Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 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, theprotagonist 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....

(The entire section is 6,067 words.)