In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir, By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

A sheltered childhood overshadowed by violence in 1950s Kenya is the subject of this memoir

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The Independent Culture

From the first pages of In the House of the Interpreter, strong and memorable themes emerge: the power of education, the rootedness of kin, the need to transform the colonialist narrative. "How could a whole village, its people, history, everything, vanish, just like that?"

Ngugi wa Thiong'o asks as he returns in April 1955 from his first term at boarding school, wearing his proud uniform, to discover that his former homestead has vanished and been relocated to a "concentration village" further away, close to a guard checkpoint.

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The 1950s in Kenya were years of turbulence, with the country under a State of Emergency from 1952 to 1959 in response to the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule. Ngugi's earlier memoir, Dreams in a Time of War, told of the dramatic escape into the mountains of his brother, Good Wallace, a fighter with the rebels.

For the teenaged Ngugi, after a childhood spent looking nervously over his shoulder in constant fear of falling victim to the gun-toting British forces hunting down insurgents, real or imagined, Alliance High School is a sanctuary. It is an elitist establishment – the first secondary school for Africans in the country – founded by a coalition of Protestant churches and initially shaped by American charitable funding that aimed at turning out "civic-minded blacks who would work within the parameters of the existing racial state".

With the advent of a singular Englishman named Edward Carey Francis as principal, the school is poised to produce not only its fair share of a cooperative future leadership but incidentally to give birth to "a radical anticolonial nationalist fever". The presence of Africans on the staff as equals, plus an insistence on high performance on the playing field as well as in the classroom, unfailingly contribute to the development of self-confident, college-prepared, intellectual minds.

The indelible, complex character of Carey Francis resonates with that of William Burslem, the English principal from his Trinidad schooldays whom CLR James describes in Beyond a Boundary as part Dr Johnson, part Mr Pickwick. Alliance students knew there was a correct way to answer the often-biased questions of the Cambridge Examination Board. "Our future was made in England," Ngugi writes.

However, even while he learns Bible English, reads Jerome K Jerome and Sherlock Holmes, while he takes on Scouting with his companions and imbibes Christianity with the best of them, there is the haunting consciousness that "the hounds remained outside the gates, crouching, pan-ting, waiting, biding their time". The real theatre of politics in the wider world continues, ever threatening to invade.

Holidays are a chance to reconnect with family, to hear the stories of his mother and to work alongside her in the fields. But back at Alliance, there is the threat of it being discovered that his brother is a Mau Mau fighter, that his sister-in-law has been arrested, accused of organising food and clothes for the guerrillas in the mountains. This is just the beginning of a political drama randomly involving intimidation, violence, imprisonment, that will thereafter affect Ngugi himself for years to come.

Ngugi has an admirable lightness of touch even when dealing with portentous happenings, in prose that is unpretentious and pellucid. While detailing the meld of educational and domestic influences in his formative years, this book is also a brave and vivid take on the decline of British colonialism - a document of a remarkable writer's political coming-of-age that makes all the more poignant reading knowing "the memories of pain" for him that are yet to come.