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‘All stories belong to tomorrow’: Imagined Communities and the Promise of Futurity in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Detained

By Ronny Litvack-Katzman

Some weeks into his imprisonment at Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison on the outskirts of Nairobi, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote that he would attempt to keep “a diary of life in prison,” so as to “record everything that happens: what I see, touch, smell, hear and think” (Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary 127). And yet, upon first attempt, the writer observes that he has “nothing outstanding to record…Yesterday is as today,” he writes, questioning his endeavour to keep a daily journal: “is that enough for a diary?” (127) What Ngũgĩ fails to realize in the early days of his imprisonment is that the prison writer does not write exclusively for himself. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngũgĩ equates writing with the forging of a mutual cultural understanding between author and audience, as a mediation between “my own self” as well as “between my self and other selves” (524). Writing from prison under an authoritarian regime in the late 1970s, these “other selves” of which Ngũgĩ writes may well represent the Kenyan people. Outside the prison walls, Kenyans across the country face forms of social persecution synonymous with Ngũgĩ’s physical and mental imprisonment. In an environment where, as literary scholar Doran Larson writes, “isolation is the common purpose” (144), the act of writing becomes a way for the political prisoner to remain tethered to themself and to the larger community of subjugated nationals beyond the prison walls. Writing for Ngũgĩ, then, becomes a formidable task. In the absence of a tangible community, the genre of memoir allows the prisoner to construct an imagined community that, through the author’s individual sacrifice, is better equipped to address the failures of the neocolonial state. The distinguishing literary devices of the prison memoir — notably the dissociative ‘I’ and the construction of a national allegory — allow Ngũgĩ, like other prison writers on the African continent, to implicate his own emancipation with that of his country. In doing so, Ngũgĩ embeds futurity into his present struggle, and looks ahead to a tangible political change. 

Jomo Kenyatta’s government well understood the danger that communities of disenfranchised Kenyans, real or otherwise, posed to the neocolonial power structure. By 1977, on the eve of his imprisonment, Ngũgĩ had written four English novels and an equal number of dramas in blatant critique of both the British colonial regime and its neocolonial successor. In 1976, however, Ngũgĩ began work on a very different kind of literary project. Operating from the newly established Kamĩrĩĩthũ Community Educational and Cultural Centre (KCECC), Ngũgĩ partnered with the Kenyan-Zimbabwean playwright, Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ, to produce a new kind of play. As a Gĩkũyũ language play, I Will Marry When I Want was the first of its kind in modern Kenya (Amoko 110). From its inception, Ngũgĩ and Mĩriĩ envisoned the play as speaking not only for the experience of subjugated Kenyans but, unlike the previous English language novels of Ngũgĩ’s early career, directly to them as well. Written in the native language of its characters as well as the actors who embodied them, I Will Marry When I Want puts the lived experience of Black Kenyans, rich and poor — both the puppets and the string-bearers of the neocolonial theatre — centre stage. The play details the struggles of the rural-poor against Christianity, industrialization, and the looming threat of poverty at the hands of the Black Kenyan elite. That decisive fall of 1977 would mark the beginnings of a peasant theatre movement that spread around Kenya and beyond (Ukpokodu 34). As Ngũgĩ’s play increased in popularity, so did the threat that his revolutionary vernacular would permeate the vocabulary of the citizens for which the play was written. 

