James Ngugi Ngugi, James (Vol. 7) - Essay

Ngugi, James (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ngugi, James 1938–

A Kenyan novelist, playwright, and short story writer, Ngugi, as Nadine Gordimer comments, succeeds in his fiction in placing the Mau Mau movement in the historical, political, and sociological context of the African continental revolution.

I am concerned here with Mr Ngugi's consistent statement on life and religion. He knows that religion can be meaningful to a people only if it relates to them in their daily lives, only if it rises out of the important aspects of their past and speaks directly to their experiences in the present. A religion which speaks only of religious ideals and moral truths, without touching on the concrete situation of man in his everyday life, can give to man nothing but emptiness. Specifically, Ngugi is concerned in The River Between with the Gikuyu people of Kenya, and with Christianity. He is very consciously aware of how meaningful the Christian faith can be for the Gikuyu people, but he knows that it can be so only as it grows out of their own life situation, not as it is imposed upon them from above by the white man as law.

James Ngugi expresses in The River Between a line of thought which is dealt with in depth by two theologians, Dr Amos Wilder, Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and the great, late Dr Paul Tillich, former Professor of Philosophical Theology at Harvard. In Otherworldliness and the New Testament, Wilder concerns himself with the place of Christianity in the modern world; with the question of how the Christian message can be made relevant to the modern man. Dr Tillich's work, The Shaking of the Foundations, deals with the burden of the 'religious law'. The parallels between the theme developed by James Ngugi in The River Between and the ideas of Dr Wilder and Dr Tillich as presented in the two above-mentioned works are striking. (pp. 54-5)

What James Ngugi develops in The River Between … is the theme that a people's religion and a people's way of life must be one; each must grow out of the other. Either one by itself is incomplete. The River Between is an image which I feel may justifiably be interpreted in the light of this theme. It represents the unity of the two separate forces. It is symbolic of the road between the two antagonistic forces which Waiyaki, Nyambura, and Muthoni attempted, each in their own way to travel, the road they knew was the only one which could give them a full and meaningful life. Honia River is described as flowing between the two opposing ridges, Makuyu and Kameno. On one side of the river the Christians of Makuyu conduct their Christmas celebrations; on the other side the tribe conducts its rite of circumcision. And it is here, on the banks of Honia, that Muthoni—a Christian from Makuyu—is made a woman of the tribe through circumcision, and here again that Waiyaki from Kameno and Nyambura from Makuyu come together in their embrace. Honia river is the site of these two symbolic acts of the coming together of the tribe and the Christian religion, and is itself, a symbol of that unity.

Ngugi's most striking clarification of Honia River as a symbol of tribal and Christian unity (and in broader terms of life and religion's unity) comes in the form of a biblical passage which Ngugi quotes through the thoughts of Nyambura. Nyambura has just denounced in her mind the harsh and sterile religion of Joshua, a religion which separates and causes pain. She relieves her frustration by reflecting upon the kind of religion which would be meaningful to her, a religion expressed simply and beautifully by the words of the Bible…. Waiyaki, too, has a similar vision, a vision which centres on Nyambura, and on the river…. And as Waiyaki and Nyambura stand mute together before the people under the ringing challenge of Kabonyi to deny each other, James Ngugi writes:

And Honia River went on flowing through the valley of life, throbbing, murmuring an unknown song.                          (pp. 64-5)

Lloyd Williams, "Religion & Life in James Ngugi's 'The River Between'," in African Literature Today, No. 5 (copyright © 1970 by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.; published by Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Africana, 1970, pp. 54-65.

