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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical

Dreams in a Time of War

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

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To purchase Dreams in a Time of War

Title: Dreams in a Time of War
Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2010
Length: 256 pages
Availability: Dreams in a Time of War - US
Dreams in a Time of War - UK
Dreams in a Time of War - Canada
Dreams in a Time of War - India
Träume in Zeiten des Krieges - Deutschland
Sogni in tempo di guerra - Italia
Sueños en tiempos de guerra - España
  • A Childhood Memoir

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 24/3/2010 Carmela Ciuraru
Financial Times . 29/3/2010 Jonathan Gibbs
The Guardian . 3/7/2010 Maya Jaggi
The Independent . 26/3/2010 Margaret Busby
The Spectator . 24/3/2010 Michela Wrong
The Times . 20/3/2010 Iain Finlayson
The Washington Post . 10/3/2010 Marie Arana

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dreams in a Time of War is a collection of stories from the authorís childhood, with each chapter serving as an episode of sorts. Whether recalling joyful or challenging times, Ngugi displays a plainspoken yet beautiful prose style." - Carmela Ciuraru, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The sheer distance of this life trajectory is breathtaking, yet this childhood memoir is as far from self-aggrandising as can be imagined." - Jonathan Gibbs, Financial Times

  • "This absorbing memoir recounts how Ngugi's boyhood was affected by mass expulsions, indiscriminate reprisals and internment camps, during what he has described elsewhere as Britain's "genocidal war". Yet, infused with a child's curiosity and wonder, this book is also deeply touching in its revelation of a whole community's stake in nurturing a writer." - Maya Jaggi, The Guardian

  • "Dreams in a Time of War by the Kenyan literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong'o is a remarkable demonstration of how memoir can be as much about inspiring the present as recalling the past (.....) Moving, honest and informative, this is a book about the influence of stories, storytelling and storytellers. It is a reminder that every generation, however beleaguered, can dream to change the world" - Margaret Busby, The Independent

  • "Ngugi has returned to his roots to produce something delicate, fresh and scrupulously honest. (...) Although he meticulously walks the reader through the anti-imperial arguments of the day, Ngugi keeps his own anger carefully in check. While highlighting the daily humiliations imposed by colonialism, he never wavers in his belief that one of its imports, at least -- formal education -- represents a transformative, unqualified human good." - Michela Wrong, The Spectator

  • "The subversive charm of the writing somewhat defuses the political tensions that give this book its edge." - Iain Finlayson, The Times

  • "(T)he work he offers us here is like nothing that's gone before: It is the chronicle of a child's single-minded pursuit of an education. (...) The picture of Kenya that he presents, in other words, is admirably free of cant or sentimentality, and yet it is enough to make you weep." - Marie Arana, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dreams in a Time of War is described as A Childhood Memoir, and part of its considerable appeal is the childhood perspective that Ngũgĩ maintains for the most part: realistically, much of the adult (and larger political) world remains distant and not well understood. Nevertheless, political and social upheaval have an effect even on the child's life, and Ngũgĩ's portrait is also an effective one of this era -- 'a time of war' that first saw many locals sent to fight in the colonial power's conflict (World War II) and then an escalating civil conflict that resulted in the Mau Mau uprising. Ngũgĩ's ambit remains a very tightly circumscribed one -- the first time he even just gets on a train is near the end of his account, when he is in his late teens and sets off to a nearby school. This is a memoir of rural Kenyan life, with, for example, the metropolis of Nairobi as distant as any spot on earth and yet it offers a great deal of insight into life in Kenya in the 1940s and 1950s.
       Family is central in Ngũgĩ's account, though it is his mother who is the one dominant figure, and only a few siblings whom he is truly close to. His family situation was a complicated one: for one, even the closer family is an enormously extended one, as his father took four wives and had twenty-four children. When he was still young, Ngũgĩ's mother and father separated; soon thereafter Ngũgĩ went to live with his mother on her father's property -- though it took a while until she and her children were fully re-integrated into that branch of the family.
       Ngũgĩ's father was a proud and established man, but his hold on wealth was tenuous. First there was the land he lived on and worked: he purchased it through an oral agreement -- but the man who sold it to him later sold it again, "under the colonial legal system, with witnesses and signed written documents". A long court case ensued, and:

at every hearing it was a case of the legal written word against oral testimony. Orality and tradition lost to literacy and modernity. A title deed no matter how it was gotten trumped oral deeds.
       Ngũgĩ's father did win "a non-inheritable right of life occupancy", but that wasn't nearly the same as ownership. Such disenfranchisement is a repeated theme in the book, notably also when British soldiers were given land by the colonial masters, in thanks for their service during the Second World War -- while the Kenyan's who had also served got nothing, or in fact lost their land.
       For Ngũgĩ's father livestock was "the only real measure of wealth", and when his goats and cows all succumbed to a disease he was wiped out: "The man who had everything had now lost all". He didn't take it well, and this also led to Ngũgĩ's mother leaving him and his abuse, the large extended family reduced to a very small nuclear one for Ngũgĩ.
       Young Ngũgĩ longed to go to school, but barely dared imagine that he could. Even when he was nearly ten:
School was way beyond me, something for those older than I or those who came from a wealthy family. I never thought about it as a possibility for me.
       Illiteracy was still widespread, and few in Ngũgĩ's family could read. When his mother asked young Ngũgĩ whether he wanted to go to school he could barely believe it. He understood that it was an enormous sacrifice, and that he would face hardships, but he promised -- and took his promise very seriously -- that:
I would always try my best whatever the hardship, whatever the barrier.
       Good results pleased his mother, but she remained concerned that he was, indeed, always trying his best, a lesson he never forgot.
       From the kinds of schools he attended to the police actions that increased as he grew older, outside events and the changing situation in Kenya also affected the course of his life. This was a time where to be found even just in possession of a bullet was a death sentence, and where masked stool pigeons (to hide their faces) sat next to the police, informing on who was an opponent of the government from among the young men rounded up and paraded past them. Ngũgĩ was young enough, and focussed on his studies enough, to avoid being pulled into much of this, but other family members were in the thick of things. And:
The state of emergency had acquired the dimensions of a huge mysterious creature, ever growing as it trod menacingly toward us. [...] The creature became the instrument of what was now official colonial policy, the dislocation of thousands.
       Along the way, Ngũgĩ also went through the circumcision ritual that marked his passage to manhood, a traditional ritual that had been watered down by colonial influence so that it: "no longer played the political, economic, and legal role in the community that it once did", but which he still felt strongly about. Nevertheless:
     Though the whole ritual of becoming a man leaves a deep impression on me, I emerge from it convinced more deeply that, for our times, education and learning, not a mark on the flesh, are the way to empower men and women.
       The power of imagination is also well-conveyed in this memoir. Ngũgĩ became an avid reader -- and while eager to "write stories like [Robert Louis] Stevenson's" he was convinced that to do so one needed a license (obtainable only after further study), certain that if one had the audacity to write "without such permission, one would surely be arrested".
       Among the best evocations of the power of story-telling comes in Ngũgĩ's descriptions of listening to an account of the trial of Jomo Kenyatta:
a vast oral performance narrated and directed by Mzee Ngandi with the ease and authority of an eyewitness.
       Dreams in a Time of War seems to present only a very limited slice of Kenyan life, a rural childhood with little direct exposure to much of modernity, and yet it offers a very rich and evocative picture that illuminates a great deal more. Ngũgĩ charmingly relates small scenes of everyday childhood life, and also conveys a great deal of often grave injustice; remarkably, he does so almost entirely without bitterness. Recommended.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 April 2010

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Dreams in a Time of War: Reviews: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Other books by Ngugi wa Thiong'o under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kenyan author (James) Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in 1938.

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