Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir
The African voice, in a publishing world dominated by white, straight, and stale, is a precious one, especially on issues of empire and colonialism. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir serves as a guide for those wishing to go beyond the silence of the British media and secondary education system, with a slice of what happened in the 20th century in Kenya. Importantly, Thiong'o's is the perspective of a defiant victim, during and after British colonial rule. The result is a horrific expose of Britain's imperial legacy.
The memoir dips in and out of two pasts, firstly when British white supremacists – described as the Happy Valley crowd – ran Kenya like a hedonistic, brutal fiefdom in the first half of the 20th century, with its culture of 'golf, polo, whisky, whoredom, and murder of Africans for sport.' We then return to an Animal Farm-like 'present' circa 1978, with Kenya under the control of former freedom fighters gone bad. In the latter, Thiong'o has been incarcerated without trial as a political prisoner by the Kenyan dictatorship of Jomo Kenyatta (1964-1978).
What Kenyatta's dictatorship established, and which is focused on in the narrative, was a prison system that broke its own dissidents, on behalf of foreign money. In turn, Thiong'o notes how, in prison, illness is used as one of an array of strategies to torment prisoners, with those falling sick kept from recovering. Solitary confinement too is utilised to prohibit prisoners from seeing their families, a system made crueller by the absence of trial, which gave political prisoners no end in sight. Reading this, it is difficult not to think of the way mass incarceration is used today, not least in the US, to marginalize African Americans. Yet if slavery and its subsequent re-iterations of Jim Crow and the War on Drugs shape American discourse, in Africa the influence is colonialism. Gazing back into the past, for example, Thiong'o recounts the 1922 massacre by British imperial troops of 150 protesting men, women and children and a subsequent system of incarceration used against those agitating for change. Shifting from tragedy to grotesquery, Thiong'o encapsulates the white supremacist system in his description of a trial where a white colonist, Galbraith Cole, shot dead a Kenyan native, and refused to plead in court that the death was unintentional:
"'I shot to kill. I said that I would do so.'
'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge. 'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'
'No, by God.' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill.'"
The defiant murderer, Cole, was acquitted anyway. Meanwhile, native Kenyans were rounded up for slave-labour projects and kept in camps. If any resisted, they were fair game for any kind of punishment, corporal or otherwise. Eventually the Kenyans did begin to revolt through the Kenya Land and Freedom Army - re-branded with the dehumanising label 'Mau Mau rebellion' in Britain. Yet Labour politician Barbara Castle was one to see through the charade of benighted imperialism and protest this post-slavery regime in 1955:
'In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation.'
Thiong'o's accompanying reflection helps to clarify the nature of the centuries-old British Empire and its white, supremacist foundations: 'Barbara Castle was, of course, wrong about what she termed the breakdown of the rule of law. This was the rule of law . . .'Thiong'o nevertheless maintains a keen sense of humanity and even humour throughout his accounts. The focus of his anger is not ultimately the prison guards or the dictator Kenyatta, or the Happy Valley crowd that terrorized Kenyans in the 20th century. Instead, Thiong'o targets the 'social cannibalism' given life by capitalism: the way it sets white against black, and later black against black, from colonialism to neo-colonialism, as the moneyed class play divide-and-rule. It is a narrative that briefly produces a happy ending for Thiong'o on a personal note; upon the death of the dictator Kenyatta, Thiong'o is released from his ordeal. But one wonders what Thiong'o must think of the continuing complicity between big money in the West and the collusion with corrupted elites everywhere. The British Empire is dead, but one can hardly say the same about the spirit of greed and absence of empathy that drove it. In the meantime, studying such memoirs as those of Thiong'o seems the minimum we can do to confront these ongoing cycles of big money, foreign interference, and the dehumanization of those exploited by it, or by those who stand in its way.