With the publication of Weep Not, Child in 1964, James Ngugi appeared on the African literary scene, becoming the first important novelist from East Africa. Ngugi's appearance marked the belated beginnings of the novel in East Africa at a time when the West African novel was already well established. Achebe published his third novel the same year; Ekwensi had published four full length books; Amos Tutuola and Camara Laye had already written their most significant works. But the novel in East Africa, mostly as a result of more limited educational opportunities than those that were available in West Africa, was just making its initial appearance. The result was clearly worth waiting for. James Ngugi's second and third novels have placed him in the forefront of all the East and Central African writers who have appeared since 1964. Furthermore, Ngugi and other East African novelists, although still fewer in number than their brothers across the continent, have benefited by their exposure to the West African novel. The heavy reliance on anthropological background which has marked and in some cases hindered a number of West African writers' work (Onuora Nzekwu, Clement Agunwa, S. A. Konadu, John Munonye, and Flora Nwapa, for example) has not been similarly overdone by the East African novelist. (p. 121)

In form and pattern,… Weep Not, Child bears a remarkable similarity to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Like Achebe, Ngugi also relates the story of a community that crumbles because of exposure to the West. Unlike Achebe, however, Ngugi has chosen a more recent period of time—the 1950's and the rise of the Mau Mau in Kenya—in essence writing a novel based on an historical event still very much alive in the memory of the average African reader. In large part the success of his novel—its beauty and its horror—consists in exactly this presentation of an historical event so recent that hardly an adult Kenyan reading the book will fail to remember the Mau Mau rebellion which involved everyone: Africans who took the oath, and those who did not, white settlers who were sympathetic toward the African situation and those who were not, the evil and the innocent. Ngugi's supreme achievement is in illustrating how individual families came to be pulled in several different directions as various members formed new loyalties and rejected older ones within the traditional power structure. The result is a powerful picture of Kenya undergoing a war of liberation, a violent time of chaos and destruction in which it became impossible for every adult and child not to become involved, to remain neutral to the events purging the land. Ngugi's concentration is upon one specific family, and is situational in the sense that this family becomes a microcosm of the entire nation.

The title is taken from Walt Whitman's poem, "On the Beach at Night" … [and] establishes a lyrical tone for the novel, for Ngugi's prose at its best is never far removed from poetry. (pp. 121-22)

[Early in Weep Not, Child,] Ngugi introduces his reader to the lyrical presence (the collective consciousness) of the novel. This stylistic convention is identified by the use of the second person pronoun you, injecting the reader into the heart of the story…. It is an effective device, a technique Ngugi perfects in his later novels, for, in essence, the second person is the communal element entering into the situation, the unseen witness who understands everything, records everything, the communal center of balance. Shortly thereafter, for example, the lyrical presence introduces the motif of land—its control and exploitation by the white settlers—for unlike the writings from West Africa, which was never a settler area, Kenyan fiction has reflected the dominant conflict of Kenyan life, life in a multi-racial society. (pp. 124-25)

[Ngugi] presents in extremely objective terms what, at times, appears to be an historical account of the Mau Mau revolt against British colonial rule. It is one of the marks of Ngugi's skill that he can present his white characters almost as realistically and as sympathetically as his African characters, and this seems to be exactly his intention, for the Mau Mau uprising involved the best and the worst people on both sides. (p. 130)

The peacefulness of Ngotho's family, the lack of rivalry between his two wives, has been presented throughout the novel as an indication of the oneness which lies at the roots of African society—the basic family unit, and the adjacent communal life which nourishes it and can only be the foundation of the collective consciousness. Out of a regeneration of the basic values of traditional life, and especially the extended family, the new society will once again be purified.

Weep Not, Child gives the overall impression that there has been no possible escape, no path a person could follow during the Mau Mau uprisings which could lead to release from the turmoil of the land. At its very base, the novel probes the nature of loyalty to one's clan, one's nation—the rise of nationalism which is so important a theme in Ngugi's third novel, A Grain of Wheat. (pp. 134-35)

The River Between can be called Ngugi's East African counterpart to Achebe's Things Fall Apart,… a picture of a traditional African society undergoing the initial frustrations of Westernization. (p. 134-35)

[As in Weep Not, Child] Ngugi again works with the theme of education and what its role will be in the new Africa. It is also this theme that hinders his story, which at times—in its depiction of village strife—is unrealistic, unconvincing. The River Between is a minor work by James Ngugi, squeezed in between his two major novels. It lacks conviction, a sense of fulfillment.

