The grand old man of African writing in English, Chinua Achebe, died in Boston in 2013 without having received the call from Stockholm. It is hard to debate the Nigerian's claim to the prize that, thanks to Alfred Nobel's conditions, is never awarded posthumously.

Although considered a favourite, That's one reason that it is entirely appropriate that the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 has been given to Achebe's fellow African literary giant, the 78-year-old Kenyan writer, thinker and activist, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Not only does he richly deserve the attention that the Nobel still commands, but his connection with Achebe is also deeply symbolic of the complicated history and the tumultuous currents that informed post-independence African writing in English – and in the African languages.

In 1958, Achebe’s breakout novel Things Fall Apart was published in the UK by William Heinemann Ltd to critical and popular acclaim. Achebe was subsequently invited to be the editor of the African Writers Series (AWS) that Heinemann launched in 1962, to publish young African voices claiming their history and telling the truth about the colonial encounter that had ravaged their continent, looted its wealth and squeezed its surplus labour.

One of the most compelling books that Achebe published in AWS, in 1964, was Weep Not, Child, authored by a young scholar still at Makerere University, named James Ngũgĩ. It was hailed as the first novel by an East African writer, and tells a powerful coming of age story set against the backdrop of anti-colonial struggle in Kenya. "Nyokabi called him," the novel opens:

She was a small, black woman, with a bold but grave face. One could tell by her small eyes full of life and warmth that she had once been beautiful. But time and bad conditions do not favour beauty. All the same, Nyokabi had retained her full smile – a smile that lit up her dark face.

"Would you like to go to school?"

"Oh mother!" Njoroge gasped. He half feared that the woman might withdraw her words.

The journey to fiction

Weep Not, Child was the product of an intensely creative phase in Ngũgĩ’s life, which began when he was still at university. His play The Black Hermit, staged in Kampala at 1962 as a part of the celebrations surrounding Uganda’s independence from colonialism, was said to herald a brave new voice that spoke for the entire continent.

As it happens, Ngũgĩ’s love for theatre was to remain a life-long commitment that tied him to the oral literatures of Africa, flowing like an underground river below the Dickens and Shakespeare (and Biggles!) that had inhabited his school and college life. In the years to come, every time his literary life felt arid, he was to return to theatre for renewal, for simple answers to his complex problems.

Weep Not, Child was followed in quick succession by The River Between (1965) and A Grain of Wheat (1967), which experimented with structure and form. In the same year, 1967, Ngũgĩ’ accepted a teaching position at the University of Nairobi. This signalled the beginning of his active involvement in politics, and his career as a writer of serious, polemical non-fiction situated around the ideas, identities and histories of Africa (Homecoming, which appeared in print in 1969; Writers in Politics, 1981 and 1997; Decolonising the Mind in 1986; Moving the Center in 1994; Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams in1998; and most recently, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance in 2009.)

As a Fanonist-Marxist, on the one hand he critiqued the terrible neo-colonial domination that had continued in the independent nations of Africa even after independence was won, while on the other hand he spoke of the resistances to bourgeoisie capitalism represented by the newly minted states, by championing peasant resistance movements. His vocal criticism soon began to trouble the authoritarian government that had come to power in Kenya.

If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s first three novels can be said to represent the first phase in post-colonial literature, the revolutionary position that recorded the independence struggle of the new republic, by the time he published the seminal Petals of Blood in 1977 – a complex, ultimately tragic, book with several points of view and a haunting unsparing portrait of a corruption-riddled body politic, so soon after the golden age of nationalism – he represented the second phase of post-colonial literature: criticism of the corrupt state.

In the same year, Ngũgĩ’s controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, was performed at Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru. Hearkening back to the folk performative traditions endemic to the tribal cultures of East Africa, I Will Marry When I Want was produced in an open air theatre, with actors from the worker-forces and peasant-communities of the local areas, and voiced their profound grievances with the state of affairs in the country.

Consequently, Ngũgĩ was thrown into a maximum security prison without trial, and for one whole year, he had no connection with the outside world. It was in the Kamiti Maximum Prison that he formulated his ideological position that was to resound in all parts of the former colonised world – that is, decolonising the mind, by abjuring English, the language of the colonisers. On prison-issued toilet paper, he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), which was translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).

Decolonising literature

After Amnesty secured Ngũgĩ’s release in December 1978 as a “prisoner of conscience” he was hounded out of Kenya by the Moi regime, which he opposed tooth and nail. He lived in exile, in England (1982–1989) and the United States (1989–2002), teaching in some of the most famous American universities, and writing his powerful, oddly luminous books. However, there can be no doubt that Decolonising the Mind, published in 1986, might be considered his most important work, and the single-most important contribution to post-colonial thought, alongside Edward Said’s Orientalism.

In this, Ngũgĩ traced eloquently the power – and the subsequent failure of Achebe’s tradition, the one he too had championed as a young writer. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was celebrated for the unique language it employed to describe the colonial encounter. An Africanised English, one which translated and transplanted (wild) African proverbs to the proverbial (tame) English garden, thus making it robust and fertile all at once. (This is what Indian writers in English, Raja Rao downwards, have also been canonised for accomplishing.)

Ngũgĩ’s argument against this was sophisticated.

When a writer – any writer – chooses to work in a language, he strengthens that language, whether consciously or unconsciously. So if writers eschew their mother tongues and “cannibalise” them to write in the coloniser’s (more correctly, the globaliser’s) tongue, then he is guilty of “enriching” English over their own native languages.

Just as he had given up Christianity – and with that his given name – a few years before, Ngũgĩ gave up English altogether and began to write to his people, in Gikuyu. Matigari (1986) was his second novel in Gikuyu and remained banned in Kenya for the entire length of dictator Moi’s term.

Buoyed by the inevitable sorrow of exile (his trip to Kenya after the fall of Moi from power was traumatic – he and his wife were brutally attacked in their own home), Ngugi has continued to write prolifically. As an academic – currently he is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine – his work has challenged the existing tools of analysis and hermeneutics, and his critical faculty has continued to inform his creative life.

In 2006, after a gap of twenty-two years he published a new novel, his magnum opus as it were, Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of the Gikuyu novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. He has also published two volumes of memoirs that return his readers to the material of his first two novels.

Ngugi’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages and they continue to be the subject of innumerable essays, critical monographs, and dissertations across the world. He has been awarded ten honourary doctorates from around the world, and the flame of his fiery political vision remains undimmed.

The great resistance traditions of Africa includes not only men of letters like Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, but also, in the long silence between them, the voices of hundreds of thousands of poets, performers, shamans and oral historians, both men and women, spinning their yarns in hundreds of thousands of small languages across the never-dark continent.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD dissertation on the Natyashastra and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha.