Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s (born 5 January 1938) fiction, like that of many contemporary African novelists, is highly political: It portrays the traumatic transition from colonized culture to an independent African society. His novels illustrate with unmatched clarity the problems created by this period of rapid change. Superior European technology introduced into Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century undercut traditional cultural values, and colonial domination (denunciation of indigenous cultures and religions, appropriation of native lands, forced labor) led to a disintegration of indigenous societies.
The major themes of Ngugi’s novels derive from his characters’ attempts to overcome the confusion caused by the peripeteia of values and to reintegrate and revitalize their new syncretic culture. Faced with the drastic dissolution of his family in the Mau Mau war from 1952 to 1958, Njoroge, the protagonist of Weep Not, Child, tenaciously adheres to his beliefs in education and messianic deliverance in a vain attempt to maintain some cohesion in his life. Waiyaki, the hero of The River Between, believing that he is the new messiah, also attempts in vain to reunite the Christian and traditional Kikuyu factions of his village. A Grain of Wheat is experimental in form: The novel’s meaning is available not through the character and experiences of a single protagonist but through the complex interrelationships of five major and many minor characters. The theme, however, remains the same—the attempt of the members of a Kikuyu village to reintegrate themselves and to reorder their priorities after the devastation of the Mau Mau war. Petals of Blood, set in postcolonial Kenya, once more depicts a group of peasants who are trying to fashion a meaningful life for themselves in the context of economic exploitation by the new black leaders of the country.
Ngugi’s preoccupation with this theme is best understood in the historical context of the conflict between the Kikuyus and British colonizers that culminated in the Mau Mau war of 1952 and that was provoked by three important factors: the economic and cultural effects of land appropriation, the importance of education for the Kikuyus and consequently the impact of its deprivation, and the messianic fervor that characterized Kikuyu politics at the time. Ngugi focuses on various combinations of these three factors in his novels, and his repeated concern with these issues is largely determined by his traumatic experiences during the war.
When the British settled in Kenya, they expropriated large areas of the best arable land from the Kikuyus (who were then crowded into reserves). The land was given, at little or no cost, to English syndicates, investors, and farmers. Piecemeal appropriation of Kikuyu land was finally systematized by a 1921 court ruling in which all land, even that which had been put aside for “reserves,” was declared to be owned by the British government. The natives were thus considered squatters on land they had owned for generations. In exchange for squatting “rights,” the Kikuyus had to provide 180 days of free labor per annum. Such manipulation, along with coercive tax laws and punitive raids, put tremendous pressure on the Kikuyus and eventually led to the Mau Mau war. Although independence was achieved in 1962, the war was a particularly bitter experience for the Kikuyus because they were divided—some fought for and some against the British.
While being deprived of their land, the Kikuyus focused their attention on education, only to find themselves once more at odds with the colonial government, which, with the aim of promoting agricultural and vocational training, limited African education to the primary level and prohibited the use of English as the medium of instruction. The Kikuyus, however, preferred liberal, humanistic secondary education because it permitted access to civil service jobs and, more important, because English was the language of technology and power. They reasoned, quite accurately, that mastery of English was crucial for their nationalistic aspirations. The Kikuyus responded by mercilessly taxing themselves in order to build their own schools, only to have them shut down repeatedly by the government. This struggle continued until the outbreak of the Mau Mau war, when all Kikuyu schools were closed for several years.
Knowledge of another element of Kenyan history is also important to an appreciation of Ngugi’s fiction. Mugo wa Kibiro, a Kikuyu prophet, predicted that a messianic leader would come to deliver the tribe from colonial bondage. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the independence movement and the first president of Kenya, skillfully used this prophecy to coalesce the social and religious sentiments of the Kikuyu around himself during the Mau Mau war. Hence the atmosphere at that time was charged by powerful contradictory feelings: Fear, uncertainty, bitterness, and despair produced by colonial oppression were balanced by fervent feelings of loyalty, sacrifice, and elation resulting from messianic expectations and hopes for independence, freedom, and recovery of the land.
At the age of fifteen, Ngugi was caught up in this historical and emotional drama, and its effects on him were profound. He had experienced extreme poverty and thus clearly sympathized with the economic and political predicament of the peasants. At the age of ten or eleven, he witnessed the forced evacuation of Kikuyu farmers from their land. As they were being moved, they sang about their hopes of reclaiming their property and about their educated children who might attain this goal some day. Ngugi’s memory of this scene explains his preoccupation with the war: “They sang of acommonloss and hope and I felt their voice rock the earth where I stood literally unable to move.” Ngugi’s burden was exacerbated by the closing of schools. Young Kikuyus were being exhorted to master Western knowledge and use it as a weapon of liberation, but the political and military crises blocked access to education and therefore to the possibility of leadership. This deprivation was rendered even more painful by the sustained messianic fervor that reemphasized the role of leadership.
This, then, was the nexus of forces that composed the sociopolitical and religious ambience in which Ngugi reached maturity. Because he was so young when he began writing, his early fiction shows an imperfect understanding of his predicament. His first two novels graphically depict his entanglement in the peripeteia of values, whereas his third and fourth novels, written after he had studied Frantz Fanon’s psychopolitical analysis of colonialism, show a sudden and clearer understanding of the ambiguities and contradictions of colonial society.
Weep Not, Child
Set in Kenya in the 1940’s and 1950’s and ending in the midst of the Mau Mau war, Weep Not, Child is Ngugi’s most autobiographical novel; Njoroge, its child protagonist, is about the same age as Ngugi would have been at that time. The novel is an anticlimactic, truncated bildungsroman in that it follows the development of a child into adolescence but does not adequately resolve the question of what precisely the hero has learned by the end.
The novel rapidly and cogently focuses on Njoroge’s preoccupation with education and messianism. Ngotho, Njoroge’s father, is confused and emasculated by his inability to comprehend and resist the appropriation of his land by an English settler named Howlands, so the family begins to disintegrate, reflecting in microcosm the general social fragmentation. The family’s burden passes to Njoroge, who is fortunate enough to be receiving a formal education (which annually consumes the wages of two brothers). When Njoroge graduates into secondary school, the entire village contributes to his tuition, and thus the hero is transformed from the “son of Ngotho to the son of the land.” He begins to feel that through his education he will become a great leader, and Kenyatta’s imprisonment further fuels his grandiose fantasies: He even envisions himself as the new messiah.
Njoroge’s self-image, however, remains insubstantial. His love of “education” is abstract: He does not care for particular subjects, nor does his vision encompass specific goals or projects. His messianic delusions are equally empty, and his egocentric world crumbles as soon as he is confronted with the reality of the war.When his father dies as the result of severe torture and castration, when his brothers are either imprisoned or killed, and when he too is tortured in spite of his innocence, his illusions are shattered. Finally, the girl he loves rejects him, and he attempts suicide but is easily dissuaded by his mother. The novel ends with his recognition that he is a coward.
Ngotho’s rapid descent from the height of selfimportance to the nadir of self-negation is enacted against the backdrop of a society in violent turmoil, which Ngugi depicts in effective detail. The complex social entanglements and contradictions—the different political views and the conflict between generations within Ngotho’s family; the enmity between Ngotho and Jacobo, whose loyalty to the British is rewarded with wealth and political power; the mixture of fear, hatred, and respect that Howlands harbors for Ngotho because he has occupied the latter’s land; the Englishman’s desire to torture and kill Ngotho, which leads to the retaliatory murder of Howlands by Ngotho’s son; Howlands’s contempt for Jacobo’s collaboration; Njoroge’s love for Mwihaki, Jacobo’s daughter, and his brief friendship with Howlands’s son—as well as the descriptions of torture and summary executions by the British and the Mau Mau—create a powerful microcosmic picture of a whole society being ripped apart by economic and political conflict. The novel brilliantly depicts the trauma and the ambiguities of a revolution. Njoroge’s actual experience is not derived from active involvement in this upheaval, however; rather, he functions as a passive, reluctant witness. His experience is that of a highly suggestible and solitary adolescent who easily internalizes the hopes, frustrations, and anguish of his society and then soothes his own trauma with self-aggrandizing fantasies.
The violence and trauma to which Njoroge is subject only partially account for the oscillation of his selfimage. The rest of the explanation lies in the abrupt change of values that engulfs the hero and the narrator. Njoroge’s early subscription to English values includes a naïve belief in biblical messianic prophecies that supplement the Kikuyu myth. As a self-styled messiah, he attempts to soothe the fears of a “weeping child”; thus his attitude toward others exactly parallels the narrator’s depiction of Njoroge as the weeping child. This profound sympathy and parallelism between the narrator’s and the hero’s views underscore the complete absence of irony in Ngugi’s portrayal of Njoroge.
The denouement of the novel also confirms this underlying problem. Without any justification, Njoroge assumes all the guilt of the trauma suffered by several families and accuses the girl he loves of betraying him before he tries to commit suicide. He is thus still following the model of Christ, of a messiah who assumed all human guilt, was betrayed, and was then turned into a scapegoat. By allowing his hero to transform his self-image from that of a savior to that of a scapegoat, Ngugi allows him to retain his original egocentricity. This essential continuity in Njoroge’s characterization testifies to the powerful influence of Christianity on Ngugi himself. If Njoroge’s fantasies are a product of the sociopolitical and religious factors in this specific colonial situation, then the ambiguity in the narrative attitude toward Njoroge can be ascribed to the same forces. In the final analysis, it is Ngugi’s inability to define adequately his stand toward these factors that is responsible for the narrative ambiguity. The novel, then, can be seen simultaneously as a portrayal and a product of changing values. The persistence of this confusion led Ngugi to a reworking of the same issues in his next novel.
The River Between
The plot of The River Between, set in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, is centered once more on a combination of education and messianism, while the subplot examines the clash of values through the emotionally and culturally charged controversy over female circumcision. The geographic setting is allegorical: The events take place in the “heart and soul” of Kikuyu land and culture among the communities on two ridges ranged on either side of the river Honia (which means “regeneration” in Kikuyu). Both ridges, Kameno and Makuyu, claim to be the source of Kikuyu culture, but as the novel progresses, Kameno, home of the Kikuyu prophet Mugo wa Kibiro and his descendant Waiyaki, the novel’s protagonist, becomes the base for those who want to retain the purity of Kikuyu culture, whereas Makuyu becomes the home of those who have converted to Christianity and have renounced various “evil” aspects of their original tradition. The ensuing conflict thus becomes emblematic of the problems of upheaval experienced by the entire culture. The stylized characterization reflects this antagonism between the desire for cultural purity and the desire to abrogate traditional values.
Among the older generation, which provides the secondary characters, the opposition is embodied in Chege and Joshua. Chege, Waiyaki’s father, a minor prophet embittered by the people’s disregard for his claims, is realistically aware of the specific cultural and technological superiority of European society and thus, in spite of inherent dangers, commands his son to attend the missionary school and master Western knowledge without absorbing its vices. He is simultaneously concerned with preserving Kikuyu purity and with ensuring its survival through the absorption of clearly efficacious aspects of Western culture. On the other hand, Joshua, a zealous convert who has become a self-righteous, puritanical minister, renounces Kikuyu culture as dirty, heathen, and evil. He has entirely dedicated himself to his own and other people’s salvation through Christianity. Ngugi balances these static and absolute oppositions with the dynamic and relativistic attitudes of Waiyaki and Joshua’s two daughters, Muthoni and Nyambura, who attempt in their different ways to synthesize the two cultures.
The subplot depicts Muthoni’s disastrous attempt to combine what she considers to be the best aspects of both cultures. Even though her parents will not permit her to undergo circumcision because the church has forbidden this rite of purification and rebirth in Kikuyu culture, Muthoni decides that she must be circumcised. By becoming a circumcised Christian she hopes to combine the two cultures within herself. Unfortunately, an infection contracted during the ceremony kills Muthoni. In addition to radicalizing the two factions, her apostasy and death reveal the more profound problems of cultural transition. The fact that her notion of womanhood is predicated on circumcision shows that peripeteia involves not only physical and social changes but also ontological ones; specific modifications of a culture become meaningless unless the entire cultural gestalt is altered to accommodate particular infusions. Waiyaki sees Muthoni as a sacrifice to the clash of cultures, and when he falls in love with her uncircumcised sister, Nyambura, the subplot is deftly woven into the main plot—Waiyaki’s attempt to become a messiah and an educator.
Unlike Weep Not, Child, where the messianic possibility is entirely confined to Njoroge’s fantasies, The River Between presents it as an actual, unambiguous fact: While Waiyaki is still a child, his “mission” to master Western knowledge and unite the Kikuyus is revealed to him. When, along with many other students, he resigns from the Christian mission school, he gets his chance to fulfill his destiny. With the help of the people and his colleagues he establishes an independent Kikuyu school that flourishes and thus earns him the respect befitting a messiah; by successfully mediating between the English and Kikuyu cultures and by making the positive aspects of the former available to the latter, he seems to have fulfilled the prophecy. His success, however, is short-lived. Jealousy and political ambition spur a faction from Kemano to accuse him of treason and spiritual contamination because he loves an uncircumcised woman. Since he is unwilling to renounce Nyambura, Waiyaki is forced to relinquish his leadership, and his personal fate remains ominously ambiguous at the end of the novel.
The River Between is a better bildungsroman than Ngugi’s first novel because Waiyaki does realize that he is a product of shifting values and that cultural synthesis is an ambiguous, complex, and even dangerous undertaking. This education of the hero is not sufficient, however, to save the novel from the confusion caused by a double narrative intention. Overtly, the narrator clearly intends to present Waiyaki as a man constantly concerned with communal welfare, yet the rhetoric of Waiyaki’s contemplation demonstrates that he is entirely engrossed in his own messianic potentiality: All his dealings with people always revert to questions about his status and leadership. Furthermore, the divine source of his authority, by providing him with transcendent knowledge, severs him from the Kikuyu to the extent that his vision of the future, and actions based on that vision, need not rely on mundane familiarity with the people’s social and political desires.
The major problem of the novel is that Ngugi seems unable to decide whether to treat his protagonist as a real messiah or to portray him as a character whose prophetic calling is a self-delusion: Waiyaki is simultaneously subjected to divine surety and human fallibility. At the end of the novel, Ngugi seems to sympathize with two incompatible feelings—with Waiyaki’s decision to choose a personal relationship over communal obligation, a private cultural synthesis over a larger social synthesis, and with the people’s decision to protect their culture by sacrificing a promising individual. The persistent ambiguity about Waiyaki and the final recourse to scapegoating, which resembles so closely the pattern of grandiose self-delusion and vindication through persecution in Weep Not, Child, reveal once more that The River Between is a product of subjective anxiety. Waiyaki’s insight into the anxiety caused by the peripeteia of values is applicable to the novel as a whole. According to him, this anxiety can cause a person to cling fanatically to whatever promises security. For Waiyaki and Ngugi, messianism provides that security. If one considers Ngugi’s predicament at the age of fifteen, when he internalized the social preoccupation with education, leadership, and messianism, one can see that the ambiguity and ambivalence of The River Between are a literary transformation of the author’s own traumatic
A Grain of Wheat
Before writing his next novel, A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi studied Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961), an experience that unmistakably altered his understanding of the psychological and cultural changes that take place in the process of anticolonial revolutions. The view that education and messianism are panaceas is entirely displaced by a clear and deep comprehension of the way out of the psychological bind produced by colonial subjugation. In A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi is still concerned with the reintegration of Kikuyu society, but his method has changed drastically. Instead of focusing on a single protagonist, Ngugi uses five major characters— Mugo, Karanja, Kihika, Gikonyo, and Mumbi—and a host of minor ones to contrast different kinds of personal isolation, love, and sympathy for others, and then he orchestrates a complex pattern wherein some characters move from isolation to community, some move in the opposite direction, and still others remain relatively static. By contrasting and interweaving these movements, Ngugi creates a polyphonic novel in which the experience of social regeneration and communal cohesiveness lies not in the awareness of any single character but in the interactions between various individuals and in the reader’s experience of these interactions.
The novel’s plot concerns an intriguing search for the traitor who betrayed Kihika, a leader of the Mau Mau guerrillas. The war is over, and, just prior to independence day, Kihika’s comrades emerge from the forests in order to seek the traitor. The search, however, is really a vehicle for investigating various characters’ motives and actions during the war that has destroyed the village of Thabai. The actual time encompassed by the novel is only six days, but through retrospection the reader is allowed to experience the whole Mau Mau revolution and even the prerevolutionary childhood of the protagonists as well as the mythic past of the Kikuyus. The multiplicity of viewpoints through which the reader is led to understand the characters conveys admirably Ngugi’s notion that an organic community can be apprehended only through its historical and interpersonal interactions.
Ngugi’s investigation of patterns of isolation and communality is focused on four men and one woman. Two of the men, Mugo and Karanja, are motivated by an almost pathological desire for isolation, and the other two, Kihika and Gikonyo, are deeply dependent on their different views of communality. Mugo, deprived of human warmth since childhood, attempts in vain to avoid all involvement. His isolation is repeatedly shattered, first by Kihika, who is seeking shelter from the colonial soldiers and whom Mugo betrays, and then by the whole village of Thabai, which, having mistaken Mugo for a supporter of Kihika and a staunch patriot, ironically invites him to become the village chief on independence day.
While Mugo gradually journeys from isolation to social integration, Karanja moves in the opposite direction. In order to remain with Mumbi, who had earlier rejected him for Gikonyo, Karanja joins the colonial police when Gikonyo is sent to a concentration camp. His collaboration with the British naturally earns him the enmity of the entire village, which expels him on independence day. While Karanja betrays the community as an abstract entity in order to remain with a specific woman, Kihika abandons his pregnant lover in order to become a guerrilla fighter and plays an important part in winning the freedom of his society. In contrast to Kihika, Gikonyo has always been dependent on concrete relationships with his mother and Mumbi. His personality and the very meaning of existence crumble when he is forcibly isolated from them. He confesses his involvement with the Mau Mau so that he can return to his village, only to find when he arrives that Mumbi has given birth to Karanja’s child.
Ngugi explores these labyrinthine relationships with great skill. The retrospections, juxtapositions, and multiple interpretations of events, and the gradual, interrupted revelation of the truth represent in a concrete and poignant manner the actual reintegration of a community that has been destroyed. Ngugi’s main objective, admirably realized, is to show that strength in one character can be a weakness in another and that what is constructive and desirable at one stage in a community’s history is harmful at another—that all forms of fortitude and lapses are necessary for social cohesion. Even Mugo’s betrayal performs a vital function in the end. His confession of the betrayal fits into the pattern of complementary wills that is essential for the cohesion of a community. Thus, where Kihika’s callousness toward individuals may be undesirable in itself, its reverse, his concern for abstract humanity, proves invaluable for the freedom of his country. Where Kihika’s self-sacrifice, in spite of its eventual usefulness, causes a great deal of pain to the community (because of his assassination of a British district officer, Thabai is burnt to the ground), Mugo’s self-sacrifice, through his confession, is ultimately soothing. It comes to symbolize the depth of misunderstanding and the renewal of honest and open communication.
In a different manner, Kihika and Gikonyo form a complementary unit that is equally vital for the society. Kihika’s disregard for the individual and concern for people in general are balanced by Gikonyo’s lack of concern for an abstract conception of community, his betrayal of the Mau Mau covenant, and his powerful desire for concrete individual relations with Mumbi and his mother. Whereas Kihika’s attitude is necessary for society’s struggle to free itself, Gikonyo’s attitude is necessary for its survival. Similarly, even Karanja’s defection can be seen as a complementary necessity because he is responsible for keepingMumbialive while the rest of the men are either guerrillas hiding in the forests or prisoners in the camps. People are thus tied to one another in ways that they themselves fail to understand. By focusing on these interconnections, Ngugi demonstrates that relationships between individuals are more important than individual character.
The bulk of A Grain of Wheat represents the reintegration of Thabai through keen and accurate realism, but in order to emphasize that he is depicting the entire Kikuyu culture, Ngugi resorts to symbolism at the end of the novel. Gikonyo and Mumbi clearly symbolize the mythic ancestors of their society, Kikuyu and Mumbi. Gikonyo feels that his “reunion with Mumbi would see the rebirth of a new Kenya.” In light of this symbolism, Karanja’s protection of Mumbi and Mugo’s confession, which is responsible for the reunion of Gikonyo and Mumbi, become significant contributions to their society. Finally, the iconography—a father, a pregnant mother, a child, a field ready for harvest, and a stool that Gikonyo intends to carve and present to Mumbi as a gift of reconciliation—implies the regeneration of community that is so central to all Ngugi’s fiction. The formal structure ofAGrain of Wheat, a perfect emblem of an actual viable society, and Ngugi’s definition of community make this a unique novel in African fiction.
Petals of Blood
Toward the end of A Grain of Wheat there are signs that after political “independence” has been won, the struggle between British colonizers and Africans that has dominated the country and the novel will be displaced gradually by a conflict between the native politicaleconomic elite and the peasants, who will be disinherited once again. Petals of Blood, set in independent Kenya in the mid-1970’s, examines in depth the problem that Ngugi’s previous novel has accurately predicted. In Petals of Blood, Kenya is drastically, perhaps too schematically, divided between the rich capitalists, portrayed as two-dimensional, greedy, conniving predators, and their peasant victims, depicted as complex individuals whobecome prey to a modern world they cannot control. The problem with this dichotomy is that the opposition between the poor and the rich lacks any dramatic tension, because the latter are shallow characters minimally and symbolically represented through their expensive automobiles, lavish parties, and deceptive contracts. Thus, even though Ngugi’s portrayal of the economic and political situation in Kenya is broadly accurate, it is not entirely convincing.
The center of Petals of Blood is a powerful, fecund woman, Wanja, a prostitute who is many things to the different men around her like petals of blood. If the novel is read as an allegory, she can be seen as the protean substance of Kenya, which entices the lechery of the capitalists and sustains and inspires the resistance of the peasants. Kimeria, one of the three successful entrepreneurs in the novel, seduces Wanja while she is a teenager and then abandons her only to lust after her again when she has become the successful madam of a house of prostitution. Munira, an introspective, religious schoolteacher, is initially liberated from his repressions through her, but, after his guilt has overwhelmed him, he sees her as an incarnation of Satan. Karega, a young, nascent revolutionary, has an idyllic affair with her and finds in her the inspiration for his rebellion. Finally, Abdulla, a crippled Mau Mau warrior, treats her as a comrade and eventually fathers the child that she has desired throughout the novel.
The plot of Petals of Blood is similar to a Charles Dickens plot in its labyrinthine relationships and its reliance on coincidence. Ostensibly, the novel is a detective story; it begins with the arrest of three major characters, Munira, Abdulla, and Karega, who are under suspicion for the murder of three wealthy directors of the Thengeta Breweries, Kimeria, Chui, and Muzigo. After being ignored for the vast bulk of the novel, the mystery is suddenly solved at the end by Munira’s admission that he set fire to Wanja’s brothel, in which the directors were trapped. The relations between characters are revealed in an equally sudden and summary fashion, with the result that the plot becomes a mere vehicle for the political substance of the novel—a detailed examination of the manner in which the rightful inheritance of the peasants and idealists has been stolen from them.
Once more this is accomplished through a series of retrospective scenes that reveal the past in the light of the present struggle. The peasants undertake an epic journey to Nairobi, the capital city, in order to confront their parliamentary representative, who has in fact ignored and even tried to plunder his constituency. The climax of this spatial journey—that is, the confrontation in the city— allows the peasants to understand the economic opposition between them and the new African elite, but through the various personal and communal stories told by the peasants to one another during their journey, they also realize that they are a part of a temporal “journey”—that they are the current embodiment of a long historical tradition. As Karega says, “The history that he had tried to teach as romantic adventures, the essence of black struggle apprehended in the imagination at the level of mere possibilities, had tonight acquired immediate flesh and blood.”
Petals of Blood is at its best when it explores the lives and sensibilities of these people. Through Munira and Karega, Ngugi shows the radically different effects of similar causes. Both are expelled from Siriana high school at different times (they are a generation apart) for leading student strikes. Whereas the resultant shock and confusion experienced by Munira turns into depression and later into a pathological preoccupation with spiritual purity, the initial confusion felt by Karega is gradually displaced by an increasingly clear understanding of his place in the sociopolitical system of the country and eventually turns into a radical opposition to the new elite. Thus Munira treats people such as Wanja or Abdulla as mere objects of his lust or indifference, whereas Karega sees them as subjects whose personal histories make him aware of his own predicament and potential. The novel makes a dramatic distinction between individuals lost in their own subjectivity and those who through circumstances, personal courage, and fidelity are able to understand themselves in terms of an objectively determined social and political reality.
Unfortunately, Ngugi’s sensitive representation of the inner lives of his politically oppressed characters is not matched by an equally sensitive management of the novel’s structure. The caricature of the capitalists and the plot’s reliance on brief, mechanical coincidences deprive the novel of a demonstrated and felt struggle between the exploiters and the exploited. Instead of using viable fictive embodiments of oppressive forces, Ngugi relies heavily on discursive delineation of capitalist exploitation. At times, the novel sounds like a leftist pamphlet. In contrast to A Grain of Wheat, where Ngugi’s political concerns are perfectly interlocked with a well-wrought and ingenious structure, Petals of Blood is overwhelmed by the writer’s sensitive and moving depiction of the peasants’ lives and by his justified anger over callous exploitation and broken promises.
Devil on the Cross
Devil on the Cross is another passionate denunciation of postcolonial abuses. Written on stolen bits of toilet paper during Ngugi’s year in prison, the novel features, again, several protagonists—mostly peasants— who are grievously wronged by the corrupt politicians and bureaucrats of modern Kenya. With this novel and the nonfiction works that followed, Ngugi solidified his commitment to a revolutionary African literature— outraged, combative, and uncompromising.
In Matigari Ngugi continues to record Kenya’s postcolonial struggle, but in this novel he moves away from realism and adopts a fluidity of time and space that is mythological in tone. At the outset, he warns the “Reader/Listener” that the narrative is purely imaginary in its action, characters, and setting. It follows the adventures of the mythical Matigari, who embodies the virtues, values, and purity of the betrayed and abused people he sets out to rouse from their apathy. Whether Ngugi succeeds in mythologizing remains questionable, for the landscape, characters, circumstances, and historical events are obviously Kenyan. In fact, when the 1986 edition appeared in the original Kikuyu language, so many Kenyans were talking about Matigari that officials ordered his arrest. When they discovered that the suspected rabble-rouser was fictional, they banned the book.
Matigari denounces contemporary Kenya, where a privileged few, in connection with representatives of overseas interests, rule and exploit the masses, thereby reversing the hard-fought struggle for independence. Matigari ma Njiruungi, whose name means “he who survived the bullets,” emerges from the forest, sets his weapons aside, and dons the belt of peace to move through the countryside to rediscover his true family—a free Kenyan people who live in a just society and who share its wealth. Along the way he meets the downtrodden and dispossessed, and he faces all the ills the contaminated society has produced: homeless children, dissidents harassed and murdered by the police, young women forced into prostitution, and much more. In opposition to the suffering masses stand the black politicians and their cronies, who have grown rich through collaboration with international business interests.
The novel also contains variations on familiar themes, such as the role of Christianity in oppression and the failure of Western education. At the same time, Ngugi subverts the Christian myth by turning Matigari into a modern Jesus who moves among the people and faces rejection. The biblical allusions become especially evident in the prison scenes. For example, Matigari’s fellow detainees resemble Jesus’ disciples; one even betrays Matigari. The novel also contains the Swiftian elements of satire that characterize Devil on the Cross. Matigari finally emerges as a powerful account of the postcolonial state, however—an indictment not only against the corruption in Kenya but also against the conditions that prevail in numerous African nations.
