In 1977, author and playwright Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was imprisoned by the Kenyan government without charge. He had produced a play that was too frank in its critique of religion and wealth in a small Kenyan village. Detained without trial in a prison holding a number of other political prisoners, he was faced with the question of how to keep his spirit alive in the face of seemingly overwhelming repression and arbitrary authority.
“Wrestling with the Devil,” essentially an abridged version of his much longer work “Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary,” is centered around Ngũgĩ’s decision to write a novel during his detention as a way of resisting. The novel eventually became his “Devil on the Cross.” Just to add to the challenge, he decided to use his native Gĩkũyũũ to create what would become the first novel ever written in that language.
Ngũgĩĩhad neither a writing implement nor anything to write on. He solved the first problem by getting a guard to lend him a pen, on the pretext that he wanted to write a confession. He solved the second one by writing his novel on toilet paper that was rather hard and tough, fortunately. It was poor toilet paper, but fairly good writing paper.
Ngũgĩĩis quite a remarkable man, as well as an acclaimed writer. However, this volume, taken mostly from his diaries (presumably also written on toilet paper, though he doesn’t actually say), is more a collection of thoughts and experiences around being in prison than a cohesive, full-fleshed narrative. It actually isn’t even really about the process of writing his novel, which is mostly referred to at the beginning and the end of this memoir. It’s also not particularly descriptive of setting or people in the prison. As Ngũgĩĩhimself puts it, “Everything is so very ordinary — well, worse than ordinary, for time here is sluggish, space is narrow, and any action is a repetition of similar nonactions — that I have nothing outstanding to record.”
Nevertheless, much of the writing is both interesting and evocative, as when Ngũgĩĩdecides that he will not cooperate when he is put in chains on the few occasions when he is taken out of the prison for medical attention or to see his family. Although he had decided that he wouldn’t actively resist, but simply would refuse to help, his decision meant he never saw his family and suffered from an untreated abscess in a tooth during the year he was detained because the prison authorities reacted to even this passive resistance as a challenge.
Several of the chapters are a recapitulation of Kenyan history and the events leading up to Ngũgĩ’s arrest. There is an extended reflection on how repressive laws that were used by the British settlers to try to maintain their control of the colony were, ironically, preserved and used by the Kenyan government after independence to suppress protests and silence critics, including Ngũgĩĩhimself. Jomo Kenyatta, the president at the time Ngũgĩ was arrested, had himself been detained by the British government, and one of Ngũgĩ’s jailers claimed to have guarded Kenyatta during his detention.
Ngũgĩĩrelates some useful experiences and ideas about spiritual survival in prison, including the need to find small ways to resist. One of the prisoners goes on a hunger strike because he’s unable to walk without his crutches, and the others pass news about him even when he’s put in isolation.
When contact with fellow inmates is permitted, storytelling about their lives outside keeps hope alive. Similarly, when news from the outside world is cut off, the prisoners become adept at salvaging pieces of newspaper used for wrapping food and drawing the guards into conversation, and, if the guards refuse to talk about what’s happening, at least reading from their expressions and stance whether things are going well or poorly politically.
These glimpses into how political prisoners under a repressive regime can help each other and act to circumvent prison rules and repression are fascinating — but they’re just glimpses, though each incident could be a lesson for someone facing this kind of internment.
Similarly, there’s some fascination in understanding the ways that the Kenyan government operated to create a facade of due process for the prisoners, while actually making a mockery of justice by refusing to tell prisoners what they were charged with or giving them any meaningful way to appeal.
The best-written part of the book, though, is when Ngũgĩĩreturns, near the end, to the actual story about the writing and concealing of his novel. Just before he was released, there was an attempt to confiscate his writing, but the final draft, concealed in packets of toilet paper, was not discovered. It was accidentally confiscated anyway — the guards thought he was hoarding toilet paper. Luckily, it was found in a bin of toilet paper that hadn’t yet been used! Otherwise, “The Devil on the Cross” might never have been published.
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