Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o World Literature Analysis

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The inevitable conflict between the people and tribal ways of Kenya and the imported culture, religion, and politics of the colonists is the subject of most of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works. The importance of reclaiming the land, which has not only economic but also spiritual value to the natives, is one of his frequent themes. He portrays the devastating consequences of imperialism on a national, local, and personal scale. Some of the most painful effects of the encroachment of white culture are manifested in fractured family relationships and friendships. His novels are often set in small villages that stand symbolically for the whole of Africa in its struggle for independence and identity. Similarly, his broken families and severed friendships are meant to be representative of the breakup of Gikuyu society as a whole. Ngugi’s vision is highly political. His early fiction was conservative; it eventually became more liberal and militant, but later in his career he expressed more moderate opinions.

Central to Kenyan consciousness, and therefore to Ngugi’s fiction, is the sacredness of the soil. The Creator, Murungu, gave the land to the first man and woman, Gikuyu and Mumbi, and told them to rule it and cultivate it. This myth of the land as an emblem of sacred trust is always in the background, and often in the foreground, of Ngugi’s fiction. When foreigners seize the land, Kenyans are not only displaced and financially ruined but also alienated from the deity and their heritage.

Most of Ngugi’s characters feel the urgency of reclaiming the land but are unable to agree on how this should be achieved. The older generation cites the prophecy that a leader will arise from the hills someday and lead the people from their bondage, so they are willing to wait for that savior. The younger generation, however, is less patient and more militant. Ngugi portrays the clashes between the generations and the devastating effect their divisiveness has on their resistance to the colonists. This divisiveness also strains families and friendships. In Weep Not, Child, generational conflict is depicted in the tragically broken relations between Ngotho and Boro, father and son. An additional source of conflict comes from those natives, like Joshua in The River Between, who embrace white humanity’s religion and customs, shunning their own people and condemning their ways.

The impact of colonialism on traditional ways of life is another key theme in Ngugi’s fiction. A conflict between natives devoted to an important tribal custom and Christian missionaries who oppose the practice is at the heart of The River Between. The missionaries do not understand or accept the significance of the circumcision ritual as the means whereby young men and women attain full standing in the tribe and receive secret tribal knowledge. Ngugi opposes this ritual but also opposes the Christians’ condemnation of it. He makes it a riveting symbol of the clash of cultures. Ngugi portrays the ways in which the colonists punish the Kenyans when native and Western ideologies conflict; for example, the missionaries in the novel refuse to make education available to the young people who have been circumcised. In Ngugi’s early fiction, education is a key to solving Kenya’s problems, so depriving the children of schooling is a serious blow, although education provided by the missionaries comes with a liberal dose of religion. Thus, Waiyaki in The River Between is often warned by his father to take the white man’s education but eschew his ways and his faith.

The scenario at the missionary school illustrates another of Ngugi’s themes, that of the exploitative role of Christianity in...

(This entire section contains 3194 words.)

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Kenya. Ngugi believes that Christianity has served the purpose of colonial expansion and the obliteration of native cultures, and his Christian characters are often depicted as rigid and uncharitable, if not downright unscrupulous. In the playI Will Marry When I Want, Ngugi depicts a wealthy Christian businessman who uses religion and the church to defraud a farmer of his land. In spite of his opposition to the faith, Ngugi often employs Christian symbolism in his fiction because it is a widely known and useful point of reference for readers. Ngugi opposes not only Christianity but also all non-African religions in Kenya, including Islam.

Ngugi’s vision is remarkably evenhanded in its treatment of the problems of Kenya. In addition to portraying oppression by the British settlers, he unflinchingly explores those weaknesses of the natives that impede their ability to free themselves from the usurping whites. He portrays tribalism, messianism, self-doubt, and naïveté as among the greatest problems of the people. Tribalism stands in the way of a larger, more politically effective unity. Self-doubt paralyzes those who could be leaders; on the other hand, there are those who have visions of themselves as messiahs. Naïveté is deadly to the leadership of those who would settle on a single issue, like education, as the rallying point of freedom. In Ngugi’s fiction, education is effective only when wedded to political action. Even those who take action may create unforeseen consequences; Ngugi, for example, portrays the Mau-Maus as having a destructive effect on family solidarity. Ngugi is also troubled by the oppression of women in Gikuyu society and frequently addresses this topic in his work.

In fact, beginning with Devil on the Cross, subtle but important shifts in the treatment of women, as well as in symbolic representations of the body, perspectives on sources of oppression, and modes of narration emerge in Ngugi’s fiction. In addition to featuring female protagonists, Devil on the Cross and Wizard of the Crow both pay sustained attention to social problems, such as battery and sexual exploitation, which plague women. The women are not just depicted as victims, however. In Devil on the Cross, Wariinga is able to act in defense of herself and others. Likewise, in Wizard of the Crow, Nyawira organizes a tribunal of women to address cases of wife battery.

While Ngugi’s artistic vision has always promoted the concept of unity, in his later works that collectivism is presented as the antidote to a culture of fear. Challenging this culture of fear is important because it is, in part, what stifles the peoples’ dissent. This shift in attention to the corrupt leadership which promotes the culture of fear is reflected in the emphasis on the grotesque and altered bodies of African elites. Whereas in the earlier work it was the settlers’ whose corrupt nature was signified by their large sagging bellies, in Devil on the Cross and Wizard of the Crow the enormous belly is associated with the African elite as a sign of their corruption. Additionally, in Wizard of the Crow the theme of self-inflicted bodily alteration introduced in Devil on the Cross is exploited to expose the willful complicity Ngugi associates with this class of Kenyans.

Additionally, in Wizard of the Crow the use of the storyteller figure is centralized. Significant portions of the narrative are filtered through the perspective of the character Arigaigai Gathere, known primarily as A. G. At the beginning of the narrative A. G. is a constable of the police force, but by the end he earns his living as an itinerant storyteller. His transformation from a representative of the state to a storyteller whose main material celebrates the impact of the Wizard of the Crow illustrates Ngugi’s concept of the artist’s role in society. Not only does A. G. celebrate the Wizard’s triumph over the state, but also throughout the novel he reminds the reader of the value of multiple perspectives on the same events. All of these changes together suggest Ngugi’s ongoing commitment to art as a tool to explain, invigorate, and explore the social experiences of those who are marginalized, and thus to enrich human consciousness.

Weep Not, Child

First published: 1964

Type of work: Novel

A family gets caught up in the forces of upheaval during Kenya’s state of emergency in the 1950’s.

Weep Not, Child was the second novel Ngugi wrote and his first novel to be published. Set in Kenya in the turbulent 1950’s, the novel tells the story of a family and how it is affected by the open antagonisms between natives and colonists. When the novel opens, the family is poor but happy and harmonious; the course of the novel traces the disintegration of the family. The protagonist, Njoroge, is a young boy who wants more than anything to receive an education and is thrilled to attend a missionary school. His father, Ngotho, is a tenant farmer on land owned by Jacobo, a wealthy African farmer. Ngotho works for the British Mr. Howlands on a tea plantation that is Ngotho’s ancestral land. He waits patiently for the time when the gods will fulfill the prophecy and deliver his people from their oppression. His older son, Boro, has returned from military service in World War II, bitter, disillusioned, and having learned of the white man’s violence.

Boro loathes his father’s passivity. In an effort to appease Boro, Ngotho becomes involved with a strike and leads an attack on Jacobo, who attempts to quell the strikers. Consequently, Ngotho loses his job. Boro becomes a guerrilla leader and political activist who ultimately kills both Howlands and Jacobo. Although Boro is arrested and sentenced to be hanged, Ngotho confesses to killing Jacobo and is tortured and killed. Njoroge, who is now about nineteen, is arrested, though innocent, as his father’s accomplice. He too is tortured. He is also denied the thing he wants most for himself: further schooling. The novel ends with Njoroge’s plan to hang himself, but as he stands under a tree with the rope in his hands, his mother comes looking for him and takes him home.

This novel shows the effects of the Mau-Mau Uprising on ordinary villagers. The main characters of the novel represent the social forces in conflict with each other during the state of emergency in Kenya. The British planter Howlands, in his role as a district officer, is brutal in his repression of the Mau-Mau Uprising. Jacobo is a ruthless collaborator with the colonial government. Boro represents the young generation of Kenyans who do not share the patience and passivity of the older generation (represented by his father), but who rather wish to overthrow the colonial government, using whatever violence is necessary. Ngotho stands for the plight of the landless, disfranchised Gikuyu peasants. Njoroge is representative of the many innocent villagers whose lives are devastated by events over which they have little control. Njoroge has naïve fantasies about himself as a savior in the crisis, remembering David and Goliath. The colonial government is ruthlessly brutal and responsible for the breakup of Ngotho’s family and the larger society of which it is a microcosm. The Mau-Mau Uprising is motivated by pure destructiveness and therefore also accountable for some of the suffering of the Gikuyu.

The River Between

First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

A young Gikuyu leader fails to unite his people, who are divided by tribal rivalries.

The River Between was written for a literary contest that Ngugi entered while he was in college; the entry won first prize. Events in the novel take place about twenty-five years earlier than the action of Weep Not, Child. Set in Gikuyu territory, the novel portrays the struggle among natives of the ridges of Kameno and Makuyu, who have conflicting ideas about the presence of the white man. The two main forces are the traditionalists, led by Kabonyi, and the converts to Christianity and Western ways of thinking, led by Joshua. Finding some merit in both tribal traditions and Western thinking, but not subscribing completely to either, the protagonist Waiyaki is pulled by both sides as he attempts to educate his people. His father, Chege, who believes his son is the prophesied messiah, sends Waiyaki to the mission school to learn all that he can of the wisdom of the white man, but he warns Waiyaki to remain true to his people and their ways.

Waiyaki takes his place as an adult member of the tribe when he participates in the circumcision ceremony. The missionary school vehemently opposes the rites, and when his friend Muthoni dies of an infection after her circumcision, the missionaries refuse to allow the circumcised students to attend further classes at the mission school. Waiyaki returns to the ridges and sets up his own schools. His great enthusiasm for education earns the respect and affection of his people, who see him as their savior against the domination of colonialism.

Waiyaki finds himself in love with Nyambura, the daughter of Joshua, a man who has embraced Christianity and turned his back on the tribal customs of his people, especially the circumcision ritual for women. The dead girl, Muthoni, was Nyambura’s sister, greatly conflicted in her desire to be both Christian and Gikuyu. Joshua had forbidden her to participate in the rituals, but she disobeyed him in order to be part of the tribe. Joshua is an unforgiving, unyielding father and leader.

The other political force to be reckoned with is the Kiama, a militant organization devoted to the protection of tribal ways. The Kiama requires an oath of loyalty to uphold tribal purity. Waiyaki is vulnerable to the Kiama because of his political naïveté; he thinks only in terms of education as the key to helping the Gikuyu, not political action. His other point of vulnerability is his love of Nyambura. He is seen with her and will not deny his feelings for her; he and she are turned over to the Kiama for justice. Waiyaki’s opponent and the leader of the Kiama is Kabonyi, and he has effectively turned the Kiama against Waiyaki. Presumably Waiyaki and Nyambura will be executed.

The dominant theme of The River Between is the role of education and political activism in the resistance movement. Waiyaki’s idealistic response to the needs of the people gives them only part of what they need from him. They need the education he brings to their children, but decisive political action is also called for, and he seems too preoccupied with his schools and with his feelings for Nyambura to be aware that he is ultimately failing the people and placing himself in danger. Like Njoroge in Weep Not, Child, he has a messianic vision of himself but is not able to fulfill it.

Wizard of the Crow

First published: Mrogi wa Kagogo, 2004 (English translation, 2006)

Type of work: Novel

An ordinary man accidentally becomes the Wizard of the Crow and the unwitting symbol of a people’s resistance against a despotic ruler.

The Wizard of the Crow reflects the global political changes which have occurred since Ngugi first began writing. Because it attempts to present a historical account, the novel includes many characters. However, all of the events that take place in the fictional land of the Free Republic of Aburiria relate in some way to four central characters: Kamiti wa Karimiri, the man who will become known as the Wizard of the Crow; Grace Nyawira, the chairperson of the Movement for the Voice of the People; the nation’s second independence-era leader, known only as the Ruler; and Titus Tajarika, a businessman, then minister, and, finally successor to the Ruler.

Kamiti and Nyawira find themselves allied in opposition to the Ruler’s despotic quest for personal glorification at the expense of the well-being of the nation’s citizens. This quest is represented by the Ruler’s attempt to secure a loan from the Global Bank to build the world’s tallest building, a monument to the Ruler called Marching to Heaven, in a time of mass unemployment. Though Kamiti and Nyawira triumph in the sense that they evade capture, survive the attacks on their lives, and expand the Movement for the Voice of the People, the novel ends with their success as a counterpoint to the beginning of a new cycle of exploitation. The Ruler has been succeeded by Tajarika (now known as Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus Whitehead), loans from the Global Bank have been secured, and the plans for Marching to Heaven have been transformed to the construction of a modern coliseum in honor of the emperor.

In this novel, the central themes of Ngugi’s early work, such as generational conflict, education as a means of social advancement, and traditional ways of life, recede. Instead, emphasis is placed on describing the centrality of capitalism in contemporary life. In addition, there is a shift from Kenya as the primary locale to a fictionalized locale meant to be representative of postcolonial African nations more generally. The Free Republic of Aburiria is used to illustrate the processes by which many postcolonial nations are incorporated into the global economy. In the novel, this idea is given the name “corporony.” Though Ngugi sees the elite’s cooperation as seriously compromising the well-being of the nation and the masses of its people, he conveys this criticism humorously. The Ruler’s greed, for example, is symbolized by the malady from which he suffers through a great deal of the novel—an inexplicable, proportional, physical inflation that medical specialists name and copyright as “self-induced expansion” (SIE).

In Wizard of the Crow, Ngigu examines a new set of themes. Attention to the dynamics of global exchange, both positive and negative, replaces the emphasis on local identity. The novel identifies capitalist expansion and corrupt governments as obstacles to social equity in many postcolonial nations and emphasizes the importance of challenging authoritarian rule, even when success is qualified.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi

First produced: 1974 (first published, 1976)

Type of work: Play

The play is an imaginative re-creation of the Mau-Mau leader’s trial, interspersed with scenes of his career and Kenyan history.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, written in collaboration with Micere Githae-Mugo, is Ngugi’s response to colonialist writings about the Mau-Mau movement, which traditionally depicted the movement and its leader, Dedan Kimathi, as mentally unbalanced and vicious. Ngugi and his collaborator choose to counter this image with a portrait of Kimathi as a man of great courage and commitment. This was how he was seen by many of the peasants and laborers of Kenya.

Kimathi was captured and put on trial in 1956. The two playwrights make no attempt to re-create the trial realistically. In place of a tightly woven dramatic narrative, the plot consists of disparate but thematically connected episodes. The scenes in the courtroom are interspersed with others that depict episodes from Kenyan history of the preceding two hundred years, scenes of Kenyan people attempting to help Kimathi escape, scenes of Kimathi’s interactions with guerrillas, scenes of Kimathi in prison, and scenes of his torture. The play includes Gikuyu songs and dances, and even mime. Ngugi’s portrayal of the Mau-Mau movement, ambivalent in other works, is less so here.

In this play Ngugi looks back at history in an effort to revise it and to expunge deliberately propagated falsehoods. In this way, he attempts to help his country cast off its legacy of oppression.

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