There are two distinctions between I Will Marry When I Want and Ngũgĩ’s previous works that made the former incredibly worrisome to the neocolonial Kenyan government. For one, it was written in Gĩkũyũ, Ngũgĩ’s mother tongue and the native language of a sizable linguistic minority in Kenya, particularly the labouring classes (Amoko 113). Secondly, the play resulted from the combined effort of the Kamĩrĩĩthũ community; student actors, illiterate adults, elders, and local musicians all came together to bring the play, and Ngũgĩ’s language, to life. “It was a product of themselves,” Ngũgĩ would later write, a “collective contribution…a heightening of themselves as a community” (Decolonizing 57). The combination of these factors — the play’s themes, its language of authorship, and the communal effort behind its production — opened the eyes of Kenyan officials to the danger that Ngũgĩ’s writings posed “to the comprador ruling regimes,” whose “real enemy is an awakened peasantry and working class” (537). Unlike his novels and plays written in English, which remained inaccessible to many Kenyans, I Will Marry When I Want presented the same stark critique of neocolonialism in a language and form that made its ideas easily comprehensible to a wider and, by some standards, largely illiterate audience (Amoko 113). Drawing from the oral tradition of drama and theatre, the play thus represents a turn away from the European-inspired artistic forms that dominated both Ngũgĩ’s early career as well as much of the first half-century of modern African literature. The Kenyatta government’s fears of an awakened peasantry were not only being realized, but also being heightened by the fact that “the language of the play became a part of people’s daily usage and frame of reference” (Ukpokodu 33). Opening on October 2, 1977, the play ran for just seven weeks before it was banned (Brown 67). On the night of December 31 of the same year, Ngũgĩ was arrested and sent to Kamĩtĩ. There he would remain for the next twelve months.

Community Imagined

The underlying goal of any imprisonment is isolation. In the neocolonial context, however, the goal of imprisoning writers is to estrange them from their communities, the creative lifeblood of their work. When the same community is also subject to multiple forms of social persecution, a writer’s imprisonment further isolates the native community from the writer’s insight into the struggle against neocolonialism. By preventing this contact, the state simultaneously is able to “control, through culture, how the people perceive themselves and their relationship to the world” (Decolonizing 525). This control is executed by obstructing the people’s access to “their tools of self-definition” (525), namely, literature. In Ngũgĩ’s philosophy of literature as an emancipatory artform, it is the writer who must first imagine the liberation of their people, both physical and mental. In the neocolonial context, African literature, and specifically works that are written in the “language of the people,” is a necessary first step which ultimately leads to “the convergence of the worker’s hammer and the peasant’s machete…with the pen and gun” (“Against Neocolonialism” 162). And yet, achieving such “convergence” is impossible because the writer, as the enabling force of the emancipatory enterprise, writes in isolation. Under such circumstances, it would first appear, the writer is limited to writing solely for themself. 

As much as the community needs the writer to “carry the content of the people’s anti-imperialist struggles” (Decolonizing 537), the imprisoned writer is equally ostracized from himself and his craft in the absence of community. Ngũgĩ makes explicit in Detained that

A writer needs people around him. He needs live struggles of active life. Contrary to popular mythology, a novel is not a product of the imaginative feats of a single individual but the work of many hands and tongues. A writer just takes down notes dictated to him by life among the people, which he then arranges in this or that form. (8)

In Ngũgĩ’s view, the act of writing, like the acts of “revolutionary unity” (Decolonizing 537) it may inspire, is a collective effort, regardless of whose hand is holding the pen. Imprisoned in Kamĩtĩ and estranged from his community, Ngũgĩ is unable to accomplish the task of authorship that he sees as essential to both the livelihood of Kenya and his own survival. “Each detainee,” he writes, “struggles against mounting despair… for here one had no helper except one’s own experiences and history” (Detained 63). Ngũgĩ juxtaposes a catalogue of images of freedom and communal identity with that of imprisonment and isolation. In the “silence” (63) of the lone cell, “one had to fight all alone” (63); the “demons” (63) which plague the isolated author present only “one way of looking at things…one history and culture” (64) — that which is imposed on the prisoner by the regime. The uniformity of thought with respect to history and culture that is ingrained into the prisoner stands in stark opposition to the “active life” (8) of the community. What relieves Ngũgĩ from the nightmarish reality of prison life is the imagining of a communal history, of which “most Kenyan people were its best illustration” (64). No longer must the lone prisoner fight single-handedly against the regime for, in the world of the page, he is joined by the entirety of the “Kenyan people,” who are too “waging a protracted guerrilla war against a British imperialist” (64); a “Kenyan people creating a resistance culture, a revolutionary culture of courage and patriotic heroism” (64). By producing an image of a united Kenya, a people brought together by their perpetual struggle against a lineage of common oppressors, Ngũgĩ finds solace in writing about imagined communities, even if they are not yet a reality.

