Ngugi wa Thiong’o- Birth of a Dream Weaver, reviewed by Eugen Bacon

Reviewed ByEugen Bacon

‘Birth of a Dream Weaver’ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The New Press 

ISBN 978-1620972403 $25.95

(hardcover; other formats available)

‘Sometimes we ask questions

Not for answers we don’t have

But for the answers we already have.’

There’s a rawness that is a haunting in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s reliving of his coming to terms with his own blackness. Born to the Gĩkũyũ people in Limuru, Kenya, during the days of colonialism, the author in this book shares intimate comprehensions of atrocities—mass incarceration, relocation and massacre—by white settlers during British occupation of East Africa. Later, where his friends and peers fell into politics, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o found himself skyrocketing towards culture and the literary. 

True to its labelling, ‘Birth of a Dream Weaver’ is a chronicle of an author’s awakening. Originally published in hardcopy in 2016, it’s re-release in paperback couldn’t be more timely in its powerful testimony of the injustices and indignities black people have suffered in the hands of white people, the resilient black spirit sometimes heartened by a white one, and the unsilenced black voice whose words more white people need to perceive. 

Growing up in colonial British East Africa where white settlers’ dogs were trained to maul a black person, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was a product of the banned Kikuyu Independent Schools Movement and managed to secure education at a prestigious secondary school. He saw racism close up, unable to get on a train bound for his new school because he didn’t have a permit to travel to another region. Black people needed permits to travel in their own country. The Homeguards of the British regime were bogeymen of children’s stories, brutes that trembled grownups.   

But, despite the wounded land, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir reveals him as a man ahead of his time. He wrote plays and short stories, honed the art of journalism to strip race-tinted glasses that saw native people on par with sheep and zebra, any game of the country. He took his Makerere University College rite of passage oath seriously. It was a pledge to ask questions and contribute to knowledge. It influenced his attitude toward literature and scholarship. 

Later, he would give lectures on topics such as ‘Decolonising the Mind’. ‘Birth of a Dream Weaver’ is the testimony of an author who would not settle to the masquerade of just living, even when politically exiled from his own country. The pen answered his utmost question: how to fight back. 

The writer in him was always inherent, birthed from stories of the hyena and the hare, the leopard and the donkey, orally narrated by his mother at dusk inside a hut. As a boy, he became a scribe, faithfully generating his grandfather’s letters. Crucially, he shares the story of how he took a bus with his brother Njinjũ to Nairobi, where he delivered a hand-written manuscript to the offices of the East African Literature Bureau. It won an award and entrenched his place as a writer and was published as ‘The River Between’ in 1965.  

Always a voracious reader who took to the high seas hunting for treasure with Jim Hawkins, who begged and hungered with Oliver Twist in the streets of London, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is now an unstoppable writer—the first East African novelist, with ‘Weep Not, Child’ (1964)— who spotlights art, literature, theatre as the promise of a new Africa.

Eugen Bacon