Roughed Up on the Waterfront

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Never in a million years would we have thought that our August cover boy and esteemed UC Irvine professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o would suffer indignities and racial profiling in that ethnic melting pot San Francisco, but our pal Rick Reiff—the EE at Orange County Business Journal and host of his own public TV show—has the story of the "international row" in his latest OC Insider column.

To back up a bit, Cornel Bonca wrote a piece for us titled The Homecoming that had Ngugi (pronounced "GOO-gee," with both the g's hard) returning to his native Kenya in 2004 after 22 years in political exile. Despite having previously spent a year in a maximum security prison in Nairobi, he returned to gather information for a novel he was writing, convinced it was a politically safe time to do so. And, when he arrived to hundreds of well-wishers at a Kenyan airport, greetings from people on the streets and thousands of rapt audience members at his lectures, that seemed to be the right call. But everything changed on the night of Aug. 11, 2004, when three armed men carrying two guns, a machete and a bolt cutter forced their way into the Nairobi apartment compound where Ngugi and his wife Njeeri were staying, robbed them of their money, a computer and their jewelry, and then stuck around, inexplicably, for a full hour, beating and torturing Ngugi, and beating, stabbing and then sodomizing Njeeri. Somehow, the 66-year-old man and his 49-year-old wife were able to free themselves from their captors.

So, to get back to Rick's piece, Ngugi called what happened to him at a four-star hotel on the Embarcadero waterfront worse than anything that ever happened to him in South Africa during the days of apartheid. To boil it down, Ngugi—in San Francisco as part of the promotional tour for his novel Wizard of the Crow, which deals with strife and oppression in a fictional African nation (hmmm, wonder which one inspired that)—was on a Hotel Vitale veranda in his native dashiki, reading a book, when an employee ordered him to leave. The confrontation did not end until Ngugi took the employee to the front desk to prove he was a registered guest, but Ngugi apparently suffered such a stink eye from other staffers that he immediately checked out.

What I find unusual about all this is I've been spending a lot of time in San Francisco lately, and I thought we Southern Californians could learn a lot about living together in racial harmony based on my visits there. It's not a utopia by any means, but everyone generally seems to get along (or, at least, stay out of one another's way) much better than they do down here.

Of course, my budget doesn't allow stays at four-star hotels on the Embarcadero—and I don't even know where one goes to buy a dashiki.


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