Pursuit of education in a time of struggle

NGUGI wa Thiong'o's book, Dreams in a Time of War, chronicles a child's single-minded pursuit of getting an education.

On the first page of the book the author writes:

"Years later when I read TS Eliot's line that April was the cruellest month, I would recall what happened to me one April day in 1954, in chilly Limuru, the prime estate of what, in 1902, another Eliot, Sir Charles Eliot, then governor of colonial Kenya, had set aside as White Highlands. The day came back to me, the now of it, vividly."

Thiongo was born the fifth child of his father's third wife, in a family that includes 24 children born to four different mothers. During his childhood in the 1930s he was the apple of his mother's eye, before attending school to slake what is considered a bizarre thirst for learning. As he grows up, the wider political and social changes occurring in Kenya begin to impinge on the boy's life in inspiring and frightening ways.

Through the story of his grandparents and parents, and his brother's involvement in the violent Mau Mau uprising, Wa Thiong'o deftly sketches a tumultuous era, capturing the landscape, the people and their culture, and the social and political vicissitudes of life under colonialism and war.

The reader is moved to palpably empathise with the following extract: "That day I read the abridged version of Dicken's Oliver Twist. There was a line in the book, of Oliver Twist a bowl in hand, looking up to a towering figure, with a caption: 'Please sir, can I have some more?'

"I identified with that question; only for me it was often directed at my mother, my sole benefactor, who always gave whenever she could."

This memoir is moving, particularly as it goes into great detail of Kenya's liberation struggle and the fight against colonialism in Africa and the world.

Moving, honest and informative, this memoir is about the influence of stories, storytelling and storytellers. It is a reminder that every generation, however beleagured it may be, can dream to change the world. This is a work that makes a valuable contribution to a topic that we cannot run away from.

Thiong'o is a distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at University of California, Irvine. His books include Petals of Blood, for which he was imprisoned by the Kenyan government in 1977, and Wizard of the Crow.

He lives in Irvine, California.