Moving the Centre

Conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Tuesday, 14 May 2019 - 7pm
Nouvel Building, Auditorium 200

English, with simultaneous interpretation

Organized by
Museo Reina Sofía
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o  © Daniel Anderson,  2010
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o © Daniel Anderson, 2010

The Museo Reina Sofía welcomes Kenyan novelist and essayist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (1938), one of the strongest voices in international and African literature and in the critical analysis of systems of thought tied to neocolonialism. Regarded as one of the pre-eminent contemporary writers and with a biography centred on the fight against cultural and political imperialism, wa Thiong'o will discuss ‘minority’ forms of literature in this conversation.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s extensive literary career spans more than half a century and encompasses different genres: novels, stories, memoirs, plays and essays. His trajectory, both lived and professional, has seen him become a point of reference in the resistance to colonialism and the condemnation of corruption and violence in African countries. During his year in prison, from 1977 to 1978 — incarcerated by the Independent Government of Kenya over his criticism and social protests — he wrote Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (Devil on the Cross), the first modern novel in Gikuyu (also called Kikuyu), the language of the predominant ethnic group Kikuyu, spoken by seven million Africans yet widely repressed as a conductor of knowledge and creation. Since then, the author of In the House of the Interpreter (2012) has written the entire body of his fiction in this language, becoming one of the major proponents of native and local languages as the manifestation of other utterances and possible and necessary modes of thinking. Consequently, wa Thiong'o addresses the inequality that exists between different languages divided into those that marginalise and those that are marginalised, languages of power and ruled languages, and his writing as a whole sets out to eschew hierarchical relationships between languages and analyses the linguistic politics that could be suited to processes of decolonisation. 

In addition to this ethical defence of a language-related discourse of difference, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is also recognised for recovering and disseminating African pre-colonial culture in contemporary literature, in which the story and oral storytelling are placed at the centre. In his writing, magic realism interweaves with an analysis of the post-colonial system, whereby popular culture in Africa and its forms of conveyance mix with genres of world literature and urgent present-day problems seen from the perspective of a Kenyan intellectual.


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a novelist, professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, and a social activist. He was born in Kenya in 1938. His literary career is shaped by the Mau Mau guerrilla uprising (1952–1962) and his country’s independence from British colonial rule. In 1977, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Government of Kenya for the social criticism he formulated in the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want, 1977), during which time he wrote the first modern novel in Gikuyu: Caitaani mũtharaba-Inĩ (Devil on the Cross). His reflections on the academic concept of African cultures and literature have paved the way for many post-colonial theories, working to draw attention to African territories’ own cultural character after European colonialism. From 1981 onwards, the author focused on creating his literary work in his mother tongue Gikuyu, rather than English. His biography most notably includes, among other works, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (James Currey, 1993), Wizard of the Crow (Pantheon, 2006), and A Grain of Wheat (Heinemann, 1967).

Chema Caballero. Writer, cooperator and NGO adviser. Law Degree, from the Autonomous University of Madrid and Master in Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, from Long Island University of New York. He is the author of the books Los hombres leopardo se están extinguiendo [The leopard men are becoming extinct] (PPC, 2011) and Edjengui se ha dormido. Del victimismo al activismo de los pigmeos bakas [Edjengui has fallen asleep. From victimhood to the activism of the Baka pygmies] (Zerca and Lejos, 2017), among other publications. He is co-author of the blog África no es un País [Africa is not a Country], in the Spanish newspaper El País, a contributor of Planeta Futuro in the same newspaper and also publishes regularly in Mundo Negro and other national media.