In the absence of community, the prison memoir becomes the de facto communal chorus that speaks through the singular voice. In his essay “Toward a Prison Poetic,” Larson comments on this phenomenon when characterizing the self-referential ‘I’ in prison texts as a “dissociative turn of the voice,” that ‘I,’ “even when not opened into an explicit ‘we’” (145), nevertheless represents communities larger than the individual author. Such dissociative turns allow the diarist to impose a “shift in textual register, from personal autobiography to public testament…writing the self-back into language and into the communal identity that language offers” (145-46). Thus, when Ngũgĩ writes: “I had not chosen prison, I was forced into it” (Detained 9), his use of the dissociative ‘I’ must be understood to include both himself and a broader community of Kenyans facing physical and spiritual imprisonment; when he writes that “I am too close to the events for me to see them clearly” (127), he speaks unequivocally about the harsh realities of prison life, but also to the inability of Kenyans who, having lived under the constant threat of neocolonialism, are no longer able to recognize its trappings. Ngũgĩ’s coming to knowledge about “the daily trials of a political prisoner” (20) welcomes the same understanding from his imagined readership, reciprocally asking them to recognize the many ways in which they are prisoners in their own country. He too recognizes that the hardships of his people, which exist beyond the prison walls, “can only be understood by delving into history, our history” (20). Similarly, the writer’s imprisonment must be understood as the denial of that history and as having been “aimed at the whole people — part of the culture of fear — and at the individual detainee — part of the strategy of eventually breaking him” (20). In each of these instances, Ngũgĩ rhetorically likens his imprisonment to the overarching struggles of the Kenyan people, unified in their opposition to neocolonialism. 

The ‘I’ of the prison writer draws power from its ability to at once name the man subject to injustice while also imagining a community of the similarly subjugated, together invoking a common “moral ancestry” (Larson 149). Such readings of the prison ‘I’ are supported in Detained by the more explicit allusions Ngũgĩ makes to the collective imprisonment of all Kenyans under the neocolonial system, including those responsible for his own detention. In conversation with one prison guard, Ngũgĩ reflects that “night warders are themselves prisoners guarding other prisoners…only they are paid for it and their captivity is self-inflicted or else imposed by lack of alternative means of life” (Detained 5). The strength of Ngũgĩ’s rhetoric here is twofold. Explicitly, the prison guard is understood as a cog in the neocolonial machine, a man who is himself a prisoner, although relationally free in comparison to the inmates. Implicitly, however, Ngũgĩ obfuscates this limited, even divisive binary between prisoner and freeman by reconstituting the positionality of freedom. In equating the guard, a prisoner to neocolonialism, with himself, an inmate in a neocolonial prison, Ngũgĩ closes a fundamental gap in the neocolonial power structure: that of the divisions of power between men who are, in fact, equally oppressed. Although the material circumstances of their oppression may differ, both he and the guard are slaves to the same master and neither are invariably free until the other is emancipated, hence why captivity can at once be forced upon the prisoner but also be “self-inflicted” by the warder. Such rhetorical layering amounts to the extension of the ‘I’ to encompass the ‘we,’ or, plainly, the recognition of the community as it exists within the speaker, the individual and particular standing for something communal and universal. Not only does Ngũgĩ give emphasis to the plight and thus also the responsibility of individuals but, further, he commands action on part of the whole community to recognize in themselves both oppressor and oppressed. Here the ‘I’ moves beyond metaphor, beyond rhetorical allusion; Ngũgĩ’s position, as both part and whole, forces the bleak reality of Kenya’s shared bondage to the fore. Through his use of the autobiographical ‘I,’ Ngũgĩ insists on the common  plight of an implicit ‘we,’ an imagined community of subjugated Kenyans in which he rhetorically includes himself.

Benedict Anderson suggests that all communities are in essence fictitious, “imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know their fellow-members…yet in the mind of each lives the image of their communion” (6). Ngũgĩ’s use of the dissociative ‘I’ reflects the basic tenet of Anderson’s argument. If, by giving voice to his own plight, the trials of an entire nation can be allegorized, then that same voice can likewise act as a tool for building community around their common bondage. Whereas communities are at their core allegories that gesture to a greater — albeit fictional — “whole,” fictional communities, as imagined in Ngũgĩ’s prose, in effect realize such rhetorical turns. Ngũgĩ’s memoir thus not only imagines communities but also reimagines Kenya as a singular, united community, one Ngugui embodies in his suffering. In doing so, Detained relates an image of communion between individual Kenyans and their countrymen, an image that joins all Kenyans together in a common struggle against neocolonialism. 

In an essay on the use of memoir by prisoners and political exiles in Apartheid-era South Africa, historian Sam Raditlhalo writes that the diary genre is the site of a “constant interplay between society, history and culture, together with the self” (33). The prison writer “does not have a life of his own,” concludes Raditlhalo, but forms instead, through the “loss of a private self” (34), a communal identity. Larson adds that following the writer’s baring of their suffering on the page, there results in a loss of distinction “between autobiography and testament, between reportage and witness” (151). In the same sense, Ngũgĩ, first in his imprisonment and later in the narration of his freedom, bears witness to the possibility of Kenya’s emancipation. Upon his release, Ngũgĩ reports that he is the first detainee to be made aware that their freedom has been granted; his first thought, however, is not of his own liberation, but that of his fellow imprisoned intellectuals. Shouting “the news across the walls” for all to hear, “‘I am…free,’” he exclaims, “‘…We are now free’” (Detained 167). At the climax of his memoir, the dissociative ‘I’ and the communal ‘we’ become one and the same. Although Ngũgĩ relates his liberation from the first person, using the same dissociative ‘I,’ he positions his release in conjunction with the freedom of a collective ‘we,’ standing foremost for his fellow prisoners but, in effect, for all of Kenya. At the moment of release, there is a semiotic and spiritual convergence of the self with the imagined community, the moment at which the writer joins the ranks of the revolutionaries that he has, for months, imagined. The rhetorical likening of the self to an imagined community, in both imprisonment and emancipation, “implies a process of identification with a larger polity, a larger social milieu” (Raditlhalo 48). A free Kenya is imagined as Ngũgĩ narrates his own freedom. As the subject of the memoir, its voice, and its author, Ngũgĩ’s act of radical imagination transverses the self; the writer has become his community, his country. The memoir ends in a poignant moment of self-abnegation in the narrative, in which the writer’s self is completely lost and replaced by the community as a whole. Looking up at the night sky for the first time in months, Ngũgĩ imagines the stars shining not only for him but for his wife “Nyambura, the children and the good people of Limuru and Kenya” who, with the promise of freedom, are all “gazing at the same stars” (Detained 167).

Community Realized

Imprisoned in the fictional Ilmorog Police Station, Munira, the protagonist of Ngũgĩ’s novel Petals of Blood (1977), sits hunched over his own set of prison notes, afflicted “with the inner fury of trying to understand” (269). “Guarded and scribbling fiction on paper,” he asks: “For what are recollections but fiction, products of a heated imagination? I mean, how can one truly vouch for the truth of a past sequence of events?” (229) A writer’s pen, Ngũgĩ replies in an essay in Writers in Politics, must both reflect reality and persuade readers to take a certain stance toward that reality. The writer, either directly or by influencing the reader’s imagination toward a particular set of values, thus has the ability to shape the everyday actions taken by their readers (7). For Ngũgĩ, the question of fiction’s separation from reality disappears in the neocolonial context, as is made evident throughout his prison writings. If the act of recollecting is synonymous with the act of writing fiction, and the act of writing fiction necessary to the imagination of community, then even the most imaginative works of fiction have in them embedded fragments of a communal reality. In “Writing Against Neocolonialism,” Ngũgĩ lays out a stark vision for the African writer in the postcolonial age. It is the writer’s role, Ngũgĩ attests, to come “face to face with neo-colonialism” (163) and to root out its administrators by whatever means necessary in their writings, whether through fiction or other written forms. Ngũgĩ realizes this vision of the writer and the power of fiction by penning his first Gĩkũyũ language novel, Devil on the Cross (1980), all while imprisoned. Devil on the Cross thus can be thought of as a critical extension of his memoir, a national allegory that seamlessly joins the genres of autobiography and fiction in order to imagine the rebirth of a free Kenya. 

