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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 28, 2008

Kenyan author will speak at UH

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is in the Isles to accept the 2008 Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals at UH.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o will discuss his writings on human rights at 7 p.m. today at the University of Hawai'i Campus Center Ballroom. He will give a reading and book signing with Albert Wendt at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the UH Hawaiian Studies auditorium Halau o Haumea. Both public events are free. He also will speak at UH-Hilo this week.

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WAIKIKI Ngugi wa Thiong'o, one of Kenya's best known authors and civil rights advocates, has spent much of his life preserving his culture, his language and fighting for democracy in Kenya.

Even when Ngugi was thrown in prison by his government, he continued to write. In prison for a year, he wrote a book, "Petals of Blood," on toilet paper, using the pen given to him to write out his confession.

"While I was in prison, I made good use of the situation. I used that pen for a different kind of confession," said the 70-year-old Ngugi yesterday from a sixth-floor alcove at his Waikiki hotel. "I was critical of the postcolonial condition. I saw some of the colonial problems had not been addressed adequately. I decried the (shrinking) of the democratic space."

Ngugi is in Hawai'i to receive the 2008 Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals recognition at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. Jointly administered by the William S. Richardson School of Law and the UH Department of American Studies, the chair is a visiting academic position reserved for a distinguished public figure. It is Ngugi's second trip to Hawai'i in the past decade.

Ngugi will give public lectures at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa campus today and at UH-Hilo Friday.

"I cherish this a lot because of its association with democracy," Ngugi said. "I am basically a novelist of essays. The democratic space is important for all people who use words."

The East African country was under British rule from 1895 until 1963 when the Kenya African National Union, or KANU, was formed under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, who remained in power until his death in 1978.

The country is in turmoil now after a disputed presidential election unleashed weeks of bloodshed. The election laid bare frustrations over poverty, corruption and long-standing ethnic rivalries in Kenya. The country experienced some of the worst bloodshed in the weeks after the disputed presidential election on Dec. 27; more than 1,200 people died and 300,000 were displaced. About 157,000 refugees are still living in camps in Kenya.

Ngugi has spent 25 years abroad in England and the United States. He has worked as a professor at Yale University and New York University. Now he is a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine.

In the postcolonial world of his homeland, he abandoned the use of English in his books and wrote only in Gikuyu, his native language. Now his books are translated into English. His latest book, "Wizard of the Crow," was published in 2006.

Writing in his native language, Ngugi says, has given him the freedom to embrace his culture and to become "visible to his community." He said he cannot imagine how Hawaiians feel being a minority in their own homeland.

"While it was painful in Kenya under British rule, we were never a minority," Ngugi said. "It's very different to be overwhelmed by a demographic. People often forget that in America, except for Native Americans, they're all immigrants."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Suzanne Roig at sroig@honoluluadvertiser.com.