As he lays out the dilemmas that multiple characters faced, Ngugi wa Thiong'o emphasizes that the road to independence in Kenya was not smooth for anyone. The effects of British colonization were felt in every aspect of life, not only in politics and law; it was hegemonic. Although Kenyan people of diverse ethnic groups and tribal affiliations considered independence inevitable, the official British position was slow to adopt that view. The author’s fictional presentation can be compared to his now-iconic study of literature and identity, Decolonising the Mind. The internalization of a colonized identity, when even one’s own language is judged inferior by the colonizers, takes a toll on both the individual and collective psyche. Ngugi later began writing exclusively in Gikuyu, his native language, both to help build a literature in that language and to stress the importance of rejecting the imposed language and all it symbolized.
In the novel, the indigenous African characters show a wide range of opinions about the strategies and tactics of reform and revolutionary approaches. While some may sympathize with the goals of the more radical movements, they are constitutionally non-violence or practically oppose its use for fear of reprisals. The English characters as well have different ways of understanding their position; the racist bases of colonialism, in which Kenyans are dismissed as naturally inferior and the British must impose order, are echoed in the actions of the administrators like Thompson.
The increasingly polarized situation, as Mau Mau grew in numbers and power, placed specific characters into different positions. Those who hope to stay neutral or see greater benefit from continuing to support the British now find themselves rejected as traitors. Conversely, individual such as Mugo who take a principled action for personal rather than political reasons, find themselves receiving unwelcome attention. One aspect of the book that makes it an effective novel is the author’s balancing of personal shortcomings, such as using the revolution to avenge personal grudges, with the political philosophies in the movement. In addition, he effectively shows the sometimes unintended consequences of such actions. Survival itself often depends on chance as much as intention, and the dispensation of justice is not a sure thing, even in the newly liberated nation.
*Kenya. East African nation that became independent from the British Empire in 1963. While the novel embraces the whole nation of Kenya, from its “one horizon” touching the Indian Ocean to its “other,” touching the shores of the great Lake Victoria, it focuses on central Kenya’s Gikuyu (also known as Kikuyu) people, from whom British settlers took large tracts of the country’s best land for their own use. Indeed, land was central to the colonial conflict—to both the settler farmers and the agricultural Gikuyu. As a result, place in this novel is the object of struggle but also symbolic of the various betrayals that occur in the course of that struggle.
Rung’ei (roong-AY). Fictional town in which most of the novel’s action takes place that is modeled on Limuru, an important settlement twenty miles northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Rung’ei stands on the edge of the so-called White Highlands, where European settlement was most dense. The Mombasa-Uganda railway line runs through the town, on its way from the coast to the interior. The railroad itself is at once an item of fascination for the villagers and an unavoidable symbol of the colonial presence. During Kenya’s independence day celebrations, a highly symbolic footrace—essentially a contest to win the heart of the new nation—takes place on Rung’ei’s main sports field.
Thabai (thah-BI). Gikuyu village near Rung’ei that is home to most of novel’s main characters. It is a fictional version of the author’s own home village of Kamiriithu. Because of the village’s...
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