Harvill Secker £12.99 (256pp) £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Dreams in a Time of War, By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Dreams in a Time of War by the Kenyan literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a remarkable demonstration of how memoir can be as much about inspiring the present as recalling the past, and that, to quote Victor Hugo, "There is nothing like a dream to create the future."

Ngugi's highly politicised work as a novelist, playwright, critic and activist has brought him peril – imprisonment, exile, physical attack – as well as world acclaim. The roots of his lifelong commitment can be seen in this memorable evocation of how it felt to grow up in Kenya under British rule. His memoir goes back to his grandparents' era, the time of the Berlin Conference of 1885 where the European powers divided Africa. He recounts how his father, having evaded the draft during the First World War, avoids the political turmoil of the new capital of Nairobi - where Gandhian nationalism and Garveyite black nationalism had Kenyan links - by fleeing to safety in a rural town.

Born in Limuru in central Kenya in 1938, under the shadow of the Second World War, Ngugi was the fifth child of the third of his father's four wives. Some of the most affecting writing describes how familial relations were conducted among this community of mothers, multiple siblings and a single patriarch. The four women forged a strong alliance, while maintaining an individuality that is engagingly captured. Njeri, the feisty youngest wife, is designated "the undeclared defence minister of the homestead". Ngugi's own mother Wanjiku, respected for her legendary capacity for toil, was like the minister for works. Shy and retiring Gacoki was the minister for peace. Wangari, the eldest, was minister of culture, citing proverbs to make a point, particularly in the evening storytelling sessions in her hut ("Daylight, our mothers always told us, drove stories away").

Tales of war early invaded Ngugi's imagination as strange, weighty names cropped up in these fireside sessions – Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt - understood only in terms of "scary ogres versus heroes in the never-never land of orality". Reports of the exploits of his step-brother Kabae, fighting for the British in the King's African Rifles, brought it all closer to home.

Leading up to the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, when his elder brother was a guerrilla fighter in the mountains, the book relates the unfolding story of anti-colonialism, the struggle for land, independence and freedom. There is constant interaction between the personal, the regional, the national and international: "When the mother country coughed, the colonial baby contracted full-blown flu."

Central to Ngugi's childhood fortunes is his own mother, a woman of few words ("But those words carried the authority of the silence that preceded their utterance"). They become a tightly-knit one-parent family after being driven from the polygamous household by her husband's domestic violence. Single-handedly raising the money, Wanjiku in 1947 offers Ngugi the chance to attend school, provided he will always do his best, despite likely hunger and hardship. Eventually the educational path leads to English classics such as Dickens's Great Expectations and Stevenson's Treasure Island, and to baptism with the Christian name James. It is as James Ngugi that he will publish his early journalism and fiction until 1969.

The role of point-of-view is an overt and also implicit theme, as when the settler newspapers and the oral news gave conflicting accounts of the same events: "At first the contradiction did not matter. Being able to read an English publication was more important than the information gleaned. The medium trumped the message." But with the one-sided reporting of the 1953 "Lari Massacre" came a realisation of the danger of such propaganda going unchallenged, because the freedom fighters could simply be depicted as wild terrorists - a reminder of the African proverb: Until the lions have their say, tales of victory will be told by the hunter.

Championing the necessity for Africans to write in their mother tongue – his books first being written in Gikuyu - Ngugi said: "In writing one should hear all the whisperings, all the shouting, all the crying, all the loving and all the hating of the many voices in the past, and those voices will never speak to a writer in a foreign language." Moving, honest and informative, this is a book about the influence of stories, storytelling and storytellers. It is a reminder that every generation, however beleaguered, can dream to change the world: "Perhaps it is myth as much as fact that keeps dreams alive in times of war."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor