Africa: Stories in the 55

Mukoma Wa Ngugi's 'Mrs. Shaw' reflects on the pain of exile and liberation struggle

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Mrs. Shaw by Mukoma Wa Ngugi
Mrs. Shaw by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

In Mrs. Shaw, Kenyan writer Mukoma Wa Ngugi looks at the liberation struggle of the fictional East African Kwatee Republic, where the lives of Kalumba, Ogum, Sukena and Melissa become intertwined amid a revolution revisited. RFI spoke to the Kenyan author about his latest novel.


Africa: Stories in the 55

Your book, Mrs. Shaw, shows how history and memory do not always intersect.

Part of it is how we grew up. My father  [Ngugi Wa Thiong'o] is a writer, but at some point he was in political exile, at some point he had been detained by the Kenyan government. Growing up in an authoritarian government, a dictatorship, we always had competing versions of history. We had the clean government version, and then we had the history we knew. And in Kenya specifically the fight for independence, we didn’t grow up learning about the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as the Mau Mau. But we knew the history. Personally, in my own family, my uncle was in the Mau Mau. So it was as if we had these two competing histories and I wanted to play around with that.

It seems that you bring this in perhaps with the title and the character, Mrs. Shaw. She’s in the book, but not a big part. She doesn’t have a lot to say, but at the same time, she's a major symbol - I thought it was quite interesting that you would name the book after her.

The titles kept changing, but she’s the catalyst of everything, right? Because of the role she plays in catalyzing the war of independence. So really, without her, the Kwatee Republic would have had quite a different history. It’s as if she’s the anchor of everything that happens and she’s the one who allows the main character, Kalumba - even though he’s a Kwatee nationalist and she’s a colonial remnant, also in exile in the US - she’s the one who allows him to get a sense of his history, himself, and an understanding of the history that propels him into exile. He’s in exile because he was fighting for the second independence and the betrayal that comes with that. But he’s able to see the link between him being in exile and all the historical forces that pushed him there.

Mrs. Shaw doesn’t exist historically. There was this policeman who was a former colonial officer, his name was Mr. Shaw. He’s real. He was this really big British guy who was part of the security forces after independence. By all means, he was a killer, he had the same colonial instinct, he was a racist, so on and so forth, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘What if Mrs. Shaw, my fictional character, had been the wife to the real Mr. Shaw?’ (laughs).

The Kwatee Republic is fictional, but of course its roots seem based in Kenya - would you say it’s easier to write about a place that’s fictional, even though you and your family have such a rich history tied to Kenya?

It was a very tough call for me, because when I read books about fictionalized countries, I can tell the country, and I always wonder, ‘why do authors do it?’ I can even see it with my own father's book, but I can tell this is Kenya. So I was very torn on the one hand, I need to write in a way that would allow me to step outside history, and at the same time, not be beholden, beholden to the historical fact. And maybe that’s a difference. In other words, I didn’t want to write a historical fiction book. I play around so much with Kenyan history, that had I named it Kenya, or even Uganda, I think it would have pulled away, because then it becomes, ‘this didn’t really happen, this didn’t happen to Dedan Kimathi [the Mau Mau leader], this didn’t happen to the Land and Freedom Army’. At the same time, I'm laying the groundwork for a second betrayal, now this would be the democratic movements of the 1990s, that level of betrayal hasn’t happened. It allows for me to play with history and also the present.

A big topic in modern African literature, and in your book, is the issue of the exile. Without giving anything away, specifically pertaining to this book, can an exile go home?

I think it’s a lot of work, because people grow roots where they are, even in my own personal experience. People in exile, they get jobs there, they get families there, the kids are going to school there, the doctors…but I think it’s easier nowadays as opposed to, let’s say, if you’re exiled in the 1980s, where your main communication with people back home would have been a telephone call, or letters that would take weeks. But nowadays, it’s so much easier to get connected, not necessarily seamless, but you are already in touch with so many things. In my own case, I was just in Kenya in December for a literary festival, and most of the writers we have met either in Kenya or elsewhere - there’s a sense I’m still in touch with the community. On the other hand it’s still very difficult, life moves on.

You speak about the character being in exile in the US, and people back home in the Kwatee Republic who criticize him. Perception is interesting, from an exile perspective and from the point of view of someone who’s only lived in one country.

A lot of things happened to him once he goes into exile, and one of them is learning more about where he is, about the US, about being black in the US, and about history. For example, Kalumba meets a man on the beach who turns out to be a black Seminole, a Native American. They also have their own history, because they come from escaped slaves who were protected by the Native American communities under pain of death, and they ended up intermarrying. Then Kalumba meets his love interest, a Puerto Rican painter, Melissa, but Melissa’s father is in jail because of his Puerto Rican nationalism, which is something that is historically true. There are still people in the US fighting for Puerto Rican independence and they ended up being criminalized and thrown into jail. He’s learning about internal and external exile. I’m really interested in the side of exile that’s not glamorized - I wanted the exile that people experience, where you come in and do all this hard labor, wash dishes, wash old people, jobs you don’t associate with the glamour of the US. In a way, I wanted, through Kalumba, to take away the mythology.

In the book, Kwatee citizens want answers to injustices or perceived injustices of the last revolution, but if there’s not going to be a “democratic investigation”, how can you satisfy a person’s anger or resolve that issue in the book?

If there’s any hope, it’s the hope of continued struggle. We can’t say that now that we can vote, everything is solved. So I would say that if there’s any hope, it’s the realization that people have to keep struggling. In a way, I thought of how the hope would lie. It’s actually in the revolutionary feminist characters, Sukena and Melissa. Because for them, they haven’t allowed themselves to believe the lie. Kalumba does, his friend Ogum does, they buy into it, but it’s actually the women characters in the novel who position themselves in a way that they can see the lies unfolding. And I think the struggle continues with them.

So you’re saying the future is in feminism?

The future is in feminism that recognizes this historical inequalities, and also gender inequalities, that’s also revolutionary. One of the reasons I wanted to have those characters is because historically the voices that were silenced were women fighters in the Mau Mau. We get all these books and history about Dedan Kimathi, but you hardly ever hear about the women who were involved as fighters in the Mau Mau. Maybe if we had listened to them we would have a different vision of history.

Here's an excerpt of Mrs. Shaw:

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