Historical Context

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The history of this region during the late 19th and the 20th centuries is characterized by European colonization and exploitation of members of the tribes native to the area, such as the Massai and the Kikuyu. Britain, Germany, and France all had a hand in colonizing the area. The Imperial British East Africa Company dominated these efforts, beginning in the 1880s. In 1894, the British government declared the area the East Africa Protectorate. In the 1890s, British military forces were employed in order to quell resistance by African tribes to European rule. A railway, built between 1895 and 1903, was a key factor in encouraging European settlement and cultivation of the East Africa Protectorate in the early 1900s. During this time, members of the native African tribes were restricted to reservations and forced into labor on European plantations. In 1920, the region was renamed the Kenya Colony, after the region's highest mountain. Throughout the 1920s, Africans, such as members of the Kikuyu tribe, organized to press for their rights. In the 1940s, a small number of Africans were allowed to sit on the Legislative Council. In 1960, a conference in London led to an African majority on the legislative council for the first time. In 1963, the Republic of Kenya was created, under a new constitution that allowed for self-rule and national independence.

The Mau Mau Rebellion
In the decade preceding Kenya's national independence, large-scale protest, organized by members of the Kikuyu tribe, referred to as the Mau Mau Rebellion, was waged between 1952 and 1960. The primary issue was European ownership of farming land and plantations, as well as colonial rule in Kenya. The government thus declared a state of emergency. Jomo Kenyatta was arrested in 1952 as an organizer and instigator of the rebellion and was not released from prison until 1961—after he had already been elected president of the newly independent Kenya in 1960.

The Kikuyu
Ngugi's ethnicity is Kikuyu, one of the most populous tribes in Eastern Africa, representing approximately 20 percent of the entire population of Kenya. The Kikuyu, also known as Giguyu, Gekoyo, or Agekoyo, were at the forefront of African rebellion against British colonialism beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1921, the Young Kikuyu Association was formed (renamed the Kikuyu Central Association in 1925). It was the Kikuyu who organized the Mau-Mau Rebellion in 1952. The first prime minister (1963-64) and first president (1964-78) of the independent Republic of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, was also Kikuyu.

African Languages
In the 1970s, Ngugi announced that he would write only in Bantu or S wahili, his native languages, rather than English, which is the official language of Kenya. The Bantu language is widespread throughout the African continent. Swahili is a Bantu language and is still spoken in many African nations, including Uganda, the Congo, and Tanzania, as well as Kenya.

Literary Style

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Narration and Tone
This story is narrated in the third person, meaning that the narrator is not a character in the story. However, this does not mean that the narrator's tone is completely objective. In fact, this particular narrator adopts a tone of almost exaggerated sarcasm in conveying the racist attitudes of the white European settlers. For instance, in describing Mrs. Hill's sense of herself as generous and kind toward the Africans who work for her, the narrator uses sarcasm to emphasize the self-congratulatory attitude of the "liberal" settlers, who felt themselves to be doing a favor for the Africans:

Not only had she built some brick quarters (brick, mind you) but had also put up a school for the children. It did not matter if the school had not enough teachers or if the children learnt...

(This entire section contains 1103 words.)

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only half a day and worked in the plantations for the other half; it was more than most other settlers had the courage to do!

The narrator's sarcasm is particularly apparent in the mocking tone of the parenthetical comment, ‘‘(brick, mind you)’’; the emphasis on the word "brick" indicates the extent to which Mrs. Hill considers herself generous to her African employees above and beyond all duty. When Njoroge thinks with disdain of the inadequacy of his "brick'' dwelling to house his family, the sarcasm of this earlier comment is justified. Thus, the narrator, though not a character in the story, adopts a perspective which is in keeping with Njoroge and other Africans—using sarcasm to mock and express disdain for the racist treatment of the white settlers toward the Africans.

Although it is not stated specifically in the story, it is clear to the reader familiar with Ngugi's background that it is set in Kenya during a time of rebellion among the Kikuyu people against the white plantation owners who exploit their labor. This is significant to the story because the Kikuyu were the first group of Africans in Kenya to launch an organized resistance against colonialism, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kikuyu were primarily concerned with the European ownership of land that was rightfully theirs; the Kikuyu were also the primary source of labor on the white plantations. Njoroge recalls that his father was killed for his participation in the "struggle" of the Kikuyu against the colonists: ‘‘He had died in the struggle—the struggle to rebuild the destroyed shrines. That was at the famous 1923 Nairobi Massacre when police fired on people peacefully demonstrating for their rights.’’ Furthermore, the outright theft of land on the part of the colonists from the rightful Kikuyu owners is given direct reference; Njoroge recalls, ‘‘A big portion of the land now occupied by Mrs. Hill was the land his father had shown him as belonging to the family. They had found the land occupied when his father and some of the others had temporarily retired to Muranga owing to famine.’’ Thus, although the characters in this story are fictional, the historical and cultural circumstances of the story are based on actual historical conditions and events in the history of the Kikuyu people.

