Dreams in A Time Of War (by Ngugi wa Thiong’o) starts in a hopeful place. Hopeful for a reason not too obvious at the start. After a day fighting hunger pangs at Kinyogori Intermediate School, Ngugi and Kenneth Mbugua, a classmate, take the longer six mile route home past the Limuru Bata Shoe factory. At a crossroads they are drawn into a crowd discussing the daring escape of a nameless man arrested close by. The crowd disputes the events and breaks up into groups. The nameless man turns out to be Wallace Mwangi also known as Good Wallace. Good Wallace is Ngugi’s brother and a Kenya Land and Freedom Army supplier.
So begins a riveting memoir about growing up in colonial Kenya in a time of social, economic, world and anti-colonial war. The Christian converts like Reverend Lord Stanley Kahahu are the new African landlords who co-exist alongside traditionalists like Baba Mukuru and modernists like Thiong’o wa Nducu, Ngugi’s father who allows his four wives relative independence. All coexist in an uneasy peace over the use of the land they live on.
The First World War comes along and young men leave and return with learning. Preceding their return are Italian prisoners of war. The “Bono Mayai” who build roads, buy eggs and leave more than roads behind. In their wake, the war veterans start businesses and plant the dream of self-reliance. But the colonialists are not too far behind cracking down on independent schools and splitting families and societies with Home Guards and hooded informants who line up against their own tribesmen as the Mau Mau insurgency begins and oral accounts of the exploits of revolutionaries like Mbiyu Koinange and Jomo Kenyatta paint them as larger than life.
Other dreams are being fought for. The dream of an education for Ngugi receives help from some unexpected quarters including a hated chief who carries out a fundraising for his school fees. This at a time when Ngugi’s parents are estranged partly due to tensions caused by the loss of Nducu’s, herds to a mysterious illness.
Good Wallace risks capture again to wish his little brother success before the Kenya Africa Preliminary Exams – a little brother who, days later, will be moments away from both a summary execution and a place at a prestigious high school. Dreams are tested by twists and turns of fate. But destiny runs its course as dreams survive in the memoir’s difficult times urged on by the demand of Ngugi’s mother Wanjiku wa Ngugi, “Is that the best you can do?”
Even in a time of war, dreams can be reached by goods train if the passenger train is missed.
Dreams in a Time of War was published by Anchor Books in 2010.