Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Roger A. Berger (essay date spring 1989)

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SOURCE: Berger, Roger A. “Ngugi's Comic Vision.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 1 (spring 1989): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Berger explores the comedic elements in Ngugi's fiction, noting how the author's satirical overtones transform his novels into works of “resistant political discourse.”]

The serious aspects of class culture are official and authoritarian; they are combined with violence, prohibitions, limitations and always contain an element of fear and of intimidation. … Laughter, on the contrary, overcomes fear, for it knows no inhibitions, no limitations. Its idiom is never used for violence and authority.

—Mikhail Bakhtin


We are reluctant to term Ngũgĩ's fiction comic. Indeed his novels and essays reflect an earnestness and an understandable seriousness, given what he sees as the betrayal of African aspirations following political independence, and without question, his fiction chronicles immense human suffering and tragedy. Moreover, the large critical response that now sprawls around Ngũgĩ's fiction tends to miss, ignore, or deny comic or humorous elements in his novels.1 Yet undeniably in his most recent work—Ngũgĩ's novels contain comic elements. What are we to make of these elements, and how might they relate to his political vision?

Those few critics who recognize Ngũgĩ's use of the comic chastise him for discrepancies between his political ideology and the narrative structure of his novels. Specifically, Lisa Curtis argues that Petals of Blood is “unable to sustain the collective narrative voice” (199), while in Devil on the Cross, Ngũgĩ's “oversimplifying of the social ills … and the overstated irony … undermine [the] potential for serious and instructive political criticism by reducing the terms of the problems confronted and the level at which they are criticized to comic proportions” (Curtis 208). Similarly, Stewart Crehan suggests that though Petals of Blood “points its finger in the right direction” (2), it is informed by a “moribund pastoral ideology” (10) which “over-simplifies and distorts the nature of the struggle by turning it into a mere contest of good and evil.” Such a posture, “far from raising consciousness … can actually disarm the masses. Sentimentality and melodrama … work against any attempt at an objective analysis of class formation and historical change … by confusing economic relations with moral ones” (6-7).2 Crehan suggests that Ngũgĩ's narrative technique distances the reader from the very class—workers and peasants—whose cause Ngũgĩ ultimately professes. They remain the object—not the subject—of the narrative (and therefore of history).

Analyses like those of Curtis and Crehan are attractive—and at times they correctly identify formal discontinuities in Ngũgĩ's texts—but ultimately they fail to consider the realities of the African writer, as well as the reception of particular works,3 and apply purely Eurocentric standards for judging the political efficacy of Ngũgĩ's later novels. I want to suggest, in contrast, that Ngũgĩ's political vision is in the final analysis a comic one and that the narrative style in his last two novels—a meshing of popular forms and modernistic techniques—allows him in a comic and hence circuitous manner to offer “serious” political analysis.4 For the purpose of this paper, I want to adapt some theories of the comic along with Mikhail Bakhtin's concepts of “grotesque realism” and folk laughter as a means of understanding the comic nature of Ngũgĩ's vision and to see that his later works are, to paraphrase one critic, “novels of the people” (Balogun 49) because they employ folk culture, laughter, and a carnival utopian spirit to oppose the “comprador” and “imperialist” bourgeois neocolonial authorities in his later works. Ngũgĩ writes that

… most national liberation movements start by rejecting the culture of the...

(This entire section contains 10719 words.)

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colonizer, by repudiating the religion of the oppressing nation and class and the entire education system of the colonizer. People create their own songs, poems, dances, literature, which embody a structure of values dialectically opposed to those of the ruling class of the oppressing race and nation. Often they will take the songs of the colonizer and give them an entirely different meaning, interpretation and emphasis.

(“Literature and Society” 27)

My argument here, then, seeks to explain Ngũgĩ's use of comic elements and elements of the comic, frequently strategies of popular subversive culture, to see how they reflect “a structure of values dialectically opposed” to the colonial and neocolonial regimes. His last two novels are, to amend a concept from Fredric Jameson, comic “national allegories” designed to encourage proletariat and peasant resistance against the neocolonial hierarchies (69).

First, inevitably, some theory. What do I mean by comic? I want to discuss this term on two levels: the metanarrative and the narrative; that is, in terms of both larger philosophies of history embedded so to speak in a text and comic elements in the narrative.

If African literature and criticism suggest anything for non-African readers, they ought to make us suspicious of “universalist,” Eurocentric critics like Northrop Frye; yet his Anatomy of Criticism offers a place to begin discussing the metanarrative (and potentially revolutionary) nature of the comic. Frye's theories of literary modes and myths are undoubtedly familiar to most contemporary students of literature, but it is important nevertheless to reiterate a few of his concepts of the comic, while relating them, in general, to Ngũgĩ's fiction. Frye sees “the theme of the comic” as “the integration of society” (43), and the comic text depicts “the movement from one kind of society to another,” the latter “new society … frequently signalized by some kind of party or festive ritual” (163). Much of the comedy in the comic mode emerges from what Frye explains as “usually someone with a good deal of social prestige and power, who is able to force much of the play's society into line with his obsession. Thus the humor is intimately connected with the theme of the absurd or irrational law that the action of the comedy moves toward breaking” (169). It is not difficult to substitute in most of Ngũgĩ's novels the colonial authorities or the emerging comprador bourgeois for that irrational “someone.” Specifically, the “comic” struggle in Ngũgĩ's Kenya can be seen in what Frye terms “the contest of eiron [or self-deprecator] and alazon [impostor]” (172). The alazons, or “the humorous blocking characters of comedy[,] are nearly always impostors, though it is more frequently a lack of self-knowledge than simple hypocrisy that characters them” (172). Again, Ngũgĩ's novels are filled with blocking characters—white settlers or their African allies—who confront the often self-deprecating and humble loyal Gikuyu. According to David Maughan-Brown, the white settlers of Kenya were not hypocrites but, in essence, ignoramuses, who maintained their stupidity through ideological blinders (Land 66-105). Much of Ngũgĩ's comic irony can be found in absurd interactions between blundering settlers or the now wildly hypocritical new black Kenyan elite and frequently bewildered (and often terrified) peasants. The wonderfully ironic scene between Margery Thompson and Karanja in A Grain of Wheat when she blithely asks him how many wives he has—“This was her favourite question to Africans” (45)—is typical. Finally, most comic works, according to Frye, portray a transition “from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the older characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom” (169). This is not to suggest that any of Ngũgĩ's novels fully realize this free society at their end: rather it is to say that Ngũgĩ's later novels and hence his “vision” point toward such a society.

It is Hayden White who helps us make the crucial connection between Frye's theory of forms and philosophies of history. His comments on Hegel's and Marx's “comic” philosophies are particularly germane for our discussion on Ngũgĩ:

Hegel's Comic conception of history was ultimately based on his belief in the right of life over death; “life” guaranteed to Hegel the possibility of an ever more adequate form of social life throughout the historical future. Marx carried this Comic conception even further; he envisioned nothing less than the dissolution of that “society” in which the contradiction between consciousness and being had to be entertained as a fatality for all men in all times. It would not, then, be unjust to characterize the final vision of history which inspired Marx in his historical and social theorizing as a Romantic one. But his conception did not envisage humanity's redemption as a deliverance from time itself. Rather, his redemption took the form of a reconciliation of man with a nature denuded of its fantastic and terrifying powers, submitted to the rule of technics, and turned to the creation of a genuine community, to the end of creating individuals who are free because they no longer have to struggle with one another for their own self-hood, but only with themselves.


White's description of a comic Marxist society can be found in Petals of Blood and in Devil on the Cross. We see essentially the same vision conveyed to us through Karega, the union organizer in Petals of Blood, when he envisions

a world in which goodness and beauty and strength and courage would be seen not in how cunning one can be, not in how much power to oppress one possessed, but only in one's contribution in creating a more humane world in which the inherited inventive genius of man in culture and science from all ages and climes would not be the monopoly of a few, but for the use of all.


White's explanation of the Marxian combination of tragedy and comedy in the historical mission of humanity is also relevant to Ngũgĩ's fiction:

… for Marx, history had to be emplotted in two ways simultaneously: in the mode of Tragedy and in the mode of Comedy. For, although man lives Tragically, inasmuch as his attempts to construct a viable human community are continually frustrated by the laws that govern history while he remains in the social state, he also lives Comically, insofar as this interaction between man and society progressively moves man toward a condition in which society itself will be dissolved and a genuine community, a communistic mode of existence, will be constituted as his true historic destiny.


There is much tragedy in Ngũgĩ's novels, particularly in his early novels, and most of this tragedy emerges from the destructive split in the African community between those who want to preserve a way of life and those who adopt the “white” value system and reject absolutely their African heritage.5 Yet, I want to stress—and I hope to demonstrate this in greater detail in the next section—Ngũgĩ's ultimate comic vision that envelops, as White suggests, the tragedy depicted in his novels.

Bakhtin's notions about the revolutionary aspects of medieval folk culture and laughter further elucidate the connection between Ngũgĩ's political vision and his use of the comic—especially on the narrative level.6 I hesitate of course to make too much of the connection: Bakhtin discusses medieval and Renaissance folk humor, and Ngũgĩ writes about a modern African nation suffering from imperialism and neocolonialism. Yet parallels exist, and laughter retains, even in its contemporary manifestations (as Bakhtin suggests), some of the subversive characteristics of medieval folk humor. Indeed, reading Bakhtin, one cannot help but note the almost uncanny similarity between his description of medieval culture and the situation of the contemporary African intellectual and novelist. For example, Bakhtin emphasizes that “the men of the Middle Ages participated in two lives: the official and the carnival life” (96). Similarly, many African intellectuals, as Senghor tells us, are “half-castes” (75), men of two worlds—the European and the African. Or, addressing the “language problem” of the Middle Ages, Bakhtin notes that “the line of demarcation between two cultures—the official and the popular—was drawn along the line dividing Latin from the vernacular” (465). Analogously, contemporary African literature (in particular Ngũgĩ) has found itself often ironically trapped between an official language (the colonial) and a popular one (the indigenous African language). As Bakhtin comments, “The vernacular invaded all the spheres of ideology and expelled Latin. It brought new forms of thought (ambivalence) and new evaluations; this was the language of life, of material work and mores, of the ‘lowly,’ mostly humorous genres (fabliaux, cris de Paris, farces), the free speech of the marketplace” (465-66). In particular, as we shall see, Ngũgĩ's use of song, proverbs, folk storytelling, excremental images, scatological references, and the like represents his attempt to incorporate the vernacular, especially in his English novels, into his text.

For Bakhtin, medieval laughter and folk humor exist as a subversive culture in opposition to the official institutions and hierarchies of medieval and, eventually, Renaissance life. Bakhtin terms medieval laughter “the social consciousness of all the people” (92) and sees in medieval carnival life—with its feasts, its clowns, its emphasis on bodily materialistic life, its parodies of official life and institutions, its degradations of “all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract” (19)—a “utopian element” that denies distinctions between life and death, actor and audience, official culture and subculture. “Carnival,” Bakhtin tells us, “was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal” (10). During carnival an egalitarian spirit prevailed. Anyone could be ridiculed: “all were considered equal” (10). There was even “a reversal of the hierarchic levels” (81) in which the clown becomes king or queen for a day. In the carnival a new world is constituted, with new relations between and among human beings:

Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part.


This kind of carnival spirit manifests itself in literature through what Bakhtin terms “grotesque realism.” “Grotesque realism” focuses primarily on the body—on images of bodily life in relation to the earth (which is in essence also a body). In “grotesque realism … the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egoistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all the people. … it makes no pretense to renunciation of the earthy, or independence of the earth and the body” (19). “Grotesque realism” involves exaggeration, wild hyperbole, the immeasurable—all of which have a “positive, assertive character” (19). “The leading themes of these images of bodily life are fertility, growth, and a brimming-over abundance … [and] … The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation” (19). According to Bakhtin, the grotesque for Rabelais connects death and life, decay and rebirth, the body and the earth. The grotesque image degrades but also frees: it is utopian and organic. And, as he tells us, much is to be made of the grotesque:

The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys … limited seriousness and all pretense of an extra-temporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way.


In fact, one of Bakhtin's primary goals in Rabelais and His World is to reappropriate the image of the grotesque and folk laughter and to emphasize its political nature. The comic—the truly comic, not the often degraded forms of the comic that we see nowadays—operates as a political strategy for demystifying hierarchy and, Bakhtin believes, the often terrifying nature of the universe itself.

Much of this demystification occurs through a system of images based on a comic and grotesque language. Rabelais found many (not all) of his images and much of his language in what Bakhtin terms the language “of the marketplace.” This language includes abuses, oaths, swearing, curses—the “peculiar argot” (188) of the people, that general system of discourse outside official language (in Rabelais's time) of the State and the Church, or (in our own time) of the school, the corporation, the nation, and the various policing agencies whose gaze regulates speech and bodies. The European Middle Ages and Renaissance—like modern-day Africa—were noisy, talkative, and public, and Rabelais was tuned into this noise.

Similarly, Ngũgĩ finds his language in that of the common people. As he writes in Detained,

A writer needs people around him. He needs live struggles of active life. Contrary to popular mythology, a novel is not a product of the imaginative feats of a single individual but the work of many hands and tongues. A writer just takes down notes dictated to him by life among the people, which he then arranges in this or that form. For me, in writing a novel, I love to hear the voices of the people working on the land, forging metal in a factory, telling anecdotes in crowded matatus and buses, gyrating their hips in a crowded bar before a jukebox or a live band, people playing games of love and hate and fear and glory in their struggle to live. I need to look at different people's faces, their gestures, their gait, their clothes, and to hear the variegated modulations of their voices in different moods. I need the vibrant voices of beautiful women: their touch, their sighs, their tears, their laughter. I like the presence of children prancing about, fighting, laughing, crying. I need life to write about life.


Most essays on Ngũgĩ quote his more explicitly political pronouncements about neocolonialism or the relationship between literature and society, but, for me, this statement (with its expressive “I love”s and “I need”s) says more about both his political commitment and his attentiveness to the language of the people. And so the narrative in several of Ngũgĩ's novels, as almost every critic of his work points out, frequently resorts to a “collective voice.” But we also find in Ngũgĩ—particularly in his later novels—proverbs, curses, jokes, witticisms, oaths, swearing, and the like. Their increasing presence in Ngũgĩ's texts indicates his interest not only in a kind of critical realism but also in a grotesque realism that will appeal to a new mass Kenyan audience.

Ngũgĩ, of course, is not Rabelais. As a twentieth-century writer his political vision cannot exactly replicate the comic genius of Rabelais. Nor need it. But he can use folk laughter and the grotesque particularly in his later texts to convey his political themes. And indeed, as I have suggested, such elements appear in his work. Our task, then, is to identify and explain them. Consequently, when reading Ngũgĩ, we shall want to be attentive to instances of comedy, carnival laughter, the language of the people, and the grotesque—exaggerations, hyperbole, incongruity, degradations, scatological and bodily references (especially protuberances, sneezing, sweating, blood, urinating, excrement), and any references to the earth and its connections to the body. In addition, we shall look for certain scenes in which folk humor and wisdom (especially in festive carnivals and the like) appear. But we also must bear in mind, as I suggested earlier, that Ngũgĩ is a contemporary writer; and in spite of many similarities he might have to his medieval and Renaissance counterparts,7 he is writing in a historical and literary context in which the grotesque is not the sole province of the masses. Therefore, we must also look for what I shall term “false carnivals”—images of perverse laughter, degradation without any positive connotations, what Bakhtin terms “the world of Romantic grotesque,” “a terrifying world, alien to man.” In such a world, “all that is ordinary, commonplace, belonging to everyday life, and recognized by all suddenly becomes meaningless, dubious and hostile” (38-39). Ultimately, then, I want to identify and explain the comic in Ngũgĩ—what has hitherto been seen as anomalous, trivial, or incompetent or has, in general, gone unremarked.

Nonetheless, citing the comic, as a basal mode for Ngũgĩ (or even for much of African literature), does carry its caveats. Indeed, as Peter Knauss, in his discussion of the Kenyan white settler ideology, notes, “The modal image of the African, explicitly colonial, was of a docile happy-go-lucky creature, a salty man of the earth, dominated by his physical desires, and subscribing to a comic view of the universe” (Knauss, qtd. in Maughan-Brown, Land 81). Unquestionably this view of the African—with its atavistic connotations—has served to justify racist ideologies and other colonial pathologies. And though it ought to go without saying, nothing I suggest here is intended to encourage such false consciousness. But I want to revise our understanding of this “modal image” and understand it not through four hundred years of Eurocentric “serious” assault on the comic and the grotesque—the sad and arrogant history of which Bakhtin chronicles; instead I want to emphasize the political genius of the comic and the grotesque with its physicality and its bodily life. Here, then, I propose to examine Ngũgĩ's “impressive but problematical” (Jameson 82) Petals of Blood and his last novel Devil on the Cross, texts that are written in a political, explicitly Marxist, paradigm, to see where and why the comic manifests itself.


Ngũgĩ's fourth novel, Petals of Blood, contains numerous instances of the comic, “grotesque realism,” and people's laughter. Admittedly, as I have suggested, some of these instances embody a critical realism or perhaps a Zola-like naturalism, an attempt by Ngũgĩ to convey the seemingly grotesque life of the Kenyan peasants in opposition to the bourgeois life of the ruling elite. Yet Ngũgĩ also uses the comic grotesque for political reasons: to indicate an organic connection between the Kenyan masses and the land that has been stolen from them, to suggest models of communal sharing (carnival-like instances), to make the rich objects of laughter and thereby undermine their authority, and to convey graphically how the rich and their ideological allies have utterly alienated themselves from the land. Ngũgĩ describes this grotesque life of the workers and peasants in Kenyan through his four major characters—Munira, Wanja, Abdulla, and Karega—some of whom are able to understand how they are being exploited.

It would be wrong, however, to designate Petals of Blood as a comic text. Too many instances of tragic melodrama occur in the novel. Unlike many other commentators who see Ngũgĩ's A Grain of Wheat as his pivotal novel, however, I consider Petals of Blood his most ambiguous and split effort. All the problems and contradictions facing the African writer—those of audience, genre, and textuality—emerge in Petals of Blood. Here, Ngũgĩ is caught between his allegiance to a Eurocentric (or in this case English) literary tradition and a need to address a mostly non-English-reading Kenyan audience. Hence, the novel's comic elements—those parts that would appeal to a Kenyan audience—often seemed forced, unsure, or mechanical.8 But if we understand Petals of Blood as a transitional text, one in which Ngũgĩ wrestles with his problematic situation as an African novelist, then we can see how his use of comic elements in the novel suggests a transformation both in his overall sense of genre and in his relationship with the Kenyan people. In the first instance, these comic elements presage a new, more comic novel as we see in Ngũgĩ's Devil on the Cross. In the second instance, we no longer have an Ngũgĩ for whom the inability to remain aloof from the ideological conflicts of Kenyan society is the ultimate tragedy (as seen in his first three novels). Rather, in Petals of Blood, we find an Ngũgĩ struggling to discover a new vision (and attendant form) for his audience.

Ngũgĩ's use of comic elements in Petals of Blood then creates hermeneutical problems for the reader (or listener). The reader finds in Ngũgĩ's use of names like Hallowes Ironmonger, Cambridge Fraudsham, or Sir Swallow Bloodall for some of the white characters a kind of broad comedy seemingly absent from most of the rest of the novel. Other explicitly comic scenes—like Karega's climbing into an overcrowded matatu taxi (48); Wanja's idea of bringing in new business to Abdulla's shop (she puts up a closing sale sign which then attracts many villagers); the students' laughter at their headmaster (Cambridge Fraudsham again) when after the death of his dog he speaks to a school assembly about “the place of pets in human life” (169); or the villagers' encounter with the hypocritical Reverend Jerrod Brown, whose cruel sermon to starving and sick people causes Karega to “burst out with laughter” (149)—seem equally irreconcilable with the overall tragic mode of the novel. Further, the reader is confronted by some anomalously grotesque situations; for example, the one in which Nyankinyua—the otherwise dignified symbol of an older, communal Kenya—almost closes Munira's new school because she “shat a mountain between the school and the acacia bush” (6). Munira returns the favor when he grotesquely sneezes on her:

[Munira] plucked a ripened yellow kei-apple and crushed it between his fingers: isn't there a safe corner in which to hide and do some work, plant a seed whose fruit one could see? The smell from the rotting fermenting kei-apple hit into his nostrils. He felt a sudden nausea, Lord deliver us from our past, and frantically fumbled in his pockets for a hankerchief to cover the sneeze. It was too late. A bit of mucus flew onto the woman's furrowed face. She shrieked out, auuu-u, Nduri ici mutiuke muone [“A curse expressing shock” according to the book's note], and fled in fright. He turned his face aside to hold back another sneeze. When a second later he looked to the path, he could not find a trace of her behind the kei-apple bush or anywhere. She had vanished.


It is difficult to know what to make of this scene. To readers firmly grounded in the Eurocentric tradition, it seems perhaps a kind of incompetent naturalism. If we understand this scene—along with the other comic instances—as exemplifying Ngũgĩ's emerging comic vision here penetrating his text, however, it begins to assume a political meaning. In essence, this scene degrades Munira, lowering him in the eyes (and perhaps the ears) of the reader. It undermines Munira's pretense to seriousness—especially what we later see as his self-appointed messianic mission—and hence calls into question the dignity usually reserved for neocolonial schoolteachers in Africa.

It also functions as a symbolic description, couched in grotesque terms, of Munira's alienation from the land. We later discover that Munira prefers to offer his students a sort of agoraphobic education. When Munira takes his students outside, the children begin asking him about organic life and its metaphysical ramifications:

But then the children started asking him awkward questions. Why did things eat each other? Why can't the eaten eat back? Why did God allow this and that to happen? He had never bothered with these kinds of questions and to silence them he told them it was simply a law of nature.


The children invoke a grotesque image of consumption—one that we see later when Wanja, the prostitute, declares that to survive in Kenya, “You eat somebody or you are eaten” (291). But Munira cannot tolerate the grotesque. Instead, he retreats into this classroom and swears that he will

never again take the children to the fields. Enclosed in the four walls he was the master, aloof, dispensing knowledge to a concentration of faces looking up to him. There he could avoid being drawn in. … But out in the fields, outside the wall, he felt insecure.


Given this attitude toward the land, Munira's nauseous sneezing indicates his alienation from the very element that gives life to human beings.

In the passage depicting Munira's sneeze, we also note Nyankinyua's curse, and Ngũgĩ's use of the vernacular (here significantly untranslated for the non-Gikuyu speaker) should be familiar to most readers of African fiction. Indeed, incorporating the African vernacular into novels has often been regarded as an attempt to “Africanize” the novel, an alien genre in Africa. Achebe's extensive use of Igbo proverbs in his novels, for example, or Armah's reliance on proverbs and sayings in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born attempt to effect a compromise between what they perceive as generic necessities and their thematic needs. Ngũgĩ in Petals of Blood similarly is confronted by this kind of textual problem, but in the novel Ngũgĩ moves beyond these purely textual considerations, for his use of the African vernacular in Petals of Blood represents a political effort to undermine the language and culture of the colonizer and to reinforce the language and culture of the Kenyan people.

We can see examples of the use of the vernacular for this particular purpose in some early scenes in which Abdulla and Wanja use the language of the people or participate in everyday activities and thus feel connected to the people. Abdulla, for instance, tells a familiar African folktale to the children of the village, a cautionary tale meant by Ngũgĩ not only to entertain the reader (or listener) but also to incorporate the stories of the people:

Once upon a time Ant and Louse had an argument. Each boasted that he could beat the other in dancing Kibata. They threw challenges at one another. They decided to name a day. The coming contest of dancing feet became the talk of the whole animal community and none was going to miss the occasion. Came the day and early in the morning Ant and Louse went to the river. They bathed and oiled themselves. They started decorating themselves with red and white ochre. Ant was the first to dress, and he wanted to kill all the ladies' hearts. He had a special sword which he now tied to his waist. He tied, and tied, and tied it so tight that his waist broke into two. When Louse saw the plight of his rival, he laughed and laughed and laughed until his nose split in two. And so because Ant had no waist and Louse had no nose, they never went to the arena and Kibata was enjoyed by others.


During the journey to Nairobi, Abdulla again becomes storyteller, entertaining the weary travelers and reviving morale especially with his stories of the Mau Mau and Dedan Kimathi (140-43). Wanja similarly feels unusually close to other peasant women in one scene in which she is fetching water with them:

Wanja enjoyed their gossip about everything: from the dirty clothes they had to wash for the men, to the love-making habits of their men. Wambui said: “Why, mine once came back from Ruwa-ini or wherever he works and found me in the shamba and imagine, he wanted it there in the shamba, on dry maize-stalks under the shade of a mwariki shrub, and he wouldn't hear of waiting for the evening in the hut, and there he was sweating out his power, and I told him that I would cry out ‘Shame!’ and he would not heed my protests and well, can you believe it, that's where that rogue of mine, Muriuki, was conceived … on a maize stalk under the sun.” “I bet you did not mind it much, seeing that one is also thirsty under this hot sun,” another retorted, and they all laughed. They would often turn to Wanja: tell us about the men in the city—we hear that they put a rubber trouser on it? And Wanja would only laugh.


These scenes—with their humor, popular wisdom, and unfettered sexuality—echo proverbs and sayings and emphasize the political importance of a people's language and laughter.

Perhaps the outstanding example of Ngũgĩ's use of the people's language and laughter is during the “opera of eros” (207) that occurs on the night before the circumcision ceremony. It is a kind of people's carnival during which, after wild dances (that significantly leave Munira “feeling slightly left out,” 207), Njuguna and Nyankinyua, two elders in the village, provide the evening's “dramatic tension” in what begins as a comic story of courtship and ends as something of a public contest of wit and erotic abuse. After Njuguna shows “contempt” for the “mock-bride” he has come seeking, the opera dissolves into a wild contest of words:

Nyankinyua's voice comes in strong accepting the challenge and swearing to abuse him and even extend the abuse to his clan:

But can you do it?
But can you do it?
I'll pass through Ilmorog—
You are the one that roars threats
But keeps a bride wakeful for nothing!

Njuguna is not at a loss for words but comes back to the attack with the prideful authority of a choosy lover:

I saw cunt holding tobacco wrapped in banana leaves,
I saw cunt holding tobacco wrapped in banana leaves
I'll pass through Ilmorog—
I didn't know that cunt
You took so much snuff.
I'll pass through Ilmorog
Greeting Muturi and the young braves.

It is now a full battle in an erotic war of words and gestures and tones suggestive of many meanings and situations. The crowd of dancers is getting more and more excited, waiting to see who will be the first to give way, to crack under the weight of the other's abuses and allusions.


Eventually the other characters—including Munira, Abdulla, and Karega—join in. Abdulla is especially important because he twice helps Munira and Karega, who cannot sing their verses as well as Njuguna and Nyankinyua. The opera ends with Nyankinyua's “singing their recent history” (209) and ultimately the history of colonialism and its effect on their village. At the end of it she declares that “it was always the duty of youth to drive out foreigners and enemies lodged amongst the people: it was always the duty of youth to fight all the Marimus, all the two-mouthed Ogres, and that was the meaning of the blood shed at circumcision” (210). The “opera” thus mixes politics and pleasure, the grotesque and history. As Ngũgĩ summarizes, “Nyankinyua had made them relive their history” (210).

The opera of eros can profitably be compared to another equally Rabelaisian event—when the MP, Nderi wa Rieri, attempts to convince the villagers (along with some other people and students) to return to their homes and absurdly begin cultural self-help programs as a “solution” to drought and starvation:

He paused to gather breath and to bask in the applause. Somebody in the crowd shouted: “These are the people who are misusing our freedom,” and this was greeted with a general murmur of protesting assent. Suddenly a stone flew and hit Nderi on the nose. This was followed by a hailstorm of orange-peels, stones, sticks, anything. For a few seconds Nderi tried to maintain his dignity and ignore the miscellaneous missiles which flew about him. Then a bit of mud hit him full on the mouth. It was too late to make a dignified exit. He suddenly took to his heels, wondering what had gone wrong.


The taunts of the crowds and the humiliation of officials through the throwing of objects has a long history, according to Bakhtin, in folk laughter. And the operative word here is mud: that is what causes Nderi to lose his dignity and flee. The mud here literally is earth and symbolically is excrement, and it ties again into a long tradition of peasants' throwing excrement at authorities. Bakhtin specifically talks about the throwing of excrement at mock-officials during medieval carnivals as a means of degrading authority (147-52).

Ngũgĩ also includes “false carnivals” in his novel. For example, during the journey to Nairobi, when the villagers stumble onto a party at Chui's house in the expensive Blue Hills suburban district outside the capital, it is Munira who confronts this scene: “There [were] many cars in the compound. Through the window Muniar [sic] could see several ladies in long dresses holding glasses, talking in high animated voices. A group started singing a few native cultural songs. They were female voices” (149). These songs—concerning red potatoes and then circumcision—sung, as they are, under such inappropriate circumstances ironically convey the sense of cultural degradation and appropriation characteristic of the ruling classes. If we miss this point, Munira helps us see it later when he comments on the scene:

He told of his experiences at the priest's house and at Chui's place. “What I could not understand was their obvious competition to say the most shocking words. In the old days, I am told, the songs and words and everything were in their place—singers talked to one another, abused one another, even, but there was dignity in the whole thing.”


This passage emphasizes the difference between the truly comic nature of people's festivals and the pseudo comedy of the comprador bourgeois. Returning to the scene at Chui's place, we read:

And they would burst out laughing and clapping at the daring of their voices. There were also a few Swahili and English ones. It was a truly culturally integrated party and Munira lost courage. He merely stood at the door, eaten by his indecision, for now he was suddenly conscious of his stinking body, his uncombed hair, his creased, muddy, dirty clothes. At the same time he was thinking about the social gathering of so many top representatives of the various communities: but only the other day, hardly six months ago, ordinary working people were being given an oath to protect: what? The singing voices?


It is important to note that Munira becomes aware of his own “grotesque” appearance—and connection with the people—only when he witnesses this party and that he connects this example of cultural suicide with the fraudulent KCO ceremony, thought up by the MP and his associates to line their pockets. Munira here is identified with the earth—“his stinking body,” “his creased, muddy, dirty clothes”—in sharp contrast to the bourgeois, a contrast further heightened when Munira is actually seen by someone at the party:

The door was opened from the inside and Munira stood floodlit, face to face with a red-lipsticked lady with a huge Afro-wig and bracelets and bangles all over her neck and hands. He had no time to see the rest. For the lady, at first flabbergasted by the apparition, now found her voice and screamed, a loud blood-curdling scream, before she fainted on the floor.


Munira's appearance lays bare the woman's phony attempts to appropriate peasant culture (through her “huge Afro-wig” and her “bracelets and bangles”). (I am assuming the woman is African, which makes her “huge Afro-wig” doubly ironic.) Significantly, Ngũgĩ—using Munira's perspective—calls her a “lady,” signifying her aristocratic appearance and pretentions.

A truly comic society is embodied in the mural seen at the radical lawyer's house following the journey to Nairobi:

The walls were decorated with the eyes of Che Guevara with his Christlike locks of hair and saintly eyes; of Dedan Kimathi, sitting calmly and arrogantly defiant; and a painting by Mugalula of a beggar in a street. At one corner was a wood sculpture of a freedom fighter by Wanjau. Abdulla stood a few seconds in front of Kimathi's picture and then he abruptly hobbled across the room and out into the garden. The others surrounded the sculpture and commented on the fighter's hair, the heavy lips and tongue in open laughter, and the sword around the waist.

(161; italics added)

Kimathi, whom Ngũgĩ sees as a mythic hero of the Mau Mau rebellion, epitomizes the people's defiant and revolutionary laughter. Ngũgĩ returns to this image at the end of the novel when Wanja, asked by her mother to tell who was responsible for her pregnancy, draws a picture:

Wanja got a piece of charcoal and a piece of cardboard. For one hour or so she remained completely absorbed in her sketching. And suddenly she felt lifted out of her own self, she felt waves of emotion she had never before experienced. The figure began to take shape on the board. It was a combination of the sculpture she once saw at the lawyer's place and images of Kimathi in his moments of triumph and laughter and sorrow and terror—but without one limb. When it was over, she felt a tremendous calm, a kind of inner assurance of the possibilities of a new kind of power. She handed the picture to her mother.

“Who … is this … with … with so much pain and suffering on his face? And why is he laughing at the same time?”


This kind of art—like Ngũgĩ's novel—encourages historical consciousness. Kimathi is laughing because he understands—or Ngũgĩ wants him to understand—that it is the comic genius of the people that allows them to survive the nightmare of colonialism and capitalism and that will be a source of strength in creating a comic utopia.

Devil on the Cross, Ngũgĩ's fifth novel but his first written in his native Gikuyu, conveys Ngũgĩ's comic vision through a language of the grotesque, more fully realizing a political critique of Kenyan society. Like Petals of Blood,Devil on the Cross concerns several characters from all levels of Kenyan society—from peasant to businessman—and the narrative itself revolves around a farcical (and clearly grotesque) “Devil's Feast” in Ilmorog—the main characters' trip to the feast, what happens while they attend it, and what consequences follow. At the “Devil's Feast” we hear lengthy testimonies from different characters (mostly businessmen) who have all come to be selected as the best and cleverest “thieves and robbers” (capitalists) in the country. Contemporary Kenya is depicted as an almost Kafkaesque nightmare in which even Mwieri, the nationalist businessman, who is told that “freedom” is the “freedom … to rob and steal according to one's abilities” (173), is assassinated for advocating a Kenyan, not an international, capitalist future; and Ngũgĩ's novel outlines the sides for a political struggle according to traditional Marxist paradigms. Still, Ngũgĩ's comic vision is at the heart of his political message, and that comic vision relies on the grotesque for its effectiveness.

The question of the political efficacy of the grotesque is, of course, connected to the language issue that Ngũgĩ so fervently argues,9 and clearly his decision to write in Gikuyu represents an attempt to avoid the problematics of capturing the Gikuyu “language of the marketplace” in English. We have ample evidence that Ngũgĩ has indeed listened to that very language before writing Devil on the Cross:

… when we scripted the play in Gikuyu called Ngaahika Ndeenda (or I Will Marry When I Want), something happened which was very interesting. The people in the village of course knew their language much better than we did; so they began to offer their comments on the script. They would say, “Oh, this image is wrong here, or that type of language is inappropriate there. An old man doesn't speak like this; if you want him to have dignity, he must use a different kind of speech. Oh my god, you are making him speak like a child! You university people, what kind of learning have you had?” In other words, our relationship with the community had changed. In fact, we became the students insofar as language was concerned. The final script of the play was really a community product.

(“On Writing in Gĩkũyũ” 152)

A similar kind of procedure operated for the composition of Devil on the Cross. Indeed, Ngũgĩ's comments in Detained offer some interesting insights about his use of a popular discourse. While writing Devil on the Cross, as he tells us, “I was lucky to have teachers, detainees and a few warders, who were very co-operative and generous in sharing their different mines of information and experience” (Detained 9). From them he learned “a lot of Gikuyu vocabulary, proverbs, riddles and songs” (9) as well as a treasure hoard of stories and sociological information about Kenya, which he wove into Devil on the Cross. Hence, we should not be surprised when we see an expanded number (compared to Petals of Blood) of grotesque references, comic descriptions, instances of popular discourse and the like. Not only do these references make the narrative more interesting for its intended reader (or listener, as the case may be), but they also undermine the seriousness on which rests the authority of the ruling elite.

There are again some obviously comic instances in Devil on the Cross. Typical are the comically grotesque plans that the speakers at the Devil's Feast offer—to market soil or air, to manufacture human parts for the rich, or to pipeline blood and sweat from Kenyan workers to the First World. Or we see names like “Rottenborough Groundflesh Shitland Narrow Isthmus Joint Stock Brown” (99), shoes nicknamed “no-destination-why-should-I-hurry” (22), or descriptions of Mwaũru's matatu: it looked as if it had “just been collected from a rubbish heap in Grogan Valley”; it had “on its sides many eye-and mind-catching ads: IF YOU WANT GOSSIP OR RUMOURS, RIDE IN MWAŨRU'S MATATŨ MATATA MATAMU. YOUR WAYS ARE MY WAYS. TOO MUCH HASTE SPLITS THE YAM. CRAWL BUT ARRIVE SAFELY. HOME SWEET HOME” (30), or

It looked as if [it] … was the very first motor vehicle to have been made on Earth. The engine moaned and screamed like several hundred dented axes being ground simultaneously. The car's body shook like a reed in the wind. The whole vehicle waddled along the road like a duck up a mountain.


A site of particular attention and critical contest, however, are the frequent grotesque portraits in the novel. Two examples will suffice:

The Devil was clad in a silk suit, and he carried a walking stick shaped like a folded umbrella. On his head there were seven horns, seven trumpets for sounding infernal hymns of praise and glory. The Devil had two mouths, one on his forehead and the other at the back of his head. His belly sagged, as if it were about to give birth to all the evils of the world. His skin was red, like that of a pig. … He moaned, beseeching the people not to crucify him, swearing that he and all his followers would never again build Hell for the people on Earth.


Nditika wa Ngũũnji was very fat. His head was huge, like a mountain. His belly hung over his belt, big and arrogant. His eyes were the size of two large red electric bulbs, and it looked as if they had been placed on his face by a Creator impatient to get on with another job. His hair was parted in the middle, so that the hair on either side of the parting looked like two ridges facing each other on either side of a tarmac road. He had on a black suit. The jacket had tails cut in the shape of the wings of the big green and blue flies that are normally found in pit latrines or among rotting rubbish. His shirt had frills all down the front. He was wearing a black bow tie. His eyes rolled in time to his words. His hands rested on his stomach and he patted it gently, as if beseeching it not to stick out towards the people with such arrogance.


Lisa Curtis, in particular, criticizes the first passage for its “overstatement” and “overbearing didacticism” which “has the effect of alienating the reader, particularly later in the novel when the technique has lost its early freshness” (Curtis 210). But my contention is that once again Ngũgĩ employs this language, first, to demystify such figures and make them objects of abuse and, second, to remove whatever residual fear his readers might have of these kinds of characters by subjecting them to ridicule through the use of organic, grotesque imagery. Nditika's “jacket tails” seem like the wings of flies “normally found in pit latrines or among rubbish.” The Devil's belly sags, “as if it were about to give birth.” The grotesque, as Bakhtin emphasizes time and again, is closely connected to images of death and rebirth, dying and new life, and decay and renewal. Bakhtin tells us that “one of the fundamental tendencies of the grotesque image of the body is to show two bodies in one: the one giving birth and dying, the other conceived, generated, and born” (26). This “unfinished and open body … is not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects. It is cosmic, it represents the entire material bodily world in all its elements” (26-27). Furthermore, Bakhtin claims that unlike the romantics, who “present the devil as terrifying, melancholy, and tragic,” the medieval and Renaissance grotesque conceives “devils and hell … as comic monsters” (41). The devil here is monstrous—capitalism in Kenya is also clearly a monster—but he is also comical. Similarly, Ngũgĩ's comic characterization of an “impatient” God serves to demystify what is normally thought of as sacrosanct.

One contestant at the Devil's Feast, Gĩtutu wa Gataangũrũ, who as we might expect has “a belly that protruded so far that it would have touched the ground had it not been supported by the braces that held up his trousers” (99), represents almost a test case for Ngũgĩ's use of “grotesque realism.” As Gĩtutu tells us about his eating habits,

When I wake up in the morning, I swallow a few eggs on top of pieces of bread and butter and a glass of milk to chase them down. At ten o'clock or thereabouts I manage to put away a couple of pounds of cooked mutton. At twelve I attack four pounds of beef (fillet steak) dipped in wine and then nicely roasted over charcoal, and I wash the beef down with a cool beer, one bottle. At six I nibble at a piece of chicken, just to have something in the belly as a base for whiskey, pending supper proper in the evening.


Gĩtutu displays the same ravenous appetite for property, cars, girlfriends, and so on. This kind of hyperbolic description undermines any pretense of seriousness that the ruling classes, as symbolized by Gĩtutu, claim for themselves. What cannot be taken seriously loses its authority.

We can see a similar political intent behind Ngũgĩ's ubiquitous use of the Gikuyu “language of the marketplace.” The use of this kind of language adds both an anarchic principle (which suggests a kind of liberation) to the narrative and firmly grounds the story in the real life of the people. Again, Mwaũra, the evil matatu driver, will serve as an example:

Get in, get into Matatũ Matata Matamu Model T Ford, and you'll find yourself in Limuru, Satellite, Naivasha, Rũũwanĩ, Ilmorog, before you've have [sic] blinked twice. I once heard young men sing

If God's kingdom were near,
I would take you whores to court.
Something given you free by the Lord
You now sell for twenty shillings.

You men, let me tell you a secret: God's kingdom has been brought closer by Mwaũra's Matatũ Matata Matamu Model T Ford. Even the journey to the Devil's place is nothing to Mwaũra's Matata Matamu Model T Ford. Get in! Get in! Ilmorog is here, no further than the eye is from the nose.


We see here the liveliness of the street hawker, whose public discourse is full of bawdy songs, bravado, comic images, and the like. Ngũgĩ also incorporates a proverb “contest” as related by Warĩĩnga, one of the main female characters in the novel:

The other girls, Kareendi's friends, envy her, and they offer her bits and pieces of advice: “Kareendi, you'd better change your ways: the seeds in the gourd are not all of the same type,” they tell her. Kareendi replies: “A restless child leaves home in search of meat just as a goat is about to be slaughtered.” But the girls tell her: “Friend, this is the new Kenya. Everyone should set something aside to meet tomorrow's needs. He who saves a little food will never suffer from hunger.” She replies: “Too much eating ruins the stomach.” They taunt her: “A restricted diet is monotonous.” Kareendi rejects this and tells them: “A borrowed necklace may lead to the loss of one's own.”


Or Gatuĩria, the university student who seeks popular sources for his musical compositions (just as Ngũgĩ does for his novel), relates some stories and proverbs told to him by an elderly peasant:

He started off with several proverbs. I can't remember them all. But they were all about avarice and conceit. He told me that though it is said that the fart of a rich man has no smell, and that a rich man will cultivate even a forbidden, sacred shrine, still every man ought to know that he who used to dance can now only watch while others do it, and he who used to jump over the stream can now only wade through it. To possess much encourages conceit, to possess little, thought. Too much greed may well prompt one to sell oneself cheaply. “Young man,” he said, “go after property. But never show God your nakedness, and never despise the people. The voice of the people is the voice of God.”


In both of these passages, Ngũgĩ uses popular discourse—proverbs, scatological “truisms,” folk sayings—in a dialogical context of give and take; and this popular discourse both appeals to Ngũgĩ's audience and makes use of the freedom inherent in the language of the people.

Ultimately, Ngũgĩ wants his book to participate in the struggle against what Mũturi, the representative proletariat in the novel, terms “the culture of fear” (205) that results from neocolonial exploitation. He claims that “there is only one cure: a strong organization of the workers and peasants of the land, together with those whose eyes and ears are now open and alert” (205). But to open those “eyes and ears,” Ngũgĩ implies, one must have art forms that use the comic language of the people and that gesture toward a comic vision of the future. In the beginning of Devil on the Cross, Warĩĩnga asks, “So when will the Kareendis [a typically exploited young Kenyan woman] of modern Kenya wipe the tears from their faces? When will they ever discover laughter?” (26). She receives an answer, first, when the mysterious student who helps her says:

There are countless Kareendis in Kenya, as you say. But I don't agree with you that our children Will never know laughter. We must never despair. Despair is the one sin that cannot be forgiven. It is the sin for which we would never be forgiven by the nation and generations to come.

(27; italics added)

Then, much later, as the workers and peasants gather outside the cave where the Devil's Feast is being held, Mũtiri—“the delegate from a secret workers' organization” (212)—tells Warĩĩnga to “take this pistol. … This gun is an invitation to the worker's feast to be held sometime in the future” (211; italics added). That worker's feast in which the people of Kenya will know laughter will realize Ngũgĩ's revolutionary comic vision, a vision that is conveyed to the reader through his use of “grotesque realism.” That narrative strategy provides a progressive means of raising the political consciousness of the Kenyan peasants and workers and—Ngũgĩ hopes—of attaining the promised feast of laughter.

To conclude, I shall dispense with the seemingly obligatory criticism of Ngũgĩ's narrative abilities or his supposed caricatures of whites. Instead, I shall simply assert that Ngũgĩ's last two novels—warts and all—work as forms of resistant political discourse. Every book—or perhaps just every great book—leaves instructions encoded in its text on how that book is to be read. Ngũgĩ's texts are no exception. Read from the perspective of a serious, abstract Marxism utterly divorced from humanity, Ngũgĩ's fiction probably seems incompetent or reactionary and ultimately politically incorrect. But read from a different perspective—through the lens of the positive, life-affirming grotesque—his texts assume an entirely different shape. This reading of Ngũgĩ, though, perhaps has larger implications. If African literature truly requires a new, non-Eurocentric, decolonized critical perspective, then perhaps we need to recognize the instructions encoded in, say, Ngũgĩ's texts and reject readings that arrogantly appropriate his texts without truly understanding them.10 What Bakhtin's analysis of Rabelais teaches us is the political impact of using in texts the comic language of the people. With this lesson in mind, perhaps those of us from alien traditions who seek an entrance into African literature can begin to understand exactly the political subtext in these texts. In Ngũgĩ's case, while considering his direct political message, we must also pay particular attention to his comic vision. Only then, I believe, will we come to understand the revolutionary nature of his work.