Christian Iconography
Indirect references to Christian iconography are central to the symbolic meaning of this story. Ngugi, though he later renounced Christianity, had originally been educated in schools run by missionaries. The influence is apparent in the references to Christian iconography and symbolism in many of his stories. In this story, the "martyr" of the story's title refers to the image of Christ as a martyr. The character of Njoroge is thus symbolically represented as a Christ figure. His decision to save, rather than kill, Mrs. Hill is an act of what could be considered Christian charity. Njoroge's death at the hands of Mrs. Hill thus renders him a martyr to the cause of the Kikuyu struggle against the colonists. The narrator makes clear the symbolic role of Nj oroge as a Christ figure in the line stating that Mrs. Hill ‘‘did not know that she had in fact killed her savior.’’ The word "savior" to describe Njoroge clearly connects him with the image of Christ as savior.

Literary Heritage
Kenya is a country of dramatic variety, both in terms of its varied topography and cultural makeup. The land itself includes tropical coastline, largely uninhabited inland desert areas, and high fertile farmland bordered by the two tallest mountains in Africa. While nearly ninety-nine percent of the people are black Africans, there are broad ethnic and linguistic divisions that divide the native population into more than forty ethnic groups. The largest of these groups, the Gikuyu, of which Ngugi is a member, makes up twenty percent of Kenya's population of 32 million people. Other large ethnic groups include the Kalenjin, Kamba, Luhya, and Luo, all of whom can be distinguished by their unique languages or dialects. The remaining one percent of the population is made up of East Indians, Europeans, and Arabs. Many Kenyans are able to overcome language barriers between groups by communicating in Swahili, the national language, or English, the official language.

Traditional Kenyan literary forms are largely oral. Oral stories, dramas, riddles, histories, myths, songs, proverbs, and other expressions are used to educate and entertain as well to remind the community of ancestors' heroic deeds, the past, and the precedents for customs and traditions. Folktale tellers often use call-response techniques in which a praise accompanies a narrative with music. In Ngugi's Petals of Blood, Nyakinyua is one of the keepers of the cultural heritage. She is the village bard who tells stories and leads the community in song. During the circumcision she sings a witty, ribald song with Nguguna, which is seen in contrast to the vulgar verses sung by Chui and his modern friends. In the novel, Ngugi' s use of different points of view and the recounting of events in the form of stories may be seen as his acknowledgment of traditional oral literary practices. In a 1980 essay, the author remarks that although the African novel uses a borrowed form, its great debt to the native oral tradition is narrative. Ngugi's 1977 play I Will Marry When I Want, which led to his arrest, was apparently most offensive to the government because of its use of songs to emphasize its messages. The play struck a chord with the Gikuyu-speaking audience because of its use of traditional literary techniques. After his imprisonment, Ngugi made a conscious decision to switch to writing in his native Gikuyu. He felt he must do this in order to more effectively reach the people for whom his writings are concerned—the peasant and working classes in Kenya.

Compare and Contrast

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Early 20th Century: Kenya is a Protectorate of Great Britain until 1963.

Late 20th Century: After 1963, the Republic of Kenya is an independent, democratic nation.

1960s and 1970s: When Ngugi's short story ‘‘The Martyr’’ is first published in the 1970s, Kenya's president is Jomo Kenyatta.

1980s and 1990s: After Kenyatta's death in 1978, Daniel arap Moi becomes president of the Republic of Kenya.

1960s and 1970s: When Ngugi's story ‘‘The Martyr'' is first published, he is living and working in the Republic of Kenya, where his books are sold and read.

1980s and 1990s: As a result of political repression, Ngugi lives in exile from Kenya, where his works are banned.

Early 20th Century: The typical Kikuyu man's household consists of a homestead surrounded by a hedge or stockade, with a separate hut for each wife.

Late 20th Century: As a result of the Mau-Mau Rebellion, beginning in 1952, many Kikuyu are moved from their homes by government forces. The resulting village settlement and land consolidation present economic advantages to the Kikuyu and are maintained in many cases even after the emergency ends.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Cantalupe, Charles, ed., Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts, Africa World Press, 1995, p. x.

, The World of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Africa World Press, 1995, p. 5.

Clarke, John Henrik, "Introduction," in Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics, by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Lawrence Hill, 1972, p. viii.

Killam, G. D., An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi, Heinemann, 1980, pp. 5, 17, 73-6, 78-9.

Njogu, Kimani, ‘‘Living Secretly and Spinning Tales: Ngugi's 'Secret Lives and Other Stories,'’’ in Ngugi wa Thiong'o: Texts and Contexts, Africa World Press, 1995, p. 340.

Further Reading
Booker, M. Keith, The African Novel in English, Heinemann, 1
Includes the chapter, ‘‘A Brief Historical Survey of the African Novel’’ as well as discussion of Ngugi's Devil on the Cross and works by Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Nadime Gordimer.

Jussawalla, Feroza, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, eds., Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Includes interviews with such prominent writers as Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, Anita Desai, and Sandra Cisneros.

Larson, Charles R., ed., Under African Skies: ern ModAfrican Stories, Farrar, Straus, 1997.
A collection of short stories by writers from a wide range of national and regional locales throughout Africa. Includes "A Meeting in the Dark'' by Ngugi wa Thiong'o.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide