I caught the writing bug in my father’s home office

By Mukoma wa Ngugi

As a child, on weekend mornings and during school holidays, I would wake up in the morning and walk the thirty or so minutes to Limuru town to buy the Daily Nation, Standard, Taifa Leo and the Weekly Review Magazine for my father.

There were some perks of course, from keeping the change to buying tea and mandazis, but mostly it was the pride of buying a stack of newspapers that made it feel special. And inevitably, as I walked back someone would ask me for whom that many newspapers were.
“My father,” I would answer.
“And who is your father?” the question would follow.

I would say Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The stranger would ask me to pass on their well wishes. I would get home and deliver the papers to his home office. A little later, my mum would call out that tea was ready and I would get a cup for him.

I would then hang out in his office reading the newspapers or one of the hundreds of books, some on shelves others stacked on the floor.

Those were peaceful mornings when I brought the world to him. But that same world would see him thrown into detention in 1977 by President Jomo Kenyatta and forced into exile by President Moi in 1982.

Policemen would break up a Christmas party and search for him thinking he had come back. We would become pariahs and family friends would cross the street when they saw us, while political thugs would beat up my mother and threaten my sisters.

Mornings were changing for the rest of the country, too, as the Moi government became more repressive, and structural adjustments impoverished millions by denying them free education and health.

When I finally started secondary school at Ngenia High School, itself a former colonial concentration camp with the trenches around it still visible, I walked every day through Kamirithu village and saw peasants being loaded into trucks to work at Tigoni tea plantations.

Independence had merely switched masters for them, and sometimes not at all.

It was because my father had written a play about their exploitation, I Will Marry When I Want, that Kenyatta sent him to prison after banning it. In 1982, he wrote another play Mother Sing for Me, and just like the first play, it was written with the collaboration of the peasants of Kamirithu, and performed by them.

I attended the rehearsals with him and sometimes I would get bored and read Famous Five series in the car. Moi banned the play, forced him into political exile and later, in an attempt to erase its memory, literally burned the theatre to the ground, building a polytechnic instead.

The contradictions of a neo-colonial government had ripened.

And then there was the fear. The generation that comes after me, some of them my students at Cornell University, I envy them for not knowing this fear.

For not seeing grown ups speaking in hushed voices in public places, of headmasters publicly humiliated and shaved, of effigies of their parents being burnt on national TV, of coup attempts and assassinations, of Moi sycophants wishing to die so their remaining years could be added to his.

They do have their own sets of beauty and traumas that forged their imaginations, but this fear that permeated every facet of life is not one of them.

Just like my siblings, I spent a lot of time in my father’s office after he went into exile.

We read and discussed literature a lot. In the evenings, my older brothers, Tee and Nducu, would narrate Mwangi Cowboy stories to my sister Wanjiku and I. Mwangi Cowboy was a badass.

One day the police cornered him. He asked them to form a circle so that they could all shoot him at the same time. They agreed.

At the count of three they started to shoot, he ducked and they shot and killed each other. And then he went home and drunk copious amounts of goat soup.

Later we were to learn two things: It was our father who used to narrate Mwangi Cowboy stories to them, and just like him, they made up the stories on the spot.

Looking back

Looking back now, I can see how my character, Odhiambo the anti-hero cop in Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi, who has a penchant for violence, is a direct descendent of Mwangi Cowboy.

It is not surprising to me that we are a family of writers. Wanjiku’s novel, The Fall of Saints, has just been published by Simon and Schuster.

Tee has a collection of short stories and Nducu a novel coming from East African Educational Publishers.

By the end of this year, we shall have four published authors in our family. One more published sibling and we are entering the Guinness book of world records!

I will never know whether if my father was not a writer, I would have become one. I would like to think so — that I willed myself into becoming a writer, but I know from these morning rituals that I was born in a world of books and writing. I was, as Charles Bukowski would say, born into this.

This does not mean that everything I write has to do with those beautiful mornings or the ugliness that followed, or with our surviving the Moi era through telling stories and seeking comfort in our father’s office, or my walking to school through Kenya’s contradictions in Kamirithu village.

But these experiences, brick by brick, went into building the well from which my imagination draws inspiration.

Linda Gregg, a former US poet Laureate in her essay The Art of Finding calls these kinds of foundational experiences the “vital force that fuels” poetry.

That poetry comes from “resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems.” My early childhood experiences are a deep well full of the vital ink that I use to write my world.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is a renown author with two crime novels under his belt, Nairobi Heat & Black Star Nairobi. He is also an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University

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