The community that Ngũgĩ imagines in Detained materializes on the pages of Devil on the Cross. In it he imbues a revolutionary spirit, joining his fictional protagonists and a community of peasant workers against the forces of neocolonialism, the latter of whom are allegorized by the “modern thieves and robbers” (80) of Ilmorog. The community of low-income, disenfranchised Kenyans — teachers, manual labourers, intellectuals — that emerges to ward off the proselytized elite in many ways resembles the theatrical community formed around the KCECC in the fall of 1977. Whereas in I Will Marry When I Want, there is tangible evidence that the play, as a product of its drawing on the collated experiences of its authors and actors, is based on real events, the same cannot be said of Devil on the Cross (Brown 63). The novel depicts, amongst other elements of extended allegory, a talk between the main protagonist and the Devil and verbose, albeit thinly veiled, neocolonial caricatures. Yet, as Brown recounts, “I Will Marry When I Want is less a representation of social reality than a process…that both prepares and allegorizes some quite other historical possibility” (63). Nevertheless, the historical plausibilities of I Will Marry When I Want are numerous and, although best understood within the context of its historical situation, the play “not only represents, but addresses in order to change” (Brown 63). The role of the chorus in I Will Marry When I Want, rather than being the de facto communal voice as is Ngũgĩ’s narration in Detained, is de jure the voice of the impoverished masses. It is the chorus who asks “where did the whites come from” and answers with the call to “protect our patriots” (28); it is they that enter on stage in song to uplift a forlorn Kĩgũũnda, trumpeting “the revolution is near” (115). Yet, because such blatant critiques of colonialism were neither welcomed nor tolerated by the neocolonial government, the communal voice as it existed in the play’s chorus was quickly suppressed. Following his release from prison, Ngũgĩ was forced to seek out community in a more covert manner. 

Although reminiscent of the same community depicted in I Will Marry When I Want, it is unimportant to the creation of a national allegory, and thus the formation of national consciousness, whether the peasants in Devil on the Cross are based on factual or fictitious events and persons. Either way, as Anderson posits, “communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but in the style they are imagined” (6). Likewise, communal history, when disposed of through fiction rather than textbooks, is not to be judged on its veracity alone but rather on how elements of reality are shaped into a convincing narrative, one that can speak to and strengthen the bonds of the burgeoning community. If community identity remains essential to fictionalized histories, as it does in Ngũgĩ’s novel, then the fact that the novel is a product of the writer’s “heated imagination” does not take away from its claim to represent a real community. For the novel to still be regarded as representative of a communal voice while Ngũgĩ was estranged from his community at the time of the novel’s writing is a testament to the power of fiction in creating a national consciousness (Anderson 8). 

The act of writing Detained becomes “a daily, almost hourly assertion” of Ngũgĩ’s “will to remain human and free” (6). By embracing the oral tradition from which the novel stems and the language of his ancestry, Ngũgĩ allows his lived experiences in prison to become his “dictionary of words and music” (166), and Warĩĩnga, the novel’s protagonist, his “symbol of hope and defiance” (167). The national allegory that is Devil on the Cross is just that — not a prophecy of success but a testament to the resilience of the author and, through him, his community. In the case of Devil on the Cross, reality becomes the context for Ngũgĩ’s fiction and that fiction the foundation from which a new reality can be imagined; the story of the author’s struggle in prison intertwines with the fictional trials of his characters against the neocolonial power structure, while both converge in the broader allegory of the Kenyan people’s struggle.

