Forty years after its original publication, Petals of Blood remains relevant on many levels. Globalization has compounded many of the problems of neocolonialism and underdevelopment that Ngugi wa Thiong'o criticizes through satirical fiction. Education remains out of reach for millions of children worldwide.
Ngugi sets up a situation in which idealism clashes with pragmatism among the people working at a school in a poor village. Questions of curriculum are strongly shaped by the political pressures of a government committed to eradicating the legacy of British rule, but they are hampered by the fact that so many educators were themselves trained in that system.
The four main characters' efforts to transform the town of Ilmorog are not confined to the schools, however. Their opposition to the corrupt, wealthy elite is an uphill and apparently losing battle. The question of using violence to achieve justice, contrasted to personal vengeance, is also unresolved.
Aside from the fictional milieu, in mid-20th century Kenya, seeking higher education continued to mean leaving the country for most people. Such was the case for Barack Obama, Sr., who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States and became the father of the future president. Ngugi studied in Uganda and England.
Independence was scarcely a panacea, as political opposition was suppressed. As Ngugi himself had been jailed as a dissenter, his continued criticism did not sit well with the Kenyatta administration, and he was imprisoned again and then left Kenya after this novel was published. He also changed to writing in Kikuyu rather than English.