Ngugi's third novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967), is his most impressive work and one of the most complicated novels written by an African novelist during the last twenty-five years. Like Weep Not, Child, it returns to recent Kenyan history—the State of Emergency during the Mau Mau revolt, thus again making use of an historical event still vivid in his compatriots' eyes. This time, however, the period of the Emergency is over and it is looked back at through the eyes of a handful of men and women from one village whose lives have become irrevocably intertwined. The total impression is of something akin to the obsession of German novelists with World War II in the past twenty-five years, and the reader often wonders how long it will be before Kenyans will be able to look each other in the face without wondering who was a traitor during the Emergency, which lasted from 1952 to 1960.

Structurally, A Grain of Wheat is much more involved than Ngugi's two earlier novels. Ngugi in flashbacks constantly shifts his point of view and his use of the temporal. The result is a mirror of the chaos of the Emergency itself. Besides telling the story from the point of view of several of his participants, the author again uses the lyrical collective consciousness—which has played an important technical part in all of his novels—often combined with a quasi-documentary technique which is effectively utilized at strategic points throughout his narrative. The result is a novel which has all of the passions of human drama coupled with an historical objectivity rarely found except in nonfiction. (pp. 138-39)

A Grain of Wheat is also one of the best examples of the African situational novel. Unlike Ngugi's two earlier books which mirrored the turmoil through one or two characters, A Grain of Wheat has no central character. Instead, there are six characters who play almost equally important parts in the checkerboard development of the story itself, and at least another six whose parts are indispensible to the action and narrative thread of the story. If there is any main character in the novel, it is the village of Thabai itself—the communal consciousness. Ngugi has abolished the second person he used so effectively in his two earlier novels and uses the communal "we" instead. Most of the important scenes are told from the point of view of the entire community. (p. 139)

A Grain of Wheat intellectually probes the nature of power, nationalism, and unity—themes that have been reiterated throughout all of Ngugi's writing. Symbolically, like Wole Soyinka in A Dance of the Forests, Ngugi is saying that the politics of the present can only be built on an understanding of the past, that each man must come to a realization of his past in the best way he can, and that in the process there are bound to be those who will be hunted and pursued because they themselves have tried to distort their own past lives by shrugging their responsibility to the group—to the nation. Like Ngugi's two other novels, A Grain of Wheat is fragmented and impressionistic, based on dozens of short individual scenes, each one contributing a vital part like a piece of a puzzle. Yet this novel, unlike the other two, probes more deeply into the very nature of every society—the individual citizen, his duty to himself, his family, his community, his nation. The characterization … is complex and manifold as Ngugi knits a brutal yet realistic picture of the African's relationship to his fellow man, his bravery in the face of the common enemy, his tradition for group solidarity, his sense of humanity which can only be harvested from the group-felt situation. (pp. 145-46)

The most noticeable difference in methods of characterization between James Ngugi and Chinua Achebe is Ngugi's use of impressionism, the internal rendering of his character's emotional reactions to the external world. The result is a much more introspective approach to character than in the novels of Chinua Achebe, in spite of the fact that Ngugi, too, generally uses the third person narrator for his tales. We [consider] Ngugi's use of the second person "you"… an extremely effective device for drawing the reader into his narrative. Ngugi's use of the third person is no less effective, with frequent insertions of internal monologue, which give us direct access to the character. Most of Weep Not, Child, for example, is told from Njoroge's point of view, although Njoroge is not the narrator of the story. The alterations which take place in his perceptions as the novel advances and as he grows from a young boy to an adult—his emotional development—are impressionistically rendered from the beginning to the end of the novel. (p. 155)

There is a definite development in Njoroge as the story progresses and this alteration in character is another marked difference between Ngugi's characters and Achebe's. Nowhere in West African Anglophone fiction is there quite the same thing—the African child's growth into adulthood, presented impressionistically from his own ever-changing point of view.

Ngugi's use of impressionism for the depiction of Njoroge's character can be seen most clearly in the scattered passages throughout the novel that are concerned with Njoroge's experiences in school, fittingly because this is the new world into which he has been catapulted. Colors and sounds are merged to record the child's growing awareness of the unfamiliar educational world. (p. 156)

There is also considerably more authorial commentary in the depiction of character in Ngugi's Weep Not, Child than in Achebe's Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God and this is particularly fitting because Njoroge is not a man of action but an extremely sensitive young child increasingly given to fantasies and daydreams…. For Njoroge, school slowly becomes a means of escape and Ngugi depicts Njoroge's loneliness as an intellectual isolation from his family and friends, a theme that has found an increasing importance in African fiction, and that illustrates the African child's reaction to Western education. (p. 157)

Other characters in Weep Not, Child, though depicted with sensitivity and compassion, are essentially secondary when compared to the completeness with which Ngugi renders Njoroge. And although Ngugi's white characters in Weep Not, Child are a little less stereotyped than Achebe's, they are for the most part undeveloped.

Ngugi's methods of characterization in The River Between are essentially the same as they are in Weep Not, Child. This novel, however, moves toward being what we in the West think of as a love story—though the depiction of the lovers' relationship is rendered not in Western concepts but in those which are fully African. (p. 158)

A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi's third novel, is particularly interesting when compared to Chinua Achebe's later works, for while Achebe has plainly been moving in the direction of the African reader, Ngugi, it seems to me, has written fiction which probably appeals to a more Westernized reading audience. [There are] elaborate technical innovations in A Grain of Wheat, and Ngugi's characters here also are presented in more conventional Western patterns. They are much more fully realized than in almost any of the works by his West African counterparts, much more fully developed. The total effect is a more personalized account of African life than we are likely to find in Achebe or other early West African Anglophone writers or even in Ngugi's two earlier novels, for here it may be said that the characters are truly complex personalities, often presented psychologically—a mode almost completely absent in other West African Anglophone fiction. It is the interaction of his six main characters … and the many lesser ones that gives this novel the scope of humanity and personal flavor that it has. No longer are characters simply mouthing the author's ideas, instead they are voicing their passions and their innermost thoughts; no longer are characters fighting the big bogy man of the West, instead they are gnawing at each other. (pp. 158-59)

Charles R. Larson, in his The Emergence of African Fiction (copyright © 1972 by Charles R. Larson), revised edition, Indiana University Press, 1972.

Ngugi's language [in Weep Not, Child] deserves special attention. Firstly, its biblical aura is most appropriate for the description of the sufferings of a people in bondage. However, one must face the problem of Ngugi's apparent stylistic ineptitude. Quite a number of his sentences seem not only clumsy, but grammatically wrong…. The real problem of Ngugi's language is that one is constantly irritated by its naïvety and extreme simplicity. He seems in capable of constructing sentences of even the slightest complexity, and the result is quite often drearily monotonous. However, one should perhaps add that this simplicity of language and style keeps the reader close to the consciousness of villagers in general. (pp. 9-10)

Of course, it is difficult to say for certain that the author was making a conscious attempt to keep the reader close to the minds of simple people: the correspondence may have been quite accidental. However, it is safest to give Ngugi the benefit of the doubt, specially since in The River Between … Ngugi demonstrates a certain mastery of the language, and in A Grain of Wheat, his mastery is complete. Indeed, even in Weep Not, Child he occasionally shows sensitivity towards language: 'This morning he walked along the road—the big tarmac road that was long and broad and had no beginning and no end except that it went into the city.'…

The main weakness of Weep Not, Child is the choice of Njoroge as the central consciousness. Not because Njoroge is too passive and ineffective to be at the centre of the novel's events, but because a young, inexperienced boy is not the best vehicle to demonstrate that an obsession with education as a panacea is escapist. It is in the nature of young boys to dream, and have illusions about the future, and one can hardly expect them to understand the complexity of national affairs. The same tendency in an adult here would have been much more convincing. (p. 10)

The River Between is a more accomplished novel than Weep Not, Child…. The advance is most noticeable in Ngugi's control of language. The almost childish simplicity of Weep Not, Child makes way for stylistic sophistication and an awareness of the complex rhythms of English. Stylistic infelicities, though not entirely absent, occur less frequently. Furthermore, Ngugi's powers of characterization also seem to have developed. Many students of Weep Not, Child feel that Njoroge fails to come to life, and that this is the novel's main weakness. But as for Waiyaki, he is most convincingly and substantially there. (pp. 11-12)

In this novel, unlike Weep Not, Child, Ngugi makes a deliberate attempt to use symbols relevantly. The most obvious is the figure of the Sleeping Lions, the ridges Makuyu and Kameno, facing each other antagonistically, and representing the divisions in Waiyaki's society. (p. 12)

A Grain of Wheat is Ngugi's most ambitious and successful novel to date. In the depth of its psychological penetration and the power of its characterization, in the subtlety of its narrative technique, in the density of its texture, and in the sophistication of its language, it exceeds all expectations raised by the two earlier novels, promising though they were. Its complexity of form recalls the involutions of Conrad's Lord Jim, on which it seems consciously to have been modelled…. In no other novel of Ngugi, and possibly in no other African novel, is the reader asked to be more alert and to participate more fully. Indeed his rôle is very much like the judge's in a court of law: to sift the evidence, hear all aspects of the case, organize the material, and find out exactly what happened. Our interest is partly in discovering who betrayed Kihika, and why Mugo is such a mysterious character. But also, like the judge in court, the reader is required to keep a delicate balance of sympathy and impartiality in respect of every character.

The title of the novel comes from the book of Corinthians (I, 15:36-38):

Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain. But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

It refers to the need for continual struggle, suffering, and even death in order that the millennium may be achieved. (pp. 24-5)

In this novel, as in his other two, Ngugi is concerned not merely with the wickedness of the oppressors, but with the weaknesses of the indigenous people themselves. He is also interested in contemporary Kikuyu society in a much wider sense than in the other novels. Consequently, the novel has not one, but about five centres of interest—Mugo, Gikonyo, Karanja, Mumbi and the white man, Thompson….

A Grain of Wheat … is partly concerned with moral and emotional responses to a group of varied characters, and it is clear that this preoccupation affects the structure and narrative technique. For the narrative, while being about the present, cannot remain in the present. To induce the reader to make a complex response and to pause before judging, Ngugi withholds information. (p. 26)

A Grain of Wheat may at first appear rambling and disorganized, but like Stern's Tristram Shandy and Conrad's Lord Jim, this apparent disorder deliberately conceals a carefully organized plan. Ngugi believes that we should also be alert, always prepared to look for extenuating circumstances, explanatory factors, and supporting evidence which will prevent us from making hasty and wrong-headed judgements. (p. 30)

The growing assurance with which Ngugi uses symbols and motifs [is] now … apparent. The dominant symbol is that of water which variously represents consciousness of guilt, attempts at its expiation, or a kind of baptism—re-birth into a new life, as when Mumbi feels an urge to surrender herself to the pouring rain. The artistic motifs—the carved stool and the panga—by means of which Gikonyo tries to express his love, and the passages underlined in Kihika's Bible which are so relevant to the work as a whole, are also worthy of mention.

Ngugi's characterization in this novel can hardly be faulted. One of the reasons why the main characters are all fully-rounded, recognizable people, is that we are given an unusually full account of their innermost thoughts. Indeed, in this novel Ngugi frequently makes use of techniques we have come to associate with stream-of-consciousness or interior-monologue. Finally, tribute must be paid to Ngugi's superb descriptive technique and impressive prose…. A Grain of Wheat is a profoundly satisfying work of art. Ngugi has clearly attained maturity and produced a novel which can stand unashamedly with some of the more lasting English works of fiction. (pp. 46-7)

Eustace Palmer, "James Ngugi," in his An Introduction to the African Novel (copyright © 1972 by Eustace Palmer; published by Africana Publishing Company, a division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Africana, 1972, pp. 1-47.

