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."

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