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Who's Afraid of Ngûgî?

Distributed by Third World Newsreel, 545 Eighth Avenue, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018; 212-947-9277
Produced by Ka-Yelema Productions
Directed by Manthia Diawara
DVD, color, 83 min.
College - Adult
African Studies, Literature, Postcolonialism, Women's Studies

Reviewed by Martha Kelehan, Binghamton University

Date Entered: 2/7/2008

Who's Afraid of Ngûgî? follows the famed Kenyan writer, Ngûgî wa Thiong'o on his return to Kenya after 22 years in exile in London and the United States. At the start of the film, Ngûgî receives something of a heroís welcome. He is met at the airport by an enthusiastic group of supporters and seemingly his every move is reported on by the Kenyan press. Ngûgî is revealed to be the inspiration of a number of Gîkûyû-language raps by young Kenyans, who see him as a role model and the voice of the people. But as the film continues, the director delves a little deeper, interviewing several Kenyan journalists and academics who suggest that perhaps Ngûgî has been away from Kenya for too long, and that he may be out-of-touch with the current realities. It becomes abundantly clear that not all welcome his return to Kenya when it is reported that Ngûgî was attacked by 4 young men, and his wife Njeeri was raped during an attempted robbery. While some believed they were targeted for simply economic reasons, Ngûgî and his wife believe their attackers were hired for political reasons tied to Ngûgî's past criticisms of the government.

It is with this tragic event that the film, which had previously focused on Ngûgîís life and works, veers off into another direction. The last third of the film focuses more on Njeeri and her new role as an advocate for victims of rape. While the topic of advocacy for rape victims is an incredibly important one, particularly given the silences on this topic in Kenya, the filmmaker should have chosen to explore this issue in a separate film. It is for this reason that the film is merely recommended. Despite the flaws in the editing, it remains a useful film for discussions of African literature, post-colonial literature and experiences, the challenges facing exiled authors, and the politics of language.

The production quality is good, with English subtitles for the Gîkûyû-language dialogue, as well as for assistance in understanding Ngûgîís lightly-accented English. Footage is culled from numerous press conferences, staged readings from Ngûgî's works, and interviews from Kenyans from all-walks of life, from academics to veterans from the Mau Mau Uprising.