Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o — a symbol of many abusive powerful men

Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o
Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o

A week ago, social media exploded when news emerged that renowned Kenyan author, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, had allegedly physically abused his former wife, Nyambura.

The allegations were revealed by Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, one of the six children that wa Thiong’o shared with the late Nyambura.

Wa Ngũgĩ, who holds both Kenyan and American citizenship, is an associate professor of literatures in English at Cornell University in New York.

Like his father, he is a respected writer and poet, with several notable books including the 2006 masterpiece, Hurling Words at Consciousness.

Writing on X (formerly known as Twitter), wa Ngũgĩ stated: “My father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, physically abused my late mother — he would beat her up.

“Some of my earliest memories are me going to visit her at my grandmother’s where she would seek refuge.

“But with that said, it is the silencing of who she was that gets me. OK — I have said it.”

The news of wa Thiong’o allegedly being an abusive man was met with disbelief by the multitudes of people who have grown up reading his works.

In his writings, he speaks of coloniality, language and community.

More than this, he speaks of the sacredness of the feminine, a perspective that is evident in many of his works, including The Perfect Nine, which has been described by many reviewers as being feminist.

That such a man could be a woman-beater is unthinkable to many people.

Some, in an attempt to minimise the significance of the revelation of wa Thiong’o’s true nature, are appealing for compassion based on his current state.

The 86-year-old is ailing from kidney failure and is living alone and under the care of medical personnel at his house in California.

He has been in poor health for many years, with his condition worsening over time.

But that the man is sick does not mean he cannot be exposed for his alleged abusive behaviour — or be held accountable for it, especially by the child (ren) who were traumatised by it.

While many are shocked by the idea that wa Thiong’o is an alleged perpetrator of gender-based violence, I am not.

Over the years, I have come to learn that it is often the men we hold in high regard, the ones whose public persona is almost flawless, who are capable of the worst levels of depravity in the home.

History is littered with examples of great men who were abusive partners and fathers.

One of the greatest inventors that ever lived, Steve Jobs, is alleged  to have been a horrible father.

In her memoir titled Small Fry, his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, whose paternity he had initially denied, describes the late co-founder of Apple as a verbally and emotionally abusive sadist.

She also recounts how he allegedly made sexually inappropriate statements about her when she was just nine years old.

Jobs is not the only respected figure to be exposed as an alleged abuser.

Closer to home, respected and powerful figures have also been accused of abuse.

The reality of the situation is that powerful men are often protected by those around them — men and women who know the extent of the damage they are causing on their wives and children but who, in a quest to maintain proximity to power, say and do nothing.

Even the children, wives and families of such men are often to maintain silence by the power dynamics that come with the positionalities of their fathers and husbands.

In SA, where the criminal justice system consistently fails women, this situation is particularly pronounced.

Many powerful men who have been accused of domestic violence and sexual abuse have been acquitted by courts on the basis of the victims being deemed to be unreliable witnesses and at times, even on the basis of a technicality.

This has happened in cases of men such as former president Jacob Zuma, renowned speaker Vusi Thembekwayo, and many other men who have faced allegations of abuse.

It is this reality that has made it impossible for me to deem any man incapable of being an abuser.

I know what most people struggle to believe: that no man, not even Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, is beyond being an abuser.


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