In a telling episode from Detained, a prison guard at Kamĩtĩ confiscates Ngũgĩ’s manuscript of Devil on the Cross, much to the author’s despair. In what he writes is “the worst of my stay at Kamĩtĩ” (Detained 164), Ngũgĩ laments that

It is only a writer who can possibly understand the pain of losing a manuscript, any manuscript. With this novel I had struggled with language, with images, with prison, with bitter memories, with moments of despair, with all the mentally and emotionally adverse circumstances in which one is forced to operate while in custody—and now it had gone. (164)

Ngũgĩ, here again employing the dissociative ‘I,’ recognizes that a Gĩkũyũ novel stands for much more than the hours of creative labour the author invests in their work. Although “only a writer” can understand the plight of losing their manuscript, Ngũgĩ’s imagined community, as the collective “writers” of the communal history that inspires the act of authorship, also share in his loss. Their common grief, or loss of the ability to grieve as a community through art, echo the dissolution of the KCECC, itself a kind of living manuscript in the form of an oral history. Just as the KCECC and the community of peasant actors it brought together represent a shared future for the Kenyan people, so too does Ngũgĩ’s manuscript contain within it the future of Kenya’s struggle against neocolonialism. While this at once speaks to the continued mutability between the oral tradition and Western modes of storytelling in modern Kenya, it furthermore emphasizes how both are an innately communal practice. As a symbol of resilience against the forces of his imprisonment, the confiscation of the manuscript is a denial of futurity for both the author and the imagined community for whom it envisions a future. Although “every detainee had lost something…I had suffered the major loss and the other detainees clearly felt with me” (164), Ngũgĩ writes, alluding to the communal identity both encapsulated in the novel and missing in its absence. In placing his own emancipation in parallel to and as a consequence of the novel’s safe return, Ngũgĩ reinforces the idea that imprisonment is the collective condition of a subjugated Kenya, even if only a select few are put behind bars.

In Detained, followed by I Will Marry When I Want and Devil on the Cross, the line between fiction and reality is worn thin. The wearing away of such unnecessary distinctions reflects how Ngũgĩ’s prison writings, like his novels, are informed by the realities of life in neocolonial Kenya. And yet, in both exists the promise of futurity. Through the use of rhetorical techniques, most notably the dissociative ‘I,’ Ngũgĩ’s memoir can be read as how the author’s meditation on his fraught past evolves into an allegory for an entire community’s coming to knowledge. This communal awakening reacquaints members of Ngũgĩ’s extended community, the entirety of Kenya, not only with their shared history, but also with the imagination of a common future. As detailed in various cases of political imprisonment depicted in Ngũgĩ’s recent novel The Wizard of the Crow (2006), to the long tradition of the prison memoir in twentieth-century Africa, carried on by the likes of Ruth First (117 Days) and Wole Soyinka (The Man Died), the ‘I’ of the prison memoir was and remains a durable literary motif in the postcolonial canon. Its rhetorical strength is predicated not only on its ability to inspire tangible political change, but also in its function as a point of convergence for communities imagined and realized alike. 

Works Cited

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Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. London: Verso, 2016.

Brown, Nicholas. “Revolution and Recidivism: The Problem of Kenyan History in the Plays of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 30, no. 4, 1999, pp. 56–73.

First, Ruth. 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law. 1965. Bloomsbury, 1988. Web. 

Larson, Doran. “Toward a Prison Poetics.” College Literature, vol. 37, no. 3, 2010, pp. 143–166.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1986. Web.

—. Devil on the Cross. 1982. New York: Penguin, 2017. Print.

—. Petals of Blood. 1977. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

—. Wizard of the Crow. Toronto: 2006. Random House Canada. Print. 

—. “Writing Against Neocolonialism.” African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, edited by Tejumola and Ato Quayson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 157-164. Web. 

—. Writers in Politics: Essays. Nairobi: East African Publishers, 1981. 

—. and Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ. Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). Trans. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Ngũgĩ wa Mĩriĩ. London: Heinemann, 1982. Web.

Raditlhalo, Sam. “Unzima Lomthwalo – ‘This Load Is Heavy’: A Selection of South African Prison and Exile Life Writings.” Life Writing, vol. 1, no. 2, 2004, pp. 27–54.

Soyinka, Wole. The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Ukpokodu, Peter. “Plays, Possession, and Rock-and-Roll: Political Theatre in Africa.” The Drama Review, vol. 36, no. 4, 1992, pp. 28–53.