‘A time has come when silence before the crimes of the neo-colonial regime in Kenya is collusion with social evil’—so wrote Ngũgĩ in 1982 in his most recent book, Barrel of a Pen (New Beacon Books). It was a prophetic description.

On 10 February 1985, after a week in which students had peacefully boycotted classes to protest the expulsion of their leaders, the Kenyan government sent armed police into the University of Nairobi. Teargas and baton charges reportedly left twelve students dead, and more than 150 were taken to hospital. Their demands had included the reinstatement of Ngũgĩ as research professor in the literature department.

Ngũgĩ lost his job in 1978 when he was detained without trial for a year by Kenyatta because of his involvement with the peasant—worker theatre at Kamĩrĩĩthũ. His play I Will Marry When I Want, which drew official attention to this experiment, was written jointly with Ngũgĩ wa Mĩrĩ and directed by Dr Kimani Gecau. Both of them are now in exile in Zimbabwe. The University Academic Staff Union, which in 1979 mounted a campaign on Ngũgĩ’s behalf, was banned in 1980 by President Moi, and most of the lecturers active in it, like Willy Mutunga, Edward Oyugi, Kamoji Wachira, Al Amin Mazrui and Mukara Nganga, were themselves arrested during the regime’s crackdown on freedom of expression.

Ngũgĩ came to London in June 1982 to launch the English translation of his novel Devil on the Cross, written in prison. A few months earlier the regime had stopped the performance of his musical and the Kamĩrĩĩthũ peasant theatre had been razed to the ground. When word reached him that he would be arrested on arrival at Nairobi airport, he decided to remain in London from where he now travels frequently to Europe and America.

Two strands running throughout Ngũgĩ’s work have drawn forth these reactions: his plays are essentially about the struggle of Kenyan workers against imperialism; and they are written in the Gikuyu language, one of several spoken by the country’s many nationalities. English, the official language, is spoken only by a minority elite.

The language question is now being debated in many literary circles in Africa. Ngũgĩ’s work, more than that of any other writer active in Africa, symbolizes the dilemmas which face the continent’s intellectuals. For the regime in Kenya, whose actions herald a Latin American mode of stifling intellectual and artistic work, Ngũgĩ has become an obsession. For a generation who have watched tame intellectuals being co-opted in the service of neo-colonial regimes, he is a living inspiration.