The power of a story.
WANJIKU WA NGUGI’S life is not just fascinating, it’s also inspiring. Wa Ngugi was born in Kenya surrounded by a storytelling culture and family members that were constantly gobbling up books because “that’s all we ever really did, we all just read brutally at home.” Though she studied political science and sociology at New York University literature was always her calling. Thus she began working as an editor for the American publishing house Africa World Press (AWP).
After completing her studies she spent a year-and-a-half on secondment in Eritrea. Two months after she moved to Asmara, a war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia making life a little bit more difficult to cope with. She later moved to Zimbabwe where she lived for five years and worked as an editor as well as production manager.
Wa Ngugi’s father Ngugi wa Thiong’o has often been regarded as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature and among her 10 siblings there will be five published authors by the end of this year. In 2007 she moved to Finland, founded HAFF, Helsinki’s first African Film Festival, and wrote her debut book The Fall of Saints, published in February 2014 by American publisher Simon and Schuster. Currently Wa Ngugi lives in Helsinki with her Finnish husband and their daughter.
At a downtown Helsinki cafeteria – favourite spots of Wa Ngugi to concentrate on her writing – SixDegrees talked to the author and director of HAFF about how being the daughter of a writer and activist influenced her life, her love for films, theatre and literature and how she started Helsinki’s first African film festival.
What led you and your siblings to become writers?
Yes, it’s interesting that many of us have ended up writing. But we grew up in a house where books were not just being read but also being written. By the time I was born my father was already a published author, so we also saw the process of writing. But I also think that the stories traded in my house contributed a lot to our writing. Kenya has a strong storytelling tradition that we also had at home. When my brother and I were younger, my older siblings used to narrate stories to me about one Mwangi cowboy, a Kenyan cowboy who was seeking justice. We loved those stories! In hindsight, I think that this could be the influence behind Mugure, the lead character in my novel’s quest for justice. I only learned later that these stories were made up on the spot by my father and that he had done the same with my younger siblings when they were young. My father also wrote children’s stories and tested them on us before they were published. All these things shaped us as writers.
How did your father’s politics affect you as a child?
In the late ‘70s my father wrote a play that criticised the government and he was thrown in detention because of it without trial. I was six years old. My father was imprisoned for more than a year and he later went into exile when I was 10. Even if we were very young we understood that we were living under a dictatorship. I remember times when coming back from school we saw our father’s effigies set alight around the country, and when people – relatives included – were afraid of mentioning his name. When I got older, in my teens really, I was reading Sonia Sanchez – one of my favourite poets of all time – and others, from which I was able to contextualise the political issues at hand, and what my father and others were articulating.
Why did you leave Kenya?
Kenya had become difficult, besides we as a family lived under constant fear of harassment. We had been attacked. There were phone threats. So it made sense to leave. But it wasn’t easy. For instance, getting our passports then was just about impossible. But we eventually managed it and we all left.
When you first came to Finland your plan was to stay here for just a short period, what happened?
Well, I met my husband in 2000 in Asmara, in Eritrea. He was working there as a journalist and photographer. Eventually we moved to Finland in 2007 for a couple of years. But life happens. Our daughter was born, I started the Helsinki African Film Festival and I’m still here. [laughs]
You wrote your first novel The Fall of Saints in Helsinki. What motivated you to write it?
I had been following the debate about surrogacy and international adoptions, and wanted to write an article about it. At the same time I had decided that I would finally try my hand at writing a novel. I had been writing theatre plays before, so when I sat down to write, it became suddenly clear that this was the novel I was going to write. I chose to visit the question from the perspective of a mother who adopts a child, only to discover that the child may have come to her through questionable means. I just wanted to say something about not having stringent enough laws because sometimes there’s a very thin line and we don’t always know what exactly happens when a child is adopted in Kenya and taken to the US.
Five years ago you decided to start HAFF, Helsinki’s African Film Festival. Why?
I am interested in the idea of promoting African film and letting people know that good African film does exit. Coming to Finland and observing the misinformation about Africa made me want to do something. It occurred to me that people don’t know much about Africa except as seen through the lens of Hollywood, or mainstream news. Incomplete stories as it were, bits and pieces of a negative. Through that lens Africa is a dark continent that only produces dark images or doesn’t produce anything except war and famine. We want to tell the complete story. So we thought it would be great to hear from the Africans themselves, through their art. What better way to get to know people and their culture than through films.
Your theatre play Love and Revolution with Miriam Makeba will be preformed in HAFF, why did you decide to include theatre in a film festival?
I’ve always loved theatre and as I mentioned earlier I thought I was going to be playwright, and even though I have written and produced plays in the US and Zimbabwe, I have never had them published. As part of celebrating ´´The Creative Pulse of Africa´´ which is our film festival theme, I along with Amkelwa Mbekeni a South African radio journalist also from the HAFF team, as well as my brother Mukoma wa Ngugi, he’s a writer and professor and lives in US, wrote a play about a time in the life of Miriam Makeba right after she met Kwame Toure, a civil rights activist. This ia part of HAFF´s vision of showcasing more African arts in Finland.
Any plans for the future?
I’m currently working on my second novel, but nope, not saying a word about it yet.