.

Dreams in a Time of War highlights the effects of Indirect Rule, a tactic in which the British used local leaders to enact oppressive policies. If local leaders did not comply then they would be replaced with British appointments who supported colonial rule. Such tactics often caused intense conflicts within African communities, which Ngũgĩ also addresses. For instance, in the earlier part of the book, Ngũgĩ emphasizes the differences between those who follow traditional practices and those who adopt Westernized practices. As the book progresses, these internal divisions grow in magnitude, with life and death consequences, as some Africans collaborate with the colonial state while others oppose it. Ngũgĩ is caught up in these struggles, often unintentionally, such as when he walks into a military dragnet. Yet, it is clear which side Ngũgĩ supports, for as he matures, he develops a growing awareness of the injustices of colonialism and the importance of resisting this oppression.

The violence of colonial rule does not deter Ngũgĩ from dreaming of a better world—one where he can attend school and, ultimately, tell stories that draw on the cultural influences of his family and wider society. Dreams in a Time of War shows how Ngũgĩ defies the limitations of intense structural inequities to become an acclaimed writer and literary critic, influencing generations of scholars after him.