It is easy to fault The Black Hermit. There is a touch of melodrama in the ending: a love affair that goes wrong because the lovers do not talk to each other, suicide, a letter which explains everything too late. Ngugi himself has said that he thought at the time of the first performance that the biggest problem besetting the new East African countries was tribalism, but now he realizes that the problem is really monopoly capitalism, which took the form of first imperialism and now neocolonialism. Ngugi attempts to inject his later understanding into the published version of the play by getting one of the characters to talk about the muzzling of trade unions by the new African government and to question whether the land, the banks and the oil companies will be nationalized. These ideas are not fully developed in the play. Still, the play has considerable merits. Through it, Ngugi has brought the village onto the stage on which previously only European plays used to be performed, giving validity to precisely that portion of the East African experience that the writers had been almost forced to forget. The play presents a "total" picture of modern East Africa at the point of decolonization. Ngugi gives validity to life in the city and the village by using prose with jazzy rhythms for the city, and verse for the village scenes. The verse gives a sense of the ritualistic, "rooted" quality of life in the village, contrasted with the rootlessness of the city. (p. 250)

In The Black Hermit, we see Ngugi's deep sense of social responsibility to East Africa and Africa as a whole. The play asks fundamental questions: What do we expect of our leaders? Can we ignore our past and cut ourselves off from it? What happens when leaders come out with large solutions but forget their own individual failings? What happens when they ignore human relationships? What is the relationship of the individual to society in modern Africa?

Ngugi was to deal with these questions in more depth in his novels. The first of these was originally entitled The Black Messiah and was subsequently published in 1965 as The River Between. In this novel, Ngugi deals with what the Nigerian critic Omalara Leslie calls the soft paw of colonialism: the division brought about by Christianity acting sometimes unconsciously but usually consciously in tandem with colonialism…. The novel has the quality of a moral fable. In Weep Not, Child, which was published earlier, Ngugi goes further in exploring the colonial history of Kenya by dealing with the Mau Mau movement, a guerrilla movement that did not have a parallel in Uganda or Tanganyika. Robert Ruark had characterized the Mau Mau movement in his novel Something of Value as savage and atavistic. Ngugi reverses this characterization and shows us the historical rationality behind the movement…. Although Ngugi makes us sympathetic to the Mau Mau movement, he also presents a fair picture of the white settlers whose interests were threatened…. The style suits the subject, having a Biblical simplicity for which Ngugi has been noted. This style has the limitation that it cannot show us the ideology of the Mau Mau movement or point the way ahead for Kenya, but it has the advantage of illustrating that one has to be taught to exploit or to accept exploitation.

Ngugi's third novel, A Grain of Wheat, has received recognition as one of the best novels to emerge from Africa. Ngugi wrote it while he was in England, while he could see the mother country from close quarters and acquire the perspective to crystallize this understanding of colonialism…. [He suggests] that real independence will be attained through another process in which the scarred souls regain their wholeness. Thus the novel has not only a historical setting but also a psychological sub-text. Ngugi has been noted for being a messianic writer, and nearly all the characters in this novel, including the colonial officer, are motivated by idealism of some kind or other. This idealism leads to betrayal. (pp. 250-52)

A Grain of Wheat, as the title suggests, implies that the way out is a peasant revolution, a continuation of the aborted Mau Mau movement. Thus no character in the novel is more important than the others and there is no hero, no hermit or messiah. It is the masses who are important, and in his radio play This Time Tomorrow, Ngugi gives a picture of the victims of neocolonialism…. As the neocolonial reality has deepened and time itself seems to stand still, Ngugi's style has evolved away from Biblical simplicity. A recent story, A Mercedes Funeral, resembles the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its "marvellous" reality, its gigantic exaggeration, and its black humor. (p. 252)

Peter Nazareth, in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1976, by Peter Nazareth), Spring/Summer, 1976.