52 pages 1 hour read

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Dreams in a Time of War

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2005

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Important Quotes

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“‘He was caught red-handed,’ some were saying.

‘Imagine, bullets in his hands. In broad daylight.’

Everybody, even we children, knew that for an African to be caught with bullets or empty shells was treason; he would be dubbed a terrorist, and his hanging by the rope was the only outcome.

‘We could hear gunfire,’ some were saying.

‘I saw them shoot at him with my own eyes.’

‘But he didn’t die!’

‘Die? Hmm! Bullets flew at those who were shooting.’

‘No, he flew into the sky and disappeared into the clouds.’” 

(Pages 5-6)

This passage describes the arrest of a young man who is caught with bullets, a capital offense in colonial Kenya. He manages to escape the police and flees into the mountains, presumably to join the Mau Mau resistance movement. Later that night Ngũgĩ learns that the young man is his adored older brother, Good Wallace. The passage highlights a major theme in the book, conveying the violence and oppression of colonial rule and the acts of resistance to overturn it. The passage also demonstrates Ngũgĩ’s technique of using dialogue to narrate important events.

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“But, somehow, in time, I began to connect a few threads, and things became clearer as if I was emerging from a mist. I learned that our land was not quite our land; that our compound was part of a property owned by an African landlord, Lord Reverend Stanley Kahahu, or Bwana Stanley, as we called him; that we were now the ahoi, tenants at will. How did we come to be ahoi on our own land? Had we lost our traditional land to Europeans? The mist had not cleared entirely.” 

(Page 11)

Ngũgĩ devotes a substantial portion of the book to understanding how Europeans colonial powers dispossessed Africans of their land and right to self-sovereignty. This passage refers to the loss of his father’s purchase of land, which he secured through an oral agreement. This same property, unbeknownst to him, was resold in a written agreement to Lord Kahahu. Ultimately, the court decrees that Lord Kahahu is the rightful owner to the land because he has a title deed. The case illustrates the primacy of written documents over oral agreements, a scenario that repeatedly plays out in colonial Kenya, shifting the balance of power to those who know how to read and write.