Kenyan novelist, poet, playwright, and literary critic Ngugi wa'Thiong'o penned the second volume of his memoirs, In the House of the Interpreter, to succeed his critically acclaimed childhood memoir, Dreams in a Time of War. In the House of the Interpreter offers a haunting story about an indelible mind and political dissident.
In the House of the Interpreter
A Tale of Home and School
It’s the end of my first term at boarding school, and I’m going home. It’s April. When I first left Limuru for Alliance High School in January, it was in the last car of a goods train into which I had been smuggled, my sole company then being workmen’s tools and clothes. Now I travel third class, with schoolmate Kenneth Wanjai. It’s very crowded, standing room only, and our school uniform of khaki shirts, shorts, and blue ties marks us as different from the general passengers, all black Africans, their clothes in different stages of wear and tear. Their haggard faces belie the animated voices and occasional laughter. On getting off at Limuru railway station, I linger on the platform and look around me to savor the moment of my return. The goods shed, the tea kiosk, the waiting room, and the outside toilets marked for Europeans only, Asians only, and Africans, minus the qualifying only, still stand, silent weather-beaten witnesses of time that has passed since the station first opened in 1898.
Wanjai and I part company for our different destinations, he in his father’s car, and I alone, on foot. Then it hits me: I’m going home to my mother. Soon, very soon, I’ll be with my sisters and younger brother. I have news to share with them: I was among the top of my class. No doubt my mother will ask me if that was the best I could have done, or her variation, were you number one, and I will have to confess that another boy, Henry Chasia, was ahead of me. As long as you tried your best, she will surely tell me with pride. I am going to bask in her sunny smile, which always carries warmth and depth of care. I enjoy her reaction in advance.
I lift my wooden box by the handle with my right hand. It’s not very heavy, but it dangles and keeps on hitting against my legs. After a time, I change hands; it’s worse on the left side, so I lift it onto my shoulder. I keep up the pattern: right hand, left hand, right shoulder, left shoulder, and back to the right hand. My progress is slow. I walk past the African marketplace, which looks deserted, a ghostly place, except for a pack of stray dogs, chasing and fighting over a female in heat. But the memory of my childhood interactions with the place floods back: my brother’s workshop; people massing outside the Green Hotel to hear news; my falling off Patrick M∫rage’s bike. I stagger up the slope toward the Indian shopping center. Almost two years back, my brother, Good Wallace, ran down this very slope, barely escaping a hail of police bullets, but I refuse to let memories of pain interfere with my first homecoming as an Alliance student. Instead, I conjure up images from my Limuru youth that are more in tune with my triumphant mood.
Onesmus Kπhara War∫ir∫ immediately comes to my mind. Kπhara, an incredible cyclist and showman to boot, loved climbing this slope. People used to stand aside and cheer him in wonder and admiration as he cycled up the hill to take mail and parcels to the Indian shopping center. No other cyclist had ever managed to climb the hill all the way without once getting off his bike and pushing it. Kπhara was our bike hero, possessor of superhuman endurance.
I’m so engrossed in these thoughts that I forget to take note of the landscape around me. But instinct suddenly tells me that I have gotten home . . . or where home should be. I stop, put down the box, and look around me. The hedge of ashy leaves that we planted looks the same, but beyond it our homestead is a rubble of burnt dry mud, splinters of wood, and grass. My mother’s hut and my brother’s house on stilts have been razed to the ground. My home, from where I set out for Alliance only three months ago, is no more. Our pear tree is still standing, but like the ashy hedge, it’s a silent witness. Casting my eyes beyond, I suddenly realize the whole village of homesteads has disappeared. The paths that had crisscrossed the landscape, linking the scattered dwellings into a community, now lead from one mound of rubble to another, tombs of what has been. There is not a soul in sight. Even the birds flying above or chirping in the hedges emphasize the emptiness. Bewildered, I sit on my box under the pear tree, as if hoping it will share with me what it knows. The tree, at least, has defied the desolation, and I pick a few ripe pears to eat in baffled silence. How could a whole village, its people, history, everything, vanish, just like that?
The sight of two rats chasing each other amid the rubble shakes me out of my reverie. I think of going toward the only houses still standing, the Kahahus’, despite their ghostly aura, for an answer. Once again I stagger along with the box. At the hedge, I see a man and recognize Mwangi, part of a group of workers who have always rendered loyal services to the Kahahu family. As children, we called him Mwangi wa Kahahu, although he was not blood related. He always had gossip about the goings-on in the big house on the hill. Now he and I are the only humans in a desolate landscape.