Wizard of the Crow
Wizard of the Crow, which is set in a fictional East African country named the Free Republic of Aburiria, artfully and satirically delineates the inner workings of that most pernicious, toxic, and notorious of twentieth and twenty-first century African institutions, the strongarm dictatorship. Ngugi sees the institution as both vulnerable and thriving, buoyed as it is by credible threats of torture and death aimed at those who oppose it as well as by the power-seeking Western world’s collusion with it. In Aburiria, the mad leader known simply as the Ruler is eventually deposed, only to give way to another thug with the usual dictatorial traits of incompetence, brutality, and toxicity. At novel’s end, however, Ngugi does supply readers with some trace of hope for the future of Aburiria, albeit a highly ambiguous one, the hope being that freedom will come to those nations beset by oneperson rule—but down the road a bit.
This lengthy political novel features the corrupt world of an archetypal power-hungry gangster, the selfproclaimed First Ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria, a venomous though intelligent paranoid who surrounds himself with such ridiculous and yet dangerous toadies as Wonderful Tumbo, minister of police; Machokali, minister for foreign affairs; Julius Caesar Big Ben Mambo, minister of information; Silver Sikiokuu, governor of the Central Bank; and Titus Tajirika, minister of defense. These bumbling but still often terrifying agents will sell out anyone—including the Ruler himself—for personal gain. Opposing their self-serving machinations are two unlikely proponents of democracy and change: Kamiti, an unemployed university business major and graduate, and Kamiti’s lover and fellow conspirator, the beautiful and accomplished Nyawira, a former bar hostess.
Kamiti rises to become the legendary Aburirian man of powerful magic, “Wizard of the Crow,” and Nyawira becomes the Wizard’s consort, the so-called Limping Witch. Together, using their powerful wit and imagination, the Wizard and the Witch find clever “magical” ways to trick the government officials who oppose them and, in the process, undermine the officials’ lucrative positions. Soon the two lovers find themselves the stuff of Aburirian folk legend—ones who can take on the establishment and never be caught. In addition to Kamiti and Nyawira, the author includes in his cast two characters, the saintly Maritha and Mariko, who labor against what they see as the works of the devil in their country. In Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi provides an entertaining, although at times somewhat long-winded, commentary on one of the chief reasons sub-Saharan African nations are not as well-off as they should be, given their natural resources and their lively and potentially resourceful populations.
Other major works
Short fiction: Secret Lives, and Other Stories, 1975. plays: The Black Hermit, pr. 1962; This Time Tomorrow: Three Plays, 1970 (includes The Rebels, The Wound in My Heart, and This Time Tomorrow); The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, pr. 1974 (with Micere Githae- Mugo); Ngaahika Ndeenda, pr. 1977 (with Ngugi wa Mirii; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982); Maitu Njugira, pb. 1982 (with Ngugi wa Mirii; Mother, Sing for Me, 1986).
Nonfiction: Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, 1972; Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, 1981; Writers in Politics, 1981 (revised 1997); Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-colonial Kenya, 1983; Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, 1986; Writing Against Neocolonialism, 1986; Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, 1993; Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa, 1998. miscellaneous: The World of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1995 (Charles Cantalupo, editor).
Booker, M. Keith. “Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Devil on the Cross.” In The African Novel in English: An Introduction. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998.
Cantalupo, Charles, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Texts and Contexts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Lovesey, Oliver. NgugiwaThiong’o. New York:Twayne, 2000.
Nazareth, Peter, ed. Critical Essays on Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Twayne, 2000.
Parker, Michael, and Roger Starkey, eds. Postcolonial Literatures: Achebe, Ngugi, Desai, Walcott. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
Sewlall, Harry. “Writing from the Periphery: The Case of Ngugi and Conrad.” English in Africa 30 (May, 2003): 55-69.
Sicherman, Carol. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1957-1987. London: Hans Zell, 1989.
Williams, Patrick. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000.