  1. Crehan, for example, points to the “weighty seriousness” and “the heavy, soul-in-torment, humourless quality” of Petals of Blood (4).

  2. See also Maughan-Brown, Vaughan, and Martini, who admire Ngũgĩ's later politics and criticize his early fiction for its distorted picture of the Mau Mau rebellion or its ideological ambiguity or try to explain the gap between his avowed politics and the ideology of his early novels.

  3. See Soyinka, in which he urges the critic to take into consideration the effect of a work of art before judging its political correctness. Ngũgĩ himself reports that in a country as underdeveloped as Kenya five thousand copies of Devil on the Cross “sold within the first month of publication; so [Heinemann] had to do a quick reprint of another five thousand copies” (“On Writing” 154). Ngũgĩ also tells us that

    The novel had an interesting kind of reception. At first it was read in families. When families gathered together in the evening, they would get one of their literate members to read for them. In this way the novel was appropriated and became part of the community's oral tradition. It was also read in buses and matatũs (small, crowded public transportation vehicles); people would read for passengers between stops. Another example of the community's collective appropriation was the emergence of professional readers in bars. Someone would start reading the novel aloud while drinking his beer, and when the beer was finished, he would just put the novel down. And of course the other customers would have to offer him another round to get him started again. So he would read and drink, read and drink, until the glass was empty and again refilled, and so on, through the evening.

    (“On Writing” 154)

    See also Killam, who reports that Devil on the Cross “was an immediate popular success, some 13,000 copies sold in Kenya in three successive printings. It is further estimated that 100,000 people heard the novel when it was read aloud” (93).

  4. Other more politically minded critics—like Masilela, Balogun, Lindfors, Smith, and Nwanko—also implicitly respond to criticism of Ngũgĩ's novels. Masilela, for example, borrowing from both Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukacs, defends Ngũgĩ's “serious grasp of real Kenyan history” (17) through his use of progressive realism: Lindfors similarly sees Petals of Blood “as a bible of postcolonial social activism” (54) especially with its use of popular literature techniques, and Smith admires Ngũgĩ's Brechtian demystification of the heroic and narrative distancing. Nwankwo virtually stands alone in his view of Ngũgĩ as “an optimistic visionary.” As he writes, “This may not be apparent from the pain and suffering which we find in his works. Behind the dark clouds of every work there is always a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of future possibilities” (15).

    I might add that I refer here to Ngũgĩ's last two novels available in English. Ngũgĩ's latest novel in Gikuyu appeared in 1986.

  5. For articles on Ngũgĩ and tragedy, see Nnolim and Sekyi-Otu.

  6. Bakhtin's work—especially on Rabelais—has provoked much critical opposition. See, for example, Berrong, in which he claims that Bakhtin imposes an oversimplified class analysis on the late Middle Ages. Berrong's discussion notwithstanding, Bakhtin's discussion of the revolutionary nature of comic popular culture still seems wonderfully germane for African literature.

  7. One wonders if perhaps Ngũgĩ's many references to Shakespeare in Petals of Blood do not in some sense point to a connection.

  8. These problems find their parallels in the technical discontinuities in Ngũgĩ's characterization. See, for example, Robson, who excoriates Ngũgĩ's characterization in Petals of Blood from a technical point of view.

  9. See Ngũgĩ, Decolonising esp. 4-33.

  10. See Chinweizu.

I would like to thank Bernth Lindfors and my fellow 1987 National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar participants for their encouragement and help in this paper.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Balogun, F. Odun. “Ngũgĩ's Petals of Blood: A Novel of the People.” Ba Shiru 10.2 (1979): 49-57.

Berrong, Richard. Rabelais and Bakhtin: Popular Culture in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1986.

Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. Toward the Decolonization of African Literature. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1983.

Crehan, Stewart, “The Politics of the Signifier: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood.World Literature Written in English 26.1 (1986): 1-24.

Curtis, Lisa. “The Divergence of Art and Ideology in the Later Novels of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: A Critique.” Ufahamu 13.2-3 (1984): 186-214.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986): 65-88.

Killam, G. D. “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.” Essays on Contemporary Post-Colonial Fiction. Ed. Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim. Munich: Hueber, 1986. 81-99.

Knauss, Peter. “From Devil to Father Figure: The Transformation of Jomo Kenyatta by Kenya Whites.” Journal of Modern African Studies 9.1 (1971): 131-37.

Lindfors, Bernth. “Petals of Blood as a Popular Novel.” Contemporary African Literature. Ed. Hal Wylie, Eileen Julien, and Russell J. Linnemann. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1983. 49-55.

Martini, Jürgen. “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: East African Novelist.” Critical Perspectives on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Ed. G. D. Killam. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1984. 285-91.

Masilela, Ntongela. “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood.Ufahamu 9.2 (1979): 9-28.

Maughan-Brown, David. “Four Sons of One Father: A Comparison of Ngũgĩ's Earliest Fiction with Works by Mwangi, Mangua, and Wachira.” Research in African Literatures 16 (1985): 179-209.

———. Land, Freedom, and Fiction: History and Ideology in Kenya. London: Zed, 1985.

———. “‘Mau Mau’ and Violence in Ngũgĩ's Novels.” English in Africa 8.2 (1981): 1-22.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

———. Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Devil on the Cross. London: Heinemann, 1982.

———. A Grain of Wheat. New York: Heinemann, 1967.

———. “Literature and Society.” Writers in Politics: Essays. London: Heinemann, 1981. 3-33.

———. “On Writing in Gĩkũyũ.” Research in African Literatures 16 (1985): 151-56.

———. Petals of Blood. New York: Dutton, 1977.

Nnolim, Charles E. “Background Setting: Key to the Structure of Ngũgĩ's The River Between.Critical Perspectives on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Ed. G. D. Killam. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1984. 136-45.

Nwankwo, Chimalum. “Sifting the Grain from the Husk: An Overview of Ngũgĩ's Writing.” The Literary Half-Yearly 25.1 (1984): 2-15.

Robson, C. G. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Sekyi-Otu, Ato. “The Refusal of Agency: The Founding Narrative and Waiyaki's Tragedy in The River Between.Research in African Literatures 16 (1981): 157-78.

Senghor, L. S. “We are All Cultural Half-Castes.” Senghor: Prose and Poetry. Ed. John Reed and Clive Wake. London: Heinemann, 1976. 74-75.

Soyinka, Wole. “The Critic and Society: Barthes, Leftocracy and Other Mythologies.” Black Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Methuen, 1984. 27-57.

Smith, Angela. “Petals of Blood.Outlook 1 (1983): 12-31.

Vaughan, Michael. “African Fiction and Popular Struggle: The Case of A Grain of Wheat.English in Africa 8.2 (1981): 23-52.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.


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Ngugi wa Thiong'o 1938-

(Born James Thiong'o Ngugi; also transliterated as Ngũgĩ) Kenyan novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, children's writer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Ngugi's career through 2002. See also Ngugi wa Thiong'o Criticism.

As a spokesman for his people and a chronicler of Kenya's modern history, Ngugi is widely regarded as one of the most significant writers of East Africa. His first novel, Weep Not, Child (1964), was the first English-language novel to be published by an East African, and his account of the Mau Mau Emergency in A Grain of Wheat (1967; revised, 1986) presented for the first time an African perspective on the Kenyan armed revolt against British colonial rule during the 1950s. Additionally, Ngugi's Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (1980; Devil on the Cross) is the first modern novel written in Gikuyu (or Kikuyu), a Kenyan language in which the author intends to continue writing his creative works. He has also been influential in education in East Africa and is recognized as a humanist deeply interested in the growth and well-being of his people and country.

Biographical Information

Born James Thiong'o Ngugi to Thiong'o wa Nduucu and Wanjika wa Ngugi, Ngugi is the fifth child of the third of Thiong'o's four wives. Ngugi was born on January 5, 1938, in Limuru, Kenya, and was one of the few students from Limuru to attend the elite Alliance High School. While at Alliance, he participated in a debate in which he contended that Western educations were harmful to African students. The headmaster subsequently counseled Ngugi against becoming a political agitator. Ngugi next attended Makerere University in Uganda and later the University of Leeds in England, where he was exposed to West-Indian born social theorist Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, a highly controversial treatise in which the author maintains that political independence for oppressed peoples must be won—often violently—before genuine social and economic change may be achieved. Ngugi became influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, developing an ardent opposition to colonialism, Christianity, and other non-African influences in Kenya. During this period, he also began to write plays and novels criticizing Kenyan society and politics. In 1962 his first full-length play, The Black Hermit, was performed at the Uganda National Theatre. In the early 1960s he worked as a regular columnist for Sunday Post,Daily Nation, and the Sunday Nation. Ngugi wrote his first novel, Weep Not, Child, while he was a student at Makerere. In 1968 Ngugi—then an instructor at the University of Nairobi—and several colleagues mounted a successful campaign to transform the school's English Department into the department of African Languages and Literature. After the publication of A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi rejected his Christian name of James and began writing under the name Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He also began translating his play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) into Gikuyu—under the title Mzalendo Kimathi. Ngugi published his last English-language novel, Petals of Blood, in 1977. Due to his vocal opposition of the injustices perpetrated by the postcolonial Kenyan government, Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charge in the Kamoto Maximum Security Prison from December 1977 to December 1978. While imprisoned, Ngugi wrote his memoirs, Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), and vowed to write his creative works only in the Gikuyu language. He began writing his first Gikuyu novel, Devil on the Cross, on sheets of toilet paper from his cell. Upon his release from detention, Ngugi lost his position at the University of Nairobi. When his theatre group was banned by Kenyan officials in 1982, Ngugi, fearing further reprisals, left his country for a self-imposed exile. After the release of Matigari ma Njiruungi (Matigari) in 1986, the Kenyan government issued a warrant for the arrest of the main character, thinking that Matigari was a real living person. Eventually realizing their mistake, the government confiscated all copies of the novel and prevented it from being sold in Kenyan bookshops from 1986 to 1996. Upon leaving Kenya, Ngugi lived primarily in London, until moving to the United States in 1989. He has since taught at several universities, including Yale University where he held a regular visiting appointment as Professor of English and Comparative Literature from 1989 to 1992. He has also taught at New York University as Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies and as the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Languages from 1992 to 2002, as well as the University of California, Irvine, where he served as the Director of the International Center for Writing and Translation. He has received numerous awards such as the 2001 Nonino International Prize, the 2002 Medal of the Presidency of the Italian Cabinet, and a honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Major Works

Ngugi's fiction reflects his abiding concern for the poor of Kenya who have been displaced by white colonialists and by African opportunists who seized power after independence. His early novels, Weep Not, Child,The River Between, and A Grain of Wheat, all explore the detrimental effects of colonialism and imperialism. Njoroge, the protagonist in Weep Not, Child, is prevented from pursuing his education by the Mau Mau, or Gikuyu militants. The government's repression of the rebels and the violent resistance to British domination in Kenya disrupt both Njoroge's plans to attend university and his relations with his family. Consumed with despair, he eventually attempts suicide. In The River Between, Ngugi attacks the African tribal rite of female circumcision. He opposes the tradition, as well as Christianity's condemnation of the rite, believing that Christian missionaries only condemn the act because it acknowledges female sexuality. The action of A Grain of Wheat covers a time span of four days leading up to “Uhuru Day,” or the Kenyan Independence Day in 1963, and involves four main characters, who are all from the Gikuyu village of Thabai. Within the four-day fictional present, Ngugi conveys—principally through a series of interlocking flashbacks—the personal histories of the protagonists, focusing on their experiences under the state of emergency, while also presenting an outline of the history of Kenyan resistance to colonial rule. Petals of Blood offers a scathing critique of capitalism and accuses wealthy landowners and bureaucrats of exploiting the poor and working classes. The novel concerns four principal characters who are being held by police on suspicion of murder—Karega, a teacher and labor organizer; Munira, headmaster of a public school in the town of Ilmorog; Abdulla, a half-Indian shopkeeper who was once a guerrilla fighter during the war of independence; and Wanja, a barmaid and former prostitute.

Devil on the Cross again focuses on four protagonists—Wariinga, a young secretary whose promising academic career has been ruined as a result of her impregnation by a wealthy older man; Gatuiria, a radical music student attempting to compose an oratorio that will convey the whole of Kenya's history; Wangari, a heroine of the liberation struggle and dispossessed peasant arrested for vagrancy in Nairobi; and Muturi, an enigmatic leader of an undefined workers' revolutionary movement. The four meet on a bus going to attend, as spectators, a “Competition in Theft and Robbery.” The competitors all boast of the ways they have exploited the masses in the past and outline new plans for doing so in the future. One of Ngugi's most controversial novels, due to its advocacy of armed rebellion against oppression, Matigari follows an African rebel whose name means “the patriot who survived the bullets” in Gikuyu. The novel opens with Matigari emerging from the forest after years of hunting—and ultimately killing—a man named Settler Williams and his faithful retainer, John Boy. Williams had stolen Matigari's land years earlier, and when Matigari returns to claim his home, he finds that the house has been sold by Williams's son to John Boy's son, John Boy Junior. Matigari is thrown into jail but mysteriously escapes—he has an almost supernatural ability to change his appearance and seems invulnerable to rocks and bullets. Matigari travels the country with dreamlike rapidity, asking everyone he meets where he can find truth and justice, eventually confronting Kenya's Minister of Truth and Justice with the same question. He is sent to a mental hospital but escapes again, vowing to take up arms to reclaim his house. After being mauled by police dogs, the wounded Matigari burns down the house and is carried away by a swollen river to an indeterminate end.

Ngugi began his playwriting career with The Black Hermit, but his two most widely recognized theatrical works are The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria Ngerekano (1977; I Will Marry When I Want). The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was written in response to a 1974 play by Kenneth Watene, which characterized Kimathi, the leader of the Mau Mau uprising, as a crazed and brutal paranoiac. The content of Ngugi's play derives from the actual trial of Kimathi after his betrayal and capture in 1956, but the author makes extensive use of mime, dance, and Gikuyu song to portray Kimathi as a courageous freedom-fighter struggling against the forces of imperialism. The symbolic focus of I Will Marry When I Want is the framed deed, to one and a half acres of land, that hangs in the house of a farm laborer, Kiguunda wa Gathoni, and his wife, Wangeci. The story shows how Kiguunda's employer, Kioi, a wealthy Christian businessman, gains possession of the land—to build a foreign-owned insecticide factory—by persuading Kiguunda to join the church. Kioi convinces Kiguunda to mortgage the land so that he can pay for a Christian wedding service in order to cleanse his sinful, traditional marriage. Kiguunda succumbs because he is led to believe that this service will enable their daughter, Gathoni, to marry Kioi's son, John. Unfortunately, John seduces Gathoni and abandons her after she becomes pregnant.

Ngugi's nonfiction writing explores subject matter familiar to his novels, including the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the West, the loss of traditional African cultures, and the effect of Christianity on tribal communities. The essays in Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (1972) emphasize the important social functions of African literature, while Ngugi's prison diary Detained recounts the circumstances of his arrest and detention. Writers in Politics (1981) and Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) present essays that explore Kenya's myriad social and political problems and stress the need for radical, fundamental reform. Though both works underscore the need for African writers to write in African languages, Decolonising the Mind additionally contains Ngugi's pledge to write solely in Gikuyu, calling the collection his “farewell to the English language.” Ngugi has since refrained from publishing any works of fiction in English, though he has released subsequent nonfiction works in English, such as Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993). This collection examines such social issues as the importance of language to national identity, the effects of globalization, and Ngugi's hope for a strong and united Africa. Based on a series of lectures that Ngugi delivered at Oxford University in 1996, the essays in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (1998) discuss the role of the writer in contemporary African society and the complex relationship between art and the state.

Critical Reception

Critics have consistently acknowledged Ngugi as an important voice in African letters. He has been called the voice of the Kenyan people by certain commentators, while others have lauded his novels as among the most underrated and highest quality to come from Africa. Ngugi's fiction has been noted for its overtly political agenda, its attempts to give a literary voice to the poor of Kenya, and its consistent critique of colonialization and oppressive regimes. Critics have also praised Ngugi's role as an influential postcolonial African writer, particularly in his portrayal of corrupt post-liberation African governments. Helen Hayward has commented that his early novels—including The River Between,A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood,—act as “important documents in the history of postcolonial writing, distinguished by the urgency of their political engagement and the subtlety of their historical grasp.” His essays and critical works have been acclaimed as powerful and insightful explorations of relevant political, social, and literary issues in Africa. Moreover, reviewers have asserted that his nonfiction work has provided a much-needed African perspective on world affairs. Scholars have also examined Ngugi's emphasis on language, viewing his switch from using English to African languages as an outgrowth of his political ideology. However, some have criticized Ngugi's return to using English in his later nonfiction works and his residency in the United States, arguing that both are symbolic of his growing disassociation with African revolutionary politics. Simon Gikandi has stated, though he appreciates Ngugi's growing global focus in such works as Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, that “Ngugi's best fictional work was nourished by his dynamic relationship to local sources, his relationship with the East African landscape … What is going to nourish Ngugi's imagination in exile?”

Richard Gibson (review date 16 June 1989)

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SOURCE: Gibson, Richard. “The House the Freedom Fighters Built.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4498 (16 June 1989): 670.

[In the following excerpt, Gibson lauds Matigari as a fine example of effective political propaganda.]

Since Weep Not, Child (1964), which was the first East African novel in English, most of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's writing has been in that language, but Matigari, his new novel, was written originally in Gikuyu, Ngugi's native African tongue. It is a superb work of agitprop, brief, sharp and clearly intended to shorten the days in power of the “KKK”, the Ruling Party of a “country with no name”.

Ngugi is a Kenyan, one of Africa's most distinguished men of letters, who has in effect been banned because of his leftist political beliefs from teaching in his homeland or even from living there as a free man. His play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) earned him one year in detention after its performance by workers and peasants. Matigari was written in London in 1983. It has been translated into a very readable English by Wangui wa Goro, but in the process probably loses some of the sardonic force that the original drew from the African oral tradition.

The novel is a fable about the return home of Matigari ma Njirũũgi, whose name means literally the “patriots who survived the liberation war”. After killing Settler Williams and his African lackey, John Boy, Matigari, now an old man, buries his AK47 in the forest and sets out for home to reclaim the house that he built during colonial times for the dead settler. Like the real survivors of the Kenya Mau Mau, the old freedom fighter discovers on his way that he is an embarrassment to those whom his years of struggle have brought into power. They do not recognize or reward him. He is even more distressed when he discovers that the business of the late Settler Williams is still flourishing, under the direction of his son Robert Williams, assisted by his African deputy, John Boy Junior, son of the deceased lackey, who now occupies the house Matigari built.

Matigari is credited with miraculous powers by the ordinary folk who hear and spread tales of his exploits. The legend of his prowess so frightens the President, His Excellency Ole Excellence, that he orders the Ministry of Truth and Justice with its radio, the Voice of Truth, and the police to deal with the returned hero and his new-found friends and allies—a worker, a woman and a young man. They learn that the country, like the world, is divided very simply into two camps: in one, the “wa Benzi”—the owners of the Mercedes-Benz cars so loved by the new African élite; in the other, the true patriots who would “return the land to the tiller, and the wealth … to those who produce it”. Matigari promises the oppressed that “Poverty and sorrow shall be banished from our land!” That is, after his AK47 has been dug up and used by a new generation.

Kenya's rulers understood the message only too well. At first the police actually searched for the mythical Matigari. Failing to lay hands on him, they seized all the copies they could find of the book. Perhaps more than literary discussion, Matigari merits political examination, and its author should be questioned about the seriousness of his apparently enduring belief that Marxist-Leninist remedies might be more successful in Africa than they seem to have been in the Soviet Union, China, Poland and other places. He does not answer that question in Matigari, which is a political morality in the style of Brecht and Lu Hsun.

Principal Works

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The Black Hermit [as James T. Ngugi] (play) 1962

Weep Not, Child [as James T. Ngugi] (novel) 1964

The River Between [as James T. Ngugi] (novel) 1965

A Grain of Wheat [as James T. Ngugi] (novel) 1967; revised edition, 1986

*This Time Tomorrow: Three Plays (plays) 1970

Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics (essays) 1972

Secret Lives and Other Stories (short stories) 1975

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi [with Micere Githae-Mugo] (play) 1976

Ngaahika Ndeenda: Ithaako ria Ngerekano [I Will Marry When I Want] (play) 1977

Petals of Blood (novel) 1977

Caitaani Mutharaba-ini [Devil on the Cross] (novel) 1980

Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (diary) 1981

Writers in Politics (essays) 1981

Njamba Nene na Mbaathi i Mathagu [Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus; illustrations by Emmanuel Kariuki] (juvenilia) 1982

Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (essays) 1983

Bathitoora ya Njamba Nene [Njamba Nene's Pistol; illustrations by Emmanuel Kariuki] (juvenilia) 1984

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (essays) 1986

Matigari ma Njiruungi [Matigari] (novel) 1986

Njamba Nene na Chibu King'ang'i [Njamba Nene and the Cruel Chief; illustrations by Emmanuel Kariuki] (juvenilia) 1986

Writing against Neocolonialism (essays and criticism) 1986

Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (essays and criticism) 1992

Writers in Politics: A Re-Engagement with Issues of Literature and Society (essays and criticism) 1997

Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (essays and criticism) 1998

*Includes This Time Tomorrow,The Reels, and The Wound in the Heart.

†Ngugi later translated this work into Gikuyu under the title Mzalendo Kimathi (1978).

Carol M. Sicherman (essay date fall 1989)

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SOURCE: Sicherman, Carol M. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures 20, no. 3 (fall 1989): 347-70.

[In the following essay, Sicherman asserts that Ngugi's additions to the 1986 revised edition of A Grain of Wheat reveal the author's “understanding of the role of history and in African literature and of his own role in the rewriting of Kenyan history.”]

When Heinemann decided to reissue some of the most successful titles of its African Writers Series in a new format, Ngugi wa Thiong'o took advantage of the opportunity to revise certain details and to add significantly new passages in A Grain of Wheat.1 Two of the revisions, a change in political terminology and a correction of a historical detail, hint suggestively at my topic: the emergence of Ngugi's mature understanding of the role of history in African literature and of his own role in the rewriting of Kenyan history. Regarding a writer as the “conscience of the nation” (Darling 16), Ngugi intends to make his compatriots see the history of Kenya for the last hundred years as the story of resistance to colonialism—and to neocolonialism.

First, in revising Grain Ngugi has changed the term “the Party” to “the Movement.” Bitter at the betrayal by the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) of its own ideals, he refuses to see it as the inheritor of the nationalistic movement. The narrator's explanation at the beginning of chapter 2 of Grain reflects popular perception of KANU (founded in 1960) as the culmination of a political evolution stemming from Harry Thuku's East African Association (founded in 1921):

… to most people, especially those in the younger generation, the Party [Movement] had always been there, a rallying centre for action. It changed names; leaders came and went but the Party [Movement] remained, opening new visions, gathering greater and greater strength, till on the eve of Uhuru, its influence stretched from one horizon touching the sea to the other resting on the great Lake.

(11, 10)

But from the moment of Uhuru, as illustrated by the local MP in Grain, KANU bid good-bye to revolution and embraced neocolonialism. A self-serving Party—since 1969 the only party, and de jure the only party since 9 June 1981—it cannot be linked with the idealistic Movement whose martyrs Ngugi celebrates. Hence the pointed addition given to General R. in the revised Grain. Following his comment “We get Uhuru today,” he says in the revision; “But what's the meaning of ‘Uhuru’? It is contained in the name of our Movement: Land and Freedom” (192, 221); thus the Movement is explicitly identified not with KANU but with Dedan Kimathi's Land and Freedom Army, commonly known as Mau Mau, which is of course the great historical theme of Ngugi's writing.

Second, Ngugi has corrected a historical error. In chapter 2 the elderly Warui is reminiscing about the brutal suppression of the crowd demonstrating on behalf of Harry Thuku in 1922;2 the first version reads: “Three men raised their arms in the air. … Within a few seconds the big crowd had dispersed; nothing remained but fifteen crooked watchers on the ground, outside the State House” (14, emphasis added). The term “crooked watchers” for the slain demonstrators is startlingly evocative, but the error in number is just as startling. Even the official coroner's figure—twenty-one—was higher; the most widely accepted figure is 150, which is what Ngugi uses in the revision (13) as well as in Detained (82) and Barrel of a Pen (30). This revision, like the change from “Party” to “Movement,” implies not mere devotion to detail but a larger mission that has come to dominate Ngugi's thinking as a creative writer. Promising monuments to the Mau Mau fighters, the members of the Uhuru government instead busied themselves accumulating private wealth. Rather than enact the ideal of the Land and Freedom Army, the government memorialized its leader by renaming one of the principal shopping streets of central Nairobi, lined with expensive stores and businesses, “Kimathi Avenue.” Kimathi's prophecy in 1954 that “portraits and statues of our heroes” would stand in Kenyan cities while “those of the Colonialists which stand there now will be pulled down” (qtd. in Itote, “Mau Mau” General 146) has remained unfulfilled. If the government reneged on its promise, Ngugi determined to fulfill it: his works constitute a developing monument to the freedom struggle, a struggle that Ngugi now sees as stretching from the early resistance of Waiyaki (d. 1892) right into the underground movement that (he hints in Devil on the Cross) took shape in the late 1970s and that now, called Mwakenya, challenges the government of President Daniel arap Moi. Although there is no evidence of Ngugi's participation in Mwakenya activities,3 accusations of such participation by the Moi government contain a symbolic truth, for his writing has unquestionably been a major inspiration to the current Kenyan resistance.

In order to understand Ngugi's deploying of the history of Kenyan resistance, we need to know its political, cultural, and historiographical context. We need, further, to recognize that Ngugi blurs the lines between history and literature and that, perhaps as a consequence of this blurring of the two genres, the distinction between Ngugi and his narrators and certain characters also becomes blurred. This is certainly the case in the work on which I will focus, Petals of Blood, in which Ngugi's ideas are voiced by Karega and the lawyer (as well as by the collective “we” that at times assumes the narrative function). I will need first to sketch the evolution of Ngugi's handling of history and his emerging perceptions of the kind of history needed for Kenya, then to discuss his challenge to Kenyan historians (and to Ngugi himself as erstwhile historian), and finally to assess his critique of the first generation of Kenyan historians—who are, or course, Ngugi's age-mates. Having described this background, I can proceed to discuss interpretations of resistance, focusing first on Waiyaki, perceived as progenitor of the pre-presidential Kenyatta and of Mau Mau as well, and then on Mau Mau as the largest example. In both cases we will see an intermingling of history and legend—indeed, a transformation of legend into history—as well as fierce ideological disputes. A brief reflection on Ngugi's readership will bring this essay to an end if not a conclusion; no conclusion is possible, for the story continues.


The “ideal” African novel, Ngugi told an interviewer in 1969, would “embrace the pre-colonial past[,] … the colonial past, and the post-independence period with a pointer to the future” (Friedberger ii)—a description of Petals of Blood, the novel that he started to write the following year. By then he knew that, like his character Munira, he “had to take a drastic step that would restore me to my usurped history, my usurped inheritance, that would reconnect me with my history” (Petals of Blood 227). Whereas Munira eventually retreats into religious fundamentalism, Ngugi has accomplished the reconnection.

Preoccupied with history from the start, Ngugi has gradually altered his view of the relationship of literature to history and the relationship of himself as creative writer to Kenyan historians. From the nationalist enthusiasm of a student writer living abroad, he has moved through the middle ground of A Grain of Wheat to the forthright evangelism of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,Petals of Blood, and the later works—a writer tested by mature combat with the forces of neocolonialism at home. It must not be forgotten that The River Between and Weep Not, Child were both written while he was an undergraduate at Makerere College in Uganda and A Grain of Wheat while he was an MA student at Leeds University in England. The burgeoning of his political awareness during his years at Leeds (1964-67) certainly affected Grain but did not fully blossom until Trial.

Ngugi's first three novels, which look back in time, form a quasi trilogy in chronological progression that runs from The River Between (1965; drafted in 1960), Weep Not, Child (1964; drafted in 1962), and A Grain of Wheat (1967; completed in 1966)—running from the female circumcision controversy that came to a head in 1929 and led to the development of Gikuyu independent schools (River), through the Emergency (1952-56) declared to suppress Mau Mau (Weep), to the critical moment of Independence (Grain). The next novel picks up chronologically where Grain leaves off: set during the twelve years up to and including the very years when Ngugi was writing it (1970-75), Petals looks at the present in the light of the past. Petals contains not only many reminiscences of Mau Mau but also panoramic allusions to the more distant African past and to the black diaspora, going back through what Ngugi calls “a huge space of time” to show “three different phases of social formations: a long period of precapitalist, precolonialist, relations,” then colonialism, and finally neocolonialism (“RW Interview” 10). The way in which past and present are viewed is reversed in the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976; written 1974-76), which looks at the past in the light of the present in an attempt to assess the enduring legacy of Mau Mau to independent Kenya. I Will Marry When I Want—the English title of Ngugi's first Gikuyu play, Ngaahika Ndeenda—looks squarely at the present, with an implied agenda for change. Finally, Devil on the Cross, his first Gikuyu novel (Caitaani Mutharaba-ini), looks at the present in the light of the future, setting a satiric critique of contemporary Kenya against a vision of a socialist Kenya purged of neocolonialism—the fulfillment of Ngugi's early requirement that the writer “be prepared to suggest” a future (Nagenda and Serumaga, “A Discussion” iii).

References to historical figures and events of earlier periods are nearly as important as the historical settings. Except for his apprentice plays and earlier short stories. Ngugi's works are dense with allusions to historical personages and events, the density becoming most marked in Petals of Blood. Even where the allusions are general rather than exact—“Siriana,” for example, although modeled on Alliance High School, is founded some years before the actual founding of Alliance in 1926—the fiction is deeply imbued with history.

From the beginning Ngugi deliberately mixed fictional names with those of historical characters, hoping to heighten the illusion of fictional “reality”;4 as he says in the author's note to Grain, “fictitious” characters exist in a real “situation and [among] … problems [that] are real.” Even so, he apparently felt some uneasiness about intermixing history and fiction; the author's note also explains that historical figures “like … Jomo Kenyatta and Waiyaki are unavoidably mentioned.” In his subsequent works, there are no such apologies and certainly no avoidance; increasingly, the fictional characters intermingle with historical characters and events, functioning as illustrators of history.

In the earlier books, historical allusions are vague and inaccurate. The representation of the 1922 demonstration and massacre in the first version of Grain, faulty though it is, at least reduced the extraordinary understatement of Weep: “People were shot and three of them died” (42). After Grain, it would seem, Ngugi read Kenyan history more attentively, unimpeded by the blinders of his colonial education. With Micere Mugo he conducted secondary research in English and primary research in Gikuyu while writing on The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, a work of the imagination that purports to contribute to the revision of Kenyan history that Ngugi regards as essential to his country's liberation from the colonial legacy. Perhaps doing historical research helped hone the awareness of history and of Kenyan historiography permeating his fourth novel.

Petals of Blood is thick with allusions to world black history and contains a number of pointed historiographical disquisitions. Indeed, the aesthetics of his fiction changes (for the worse, some critics argue), and there is often little difference between the writing in certain passages of the novel and in the closely related nonfiction written soon after (in particular, Detained). The scope of historical reference has widened in both time and space, ranging from the distant, legendary past “of Ndemi and the creators from Malindi to Songhai” to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—“the past of L'Ouverture, Turner, Chaka, Abdulla, Koitalel, Ole Masai, Kimathi, Mathenge” (Petals 214; my italics indicate fictional characters). Against a backdrop of broadly sketched grandeur achieved long before by “the creators,” the fictional characters take their place among not only the heroes of Kenyan resistance—from the early twentieth century (Koitalel arap Samoei) to Mau Mau (Dedan Kimathi, Stanley Mathenge)—but also among the heroes of resistance a century earlier elsewhere in Africa (Chaka) and the New World (Toussaint L'Ouverture, Nat Turner). To contrast with the heroes, Ngugi lists a demonology, with three historical figures from the earlier twentieth century preceding their fictional analogues from the later twentieth century: “Kinyanjui, Mumia, Lenana, Chui, Jerrod, Nderi wa Riera” (Petals 214).

The purpose of such collocations of historical and fictional characters is to make Kenyan readers reflect on their own place in the continuum of history. Sounding like a miniature Karega, the wise young hero of Ngugi's first children's book advises his classmates how to find their way out of the forest: “We must … find out where we are, in order to decide where we will go next. We cannot know where we are, without first finding out where we come from” (Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus 19; cf. Petals 127-28). The Kenyan view of the past, Ngugi said in a 1978 interview, “up to now has been distorted by the cultural needs of imperialism”—needs that led historians to show “[first,] that Kenyan people had not struggled with nature and with other men to change their natural environment and create a positive social environment … [and second, that they] had not resisted foreign domination (“Interview” 10).

The first omission to which Ngugi calls attention concerns the history of common people, who were completely ignored by colonial and postcolonial historians despite the professed interest of the latter in “the history of the inarticulate” (Temu and Swai 3-5). Ngugi's call for a history of the anonymous masses reacts to the commonplaces of his early education, when it was in the interest of colonial historians “to stress what they claimed was the natural logic of Europeans in colonizing and dominating the Kenyan” (Wanjohi 668). Sir Philip Mitchell (governor of Kenya, 1944-52) saw “the Native as hampered by a past in which he has been notoriously slow to meet what Dr. Toynbee has described as the challenge of his environment,” evincing “a singular incapacity either to devise for himself or to adopt from others the means of improving his material or intellectual life” (Lord Hailey, in Mitchell xiii). “Nothing, except a little gradual change,” had occurred to the “ignorant and primitive population” in East Africa during the thirty thousand years between Stone Age man and Dr. Livingstone (Mitchell 18-19)—a conception of Africa as “primitive, static, and asleep or in a Hobbessian state of nature” that has long since been exploded (Boahen 23). Given his premise, Mitchell naturally celebrates “what an enlightened colonialism can do for the dark places” that still preserve the static barbaric past (268). In contrast, Kenyan historians today note the ability of precolonial peoples to adapt to difficult material conditions.

The second element neglected by colonial historians—resistance to foreign incursions—divides into two parts: the history of mass movements and the history of heroes. A focus on certain heroes and on the creation of nation-states can help support the newly independent African states, led by heroes like Kenyatta, so that the postcolonial becomes, in Ngugi's terms, the neocolonial. Thus the new historians, wittingly or not, become servants of the state: “… we are,” William R. Ochieng' has rather pompously but correctly declared, “the founding fathers of the Kenya nation” (“Colonial African Chiefs” 46). Nation building necessarily involves myth building, and myths, as the Tanzanian historian Nelson Kasfir has said, may “decolonise African peoples by restoring their dignity” (qtd. in Neale 48). It is the choice of myth that is crucial. Many of the intellectual clashes in contemporary Kenya are between rival mythologies—very often between conflicting myths of Mau Mau but also between the historians' myth of a past splendid insofar as it rivaled white successes, and Ngugi's myth of the people's centuries-long “heroic resistance … their struggles to defend their land, their wealth, their lives” (see Neale 49, 106; Were and Wilson 44; Ngugi Petals 67).


Although Ngugi's conception of Kenyan history and his charges against the historians are open to some question, the call for action with which he concluded the interview quoted earlier has obvious relevance to his own practice as a novelist:

Kenyan intellectuals must be able to tell these stories, or histories, or history of heroic resistance to foreign domination by Kenyan people … looking at ourselves as … as a people whose history shines with the grandeur, if you like, of heroic resistance and achievement of the Kenyan people. … I feel that Kenyan history, either pre-colonial or colonial[,] has not yet been written.

(“Interview” 11)

That history, he says in Detained, will show the “history of Kenyan people creating a … fight-back, creative culture” (64). Because of the deficiencies of professional historians, Ngugi argues, at the present time this story can be better told through literature.

Petals of Blood insists at some length on revising Kenyan historiography, first through the futile efforts of Karega to find suitable history texts for his pupils—a genuine difficulty, according to Neale (see ch. 2)—and then in Karega's appeal to the lawyer for help in his quest for “a vision of the future rooted in a critical awareness of the past,” an awareness more specifically of economic history (198). The lawyer sends him “books and a list of other titles written by professors of learning at the University,” the same university where Ngugi taught. But the books fail to answer his questions.

In a calmly magisterial review of “Three Decades of Historical Studies in East Africa, 1949-1977,” Professor Bethwell A. Ogot, doyen of Kenyan historians, remarks ironically on those who have been disappointed in their search for “a usable past,” people who “are seeking freedom to tackle present-day problems … without constantly looking over their shoulder for precedents from the dead and irrelevant past” (31). But the past is neither dead nor irrelevant to the searcher who seeks the roots of the present in the past. Ogot forgets that the past may become “usable” if suitably constructed. His own mainly biographical Historical Dictionary of Kenya (1980), useful for what it contains, is badly marred by its omissions, lacking any mention of the notorious detention camps and significantly omitting some of the “heroes” and “traitors” whom Ngugi has increasingly invoked—Laibon Turugat, Stanley Mathenge, Fenner Brockway (Kenyanized as Fenna Brokowi in Grain 56; 63), and many others—as well as some of the important episodes of resistance, such as the Giriama Rising of 1914. In other “neocolonialist” texts, the past is, from Ngugi's point of view, distorted: Mau Mau fighters are depicted as “extremists”; the colonial government, as an agent of “constitutional advance” leading to “a multi-racial society” (Were and Wilson 270-72; cf. Buijtenhuijs, Mau Mau 75). Precolonial history, according to the Mitchell-like “professors of learning,” depicts “wanderlust and pointless warfare between peoples” evincing “primitivity” or “undercivilization” (Petals 199). Ngugi may allude here to Ochieng', who sees African history up to 1900 as the story of “migrating hordes” and says that Africa failed to become “civilized” (“Undercivilization” 2-3, 5, 8, 16).

In contrast to this approach, there is Karega's capsule history of Africa:

In the beginning he [Mr. Blackman] had the land and the mind and the soul together. On the second day, they took the body away to barter it for silver coins. On the third day, seeing that he was still fighting back, they brought priests and educators to bind his mind and soul so that these foreigners could more easily take his land and its produce.

(Petals 236)

The binding of mind and soul, Ngugi maintains, still exists and is the reason Kenya needs a new historiography. Karega speaks for his creator when he tells Munira:

Our children must look at the things that deformed us yesterday, that are deforming us today. They must also look at the things which formed us yesterday, that will creatively form us into a new breed of men and women who will … struggle against those things that dwarf us.

(Petals 247)

Ngugi's understanding of his major theme, the history of resistance, has broadened since his undergraduate writing when his knowledge was limited to the Mau Mau rising and to a few major figures or episodes—Waiyaki's resistance and death in the early 1890s, Harry Thuku's campaign against colonial restrictions in 1921-22, the female circumcision controversy of 1929-31. In these works, legend carries equal weight with documentable history. Particularly in The River Between and Weep Not, Child, he emphasizes the prophecy of the seer Mugo wa Kibiro, with its dual message of the coming of the white man and the folly of resistance; there is an implication here, as Gitahi-Gititi has observed, that aside from Mau Mau and a few other episodes, “the Gikuyu people offered no resistance to colonial penetration” (36)—an implication that Ngugi began to correct in A Grain of Wheat and wholeheartedly attacked in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Petals of Blood.

From 1976 on Ngugi has made plain his determination to participate in the decolonizing of Kenyan history. Indeed, in his later works he deliberately has dealt with periods and figures neglected by professional historians, as when he set his suppressed musical Maitu Njugira (Mother, Sing for Me), in the 1930s, a period “almost totally ignored by Kenyan historians” (Gachie 13). Maitu Njugira dramatizes “actual history” based on Ngugi's research into “the actual laws and ordinances” of the 1930s (Gachie 13). “These things of the past cement the present,” said one of the actors (qtd. in Gachie 19); they create links to the future and at the same time implications too unpleasant for the government to countenance. “Writers are surgeons of the heart and souls of a community” ([Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature] ix), but official Kenya declines the operation, retaining the old Kenyan history.

But what does the phrase “Kenyan history” mean? Karari Njama describes the pre-high school curriculum at Alliance High School in the 1940s, where Ngugi studied a decade later:

In History we had been taught all the good the white man had brought us—the stopping of tribal wars, guaranteeing security …, good clothings, education and religion, easy ways of communication and travel … and, finally, better jobs that would make it easy to raise the standard of living above the uneducated Africans. … In teaching Kenya History, the question of land was cunningly omitted.

(Barnett and Njama 96)

This is the background for the school strike in Petals: “We wanted to be taught African literature, African history, for we wanted to know ourselves better” (170). Why should a student seeking an “education that will fit [him] in [his] own environment” be given instead “a lot about English Pirates and English Kings, and practically nothing of his local geography and history”—an education that makes him “a misfit in his own community?” (Kakembo 7).

History was the field that offered the most scope to African intellectual initiatives in the 1940s and 1950s, but these had to take place outside of official confines because for an African to take “an interest in his people's past was unhealthy, … a betrayal of the civilization to which he attached himself when he was educated and baptized a Christian” (Rosberg and Nottingham 132). Well before Independence, however, nationalist stirrings provided unofficial alternative education at Alliance High School, where a secret political and educational organization taught “how the English people acquired their supremacy, how they came to our country, how they alienated our lands, and how hypocritical they are in their Christianity” (Barnett and Njama 100).

Although the official history of colonial times has gone, no comparably assured version has replaced it,5 for three main reasons: first, the particular historical bias imparted in the waning days of colonialism to the first post-Independence generation of African intellectuals, a bias incorporated in language; second, the absence of substantial written documentation for much of the precolonial past, which poses formidable problems of reconstruction from oral, linguistic, and archaeological sources; and, third and most important, the continued politicizing of intellectual discourse in the period following Independence.

The colonial view of history did not simply disappear at Independence, when European scholars of African history began to be replaced by their African pupils. “The history of East Africa,” wrote Sir Reginald Coupland in 1938, “is only the history of its invaders”; it is thus the history of “the comings and goings of brown men and white men on the coast,” behind which stretches the Conradian “impenetrable darkness” of Black Africa (14). Trevor-Roper's now-classic formulation of this attitude (9), uttered only two months before Kenya's Independence, is, as Feuser has shown (53-54), typical enough of European attitudes then and for a more than a hundred previous years.

Deeply imbued with European values, the nationalist historians who emerged in the 1960s often took their mentors' history and produced “the older version turned upside down, with many of its faults intact” (Neale 4; cf. Temu and Swai 154). They took it for granted that progress was evolutionary and that “unity is the basis of progress” (Neale 3-21, 155), the latter assumption familiar in Kenyatta's theme-slogan, “We all fought for Uhuru” (cf. the Politician in Trial 47 and Kimeria in Petals 153). The carry-over of European assumptions was, however, masked by an appearance of African nationalism. In the 1960s—the “golden age of consensus” (Temu and Swai 63)—historians dwelt on three themes: “the bliss that was African life before the coming of the Europeans”; “the injustice of colonialism”; and “how gloriously the African fought his way to Uhuru” (Atieno Odhiambo, “‘Mind Limps”’ 7-8).

Ngugi himself, with his automatic adjective “glorious,” seems to fall into this self-congratulatory pattern of thinking when he has his narrator reflect:

[Ilmorog] had had its days of glory: thriving villages with a huge population of sturdy peasants who had tamed nature's forest. … And at harvest time … the aged would sip honey beer and tell the children, with voices taut with prideful authority and nostalgia, about the founding patriarch.

(Petals 120)

Although the phrases roll out automatically in this passage, later Karega rejects such “worship” of the past in a passage that sounds like Ngugi's own recantation: “Maybe I used to [worship] it: but I don't want to continue worshipping in the temples of a past without tarmac roads, without electric cookers, a world dominated by slavery to nature”; the people who “tamed nature's forest,” he feels, had become nature's slaves (Petals 323; cf. Trial 72). Furthermore, Ngugi's sharp distinction between traitors and collaborators saves him from the tendency of historians as well as politicians to paint all colonial peoples as somehow resisters (see Neale 107-08).

“Neocolonial” historians—Ngugi names “[Bethwell A.] Ogot, [Godfrey] Muriuki, [Gideon] Were and [William R.] Ochieng”—are merely “following on similar theories yarned out by defenders of imperialism” who “insist that we only arrived here yesterday” (Petals 67). “Arrival” for such historians, Ngugi implies, means arrival of the “modern” (i.e., Western-style) nation—even though, as John Lonsdale has remarked, “the most distinctively African contribution to human history could be said to have been precisely the civilized art of living fairly peaceably together not in states” (“States and Social Processes” 139). There are, consequently, “many questions about our history which remain unanswered,” such as the history of international trade before the Portuguese “ushered in an era … that climaxed in the reign of imperialism over Kenya” and the resultant “heroic resistance” (Petals 67).

An evaluation of Ngugi's charges against Kenyan historians should start with the correction implied in his own more recent work. Detained, indeed, stands in mild reproof to the author of Petals of Blood, for in the later book Ngugi demonstrates research in books like Ghai and MacAuslan's Public Law and Political Change in Kenya (see Detained 44) and, more significantly, in works by the very historians he reviles in Petals, including Ogot and Ochieng'.6 A work by another of the supposed “neocolonial” historians, Gideon Were's Western Kenya Historical Documents, stands as an example of important research in oral history; Were's use of the word “documents” to describe the contents of his book implicitly challenges the notion that historians depend on written documents (see also Vansina 173-202; Mazrui, Cultural Engineering 4-7; Temu and Swai 113). Finally, the treatment by Godfrey Muriuki of the early colonial paramount chief Kinyanjui, in a widely respected study focusing on precolonial Gikuyu history, stands as a good example of precisely the kind of history that Ngugi calls for. Muriuki makes plain that Kinyanjui—one of the “traitors” who were “collaborators with the enemy” (Detained 55) to whom Ngugi repeatedly refers (Petals 214, Trial 32, Detained 82)—was typical of those chiefs created by the British out of “nonentities in the traditional society”: men who, in gratitude for their masters' donation of power, were willing to support British interest “at all costs in order to bolster up their position and influence outside the traditional structure” (Muriuki, History 93). Yet while Muriuki's own accomplishment as a historian is impressive, he himself acknowledges that historical studies in Kenya have accomplished little and, in fact, are in crisis, with student enrollment plummeting and research funds nonexistent (“Historiography” 205, 213).

Besides the ideological or political-prudential reason for the absence of consensus on Kenyan history, there is another and very practical cause: events and people lacking a connection with Europeans were also often lacking written documentation, and the historian must unravel oral history and analyze physical and linguistic evidence in order to assemble a coherent account of historical developments. Ngugi's narrator explains: “Just now we can only depend on legends passed from generation to generation by the poets and players … supplemented by the most recent archaeological and linguistic researches and also by what we can glean from between the lines of the records of the colonial adventures” (Petals 67-68). It remains to be seen whether this kind of history, necessarily local and tribal, can be incorporated in a truly “national” history, one that would achieve Ngugi's goal of unifying the country.

These problems of documentation, although imposing, pale before the third cause of historiographical difficulty: contemporary politics, which of course involves the dominant neocolonial ideology. What one of Ngugi's principal intellectual antagonists, William R. Ochieng', has said of Detained—“to Ngugi history is simply a propaganda instrument in the service of a chosen ideology” (“Autobiography” 97)—could be said generally of historical writing, although in both genres the best writing rejects propaganda for legitimate and knowledgeable interpretation. A month before Kenyan Independence, Ali Mazrui observed (echoing Ernest Renan) “that one essential factor in the making of a nation is ‘to get one's history wrong,’” to be “selective about what did happen” so as to build national unity (On Heroes 21). Characteristic of the 1960s and early 1970s, the vigorous tone of the statement, as well as its content, is a direct contradiction of the colonialist historians' claim that knowledge is neutral, a claim that deflected any challenge on ideological grounds.

There are no “pure facts”; everything “involve[s] interpretation” (Petals 246). But writers must be conscious that they are interpreting. Writers on history must recognize that the basic terms of historical writing—“collaboration,” “resistance,” “nationalism”—still need definition, and Ngugi gives them a nudge in this direction. “The government says we should bury the past,” the betrayer Mugo says in A Grain of Wheat, but Gikonyo cries: “I can't forget. … I will never forget” (59; 67). It is therefore essential to “choose your side” (Petals 200). This injunction marks a distinct change in Ngugi's fiction; the experience of detention and his more extensive reading in Kenyan history have helped him recognize that “an intellectual is not a neutral figure in society” (Omari 1).

Interviewing Ngugi shortly after the publication of Detained, Emman Omari suggested provocatively that in his “extremity the objectivity is buried”: “You have melodiously clapped hands for active resisters like the Kimathis; and … you have snapped at the Mumias” (Mumia, an early colonial chief patronized by the British, was their enthusiastic ally). Ngugi acknowledged Omari's implications: “When writing history for our children, which things do we want them to admire? Should they emulate traitors or heroes?” (1). And Ngugi knows who is who, with Waiyaki foremost in the pantheon of heroes and Kinyanjui, Waiyaki's betrayer, prominent among the traitors. This either/or mentality unfortunately characterizes much of the intellectual and political discourse in Kenya today, despite appeals for finer discriminations.

The issue, as Ngugi sees it, is whether Kenya's rulers wish to lead a truly independent country, or whether they are—as he charges—merely lackeys for multinational businesses, the “thieves and robbers” of Devil on the Cross. Although historians have a particular responsibility to attempt clear-headed analysis, most remain partisan: like their own colonial teachers, they “delighted in abusing and denigrating the efforts of the people and their struggles in the past” (Petals 199). Despite his bias, Ngugi's challenge makes Petals of Blood “compulsory reading” for African historians (Neale 144), while at the same time his own efforts have met with considerable criticism, partly for scholarly reasons and partly for political ones. Establishment critics accuse him of negativism in his earlier works and lack of artistry in his more recent, “committed” writing: as soon as he “seemed to have an axe to grind”—that is, after A Grain of Wheat—“he … ceased to be a creative writer” and wrote mere “propaganda” (“‘Exiled’ Dissidents” 4, 7).


Displaying their profession's common inability to accept literary interpretations of their field—rejecting that “blending of fact and fiction [that] … is precisely what makes it important” (Fleming 20)—historians object both to Ngugi's carelessness with details and to his promoting myth as history. Ngugi is conscious of this element in his writing: “This Harry Thuku [whose followers, demonstrating against his arrest, were massacred by police] has already moved into patriotic heroic legends and I have treated him as such in the early chapters of A Grain of Wheat” (Detained 82). But Ngugi also knows the historical Thuku, who fought against “forced labour, female and child slavery, high taxation without even a little representation, low wages, and against the oppressive kipande [pass] that the workers were obliged to carry with chains around their necks” (Detained 81)—all, except for the mention of “slavery,” elements of Thuku's campaign frequently mentioned by historians. Literary treatments of history include legend as well as “facts” because writers seek to discover “not only what has happened”—the historians' task—“but the ways in which things are felt to happen in history” (Neale 187). And the ways in which things are felt to happen may actually affect the way things do happen. Ngugi's Kenyan readers know full well how indistinguishable the exploits of Dedan Kimathi the historical figure (1920-57) are from those of Dedan Kimathi the legendary figure, and how the legend in turn inspired military action—facts—by Kimathi's followers.

Another major twentieth-century historical figure who became mythologized is Jomo Kenyatta, who is referred to a number of times in A Grain of Wheat and Weep Not, Child—often by his popular name, “The Burning Spear,” a characteristic mythologizing appellation. Ngugi's treatment of Kenyatta was the subject of another paper by Ochieng's at the 1984 conference, a reproof for the mythologizing portrayal in the early novels and an attack on Ngugi's later analysis of Kenyatta as a failed hero, one who betrayed his country. Again controversy ensued, with Ochieng' defended by his colleague Henry Mwanzi through the same technique that Ochieng' had used in attacking Ngugi's depiction of the Mau Mau as a national liberation movement—bald assertion. It is difficult to write history about legends. Kenyatta may not have been the “fire-spitting nationalist that Ngugi imagined him to be” (Ochieng', “Ghost” 10), but Ngugi's imagination was not peculiar to himself, as Ochieng' acknowledges; he grew up with “myths” and “tribal gossip” about Kenyatta that then became part of history when people acted upon their beliefs (Ochieng', “Ghost” 3, 10).

A fascinating example of such mythologizing occurs in the history—or story—of Waiyaki, a Gikuyu leader of resistance against the British in the early 1890s. Whether Waiyaki was consistently such a leader is open to doubt, as are the circumstances of his death. But in A Grain of Wheat, doubts matter far less that what Ochieng' disparagingly calls “rumor” or “gossip”—the legend of “Waiyaki and other warrior-leaders [who] took arms” against the “long line of other red strangers who carried, not the Bible, but the sword” (Grain 12; 12). Defeated by the superior technology of “the whiteman with bamboo poles that vomited fire and smoke,” Waiyaki was

arrested and taken to the coast, bound hands and feet. Later, so it is said, Waiyaki was buried alive at Kibwezi with his head facing to the centre of the earth. … Then nobody noticed it; but looking back we can see that Waiyaki's blood contained within it a seed, a grain, which gave birth to a political party.

(Grain 12-13; 12; emphasis added)

The weight Ngugi gives to what “is said,” to “rumor” and “gossip” as agents in forming the imaginative life of his people, makes it clear that he knows that actual historical force of what “is said”—its role in politics. Myths made things happen during the Emergency.

The “facts” regarding Waiyaki are difficult to come by. He probably was not buried alive head downward. The most plausible hypothesis to account for the legend is that of T. C. Colchester, a colonial official, in an unpublished note. Colchester observes that until the 1930s the Gikuyu did not ordinarily bury their dead; Waiyaki's burial would have seemed so abnormal as to suggest that he had been “killed by burial,” and, as Colchester adds, the coincidental death and burial at Kibwezi some years later of Waiyaki's antagonist, William J. Purkiss, might have fed the legend (2). As far as Waiyaki's character goes, Muriuki is no doubt historically correct: “He was neither the ‘scheming rogue’—breathing treachery, fire and brimstone—of the company officials, nor was he the martyr” imagined by nationalists (149). But what is finally most important, where Ngugi is concerned, is not the evaluation of historians but Waiyaki's role in Gikuyu folklore—Waiyaki as martyr, “tortured … fighting for his country,” an avatar of “the second disciple of God … Jomo Kenyatta” (Mau Mau song qtd. in McIntosh 99 n. 129).

Waiyaki—or his legend—caused future events: “When he died, he left a curse that we should never sell our land or let it be taken from us” (Gikoyo 35). The impossibility of confirming the deathbed curse is less important than the belief that people had in its truth, a belief that influenced events sixty years after Waiyaki's death. Waruhiu Itote (a leading Mau Mau general known as “General China”) describes a Mau Mau reprisal modeled on Waiyaki's legendary martyrdom, a reprisal that particularly inflamed European opinion. Having been told by a witch doctor that to win the war the Mau Mau “must bury a European alive with a black goat,” a Mau Mau did precisely that in 1954: “They buried him [Arundell Gray Leakey] with his face downwards, as we hear Waiyaki was buried by the Europeans at Kibwezi” (Itote, Mau Mau in Action 26-27; emphasis added). The phrase, as we hear, like Ngugi's so it is said, testifies both to the strong Gikuyu awareness of their own history in the Mau Mau period and to the power of myth to affect events.

The nearer to the present day the historians get, the more obviously embroiled in controversy their task becomes. The most immediate questions about the relationship of past to present have been provoked by the Mau Mau rising; among the most urgent is the question whether Mau Mau was merely a manifestation of local (Gikuyu) nationalism or, as Ngugi argues, a central and catalytic event in the struggle for Kenyan independence. Whereas Europeans spoke of Mau Mau as a barbaric and atavistic reversion and many educated Africans recognized intelligent and ruthless adaptation, the fighters themselves, agreeing with neither view, commonly saw a mainly laudable and certainly necessary re-creation of the past—a mistake, in the opinion of Karari Njama, himself one of the few educated Mau Mau leaders (Barnett and Njama 413, 336-37). To counter that view, part of the job of first-generation historians was to develop comprehension of the past as not static (the view of illiterate Africans as well as of Europeans) but dynamic.

In their common enterprise of national interpretation historians and writers should support one another, carrying out what the American scholar St. Clair Drake told Ochieng' was the “sacred duty … to redeem our race through the written word” (Ochieng', “The Scholar”). Such cooperation does exist; one testimony, indeed, to Ngugi's skill as a literary-historical artist has been citation of his novels by social scientists to illustrate their points (see, for two of many examples, Wanjohi 668 and Furedi 355). But too often the two professions manifest a kind of sibling rivalry evident during a 1984 conference of the Kenya Historical Association devoted to “The Historiography of Kenya: A Critique,” which included analyses of literary treatments of history. The literary critics who attended the sessions were quick to point out their colleagues' deficiencies as literary analysts. The historians, said the critic Chris Wanjala, “showed lack of basic understanding about the way literature worked” (31). In a riposte to Wanjala, the historian Henry Mwanzi dismissed “Ngugi's fans” for having “an emotional attachment to the man” that blinded them to “his falsification of our history.” In fact, some historians' political antipathy to Ngugi prevents rational discourse. Ochieng' roundly admits that he cannot bear to read Ngugi (his “style bores me to death”), but his aversion did not stop him from writing a review of Detained that concludes: “Ngugi is operating beyond the limits of his role as a writer. He is terrorising us (“Dignitaries Not Spared” 47-48). Ochieng's difficulty in reading Ngugi stems partly from the disabling effect of his animus and partly from too narrow a conception of “history,” excluding the contribution of legend from its purviews.

The wars of the intellectuals and the post-Uhuru battle for recognition of the ex-freedom fighters were linked in February 1986 during the first commemorative meeting of ex-Mau Mau fighters. One purpose of the meeting was “to find ways to write the history of the Mau Mau movement” as a national phenomenon, refuting non-Gikuyu historians' allegations “that the Mau Mau was a tribal movement or a civil war” (Mutahi 13). To the veterans their history seemed to have vanished. Ngugi's career-long emphasis on Mau Mau has to be seen as a form of resistance to this betrayal by oblivion, as a monument in words to the heroes of the forests.

Remembering for Ngugi requires the painful acknowledgment of imperfection. The heroic Mau Mau model, as readers of A Grain of Wheat know, fits few actual freedom fighters; for every Kimathi-style Kihika, there may be dozens or hundreds of Mugos. If the writing of history depends on the truth-telling of the survivors, how dependent are we on the Mugos who conceal the truth? There are records: even while in the forest, the freedom fighters kept “records [that] would form a book of history which would be read by our future generations,” a leitmotif in Karari Njama's memoirs (Barnett and Njama 326, cf. 334). These records showed an effort to place contemporary history in a wider context, although the ill-educated writers often knew little of that context. The writer of “A Book of Forest History”—a Mau Mau document captured by British forces—reported a meeting in the forest on 5 December 1953 during which he “learnt a lot of new things and ideas,” chiefly concerning alleged English parallels to Mau Mau activities: from the Roman period through the seventeenth century, it seems, the British took oaths and entered the forest, staying “about 120 years” under the Romans (“Book” 2-3).7 British resistance to Roman imperialism, by offering a precedent to Kenyan resistance, validated the later resistance to British imperialism.

But Kenyan historians have either avoided the Mau Mau records as political hot potatoes or have been so partisan and careless—as in Maina wa Kinyatti's Kenya's Freedom Struggle, which omits essential documentation—that they have not advanced our understanding. When previously secret official documents relating to Mau Mau became available in 1984 under the thirty-year rule, the Standard, a Nairobi daily, published reports of the “top-secret Mau Mau papers” that focused on British policy. Despite their fairly innocuous content—the first article, with front-page banner headlines, discussed British thinking behind the June 1953 banning of the Kenya African Union—the dispatches aroused such official ire that the Standard ceased its reports (see 14 Feb., 1, 6; and 20 Feb., 20). Popular distrust of professional historians is consequently endemic. One speaker at the Mau Mau commemorative meeting urged “that the books and papers authored by Professor Ochieng be banned from Kenyan schools, a proposal that was thunderously supported” (Mutahi 14) although hardly likely to take effect, especially since Ochieng' had just published the first textbook of Kenyan history and was shortly to assume the chair in history at Moi University. Furthermore, President Moi contributed to the 1986 controversy by declaring that the history of the Mau Mau should not be written.

In the same year, a time of sharply escalated repression of intellectuals, Moi made clear his choice of patriotic historian by naming Professor Ogot, who sees Mau Mau as a narrowly tribal rather than as a national struggle, to the position of chairman of the Posts and Telecommunications Corporation.8 There could be no better confirmation of Temu and Swai's assertions that the so-called “new history … has resulted in the production of history to serve a new class of exploiters” (53, 81; cf. Wrigley 123). “Small wonder, then,” add Temu and Swai, “that side by side with the development of postcolonial Africanist historiography has developed a crescendo of intellectual McCarthyism” (53)—a remark particularly apt to Kenya in the period following Ngugi's necessary self-exile, imposed in 1982. One of the sad if understandable results of the repressive political climate in Kenya has been the drying up of creative writing, a theme of R. N. Ndegwa's reviews (or “laments,” as she calls them) of the year's work, published in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature (see 20.2 [1985]: 2 and subsequent years).

These are not merely professional but deeply personal matters. Ngugi's political ideas result from an effort to foster an organic connection between his past as the child of peasants steeped in tradition and his present as an international author, the kind of connection that Karega has maintained and that Munira has lost. A spectator of both public and his own private history, Munira suffers from an inability to feel an organic and constructive link to the past: “The repetition of past patterns had always frightened him. It was the tyranny of the past that he had always tried to escape” (Petals 249).

Involvement in personal history seems to be a prerequisite for involvement in public history. Munira asks, “Could I resurrect the past and connect myself to it, graft myself on the stem of history even if it was only my family's history outside of which I had grown? And would the stem really grow, sprouting branches with me as part of the great resurgence of life?” (244). But Munira hardly knows his siblings, feels both rejection and admiration of his father, is remote from his mother. Nonetheless, despite his claim to be disconnected from his past, he is overwhelmed by his discovery that Karega was the lover of his sister (the only sibling with whom he felt any connection) and that she killed herself soon after being told by her father to choose between Karega and her family. He also is distressed by the link between Karega's family and his own: Karega's mother was an ahoi on his father's land, and Karega's brother Ndung'iri was probably a member of the Mau Mau gang that cut off his father's ear. Only by working through these connections, by converting distress into understanding, could Munira become reintegrated; instead, he retreats into a crazed, ahistorical religiosity.

And there is a societal parallel to Munira's dislocation, in the transformation of the religious center of Ilmorog, “where Mwathi had once lived guarding the secrets of iron works and native medicine” (Petals 281), into an archaeological museum, “a site for the curious about the past, long long before East Africa traded with China and the Indies” (266). “The mythical Mwathi” (302) in one sense does not exist and in another exists perennially, his traditional wisdom voiced, we deduce, by his spokesperson, Muturi; he thus stands for the continuity of past with present, which is broken by the earth-moving machines and the archaeologists' scientific labeling. It is the voice of Mwathi that Ngugi's later work strives to transmit.


The very density and casualness of Ngugi's allusions to Kenyan historical events and figures in his work published after 1975—as well as the proliferation of untranslated Gikuyu words and phrases—accords with the decision he made, upon completing Petals of Blood in October 1975, to write his creative work in Gikuyu. Further, he asserts that “the true beginning of my education” took place in “the six months between June and November of 1977” when, developing his first Gikuyu work in concert with Kamiriithu peasants, he “learnt [his] language anew” and “rediscovered the creative nature and power of collective work” (Detained 76). With Decolonising the Mind in 1986, he said farewell to all writing in English (except, his practice has shown, journalism). Some months later, in September 1986, Heinemann Kenya published his second Gikuyu novel, Matigari ma Njiruungi, but readers of Gikuyu had little chance to buy it: in February 1987, in yet another act of intellectual suppression, the Kenyan government confiscated all copies in bookshops.

Implicitly, the main audience for Ngugi's work now in both his languages is Kenyan—not just readers of Gikuyu but those Kenyans who must rely on English (there have, however, been some translations into Kiswahili, encouraged by Ngugi). With the switch to Gikuyu or Kiswahili, “I can directly have dialogue with peasants and workers,” for he is now “not only writing about peasants and workers but … for peasants and workers” (Omari 15). This change in audience clearly has had an effect on the intermixed genres of Devil on the Cross. Readers unacquainted with Gikuyu will increasingly depend not only upon translation but—in the case of non-Kenyans at least—upon a more extensive cultural interpretation. The book is not closed on the interrelationships between literature and history; Ngugi has, however, turned a new leaf.9


  1. The additions and corrections are included in MS 337272 in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. This is actually a number of separate items; I refer here to the copy of the first version of Grain, marked by Ngugi for revision, and the typed list of corrections to be incorporated in the revised 1986 edition. The manuscript is fully described in my Ngugi wa Thiong'o: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources: 1957-1987 (Oxford: Hans Zell, 1989). Page references given here to Grain are first to the first edition, second to the revision.

  2. Oddly, Ngugi does not correct the erroneous date of 1923, which he uses in Grain (13, 73, and 208) and Secret Lives (43).

  3. He is, however, currently the chairman of Umoja, an umbrella organization of dissident groups abroad that supports Mwakenya.

  4. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, interview, New York, 20 Oct. 1986.

  5. Ochieng's A History of Kenya is a text intended for Kenyan O-level students; the article A in the title is significant, acknowledging the impossibility of writing The History.

  6. For example, Ogot and Ochieng' published their article on Mumboism in 1972, nine years before Ngugi completed Detained, in which he mentions “the Mumboist leaders Muraa wa Ngiti, Oteyno, Ongere and others in the 1920s” (49); all of these relatively obscure figures are treated by Ogot and Ochieng' (153, 157, 160-61, 172), whose article may be the source of Ngugi's allusion.

  7. I am grateful to W. H. Thompson, who “captured” this document and deposited it at Rhodes House, Oxford (Mss. Afr. s.1534), for permission to quote it.

  8. He has since been named chairman of Kenya Railways. For his view of Mau Mau, see “Politics.”

  9. This research was supported (in part) by two grants from the PSC-CUNY Research Award Program of the City University of New York, number 6-66038 and number 667040. In revising the essay, I have benefited from conversations with academics and others in Kenya whom I cannot thank by name because of the political sensitivity of the topic, as well as from readers' reports. Two major historiographical studies that have appeared since completion of this essay in mid-1987 are Bogumil Jewsiewicki's immense paper “African Historical Studies as Academic Knowledge: Radical Scholarship and Usable Past, 1956-1986” commissioned by the ACLS/SSRC Joint Committee on African Studies for presentation at the African Studies Association meeting 20-22 November 1987, and the June 1987 issue of the African Studies Review (30.2, published in 1988), devoted to “African History Research Trends and Perspectives on the Future.” An additional work awaiting non-Gikuyu readers is Wangui wa Goro's English translation of Matigari ma Njiruungi (Heinemann, 1989), which promises to carry on Ngugi's concern with history; speaking as a choric voice, the title character, Matigari, declaims: “… I was there at the time of the Portuguese, and the time of the Arabs, and the time of the British,” provoking the black neocolonialist to whom he speaks to interrupt: “Look, I don't want history lessons” (“Matigari” 93).

Works Cited

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Ghai, Yash P., and J. P. W. B. MacAuslan. Public Law and Political Change in Kenya: A Study of the Legal Framework of Government from Colonial Times to the Present. Nairobi: Oxford UP, 1970.

Gikoyo, Gucu G. We Fought for Freedom. Trans. Ciiri Cerere. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1979.

Gitahi-Gititi, V. L. “The Development of a Writer's Social Perspective: An Assessment of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's [sic] Selected Texts.” MA thesis. U of Nairobi, 1980-81.

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Kakembo, Robert S. An African Soldier Speaks. Foreword George C. Turner. Kampala: [East African Literature Bureau], 1944.

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Maina-wa-Kinyatti, ed. Kenya's Freedom Struggle: The Dedan Kimathi Papers. London: Zed, 1986.

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Muriuki, Godfrey. “The Historiography of East Africa.” In Into the 80's: The Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of African Studies, Vol. 2. Ed. Donald I. Ray, Peter Shinnie, and Donovan Williams. B.C. Geographical Series 32. Vancouver: Tantalus Research, 1981.

———. A History of the Kikuyu, 1500-1900. Nairobi: Oxford UP, 1974.

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Neale, Caroline. Writing “Independent” History: African Historiography, 1960-1980. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1985.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Oppression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. London: New Beacon Books; Trenton, NJ: Africa World P, 1983.

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Were, Gideon S., and Derek A. Wilson. East Africa through a Thousand Years: A History of the Years A.D. 1000 to the Present Day. New York: Africana, 1968.

Further Reading

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Bongmba, Elias. “On Love: Literary Images of a Phenomenology of Love in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between.Literature and Theology 15, no. 4 (December 2001): 373-95.

Bongmba contends that the romantic images in The River Between can be viewed as examples of a “phenomenology of love.”

Caminero-Santangelo, Byron. “Neocolonialism and the Betrayal Plot in A Grain of Wheat: Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Re-vision of Under Western Eyes.Research in African Literatures 29, no. 1 (spring 1998): 139-52.

Caminero-Santangelo discusses the influence of Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes on Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat.

Hooper, Glenn. “History, Historiography and Self in Ngugi's Petals of Blood.Journal of Commonwealth Literatures 33, no. 1 (1998): 47-62.

Hooper addresses the role of history and postcolonial historiography in Petals of Blood.

Hubert, Susan J. “Cultural Hybridity and Social Transformation in Petals of Blood and Burger's Daughter.Midwest Quarterly 43, no. 1 (autumn 2001): 51-60.

Hubert explores the parallels between Petals of Blood and Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter.

Indangasi, Henry. “Ngugi's Ideal Reader and the Postcolonial Reality.” Yearbook of English Studies 27 (1997): 193-200.

Indangasi speculates on the ideal audience for Ngugi's novels and discusses the author's place within the genre of postcolonial African literature.

Kessler, Kathy. “Rewriting History in Fiction: Elements of Postmodernism in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Later Novels.” ARIEL 25, no. 2 (April 1994): 75-90.

Kessler examines the postmodern elements of A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood.

Lovesey, Oliver. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Postnation: The Cultural Geographies of Colonial, Neocolonial, and Postnational Space.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 139-68.

Lovesey asserts that Ngugi's vision for the future of postcolonial literature can be seen through an examination of the author's “sometimes conflicted, sometimes fetishistic approach to cultural space.”

McLaren, Joseph. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Moving the Centre and Its Relevance to Afrocentricity.” Journal of Black Studies 28, no. 3 (January 1998): 386-97.

McLaren compares the political nature of Ngugi's Moving the Centre to Molefi Kete Asante's work on Afrocentricism.

Osei-Nyame, Kwadwo, Jr. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Matigari and the Politics of Decolonization.” ARIEL 30, no. 3 (July 1999): 127-40.

Osei-Nyame analyzes the treatment of Kenyan nationalist politics in Matigari.

Sicherman, Carol. “Ngugi's Colonial Education: ‘The Subversion … of the African Mind.’” African Studies Review 38, no. 3 (December 1995): 11-41.

Sicherman investigates the influence of Ngugi's early education on his life and work.

Slaymaker, William. “The Disaffections of Postcolonial Affiliations: Critical Communities and the Linguistic Liberation of Ngugi wa Thiong'o.” Symploke 7, nos. 1-2 (winter-spring 1999): 188-96.

Slaymaker argues that Ngugi relies too heavily on Eurocentric theoretical discourse in his essays and critical works.

Wood, Carl. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Writer as Dissident.” Africa Report 32, no. 4 (July-August 1987): 48-9.

Wood discusses Ngugi's use of African languages throughout his body of work.

Additional coverage of Ngugi's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 3; Black Writers, Ed. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 8; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 58; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 7, 13, 36; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 125; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural, Novelists; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; and World Writing in English, Vol. 1.

K. L. Goodwin (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Goodwin, K. L. “‘Nationality-Chauvinism Must Burn’: Utopian Visions in Petals of Blood and Matigari.Literary Criterion 26, no. 3 (1991): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Goodwin investigates Ngugi's blending of narrative forms in Petals of Blood and Matigari, arguing that both works move “effortlessly between realism, satire, farce, fantasy, and exhortation.”]

Commonwealth literature is not everyone's notion of a viable or useful category, and some may think that it smacks of postcolonial cultural imperialism, but it is a wider (if less precise) category than ‘world literature written in English’ and has the advantage of admitting regional and national literatures that would otherwise have to find shelter under the not-necessarily-appropriate umbrellas of the ‘third world’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’, or ‘Pacific’ writing. One does not have to approve of British (or Australian, New Zealand, or United States) colonial rule to recognise that its effects on education, legal systems, writing, and culture generally continue to be evident, so that there are still useful comparisons to be made between the literature of one former British colony and another. That does not mean, of course, that the comparisons are necessarily very important ones; certainly it does not mean that they constitute the most interesting features of the literatures. It does not mean, though, that ‘Commonwealth literature’ still makes sense as a category, somewhere between national literature or the literature of one language and world literature (of necessity partly in translation).

One of the questions much debated over the past three decades has been ‘How political should Commonwealth literature be?’ To ask this question is to beg a great many more and to invite a multitude of glib, qualified, relativistic answers. ‘What is the difference between literature and propaganda?’; ‘Can we afford literature in desperate times and circumstances?’; ‘Can worthwhile literatures be written in a corrupt society?’ are some of the obvious questions. ‘As political as the writer wants or the society needs’; ‘As political as is compatible with literary (or permanent, or human, or social, or cultural, or. …) value’; ‘It doesn't matter’ are some of the obvious answers.

Many of these matters are taken up in Ali Mazrui's The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971). In the post-mortem trial that forms the centre of the book, the charge against Okigbo is put like this:

Okigbo gave his life for the concept of Biafra. As it happens that was a mortal concept, transient to his inner being. The art of a great poet, on the other hand, carries the seeds of immortality. No great artist has a right to carry patriotism to the extent of destroying his creative potential. The prosecution is going to suggest that Okigbo had no right to consider himself an Ibo patriot first, and an African artist only second. That was to subordinate the interests of generations of Africans to the needs of a collection of Ibos at an isolated moment in historical time.


In the course of arriving at a verdict of Not Proven to this indictment, the court hears the defending testimony of Wole Soyinka who, consistent with his condemnation of the pusillanimous Court Poet in A Dance of the Forests, says:

Poets have lately taken to gun-running and others are accused of holding up radio stations. In several independent states the writer is part of some underground movement; one coup at least in Africa is reputed to have involved a novelist and a poet. … Where the writer in his own society can no longer function as conscience he must recognize that his choice lies between denying himself totally or withdrawing to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon. But there can be no further distraction with universal concerns whose balm is spread on abstract wounds, not in the gaping yaws of black inhumanity. … The artist has always functioned in his society as the record of mores and experiencer of his society and as the voice of vision in his own time. It is time for him to respond to this essence of himself.


This general statement is applied to Okigbo by Hamisi Salim, Counsel for Salvation, with the words:

It was precisely to that essence of himself that Okigbo responded. To fight for universals is to concretize literature—and the fight in Biafra was indeed such a fight. … Okigbo's death was itself a piece of poetry at its deepest.


This is perhaps a romantic view of the writers's task—one has to remember that Byron is another of the witnesses called by the Counsel for Salvation. What it amounts to is the assertion that, if Okigbo's belief was sincerely held and was a morally justified interpretation of the political situation, his death was justified. But to mention these conditions is immediately to raise the question of the status of his death if the conditions were not satisfied. What if his moral and political judgment were warped? And what of those writers who sincerely believed that suppression of an independent Biafra was morally and politically justified? Did they simply cut themselves off from the possibility of heroic or romantic martyrdom, or did their political beliefs somehow infect their literary work? The writer may have special political insight—what the Australian painter Sidney Nolan has called an ‘early-warning system’—but it is not a necessary or universal characteristic of the great writer. V. S. Naipaul, for instance, in The Middle Passage (1962) said of the West Indian writer that ‘by accepting and promoting the unimpressive race-and-colour values of his group, he has not only failed to diagnose the sickness of his society but has aggravated it’ (70).

The mingling of politics with literature—a mingling that many critics consider inescapable—may be towards one of two contrary ends: the upholding of the existing political situation or its overthrow. One obvious example of the first end is the work of many writers in the Soviet Union from the early 1930s onwards. Stalin is reputed to have said that writers are ‘engineers of the human soul’, and at the beginning of the Second Five Year Plan it became political orthodoxy that writers had a duty to the state to incorporate Marxist ideology, class propaganda, and revolutionary didacticism in their work. Literature, and indeed all art, was conceived of as the expression of the Soviet spirit, a symbol for the spiritual life of the nation. As such it was bound to reflect the rather simple minded propagandist notion of the unitary state. It was bound to take on the characteristics of literature espoused by Tolstoy in his late tract What Is Art? (1898). In Western countries this work has commonly been regarded as that of a fanatical dotard, but in Russia it has always been taken seriously. Tolstoy, in a swinging tirade against the effete in literature and art, ruthlessly sweeps away, with religious fervour, most of European literature and art, including his own novels. The only literature worth preserving is what is simple, emotional, and of common experience. The genuine work of art will be detected by a ‘country peasant of unperverted taste’ (XIV); the gentility inevitably have decadent, effete tastes. ‘Good, great, universal, religious art may be incomprehensible to a small circle of spoilt people, but certainly not to any large number of plain men’, he says (X).

In accordance with this program, officially approved Soviet art and literature were for over two decades in the grip of socialist-realist theory. They were obliged to be mimetic (though not accurately so, for they had to conceal any gap between official proclamations about society and the observable reality of society), boldly drawn, simple, and didactically orthodox.

To put the matter this way is tantamount to making a damaging judgment about most of the literature written according to such a formula. But there is also the question of what might have been. What about those writers who did not want to follow the party line? Did they prostitute their talents; were the means of publication withdrawn from them; or were they prosecuted, persecuted, imprisoned, and destroyed. All these possibilities were, of course, realised. But for the most part the facts went unrecognised at the time.

More recently, suspicions of the same kind of treatment being meted out to writers have been held at various times about Spain, Portugal, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Chile, E[l] Salvador, Uganda, and Kenya. The international writers' organisation, PEN, has had members imprisoned in all of these countries; in the case of Chile, the PEN centre was disowned by the international body for issuing a statement supporting the overthrow of Allende. PEN has always sought to be a body that was neutral in international politics, upholding the right of all its members to express their views without censorship. Such a charter seems to run counter to any notion of socialist realism, the imposed duty of the writer to uphold an official view of the Marxist state or, in the non-Marxist state, to advocate the overthrow of the existing state. It runs counter to the rhetoric of Wole Soyinka at the First Full Congress of the African Writers' Union held in Dakar in February 1976 if his words are applied to the role of literature generally rather than to the narrower role of the cultural periodical:

It is the most tragic statement of our times that a viable appearance should even be given to the act of choosing between a Nyerere ideal and a travesty such as Amin. Since the public media have created the illusion, however, let us dispense with any ambiguity: a choice exists between a radical vision of society and a phantom whose opaque shadow suffocates the will to life and fulfilment of our Ugandan brothers. …

We insist there is a choice to be made, that the choice must be clearly expressed, and that the expression of such a choice must take precedence over self-excusing protocol, the hallmark of bourgeois establishment intellectualism. For those who have made their choice that their concern is the masses of Africa, the next step is to isolate the various systems which presume to operate on their behalf, denounce the negative and approve the positive. Transition contributes to the making of that choice by a continuing analysis of Amin's Uganda and as soon as available verified reports on other anti-people regimes such as Equitorial Guinea.

(Tejani 26)

I have canvassed a few of the problematic issues at the interface of literature and politics, and that brings me to a further question, ‘How political ought the study and criticism of literature to be?’ The Soviet program for literature in the thirties and forties prescribed a certain kind of writing and then judged the outcome by the degree of its adherence to the prescription. The cruder proponents of Nègritude often performed the same assimilation of literary values into political or national-cultural ones. The apotheosis of the doctrinaire critic was perhaps reached by Tolstoy in his condemnation of Shakespeare (a condemnation revived more recently in many ‘cultural production’ re-readings of Shakespeare):

The content of Shakespeare's plays. … is the lowest, most vulgar view of life, which regards the external elevation of the great ones of the earth as a genuine superiority; despises the crowd, that is to say, the working classes; and repudiates not only religious, but even any humanitarian, efforts directed toward the alteration of the existing order of society.

(Shakespeare and the Drama, 1906)

With such a critic, as with Wole Soyinka (despite the fact that he has often been condemned for having an ‘aesthetic’ or ‘personal’ view of literature), the highly-politicized speaking position is manifest. In some respects, however, one might expect a politically committed author of fiction to be less overt, for the fictive construct has in part to do the work of converting the uncommitted or hostile, a task that is best undertaken by indirect rather than frontal methods.

The mode used for this purpose in much contemporary African writing is that of satirical allegory. Its practitioners include Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Kole Omotoso, Bessie Head, Ali Mazrui, Okot p'Bitek, and Taban lo Liyong. But it is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o who is its most adept and consistent exponent.

This is not the occasion to consider whether any or every writer—or any or every African writer—has a social duty; it is sufficient to acknowledge the fact that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o believes he has. The more crucial consideration is the question of what principles or institutions a writer might owe this social duty to. In Ngũgĩ's case it may once have been a responsibility to the institution of nationhood, but that is, clearly, no longer so. Ngũgĩ has long since ceased to be an adherent of the contemporary operation of the government of his nation. That may, indeed, be almost the only matter on which he and the government agree. That leaves two major possibilities: that he is an adherent of a metaphysical (and perhaps pragmatic) concept of the ideal national state or that he is an adherent of trans-nationalism, pan-Africanism, or a world order based on equal human rights. These are possibilities that I shall return to later.

In studying the satirical allegory of Ngũgĩ in Petals of Blood,Devil on the Cross and Matigari it would be possible to raise a number of rhetorical questions concerned with the blending of modes. It is sufficient at this stage to note that Ngũgĩ moves effortlessly between realism, satire, farce, fantasy, and exhortation. Narrative fiction is not just for telling a story in a realistic mode; but can also discuss the telling of the story, raise questions about the reliability of the narrator or the speaker, and create spaces where the story is held while exhortation or discussion occurs. For Ngũgĩ, fiction can both create its own illusion and strip away the illusion of others. That is why it is so dangerous to the authoritarian state. That is why, in Matigari, the Minister for Truth and Justice bans all dreams, desires, and songs (120, 125), why he attributes ‘distortion’ to fiction (103) and announces that ‘All we are interested in here is development. We are not interested in fiction.’ (118) Ngũgĩ's sense of irony makes him immediately follow that anti-fiction pronouncement with a fiction created by the Minister:

… Let us now forget that such people as Matigari ma Njiruungi ever existed. Let us with one accord, like loyal parrots, agree that Matigari ma Njiruungi was just a bad dream. That bid of history was just a bad dream, a nightmare in fact. We have qualified professors here who can write new history for us …


Here is an example of the narrator creating a fictional character, the Minister for Truth and Justice, who creates the fiction that the fiction of which he is part does not exist. In putting things this way I am, of course, using ‘fiction’ in at least two different senses (narrative and falsehood), but the blurring of these two senses originates not with me but with Ngũgĩ. It is, indeed, part of the fabric of his satire, for one of the major objects of satire in the novel is a government Doublethink or Newspeak that bears comparison with that found in Animal Farm or 1984.

Satire, like metaphor, symbol, allegory, and myth, is a notoriously artful and intricate process. In this regard it is like Newspeak, one of its own targets. In other words, it partakes of the qualities of what it is condemning. This is an inescapable feature, because both the objects and the process of satire are conveyed by language, which is itself notoriously wayward and devious.

Ngũgĩ's specific satirical purpose is made more intricate because he wants to condemn one kind of transnationalism while advocating another. He wants to condemn the transnationalism of the Theng'eta Breweries, which are foreign owned but to advocate a kind of transnational romantic socialism based on small self-managed units, both rural and industrial. In such an ideal community of international socialism national boundaries would be transcended or at least rendered inconsequential. The capitalist power struggle would be eliminated. It would be a world quite the converse of the one in which Petals of Blood is situated. In such a newly constructed world Wanja would no longer have to say ‘This world. … this Kenya. … this Africa knows only one law. You eat somebody or you are eaten’ (291).

The satiric target in Petals of Blood is a neo-colonialism that represents economic and intellectual bondage. The economy of Kenya is controlled by multinational corporations that provide local directorships to government ministers and other capitalists. The education is represented by Siriana Secondary School (mentioned also in Weep Not, Child) where Cambridge Fraudsham has been replaced as headmaster by Chui, ‘a black replica of Fraudsham’ (171). Petals of Blood presents, then, an indictment of ‘development’, multinational corporations, international finance, and neo-colonial education.

In the novel, Karega (the Gikuyu name meaning rebel, or he who refuses) is not prepared to accept that there is no alternative to the law that ‘You eat somebody or you are eaten.’ His answer to Wanja is that ‘Then we must create another world, a new earth’ (294). When interrogated by Inspector Godfrey, he explains how this might come about:

I don't believe in the elimination of individuals. There are many Kimerias and Chuis in the country. They are the products of a system, just as workers are products of a system. It's the system that needs to be changed … and only the workers of Kenya and the peasants can do that.


Karega has become disillusioned by the constitutional methods advocated by the compassionate lawyer who helped the people from Ilmorog when they came to Nairobi to petition their MP. According to Karega, the lawyer (who is subsequently murdered) placed too much faith in such institutions as parliament and private property. Karega is opposed to most sources of political and economic power. He abhors the venality and tribal manoeuvrings of parliamentarians; private ownership of land; the business-infiltrated trade unions; and the churches. Karega's final vision, at the very end of the novel, brings together most of these attitudes. Although cleared of complicity in the fire at Wanja's brothel, he is to be detained because ‘I am suspected of being a communist at heart’ (344). The young worker-girl who visits him in prison tells him of rumours that there will be ‘a return to the forests and the mountains’ to complete the revolution that the Mau Mau leaders, Stanley Mathenge and Dedan Kimathi, began. Karega's mind reviews the situation:

Imperialism: capitalism: landlords: earthworms. A system that bred hordes of round-bellied jiggers and bedbugs with parasitism and cannibalism as the highest goal in society. This system and its profiteering gods and its ministering angels had hounded his mother to her grave. These parasites would always demand the sacrifice of blood from the working masses. These few who had prostituted the whole land turning it over to foreigners for thorough exploitation, would drink people's blood and say hypocritical prayers of devotion to skin oneness and to nationalism even as skeletons of bones walked to lonely graves. The system and its gods and its angels had to be fought consciously, consistently and resolutely by all working people! From Koitalel through Kang'ethe to Kimathi it had been the peasants, aided by the workers, small traders and small landowners, who had mapped out the path. Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system and all its prying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting of human flesh. Then, only then, would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, they joying and loving in creative labour. …


The Christian Eucharistic imagery of eating flesh and drinking blood is consistently used here to convey predation and exploitation. God and angels are used as images for the demonic intentions and practices of capitalism.

For Karega and for Ngũgĩ there is a particular reason for using Christian imagery with a demonic interpretation. Christianity, particularly in the charismatic form represented by Lillian's movement, is both a rhetorical and a political rival to socialism or communism. The school teacher, Godfey Munira, for instance, was obsessed by the notion of a new world, a notion expressed in the kind of language he had previously heard from his white Christian headmaster (Cambridge Fraudsham) and from his narrow, sanctimonious, Christian mother and wife. Disillusioned with education, his work, and his whole life, he is a ready convert to Lillian's movement. The street evangelist preaches about a new earth, a new world, to be achieved through Christ.

For Karega and for Ngũgĩ the apocalyptic imagery has to be recaptured for socialism. One of the best ways of discrediting the Christian interpretation and agenda is to appropriate and subvert basic Christian terminology about the Eucharistic feast and apply it to what is obviously evil.

The process of appropriation includes both subversion and re-direction. Some of the imagery (the signifiers) must be transferred from a favourable signification (or set of signifieds) to an unfavourable one. The primary example is that of the Eucharistic feast. Some must be retained with a favourable signification but transferred to a different set of referents. In other words, the connotation and ambience of the images have to remain auspicious and commendatory but what they refer to has to be shifted. The primary example is of the new heaven and the new earth, transferred from a Christian apocalypse to a socialist one.

In Matigari the balancing act between the subversion and the re-direction of Christian imagery is more complex. I am calling it ‘Christian’ imagery for two reasons: convenience and the fact that Ngũgĩ himself introduces it with those connotations. But it has to be recognised that, even if some of the images come from the Bible, The Divine Comedy,Piers Plowman, or Pilgrim's Progress, they are not essentially Christian. Christianity has simply appropriated certain archetypal myths (such as the quest, transformation, the armour of god, the miracle worker, resurrection, the feast, the coming of the god, the release from prison, the prophet not without honour save in his own country, the agelessness of the land, sacrifice, the world upside down, arrival at the river, and so on)1 from the common stock of human story-telling. But Christianity has appropriated them in a particularly powerful way—or at any rate in a way that Ngũgĩ considers to be powerful in East Africa—so that the socialist prophetic role needs to re-appropriate them and turn them to its uses. Because of the power of Christianity as a rhetorical and political rival, the emphasis in Matigari is on archetypal symbols in their Christian manifestation rather than in, say, their Greek, or Egyptian, or Gikuyu manifestation.

The delicacy of the manoeuvre that has simultaneously to subvert and retain well-known symbols is equally in evidence in the treatment of attitudes to nation, colour, class, and gender. Ngũgĩ wants on the one hand to examine and criticise aspects of these cultural indicators, and on the other to re-direct them towards his utopian vision of a socialist world. There is, I believe, a latent theory in Ngũgĩ that cultural expression is bound up with, and can be an index of the quality of social and political life. In a simple form this theory can perhaps be attributed to John Ruskin. In a more complex form, involving the circular or unevenly reciprocal process of ‘over-determination’, it might be attributed to such theorists of cultural production as Louis Althusser. The source is, however, of less interest than the fact of Ngũgĩ's having such a belief. When Petals of Blood was launched in Nairobi, he stated, in rather Althusserian terminology, that

Literature, as part of culture, is really a reflection of the material reality under which we live … I have come to realise that no people can develop a meaningful national culture under any form of foreign economic domination.

(Writers in Politics 96)

Two other points can appropriately be made about the process of subversion and retention. The first is that, unlike parody, it does not—indeed must not if it is to succeed—destroy the efficacy of the original model; the power must remain though its object is altered. The second is that Ngũgĩ did not himself invent the process of re-directing Christian symbolism in this way. In his 1973 paper, ‘Literature and Society’ he draws attention to an identical process occurring among the Mau Mau revolutionaries in the 1950s:

They [the Mau Mau] took Christian songs; they took even the Bible and gave these meanings and values in harmony with the aspirations of the struggle. Christians had often sung about heaven and angels, and a spiritual journey in a spiritual intangible universe where metaphysical disembodied evil and good were locked in perpetual spiritual warfare. Christians sang: …

(Writers in Politics, 27)

The example Ngũgĩ gives is the Gikuyu version of the hymn ‘Stand up! stand up for Jesus! Ye soldiers of the Cross’. He quotes the text from Nyumbo cia K'uinira Ngia, Hymn NO. 115. Retranslated into English, one of the stanzas becomes:

Young men arise
Jesus calls you to
Take up spears and shields and to
Throw away your fears.
For what's the point of fear?
Go ye with bravery;
Led by Jesus
You'll be victorious.


In a song book published by Gakāra Wanjau about 1952, the words of Song No. 41 represent a re-alignment of ‘Stand up! stand up for Jesus!’ towards the Mau Mau cause. The translation offered by Ngũgĩ is as follows:

Young men arise
Mbiu(2) calls you to
Take up spears and shields
And don't delay,
Get out quickly
Come help one another
The white people are foreigners
And they are very strong (i.e. well-armed).


This is clearly not a parody of the Christian hymn, but a reorientation of it to a different worthy object. In Ngũgĩ's words:

It was as if the people of Kenya did to the Christian universe and spiritual idealism what Marx did to Hegel's dialectics: made them stand firmly on the ground, our earth, instead of standing on their head. The aim, in other words, is to change a people's world outlook, it is to seize back the right and the initiative to define oneself.


Christianity is, then, ripe for the appropriation of its imagery, its re-direction to other ends. It has a powerful hold on the cultural thinking of the people; it is foreign and multi-national; it is, as Karega says in Petals of Blood, a ‘a weapon against the workers’ (305); and it has many adherents among the neo-colonial classes of parliamentarians, civil servants, and business people. But some of Ngũgĩ's objects of satire are not readily amenable to the re-direction of Christian imagery. The British concept of the rule of law, for instance, has been satirised through exaggeration and absurdity in its own terms, as it is in the speech of the Minister for Truth and Justice in Matigari (102-3). The Christian doctrine of quietism and obedience to civil authority (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's”) cannot be re-directed. It has, on Ngũgĩ's principles, to be opposed and rejected, for the allegory of Matigari leads to the discarding of he belt of peace and the return to the weapons used in the war of liberation. In order to have its due place in this allegorical meaning Christian quietism must be made to seem irrelevant or inappropriate (except for hypocrites), and this is the effect when the doctrine is enunciated by the priest to the earnest seeker Matigari (99-100). At the beginning of Part 3 Matigari thus comes to the conclusion that

one could not defeat the enemy with arms alone, but one could also not defeat the enemy with words alone. One had to have the right words, but these words had to be strengthened by the force of arms.


In this final part, Matigari comes to the conclusion that distinctions and discriminations through colour, gender, class, and nationality have been imposed by colonialism and continued by neo-colonialism. They must be abolished, an action which involves taking up arms against the privileged class of ‘the imperialists and their retinue of messengers, overseers, police and military’ by ‘the working people’ (161).

The status of one form of distinction is left ambiguous. Near the end of Matigari the children of the rubbish dump begin a chant against oppression, treason, the governmental doctrine of parrotology and parrotry, and ‘nationality-chauvinism’. To what extent this is intended to be an anti-nationalist or pan-African slogan is unclear. It could be interpreted as that or it could be equally plausibly interpreted as a cry merely against jingoism and the equation of the national interest with the ruling party's interest. It may well be that Ngũgĩ, in order to remain a credible alternative national leader, needs to obscure this point. It is just as ambiguous in Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross. Perhaps the most succinct of the ambiguity occurs in Petals of Blood, where Karega, in one of his streams of consciousness, reflects on who should own the land:

Why, anywhy, should soil, any soil, which after all was what was Kenya, be owned by an individual? Kenya, the soil, was the people's common shamba, and there was no way it could be right for a few, or a section, or a single nationality, to inherit for their sole use what was communal …


‘Nationality’ here primarily refers, of course, to the various peoples who inhabit Kenya—the Gikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kamba, Kalenjin, and so on. But the statement does raise the question of how the boundaries of present-day Kenya were imposed and whether the European concepts of ‘nationality’ and ‘nationhood’ are appropriate. The dilemma of balancing national affection or acceptability with intellectual pan-Africanism affects not only Ngũgĩ; it is the dilemma of many African patriots, whether pro-or anti-government.


  1. References to these examples can be found on pp 15-31 (the quest), (transformation), 55-7 (feast), 62-4 (and 79, 81, and 156) (the Son of God and adventism), 65 (and 80) (release from prison), 72 (and 81-5) (the unrecognised prophet), 97 (and 137-8 and 150) (the transformation of the world that is upside down), 129 (resurrection), and arrival at the river (172-3). From its earliest days as religion Christianity appropriated and reinterpreted popular mythology; many centuries later its missionaries were still re-interpreting and re-directing indigenous customs to a religious purpose; and in literature writers such as Tasso and Milton were transforming the Greek and Roman epic formulae into Christian meanings.

  2. Koinange Mbiu, a farmer, became a Mau Mau hero after winning a Supreme Court challenge in 1951 to the validity of rules and ordinances signed by the Governor restricting the rights of Africans to grow coffee and run animals outside certain limits. His name is also similar to that of Mbuu, the ancestor of one of the Gikuyu sub-clans.

Abdulrazak Gurnah (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Gurnah, Abdulrazak. “Matigari: A Tract of Resistance.” Research in African Literatures 22, no. 4 (winter 1991): 169-72.

[In the following essay, Gurnah laments Ngugi's repetitive themes in Matigari, arguing that, despite the novel's positive political message, the work is merely a “simple and unattractive polemic.”]

Matigari was written and first published in Gĩkũyũ, sustaining its author's celebrated vow to write “creatively” only in an African language. The Kenyan security authorities' response to the novel, like their response to Ngaahika Ndeenda in 1977, confirmed the political implications on the writer's choice of language. In both cases, the threat of a mass audience for a critical portrayal of the injustices at the structural core of Kenyan society was unacceptable to the authorities. It is not that these criticisms are unprecedented. Ngũgĩ's own Petals of Blood and his polemical writings had voiced similar criticisms with comparable intensity. However, by addressing a mass audience, Ngũgĩ's writings in Gĩkũyũ seek to initiate a public debate about issues that the authorities prefer to restrict to academic seminars and conferences.

Readers who know the work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o will read Matigari with recognition, as if they are traveling over familiar terrain, despite some pronounced variations from his earlier novels. For example, the nature of “the struggle” is unequivocal. It is to assert the right of “those-who-sow” to enjoy the full use of the fruits of their labor and to put an end to the oppression that prevents them from doing so. The identity of the enemy is unmistakable: white settlers and black authorities who represent Western capitalism and its comprador lackeys. Matigari ultimately repudiates any route to “liberation” that falls short of an armed uprising. “The enemy can never be driven out by words alone, no matter how sound the argument” (138). Although not entirely new in Ngũgĩ's work, such statements reflect an increasingly uncompromising stance with regard to the oppressed. Once arrived at, a position is repeatedly and implacably articulated: “Justice for the oppressed comes from a sharpened spear” (131) is echoed by “[J]ustice for the oppressed springs from the armed might of the united dispossessed!” (161). This is the lesson of Matigari's “quest” for “Truth and Justice.”

The central focus is on Matigari, whose early optimism, subsequent disillusionment, and ultimate re-conversion to “the armed struggle” define the path along which the novel's argument develops. Like all the other characters in this highly allegorical narrative, he is a representative figure. Matigari ma Njiruungi literally means “the patriots who survived the bullets.” When he left the forest, Matigari buried his guns and his sword under a Mugumo (the wild fig tree sacred to the Gĩkũyũ) and put on the belt of peace because he believed that the end of fighting also meant the end of injustice. The land through which he travels is “cloaked with fog,” and it suffers from a great heat that symbolizes the endemic oppression in the demoralized land. Having fought against colonial rule, he returns to discover that injustice still exists, albeit in a slightly different form that reflects changed circumstances of neocolonial society. Settler Williams and his servant John Boy, whom Matigari had fought to death in the forest, have been replaced by their sons, now partners in “reaping-what-they-did-not-sow.” Matigari represents the heroism of the war for independence, and his dismay signifies the betrayal of its promise by the comprador administration which assumed power after the country became independent.

In his Author's “Note” [“A Note on the English Edition”], Ngũgĩ points readers towards the “Quest” motif in the novel, thereby identifying a narrative technique that reinforces his claim that the story of Matigari has been orally transmitted. During his quest, the hero encounters a number of allegorical figures, including the boy Muriuki and the young woman Guthera, the absurd and sinister Minister for Truth and Justice, the worker-leader Ngaruro wa Kiriro, the People, and the Police. Muriuki and Guthera become acolytes to Matigari in a manner that confirms his moral stature while contributing to the book's overall religious symbolism. Allusions to Biblical metaphors are common in Ngũgĩ's novels, often providing them with their dominant symbolic framework. In this case, Ngũgĩ's primary allusion is to Matigari's Christ-like commitment to the truth, despite the mockery, violence, and threat of death with which he is surrounded. For example, he rescues the young prostitute Guthera from two policemen who have been pursuing her. They set their dogs on her, thereby asserting their oppressive function as instruments of authority and also providing a metaphor for the brutality of their lust. Guthera is symbolic of degraded womanhood, and her conversion to Matigari's cause enables her to begin fulfilling her potential as one who selflessly contributes for the sake of others. The reference is of course to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Chastened by her brush with violent lust, Guthera “confesses” to her rescuer. Her story is one of extreme innocence and of religious passion perverted by corrupt and irresponsible men. If, by the end of the novel, the reborn Guthera can be regarded as “pure,” the lost boy Muriuki is “resurrected.” The corruption of the adult world evident in Muriuki's story is the same as that behind Guthera's experience. Symbols for the neglect of the community's human potential, both characters are redeemed by the intervention of Matigari, who sees them, and indeed the whole community, as his “children.”

The injustice perpetrated against the community is made manifest in the image of “the house.” Matigari and his “children” had built the house, but others are now living in it. For this reason, Matigari goes to the house to expel the wrong-doers, but he is arrested. In the cell where he is placed, Matigari divides his food and drink between the eleven prisoners; he also inspires “the drunk” to quote from the Bible: “And when the time for the supper came, he sat at the table together with his disciples. He told them: I want you to share this last supper with me, to remind us that we shall not be able to eat together again unless our kingdom comes” (57). His words are endorsed by the other prisoners, who agree that “there is a grim truth in what drunkards sometimes say.” In fact, the drunk first refers to Matigari as Jesus and calls himself a profane John the Baptist.

Matigari's escape from jail acquires mythical proportions. He brandished a flaming sword, and the doors opened. He had a voice like thunder, and when he spoke, smoke gushed from his mouth. At the moment of his imprisonment, he is reported to have said: “you'll see me again after three days” (79). And people say of him: “he's the one prophesied about” (81). Matigari himself does not claim Christ-like status. It is thrust upon him, and Ngũgĩ provides the circumstantial details that keep the comparison alive in the reader's mind. The fantasy of this peaceful and miraculous redeemer is attractive, for when Matigari appears before the people, who call him their savior, they themselves reject him as a madman and a drunkard, reserving for him the traditional fate of visionaries. Troubled by his failure to convince others to accept his vision, Matigari “went into the wilderness,” where he interpreted his failure in terms of an ancient “natural” wisdom and mourned for the days when people could still read the stars.

Ngũgĩ's use of the Christ metaphor reveals that the mythical redeemer is a fantasy. But before peaceful means are rejected, Matigari makes a final attempt to convert the people. He approaches a student, a teacher, and a priest; all fail abysmally. Their denial of Matigari condemns them as irresolute and complicit with the oppression. However, the culminating point of the novel is delayed for a final piece of slap-stick comedy—the meeting called by the Minister of Truth and Justice to end the strike at the factory. Instead of the mild irony with which the Christ theme is treated, this meeting is portrayed with satire and sarcasm. Orwellian double-speak is the only language the authorities know how to use, as is amply demonstrated by the radio bulletins that Ngũgĩ sprinkles throughout the novel—bulletins that grow increasingly manic as Matigari's legend gains ground. During the meeting, the Minister's speech exemplifies the deeply authoritarian nature of the government; he even proposes a ban on “fucking among the poor” as a possible means of controlling the country's growing population. There are possibilities for irony in this situation, but over-insistence and a heavy-handed approach transform the narrative into sarcastic sermonizing, allowing readers no other options than agreeing that this is “how workers in a Third World country could be silenced with instant truth and justice” (100).

After Matigari's attempts at peaceful change have failed, he returns for his guns. He has no choice but to fight. Ngũgĩ's argument here is crude, and it reduces complexities and differences to absurdly self-serving symbols. Matigari's experience and sacrifice, it appears, give him authority to speak for the victims of oppression; they also supposedly grant him unimpeachable integrity in his stand against the oppressor, for no other perspective carries any weight against his own in the narrative. Matigari's blood has literally flowed into the land, a symbolic connection referred to more than once, and he asks: “What other deed do you need that is greater than the blood I shed?” (50) In the end, of course, he gives his life for the land. The valorization of blood and duty over judgment and principle (a familiar recourse of parochial nationalists) results in a further simplification of the narrative. According to Ngũgĩ's portrayal, there are only two types of people in the land—patriots and traitors.

This dangerous oversimplification expresses the intolerant social vision that informs the novel in a number of ways. The people, though ritually valorized, are gullible. They remain satisfied with the fantasy of a miraculous redeemer. They are “children” of the patriarch Matigari, who, having shouldered the burden of duty and sacrifice, has acquired the right to leadership. The women are all degraded. Aside from Guthera, who is saved by Matigari, they are either fat, gossipy creatures who work in bars or frivolous individuals like the Minister of Truth and Justice's wife, whose most noticeable act is to sleep with the chauffeur in the back seat of her black Mercedes. The description of Guthera before her redemption is a reifying, narrative objectification of male fantasy—the beautiful, “rare,” pure-seeming woman who is nevertheless available. She is depicted as “wrongly” in prostitution, whereas the “fat women” who populate the “dingy” bars are presumably there because they deserve to be there. Just before the novel's climax, Muriuki and Guthera declare themselves “child” and “wife” to Matigari, subordinating themselves joyfully to him as the noble patriarch. In the plural reality of Kenya, Matigari's vision is just as profoundly authoritarian as the one it seeks to replace.

There has been a trend in Ngũgĩ's writing to narrow the ironic distance between the external narrative position and the narrative itself. A Grain of Wheat required that every event be read critically. The confessions that provide the narrative energy in that novel are not wholly reliable since they represent attempts at self-justification. Competing versions of “reality” create the space for irony and judgment. Such ambivalence is absent from Matigari, in which a simple argument is offered, insistently and relentlessly. Every situation develops to advance and confirm this argument. Upon its first publication in Gĩkũyũ, the novel frightened the government of Kenya into confiscating all copies of it. This fact is a testimonial to the potential of engaged literature, but it is not enough to prevent Matigari from being a simple and unattractive polemic.

David Maughan Brown (essay date winter 1991)

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SOURCE: Brown, David Maughan. “Matigari and the Rehabilitation of Religion.” Research in African Literatures 22, no. 4 (winter 1991): 173-80.

[In the following essay, Brown provides a religious interpretation of Matigari and explores how Ngugi utilizes Christian themes to support his sociopolitical ideals.]

Ngũgĩ's use of the imagery and symbolism of Christianity, his attitude towards the Church and its ministers, and the thematic centrality accorded to religion in his fiction all underwent significant changes in the course of his progression from Christian liberalism to the radical socialism, imbricated with cultural nationalism, which has informed his recent writings.

In 1967 Ngũgĩ said that in writing The River Between he was “deeply Christian” and “concerned with trying to remove the central Christian doctrine from the dress of Western culture, and seeing how this might be grafted onto the central beliefs of our people” (Cultural Events II). This process involved the extensive use of Biblical language and imagery, the juxtaposing of the Gĩkũyũ and Christian creation myths, and the satirizing of doctrinaire Christianity in the person of Joshua.

By 1978 Ngũgĩ was saying, “I have always thought of Christianity itself as part and parcel of cultural imperialism. Christianity, in the past, has been used to rationalize imperialist domination and exploitation of peasants and workers” (Weekly Review 10). But this did not stop Ngũgĩ from making extensive use of Biblical quotations and imagery in his novels after The River Between. Govind Narain Sharma has commented upon “a curious and baffling ambivalence in Ngũgĩ's attitude towards Christianity” in A Grain of Wheat, whereby “the portraits of Christians and references to Christianity are anything but complimentary,” yet it is impossible to read and interpret the novel “without taking into account the Christian myth, which not only constitutes the basic framework of the story and incorporates the author's message but also dominates his use of image and symbol” (Sharma 169). Sharma concludes that: “He [Ngũgĩ] is a religious writer, and A Grain of Wheat is not merely a religious novel but also a Christian one, for his vision, as we have seen, is essentially Christian” (174).

Ngũgĩ has repeatedly provided secular explanations for his use of Biblical texts and imagery, for example: “… I have also drawn from the Bible in the sense that the Bible was for a long time the only literature available to Kenyan people that has been available to them in their national languages” (Weekly Review 10).1 He has even suggested that Engels's Anti-Dühring was the principal inspiration behind the choice of the symbolism from which A Grain of Wheat takes its title (Sicherman, Making of a Rebel 23).

The novels after A Grain of Wheat continued to make use of Biblical imagery, as in the central symbol of the cross in Devil on the Cross, but Ngũgĩ's attitude toward Christianity seemed less and less ambivalent: the predominant way in which it was featured in the novels was through bitterly satirical descriptions of self-seeking churchmen such as Rev Jerrod Brown in Petals of Blood. The Church, as represented by the fictional descendants of Joshua, seemed irredeemable.

In exhibiting an ambivalence toward Christianity every bit as striking as that in A Grain of Wheat,Matigari comes, then, as something of a surprise. But rather than being a regression, Matigari seems to me to represent a new departure based on a reassessment of the cultural, and thereby political, significance of religion. The remainder of this paper will, firstly, seek to justify this proposition, and, secondly, suggest possible reasons why Ngũgĩ might, in the 1980s, have reassessed the possible usefulness of Christianity to his revolutionary project, and, in particular, have seized on the potential for political mobilization inherent in the millenarianism embraced from time to time by sections of the Kenyan peasantry both under colonialism and in the post-colonial period.

Matigari in no way retreats from the pillorying of individual churchmen. The bitter attack on doctrinaire Christian morality in the person of the priest who persuades Guthera not to sacrifice her virginity in exchange for her father's life, and the scathing satire of the unnamed representative of the Church establishment, whom Matigari visits in his quest for Truth and Justice (93-100), are just as savage as anything in the earlier novels. But it is significant that Guthera's father is presented as having been a wholly admirable character, whose essential goodness is defined in terms of the kind of Christianity he espouses. He is neither doctrinaire nor denominational; unlike his daughter he is not “born-again;” and he believes, with Matigari (cf. 156) that the “real Church of God reside[s] in people's hearts” (33). Guthera's father is, however, a minor character. Much more significant is the extent to which Matigari's mystique depends on the possibility (cultivated in the popular imagination) that his advent is the Second Coming.

It is my contention that, in Matigari, Ngũgĩ is doing much more than simply utilizing the imagery of Christianity as an access-point for his readers. Matigari's status as hero depends on his Christ-like stature and requires some measure of acceptance of Christian mythology. Moreover, this Christ-figure is in no way undercut in the way Kihika was in A Grain of Wheat (by, for example, his insensitivity to the needs of his girlfriend Wambuku and his harsh rejection of the “weakness” of his father's generation—Grain of Wheat 83).

Matigari's mythical stature clearly depends in part on the people's propensity for myth-making. Thus, many of the phrases which are attributed to Matigari and which echo Christ's words in the Gospels (e.g., “let the children come to me” [73] and “You will see me again only after three days” [79]) are hearsay, reported by anonymous voices that might well be projecting Christ's words onto Matigari. Similarly, such “miracles” as Matigari's release from jail are shown not to be miraculous at all. The narrative cultivates the myth: the last words before the mysterious opening of the doors are the drunkard's “Only Gabriel the angel of God can get you out of here” (65) and the possibility is immediately posited that it is “perhaps a miracle.” But after a suitable period of narrative suspense, Matigari's “miraculous” release proves to have been brought about by human agency after all. Thus, on one level, the novel plays on the fictional populace's (and through them on the prospective audience's) credulity and desire for miracles, while simultaneously containing within itself a set of hints that point to the extent of that myth-making.

At another level, however, the narrative itself presents Matigari as a Christ-like figure. He has the resurrected Christ's ability to appear and disappear at will (72); like Christ, he is a “prophet” who is persistently, and literally, not recognized in his own country; he has a superhuman ability to go on without food or drink and not to tire (41); like Christ, he refuses to give a sign to prove his identity—“I don't need signs or miracles” (63); and his actions are described in such a way as to call biblical accounts of Jesus to mind: “He left behind the paths walked by the people. He went into the wilderness” (86). Finally, Matigari's escape, unseen, “through the window” of a burning house completely surrounded by the police is clearly the “miracle” which the assembled crowd has gathered to witness, while the lightning and the “peal of thunder [which] rent the sky,” which sound Matigari's exit from the novel, are obviously reminiscent of Gospel accounts of Jesus's death.

To look more closely at one specific incident, Matigari's sharing of his bread and beer in prison is, as the hooded justice testifies (123), a clear imitation of Christ's Last Supper: “Matigari took the food, broke it and gave it to them” (57). But it is an imitation that reinvigorates the ritual by reference to a specific political and historical context. The breaking of the bread is linked directly to a tradition of communalism that is captured in the words of a song (quoted twice in the novel):

Great love I sow there,
Among the women and the children.
When a bean fell,
We would share it among ourselves.


Matigari's invocation—“Our people, let us share this bean, and this drop of wine”—not only reinstates this tradition, but performs the semantic miracle of changing the beer into wine at the stroke of a pen. The process of contextualizing religious ritual is then immediately carried forward through the words of the drunkard—an obvious case of in vino veritas:

He then took the cup, and after blessing it he said: And this cup is a testament of the covenant we entered with one another with our blood. Do this to one another until our kingdom comes, through the will of the people!


The temporal political kingdom will come through the will of the people, while the covenant entered into “with our blood” relates to the blood sacrifice of those who fought for independence and, less literally, to the oath of unity. Here is an unmistakable syncretizing of Christian ritual with a political appropriation of traditional ritual—a contextualizing of Christian theology far more thorough-going than anything in The River Between.

In this novel, Ngũgĩ for the first time invokes a value system explicitly derived from Christianity in promoting the socialist “kingdom [sic] … decreed by the Iregi revolutionaries” and in which “The land belongs to the tiller and not to parasites and foreigners! …” (63). In this way, the post-colonial dispensation in Kenya is consistently condemned through paraphrases of Christ's teachings:

Look! See the Boys and the Williamses coming to you. Please send them away and have them thrown into the ever-lasting fire you made for the likes of imperialists and their overseers. For you were hungry, but they gave you no food; you were thirsty, and they gave you no water; you were naked, but they clothed you not. …


This invoking of a Christian value system does not, of course, necessarily indicate a reconversion to Christianity on Ngũgĩ's part: it could just as plausibly constitute a calculated fictional strategy based on Ngũgĩ's assessment of the ideological susceptibilities of his prospective Kenyan audience. And one can place the same interpretation on the apparent reversion from a materialist to an idealist paradigm implicit in the emphasis placed upon Matigari's quest for an abstract “Truth and Justice.” But one can hardly fail to recognize the extent to which this novel, unlike its immediate predecessors, identifies many of its positive values by reference to Christian teachings.

One can go even further. Matagari is presented as a representative of all Kenyan workers: “I built the coffee factory and the tea-processing industries. You know those fruit-canning industries? I built them too and many others. I did it all with my own hands, yes, with these ten fingers you see here …” (58). In portraying him at the same time as a Christ-figure, Ngũgĩ is reverting to (and developing) the messianism that was a consistent feature of his novels up to, and including, A Grain of Wheat, in which one finds, for example, such assertations as Kihika's: “I die for you, you die for me, we become a sacrifice for one another. So I can say that you, Karanja, are Christ. I am Christ. Everybody who takes the Oath of Unity to change things in Kenya is a Christ” (83).

The theology underlying the connection between Matigari as a Christ-figure and Matagari as a representative of the Kenyan workers (whose repeated stress on the dispossessed “tiller” signals a strong identification with the peasantry) is elaborated when Matigari is asked by one of the children whether or not he is “the one whose Second Coming is prophesied”:

No, he answered them. The God who is prophesied is in you, in me and in the other humans. He has always been there inside us since the beginning of time. Imperialism has tried to kill that God within us. But one day that God will return from the dead … and liberate us who believe in Him. … But … if you let the country go to the imperialist enemy and its local watch-dogs, it is the same thing as killing that God who is inside you.


Ngũgĩ is asserting the individual worth of the members of his prospective audience in theological rather than secular terms. He is insisting on the Christlike nature of the Kenyan dispossessed in the interests of fostering resistance to that dispossession. He is, in short, theologizing the impulse towards a socialist revolution in the terms of a liberation theology.

Given Ngũgĩ's generosity and openness in the granting of interviews, it is highly unlikely that he could have undergone a formal conversion back to Christianity without our having heard about it. It seems more likely that the new departures in Matigari derive from a deliberate political strategy which apparently resulted from a reassessment of the relationship between culture, religion, and politics. This is not, however, to imply that Ngũgĩ is cynically exploiting the religious beliefs of his audience in the interest of political conscientization. The warmth of his endorsement of his Christ figure belies any suggestions of a detached manipulation of belief to which he himself is antagonistic. I will conclude by offering some tentative suggestions as to what might be underlying the strongly Christian orientation of Matigari.

Firstly, Ngũgĩ's earlier insistence, already quoted, that his use of Biblical language and imagery was determined by the fact that the Bible was the only literary frame of reference common to most Kenyans clearly remains applicable, but that alone is not a sufficient explanation for the extent to which Christianity is harnessed to the revolutionary cause promoted in this novel.

Secondly, it is likely that, in his extensive travels, particularly since his exile in 1982, Ngũgĩ would have encountered liberation theologians and liberation theology, which could well have rehabilitated Christianity, in his eyes, as a religion concerned with the welfare and the rights of the dispossessed. This possibility need not, of course, have involved any revision of Ngũgĩ's views with regard to the role of Christianity as generally practiced by the established church in Kenya.

Thirdly, there is evidence of the Christian churches in Kenya having become increasingly outspoken in their criticism of the Kenyan government during the 1980s. This development came to a head in December 1986 (the year before Matigari was published in Gĩkũyũ) when, according to a report in the African Contemporary Record, the Minister of State for Internal Affairs accused the National Christian Council of Kenya of attempting to play the role of an opposition party and of engaging in subversive activities (B 314-48). Not only would high-profile political opposition to the Kenyan government on the part of the church have affected Ngũgĩ's attitude towards it, but there is evidence of a rapprochement between Ngũgĩ and some elements within the church during the years immediately preceding Ngũgĩ's work on the first draft of Matigari in 1983.2 Whatever weight one lends to Gakaara Wanjaũ's allegations, made under duress, that the purpose of the ten-person study group Ngũgĩ formed in 1981-82 was to propagate Mwakenya ideas and “to penetrate … church organizations and incite them against the government” rather than to study the Gĩkũyũ language, it seems clear that a number of (“top” by Wanjau's account) churchmen were included in the group (African Contemporary Record B318)

Fourthly, the logic of Ngũgĩ's historical materialism would (when applied to a close analysis of the culture of the Kenyan people for whom and about whom he writes) have led to his taking religion more seriously as a significant component of that culture than he had done in writing Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross. Here one can perhaps best sum up a general shift in perspective by referring to Terence Ranger's survey of recent changes in the way scholars approach African religious movements. Ranger quotes Cornel West:

Though Marxists have sometimes viewed oppressed peoples as political agents, they have rarely viewed them as cultural agents. Yet without such a view there can be no adequate conception of the capacity of an oppressed people—the capacity to change the world and sustain the change in an emancipatory manner. To take seriously the culture of the oppressed is not to privilege religion, but to believe that oppressed people have already expressed some of their potential in their actual products, their actual practices.


Finally, and following directly from this situation, Ngũgĩ had (in movements like Dini ya Msambwa) very clear evidence, drawn directly from the Kenyan experience, that, in Jules-Rosette's words: “A challenge to the existing social order is implicit in many African religious movements” (Ranger 9). Ranger's survey makes it clear that one needs to be circumspect about interpretations which view millenarian African religious movements primarily as movements of political protest, but Ngũgĩ would obviously have been responsive to the popular view of people such as Elijah Masinde, the leader of Dini ya Msambwa from its foundation in 1937-38 to his death in 1986 and a man who emerges from Audrey Wipper's study of the movement: “… not as an African saint, but as a symbol of resistance to the alien invaders” (164). Wipper goes on to argue that in rejecting the colonial doctrine of white superiority Masinde brought new self-respect, “an affirmation of blackness,” to Kenyan peasants, and stirred them into asking questions about their rights and dues (165).

The inspiration for Matigari stems in part from a recognition of the potential for political mobilization inherent in millenarian religious movements. Matigari's simultaneous status as a Christ-figure and as a symbol of the exploitation of Kenya's working class seems designed to harness that potential to Ngũgĩ's revolutionary cause—to cultivate in the individual members of its working-class or peasant audience the kind of messianic instinct with which most of the major characters in A Grain of Wheat were imbued.

Indeed, the characterization of Matigari will have a particular resonance for readers or listeners acquainted with the mythology that evolved around Masinde. One of the specific powers attributed to Masinde was an ability to “leave a jail though locked in” (Wipper 156); it was believed that he also possessed a miraculous ability to appear and disappear at will and “to travel rapidly from place to place regardless of distance” (Wipper 156); and when he was well into his fifties he apparently retained a youthful appearance (Wipper 167). And the description of Matigari's miraculous escape from his pursuers' bullets—“It was as if on reaching him they turned to water” (Matigari 173)—clearly coincides with the Dini ya Msambwa belief that the members of the movement “were invulnerable to bullets which, upon touching them, would turn to water” (Wipper 157).

However one accounts for it, Matigari gives evidence of a thorough-going reassessment on Ngũgĩ's part of the significance of religion in peasant and working-class culture and of religion's potential as a catalyst of mass political action. The return to an engagement with Christianity in this context has two possible implications for the poetics of Ngũgĩ's fiction. The first is best explored with reference to Ranger's conclusions about the study of African religious movements:

… it is clear that we cannot imaginatively fathom African religious movements merely by spelling out the kind of sense they make in secular, academic terminology—merely by translating an argument of images into imageless discourse. Religious movements were the most effective responses because they were religious; that is, because they could draw on all the ambiguous power of myth and symbol and ritual; because they could mean many things at once and contain many potentialities.


Fiction is, in these terms, an “argument of images” which also draws on “all the ambiguous power of myth and symbol,” making it an ideal vehicle for the harnessing of millenarian tendencies to a political cause.

Furthermore, the role of the prophet in the millenarian tradition coincides in significant ways with that ascribed to the writer/prophet in the Romantic tradition. To quote Adrian Hastings's comments on the former:

The prophetic role is … one of the instilling of enthusiasm and a more than rational conviction, of moral interpretation, of the construction and enhancement of an ongoing tradition of meaning, of the symbolisation of the cause in a single person. …

(quoted in Ranger 7)

In every respect, Matigari's role in the novel clearly fills this definition of the prophetic role. The “ongoing tradition of meaning” on the secular level is the tradition of struggle for political and economic freedom begun by the Land and Freedom Army in the 1950s, backed by traditions of both peasant revolt and nationalistic politics extending back to the 1920s, and continued up to the present by movements such as Mwakenya. Ngũgĩ's readiness to symbolize the cause in the single person of Matigari suggests not a reversion to a liberal politics, but a conscious decision to reappropriate some aspects of a literary form associated with liberal poetics and historiography in the interests of “instilling enthusiasm and a more than rational conviction” with respect to his revolutionary cause.

In creating a prophetic role for his fictional character, in providing moral interpretation for his society, in attempting to instill in his audience an enthusiasm for the “Truth and Justice” of socialism, it is, of course, Ngũgĩ himself—“the body behind the voice” (Petals of Blood 200)—who is filling the prophetic role.


  1. See also, for example, Sander and Munro.

  2. Sicherman, “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o as Mythologizer and Mythologized.” Sicherman provides clear evidence that Ngũgĩ revised the first draft of Matigari in the light of political events which occurred in 1984 and 1985.

Works Cited

Africa Contemporary Record. 1986-87. Ed. Colin Legum. New York: Africana, 1988.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. A Grain of Wheat. London: Heinemann, 1975.

———. “An Interview with Ngũgĩ.” The Weekly Review 9 Jan 1978: 10.

———. “James Ngũgĩ Interviewed by Fellow Students at Leeds University, Alan Marcuson, Mike Gonzalez, and Dave Williams.” Cultural Events in Africa 31 (June 1967): II.

———. “Ngũgĩ on Ngũgĩ.” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel. Ed. Carol Sicherman. London: Hans Zell, 1990. 23.

———. Petals of Blood. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Ranger, Terence O. “Religious Movements and Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Studies Review 29.2 (1986): 1-70.

Sander, R., and T. Munro. “‘Tolstoy in Africa’: An Interview with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.” Critical Perspectives on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Ed. G. D. Killam. Washington: Three Continents, 1984. 46-57.

Sharma, Govind Narain. “Ngũgĩ's Christian Vision: Theme and Pattern in A Grain of Wheat.African Literature Today 10. Ed. E. Jones. London: Heinemann, 1979. 167-76.

Sicherman, C. “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o as Mythologizer and Mythologized.” Unpublished paper presented at ACLALS Silver Jubilee Conference, Canterbury, July 1989.

Wipper, Audrey. Rural Rebels: A Study of Two Protest Movements in Kenya. Nairobi: Oxford UP, 1977.

Theodore Pelton (essay date March-April 1993)

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SOURCE: Pelton, Theodore. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Politics of Language.” Humanist 53, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 15-20.

[In the following essay, Pelton investigates Ngugi's literary, political, and cultural significance within the context of postcolonial African literature.]

I am concerned with moving the centre … from its assumed location in the West to a multiplicity of spheres in all the cultures of the world. {This} will contribute to the freeing of world cultures from the restrictive walls of nationalism, class, race, and gender. In this sense I am an unrepentant universalist. For I believe that while retaining its roots in regional and national individuality, true humanism with its universal reaching out, can flower among the peoples of the earth. …

—Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms

The name Ngugi wa Thiong'o may be less recognizable to American audiences than those of Nobel Prize-winning African writers Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka or even Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. And yet, the life and work of Ngugi provide an excellent starting point for people who wish to achieve some awareness of the many interrelated dilemmas—cultural, political, linguistic, developmental—that beset an entire continent of people and yet remain obscure even for the vast majority of educated Americans. In fact, Ngugi—the author of 19 books of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and children's literature—is as important today as any other single literary figure in understanding the problems of postcolonial Africa.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o was born James Ngugi in 1938 in Limuru, Kenya. In 1967, at the age of 29, Ngugi—already the author of three critically acclaimed novels—began an address to the Fifth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa by shocking his audience. “I am not a man of the church,” he stated. “I am not even a Christian.” Ngugi went on to censure the church for its role in the colonizing of his native land. At the end of the speech, a quavering old man approached the front of the auditorium, shaking a cane and denouncing Ngugi for blasphemy. “And you are a Christian,” the man rather absurdly insisted. “Your name, James, is a Christian name.” Perhaps as a result of this encounter, the next novel James Ngugi published bore his new Africanized name, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, formed by joining his mother's and father's family names. It is the name he has used ever since.

Thus, to approach Ngugi the writer, one must also confront this carefully cultivated mythic presence. Ngugi sees himself not just as a writer but also as a revolutionary continuing the fight against Western imperialism—particularly the sophisticated form of economic imperialism that, he argues, has replaced traditional colonialism in his country. In his first three novels, Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), and A Grain of Wheat (1967), he set out to develop a national literature for Kenya in the immediate wake of that nation's liberation from British rule. Setting his novels' plots against such historic events as the Mau Mau uprising and the subsequent day of Kenyan independence (or Uhuru) in 1963, Ngugi sought to create and establish historical legends for a nation less than half a decade old.

Ngugi was firm in his denunciation of any compromise with British colonialism—so much so, in fact, that his personality and radicalism have become as important to his stature among African writers as his works. Stories of Ngugi's fiery literary and political activism now form a kind of oral literature among students of contemporary African culture. Ngugi himself has launched a second career telling these stories in subsequent nonfiction books, as well as in lectures and readings across Europe and North America.

One of the most famous of these stories concerns his experiences with the Kamiriithu theater project. Ngugi had been persuaded by the villagers in Kamiriithu, where he lived while teaching at the nearby University of Nairobi, to begin working with the local theater group on literacy projects. Since many of the villagers didn't speak English—the language of the former colonial administration, in which Ngugi had written his first four novels—and since he had an interest in exploring the traditions of pre-colonial African expression, Ngugi decided to write and produce a play in his own regional language, Gikuyu.

This was a bold initiative. Until 1970, theater in Kenya had been monopolized by the Kenyan National Theatre, a British-based company that produced largely Western plays, in English, with British actors. The Kenyan National Theatre had also altered the traditional “space” of African theater from a less formalized outdoor setting to a more formal and Westernized indoor one. Ngugi was interested in opening up the theater to the peasantry again; he wanted to make it not just an isolated aesthetic event for the cultural elite but “part and parcel of the … daily and seasonal life of the community,” as song and ritual had once been in the Kenyan countryside.

The play which resulted from Ngugi's experiments with the Kamiriithu Theatre, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), was wildly popular. Drawing from the experiences of theater participants who had been involved in the events of the time depicted—one man who made fake guns for the play had actually made real guns for the rebels—Ngugi allowed the audience themselves to feel a vital part of the artistic creation. The Kenyan government, however, was not as enthusiastic; it withdrew the license that allowed the “gathering” at the theater. Ngugi was arrested at the end of 1977 and “spent the whole of 1978 in a maximum security prison, detained without even the doubtful benefit of a trial,” as he noted in his book Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Later attempts by others to resurrect the theater led first to a government ban on theatrical activities in the area and later to the razing of the open-air theater itself.

In cell 16 of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Ngugi began to write his fifth novel—and his first in Gikuyu. He had been raised as a speaker of the language despite attempts by the British colonial administration to install English as its language of instruction in Kenya (in the schools Ngugi attended, children were punished if they were caught speaking Gikuyu on the grounds). Until 1978, all of Ngugi's works had been written in English, but now he desired not the international audience English afforded but the local one reachable only through Gikuyu. This proved to be a formidable challenge; although British missionaries had developed a written form of the language in order to make the Bible more widely available to this audience, there was no formal literature written in Gikuyu, and native speakers were punished for attempts to write secular works in the language. By writing a novel, Ngugi was now stretching this written language system beyond any previous test, especially since it required him to standardize written Gikuyu and make it more accurately reflect the way native speakers practiced it.

As it turned out, an even more immediate challenge for Ngugi was how to actually write a book in prison when he was denied access to writing paper except for the purpose of making a confession. Ngugi solved this problem by writing on toilet paper—a seemingly impossible undertaking, but as Ngugi explained in Decolonizing the Mind: “Toilet paper at Kamiti was meant to punish prisoners. So it was very coarse. But what was bad for the body was good for the pen.”

This novel, Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross), was hugely popular, finding an audience even among the illiterate; it led, among other things, to the development of “professional readers,” who sat in bars and read aloud to the clientele until a key passage, at which point they would stop and make sure their glasses were refilled before they continued the story. But after selling as well as any English-language novel ever published in Kenya, Devil on the Cross was banned by the government. A subsequent novel written in Gikuyu, Matigari, was published in that language by Heinemann of London but was seized upon arrival in Kenya; in fact, Ngugi's translation of this novel into English is the only version legally available in Kenya today. Ngugi now lives in exile; he has taught at Yale University and Amherst College and was recently appointed professor of comparative literature and performance studies at New York University.

Why, the reader may be wondering at this point, did Ngugi's work so consistently run afoul of the Kenyan government? Ngugi contends that it was his choice of Gikuyu, more than any other single factor, which led both to his imprisonment and to his subsequent exile. A reader unfamiliar with African literature might be puzzled by this. Why wouldn't the Kenyan authorities wish to permit literary works written in an indigenous African language? One would think that the government of an independent African state, nearly 30 years after Uhuru, would seek both to champion its own languages as evidence of its cultural independence from the West and to celebrate its successful struggle against tyranny—in this case, the Mau Mau uprising which began its guerrilla war against Britain in 1952.

It is important to remember here that Kenya, like many other African states, is a nation whose boundaries were artificially drawn in Europe. Although the Kenyan government has never officially explained why Ngugi was detained, we can see in this an initial reason for its actions. Kenya relies upon English as a unifying force; the citizens of that country are in the paradoxical position of having as their only common language the one spoken by their former oppressors. Nor is this situation peculiar to Kenya; Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has written of this problem in Africa in general, and in his article “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation,” published in a 1964 issue of Nigeria Magazine, he made clear his own opposition to the use of African languages for African literature:

It is not that I underrate their importance. But since I am considering the role of the writer in building a new nation I wish to concentrate on those who write for the whole nation whose audience cuts across tribe or clan. And these, for good or ill, are writers in English.

Achebe has since modified his position, saying that he admires those writers who use African languages for their works but remains adamant about the use of English in his own. And it is important to remember that Achebe's credentials as a champion of literary Africanicity are impeccable. His first novel, Things Fall Apart, is probably the best-known African novel in the United States, and one that consciously seeks to show, in Achebe's words, that “African peoples did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry, and, above all, they had dignity.” Moreover, Achebe's position on the use of European languages is more in keeping with the feelings of most African writers than Ngugi's.

Thus, the issue of which language should be used to compose a truly African contemporary literature is murky at best. Ngugi steadfastly maintains that writing in African languages is a necessary step toward cultural identity and independence from centuries of European exploitation. But, as critic David Westley has noted, the problem is historically complex: as a strategy to maintain apartheid—by definition the separation of defined racial groups—South Africa for many years encouraged African-language manuscripts, under the theory that the resulting problems of communication would make it harder for various groups to band together and collectively protest government policies.

Of course, discussions of language alone neglect the all-important issue of class, an issue to which Ngugi continually returns. The masses of peasants and workers in Kenya are largely illiterate in English, and it is precisely these people from whom the government wishes to keep Ngugi's writings. The reason is a simple one: Ngugi is an explicit and unabashed Marxist, and his works recall the revolutionary spirit of the Mau Mau rebellion which convinced the English to relinquish control of Kenya.

A little history is necessary here. While the origins of the term are controversial, Mau Mau seems to have originally been a British term to describe the small bands of guerrillas which sought to resist the domination of British settlers in the 1950s. At that time, the Mau Maus did not constitute an actual national movement. The British settlers, however, grew increasingly worried about their tenuous hold on the country; only 1 percent of the population, they nonetheless controlled all the best farmland in Kenya. Taking advantage of a change in colonial administration, the settlers began spreading horror stories of a nationwide revolution in the offing. The authorities responded with a crackdown; gradually, however, the measures taken—illegal detentions, the razing of villages, and the imposition of a 24-hour curfew—had the ironic effect of provoking more and more people, particularly Gikuyu, to join the guerrilla bands.

Soon, the tiny force that the British tried to extinguish became a substantial guerrilla army (in Gikuyu, “The Land and Freedom Army”). The national state of emergency that was supposed to last several weeks lasted for seven years; for four of these years, the so-called Mau Mau rebels fought a guerrilla war against British rule. Eventually, the British defeated this army, killing its leader, Dedan Kimathi, and establishing prison camps to “rehabilitate” captured rebels. In their attempts to make these prisoners confess their allegiance to Mau Mau (a step in the rehabilitation process), prison officials practiced horrible tortures—twisting mens' testicles, punching prisoners into incoherence, sometimes whipping them to death. When the British government itself, thousands of miles away, learned what was being carried out in its name, it decided to follow a new policy in Kenya and readied the country for independence.

However, the independence Britain had in mind was not the same as that which the Land and Freedom Army had fought for. If independence was to be granted, the British wished to yield control to a government they had themselves trained and installed—one that could be counted on to protect the landed interests in the nation. Thus, the colonial administration stepped down and a neocolonial administration—answerable not to the Kenyan people but to the economic interests that still retained actual control of the country—took its place. The Kenyan rebels returning from jail found, in the words of Anthony Howarth and David Koff in their 1973 documentary Black Man's Country, a nation that “they had helped create, but which they had no place in.”

Ngugi asserts that the Kenyan government—and other neocolonial administrations like it in Africa—are fronts for “U.S.-led imperialism,” a phrase he returns to again and again. He continually reminds us that the world is and always has been a linked unit, that the rich—be they nations or individuals—did not get that way on their own, but profited by the labor of the poor. “Over the last 400 years,” Ngugi said at a recent conference at Yale University, “the developments in the West have not just been the result of internal social dynamics but also of the West's relationship with Africa, Asia, and South America.” The so-called First World's privileged position did not come about simply by means of superior technical ingenuity or managerial skills (much as we like to laud ourselves for these things); it began with the stolen labor of slavery and continued with the enforced labor of colonial governments, working hand in hand with multinational corporations.

In sum, Ngugi argues, if today a nation enjoys wealth—particularly great wealth, as we do in the United States—it is directly linked to exploitation somewhere else in the world. This is why the Kenyan government, acting as the proxy of Western investment, will not tolerate the widespread dissemination of a revolutionary message by a fiercely committed Marxist who is also a national hero (in 1964, Ngugi published the first novel in English by an East African), through a populist medium like drama or through structures designed to empower workers (written literature read aloud to the illiterate). In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi describes a revealing example of the type of self-discovery which occurred during his rehearsals of Ngaahika Ndeenda:

I remember for instance how one group who worked in a particular department at the nearby Bata shoe factory sat down to work out the process and quantity of their exploitation in order to explain it all to those of us who had never worked in a factory. Within a single day, they would make shoes to the value of all the monthly wages for the entire work force of three thousand. … For whom were they working for the other twenty-nine days? They calculated what of what they produced went for wear and tear of the machinery and for the repayment of initial capital, and because the company had been there since 1938 they assumed that the initial investment had been repaid a long time ago. To whom did the rest go? To the owners in Canada.

At a time when African governments do not wish to alienate large lender nations, such rhetoric represents a real threat to any neocolonialist regime. As Ngugi himself puts it:

A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character. It is then that writing in African languages becomes a subversive or treasonable offence with such a writer facing possibilities of prison, exile, or even death. For him there are no “national” accolades, no new year honors, only abuse and slander and innumerable lies from the mouths of the armed power of a ruling minority.

Ngugi's year of imprisonment seems to have had a marked impact on his writing. As he notes in Detained: A Prison Writer's Diary, he found himself analyzing the purposes of detention itself:

Political detention, not disregarding its punitive aspects, serves a deeper, exemplary ritual symbolism. If they can break such a patriot, if they can make him come out of detention crying “I am sorry for all my sins,” such an unprincipled about-turn would confirm the wisdom of the ruling clique in its division of the populace into the passive innocent millions and the disgruntled subversive few. The “confession” and its corollary, “Father, forgive us our sins,” becomes a cleansing ritual for all the past and current repressive deeds of such a neo-colonial regime.

But Ngugi abjured the “cleansing ritual.” He is determined to keep the past alive, and Detained is a scrupulous record of the wrongs done against the Kenyan people: massacres, betrayals, abuses at the hands of settlers (one of whom, incidentally, was Karen Blixen, whose own account of her time in Kenya, Out of Africa, would later become an Academy Award-winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford), arrests and interrogations, including that of the author himself. Given the systematic attempt to break his will, the energy of Ngugi's response is astonishing. In Detained, he writes:

I would remind myself that the … ruling class had sent me here so my brain would turn into a mess of rot. The defiance of this bestial purpose always charged me with new energy and determination: I would cheat them out of the last laugh by letting my imagination loose over the kind of society this class, in naked treacherous alliance with imperialist foreigners, were building in Kenya in total cynical disregard of the wishes of over fourteen million Kenyans.

When Ngugi emerged from jail, literature had a different purpose; since then, his works have had much less room for subtlety. It is as if the concentrated anger and moral outrage built up during his incarceration exploded upon his release—the blast revealing, in a flood of sudden bright light, a stark vision in which all the ambiguity or shadowing we tend to value in creative works has been forever banished.

Take, for instance, A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi's last novel before his prison term. Published in 1967, this is a novel which cannily embraces ambiguity; at the moment of Uhuru, the Kenyans of a certain village seek out a hero to speak to them. Little by little, however, they realize that all the living have somehow been compromised, that war makes a person choose between life and heroism but rarely, if ever, allows both. When Mugo, the novel's central character, is finally forced to make a speech because the assembled masses think he is a hero, he instead tells them that he is the worst of all traitors, having sold out the village leader of the Mau Mau himself. He had wished only one thing, to be left alone; in war, this is a luxury.

Published 20 years later, Ngugi's most recent novel Matigari begins with Matigari ma Njiruungi, whose name in Gikuyu means “the patriot who survived the bullets,” emerging from the forest, having finally killed Settler Williams and his assistant John Boy. The allegory is not subtle, nor is it meant to be: Settler Williams is the English oppressor; John Boy his aptly named Kenyan collaborator. Matigari roams the land seeking “truth and justice” and wishing also to reclaim the home he fought for against Williams and Boy. But Williams' and Boy's sons now own the house; they are Kenyan captains of industry who openly bribe the nation's leader, His Excellency Ole Excellence; the three of them constitute the nation's ruling authorities, who work to smash workers' strikes and suppress all dissent. Matigari's act of emerging from “the forest” recalls the Mau Mau rebels who emerged from colonial prisons; but his questions reveal him to be different from the contemporary citizens of his country, who bow silently to the friendly faced neocolonial oppression. Matigari had sworn himself to peace upon leaving the forest but begins to see that he must again pick up arms to fight for what is right.

A Grain of Wheat was a novel about a war that was presumed over. The final image of Matigari shows a young boy, Muriuki, arming himself with Matigari's weapons, readying to fight a war that is just beginning. If the earlier novel is more subtle, it must be remembered that Ngugi imagined it serving an evaluative function; a work that seeks to stir people to revolt has much less room for subtlety.

Nonetheless, such a purpose may be argued as creating not literature but propaganda. Writing in Gikuyu has undoubtedly changed the forms of Ngugi's fiction—there is more concentration on folk traditions, and the appeal is intended to be simpler and more direct. But there is a sense as well that the quality of Ngugi's fiction may have suffered. Ngugi's long-time readers were largely disappointed with Matigari; having become a political figure, some have argued, Ngugi has become less effective, perhaps even lazier, as a creative artist. Moreover, even Marxists have criticized Ngugi's politics; to many, the intellectual level at which he makes his pitch for socialism in Matigari is too simplistic, savoring too much of mere propaganda. Others have criticized his project as too naive and have accused Ngugi of willfully refusing to acknowledge the complexity of the African-languages controversy. At a conference in England, South African author Lewis Nkosi once responded to Ngugi's call for writers to use indigenous languages by shouting him down in Zulu; the point, of course, was that Ngugi could not understand what Nkosi was saying.

Committed to the use of Gikuyu for his fiction, Ngugi has continued to use English for his books of “explanatory” prose, of which there were four in the last decade: Detained: A Prison Writer's Diary (1981); a series of lectures published as Writers in Politics (1981); Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Oppression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983); and Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986). This seeming need to legitimate himself to his English-language readership (practically his entire readership), combined with the unfortunate fact that his novels, written in Gikuyu, do not usually get read in that language, renders Ngugi's choice of Gikuyu more a quixotic political gesture than an actual condition of existence for his fiction. This decision has led to some strange twists of fate: having declared himself a Gikuyu-language novelist, Ngugi has been required to become an even more prolific English-language essayist, turning out nonfiction in his colonial language faster than fiction in his native one.

Ngugi has also become the leading interpreter of his own works. Now all of his fiction is fringed with the author's own marginalia: “This is how I should be read”; “These are the conditions which produced this text”; “These are the issues my texts are concerned with.” In this way, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the writer, has become inseparable from Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the figure of the unfinished revolution. Mau Mau—which Ngugi was too young to join but which his older brother joined and died serving—has always been a constant presence in his works. Now the struggle which the rebels fought and lost, gaining independence yet finding themselves shut out of the government, has been picked up again by Ngugi. This time, each of his works seems to proclaim, we will be the victors in our struggle; this time we will get back what is rightfully ours—the land and wealth taken from us by foreign exploiters.

The five years since the publication of Matigari have been one of the longest periods of publishing inactivity in Ngugi's career. In many ways, the publication of that novel seemed to end a stage in Ngugi's career—one which began with his release from prison and saw the publication of two novels in Gikuyu and several works of non-fiction in English. According to Ngugi himself, he said farewell for good to English six years ago with the publication of Decolonizing the Mind. “I have lost interest in the use of the English language,” he remarked in a recent interview in Transition.

On January 18, 1993—Martin Luther King Day—James Curry/Heinemann published Ngugi's new collection, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. The essays range from Ngugi's celebrated (some would say notorious) 1980 address to the Danish Library Association, “Her Cook, Her Dog: Karen Blixen's Africa,” to his 1990 salute to Nelson Mandela, “Many Years Walk to Freedom,” written in (and translated from) Gikuyu. Ngugi has also appeared in print as a spokesperson for Mwakenya, an underground movement which openly seeks “the establishment of a national economy, where all the resources of the land will go to the benefit of all Kenyans.” The recent political news from Kenya, however, has not been good. On Wednesday, December 20, 1992, the nation held its first democratic elections in 26 years—and, as many people had predicted, the voting was marred by widespread irregularities and abuses. The election pitted President Daniel arap Moi and his Kenya African National Union against three main rivals: Oginga Odinga of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD)/Kenya; Kenneth Matiba of FORD/Asili; and Mwai Kibaki of the Democratic Party. Moi, “who fought tooth and nail against multiparty democracy” (in the words of Canadian journalist Jonathan Manthorpe), won a bare plurality of the votes—nearly two million out of 7.9 million registered voters—but irregularities were reported at every polling station visited by journalists or international observers. (Even worse, three million Kenyans who had recently attained the age of majority were left off the rolls of eligible voters entirely; this, according to Manthorpe, in a country of 25 million people.) The victorious Moi has explained these irregularities as merely “administrative” glitches occasioned by a massive voter turnout, but it is unlikely that this election will quiet dissent against his government.

One wonders what the future has in store for Kenya. Although it appears to be one of the most stable nations in sub-Saharan Africa, Kenya is precariously situated. Famine and political chaos brought international military intervention in Somalia, its northeastern neighbor, and bands of Somali gunmen have already been reported fleeing into Kenya. In Sudan, on the northwestern border, civil war and famine continue; in Angola, on the continent's western coast, free elections have been held after a 16-year civil war, but the new representative government is by no means stable; in the south, 1.5 million Mozambicans have fled that strife-ridden country during its civil war; and South Africa continues its own painful, convulsive transition from an apartheid nation.

One also wonders what the future has in store for Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Will he continue to write critical prose in that largely unread language, Gikuyu? Will he write another novel in that language or in the more widely spoken Kiswahili (a language whose linguistic boundaries extend beyond Kenya)? Will he return to the theater? And, most poignantly, will he ever be able to return to Kenya?

Ngugi, as Kenya's leading cultural spokesperson, is a man dedicated to making the world aware of the oppressive regime that still rules his nation. But he is also committed to healing the continent itself of the long-standing injuries of colonization, and he believes that this healing can only come through cultural autonomy and self-determination. “I think the dividing line is really the issue of language,” he repeats endlessly, tirelessly. He does not consider it an oversimplification to suggest that European languages themselves are the final, pervasive colonizing army that will not leave his homeland. So he repeats it again:

We must avoid the destruction that English has wrought on other languages and cultures in its march to the position it now occupies in the world. The death of many languages should never be the condition for the life of a few. … A language for the world? A world of languages! The two concepts are not mutually exclusive, provided there is independence, equality, democracy, and peace among nations.

Christine Loflin (essay date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Loflin, Christine. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Visions of Africa.” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 4 (winter 1995): 76-93.

[In the following essay, Loflin maintains that descriptions of the land, boundaries, and features of Kenya are paramount to Ngugi's novels, asserting that his portrayal of the Kenyan landscape is closely related to the well-being and identity of the community.]

I was living in a village and also in a colonial situation.

—Ngũgĩ, [Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics] (48)

Landscape as an aspect of fiction has tended to be underrated: less interesting than narrative, rhetoric, or tropology. Yet through landscape the author creates the horizons of the novel, establishing it in a historical (or an ahistorical) space. The landscape is not merely the setting of the story: it is a shifting, expanding territory, where the boundaries of public/private, fictional/real overlap. It has been said that African writers are particularly uninterested in landscape description (Roscoe 177-78). If, however, landscape is understood as the description of the land and its role in the cultural, economic, and spiritual life of the community, it immediately becomes clear that landscape is an essential part of African literature. Throughout the African novel, concerns about land use, ownership, spiritual values, nationalism, and pan-Africanism are reflected in the description of the land. In their descriptions of Africa, their mapping of boundaries, their choice of features and background, of what matters in the landscape of Africa, African writers challenge Western visions of Africa and reclaim the landscape for themselves. In Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's novels, the importance of the landscape is paramount, as the landscape of Kenya is intimately related to the community's spiritual, social, and political identity.

Ngũgĩ's descriptions of landscape are shaped by some specific circumstances of Kenyan history: the centrality of land in the Gikuyu worldview, the forced removals of the Gikuyu from the White Highlands, the Mau Mau independence war, and post-independence disillusionment in Kenya. Ngũgĩ himself has insisted on the connection between particular historical events and literature:

Literature does not grow or develop in a vacuum; it is given impetus, shape, direction and even area of concern by social, political and economic forces in a particular society.

(Homecoming xv)

In analyzing the description of landscape in Ngũgĩ's novels, I want to do more than show his mastery of a Western technique; Ngũgĩ's works re-evaluate the importance of landscape, integrating geography with his people's cultural environment, religious beliefs, and economic system.

For the Gikuyu people, land is central to their spiritual, cultural and economic practices:

to anyone who wants to understand Gikuyu problems, nothing is more important than a correct grasp of the question of land tenure. For it is the key to the people's life; it secures for them that peaceful tillage of the soil which supplies their material needs and enables them to perform their magic and traditional ceremonies in undisturbed serenity, facing Mount Kenya.

(Kenyatta xxi)

Jomo Kenyatta's study of Gikuyu culture shows that the Gikuyu see land as connecting them to God and to their ancestors, as well as to the village community. In the Gikuyu myth of creation, the land was given to them by God; in addition, “Communion with the ancestral spirits is perpetuated through contact with the soil in which the ancestors of the tribe lie buried. The Gikuyu consider the earth as the ‘mother’ of the tribe. … Thus the earth is the most sacred thing above all that dwell in or on it” (Kenyatta 21). Ngũgĩ's descriptions of land in his early novels incorporate these traditional Gikuyu beliefs about their land.

Colonialism caused catastrophic disruption in Gikuyu society. Not only were the Gikuyu forcibly brought under British colonial rule; the Gikuyu lands, particularly the area known as the White Highlands, were seen as especially suited for Europeans, because of the similarity between their climate and Europe's:

[A] point which is often overlooked is that regions most favoured by Europeans may be those least suited to Africans. Europeans instinctively select a country where the climate, vegetation and temperature most resemble those of the cold north. Natives, on the whole, thrive best in hotter, lower, wetter places.

(Huxley, White Man's Country 1: 72)

In addition to this suggestion that there was a kind of racial affinity that justified the annexation of the Highlands, Elspeth Huxley and others also claimed that the Gikuyu were not doing anything with the land: “To us that was remarkable: they had not aspired to recreate or tame the country and to bring it under their control” (Huxley, Flame Trees of Thika 45). Throughout colonial African literature, there runs the theme that the land belongs to the people who would develop it, based loosely on the Biblical notion of the good steward. The good stewardship of the Gikuyu, and the environmental value of fallow land, was not yet appreciated by the British.

The British colonists then developed a legal argument justifying the appropriation of land:

the Europeans [misinterpreted Gikuyu land tenure] by saying that the land was under the communal or tribal ownership, and as such the land must be mali ya serikali, which means Government property. Having coined this new terminology of land tenure, the British Government began to drive away the original owners of the land.

(Kenyatta 26)

Thus by a sleight of hand, communal land became the property of the Crown. In actuality the open land the Europeans saw in the Highlands was used as pastureland and woodlands, and also represented future village sites, as populations expanded and farming plots became exhausted. By relocating whole villages as the soil gave out, the Gikuyu were able to design a sustainable agriculture; with the coming of permanent ownership of the land and a growing population, however, they were no longer able to move to open land, and their plots became poor and subdivided.

The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s was a crucial event not only in Kenyan history but also in Ngũgĩ's personal development. His older brother, Wallace Mwangi, was a freedom fighter (Gurr 101). While Mau Mau was strongest among the Gikuyu, it was a national movement that united the Kenyan people: “Through Mau Mau, they organized themselves, in the villages, and in the towns, their vision going beyond the narrow confines of the tribe” (Ngũgĩ, Homecoming 12). Ngũgĩ's political philosophy was strongly influenced by Marxism, but at the same time he felt that he was articulating a nationalist and socialist vision that was essentially African, not Western:

My thesis, when we come to today's Africa, is then very simple: a completely socialized economy, collectively owned and controlled by the people, is necessary for a national culture.

(Homecoming 13)

Although Ngũgĩ's early novels emphasize the relation of a specifically Gikuyu culture to the land, all his works also articulate a national and socialist vision of Kenya.

Ngũgĩ grew up in a small village; his father had four wives and twenty-eight children. He was sent to boarding school to get a British-style education and later studied at Makerere and Leeds Universities. His first three novels, The River Between,Weep Not, Child, and A Grain of Wheat, were written in Uganda and England; Petals of Blood “was drafted in the USA and completed in the USSR” (Gurr 17). The traces of this history are apparent in the Western form and techniques used in these early novels. By examining the changes in the description of landscape in Ngũgĩ's novels, and considering them as a response to colonial literature about Kenya and in connection with Ngũgĩ's critique of the economic and political situation in Kenya, we can trace the development of his fiction from a limited acceptance of Western techniques of description to a rejection of these techniques as implying a view of nature that Ngũgĩ no longer shares.

Ngũgĩ's earliest written novel (although it was published after Weep Not, Child) is The River Between. This novel opens with a sweeping description of the landscape:

The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their Creator.

A river flowed through the valley of life. If there had been no bush and no forest trees covering the slopes, you could have seen the river when you stood on top of either Kameno or Makuyu. Now you had to come down. Even then you could not see the whole extent of the river as it gracefully, and without any apparent haste, wound its way down the valley, like a snake. The river was called Honia, which meant cure, or bring-back-to-life. Honia river never dried: it seemed to possess a strong will to live, scorning droughts and weather changes. And it went on in the same way, never hurrying, never hesitating. People saw this and were happy.


This opening paragraph can be compared to Western descriptions of landscape. The omniscient narrator supplies a bird's eye view of the landscape and names the prominent features for us. The description is organized along the lines of a landscape painting: first we see the most prominent features, the two ridges, then the valley, and finally the background features are filled in. As in a novel by Dickens, Hardy, or Lawrence, the landscape is used to foreshadow the conflicts in the novel: the river divides the two ridges, but it could also be seen as a uniting force. Ngũgĩ's use of the ambivalent term “between” in “Between them was a valley” (and in the title of the novel) offers at least two interpretations; if people have something between them, it can be joining or dividing them. Ngũgĩ's use of personification in this passage stays within the limits of traditional realism: although the river is described as “possessing a strong will to live, scorning droughts and weather changes,” the narrator distances himself from this description through the phrase “it seemed.” As a final touch, Ngũgĩ ends the paragraph with a reference to people, like the small figures, sometimes including a figure of the artist himself, included in a landscape painting to provide a sense of scale. An important difference here is that the figures are not of the artist, but of the community itself as collective onlookers: “People saw this and were happy.”

When the landscape is looked at from inside the valley rather than from the air the foreshadowing of conflict is intensified:

When you stood in the valley, the two ridges … became antagonists … they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.


The river divides rather than unites, marking the boundary between the two opposing sides (Christian and traditional villages). By placing these descriptions side by side, Ngugi leaves the “correctness” of either vision open; Waiyaki, the protagonist, must decide whether the Gikuyu are ready to be united or are destined to be split into two camps. The choice of action is linked to the choice of perspective; if Waiyaki can persuade the villages to see themselves as united—part of the same community, the same valley—they will be able to overcome their differences, but if the river is seen as a boundary between the two rather than a unifying force, the social rift will be unbreachable.

Ngũgĩ's description of the landscape is integrated with his development of action and character. Waiyaki's father, Chege, takes him to visit a place sacred to his clan, pointing out medicinal herbs along the way. Here, “the landscape, the forests and hills, are conspiring to unite father and son as they have united the Gikuyu nation for generations. We cannot understand the individual, social, and spiritual significance of either character outside their relation to the landscape” (Roscoe 178). Through this scene, we see how Waiyaki is being educated in the connections between the Gikuyu community and nature, and specifically in the connections to this particular landscape, where medicinal herbs grow, and where there are sacred sites. Ngugi's description of the community's relation to the land at the moment when colonialism, through the arrival of Christian missionaries, was just beginning to make itself felt, echoes Kenyatta's claims about the importance of land to the Gikuyu people: “These ancient hills and ridges were the heart and soul of the land. They kept the tribes' magic and rituals, pure and intact” (The River Between 3).

Throughout the novel, the conflict between Christianity and traditionalism is seen as threatening the people's connection to the land. In one scene, Muthoni, the daughter of a minister, reveals to her sister Nyambura that she wants to be circumcised and become “a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges” (29). Nyambura is shocked by Muthoni's decision, as it is against the principles of their church:

For a second Nyambura sat as if her thoughts, her feelings, her very being had been paralysed. She could not speak. The announcement was too sudden and too stupefying. How could she believe what she had heard came from Muthoni's mouth? She looked at the river, at the slightly swaying bulrushes lining the banks, and then beyond. Nothing moved on the huge cattle road that wound through the forest towards Kameno. The yellowish streaks of morning light diffused through the forest, producing long shadows on the cattle path. The insects in the forest kept up an incessant sound which mingled with the noise of falling water farther down the valley. They helped to intensify the silence, created by Muthoni's statement.


Female circumcision was (and continues to be) one of the crucial conflicts between Christians and traditionalists: to Christians it is barbaric; but without it, a woman cannot be initiated into her clan. That Muthoni, the daughter of a minister, would choose to be circumcised is extremely shocking, and it has stunned her sister into silence. Yet Muthoni's description of her decision shows that she sees this action as the only way to have an authentic connection to the hills and ridges. On the other hand, when Nyambura reaches out to the landscape to reassure herself and support her Christian beliefs, she receives nothing: the insects' noise “helped to intensify the silence” and “nothing moved.” Ngũgĩ's description clearly shows that Christianity detaches the individual from the landscape, both through the loss of traditional initiation rites which would connect the individual to the clan and to the land, and through the loss of traditional interpretations of the landscape—for Nyambura, the symbolic significance of the land in the Gikuyu culture has been lost. The land is silent.

Adrian Roscoe quotes this passage and comments:

Muthoni's announcement is heard by “the river” which neatly divides the landscape and the human community of the book. … Even “the slightly swaying bulrushes” have their place in this scene, repeating a reed-in-the-tide image which J. P. Clark popularized as a symbol of cultural hesitation. Muthoni so far has been weak like this plant; but now by the waters of the Honia she has made a decision which will restore her to strength.


Thus Ngũgĩ shows Muthoni's choice to be in harmony with the landscape of the valley.

In The River Between, the colonialists have not yet moved into the hills. Their influence is felt through the Christian school in a nearby town, and their political and economic power is known only through descriptions of their houses and through the tax gatherers. Yet Waiyaki, the protagonist, senses what is to come:

And still it rained, with the little streams gathering and joining together. He saw what they were doing—

Carrying away the soil.

Corroding, eating away the earth.

Stealing the land.

And that was the cry, the cry on every ridge. Perhaps the sleeping lions would sleep no more, for they were all crying, crying for the soil. The earth was important to the tribe.


Waiyaki explicitly connects this irresistible erosion with the white settlers: “That was why Kinuthia and others like him feared the encroachment of the white man” (76). This coming threat emphasizes the importance of Waiyaki's quest to unify the two villages; without unification, both villages will be washed away by the erosion caused by the white settlers.

Near the end of the novel, Ngugi foreshadows the coming of Mau Mau: “suddenly the people who stood on the hills or up the slope saw big yellow flames emanated by the setting sun. The flames seemed near and far and the trees and the country were caught in the flames. They feared” (166). Ngugi's image of the flames of the sunset here suggests that the Mau Mau uprising was a natural, even inevitable, phenomenon.

Throughout the novel, the river Honia is a symbol of life, power and unification. In this image, Ngugi draws on the importance of the river in traditional life, as a source of water, and as a source of spiritual renewal. Even Christianity is included in the landscape through the Biblical language of the river's song: “And Honia river went on flowing through the valley of life, throbbing, murmuring an unknown song. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountains, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (173). The river's warning is unheeded by the people of Kameno: they reject their teacher because he preaches unification with the Christians of Makuyu. With the betrayal of Waiyaki by the people of Kameno, it would seem that the hope of unification has been lost forever, but Ngũgĩ closes the novel with a final image of the river: “Honia river went on flowing between them, down through the valley of life, its beat rising above the dark stillness, reaching into the heart of the people of Makuyu and Kameno” (175). Charles Nnolim, in his essay “Background Setting: Key to the Structure of Ngũgĩ's The River Between,” sees this as a tragic ending: “Ngũgĩ seems to look on Honia River as symbolizing the continued and eternal strife between the Makuyu and Kameno tribesman” (138). However, in “Kenya: The Two Rifts” Ngũgĩ uses a similar image: “Kenya is potentially a great country … the different springs in every tribe and race can and should be channelled to flow together in a national stream from which all may draw” (Homecoming 24). In opposition to the eroding forces of colonialism, Ngũgĩ claims that nationalism and socialism are life-giving, unifying forces. Thus, although Waiyaki, the “middle figure” in between the two ridges, is unable to find a resolution, the Honia River's ability to reach into the heart of the people in both villages implies that there is still the possibility of unification and social change in Kenya.

Early critics of Ngũgĩ's fiction noted his use of landscape as an integral part of The River Between. Ime Ikiddeh saw the Honia River as a symbol of the inherent unity of the two communities: the division between them is an “unnatural struggle” (5). In some Western interpretations of the novel, however, the description of landscape became a point of contention as to whether the novel was borrowing Western conventions of description or was revealing a uniquely African consciousness. In the first group was C. B. Robson, who linked Ngũgĩ's description of landscape with D. H. Lawrence's and universalized the Kenyan struggle for independence in the novel: “Even his attempt to form a ‘new retrospect,’ of the clash with Europe, is conveyed as part of man's struggle to come to terms with the implications of his own momentum” (Robson 129). On the other side was Gerald Moore, who saw African writers in general as expressing a unity of nature that was lost to the West:

What seems to be involved is a complete identification of the poet with the constituent features of the landscape around him. He does not so much inhabit this landscape as become inhabited by it. … Western man simply cannot fuse himself back into a nature which he has deliberately set apart from himself in order to master it.

(Moore 151)

Yet either way, whether these Western critics praise African writers for their continuity with Western traditions or for their alterity, the center of the discourse is the use of these literatures for a Western audience. Chris Wanjala, in The Season of Harvest: A Literary Discussion, criticizes Moore's position, which “implies a homeliness of a writer in an environment of primeval innocence (Garden of Eden?) and bliss”:

Such a society does not exist here in East Africa today. He [Moore] refers the writer's consciousness only to place and disregards the history of the forming nations of East Africa, and the connection of Ngũgĩ's writings to the pre-independence nationalism in Kenya.


The same criticism can be made of Robson's interpretation of the novel: by “elevating” the issue in the novel to a universal crisis of modern man, Robson elides the significance of the novel as a critique of Western colonialism and capitalism. Wanjala asserts that Ngũgĩ's purpose is to portray “the destruction that inhered in colonialism and to evoke the need for a renewal and a rebirth of African cultural and economic institutions that help the African to be at home in his society and in his physical environment” (70). Thus in The River Between, Honia River is a representation of the potential for renewal in the two communities.

Ngũgĩ's use of landscape in The River Between does share similarities with early works by other African authors, such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. In each of these, the author uses some Western techniques and has an orientation towards a Western audience. Ngũgĩ, writing about the “scandalous allegation” that Africans have no culture, has said, “Because he knew that this ‘scandalous allegation’ was also embodied in European books, especially fiction, on Africa, the African writer tried to answer by asserting in the books he wrote that Africa had a culture as good as any” (Homecoming 11). After their early novels, the careers of Ngũgĩ and Achebe moved in different directions, as Achebe continued to claim that English can be African, while Ngũgĩ began to write in Gikuyu. Ngũgĩ puts into practice his own beliefs: “Why can't African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it? … The aim, in short, should be to orientate ourselves towards placing Kenya, East Africa, and then Africa in the centre” (Homecoming 146).

Even in The River Between there are elements of this philosophy: the novel centers on the Gikuyu people, and the colonists are only on the fringes of the Gikuyu world. Ngũgĩ carefully depicts the land-centered consciousness of the Gikuyu, and uses their symbolic system to describe and interpret the significance of the landscape. However, the form of the novel is Westernized, and Ngugi gradually turns from this style to develop an African-centered approach not only to the content, but also to the structure of his novels.

Between the publication of A Grain of Wheat (1968) and Petals of Blood (1977), Ngũgĩ published a collection of non-fiction essays, Homecoming (1972), which describe his positions on colonialism, nationalism, capitalism, and post-independence corruption in Africa, as well as his vision of an African-centered world-view. The essays are focused on the present and the future, rather than the past described in his early novels. Significantly, he rejects the romanticism of the past typical of the Negritude poets:

The African writer was in danger of becoming too fascinated by the yesterday of his people and forgetting the present. Involved as he was in correcting his disfigured past, he forgot that his society was no longer peasant, with common ownership of means of production, with communal celebration of joy and victory, communal sharing of sorrow and bereavement; his society was no longer organized on egalitarian principles.


Ngũgĩ claims that there are no longer any tribes in Africa: “the economic and social forces that gave rise to various nations in pre-colonial Africa have collapsed” (xvii). In this new world, he urges Africans to look, not to the past, but to the future: “For we are all involved in a common problem: how best to build a true communal home for all Africans. Then all the black people, all the African masses can truthfully say: we have come home” (xix). The Marxist ideology and African-centered consciousness of Homecoming form the ideological context of Petals of Blood.

In Petals of Blood, Ngũgĩ moves from the primarily aesthetic and spiritual connection to the land evident in his early novels to an explicitly political and economic relationship between the worker and the land. Instead of identifying characters as Gikuyu or Maasai, he calls them tillers, peasants and herdsmen (Gurr 109), thus de-emphasizing the role of specific cultures in creating and maintaining the people's relationship to their environment. Rather, the cycles of human life are seen as intricately interwoven with the cycles of production:

The peasant farmers of Ilmarog now went into the fields to idly earth up crops that no longer needed the extra earth, or to merely pull out the odd weed. Thistles, marigolds and forget-me-nots would stick to their clothes, and they would now laugh and tell jokes and stories as they waited for the crops to ripen.


The happiness of the peasant farmers is clearly linked to the time of year and idleness.

Earlier religious attitudes are rejected here:

A donkey has no influence on the weather. No animal or man can change the laws of nature. But people can use the laws of nature. The magic we should be getting is this: the one which will make this land so yield in times of rain that we can keep aside a few grains for when it shines. … Let us rather look to ourselves to see what we can do to save us from the drought. The labour of our hands is the magic and wealth that will change our world and end all droughts from our earth.


While Karega, the protagonist, shares his community's vision of the land as belonging to the people as a whole, he rejects the magical beliefs of the community in favor of a socialist approach which relies on labor and communal action rather than on ancestral ties to preserve the productiveness of the land. Ngugi even refigures the Gikuyu's reverence for ancestral spirits associated with the land through his revolutionary perspective: listening to stories of the Mau Mau, Karega becomes “aware of a new relationship to the ground on which they trod … everything on the plains had been hallowed by the feet of those who had fought and died that Kenya might be free: wasn't there something, a spirit of those people in them too?” (143).

Godfrey Munira in Petals of Blood is a schoolteacher, like Waiyaki in The River Between. While Waiyaki was at the center of his people's conflict between Christianity and traditional culture, Munira is portrayed as an outsider, not only because he was not born in Ilmarog, but also because he does not work on the land: “Munira did not take part in such talk: he felt an outsider to [the peasants'] involvement with both the land and what they called ‘things of blood’ … he seemed doomed to roam this world, a stranger” (18).

The figure of Munira, the Western-educated schoolteacher, serves as an indictment of a Western attitude toward nature. Munira's aesthetic appreciation of nature is divorced from practicalities: “He would watch the peasants in the fields going through the motions of working but really waiting for the rains, and he would vaguely feel with them in their anxieties over the weather. But the sun was nice and warm on his skin” (20). His attitude is similar to the traditional Western pastoral depiction of rural life, which elevated the picturesque qualities of rural scenes but tended to overlook the poverty of the rural people and their struggles to survive on marginal land. Munira shies away from anything beyond conventional Western aesthetic values. While on a nature walk, one of Munira's students says, “Look. A flower with petals of blood.” Munira immediately corrects him: “There is no color called blood. What you mean is that it is red” (21). Just as he felt outside the “things of blood” the farmers discuss, Munira here avoids the implications of “petals of blood” which will be worked out throughout the novel. Only towards the end of the novel is Munira able to accept this image: after setting fire to a whorehouse, Munira

stood on the hill and watched the whorehouse burn, the tongues of flame from the four corners forming petals of blood, making a twilight of the dark sky. He, Munira, had willed and acted, and he felt, as he knelt down to pray, that he was no longer an outsider, for he had finally affirmed his oneness with the Law.


Action imbues the petals of blood with meaning. In the earlier scene, however, the children's questions about the relationships of man to nature only irritate him: “Man … law … God … nature [sic]; he had never thought deeply about these things, and he swore that he would never again take the children to the fields” (22).

Munira is an intruder in the community, a man who fails to establish any lasting ties. He is the image of the Western-educated African, aspiring to Western ideals but left out of the real centers of power. He fantasizes about being “lord” of Ilmarog: “he came to feel as if Ilmorog was his personal possession … he felt as if the whole of Ilmorog had put on a vast flower-patterned cloth to greet its lord and master” (21). The language Munira uses, that of owner, master and lord, reveals Munira's desire for power and control; it is the language of the colonial masters. Yet Munira's fantasies about nature do not lead to any ties to the community or to a sense of belonging in Ilmarog, but only to frustration. Munira's alienation from the land represents the contradictions involved in a Kenyan accepting Western premises about nature, power, and community: Ngũgĩ implies that in an African context, these premises are irrelevant and futile.

Karega, the hero of the novel, is also a schoolteacher, but he is able to see the connection of the land to the labor of the people. In addition, he represents Ngũgĩ's desire to create an Afrocentric worldview. Karega asks, “How could he enlarge [the schoolchildren's] consciousness so that they could see themselves, Ilmarog and Kenya as part of a larger whole, a larger territory containing the history of African people and their struggles?” (109). This opinion is echoed later by the narrator, who comments that “the weakness of the resistance lay not in the lack of will or determination or weapons but in the African people's toleration of being divided into regions and tongues and dialects according to the wishes of former masters” (262). Africans, by accepting a Western-oriented worldview, accepted also the arbitrary divisions created by the colonial powers and then maintained by those in power. A new image of a united Africa would be, quite literally, revolutionary.

In Homecoming, Ngũgĩ claimed that “Now there are only two tribes left in Africa: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’” (xvii). In Petals of Blood the “haves” are the Europeanized blacks who work for foreign companies: “the new owners, master-servants of bank power, money and cunning” (280). Ilmorog is divided into two parts—a wealthy residential area and the shanty town of the workers. This rift is not illustrated or supported by any split in the natural landscape—there is no river between them—which emphasizes the unnatural nature of the division. The only differences are in the man-made landscape, in which Ngũgĩ juxtaposes the luxuries of “Cape Town” (named after one of the centers of white South African power and privilege) with the open sewers and mud shanties of the “New Jerusalem” (whose hopes must lie in the future). Karega finally blames the system of private ownership for the destruction of the land:

Why, anyway, should soil, any soil, which after all was what was Kenya, be owned by an individual? Kenya, the soil, was the people's common shamba, and there was no way it could be right for a few, or a section, or a single nationality, to inherit for their sole use what was communal.


Ngũgĩ has moved from a description of a single people's connection with its ancestral homeland to a national, even pan-African, perspective. In the process, he has described how people's relationships to the land, and by extension, to Kenya and to Africa, are mediated by their cultural, racial, and economic situation. Ngũgĩ moves away from traditional descriptions of landscape, as in the opening of The River Between, towards descriptions that expose these mediating factors. For Ngũgĩ, peasants have the most authentic experience of the land, in that their work on the land gives them a connection to the landscape which is not based on ownership or aesthetic distance, but this must be supplemented by teachers like Karega who can provide a vision of Kenyan and African unity. This vision will only become a reality through the masses' struggle against capitalism:

Imperialism:capitalism:landlords:earthworms. A system that bred hordes of round-bellied jiggers and bedbugs with parasitism and cannibalism as the highest goal in society. … The system and its gods and its angels had to be fought consciously, consistently and resolutely by all the working people!


After Petals of Blood, Ngũgĩ co-authored a play in Gikuyu, Ngaahika Ndeenda. The play was staged in his home town, Limuru, and was acted by the wananchi, or peasants, of the area. By writing in Gikuyu, and choosing the theater over the form of the novel, Ngũgĩ was identifying himself with the African masses, trying to put into practice his idea of cultural and political commitment. As a result, he was detained under the Public Security Act of Kenya in December 1977. After his release, in December 1978, Ngũgĩ said “Ngaahika Ndeenda showed me the road along which I should have been travelling all these past seventeen years of my writing career” (The Weekly Review 32). Since that time, Ngũgĩ has been the leading proponent of writing in African languages.

The use of a foreign language creates a rift between the text and the author. By the time he wrote Petals of Blood, Ngugi had already rejected Western techniques of description as implying Western, not African, relations to the land; now he rejected the language of the West also. Ngũgĩ's decision reflects his concern with the alienation of the African from his own society through the acceptance of Western culture and technology; Ngũgĩ claims that “[l]iterature published in African languages will have to be meaningful to the masses and therefore much closer to the realities of their situation” (“On Writing in Gikuyu” 151).

In Devil on the Cross, Ngũgĩ writes in Gikuyu from a Gikuyu perspective. The narrator of the story is a gicaandi singer, a traditional storyteller. He sprinkles his narrative with African proverbs: “the forest of the heart is never cleared of all its trees” (7); “aping others cost the frog its buttocks” (12); “just as a single bee is sometimes left behind by the others, one question in particular remained lodged in Wariinga's mind” (29); “a man who doesn't travel thinks that it's only his mother who cooks wild vegetables” (71). These proverbs connect the narrative with the oral tradition. They also provide a rhythm to the narrative development and a logic for conversations between characters different from that of traditional Western narratives. Proverbs are used in traditional African orature both to punctuate the narrative and as a form of persuasion: the character in the story who is most able to use proverbs to support his or her own argument usually prevails. In Ngũgĩ's novel, this strategy is used in conversations, as characters argue over the problems of modern Kenya. For example, Muturi argues for socialism in Kenya by referring to Gikuyu proverbs:

That humanity is in turn born of many hands working together, for, as Gikuyu once said, a single finger cannot kill a louse; a single log cannot make a fire last through the night. … The unity of our sweat is what makes us able to change the laws of nature, able to harness them to the needs of our lives, instead of our lives remaining slaves of the laws of nature. That's why Gikuyu also said: Change, for the seeds in the gourd are not all of one kind.


In another passage, a corrupt businessman also uses proverbs to support his own actions: “I have two mistresses, for you know the saying that he who keeps something in reserve never goes hungry, and when an European gets old, he likes to eat veal” (99). As in the last example, not all of the proverbs are traditional; some are taken from contemporary experience: “Money can flatten mountains” (117). Through these proverbs, Ngũgĩ directs his narrative to a Gikuyu audience. At the same time, he shows that traditional wisdom alone is not enough to guide contemporary African society; it can be called upon to support both African socialism and neo-colonial corruption. Readers must decide for themselves which argument is more persuasive.

In a similar manner, Ngũgĩ incorporates Christian rhetoric and imagery into the novel, beginning with the title, Devil on the Cross. This refers to a recurring dream that Wariinga has:

Instead of Jesus on the Cross, she would see the Devil, with skin as white as that of a very fat European she once saw near the Rift Valley Sports Club, being crucified by people in tattered clothes—like the ones she used to see in Bondeni—and after three days, when he was in the throes of death, he would be taken down from the Cross by black people in suits and ties, and, thus restored to life, he would mock Wariinga.


In Petals of Blood, Ngũgĩ had rejected Christianity, and accepted traditional wisdom only insofar as it described a communal, socialist society. In Devil on the Cross, however, Ngũgĩ uses both traditional Gikuyu culture and Christianity as elements of contemporary Kenyan culture, and as sources for the rhetoric of his characters. Even the narrator, the gicaandi singer, describes a vision he has had in Biblical and apocalyptic terms:

And after seven days had passed, the Earth trembled, and lightning scored the sky with its brightness, and I was lifted up, and I was borne up to the rooftop of the house, and I was shown many things, and I heard a voice, like a great clap of thunder, admonishing me: Who has told you that prophecy is yours alone, to keep to yourself?


As in the figure of the Devil on the Cross, Biblical imagery is used to intensify Ngũgĩ's own argument; the range of diction and symbolic structures has expanded considerably from the narrowly socialist rhetoric of Petals of Blood.

The gicaandi singer's story begins with a description of the alienation of a working-class woman in Nairobi. Fired from her job for refusing sexual advances, then rejected by her boyfriend, Jacinta Wariinga is thrown out of her apartment. All of these events make her lose her sense of perspective: “Instantly she felt dizzy. Nairobi—people, buildings, trees, motor cars, streets—began to swirl before her eyes” (12). Without a home, a lover, or a job, Wariinga has no connection to her environment, and is alienated from it. Her dizziness is the result of the social and economic disruptions in her life.

Wariinga then takes a matatu, a van, from Nairobi to Ilmorog. During this trip, several characters discuss the problems of modern Kenya, symbolized by an upcoming “Devil's Feast” for “Modern Thieves and Robbers” in a cave in Ilmorog. The bus trip provides a transition between the real Kenyan city and Ngũgĩ's fictional Ilmorog. Wariinga asks:

For today is there a single corner, even in the most far-flung reaches of Kenya, where a poor man can run to escape poverty? Ilmorog, Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu—the water in all these places has become bitter for us peasants and workers.


Ilmorog can stand for all of Kenya, because the same people control the economy and the political structure everywhere in Kenya.

The division of Ilmorog into two sections, which was described in Petals of Blood, has become even more exaggerated. The rich live in “Golden Heights,” which “contains the homes of the wealthy and the powerful. But do you call them homes or residences! Homes or sheer magnificence?” (130). “New Jerusalem” has also gotten poorer: “The walls and the roofs of the shanties are made of strips of tin, old tarpaulin and polythene bags” (130).

In traditional Gikuyu stories, as in many African stories, ordinary and fantastic events take place side by side—the ordinary world and the spiritual universe are interconnected. In Devil on the Cross, Ngũgĩ utilizes this dimension of African literature for the first time in his fiction, going beyond the limits of Western realism. The best example of the author's use of fantastic elements is the feast in the sumptuous cave for the “Modern Thieves and Robbers.” They have transformed the cave into a huge hall, with chandeliers and luxurious furniture. In this environment, Kenyan businessmen try to outdo one another in stories of white collar thievery and corruption in order to win prizes from the International Organization of Thieves and Robbers. Here, Ngũgĩ plays with Milton's description in Paradise Lost of the devils' first meeting in hell, in which each speaker tries to persuade the others how they should act in the future. The irony is that in Milton's version, the devils are ultimately powerless, subjected to God's will even in Hell, while the thieves and robbers in Ngũgĩ's cave have enormous power in Kenya: only a revolution could stop them.

Another parallel is, of course, Plato's cave in The Republic, in which people are chained to a wall and watch the shadows of figures and other objects carried by unseen people. This parallel is underlined in Ngũgĩ's novel when Wariinga steps out of the cave:

The sun shone brightly on the Ilmorog ridges and plains. The land lay quiet. No cold, no wind. “Although I have just been in the full glare of electric lights, I feel as if I have lived in darkness all my life,” Wariinga sighed, and then she added in a sing-song voice: “Praise the sun of God! Hail the light of God!”

“You should be singing praises to the light of our country,” Gatuiria told her.


The electric lights, like the fire casting the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave, are artificial; the natural light of the sun, as in Plato's allegory, exposes the darkness of the cave. Wariinga's sing-song voice, as she praises God for this light, sounds childlike, a memorized chant. To Ngũgĩ, this Christian response to the evil of the cave is mechanical and pointless, as Wariinga's sighs will not lead to real change. Gatuiria's claim that the light of truth is the light of the country, foreshadows the protests of the peasants, students and workers against the robbers in the cave.

Inside Plato's cave, the people who create plausible fictions about the meaning of the shadows on the wall are praised, while the one who, like Socrates, frees himself and seeks the light of the sun is despised. In Ngũgĩ's novel, the businessmen/robbers in the cave create stories to convince the people that what they are doing is beneficial to the nation:

It was said that I was a man who acted on his words; that I was able to get land for the poor and sold it to them cheaply; and that I did not even keep a plot back for myself because of my love for the people. They started singing my praises, calling me son of Gataanguru, a child imbued with love of the people. Do you see what can be achieved by cunning?


As in Plato's cave, the stories that make people praise the ones who keep them from discovering the truth are the worst evil. Ngũgĩ's use of allusions to Western canonical figures emphasizes that the businessmen are practicing an unbridled Western capitalism, and are, at the banquet, trying to impress their European masters. They operate within a Western context.

There is a possibility for change. Wariinga and Gatuiria, wandering in the sunlight outside of the cave, enthusiastically sing a hymn to Kenya:

Hail, Mount Kenya!
Hail, our land.
Never without water or food or green fields!


Their love for each other is depicted as in harmony with the landscape: “Come to me my love! … The grass is a free bed given us by God, and the darkness is his blanket!” (241). As in the conclusion of Petals of Blood, the main characters decide to make “a new beginning for a new Earth” (246) through their own efforts. This new beginning is a violent one: Wariinga discovers that Gatuiria's father was her first seducer, and she shoots him with a pistol. Gatuiria, the man who has been trying to write a new Kenyan opera, is at a loss: “he just stood in the courtyard, hearing in his mind music that lead him nowhere” (254). Wariinga “walked on, without once looking back” (254).

In Devil on the Cross, Ngũgĩ champions women's rights in Kenya. He argues for the education of women, especially practical education: Wariinga trains to become an auto mechanic. Ngũgĩ is particularly concerned about the treatment of women as the sexual possessions of men:

People love to denigrate the intelligence and intellectual capacity of our women by saying that the only jobs a woman can do are to cook, to make beds and to spread their legs in the market of love. The Wariinga of today has rejected all that.


Ngũgĩ also deplores women's attempts to lighten their skin, straighten their hair, and follow the current fashions, and celebrates the beauty of African women who are strong and independent. Wariinga, at the conclusion of the novel, is clearly the committed revolutionary, while her lover Gatuiria hesitates, uncertain what path he will take.

At times, Ngũgĩ's novel seems too full of speeches, as each character gives his or her own autobiography and either boasts about his prowess (the thieves and robbers) or argues for a revolution. In the landscape of the novel, however, Ngũgĩ clearly broadens the horizons of his fiction, including surreal locations and exaggerated landscapes that heighten the impact of his story. This strategy also aligns his work with the tradition of oral African narratives. Thus Ngũgĩ has not only written Devil on the Cross in Gikuyu; he has also transformed the style and form of his novel, to create an Afrocentric narrative.

Ngũgĩ's most recent novel, Matigari, was published in Gikuyu in 1987. The novel is an allegory, a story of Everyman; as Ngũgĩ says in “To the Reader/Listener”:

This story is imaginary.
The actions are imaginary.
The characters are imaginary.
The country is imaginary—it has no name even.
Reader/listener: may the story take place in the country of your choice!


Compared to his earlier works, Matigari has a simplified landscape and a streamlined narrative. Matigari ma Njiruungi (his name means “‘the patriots who survived the bullets’—the patriots who survived the liberation war, and their political offspring,” trans. note 20) has come out of the forests, and like a Kenyan Rip Van Winkle, wanders around the countryside looking for his children and asking, “My friends! Can you tell me where a person could find truth and justice in this country?” (72). Matigari's character represents everyone who toiled under the colonialists and fought in the war of independence; he says, “I tended the estates that spread around the house for miles. … I worked all the machines and in all the industries, but it was Settler Williams who would take the profits” (21). Rumors grow that he is the Angel Gabriel, or the Second Coming of Christ, and the government and the police become anxious to hunt him down. In the end, they accomplish this, chasing him into a river while they ride after their hounds, as if he were a fox, but meanwhile the boy Muriuki, who now calls himself and his friends “the children of the patriots,” has picked up Matigari's gun and sword. Matigari ma Njiruungi remains undefeated.

The landscape of the novel is presented sparingly, as in an oral tale. There is a fig tree, where Matigari hid his rifle, a house he wishes to reclaim as his own with the estates surrounding it, a village, a city, and the country. The house is hardly described at all: “there on the top of the hill overlooking the whole country stood a huge house which seemed to stretch out for miles, as if, like the plantation itself, it had no beginning and no end” (42). It represents the shelter, food, and clothing which should be the result of the labor of the people, but which has been wrongly appropriated by those “who-reap-where-they-have-not-sown” (50). As Matigari talks to the current owners, the sun sets behind the house: “it had left behind a blood-red glow in the evening sky, lighting up the house, the gate and the road on which they stood” (47-48), foreshadowing the fire that will burn it down at the end of the story.

Matigari begins his journey by crossing the river and coming out of the forest. The forest was a haven for the freedom fighters in Kenya, protecting them from the British colonial soldiers. But when Matigari retreats to the forest to find the answer to his question, an old woman rebukes him: “My dear wanderer, you cannot find answers to your questions here where nobody lives. Truth and justice are to be found in people's actions” (87). The wilderness can provide shelter, but it cannot provide answers. It would have been plausible to use the wilderness as a symbol of spiritual renewal and dedication, because of its associations with the Mau Mau movement as the place of resistance to the colonial government. Ngũgĩ, however, explicitly turns away from it, and seeks renewal within the community.

Within the novel, there are enough details of the past history of the country and the freedom fighters to clearly identify the location as Kenya. Yet in his introductory poem, Ngũgĩ insists on the timelessness and placelessness of his story, connecting his narrative to traditional oral folktales. By doing so, Ngũgĩ also implies that the reading of his story should be like listening to a storyteller: each retelling is a reliving, a re-enactment of the story. In Matigari, this connection is particularly powerful: each reader/listener can ask him or herself if the patriots have returned, and where justice and truth can be found in the country. By reading, Ngũgĩ's audience participates in the awakening of the country.

In “A Note on the English Edition,” Ngũgĩ relates some of the consequences of this blurring of fact and fiction:

By January 1987, intelligence reports had it that peasants in Central Kenya were whispering and talking about a man called Matigari who was roaming the whole country making demands about truth and justice. There were orders for his immediate arrest, but the police discovered that Matigari was only a fictional character in a book of the same name. In February 1987, the police raided all the bookshops and seized every copy of the novel.


The readers of the book gave life, at least temporarily, to Matigari, whom the police tried to arrest. Failing in this, they arrested the book: “Matigari, the fictional hero, and the novel, his only habitation, have been effectively banned in Kenya” (viii). In this short note, Ngugi shrinks the fictional landscape of the novel into the confines of the book, and then imagines both the book and Matigari as outcasts: “With the publication of this English edition, they have joined their author in exile” (viii). The place of this placeless, timeless book, is the place of exile.

This brings us to the poignant ironies of Ngũgĩ's situation: passionately attached to the land of Kenya, he is in exile from it; committed to writing in Gikuyu, he publishes his novels in that language only to see them banned. The English language edition, translated not by Ngũgĩ himself but by Wangui wa Goro, is to him an exiled version of his text, enclosed in a non-African language. Thus, Ngũgĩ is distanced from his own work, at least from the only version in print. The event of the novel's publication and the circumstances surrounding it become part of the interpretation of the novel; it is only through his fictional character, Matigari, that Ngũgĩ can return to Kenya. The book's publication in Kenya had allowed the author's ideas to reappear in that country, and the landscape of the novel had allowed for the reappearance of heroes in Kenya. The banning of the novel reinforces and intensifies the author's own exile. The landscape of the novel, then, is not only the simplified allegorical landscape of the tale, but also the political landscape which places the author and the book in specific relations to the country, identifying Ngugi and his novel as both Kenyan and expatriate, part of an excluded from the land.

In this examination of Ngũgĩ's fiction, we have moved from a consideration of traditional Western techniques of landscape description applied to an African landscape in The River Between, to a broadening of the concept of landscape to include the social and political environment surrounding the publication of the novel itself. The fictional and factual landscapes of Matigari influence and interpenetrate each other, creating a charged atmosphere that challenges the reader to go beyond a simple aesthetic appreciation of the novel and to engage the political landscape on his or her own terms. The intended audience of Ngũgĩ's later fiction is more and more clearly Kenyan, and African, not Western. The development of his style shows the possibilities and pitfalls of incorporating African elements into a Western form. Ultimately, Ngũgĩ chooses to model the form of the novel itself on the traditions of African orature. In Matigari, the subtle descriptions of the hills and valleys of Kenya have disappeared, but the symbolic, political and factual landscapes stand out more clearly. In this way, Ngũgĩ places his fiction squarely within the larger African political landscape, and outside the mainstream of the Western tradition.

Works Cited

Gurr, Andrew. Writers in Exile: The Identity of Home in Modern Literature. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities P, 1981.

Huxley, Elspeth. The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood. New York: William Morrow, 1959.

———. White Man's Country: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya. Vol. 1 of White Man's Country. 2 vols. London: Chatto and Windus, 1953.

Ikiddeh, Ime. “James Ngugi as Novelist.” African Literature Today 2 (1969): 3-10.

Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu. London: Heinemann, 1961.

Moore, Gerald. “The Negro Poet and His Landscape” Introduction to African Literature. Ed. Ulli Beier. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1967.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Devil on the Cross. London: Heinemann, 1982.

———. Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture and Politics. London: Heinemann, 1972.

———. Matigari. 1987. Trans. into English by Wangui wa Goro. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989.

———. “On Writing in Gikuyu.” Research in African Literatures 16.2 (1985): 151-56.

———. Petals of Blood. New York: Dutton, 1978.

———. The River Between. London: Heinemann, 1965.

“Ngũgĩ Still Bitter over his Detention.” Interview. The Weekly Review 203 (5 Jan. 1979): 30-32.

Nnolim, Charles E. “Background Setting: Key to the Structure of Ngũgĩ's The River Between.Obsidian 2.2 (1976): 20-29. Rpt. in Critical Perspectives on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Ed. G. D. Killam. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1984. 136-45.

Robson, Clifford B. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. New York: St. Martin's, 1979.

Roscoe, Adrian. Uhuru's Fire: African Literature East to South. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977.

Wanjala, Chris. The Season of Harvest: A Literary Discussion. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1978.

Patrick Williams (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Williams, Patrick. “‘Like Wounded Birds’?: Ngugi and the Intellectuals.” Yearbook in English Studies 27 (1997): 201-18.

[In the following essay, Williams examines how Ngugi portrays the role of the intellectual in postcolonial Africa, comparing the representations of intellectuals in Ngugi's fiction with the works of Edward W. Said.]

For many, Ngugi is perhaps the paradigmatic postcolonial intellectual: politically committed, oppositional, outspoken, activist, exiled. At the same time, though this fact is widely acknowledged, it is, arguably, surprisingly little studied, and the same may be said for his continued engagement with the figure of the intellectual in his fiction and essays. A similar and unexpected gap is observable in the area of postcolonial studies. Although the period of decolonization saw many debates about the nature and function of intellectuals in relation to anti-colonial struggles and newly-independent states, the current moment of postcolonial theory, in its ‘high’ or post-structuralist-inflected mode, has produced little in the way of sustained analysis of intellectuals. This is all the more surprising given the numbers of prominent intellectuals in the field, though sceptical observers might perhaps see it as a reluctance to analyse potentially uncomfortable issues of institutional location or ideological affiliation. While it is not part of the aims of the present piece specifically to offer a contribution to the theorizing of postcolonial intellectuals, it is hoped that the attempt to relate Ngugi's representations of the formation, functioning, and failures of intellectuals in his creative work to his discussions of them in his essays, as well as to his instantiation of a particular mode of committed postcolonial intellectual activity in his own life, may nevertheless provide insights into one important history of struggle.

One obvious exception to the charge of theoretical neglect of the question of intellectuals would be Edward W. Said, though it is debatable whether he would now want his work to be counted as postcolonial theory, given his increasing unhappiness with theory as he perceives it, as a ‘guild designation […] that has produced a jargon I find hopelessly tiresome’.1 This of course ignores what many more conservative anti-theory figures would see as Said's profound guilt in terms of his responsibility for helping to unleash colonial discourse and postcolonial theory (supposedly riddled with tiresome and obscurantist jargon) on the academic world. It is also far from clear how Said would situate postcolonial theory in relation to a blanket dismissal such as the following:

All the energies poured into critical theory, into novel and demystifying theoretical praxes, like the new historicism and deconstruction and Marxism, have avoided the major, I would say determining, political horizon of modern Western culture, namely imperialism.2

Intellectuals have always been a central concern of Said's work, both as objects of analysis and as providers of framing categories for that analysis, (as well as, on occasions, symbolic figures for particular notions of ethical conduct and political engagement). Said's analysis in Orientalism of two hundred years of Western intellectual activity in terms of the production of forms of knowledge of other cultures is of course in part enabled by two of the twentieth century's most famous intellectuals, Gramsci and Foucault, themselves producers of celebrated and influential analyses of the nature and function of intellectuals.3 Given that, it is noteworthy that Said makes little or no use of either thinker's analysis, taking instead Foucault's power/knowledge couplet and Gramsci's notions of hegemony and civil society (though clearly neither of these is an intellectual-free zone). Foucault and Gramsci's conceptions of intellectuals are too well known to require extensive rehearsing here, but some mention needs to be made of their relevance for postcolonial politics. Though their concerns and implications may be divergent, there are similarities in the models: both are two-part (Foucault talks of universal and specific intellectuals, Gramsci of organic and traditional); both have a chronological and developmental aspect, (which carries echoes of Fanon's own, and different, developmental model of the intellectual). Though Foucault's model remains resolutely Eurocentric (no doubt the more culpably so, given the moment of its elaboration), Gramsci did try, in spite of the difficulties associated with writing in prison, to extend his analysis to the colonized world, as well as to China, Japan, and Latin America; both, however, do have their postcolonial applications. Gramsci's organic intellectual can emerge from any social class, not just the obviously educated élite, which offers scope for those, among whom Ngugi is prominent, with an investment in the progressive potential of the peasantry or the urban working class. Foucault's specific intellectual is closer to the kind of professionalized expert whose omnipresence in the late twentieth century so worries Said, but he/she provides an indication of the localized, if not circumscribed, sphere of operations of contemporary metropolitan intellectuals, among whose number we can count many major postcolonial figures.

If the principal emphasis in Orientalism was ‘the seductive degradation of knowledge’ (p. 328) and intellectuals in the service of Western power, a significant shift occurs in Culture and Imperialism, where one focus becomes a belated recognition of the possibilities for resistance by intellectuals in the colonial and postcolonial situation—and the relevance to Ngugi hardly needs mention. Said categorizes differences between those representative intellectuals he discusses as both a chronological and a generational issue, as well as a question of their position in relation to the West, its institutions and culture, (and as such, perhaps inevitably, it carries echoes of Gramsci and Foucault). The earlier generation, for whom C. L. R. James stands as an exemplary figure, were pleased to locate themselves within the orbit of the West at the level of intellectual and cultural heritage, but at the same time to contest its oppressive practices and imperialist politics in as revolutionary a manner as possible. The contemporary generation, on the other hand, while locating itself as more openly non-Western or anti-Western at the discursive level, is typified by more obviously élite intellectuals, academicians whose institutional level of address is more like that of Foucault's localized specific intellectual, and, despite its proclaimed distance from the West, less of an actual threat.

Said's lengthiest, and in many ways most problematic, discussion of intellectuals is in his 1993 BBC Reith Lectures, published as Representations of the Intellectual. The problems begin with the title, where the singularity of the figure, a deliberate choice on Said's part, inevitably asks to be ranged alongside those other singularized concepts, from ‘the Other’ to ‘the postcolonial condition’ currently criticized for their inflexibility, inappropriateness, or essentialism. Also, although Said does not operate a strongly dichotomous model like that of Gramsci or Foucault, his discussion wavers between a descriptive stance: ‘There has been no major revolution in modern history without intellectuals; conversely, there has been no major counter-revolutionary movement without intellectuals’, and a prescriptive/normative one, for instance: ‘intellectuals as precisely those figures whose public performances can neither be predicted nor compelled into some slogan, orthodox party line or fixed dogma’, or ‘There is no doubt in my mind that the intellectual belongs on the same side with the weak and unrepresented’, however laudable or progressive the prescription might actually be.4

Said indicates, but does not fully develop, a major contradiction in the contemporary situation of intellectuals, namely that while on the one hand they are subject to a range of pressures to specialize, conform, become domesticated and localized ‘experts’, and so on, at the same time the problems they most urgently need to address—globalization, imperialism, the New World Order—are larger and more complex than any which confronted intellectuals in the past. If, as Fredric Jameson has suggested, it appears increasingly impossible to ‘map the totality’—globalization, for instance—withdrawal in the shape of an intensification of the localizing tendency in intellectuals can form part of the responses to such a situation, ironically at precisely the moment when some attempt to comprehend the totality is most pressing.

While the normalizing, domesticating pressures may apply particularly to intellectuals in the West, postcolonial intellectuals are by no means exempt. In addition, and in a particularly insidious way, the Western academy, according to Gayatri Spivak, forms its own preferred version of postcolonial intellectuals, unrepresentative and self-interested:

Today the old ways, of imperial adjudication and open systemic intervention, cannot sustain unquestioned legitimacy. Neocolonialism is fabricating its allies by proposing a share of the centre in a seemingly new way (not a rupture but a displacement): disciplinary support for the conviction of authentic marginality by the (aspiring) elite.5

Consequently, one question to ask is what happens to a genuinely oppositional figure like Ngugi when placed at the heart of those processes and pressures.

In the outpouring of studies about intellectuals, there has been far too much defining of the intellectual, and not enough stock taken of the image, the signature, the actual intervention and performance, all of which taken together constitute the very lifeblood of every real intellectual.6

While, as argued above, there has precisely not been an ‘outpouring of studies’ of postcolonial intellectuals, the intention here is to examine ‘the image, the signature, the actual intervention’ (freely interpreted) in relation to Ngugi. ‘The image’ will be taken as Ngugi's representations of intellectuals in his novels and plays; ‘the signature’, his discussion of them in his essays, and ‘the actual intervention’, the broader dimensions of his own practice as postcolonial intellectual.

Although Ngugi's ideas about intellectuals, their nature, role, and scope, have altered over the years, they have always figured in his writing. Similarly, his awareness of ideas themselves, the importance of the intellectual or ideological dimension of imperialism and the resistance to it, has been a constant presence, though its perceived importance has demonstrably grown. Ngugi represents and analyses a variety of figures of intellectuals in colonial and postcolonial contexts, among whom some of the most important are writers, educators, historians, and politicians. In addition, he offers perspectives on the positions occupied, from prominent leadership to grassroots organizational, and on the range of formations, from the traditionally or colonially educated to the self-taught. Although his position regarding intellectuals is now a consciously Gramscian one (for instance, all classes produce their own intellectuals; intellectuals have a particular class relation or location, but are not completely circumscribed by that; intellectuals are especially important in the context of hegemonic struggles) it is possible to see this as both embryonically present in his early work and as something which has gradually evolved.


The earliest version of the intellectual to appear in Ngugi's fiction is the teacher, of importance not only because he represents a central aspect of Ngugi's life as intellectual, but also more generally because of the complex, powerful, and problematic role which education has played in the colonial and postcolonial phases of imperialism. Within Gikuyu culture, forms of knowledge were recognized as sources of power, from the kirira, ‘secret knowledge’, controlled by the mbari, ‘clan elders’, to those forms embodied in socially-inculcated practices which assured proper status or social progression. While the intellectual function might be regarded as being broadly democratized or organic in so far as all could have access to, and articulate, the customary knowledge of the group, a traditional intelligentsia still operated in the shape of the elders as possessors of restricted knowledge, and others, like the seers, as articulators of esoteric knowledge. The arrival via colonialism of a rival body of power/knowledge and an alien mode of transmission represented both a threat to established norms and the possibility of gaining access to the power which they held. In The River Between, Chege sends his son Waiyaki to the British-run school to acquire Western knowledge which can then be disseminated in an appropriate manner (i.e., one which does not harm the Gikuyu) and provide a source of power for his own people. Waiyaki sees education (transmitted by him) as collective empowerment, simultaneously the basis for anti-colonial resistance and communal harmony and progress, and eventually becomes so identified with his role that he is known simply as the Teacher:

With the little knowledge that he had, he would uplift the tribe, yes, give it the white man's learning and his tools, so that in the end the tribe would be strong enough, wise enough, to chase away the settlers and the missionaries. And Waiyaki saw a tribe great with many educated sons and daughters, all living together, tilling the land of their ancestors in perpetual serenity, pursuing their rituals and beautiful customs, and all of them acknowledging their debt to him.7

While the novel offers no sign of the collective unity of Waiyaki's vision, the independent Gikuyu schools he establishes are certainly recognized by the people as defiance of white rule.

Waiyaki moves, through a combination of choice, apparent messianic destiny, and communal pressure, from the position of intellectual as (merely) educator to that of intellectual as popular leader, his eventual downfall figuring in poignant fashion another aspect which is important for Ngugi, the intellectual as failed leader. Waiyaki's fall is a calamity for the communities of the novel, but it is hard not to read it also as one version of Ngugi's long engagement with the national calamity represented by Kenyatta (and to a lesser extent Harry Thuku) as intellectual-as-leader and quasi-biblical saviour. One of the clearest parallels between Waiyaki and Kenyatta, and one which critics have long recognized, is the fact that they are referred to as black messiahs or saviours, representing a characteristic over-estimation of the capabilities of significant individuals in general and of intellectuals in particular. Though neither was ultimately able to fulfil that role, in Kenyatta's case the inability was far from clear at the time Ngugi was writing the book; on the contrary, the evidence suggested that fulfilment of his revolutionary-messianic possibilities would follow. Kenyatta was of course a towering figure in the history of anti-colonialism and the period of decolonization, and a paradigm case of the individual risen from an ordinary rural background to prominent intellectual status and political leadership, both nationally and in international movements such as Pan-Africanism. His subsequent transition from liberator to oppressor, from oppositional intellectual to persecutor of intellectuals, makes him, as Ngugi says in Detained, a tragic figure, as well as one whose shadowy presence touches all periods of Ngugi's writing.

There are further echoes of this Black Messiah or Black Moses figure in the early play The Black Hermit (performed in 1962, published in 1968), where Remi, first of his tribe to go to university, abandons his intellectual and political activity after independence for the pleasure-seeking ‘solitude’ of life in the city as clerk for a foreign oil company. Like Waiyaki, he attempts to reconcile personal and emotional needs with the demands of family and community (one of Ngugi's persistent themes, but also one with particular resonance for intellectuals) and though his choices are in some ways the opposite of Waiyaki's, he is no more successful or satisfied. Waiyaki's intellectual leadership founders on his refusal to give up Nyambura (Christian and uncircumcized) thereby outraging the most strongly held tribal beliefs. This privileging of the personal means that his downfall is certain, and his plan to unite his people in a synthesis of traditional and modernizing concepts and practices is doomed. Remi, on the other hand, returns home, and through the power of intellectual authority miraculously unites Christian and traditionalist factions, getting them to renounce tribalism forever. However, he is so intent on his reluctantly assumed leadership role that he loses the woman he loves, and his intellectual and political success mean nothing to him: ‘I came back to break Tribe and Custom ❙ Instead I've broken you and me.’8 The periods (1930s and 1960s), the contexts (colonized and independent), and the choices made may all be different, but it is still the personal which is given primacy over the intellectual or political project, and indeed the pursuit of the latter appears as a fault, isolating Waiyaki from real understanding of his people, preventing Remi achieving the desired reconciliation with Thomi. As Remi's mother Nyobi says, ‘Education and big learning has taught him nothing’ (p. 73).

If early representations of the repeated failure of intellectuals seem to come down to faulty personal choices or the wrong priorities, Ngugi soon moves to locate the problem at a systemic or structural level, in the constitution of the colonialist education system and the process of formation of intellectuals, and in terms which offer a better retrospective understanding of Waiyaki and Remi:

I went to a missionary school where we were told over and over again that we were potential leaders of our people. We were being trained to be good responsible leaders. Education was not aimed at a knowledge of self and the reality of the black man's place in the world. What we did not know was that we were being groomed to become a buffer state between the propertied white rulers and the harsh realities under which African peasants and workers lived.9

The limiting, distorting effects of such a system are, of course, not necessarily dispelled by the acquisition of political independence. As Gatuiria says in Devil on the Cross, ‘The kind of education bequeathed to us by the whites has clipped the wings of our abilities, leaving us limping like wounded birds’,10 and the question of whether such damage is universal or permanent is one which Ngugi continues to address into the 1990s. In the 1960s, however, one attempt to tackle this problem was made by Ngugi and colleagues at the University of Nairobi, in the proposal to abolish the English department. Education in Africa might be harmful because of its colonialist origins and assumptions, but it could be Africanized; it might be a purveyor of Eurocentric ideologies, but these could be rejected or replaced. The aim was to make education more relevant to the needs and culture of the students via a restructuring of syllabuses which would place Kenyan cultural products at the centre, followed by those of Africa and the African diaspora, then other Third World ones, and finally those of the West, producing a curriculum both more national and more international, and one which challenged the empty universality claimed by English literature. The additional aim was the formation of a radically different type of intellectual.

The colonialist form of education produced an African version of Gramsci's traditional intellectual, in this case not sprung from the ranks of the relevant dominant class, but, as he puts it, ‘captured’ by the latter's hegemonic power. In distinction from this, the more voluntaristic model which Said sets out in The World, the Text, and the Critic would see Africans as consciously affiliating to colonialist culture and ideology.11 The process is of course not simple or unidirectional, either for individuals or groups: an African who is moulded into the role of colonial-identified intellectual is not automatically condemned to remain such for ever; similarly, it is not only the dominant colonialist or neo-colonialist class which can ‘capture’ intellectuals; as Gramsci puts it, it is the essence of hegemony as the struggle for pre-eminence between contending groups that the path towards the position of dominance involves winning over intellectuals from other groups or classes, including, in this instance, winning back those who have been produced as colonial-identified.

The question of the ‘alienation’ of intellectuals is a complex one. Theorists such as Alvin Gouldner have argued that intellectuals should be regarded as a largely autonomous social grouping, and to that extent presumably ‘alienated’ from any automatic forms of belonging:

The fact that intellectuals attach themselves to various parts of the political spectrum reinforces the view that they are a social stratum shopping for an historical agent, and thus not irrevocably committed only to one class alliance. […] As any modern political force, they are a stratum with their own interests and cultural commitments.12

These, along with characteristic elements of their formation, increase their alienation. Given such a vision of intellectuals as an almost free-floating body, it is not surprising that Gouldner mentions Gramsci's concept of organic intellectuals only in passing, and nowhere discusses it (since it would clearly be subversive of the view he is propounding). Nevertheless, Gramsci himself was very much concerned with the question of intellectuals separated from the masses or identified with them, an anxiety which surfaces in different forms and with different emphases in Fanon, Cabral, and Ngugi.

The extent of the decline of the intellectual as educator, the teacher as leader, in the postcolonial world, and the consequences of the separation of intellectuals from the mass of the people, is measured in Petals of Blood. Although Munira has personal and psychological problems which could be taken as an individualized explanation of his failure, though the educational system does nothing to help him succeed, both of these facts are now simply aspects of the structure of neo-colonialist forces which predominate. Munira's view of education: ‘I say let's teach them facts, facts and not propaganda about blackness, African peoples, all that, because that is politics, and they know the tribe they belong. That's a fact—not propaganda’,13 as well as being neo-colonially derived (his ideas are taken second-hand from an English inspector's pamphlet), is shown by Karega to be wholly inadequate:

Now let's look at this propaganda which is Not Facts. The oppression of black people is a fact. The scattering of Africans into the four corners of the earth is a fact. […] That our people resisted European intrusion is a fact. […] Our children must look at the things that deformed us yesterday, that are deforming us today.

(pp. 246-47)

The most painful example of this form of la trahison des clercs is Chui: rebel, symbol of resistance in the élite school of Siriana, who returns as its headmaster in the postcolonial period. In the face of pupil demands which are an allegory of national requirements (autonomy, Africanization) he, like the neo-colonialist class he represents, enforces a regime more repressive than that of the departed English. Small wonder, then, that Karega's dismissal leads him to some important realizations: ‘He had already started to doubt the value of formal education as a tool of people's total liberation’ (p. 252), and Karega himself embodies an alternative, as we shall see later. Matigari's search for truth and justice finds little or no echo among the intellectuals: initially not from the representatives of the students and teachers, and certainly not from the thoroughly co-opted members of the higher education establishment, the Permanent Professors of Parrotology. While the latter may look like an example of Ngugi's broad satire, it is simply, literally, what President Moi demanded in a speech on 13 September 1984, when he called on ‘ministers, assistant ministers and every other person to sing like parrots’14 in complete adherence to his wishes as part of his official policy of Nyayoism, or Follow in my Footsteps.

Despite the systemic failure and distortions, however, Ngugi continues to stress the importance of education. The process of altering the system in order to produce a different kind of intellectual, mentioned above, is extended in Barrel of a Pen. Here the proposal is tripartite: ‘mental education’, including factual, cultural, and political; physical education, including military training (‘A people must be in a position to defend the gains of their history and revolutionary changes’); and economic and technological education, teaching a range of skills (‘The aim is to produce a producer, a thinker and a fighter all integrated in the same individual.’)15 While Ngugi here acknowledges a debt to Marx's concept of polytechnic education, the specific qualities of the process and its integrated product are closer to Fanon and Cabral.

Questions of the formation of intellectuals return us to the issue raised earlier of their limitations: how much can you realistically expect from intellectuals? are they inevitably confined to the position of ‘wounded birds’? do the needs of anti-colonial or postcolonial struggles place exorbitant demands on them which they could never meet, or are there other explanations for a history of very modest successes? In Detained, Ngugi ponders the fact that certain anti-imperialist (i.e., anti-colonialist and anti-neo-colonialist) resisters, from Waiyaki wa Hiinga to J. M. Kariuki, were able to continue resisting despite imprisonment, torture or exile, while others, notably Harry Thuku and Jomo Kenyatta, were unable as Ngugi puts it, to avoid saying ‘Yes’ to British demands. Ngugi's conclusion, that their behaviour is attributable to a combination of the ability of imprisonment to weaken resolve, and their petty-bourgeois intellectual formation, resulting in a lack of identification with the mass of the people, seems in the circumstances like a generous attempt to understand rather than condemn two individuals who raised and subsequently dashed so many hopes. It underlines yet again the perceived importance of intellectual formation. It may also represent the difficulty posed in constructing a negative historical reinterpretation of two of the most significant figures in a history of anti-colonial resistance which means so much to Ngugi.


Perhaps the single most important terrain of intellectual struggle for Ngugi is history: in general, the history of imperialism; more locally, the (African) histories of Africa and Kenya; most precisely, the history of the resistance of the Kenyan people, with Mau Mau as its high point. These histories matter because they are routinely subject to so much denial, occlusion, willed amnesia, ideological distortion, and rewriting. For obvious reasons, imperial historiography has difficulty coming to terms with the fact of indigenous resistance, and prefers to pass it over in silence. Those examples which it cannot ignore are reworked as narratives of exorbitance: deceit and treachery on a national scale (the Indian ‘Mutiny’ of 1857); unspeakable barbarism and reversion to primitivism by one of the ‘better’ African tribes (the Mau Mau uprising, interpreted as Gikuyu tribalism). The extent to which the latter represented the official view, rather than just racist rhetoric or journalistic hyperbole, is indicated in a British official memorandum of the period:

We are now faced in Kenya with a terrorist organisation composed not of ordinary human beings fighting for a cause, but of primitive beasts who have forsaken all moral codes in order to achieve the subjugation of the Kikuyu tribe and the ultimate massacre of the European population of the Colony.16

As in other areas, however, achieving political freedom carries no guarantee of intellectual liberation, postcolonialism offers no panaceas, and Western ideological perspectives continue to influence the work of African historians, contributing to a particular construction of Mau Mau, its downgrading in importance, and ultimately the repeated attempts by the Kenyatta and Moi governments to erase it from popular memory and esteem. Ngugi is very clear about the location and function of historians in Kenya:

There are the official historians, the approved state historians, whose role is to give rational legitimacy to the tradition of loyalism and collaboration with imperialism. These have received state accolades and honours.

But the Kenya people's real history of struggle and resistance has thrown up its own historians. First are the ordinary people who in their songs, poems, stories, sayings, anecdotes, remembrances still talk of the Waiyakis; the Koitalels; the Me Kitililis; the Hassans and the Kimathis of Kenyan history. And secondly, a few progressive intellectuals who have negated their roots among the petty bourgeoisie and joined hands with the people. These have put their learning, their intellect, at the service of the people.17

The narrative of the history of twentieth-century Kenya, not least as one of sustained resistance—from resistance to attacks on traditional culture in the 1920s and 1930s in The River Between to resistance to neo-colonialism in the present in Matigari—occupies virtually the whole of Ngugi's creative output, and Mau Mau is the centrepiece. In the process, history is represented at key moments: the struggle over female genital mutilation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mau Mau in the 1950s, Uhuru in the 1960s. Represented by the texts themselves, individually and collectively recalled by characters, its relevance to personal and communal issues is demonstrated, as is the significance of historical understanding to ground political action. As such, it is a vision of history which is increasingly politicized and radicalized, and one which brings Ngugi into contact, and frequently conflict, with those who feel they have a professional purchase on the subject. As Ngugi is aware, there are ways in which those intellectual disagreements can become dangerous, even literally lethal. Here again, J. M. Kariuki fulfils an exemplary role for Ngugi. As previously mentioned, he was one of those intellectuals who said ‘No’ to colonial coercion; he also said ‘No’ to neocolonialism; he was an historian of the period of Mau Mau, and an outspoken M.P. who paid for his principled stance with his life: in March 1975, he was brutally murdered, and his body dumped in the Ngong Hills, an event paralleled in the murder of the lawyer in Petals of Blood. Though Ngugi classes Kariuki's Mau Mau Detainee among the ‘good’ histories of the period, in Homecoming he still calls for ‘somebody with intellectual honesty [to] write the full history of Mau Mau as a cultural, political and economic expression of the aspirations of the African peasant masses, putting it in its revolutionary context’ (pp. 29-30). Closer to Ngugi's ideal is perhaps Maina wa Kinyatti, not least because he is an historian of Mau Mau whose approach to the phenomenon Ngugi sees as solidly rooted in the people and their culture, and his books include oral history and a collection of Mau Mau songs. Although he was imprisoned and not murdered like Kariuki, Kinyatti is another of the many prominent Kenyan intellectuals in the postcolonial period who have suffered as a result of attempts to silence them and suppress their work, not least because their opposition can be construed as going beyond the straightforwardly intellectual: ‘Maina wa Kinyatti had clearly angered more than just the bourgeois academic establishment. He had frightened the men at the top whose position the academic establishment merely reflected’.18 When Kinyatti was tried and convicted in 1982, a chapter of his major work The History of Kenya was used as evidence of his subversive intentions. As Ngugi rightly observes, in Moi's Kenya, history itself is subversive.

Ngugi's interventions in the question of Kenyan historiography most obviously bring him into conflict with those historians whom he regards as members of the neo-colonial establishment, such as Professors Bethwell Ogot and William Ochieng, but he is also criticized by Western historians such as Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale who claim to write from a Marxist perspective, and whom one might therefore expect to be reasonably sympathetic to Ngugi's project. In one of the most provocative examples of his technique of inserting real individuals into fictional narratives, Ngugi implies in Petals of Blood that Ogot and Ochieng, along with fellow historians Gideon Were and Godfrey Muriuki, belong to ‘Our present day historians [who,] following on similar theories yarned out by defenders of imperialism, insist we only arrived here yesterday’ (p. 67). Although Carol Sicherman wants to read this as meaning the ‘arrival’ of the modern nation state, it would seem to have far more to do with Ngugi's reiterated belief in the historical existence of numbers of developed and cohesive African societies—rather than copies of Western-style nation states—as well as rebutting the kind of assertion made by Ogot (and referred to by Sicherman) that Africa failed to become civilized, and that, prior to the twentieth century, its history was one of ‘migrating hordes’.19

Petals of Blood marks an important shift in Ngugi's use of history. If in A Grain of Wheat the use of the past seems to relate principally to the conservation of collective historical memory and to understanding the forces which lie behind individual choices, both of these (the forces and the historical memory) can seem rather localized. In Petals of Blood and subsequent novels, however, the effort is to remember more of the past and to understand the present in as all-encompassing a frame as possible; to attempt something like that impossible Jamesonian task of ‘mapping the totality’. The relation between these two tasks is particularly important, as Jameson remarks elsewhere:

Historical reconstruction, then, the positing of global characteristics and hypotheses, the abstraction from the ‘blooming, buzzing confusion’ of immediacy, was always a radical intervention in the here and now, and the promise of resistance to its blind fatalities.20

Ngugi's aim, of course, is not simply reconstructive, but radically revisionary, rewriting the orthodoxies of colonialist and neo-colonialist histories. The rewriting also includes powerful ideological images from Western culture, which, while they may be minimally ‘historical’, have nevertheless been influential:

Arab geographers and also hunters for slaves and ivory; soul and gold merchants from Gaul and Bismarck's Germany; land pirates and human game hunters from Victorian and Edwardian England: they had all passed here bound for a kingdom of plenty, driven sometimes by holy zeal, sometimes by a genuine thirst for knowledge and the quest for the spot where the first man's umbilical cord was buried, but more often by mercenary commercial greed and love of the wanton destruction of those with a slightly different complexion from theirs.

(Petals of Blood, p. 68)

The longer passage from which this is taken clearly rewrites two key ideological statements from Heart of Darkness which are also historical visions: the frame narrator's eulogy for generations of English ‘knights’ of the sea, and Marlow's remarkable denunciation and recuperation of colonialism. In so doing, it provides a broader historical perspective, a more complex attribution of motive, and a clearer sense of the ultimately exploitative drive behind the various groups of interlopers. Incredibly, this has been construed as an example of how ‘Ngugi repeatedly introduces the terms of historical determinism into the “content” of the novels as if to reinforce their contextual validity’.21 It is debatable whether this shows less understanding of determinism or of Ngugi's novelistic practice.

A growing awareness of history as the terrain of possible ‘radical intervention in the here and now’ is common both to Ngugi in the decade between A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood and to Karega in the course of the latter novel. The strike at Siriana High School in which Karega is involved includes demands for African literature and African history as aids to self-knowledge. Later, when he turns to the work of black intellectuals, not just for relevant history, but in the hope of finding ‘a vision of the future rooted in a critical awareness of the past’ (p. 198), Karega is profoundly disenchanted with their refusal to deal with questions of African resistance or colonialism and imperialism, and with their Ogot-style depiction of precolonial culture as primitive and aimless. Karega then comes to realize the existence of multiple and conflicting histories:

Whose past was one talking about? […] was it the past of L'Ouverture, Turner, Chaka, Abdulla, Koitalel, Ole Masai, Kimathi, Mathenge and others? Was it of chiefs who sold the others […] the past of Kinyanjui, Mumia, Linana, Chui, Jerrod, Nderi wa Riera? Africa, after all, did not have one but several pasts which were in perpetual struggle.

(p. 214)

Finally, Karega is represented as meditating on history and perceiving its truths for himself: for example, that the celebration of an uncritical nativist version of history is insufficient, and that history needs to be studied for its instructive and interventionist possibilities, while his vision which ends the novel presents a brief survey of the essentials of capitalism and imperialism, their place in Kenya's present plight, and the tradition of worker and peasant resistance which will sweep them away in the future. Compared to this, Munira's failure to comprehend history and his experience of it as personalized nightmare and existential tyranny epitomize his social isolation and intellectual stasis.

An important aspect of all this, though one which is not foregrounded, is Karega's transformation from a form of traditional intellectual, at least partially separated from his people in his position of intellectual as educator, to something much more like an organic intellectual, self-taught, or at least self-enlightened, and completely identified with his own class and the broad mass of the oppressed in society. Though this passage from educated traditional to self-taught organic might seem like a reversal of the norm, a sort of parallel can be seen in Gatuiria in Devil on the Cross who, despite his more thoroughgoing formation as traditional intellectual, is increasingly concerned to align himself with the people, conceived as the imagined community of the nation—though his confident assertion of national unity and the end of tribalism appears sadly premature. The closest parallel figure—as opposed to trajectory—in the novel is Muturi: worker, student leader, analyst of imperialism, and prophet of the struggle to come.

Ngugi does not confine himself to the representation of history and intellectual attitudes in fiction; sections of Detained and a number of his essays are interventions in various historical moments. In Detained he discusses what he calls the colonialist culture of silence, and colonial law as institutionalized violence, as well as the decline of KANU and the question of Kenyan leaders who resisted or submitted. In ‘Mau Mau Is Coming Back’ in Barrel of a Pen he details elements of social and intellectual history in connection with official attitudes to Mau Mau. Unsurprisingly, these interventions are frequently criticized. As Carol Sicherman says, ‘historians object both to Ngugi's carelessness with details and to his promoting of myth as history’ (p. 359), despite the fact that in Petals of Blood Ngugi notes that it is precisely because of the unsatisfactory state of historical knowledge in Kenya that researchers need to turn to myth and legend as potential sources of information. As Ngugi realises, however, intellectual and disciplinary disputes are symptomatic of larger issues:

The Ogot-Kinyatti struggle on the interpretation of Kenya's history was thus more than an academic debate: it was an intellectual reflection of the warring antagonistic class positions in Kenyan society since October 1952.

(Barrel of a Pen, p. 15)

One of the points of bitterest dispute is whether Mau Mau constituted a properly national anti-colonial movement, or whether it was merely tribal. The British of course portrayed it as tribal, since that made it more likely to be seen as self-interested and unrepresentative, as well as more ‘primitive’ than if it were national (which carries an inevitable air of the modern). Indeed, the British did all they could to make Mau Mau tribal, by isolating the Gikuyu from other groups, as Furedi, for instance, makes clear in Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism. Historians such as Ogot and Ochieng have accepted the tribal and unrepresentative arguments (which would be no more than a confirmation of their neo-colonial allegiances, as far as Ngugi is concerned). However, less obviously ‘interested’ historians, such as Berman and Lonsdale, have also rejected Mau Mau's claim to be a national movement, suggesting rather that ‘Out of class conflict Mau Mau became an internal ethnic war.’22 For Lonsdale, in addition, the Ngugi/Kinyatti/Furedi positions can only be sustained by a narrow or cavalier reading of the evidence.

Although the question remains unresolved, it is easy to see why it matters so much to Ngugi. Claiming Mau Mau as national is part of his longstanding opposition to the politics and ideology of tribalism, which dates back to his earliest works. Claiming Mau Mau as national repudiates the history of colonialist divisiveness; it also stands against the politics of contemporary Kenya, where not only has President Moi forbidden the writing of the history of Mau Mau, but has also manufactured tribal enmities in a weak but none the less bloody copy of British divisive tactics, and persecuted intellectuals in a manner which far outstrips the British.


Kuuga na Gwika—‘Say and Do’. Though Ngugi makes (almost) no use of it,23 this Gikuyu expression might stand as encapsulation of his preferred vision of the intellectual as someone who not only ‘says’, i.e., articulates concepts, promulgates arguments, but also ‘does’, to the extent of progressive political activism, or at least behaving according to their principles. It is also an expression with a history, and one whose ironies would no doubt appeal to Ngugi: Kenyatta used it in the 1920s as a call for self-reliance and material advancement; Mau Mau leaders later appropriated it in opposition to the perceived passivity of the older generation; in the post-independence period, however, it was taken up by rich politicians who felt that their business success qualified them as embodiments of Kenyatta's call.24

While the possibility of combining the intellectual and activist modes might appear obvious, to the colonialist mind Kenyans were only capable of one or the other. During the Emergency, particular efforts were made to round up intellectuals, and, as Furedi points out, ‘[Governor] Baring made a sharp distinction between the “activists” and the “intellectual” or semi-educated type. According to him, the latter would be held indefinitely.’ (p. 201) An inherited tendency to view intellectuals as more dangerous than activists might go some way to explain the levels of suspicion and repression exhibited by Kenya's post-independence regimes.

The desirability (as well as possibility) of combining the two is all the more obvious in a Marxist context—in the general insistence on the combination of theory and praxis, or in texts like the ‘Theses on Feuerbach’, with their foregrounding of ‘practical-critical’ activity, and the famous eleventh thesis, with its warning of the insufficiency of intellectualism alone: ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world, in various ways, the point is to change it.’25 The figure of the intellectual as activist assumes greater importance in Ngugi's work as his position becomes more firmly Marxist. Although some combination of the two is present from the first, for example in Waiyaki, the activism is often partial, misdirected, subordinated to the intellectual. The counter-part to the decline of the ‘educated’ intellectual discussed above is the rise of the intellectual as activist. For instance, Karega's move from traditional to organic intellectual is also a move from teacher to manual labourer, and from formal educator to activist and trades union organizer. Muturi in Devil on the Cross is student and worker, intellectual and activist. Even Matigari, who on the face of it is pure activist, is nevertheless capable of making an analysis of neo-colonialism and its expropriation of the fruits of the labours of the people in terms which are appropriate to his position as one of the people, and comprehensible by the people. The move away from lengthy analysis of imperialism of the type given by Karega towards its embodiment in popular forms—the extended folktale about the meeting of the thieves and robbers which is Devil on the Cross, or the parables used by Matigari—is also part of Ngugi's own activist intellectual practice, which we could see as organized around the axes of the democratization of culture, and the culture of democracy.

An important aspect of the former is ‘The Quest for Relevance’, including, but also going beyond, the issues raised in Ngugi's chapter in Decolonising the Mind. Part of that quest is the indigenization of culture, from the attempts at institutional and curricular reform referred to earlier, to the controversial gradual switch from English to Gikuyu, first with drama—the play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) in 1977, then the novel—Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (The Devil on the Cross) in 1982, and then essays, with Decolonising the Mind marking ‘my farewell to English as the vehicle for any of my writings’ (p. xiv), though the pieces collected in Moving the Centre only partly adhere to that. The democratization is involved with the crisis Ngugi experienced over questions of audience and address after writing A Grain of Wheat, and his practice since the late 1970s is obviously to address his own people first of all in a language, form, and content which are not only relevant to understanding their situation but also potentially useful in changing it. The Kamiriithu theatre project for which I Will Marry When I Want was written represented active involvement with ordinary people in a democratic process of cultural production, and its effect on Ngugi was profound. The promotion of Gikuyu language and culture has also led Ngugi to devote much time and effort to the journal co-founded with his wife Njeeri, Mutiiri: Njaranda ya Miikarira, (The Guardian: A Journal of Culture), which provides a forum for Gikuyu speakers internationally, and, according to Ngugi, has both encouraged Western-educated Kenyans to become more proficient in their own language and enabled individuals who thought themselves incapable of writing anything worth publishing to see their work in print. This can also be seen as part of Ngugi's strategy of ‘moving the centre’—shifting locations and relations of power within and between nations—here, empowering Gikuyu culture, but doing so in a context which is international, (rather than the parochial one so often assumed to be the result of the turn to indigenous languages).

The value of providing an international forum, however modest, for Kenyan writing is all the more evident from the stagnation and measurable decline in Kenyan writing in English over the last decade. In the early 1980s, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature's annual survey of recently published work has become, in the Kenyan reviewer's words, an annual lament:

The last two or three years have been characterised by laments about the general lack of literary creativity in the region. At the risk of boring JCL readers, I continue to report the same trend, though these laments must be understood in their context.26

Since then, Africa, other than South Africa, has disappeared entirely from the JCL's survey. While it has long been an article of faith that the human spirit as embodied in literature could always withstand tyranny, it may be that Moi's greatest triumph over Kenyan intellectuals is to reduce that ability to resist and represent.

The culture of political democracy in Kenya is something in which Ngugi has been increasingly involved. For over twenty years, Kenya was a de facto and then de jure one-party state. After intense pressure from inside and outside the country, Moi announced the move to a multi-party system in December 1991, but under conditions which can hardly be called democratic. Ngugi's involvement in expatriate opposition politics was originally in connection with the broad grouping known as Ujoma, and then in 1990 he emerged as spokesperson for the banned underground movement Mwakenya. From the final pages of Petals of Blood, through Muturi's promise to Wariinga in Devil on the Cross, to Matigari, Ngugi's novels have hinted at the existence and growth of a people's movement, and the events of 1990 appeared to flesh out those hints. March 1990 saw the murder of another MP (despite his apparent loyalty to Moi); this was followed in July by the most serious riots and unrest since the failed coup of 1982, which Mwakenya seemed to be able to influence, though their call a month later for a national strike was not successful. While Moi claimed the riots were the work of ‘mentally unstable power-seekers acting on foreign instructions’,27 for Ngugi they illustrated a new phase in Kenyan history in their cross-class and trans-ethnic expression of popular hatred for Moi's government.28 How much oppositional energy may have been diverted by the subsequent veneer of democratization remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that there has been no reduction in harassment and imprisonment of opponents of the regime, not least intellectuals. If colonialism had, in Ngugi's words, clipped the wings of intellectuals, Moi's version of neo-colonialism has seemed to prefer pulling them out at the roots.

In ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’29 and elsewhere, Gayatri Spivak has expressed her worries about the increasing contemporary self-effacement of intellectuals, their attempted adoption of positions of ‘transparency’. Such an attempt to disavow political location and responsibility would seem never to occur to Ngugi. He remains equally unfashionable in his refusal to renounce Marxism and follow so many intellectuals worldwide into what Said has called the ‘particularly unpleasant aesthetics of recantation and conversion’.30 Similarly, his call for intellectuals to become activists and align themselves with the people may add little or nothing to what Marxists and other theorists in the colonial and postcolonial periods have argued. His importance, however, lies in his commitment to such ideas, his powerful representations of them, and his insistence on pointing out why, unfortunately, in the postcolonial world, they continue to be necessary.31


  1. ‘Interview with Edward Said’, in Edward Said: A Critical Reader ed. by Michael Sprinker (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 249.

  2. Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993), p. 70.

  3. Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1978).

  4. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual (London: Vintage, 1994), pp. 8, xi, 17.

  5. Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 57.

  6. Said, Representations of the Intellectual, p. 10.

  7. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The River Between (London: Heinemann Educational, 1965), pp. 100-01.

  8. Ngugi, The Black Hermit (London: Heinemann Educational, 1968), p. 76.

  9. Ngugi, Homecoming (London: Heinemann Educational, 1972), p. 49.

  10. Ngugi, Devil on the Cross (London: Heinemann Educational, 1982), p. 63.

  11. Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (London: Faber & Faber, 1984).

  12. Alvin Gouldner, ‘Prologue to a Theory of Revolutionary Intellectuals’, Telos, 26 (1976), 3-36 (p. 8).

  13. Ngugi, Petals of Blood (London: Heinemann Educational, 1977), p. 246.

  14. Ngugi, Decolonising the Mind (London: Heinemann Educational, 1986), p. 86.

  15. Ngugi, Barrel of a Pen (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1983), pp. 98, 90.

  16. Frank Furedi, Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism (London: Tauris, 1994), p. 138.

  17. Moving the Centre (London: Heinemann Educational, 1993), p. 98.

  18. Ngugi, Barrel of a Pen, p. 17.

  19. Carol A. Sicherman, ‘Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Writing of Kenyan History’, Research in African Literatures, 20 (1989), 347-70. Sicherman also refers to Ngugi as ‘erstwhile historian’ though it is not clear in what sense he can be regarded only as a former historian. Despite these minor disagreements with Sicherman, her article remains the best single piece on the topic.

  20. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), p. 400.

  21. Lisa Curtis, ‘The Divergence of Art and Ideology in the Later Novels of Ngugi wa Thiong'o: A Critique’, Ufahamu, 13 (1984), p. 198.

  22. Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (London: Heinemann Educational, 1992), p. 426.

  23. Saying is doing is our motto’, (Matigari, p. 141), is the only example or variant I have been able to locate.

  24. See Berman and Lonsdale, Chapter 12.

  25. Karl Marx, Early Writings (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1975), p. 423.

  26. R. N. Ndegwa, ‘Africa—East and Central’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 21.2 (1986), 1-5 (p. 1).

  27. The Times, 19 July 1990, p. 4.

  28. Guardian, 11 July 1990, p. 7.

  29. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by C. Nelson and L. Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988).

  30. Said, Representations of the Intellectual, p. 84.

  31. Neil Lazarus's paper, ‘Ngugi and the Crisis of Postcolonial Intellectualism’, in The World of Ngugi, ed. by Charles Cantalupo (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 1995), appeared too late for consideration in this article.

Steven Tobias (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Tobias, Steven. “The Poetics of Revolution: Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Matigari.Critique 38, no. 3 (spring 1997): 163-76.

[In the following essay, Tobias contends that Matigari utilizes an unique Marxist-African perspective to critique the sociopolitical structures existing within postcolonial African states.]

The term postcolonial literature is inherently problematic. A useful and generally acceptable definition of this nebulous and diffuse genre appears in the 1989 book, The Empire Writes Back:

What each of these [various postcolonial countries'] literatures has in common … is that they emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences from the assumptions of the imperial culture.


According to this definition, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's book Matigari can be considered a definitive postcolonial novel, as it sets a traditional Gikuyu folktale in the context of an unnamed contemporary African country. Ngugi liberally blends his re-telling of that tale with Western cultural and religious ideas. Most notably, he integrates many stories from the Bible, particularly those dealing with the life of Christ, into his version of this traditional African narrative. Additionally, his critique of the postcolonial world relies in large part upon Western Marxist thought and, as postcolonial critic Kwame Appiah notes (149), places Ngugi both politically and artistically squarely in the camp of “Left modernism.” Throughout Matigari, Ngugi employs a Marxist, yet distinctly African, perspective, to critique and expose both the overt and subtextual sociopolitical structures that exist in many postcolonial African states. As he meticulously and ironically exposes the true nature of these structures, as well as the intuitions and realms of discourse that perpetuate them, he chips away at their psychosocial power over African society. The Western reader stands accused in his or her own silent complicity with Western (post)imperial activities and attitudes.

In analyzing Matigari, it is tempting to try to locate the novel's autobiographical, nonfictional strains and to conclude that Ngugi's mythical country is a thinly disguised rendition of the author's homeland, Kenya. This assumption is only natural, considering the author-activist's own experiences, which have included imprisonment at the hands of a repressive Kenyan regime. However, such reductive historicizing encourages the reader to underestimate Ngugi's project in writing Matigari. He is purposely vague in establishing both the temporal and spatial settings of his novel; he refuses to define where and when his story takes place, insisting in a prefatory song:

This story is imaginary.
The actions are imaginary.
The characters are imaginary.
The country is imaginary—it has no name even.
Reader/listener: may the story take place in the country of your choice!


If readers disregard that advice, then they may underestimate and, consequently, miss the book's broader political implications. Matigari is not the story of one isolated country but a schematized documentation of the entire postcolonial experience. In his novel, Ngugi recounts the way in which Western institutions and codes supplant those that are native to Africa in the service of both the continent's former colonizers and their newly arisen African imitators. In that regard, Matigari can be viewed as an abstract philosophical work with both descriptive and prescriptive elements.

The final line of Ngugi's preface, “may the story take place in the country of your choice,” establishes the novelist's narrative double-consciousness. On its surface, the statement appears merely to serve as a framing device to identify and establish the novel's romantic, quasi-allegorical nature. Although the song fulfills that function, it also demonstrates Ngugi's self-consciousness about the divided nature of his audience. That awareness results in the bi-vocal narrative stance that Ngugi adopts throughout Matigari. From the perspective of his Western readership, Ngugi's apparent blessing functions as an oblique accusation. It unhappily recognizes that a sociopolitical apparatus like the one portrayed in Matigari may be installed in any third world nation that is targeted by the power brokers of the West. Conversely, from an African perspective the line represents a genuine blessing. Not only does it anticipate the novel's revolutionary conclusion, but it stands as a rallying cry for the “wretched of the earth” to follow Matigari's lead in rebelling—both politically and psychologically—against postcolonial domination.

In Matigari, Ngugi explores the various ways in which a postcolonial oligarchy may control and exploit a formerly colonized people. In fact, the book reads like a veritable how-to manual for the installation and maintenance of a postcolonial military dictatorship. The book begins as Ngugi's hero, Matigari ma Njiruungi, returns from what has apparently been an extended guerilla war. After many years of fighting, he has vanquished his longtime foes, Settler Howard Williams and his retainer, John Boy Sr. It quickly becomes obvious that Matigari is an allegorical figure who is meant to embody the spirit of all African freedom fighters. That metonymy is reinforced by many of the character's statements about his personal history, which has been defined entirely by opposition to colonial rule. For example, “I did not begin yesterday … Just consider, I was there at the time of the Portuguese, and at the time of the Arabs, and at the time of the British—” (45). In fact, the name “Matigari” in Gikuyu literally means “the patriots [plural] who survived the bullets.” Likewise, all of the central characters of Matigari are allegorical figures representing the primary social and political forces in the postcolonial power field. The various Settlers Williams are intended to represent all of Africa's former and current foreign exploiters, whereas the John Boys represent those Africans who have collaborated with and profited from Africa's colonization throughout the continent's history. Matigari's apparent defeat of his archenemies firmly grounds Ngugi's tale in the realm of the recently liberated postcolonial world. That tentative, idealized placement is as close as Ngugi comes to articulating a specific setting for his novel. I have already noted that the book is more about a sociopolitical condition than a specific time or place.

The postcolonial world is completely new for Ngugi's hero. Significantly, the following is the first thing that he sees when he emerges from the jungle:

In the Mercedes was a black man with a bottle of beer and a black woman with a soft drink. His [Matigari's] thoughts soon drifted from the news to the cars which drove past him. Some had only Europeans in them, others Asians, and others Africans. Long, long before, he had been Settler Williams' chauffeur. How things had changed! Who could ever have believed that Africans would own their own cars?


Matigari naively assumes that because his former oppressors are dead, all will be right in his homeland. He sees an African driving a luxury car and enjoying Western style products; and not yet become acquainted with the ways of the postcolonial world, he interprets that scene positively. Soon he comes to understand that many of his countrymen have adopted attitudes and allegiances that are as European as the cars they are driving.

Matigari's initial naiveté is not surprising. In fact, it is typical of the way that many Africans, especially African intellectuals, reacted to independence. The postcolonial literary and cultural critic Neil Lazarus describes how a substantial number of African writers perceived and subsequently represented the transition process:

The transfer of power at independence seemed to constitute an event like the storming of the Winter Palace. In common with other progressive intellectuals in the postcolonial era, radical African writers tended to drastically overvalue the emancipatory significance of independence.


Matigari sadly learns that although the apparent social order of his country may have changed with political independence, many of the ills of colonialism are still in effect. Through the education of his protagonist, Ngugi hints at his own development both as a postcolonial writer and as a political activist. His artistic and political development is strikingly evident when one compares his early works such as Weep Not, Child with his later novels such as Devil on the Cross and Matigari. The later novels are not only more characteristically postmodern but exhibit a more ironic and, perhaps justifiable cynicism.

On his quest for truth and justice in the new African order, Matigari visits a factory, mistakenly thinking that he will find there the reforms and social justice that independence really should have produced. Based on pre-independence rhetoric, Matigari naively assumes that a factory is “the workers' meeting place” (9). Instead of a communal expression of brotherhood and cooperation, he discovers the true face of independence: a prison-like, “Anglo-American” workhouse. A sophisticated series of security barriers maintained by an African employee protects the building. The guard wears a Western style uniform, ironically inscribed with the words “Guard, Company Property.” The label proves prophetic as Matigari begins to realize that in the postcolonial era, the majority of his fellow countrymen have been transformed into virtual chattels. Alien political and economic interests have scripted their very identities as human beings.

When Matigari meets the sons of Settler Williams and John Boy Sr., he begins to understand fully the true nature of postcolonial life. His initial encounter with those two characters establishes the sociopolitical dynamics of the new era, which bodes ill from its very beginning:

A white man and a black man sat on horseback on one side of the narrow tarmac road next to the gate. Their horses were exactly alike … The riders too wore clothes of the same colour. Indeed, the only difference between the men was their skin colour.


In the ensuing scene, Matigari tries to reclaim his rightful house from John Boy Jr., an action with broader symbolic connotations. Matigari himself built the house during the colonial era; he believes that he should be able to reclaim it and live in it now that his country has achieved independence. But John Boy Jr., who has fully accepted the corrupt and self-serving values of his former colonizers, sees no reason why he should give up the property simply because it rightfully belongs to Matigari.

That scene can be read as a metaphor for the entire postcolonial experience. The most telling aspect of its dialogue is the part played by Robert Williams. Although he apparently contributes little to the conversation, he shows himself to be the driving force behind the exchange as he thoroughly manipulates John Boy Jr. Williams makes it clear that the entire incident is nothing more than an elaborate game that he has designed for his own amusement and benefit. Ngugi emphasizes Williams's near-magical control over John Boy's ability to speak, and consequently to script reality, by reproducing his alien, English speech in italics. The initial exchange between Williams and John Boy establishes the surreal parameters of postcolonial discourse as Ngugi perceives them:

Is he [Matigari] alright?” the white man asked the black man. “Amuse him a little, eh? A piece of comic theater, eh? I will be the audience and you the two actors.

I was ever such a poor actor,” the black man said. “And I would prefer a tragic role. But to amuse you, I'll try … Who are you?” he now asked Matigari.


Throughout that conversation, Williams repeatedly alludes to the manipulative—but covertly so—nature of newly liberated African society. Although he describes his role in contemporary African sociopolitics as if he were merely an actor in a play, he could more appropriately be characterized as the drama's “director” or “stage-manager.” In the new era of African independence, he advances his own ends by enlisting those Africans who have bought into his Eurocentric world view. He acknowledges this new, more subtle political strategy when he chastises John Boy Jr. for being too openly hostile towards Matigari, “Cool it. Remember you are playing a comic role; the tragic role was played by our fathers” (47). The postcolonial Williams is nearly as influential as was his colonial father; but unlike his father, he has moved safely behind the scenes.

Although Boy's submissive relationship with Williams is in large measure based upon the African's desire for wealth and power, it must also be understood in light of a psychological condition that is common among colonized peoples. Frantz Fanon in his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, first detailed that process, which has been termed, among other things, a “peripeteia of values.” The condition occurs in colonized peoples who habitually evaluate their own cultures negatively in terms of their colonizers' externally imposed standards and values. The critic Abdul Jan Mohamed defines peripeteia as

A sudden change in the cultural orientation of the colonized subject. By choosing the apparently superior values of the European, the African implicitly rejects his own being, because it is a product of the culture he is abandoning, and therefore subjects himself to profound conflict and confusion. Because his initial understanding of the alien culture is bound to be superficial, the man who exposes himself to this peripeteia (as he is systematically encouraged to do so by the colonizer) tends to be characterized by an abstract and vague view of the world and his own predicament.


In Matigari it is clear that Boy's subject position has been so thoroughly and artificially determined and re-scripted by alien values that he has not only rejected but actually forgotten his African identity.

Tragic irony, which Ngugi uses forcefully to expose both the debilitating effects and the genuine horror of peripeteia, springs from Boy's complete and oblivious acceptance of his occidentally conceived “comic role.” Boy chastises Matigari:

White people are advanced because they respect the word, and therefore honor the freedom of the individual, which means the freedom of everyone to follow his own whims without worrying about the others. Survival of the fittest. But you black people? You walk about fettered to your clans, nationalities, people, masses.


The rules and inherent dividing practices of Williams's value and language systems powerfully equate white with pleasure and goodness and associate black with punishment and evil. Because he has subscribed wholeheartedly to Williams's Manichean aesthetic, John Boy Jr. can no longer even acknowledge his own “blackness.” In denying his heritage and culture, he finds it psychologically necessary to externalize his African identity, projecting both it and the negative qualities he associates with it onto Matigari and other “black people.”

With that encounter Ngugi establishes the foundation for his meticulous critique of the concept and function of law in the postcolonial world. By referencing its behavior to the concept of a supposedly objective, intractable law, a postcolonial government can justify its actions no matter how egregious they are—or how mercurially it applies its laws to its citizenry. The fictional government of Matigari justifies all its exploitive behavior by using that strategy; its officials repeatedly cite nebulous legal precedents, such as the “Chief Act,” to validate everything from land seizure to rape. The purpose of their strategy is to create the appearance that the law is an objective set of ideas enacted to protect ordinary African people rather than a pretense designed to further the government's own ends.

In an attempt to invalidate Matigari's just claim to the home he has built, John Boy Jr. immediately and instinctively seeks refuge in the law: “John Boy Junior shouted as if he were now addressing a huge crowd. ‘Yes, where is the contract? … This house belongs to another” (49). With that outburst, Boy's tone shifts. Ngugi emphasizes Boy's rhetorical manipulation of language by having him adopt, at this point in the dispute, a very public, formalized discourse. Boy's linguistic ploy is designed to force the conversation toward the unfair, predetermined outcome that the corrupt state has sanctioned. Boy, of course, realizes that the result favors his own agenda and social position as a member of the petit bourgeoisie and a willing utensil of Western imperial interests.

Ngugi contrasts Boy's hollow pretensions about the law with real justice, which is grounded in the body—and very blood—of his hero. In response to Boy's query about whether or not he possesses a “title-deed” to his house, Matigari says, “My hands are the surest title-deed there ever was. What other deed do you need that is greater than the blood that I shed?” (50). The force of Matigari's claim exposes the falsehood of Boy's law. Matigari has built the house and correctly and repeatedly identifies Boy as one of those people “who-reap-where-they-have-not-sown.”

Ngugi continually attempts to drag his discussion of morality away from bureaucratic, self-serving accounts of law and to reinscribe them in practice. Matigari learns the true nature of the postcolonial social situation from an aged prophetess whom he meets on his self-imposed quest for truth and justice. She tells him, “Truth and justice are to be found in people's actions. Right and wrong are embedded in what people do … There is too much fear in this country. How does the saying go? Too much fear breeds misery in the land” (87). In Matigari, the law is not only exposed as a construct designed to secure the property and privileges of the ruling class but also is shown to be the source of the population's powerlessness and resulting fear.

The use and misuse of law marginalize and extinguish opposition to the country's government. Nowhere in Matigari is this more apparent than in the meeting called by the ironically titled Minister for Truth and Justice. The minister begins his speech with a general discussion of law. The contents of this discussion stand in direct opposition to the advice Matigari has received from the African Sybil. The minister states, partly to threaten his country's citizens into submissiveness and partly to reassure a contingent of observing foreign dignitary-investors, “The rule of law is the true measure of civilization. … Let me tell you: Law is law” (102). The minister quite consciously uses the tautological idea of “law” as he has defined it to stifle all political opposition. The official pretense for holding the meeting is to resolve the country's recent labor disputes. However, rather than actually negotiating an agreement as might be expected or hoped, the minister sidesteps the country's labor problems by employing a bit of rhetorical legerdemain. Through a kind of perverse and solipsistic transitive proof he concludes:

From now onwards, anyone who goes on strike against this company will actually be striking against the government. Provoking this company will be exactly the same as sticking a finger in the nose of the ruling party. Hurling abuse at this company is the same as hurling insults at the nation.


The rest of the minister's speech is organized around similarly argued modes of deception that are the true basis for the country's socioeconomic system. It is the willy-nilly mutability of the “law” that represents the fundamental tragedy of the postcolonial experience.

With Matigari's arrival, the meeting quickly degenerates into a conflict in which he challenges the presiding officials' right to rule the country. In response to his outburst, Matigari is instructed by the Minister for Truth and Justice, “Stop speaking in parables. If you want to ask a question, then do so in plain language” (113). Matigari refuses to conform to the institutionalized mode of discourse; when he asks one too many accusatory questions, which the minister attempts discredit by labeling them as “Maoist,” he is seized by a police commissioner. He and the other people at the meeting who oppose the government are then acquainted with what the Minister of Truth and Justice lauds as “instant justice” (117)

Ngugi sharply attacks the way in which many postcolonial dictatorships improperly manipulate their countries' legal systems to silence whoever opposes their rule. Clearly, such judicial processes provide a convenient excuse for the elimination of political rivals. In addition, they serve another and possibly even more important function—to bolster and affirm the power of the ruling class and its institutions. A public trial reinforces the idea that the existing law is true. All citizens witness the conviction, confession, and consequent sentence, which testify to the truth and power of the paradigm that has assigned and executed them. That periodic manifestation of power reminds the general population that it must adhere to the rule of universal, omnipresent law: what the government chooses to insist is right.1

The government of His Excellency Ole Excellency, Ngugi's archetypal dictator, must respond severely to Matigari's challenge because it constitutes a direct affront to the government's ability to maintain absolute power. Matigari's opposition poses a particularly dramatic threat to the power of His Excellency Ole Excellency because of the context in which it is delivered. First, Matigari has questioned the government's legitimacy in front of the general populace, including the already disillusioned labor unions. Their members are primed for civil disobedience, and Matigari's public display of resistance can serve only to encourage such action. Second, Matigari's challenge to governmental authority occurs in front of representatives of the country's foreign investors and allies. If those representatives receive the impression that Ole Excellency's country is unstable—that he lacks the absolute power to maintain and guide a population in producing materials for sale abroad—then they may withdraw their funds. For the country's elite, who have cultivated a taste for foreign luxuries, such a threat must seem great indeed. The minister is very aware of the multilevel threat that Matigari poses and in an effort to discredit the revolutionary's words and deeds, he tells the crowd:

I want you, together with our visitors from USA, Britain, West Germany and France, to witness how law works in a country under Christian democracy. In some countries I know of, criminals such as these would have been hanged, or made to face the firing-squad. But here everything must be done under the law.


After Matigari's public challenge, it is in the best interest of Ole Excellency's government to convict him as a criminal and a “murderer.” Although this sentence serves to remove Matigari physically from the political scene, something else must be attended to: his ideas must also be fully discredited and shown to constitute deranged ravings. The best way to do that is to pronounce him officially and scientifically “insane” and relegate him to a mental institution. When faced with Matigari's probing political questions, the Minister for Truth and Justice responds:

This man who calls himself Matigari ma Njiruungi should be hanged. Didn't you hear him confess that he was a murderer? But the judges have found him insane. The hooded justice testified how Matigari ma Njiruungi shared his bread and beer in gaol in clear imitation of Christ's Last Supper. And here you heard him ramble on about his years in the forest and mountains, fighting Boy and Williams. All this goes to show that such a person must be out of his mind.


The pronouncement of “lunacy” is a far more politically effective weapon than a simple execution that might help to reinforce Matigari's messianic qualities.

Ngugi shows how concepts of sanity, like concepts of law, can become infinitely malleable in corrupt governmental hands and are often politically motivated. Anything that deviates from the political and economic goals of the ruling class, or even smacks too much of African culture, is labeled “insane” according to supposedly unbiased, diagnostic criteria. Opposition leaders thereby are marginalized and their ability to effect social change is negated. In the episode in which Matigari escapes from the mental institution to which the government has sent him, Ngugi wryly makes his point about “political insanity.” The official news agency, The Voice of Truth, documents both Matigari's escape and the ensuing nationwide manhunt. It warns the country's populace:

This is another special police announcement. … The public are requested to report to the nearest police station anybody found speaking like a madman, or dressed in rags like a madman, or anyone with unkempt hair like a madman's or anybody seen asking awkward questions like a madman, or doing things which only a madman would do.


Following what can be assumed to have been several embarrassing incidents, the government drastically and tellingly alters its definition of madness. The Voice of Truth announces the government's revised policy:

The police have been told not to harass white people even if they are wearing long beards and have unkempt hair or even if they are dressed in dirty clothes … The Minister for Truth and Justice apologized and warned people against racism. The public were warned against finding fault in people because of their white colour. The chief of police has told the police and members of the public that, in any case, white people do not go mad.


Through these announcements, Ngugi illustrates how official rhetoric can be used to privilege one race or culture over another. Those broadcasts operate on the not-so-subtle assumption that white colonials cannot suffer from mental illnesses or abnormalities of any kind. That is not surprising, as it is Western colonials and their African imitator-heirs who have defined the country's official norms.

Because The Voice of Truth is the most effective vehicle for disseminating information, the populace of this fictive country possesses a limited capacity for objectively evaluating the news it receives from official bulletins. Ultimately, the government engages in a practice all too common in many postcolonial military dictatorships: it simply scripts and disseminates the story that it finds most politically convenient. The Voice of Truth untruthfully proclaims:

… A special announcement … The police have revealed that one of the escaped madmen is the one who calls himself Matigari ma Njiruungi. The public are warned that this man is particularly dangerous because he has delusions that everything belongs to him: houses, the land, the industries and even all the women.


It is significant that that broadcast stresses Matigari's supposed delusion that he has a right to all the country's women. In attempting to link Matigari not only with madness but with abnormal sexual appetites and practices, the government tries to discredit further his political agenda.

Ngugi fully understands the power of such claims concerning sexuality. He explores the way in which governments attempt to cause hysteria among those that they either wish to control and manipulate for their own purposes or to render undesirable and therefore socially and politically powerless. The government of Matigari's fictional country makes such claims throughout the novel. Its official pronouncements continually posit a causal relationship between the country's problems and its citizens' sexual appetites and practices. In particular, the government singles out women, whom it chastises for their promiscuity and warns about the ethical and social dangers of adultery. In one particularly alarming passage, a member of parliament announces:

I shall get the USA to establish one of those open-air birth-control clinics where the women can have their wombs closed. … But there is an even better and more efficient method of curbing population growth. Pregnancies are the result of evil and wild desires. I shall get the government to ban dreams and desires of that kind for a period of about two years. Fucking among the poor shall be stopped by presidential decree!


Through such grotesque parody, Ngugi illustrates how governments often attempt to shift the blame for the social ills they engender onto the reproductive behavior of their poor and disenfranchised citizens. Such practices are certainly not limited to postcolonial politics.

Through the manipulation of the concepts of law, sanity, and sexuality, the government of Ngugi's fictional state is able to transform its territory into a prison-factory, dedicated solely to making its wealthy elite even wealthier. No aspect of the postcolonial citizen's life is left untouched by manipulative, intrusive discourse or its supporting institutions. Government officials continually remind their audiences that they are always on display and in danger of violating one of many official prohibitions. The Minister for Truth and Justice warns, “The government has eyes and ears all over” (117). Not by chance the two highest decorations that the ruling party can bestow upon its supporters are “GKM (The President's Ears)” and “MMT (Eyes of the State)” (104).

Conversely, those with real power are commonly hidden from view. The Minister for Truth and Justice is a rare exception in that regard. More typical are hidden judges that manipulate secret evidence, hooded informants that look suspiciously like American Klansman, and of course, the country's mysteriously shrouded president, Ole Excellency himself, who never physically appears in the novel. Because of his physical absence, the government's propaganda machine can transform him into a quasi-deity whose will and power manifest themselves through radio broadcasts and hymns sung in his honor. Like God, his existence is beyond any fixed definition or specific locale, despite the fact that his government's interaction with its citizens—except when being scrutinized at a public rally—usually is at the level of brute physicality.

All this governmental theatricality and coercion is not without a purpose: the manipulation and conversion of the country's bio-power into wealth—specifically Western luxuries—for the governing elite to enjoy.2 In particular, both the cult-like deification of Ole Excellency and his corporeal associations with the country help to generate a willing and malleable work force.3 In contrast to the quasi-religious atmosphere that Ole Excellency and his government try to project, the majority of the country's citizens are forced to live and work in squalid, prisonlike conditions. Ngugi expresses this fact in direct language, producing a stark but telling image that seems to echo the common Western idiom about being caught between a rock and a hard place: “The people were trapped between the police on one side and the factory walls on the other. The factory was converted into a prison” (74). The government employs self-serving legal techniques, backed up by the threat of force, to deceive the populace and to justify the de facto enslavement of its citizens. Typically, the government perpetrates its injustices under the guise of openness and productivity. The Minister for Truth and Justices announces to his horrified audience of factory workers:

We like to do things in the open. Christian democracy. Honesty … But the most impressive thing this company has done, a real revolutionary step, is that they have given the ruling party a few shares. … this company has given shares to the country, the whole nation. From now onwards, all of you here and even those who are not here have a stake in the company.


With this pronouncement, the country's workers lose their last vestige of political power and become veritable slaves in service of the government.

Ngugi critiques such aspects and mechanisms of the postcolonial state to discredit them and make any future applications less effective. Ngugi's appropriation of Western modes of discourse to further his own political agenda might seem problematic at best, and at worst, directly counterproductive to his task. Moreover, it might seem particularly surprising to encounter well-known Western stories and political strategies in a novel written by the author of the essay “On the Abolition of the English Department,” who has often expressed his opinion that “[c]olonization is only a passing historical feature which can be left behind entirely when ‘full Independence’ of culture and political organization is achieved” (Ashcroft 30). However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Ngugi's use of Western subject matter and ideas—particularly Marxism and Christianity—is counterproductive to his revolutionary, Afrocentric aim. In fact, his careful blending of Western and African ideas seems to indicate that in writing Matigari, Ngugi is attempting to create an objective space from which to better consider both cultures. The creation of such a space is an important step for (post) colonial subjects to overcome their “peripeteia of values.” Ngugi's development of such a space reflects his own psychological and artistic development. It has been suggested that this evolution may help account for the stylistic and thematic difference between the author's early novels and his more recent works (Jan Mohammed 193). The earlier works, such as Weep Not, Child,Petals of Blood, and A Grain of Wheat, were penned when the author still used his baptismal name, James. He composed the later novels, such as Matigari and Devil on the Cross, after reverting to his Gikuyu name. Unquestionably, names play an important part in how people both define and express their social identities and their conceptions of themselves.

Despite Ngugi's use of Western stories and ideas, his decision to write Matigari in Gikuyu defines his primary audience as an African one. Although Ngugi uses the Christian story, he does so without foregrounding or endorsing the Eurocentric traditions and practices that are often associated with Christianity. Because the New Testament would be quite familiar to many of his African readers, they would easily engage with Matigari's themes of redemption and rebirth. In addition, Ngugi's Gikuyu audience would relate especially to, and appreciate, the novel because the culture has had a strong messianic tradition that has played an important part in recent Kenyan history. As critic Jan Mohamed has noted:

All Gikuyu biographies trace the ancestry of the tribe back into the mythic past, which includes the ancient prophetic tradition centering on Mugo wa Kibiro's prediction that a savior would come to liberate them from English colonial occupation. Few Gikuyus of the time [1940s and 1950s] doubted that Kenyatta represented the fulfillment of Mugo wa Kibiro's prophecy. Kenyatta systematically used this messianic tradition to further the political aims of the Gikuyu and consequently the atmosphere at the time was extremely charged with religious expectations aroused by the coming savior.


As a result, the life of Christ becomes a convenient intercultural device and subtext which Ngugi uses wisely in furthering his primarily African agenda. It also allows him to produce a novel that is readily accessibly to Western audiences.

Although Ngugi portrays Matigari as a Christlike savior, ultimately, both writer and hero conclude that Africans must do for themselves rather than relying solely or even primarily on Western religious values and ideals. They reach that conclusion because the Western institutions that espouse Christian values and ideals have traditionally served to propagate colonialism: many of Africa's first and most committed colonizers were Western missionaries. As a result, Matigari renounces his belt of peace and his Christlike role and re-arms himself for a new struggle: to achieve real economic and cultural determinacy for Africans in the postcolonial era. Quite significantly, it is an African parable that leads Matigari to his decision to fight: “When the worker in metals returned from where he practiced his skill far away from home, and found an ogre starving his expectant wife, did he send the ogre a peace greetings? Did he not first sharpen his spear?” (131). Just as Matigari renounces the belt of peace once it has lost its social relevance, Ngugi employs Christianity only so far as it meshes with and furthers his African agenda.

If it seems that Ngugi is either subverting or supplanting many of the Christian ideals and Biblical stories that he appropriates for use in Matigari, he may be doing so to challenge and shock his Eurocentric readers. Ngugi announces that in future relations with their former colonizers, Africans will be happy to appropriate useful elements from Western culture but will reject those elements that prove either nonessential or oppressive. In doing so, Ngugi cannot help tossing stones at those who would claim Christianity as a white, guiltless, and exclusively Western religion. He taunts such readers by claiming that the Second Coming will have a decidedly African flavor, a possibility that is beyond the scope of many Western imaginations. “Where is the oldest church in the world? In Ethiopia, Africa. When he [Jesus] was a baby, where did he flee to? Egypt, Africa. What has happened before can happen again” (81). Furthermore, Ngugi chastises his Western readers by suggesting that when Christ returns, it will be for the express purpose of liberating the people of Africa from their postcolonial oppressors. Such rhetoric is a powerful weapon as it uses some of the West's most sacred religious criteria to establish Western guilt stemming from a history of colonial and postcolonial practices. In this regard, Ngugi's novel can be read as a warning to those people who would continue to exploit the continent and its people. Matigari suggests that such attempts will not be tolerated and, if necessary, will be met with appropriate and legitimate violence.

However, the novel stands primarily as a powerful call for Africans to reject the role of a people enthralled by either overt colonialism or any of its newer and more oblique guises. Ngugi encourages his African readers to strive for real independence. He does so partly by actively challenging any form of discourse that foregrounds white, Western cultural codes and seeks to label black African culture as atypical or aberrant. Only through such a self-conscious and politically savvy examination of the (post)colonial condition may subjects reverse “peripeteia.” As critic Jan Mohamed has noted, “This syndrome and its various symptoms can only be cured through a political understanding of the colonial situation and the real relative merits of the different cultural values” (186). In writing Matigari, Ngugi establishes an intellectual space in which to create such an understanding.


  1. For a clear explanation of why the spectacle of the trial must be seen, see Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1989) 47. Foucault describes the powerful role that swift and public punishment has played historically in reinforcing governmental control in Western countries. He writes, “The public execution is to be understood not only as a judicial, but also as a political ritual. It belongs, even in minor cases, to the ceremonies by which power is manifested … Besides its immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.” It seems likely that such sociopolitical governmental strategies and attitudes may have been exported to Africa under European colonial rule and subsequently adopted by many of Europe's postcolonial African heirs. In addition, because Foucault and Ngugi have both been heavily influenced by Marxism, the heuristic suggested by the French theorist's writings often proves a useful tool for elucidating the novelist's political perspective. This is true despite the different cultural backgrounds of the authors and their seemingly dissimilar sociopolitical concerns.

  2. Obviously, a postcolonial oligarchy needs willing and docile workers to produce capital. In The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley, 3 vols. (New York: Random House, 1978-86) 140-141, Foucault has this to say about bio-power's importance to and function in the evolution of European capitalism: “Bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes.”

  3. In Discipline and Punish 149-50, Foucault describes how a similar state-sponsored, religious fervor was encouraged by European governments among potential workers in the nineteenth century: “When the rural populations were needed in industry, they were sometimes formed into ‘congregations,’ in an attempt to inure them to work in workshops; the framework of the ‘factory-monastery’ was imposed upon the workers.” It seems likely that such a strategy may have been exported to Africa during the late nineteenth century, a time of fervent European colonization.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Jan Mohamed, Abdul. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst: Massachusetts UP, 1983.

Lazarus, Neil. Resistance in Postcolonial African Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

wa Thiong'o, Ngugi. Matigari. London: Heinemann, 1990.

Christopher Wise (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Wise, Christopher. “Resurrecting the Devil: Notes on Ngugi's Theory of the Oral-Aural African Novel.” Research in African Literatures 28, no. 1 (spring 1997): 134-40.

[In the following essay, Wise discusses contradictions in Ngugi's theories on oral and written literature, comparing Ngugi's fictional works with such critical works as Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.]

The loss of the oral-aural lifeworld and community values of precolonial African culture forms a great theme of contemporary African literature, though perhaps nowhere more so than in the theoretical writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.1 In fact, Ngũgĩ has described himself as one of the “Okonkwos of [African] literature” (Moving the Centre 3), a statement that may reveal more about his private literary obsessions than he himself is aware. Indeed, Ngũgĩ's writings are deeply marked by his longing for the lost community setting of his childhood in a Gikuyu village, a “harmonious” past he often describes in frankly idyllic (if not utopian) terms, before the trauma of his indoctrination into the British educational system. Though largely frustrated in this regard, while working with the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre, where his (and Ngũgĩ wa Mirii's) play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) was performed in 1977, Ngũgĩ was able at last to return to live and work amid the Gikuyu peasantry, an experience that forever altered his life and approach to writing. Ngũgĩ himself has described this experience in terms of an “epistemological break” with his past ([Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature] 44), even a salvational experience in which he felt again “at one with the people” (Detained 78). In the community environment of the play's production, Ngũgĩ felt that Gikuyu theater was at last able to become what it was in the past, “part of a collective festival” (Decolonising 57).

As is now well known, following his arrest by the Kenyatta regime and his year-long incarceration without trial, Ngũgĩ decided he could no longer write in the English language, but only in Gikuyu, largely due to his experience with the Kamiriithu theater. Ngũgĩ's 1980 Gikuyu-language novel Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (trans. in English as Devil on the Cross) was his first attempt at writing a novel in the language of his childhood and was written mostly on toilet paper at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison in Kenya. However, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this novel was not so much the extreme circumstances behind its composition, but rather its public reception as an “oral” text among the Gikuyu people. The fact that Devil on the Cross was read in buses, bars, and other public settings has led Ngũgĩ to describe his novel's reception in terms of “the appropriation of the novel into the oral tradition” (Decolonising 83). Ngũgĩ has further stated that “Devil on the Cross was received [by the Gikuyu] into the age old tradition of storytelling around the fireside; and the tradition of group reception of art that enhances the aesthetic pleasure and provokes interpretation, comments, and discussion.” By subverting the standard reception of the bourgeois novel of realism, and through abandoning the language of Kenya's colonizers, Ngũgĩ felt that the final “barriers” separating himself from the Gikuyu peasantry had been removed (Decolonising 45).

Without denigrating Ngũgĩ's achievements in this regard, which are in fact remarkable, his theory of the novel may overdramatize the contiguous relation between Gikuyu orature and his own Gikuyu-language novels. Like Plato of the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter (and like numerous Christian authors throughout history), Ngũgĩ seeks to undercut the written status of his own texts, insisting upon the priority of the living or spoken word, or the Real Word as it comes into being in time. What is often neglected in his account, however, is the unavoidably written status of his own work, or the fact that Devil on the Cross and Matigari Ma Njiruungi (trans. in English as Matigari) (1982) are, of course, not orature or oral “texts,” but are instead (and unavoidably) reified and lifeless artifacts; that is to say, they are ontological things that are only later resurrected as spoken words within an oral-aural setting. In other words, Ngũgĩ ignores the unavoidable relationship between writing and death, or the fact that “death inhabits texts,” to quote Walter J. Ong (Interfaces 238). Theodor W. Adorno similarly speaks of the relationship between writing and death, suggesting that the writer must “submit to reification” (321).2 In his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno states that the newly dead human corpse, when it is “frozen in its unputrified shape,” may serve as a paradigm of writing and art in general: this is what Adorno calls “the reification of the living at the moment of death” (393). Ong also shows how “the kind of life [that] writing enjoys remains bizarre, for it is achieved at the price of death” (234; emphasis added). Despite the originality of his approach, Ngũgĩ seems largely unaware of the unavoidably high price of writing, and he also seems unaware of the latently Christian bias inherent in his faith that the Word may be “born again” in an oral-aural setting after its first death. “I am only a stammer who tries to find articulate speech in scribbled words,” Ngũgĩ tells us (Detained 97). But this quest is always already doomed to failure since the living or spoken word can never be found in “scribbled” or chirographic marks on the surface of paper. Speech, unlike writing, as George Steiner says, never “stands for” or “describes” the fact: it is the fact (328).

The contradictions of Ngũgĩ's theoretical position are perhaps most apparent in his discussions of Devil on the Cross's composition and in his own theory of language offered in Decolonising the Mind. Ngũgĩ states that “[t]he written word imitates the spoken word. … Writing is a representation of sounds with visual symbols” (14). Without raising the specter of poststructuralism's attack on mimesis and representational discourse, we may only say here that thus far, Ngũgĩ's argument remains coherent on its own terms. However, Ngũgĩ then asserts that “[i]n most societies the written and the spoken languages are the same in that they represent each other” (14). Taken at face value, Ngũgĩ is simply saying that in the noncolonized world, the spoken language of a child's natural environment does not differ from the written language of his educational environment. But there is also an unexplored elision here, an unproblematized assumption on Ngũgĩ's part that the written and the spoken word are somehow conterminous. In other words, if the written word “imitates” the spoken word, as Ngũgĩ previously asserted, it is disqualified in advance from being “the same” as the spoken word, as he later asserts. Among others, Ong has shown, for example, that “speech in its original state has nothing at all to do with writing” (Presence 21). Another way of saying this might be that Ngũgĩ, despite his political commitments to historical materialism, neglects to consider the fundamental materiality of the word in its divergent written and spoken forms.

Later, Ngũgĩ also suggests that the imposition of English in his educational environment caused the pre-existing “harmony” of his linguistic lifeworld to be shattered, chiefly through enacting “a disassociation of sensibility” in his young mind (Decolonising 16-17). If Ngũgĩ describes an obviously traumatic and oppressive experience, a number of unasked questions remain: for example, what of the prior and perhaps more fundamental disassociation that occurs whenever the written word is introduced into the lifeworld of any oral-aural culture? Does Ngũgĩ conflate the written and spoken word by suggesting that a “harmonious” relationship existed for him between written and spoken Gikuyu, a relationship that may be ontologically more problematic than the one between spoken Gikuyu and spoken English? Ngũgĩ tells us, for example, that his earliest education was in the Gikuyu language, and that he read the Bible, folktales, missionary literature, and other texts in Gikuyu before attending an English-language school (71).

Ngũgĩ's lamentation for the loss of immediacy, his complaint that “learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience” (17), may then be related not only to the violent imposition of English, but to a problem inherent in any literate-based rather than oral-based (or spoken) form of learning, an experience that is alienating and inward by definition. Ngũgĩ states, for example:

… the written language of a child's upbringing in school … became divorced from his spoken language at home. There was often not the slightest relationship between the child's written world, which was also the language of his schooling, and the world of his immediate environment in the family and in the community. For a colonial child, the harmony … was irrevocably broken.


While in a colonial setting, the experience Ngũgĩ describes would obviously be more traumatic, especially insofar as the language of instruction differed from the student's primary language,3 Ngũgĩ may fail to take into account the implications of the fact that the written language of any educational system (insofar as it is written at all) will inevitably cause a rupture within a child's oral-aural lifeworld, even within a monolinguistic setting. When one considers the relative newness of written language in human history, given the oral basis of human culture from the dawning of prehistoric times, it may well be that the trauma resulting from the colonized child's entry into written language is more decisive in rupturing the pre-existing harmony of his or her oral-aural lifeworld than the introduction of a foreign language. The trauma in this sense, however, would be the trauma arising from the death or “killing” of the word as sound and living event, the affixing of the spoken word to the written page.

The etymological relationship between the words affix and crucifix is, of course, no accident. The verb to affix comes from the Latin word affigere, meaning “to fasten,” whereas the verb to crucify, means “to put to death by nailing or binding to a cross,” but also “to mortify the [living] flesh.” Not surprisingly, during the writing of Devil on the Cross, Ngũgĩ complains that “words slip and slide under [his] eyes. … They would not stay in place. They would not stay still,” he tells us. “And this was often a matter of great frustration” (75). In his discussion of the slippery quality of words, Ngũgĩ quotes from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets in which the relationship between the written word and death is emphasized by Eliot's similar complaint that words “[d]ecay with imprecision, will not stay in place / Will not stay still.” Eliot's poem, which expresses the poet's dissatisfaction with the fact that the written word often prematurely “rots” before its proper mortification (especially in the sense implied by Adorno), points to the poet's own awareness that the first business of the writer is to “crucify” the spoken word by affixing it once and for all on paper. However, this awareness on Eliot's part is entirely lacking in Ngũgĩ's account.

In fact, Ngũgĩ posits a directly contiguous relation between his own Gikuyu-language novels and African orature, repeatedly asserting that he “borrows heavily from oral narrative” (77), and that the African novel itself will find its proper form only by “rooting itself in the rich oral traditions of the peasantry” (85-86). Ngũgĩ champions orature as “the basis of all genres of written [African] literature” because, he tells us, orature “beats with life and energy” (93). The living word is the “source” or well-spring of creativity for “true” African writers: “Kenyan writers have no alternative but to return to the roots,” Ngũgĩ asserts, “to return to the sources of their being in the rhythms of life and speech and languages of the Kenyan masses” (72; emphasis added). Ngũgĩ's African-language novels like Devil on the Cross are accordingly described by Ngũgĩ as “living” and “authentic” novels, whereas his “Afro-European” novels such as Petals of Blood presumably lack any truly “living” dimensions. If useful in a polemical sense, such a distinction nevertheless ignores the fact that “writing ‘lives’ only posthumously and vicariously,” to quote Ong (Interfaces 234); or Ngũgĩ elides the fact that the written word can never “live” in the way that a spoken word lives but is instead a “dead” artifact, consisting entirely of chirographic marks on a flattened surface.4 In his theory of the novel, Ngũgĩ similarly conflates oral and written traditions, stating that

the novel itself was an outgrowth from the earlier traditions of oral tales and of epic poetic narratives like those of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey or those of Liyongo in Swahili literature. These were certainly the artforms of the peasantry. The African novel as an extended narrative in written form had antecedents in African oral literatures. The most essential element of the oral tale as in that of the novel is still the story, the element of what happens next. The artistry lies in the various devices for maintaining the story.

(Decolonising 69)

Here, it may suffice to observe that the most essential element of the oral tale may not be the story at all, as Ngũgĩ asserts, but may instead be the orality of the tale itself, the fact that the oral tale is never affixed on paper like the written tale, but is experienced as an event in the world of sound.5

For this reason, the West African griot epic, which Ngũgĩ describes as “the highest development of oral tradition” (Moving the Centre 19), is never performed in the same way twice but instead varies according to each new audience and occasion. Abiola Irele reminds us, for example, that there is no “correct” version of The Epic of Son-Jara because it is not a stable or fixed text like a written document.6 In the case of the Sundiata narrative, Irele says:

The interplay between core elements of the text, which are relatively fixed (for example, the genealogies of families and clans), and the performer's free improvisations (often involving digressions and general reflections as well as anachronistic references and topical allusions), generates a profound sense that the story, though established by tradition, is at the same time constantly renewed in performance.


The communal setting of the griot's performance also sharply differs from the intensely private nature of the written text's composition. While Ngũgĩ insists that a writer is someone who “just takes down notes dictated to him by life among the people” (Detained 8), the difficulties inherent in the writing process are obviously much more complicated. Ngũgĩ repeatedly asserts that his novels are “not a product of the imaginative feats of a single author” (8), which, of course, they are not in any strict sense, but his novels are nevertheless not strictly the products of collective labor, either, like a medieval cathedral, for example, or a Hollywood film. Hence, Ngũgĩ muses that “the biggest problem facing the outgrowth and development of the African novel is finding the appropriate ‘fiction language’ … with which to effectively communicate with one's targeted audience” (Decolonising 75; emphasis added). The problem of the targeted audience's inevitable absence looms large for Ngũgĩ in ways that it obviously does not for the griot, for whom the audience is always corporeal.

In his latest book, Moving the Centre, Ngũgĩ reiterates this ongoing concern, which has only become more pronounced since his forced exile from Kenya: “For whom a writer writes is a question which has not been satisfactorily resolved by the writers in a neocolonial state” (73). Whether or not the metaphysical presence of one's audience is mythical to begin with, as Jacques Derrida has famously asserted, the fact remains that Ngũgĩ himself is haunted by this “myth,” or by the longing for the collective ritual of oral performance. He longs for the ontological solidarity of human bodies gathered in community celebration, a return to the days of precolonial Gikuyu religious festival. Hence, the inspiration for Devil on the Cross, we are told, comes in part from a tourist trip he took to see the human-shaped rocks of Idakho in western Kenya and folktales of man-eating ogres from Gikuyu orature (Decolonising 81). The human rocks of Idakho, dead-weight stones that are filled with substantiality and solidity, are surrealistically wedded to living Gikuyu orature in Ngũgĩ's imagination, that is, to spoken folktales that can only exist in the temporal flow of human life. Like Ngũgĩ's inevitably absent audience, however, the speaking stones of his imagination can never be metaphysically present in reality. It is then not only postcolonial writers who have failed “to satisfactorily resolve” the question of “for whom a writer writes,” but in fact no one has satisfactorily resolved this question because it is not really resolvable. For this reason, Walter Benjamin states, “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener” (69).

The good news, however, is that the affixed word, the spoken word chirographically reified upon a flattened surface, may of course be resurrected within a community setting, so long as its “reading” community retains the ability to decipher (or translate) its meaning. “The re-entry of any text into the oral world is a kind of resurrection,” Ong states (Interfaces 271). Hence, if it is true, as Ngũgĩ has claimed, that Devil on the Cross “was received [by the Gikuyu] into the age old tradition of storytelling around the fireside” (Decolonising 83), the novel's radically anti-Christian content, its anti-gospel or bad news for Kenya's oppressed, may be complicated, if not wholly neutralized, by Ngũgĩ's latently “Christian” and unexamined faith that the spoken word may be reborn after its death by writing: that is, after Ngũgĩ himself has crucified it.


  1. Throughout Walter J. Ong's various writings, which I draw upon here, the term oral-aural emphasizes the dual quality of sound in both “oral” (or speaking) and “aural” (or listening) cultures, or among “primary oral people” (a term also coined by Ong). See Farrell's “Introduction to Walter Ong's Work.” See also Ong, Presence of the Word 22-35.

  2. C. Lenhardt's translation of Adorno in this regard reads, “If [art] refuses to objectify itself, it becomes a commodity” (321). However, I rely on Fredric Jameson's translation in Late Marxism: “unless [art] submits to reification, it becomes a mere commodity” (181; Jameson's emphasis).

  3. For this reason, Noam Chomsky states his view that “speakers of a language that is not that of groups that dominate some society should probably be taught in their own languages at least at very early stages, until basic skills are acquired, and should be taught in the dominant language at later stages, so that they can enter the society without suffering disadvantages that are rooted in prevailing power, privilege and domination. One might hope to modify these features of the dominant society, but that is another question. Children have to be helped to function in the world that exists, which does not mean, of course, that they—or others—should not try to change it to a better world” (Language and Politics 503).

  4. As Ong makes clear, this is not to say that writing does not leave “a fixed residue,” or “trace” in a Derridean sense, but that “these associations are paradoxical, realizable only in terms of death” (Interfaces 240).

  5. See Ong's Orality and Literacy: “In fact, an oral culture has no experience of a lengthy, epic-size or novel-size climatic linear plot. It cannot organize even shorter narrative in the studious, relentless climactic way that readers of literature for the past 200 years have learned more and more to expect” (143).

  6. See also Thomas Hale's Scribe, Griot, Novelist with regard to The Epic of Askia Mohammed and its performance in Niger. Hale defines the griot as “a master of the spoken word” (38), usually understood by his public in terms of the griot's occult powers.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London; Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Chomsky, Noam. Language and Politics. Ed. C. P. Otero. Montreal: Black Rose, 1988.

Farrell, Thomas J. “An Introduction to Walter Ong's Work.” Selected Essays and Studies 1952-1991. By Walter J. Ong. Ed. Thomas J. Farrell and Paul Soukup. Atlanta: Scholars P, 1992. Vol. 1 of Faith and Contexts. 2 vols.

Hale, Thomas. Scribe, Griot, Novelist. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1990.

Irele, Abiola. “Africa: The Mali Epic of Son Jara.” The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. New York: Norton, 1995.

Jameson, Fredric. Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 1982.

———. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

———. The Presence of the Word: Some Prologomena for Cultural and Religious History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

wa Thiong'o, Ngugi. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986.

———. Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Devil on the Cross. London: Heinemann Educational, 1982.

———. Matigari. Oxford: Heinemann, 1989.

———. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1993.

Nicholas Brown (essay date winter 1999)

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SOURCE: Brown, Nicholas. “Revolution and Recidivism: The Problem of Kenyan History in the Plays of Ngugi wa Thiong'o.” Research in African Literatures 30, no. 4 (winter 1999): 56-73.

[In the following essay, Brown delineates the recurring subversive political themes in Ngugi's plays, commenting that the author's theatrical works allow “us to take seriously the possibility that art can be at war—in more than a metaphorical sense—with the state.”]

Given the immense power of the regime
. …
One would think they wouldn't have to
Fear an open word from a simple man.

—Bertolt Brecht

In a recent essay, [“Art War with the State: Writers and Guardians of Post-Colonial Society,”] Ngugi wa Thiong'o engages in a dialogue with Brecht's “The Anxieties of the Régime,” the poem from which the above fragment is taken. Ngugi, who has been censored, imprisoned, and finally exiled by the Kenyan government, has more right than anybody to pose anew the question of the “subversive” power of art. This question had begun to seem at best self-indulgent—in the context of a European or American intellectual sphere that is ready enough to assimilate the most apparently “transgressive” avant-garde aesthetics under a contemplative attitude towards the object, and a commercial sphere that immediately makes over dissent and subversion into the “alternative” and into “shock value”—at worst an ideological mystification. But Ngugi's theater, which was shut down more than once by the Kenyan state, and was ultimately razed by state police, permits us to take seriously the possibility that art can be at war—in more than a metaphorical sense—with the state. What indeed is the origin of the regime's anxiety? Is it mere paranoia? Or did Ngugi's theater pose a real threat to the neocolonial state in Kenya?

Ngugi wa Thiong'o's radical transformation of the East African theater apparatus begins in earnest in 1976 with the origins of the Kamiriithu theater group—a village-based collective of peasants, workers, petty-bourgeois, and intellectuals—which produced only two plays (I Will Marry When I Want [Ngaahika Ndeenda] and Mother, Sing for Me [Maitu Njugira]) before being shut down for good by the government of Daniel arap Moi. I will begin, however, with a somewhat earlier work, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,1 which he and Micere Githae Mugo started in 1974 and which was published just before Ngugi began work on the Kamiriithu project. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi shares the central preoccupation of the Kamiriithu plays: the attempt to narrate, and in narrating to re-think the meaning of, the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-56, whose role in forging Kenyan independence is still a matter of debate.2 Moreover, it already contains, in embryonic form, the problematic that haunts the Kamiriithu plays and which will occupy the remainder of this essay.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi begins, appropriately enough, in a courtroom, at the arraignment of Dedan Kimathi, the Mau Mau leader whose capture and execution in 1956 put a close to the already-waning period of Mau Mau resistance (see Venys 63). But the courtroom trial only frames the real trials of the play, which are four temptations Kimathi, sequestered in his cell before the courtroom trial begins, undergoes before his martyrdom. Kimathi is first visited by his capturer, Henderson, who offers him the collaborationist option: he may save himself by betraying his fellow-fighters in the forest. The second visitation, by a triumvirate of bankers (British, Indian, and African) represents the temptation to trade real victory for a share in the spoils of colonialism. The third temptation is brought by another trio—Business Executive, Politician, and Priest, all African—who represent the hollow nationalization or Africanization of the bourgeoisie, the political class, and the Church (and perhaps the intellectual class more generally). The fourth, as Henderson returns—with gloves off, so to speak—is to capitulate under brutal violence. Kimathi refuses to submit, and is sentenced to death.

Interleaved with this narrative is the story of a Boy and a Girl, who first come onstage locked in a deadly battle over a few coins tossed by a tourist. The subplot of the Boy and the Girl represents colonialism in quite another way, as a fourth principle character, a Mau Mau sympathizer, named simply the Woman, observes:

The same old story. Our people … tearing one another … and all because of the crumbs thrown at them by the exploiting foreigners. Our own food eaten and the leftovers thrown to us—in our own land, where we should have the whole share.


Continuing this allegorical subplot, the Woman ultimately unifies the two in a common effort to free Kimathi, as she asks them to smuggle a gun into the courtroom. The lesson is clear enough: that “tribalism” and other divisions, really induced by competition for scraps of colonial power, are only overcome by an armed struggle against a common enemy, forging a new national consciousness. The climax, however, as Kimathi's death sentence is announced, is more ambiguous. The Boy and the Girl, holding the gun together, stand up, crying “Not dead” and a shot is fired; but darkness falls, obscuring the meaning of the shot. But then “the stage gives way to a mighty crowd of workers and peasants at the centre of which are Boy and Girl, singing a thunderous freedom song” (84, rendered in Swahili in the English text):


Ho-oo, ho-oo mto mkuu wateremka!
Ho-oo, ho-oo mto mkuu wateremka!
Magharibi kwenda mashariki
Mto mkuu wateremka
Kaskazini kwenda kusini
Mto mkuu wateremka
Hooo-i, hoo-i kumbe adui kwela mjinga
Hooo-i, hoo-i kumbe adui kwela mjinga
Akaua mwanza mimba wetu
Akijitia yeye mshindi
Wengi zaidi wakazaliwa
Tushangilie mazao mapya
Vitinda mimba marungu juu
Tushambilie adui mpya
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye wafanya kazi wa ulimwengu
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye wafanya kazi wa ulimwengu
Na wakulima wote wadogo
Tushikaneni mikono sote
Tutwange nyororo za wabeberu
Hatutaki tumwa tena.
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye umoja wetu ni nguvu yetu
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye umoja wetu ni nguvu yetu
Tutapigana mpaka mwisho
Tufunge vita na tutashinda
Majembe juu na mapanga juu
Tujikomboe tujenge upya.


Ho-oo, ho-oo great calm river!
Ho-oo, ho-oo great calm river!
From the west to the east
Great calm river
From the north to the south
Great calm river
Hoo-i, hoo-i how the enemy is truly a fool
Hoo-i, hoo-i how the enemy is truly a fool
He killed our first-born
Making him the victor
Many more have been born
May we celebrate a new birth
The last-born, fighting-stick held high
May we ambush the new enemy
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye workers of the world
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye workers of the world
And all the peasants
Let us all link arms
Let us attack the strong man in his weak spot
We don't want slavery again
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye our unity is our strength
Hoo-ye, hoo-ye our unity is our strength
We will struggle until the end
Stand we firm, we will win
Hoes and matchets held high
May we redeem ourselves and rebuild anew.
The first substantive lines of this song celebrate a truly dialectical turn:
Hoo-i, hoo-i how the enemy is truly a fool
He killed our first-born
Making him the victor

The enemy is a fool because killing Kimathi made of him a martyr: the execution of Kimathi is simultaneously defeat and victory. But, like the shot that ended the action of the play, this martyrdom is itself ambiguous. What exactly is celebrated here? For what revolution was Kimathi's death decisive in any other but a negative way? Does this poem, in commemorating Kimathi's martyrdom, insist that it ultimately led to real independence?3 Or does it, rather, refer to a future victory, against a “new enemy”?

The temporality of these lines is deliberately ambiguous. (In fact, the entire song is temporally ambiguous, tending to gravitate towards the subjunctive.) I have had to translate “akaua” as “he killed,” but the -ka- infix denotes not necessarily the past, but simply narrative succession. Generally a sequence of verbs in the -ka- tense is preceded by a verb with a more concrete temporality (a series of instructions, for example, would begin in the present tense), but here that is not the case. The following line is temporally indistinct as well, using the -ki- infix that here hinges on the tense of the previous phrase (which, as was just noted, has no distinct temporality), an effect that can be translated into English by the progressive. In the context of the play these lines refer to Kimathi; but when the play is first published and performed in 1976 (Sicherman 10), another political martyrdom would have been fresh in the mind of any Kenyan audience: the brutal murder, almost certainly by government forces, of the politician J. M. Kariuki (himself a hero of the Mau Mau period)4 in March 1975, an assassination that provoked rioting and “the biggest political crisis which the [Kenyatta] regime had ever faced” (Independent Kenya 33).

It is not necessary to grant this specific (and speculative) interpretation to see that the “new enemy” that appears four lines after this ambiguous martyrdom certainly seems to open up the play to contemporary history rather than bringing the curtain down on the defeat of Mau Mau. But there is a slyness to this line, too, that depends on the worn-out quality of the word umoja, “unity” (literally, one-ness) a few lines later. A hasty reading or hearing of these lines celebrating the defeat of a “new enemy” with “our unity” might turn up nothing more than the submissive repetition of a constant refrain in Kenyan political discourse: the use of “unity” as a justification for repression of dissidence or, in a somewhat less ideologically suspect context, as a call for the end of “tribalism” (which call has also often been, since colonial times, a justification for repression). Here, of course, “unity” in fact names a call for a revolutionary proletarian consciousness as figured by the Boy and the Girl; but “Our unity is our strength” sounds like something that might have come from the lips of Moi as easily as from the pen of Ngugi. Similarly for “May we redeem ourselves and rebuild anew”: on a casual reading, this might sound like the perfectly acceptable Kenyatta-era rhetoric of “Harambee,” the anti-tribalist national slogan of “pulling together.”

Of course, the lines “Hoo-ye, hoo-ye workers of the world / And all the peasants / Let us all link arms” recall a quite different rhetoric, paraphrasing as they do the peroration of The Communist Manifesto. But the phrase “wafanyi kazi wa ulimwengo” has none of the recognizable urgency that the analogous phrase has in English, and “Tushikaneni mikono sote” (“let us all link arms”) is much less threatening than “Unite!” “Majembe” and “mapanga,” a few lines later, are indeed “hoes” and “matchets,” which are of course symbols of the peasantry. But, besides being part of the peasant means of production, the jembe and the panga are formidable weapons: the machete and the Kenyan hoe, which looks more like a long-handled pick-axe. The peasant with jembe held high flips rather easily between a homely and a militant image.

The point here is not that the song cannot decide what it is trying to convey, but that it is in fact a sly communication in an acceptable language of a forbidden message. Taken at face value, it appeals to national unity, to Independence as the “defeat” of the colonial power (a vexed issue to which we will have to return), to the rustic values of the hoe and the matchet. But, attended to more closely, it constitutes an appeal to contemporary proletarian class-consciousness, to the defeat of the national bourgeoisie, and to a militant peasantry. At this moment, the very last moment of the play, the whole of what has passed before suddenly changes meaning. Or rather, it retains its old meaning but gains a new allegorical layer: the drama of the Boy and the Girl over a few coins is still an allegory of colonialism, but it applies equally to a neocolonial situation (understood as the perpetuation of colonial structures in a politically independent state whose economy is nonetheless dominated by foreign capital) where “tribal welfare associations” fight over shares in parastatal and multinational ventures. Kimathi's four temptations turn into historical moments that have yet to be overcome: the betrayal of democratic national ideals in order to curry favor with the West; the scramble for the spoils of the old colonial system; the replacement of a truly egalitarian consciousness with a petty-bourgeois African nationalism; and the smothering of dissent with brutal reprisals. The daring suggestion, which could never have been made in other than this veiled allegorical fashion, is that the road not taken by Kimathi is the road taken by Kenyatta. Finally, Kimathi (Kariuki?) is not so much a martyr for Independence as a martyr for a peasant revolution which is still to come.

The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, along with the more radical theater experiments I shall turn to in a moment, ultimately calls for a redemption of the present in a utopian future: “Tujikomboe tujenge upya.” The verb kukomboa is already a dialectical word in Swahili, meaning “to redeem” but more literally “to hollow out,” carrying within itself both images of plenitude and poverty. Upya here translates most fluidly as “anew,” but it is in fact the nominal form of the normally adjectival radical -pya. Ordinarily, this would signify something like “novelty,” but this is obviously too prosaic for the context; perhaps it might be more accurate to translate the last line of the play as “May we redeem ourselves (through hardship) that we might build the New.” In its final moment, then, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is not so much the celebration of a revolutionary past (although it is this too) as the call to Utopia through a revolutionary future.

But hasn't this “future” already come and gone once already? The allegorical double meaning of the play depends on the elision of the difference between the colonial and the postcolonial. This logic, carried further, might prompt the question of what difference there might be between the outcome of Mau Mau and some future uprising (such as the failed coup attempts of 1981 and 1982, which only helped Moi to consolidate power). The question is a practical one, and not easy to answer; the point here is that this particular allegorical form evades the issue altogether. Left out when postcolonial history is collapsed into a narrative of the colonial period (either this or the reverse occurs also in each of the Kamiriithu plays) are the crucial years between 1956 and 1963, when, with Mau Mau defeated, the British negotiated a transfer of power with very favorable terms for the settler and expatriate communities and with very little change of existing economic structures. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi projects a utopian possibility that is potentially the future of the present; but it does so by animating with the urgency of the present a revolutionary past whose future was far from utopian. If The Trial of Dedan Kimathi attempts to represent the genuinely revolutionary possibility of a peasant and proletarian class-consciousness, this attempt is frustrated by Kenyan history—the fundamental referent of both this play and the Kamiriithu productions—which turns this utopian possibility into the memory of a missed opportunity.

Although the Kamiriithu plays, as we shall see, develop a similar structure on a different plane, Ngugi's experimental theater at Kamiriithu admits of an altogether different mode of explication than his earlier plays, one which depends less upon the text as the origin of meaning and more on reading the circumstances of production as text.5 The narrative of Ngugi's experience with the Kamiriithu theater group up to 1977—a history to which we will return—is movingly told in Ngugi's Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (72-80), which was largely written—on toilet paper—during the author's year in detention for the first production at Kamiriithu.

Kamiriithu is, first of all, a place, a village in what used to be known as the White Highlands; a reader approaching Ngugi's theater from this period from a perspective that ignores this fact will come away disappointed. The primacy of the local is by now a cliché—“Think globally, act locally” being only the most easily appropriated slogan for personalized responsibility in the face of epistemic problems—but Ngugi's Kamiriithu dramaturgy is profoundly embedded in a very particular, and short-lived, political situation. An understanding of Ngugi's theater in relation to this situation tells us something more generally about the possibilities of art in a period of social unrest; but to begin with the general would ultimately be fruitless. Nor is this to say that Ngugi's plays themselves contain no wider significations; on the contrary, a sympathetic reading of his work must come to terms with the fact that at the center of Ngugi's work is the attempt to represent History itself. But the function of the particular is quite different from that which pertains in, for example, the work of Achebe or Kane, where the particular is first and foremost to be understood as an allegory of the general. The fictional histories of Umuaro or of the Diallobé are indeed local histories, and derive much of their impact from the violence done to particular modes of life and speech; but they are narrated in such a way that the general situation of which they are the allegory is apprehended almost simultaneously with the particular. Ngugi's work figures this relationship quite differently, in that the particular through which the general is to be apprehended has none of the transparency it has in these other writers; for a reader or observer outside of this context and unfamiliar with Kenyan history, in particular of the Mau Mau rebellion and the vexed history of Kenyan independence, the story being told remains somewhat opaque, perhaps pointlessly didactic, stereotyped, even clumsy.

Ngugi does nothing to dispel this opacity by leaving important words, phrases, and songs in Swahili or Gikuyu even in his English and “translated” works; indeed, now is probably the time to address, briefly, Ngugi's famous “farewell” to the English language ([Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature] xiv) and his determination to compose only in Gikuyu and Swahili. One is treading on treacherous ground if one takes too far the epistemological argument that African experience can only be captured in African languages (see 4-33). After all, the experience Ngugi narrates above all others is the experience of worker and peasant life under multinational capitalism, “our people's anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control” (29)—an experience that does not originate in an African context in the same way as do African languages. Similarly, the proprietary view of culture—in which European languages are seen to be stealing the vitality of African languages “to enrich other tongues” (8) in the same way as neocolonial economic regimes enrich the first world at the expense of the third (see also [Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa] 127)—has polemical value but does not do justice to the complex dynamics of cultural borrowing, to the possibilities of hybridity and métissage. From a perspective of “cultural decolonization,” neither can this impulse towards “national” languages be rigorously separated from the petty-bourgeois impulse towards cosmetic “Kenyanization” from which Ngugi is careful to distance himself and which, as we have seen from the example of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, is always to be criticized or lampooned in his plays and fiction.

This is not to dismiss out of hand the question of language; on the contrary, it will soon become apparent that it is Ngugi's shift to Gikuyu that opens up a whole new set of dramatic possibilities and strategies that had not existed before. One might conceive of this shift in terms of audience: how else could a historical and self-conscious awareness of their proletarianization be inculcated in a Gikuyu audience except through their language? But here the word audience is already wrong and implies a set of relations which Ngugi's theater aims to clear away; further, to leave the matter there would oversimplify the problem by framing in purely ethnic terms what is, here, also an issue of class relations. It is not that the Gikuyu are “addressed” by Ngugi through the medium of the play; rather, composing in Gikuyu makes possible a whole new set of social relations among the intellectuals and peasants, proletarians, and bourgeois that made up the Kamiriithu collective.

We might think of the choice to compose in Gikuyu as a means by which the play “addresses itself” not to an audience but to a situation of which it is the narration:

Ngaahika Ndeenda [I Will Marry When I Want, the first play to be produced by the Kamiriithu group] depicts the proletarianization of the peasantry in a neo-colonial society. Concretely it shows the way the Kiguunda family, a poor peasant family, who have to supplement their subsistence on their one and a half acres with the sale of their labor, is finally deprived of even the one-and-a-half acres by a multi-national consortium of Japanese and Euro-American industrialists and bankers aided by the native comprador landlords and businessmen.

(Ngugi, Decolonising 44)

This is an accurate enough summary by Ngugi of his and Ngugi wa Mirii's own play, at least as it appears at first glance. But I Will Marry When I Want is less a representation of social reality than a process or event that both prepares and allegorizes some quite other historical possibility. Indeed, Ngugi's dramaturgy only makes sense within the context of an historical situation that it not only represents, but addresses in order to change.

This brings us back to the geographical place on which the drama of the Kamiriithu cultural project was staged. Kamiriithu is a village in Limuru, in the Kiambu district, part of the former “white highlands,” where the historical ground of the Mau Mau rebellion is almost dizzyingly close.6 Although the geographical location “Kamiriithu” predates the colonial period, Kamiriithu village was first set up as an “emergency village” during the Mau Mau period. As in some Central American countries, areas where guerrilla activity was suspected were razed, suspected Mau Mau sympathizers and guerrillas like Ngugi's older brother sent to detention camps or killed, and new, concentrated, easily administered and isolated villages set up in the place of the older, more diffuse communities. The narrative of the play I Will Marry When I Want resonates with this much larger history; but also it frames the memories of the participants themselves. The colonial-era events to which the text of I Will Marry When I Want constantly refers took place within living memory; in a particularly poignant example, a prop manager who “made imitation guns for the play at Kamiriithu was the very person who used to make actual guns for the Mau Mau guerillas in the fifties” (Decolonising 55). Within the play this revolutionary memory is vividly and painfully enacted:

It was then
That the state of Emergency was declared over Kenya.
Our Patriots,
Men and women of
Limuru and the whole country,
Were arrested!
Our homes were burnt down.
We were jailed,
We were taken to detention camps,
Some of us were crippled through beatings.
Others were castrated.
Our women were raped with bottles.


But it is not only the colonial past and the struggle against it which are inscribed in the very landscape in which the theater sat, but the neocolonial present as well. The arrogance of the original settler expropriation of land—the dispossession of the peasants' means of production that is the engine that has driven Kenyan history—was such that near Kamiriithu some of the most fertile land on the continent was converted into hunting grounds, race tracks, and golf courses for the entertainment of the European farmers. Twenty-five years after the Mau Mau uprising, when Ngugi engaged in his Kenyan theater projects—indeed today, fifty years later—the old pleasure grounds—controlled now by the new ruling class, for whom the landless peasants were still a source of cheap labor—remained as powerful reminders of how little had changed with the end of direct European colonialism.

This neocolonial situation is, of course, the setting of the play itself, which, as we have seen, represents the present-day continuation of the colonial expropriation of land:

Our family land was given to homeguards.
Today I am just a laborer on farms owned by Ahab Kioi wa Kanoru.


The very name of the African landlord—baptized Ahab, after the ultimately humbled King of Israel, of whom “there was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab” (I Kings 21.25)—is a complex signifier that pulls together both historical moments, the colonial and the neocolonial, in a single figure. Besides appearing to be a transformed version of the settler name “Connor,” “Kanoru” simply interposes a syllable into the name of Kenya's ruling (and, at the time of these plays, only) political party, KANU (Kenya African National Union). The form of the name (“wa Kanoru”) suggests “son of Kanoru,” son of KANU, as well as “son of Connor.” Although KANU was originally the more radical of the two parties existing at Independence, it gradually came under control of GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu, and Meru Association), a “tribal welfare organization” that controlled much of the land in Limuru as well as interest in manufacturing concerns. The KANU government, allied from an early stage with comprador business interests, is accused of granting foreign multinationals fantastic terms to locate factories in Kenya, without instituting any controls on where profits accumulate.7

The foreign-owned Bata shoe factory, which comprises the major industry in Kamiriithu, is one such entity, referred to here by a character in I Will Marry When I Want:

You sweat and sweat and sweat.
It's six o'clock, time to go home.
Day in, day out,
Week after week!
A fortnight is over.
During that period
You have made shoes worth millions.
You are given a mere two hundred shillings,
The rest is sent to Europe.


But this contemporary experience refers back to the past: the factory alluded to here is dramatized as a part of the characters' (contemporary) daily life, but the “general strike” (68) that comes up later in the play was actually a 1948 strike at this very factory, well within the memory of many villagers. This event, while not strictly a general strike, was simultaneous with a more general phenomenon with which I Will Marry When I Want links it. Mass “oathing,” the administration of oaths of unity among squatter populations, began in Kiambu district during this time and spread to the rest of the highland areas. The “general strike” is enacted in the play not through a representation of the strike itself but through an oath administered to the strikers. The militant (indeed, military) language of the oath makes it clear that, within the context of the play, this oathing is identical with the Mau Mau movement (indeed, the oathing of squatters during this time, simultaneous with the Bata strike, did contribute to the Mau Mau movement [Sicherman 74]):

If I am asked to hide weapons
I shall obey without questions.
If I am called upon to serve this organization
By day or night,
I'll do so!
If I fail to do so
May this, the people's oath, destroy me
And the blood of the poor turn against me.


The narrative building-blocks of the anti-colonial struggle—which in themselves can be acceptable content for the KANU government—refer to a moment in history, brief but within memory, when the peasantry and rural proletariat seemed poised to take over the position of the subject of Kenyan history. As with The Trial of Dedan Kimathi but centered in the present rather than in the past, the contemporary history which dominates the play is narrated in continuity with this older history: “African employers are no different … from the Boer white landlords” (20). Moreover, the elision of the moment of Independence is thoroughgoing, so that the strike against the Bata plant in 1948 becomes a protest against current conditions, and the Mau Mau oath of unity ultimately becomes a call for revolutionary action in the present, once again projecting, by means of a revolutionary past, the possibility of a future when this appropriation of History by the peasantry and proletariat has indeed taken place:

A day will surely come when
If a bean falls to the ground
It'll be split equally among us,
. …
                    The trumpet—
Of the workers has been blown
To wake all the peasants
To wake all the poor.
To wake the masses


The elision of the break between the colonial and postcolonial situations is figured not only within the play but, by a twist of fate, between the play and its social context. In a dazzling if depressing irony, the play mentions an old colonial law designed to prevent the swearing of Mau Mau oaths:

It was soon after this
That the colonial government
Forbade people to sing or dance,
It forbade a gathering of more than five.

This law, stating that “more than five people were deemed to constitute a public gathering and needed a licence” (Ngugi, Detained 37), is still on the books: and it is precisely this license which was withdrawn from Kamiriithu by the government in November 1977, effectively ending the run of I Will Marry When I Want (58).

But the content of the play forms only part of the allegorical raw material of the play; as with Brecht's learning-plays, or Lehrstücke, the circumstances of its production and the relations among the participants and between the participants and the audience determine the meaning of the play as much as the content itself. In the following pages I will refer to Brecht's dramatic theory, particularly to the theory of the Lehrstück, or learning-play, but I should make it clear that this should not be taken to represent a thesis on the influence of Brecht on Ngugi's dramaturgy. The importance of Brecht's work for Ngugi is well known, but we have every reason to be suspicious of the language of “influence,” a force that only works in one direction. The Brechtian language of Umfunktionierung—“re-functioning,” which implies a kind of retro-fitting of older techniques to meet new circumstances—poses a solution by reversing the positions of subject and object: the historical author, rather than projecting a whole complex of anxieties, becomes mere raw material to be umfunktioniert into something original. What is of interest here is not Brecht's influence on Ngugi, but why a late twentieth-century Kenyan playwright should find useful models for political theater in a particular form of late-Weimar drama.

As Fredric Jameson points out in his gloss on Reiner Steinweg's thesis on the Lehrstück (63-65), more decisive to the meaning of the learning-play than its content are the circumstances of its production: the relations between the actors and the text, the director and the actors, the actors and the stage, the actors and each other. The Lehrstück is not a didactic form if by that it is meant that the audience is simply to be edified by its content; instead, the play is most essentially its rehearsals, in which the meaning of the narrative, and even the narrative itself, is constantly elaborated and disputed. The public performance is secondary, one possible performance among many, which happens, this time, to be witnessed by nonparticipants. The text itself becomes not exactly a pretext but the provocation for a learning process (which, even in its formal outlines, has political and philosophical content). The Kamiriithu project dramatizes, to an extent that perhaps even Brecht's theater never did, the possibilities of the Lehrstück.

The shape of Ngugi's learning plays begins to emerge with the history of the Kamiriithu center itself. As is suggested by the passages above, the Kamiriithu theater and its first production developed with explicit reference to a particular manifestation of the neocolonial situation. It is against this neocolonial backdrop that Ngugi helped to develop the cultural wing of the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre, which began in the mid-1970s as an initiative by village groups for renovating a defunct youth center.8 In 1976, the villagers who had built the Centre asked Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Mirii, the director of the literacy program, to write a play to be produced by the Centre. This play, which ultimately became I Will Marry When I Want, incorporated biographies written during the literacy program, which also became a kind of political seminar (Björkman 52). The outline produced by the two Ngugis was hammered out by the collective into a working script, which incorporated older songs and dances that were re-learned and umfunktioniert for their new context. Meanwhile, members of the collective who had renovated the Centre designed and built an open-air theater—apparently the largest in East Africa (60)—to accommodate the production. Since the theater was outdoors, the rehearsals were public: thus, the production was open to critical commentary from the village as a whole. The final product, by Ngugi's account, bore little resemblance to his original script: “[T]he play which was finally put on to a fee-paying audience on Sunday, 2 October 1977, was a far cry from the tentative awkward efforts originally put forth by Ngugi [wa Mirii] and myself” (Detained 78). When the production opened on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Mau Mau uprising, it was a towering success: critics from Nairobi refused to believe that the musicians and some of the actors were villagers rather than ringers brought in by Ngugi. After seeing the play, several villages sent delegations seeking advice on beginning projects along the lines of Kamiriithu. After nine performances, the play was shut down by the KANU government, its license withdrawn for reasons of “public security.” Soon afterwards Ngugi himself was arrested at midnight and put in detention.

After being held in prison without trial for a year, during which he wrote—also on toilet paper—much of his first novel in Gikuyu, translated into English as Devil on the Cross, Ngugi was released, along with all other political prisoners in Kenya's prisons, as suddenly and surprisingly as he had been taken. (Jomo Kenyatta had died, and Daniel arap Moi, who had taken over the presidency, released all political detainees in December 1978. His reasons, it turned out, were far from altruistic; he was in fact releasing mainly enemies of the old Kenyatta-centered power structure which still threatened his young presidency. These events, as we shall see, are signs of the conditions that led to the possibility of Ngugi's theater.) While Ngugi had been in prison, the Kamiriithu group had not languished but had in fact grown both in number and in ambition. When Ngugi completed the outline of Mother, Sing for Me, a musical composed in several Kenyan languages, two hundred villagers volunteered for the production (Björkman 54). The script, set in the '30s, was a thinly veiled allegory—so thinly veiled that, as in a Brechtian parable, this veiling itself is an impudence—of the betrayal of independence by the new ruling class. Like the earlier play, it was filled in and altered by the group; the ending, as with Brecht's He Who Said Yes, switched polarity before the play took final form. It was a premier at the National Theatre in March 1982.9 When the group went to take final rehearsals there, it found the gates locked, with the police standing by. After the play moved to a new rehearsal space at the University, people flocked to the rehearsals; every evening the house was full four hours before rehearsals began (really full—people were sitting on the stage, in the lighting booth, at the windows, down the stairs); Uhuru highway was blocked each afternoon; whole villages chipped in to hire buses to take them in to the city for the rehearsals. According to one estimate (Björkman 60), twelve to fifteen thousand people saw the production in ten performances. The show had never been advertised. After ten rehearsal-performances, the government banned the play, forbidding the Kamiriithu group to use the University theater. Soon after, police—police in Kenya carry machine guns—were sent to Kamiriithu to raze the theater complex to the ground. The two Ngugis and the play's director, Kimani Gecau, were forced to flee the country. Whence the “anxiety of the regime” at the root of such extraordinary reprisals?

Official Kenyan theater under British colonialism and after must be considered somewhat of a special case in that its ideological underpinnings did not need to be discovered by dramatic theory; colonial theater was already explicitly ideological. During the Mau Mau period, popular anti-colonial songs and dances were countered by propaganda theater: captured rebels in the countryside or suspected sympathizers were shown sketches and plays demonstrating the relative wages of confessing and not confessing, recanting and not recanting, informing and not informing (see Kariuki 128-29). Meanwhile, in the capital, there was a more traditional European theater whose function was, quite explicitly, to help create a national bourgeoisie by bringing together the African, Asian, and European privileged classes under the influence of a shared British culture. As the representative of the British Council in East Africa from 1947 through Mau Mau put it:

It was hoped that through the theatre the goodwill of the European community could be gained, European cultural standards could be helped, and, later on, members of the different races [elsewhere, with reference to the Kenya National Theatre, the “leading people of all races” (73, italics added)] could be brought together by participation in a common pursuit which they all enjoyed.

(Frost 196)

This theater continued after Independence (and still continues) with its ideological function barely altered: the National Theatre in Nairobi, from which Ngugi's Mother, Cry for Me was banned, continues to put on a steady stream of bland European fare—Andrew Lloyd Webber has had a considerable presence—to which, as Fanon prophesied, the new ruling class fawningly flocks. Ngugi's indignation at the behavior of this class (e.g., the “modern African bourgeois with all its crude exaggerations of its borrowed culture” [qtd. in Björkman 73]) echoes Brecht's famous comment that the bourgeois theater audience assumes the bearing of kings: “One may think a grocer's bearing better than a king's and still find this ridiculous” (Brecht 39). The bearing of the audience reveals the ideology of the theater apparatus, which was explicitly in the Nairobi of 1978 what it was implicitly in the Berlin of 1929: the audience's kingly attitude of complacent and utterly passive consumption reveals in itself the attitude of pure exploitation. At the same time, this attitude is only a mask that hides the fact that the audience, imitating a class whose position it can never occupy, is at the same time itself the dupe.

As is well known, Brecht's epic theater—as opposed to his learning theater, to which we will shortly return—addresses itself to this audience in an attempt to transform it. The famous Verfremdungseffekt does not merely estrange the content from the viewer but reveals the fissures that already lie within the logic of everyday life under capitalism. The dominant figure of the epic theater has to be the exposure (by text, techniques of acting, and production itself) of the theater apparatus as an allegory of the demystification of production in general (a privileged example is St. Joan of the Stockyards, where one level of literal content consists of the demystification of the meat-packing industry). The epic theater reveals to the bourgeois audience their contradictory relationship to the social world; it is a critical theater, a theater of negation.

The learning theater—both Brecht's and Ngugi's—implies quite another perspective on artistic production, on the “theater apparatus” that ultimately produces bourgeois theater. As we have seen, the exposure of this apparatus as the exposure of capitalism itself is the trope that governs the epic theater; traces of this might be identified in Ngugi's earlier plays, as for example in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi where the theatrical trappings of the courtroom trial reveal its status as a kangaroo court:

Enter Shaw Henderson dressed as a judge. Not in disguise. He should in fact be seen to believe in his role as judge, to acquire the grave airs of a judge. Judge sits down. The audience sits. Clerk gives him the file. Judge looks at it.


The governing trope of learning theater, however, is not the exposure of the theater apparatus as it is but rather its transformation. Its social goal is not to expose a bourgeois audience to the contradictions of its own ideology, but to create a new ideology, the New in a utopian sense; this goal is figured in the production of the learning play itself, which takes on a radically new form regardless of the form or content of the final “product,” which is finally not so much a performance as an experience of group praxis and a new historical self-consciousness. The original rift in the Marxist narrative of capitalist production—the alienation of the worker from the product of his or her labor—is metaphorically bridged by the unity of audience and performer. This is radicalized in the theater of Ngugi, where the totally reified social apparatus of the Nairobi theater is replaced by the Kamiriithu project, where the village that built the theater, that wrote the songs, that acted the parts, and whom the performance was designed to reach—and who, in some cases, had lived the history, fought the revolution, and experienced its betrayal—are all identical. It is a constructive theater, one truly at home only in an historical moment when one can imagine a radically transformed world as a concrete possibility. It is, in other words, a utopian theater. Even if what is represented is a dystopic present, the relations of theatrical production all suggest that the deepest content of Ngugi's learning-plays is a utopian future where producer, consumer, and the owner of the means of production are all identical. And indeed, in the final moments, against all expectations, I Will Marry When I Want calls for such a future:

The trumpet of the masses has been blown.
Let's preach to all out friends.
The trumpet of the masses has been blown.
We change to new songs
For the revolution is near.


The figural fusion of producer and consumer in the learning play—of which Ngugi's theater is a radicalization—only pre-figures the real unification which is seen as a concrete possibility. Outside of this element it becomes spurious; the metaphor of art as production, which we use so carelessly today, degenerates from metaphor into mere metaphor, and as such mocks the possibility of a real resolution to the rift that separates humanity from itself. However, the metaphor which, post-Brecht, had become a cliché, has occasionally been vitally performed when the historical situation permits. The real unity of producer and consumer—that is, the destruction of these categories themselves—can only come about when the producer can imagine himself as the subject of history. Brecht abandoned the learning plays when their historical moment passed, when it became obvious that the possibility of workers' revolution had been preempted by the rise of the Nazi party. Brecht's learning-play phase, which began with Lindbergh's Flight in 1929, ended with his own flight from Berlin after the Reichstag fire. He did produce one later Lehrstück, The Horatians and the Curiatians of 1934, but the fact that this was a Soviet commission rather confirms than contradicts the assertion that the learning play depends on the possibility of imagining a utopian future.

Are we any closer to understanding the anxiety of the state when confronted with Ngugi's theater? The government of Daniel arap Moi in Kenya now seems so secure—despite recent news of so-called “ethnic violence”—that it is easy to forget how tenuous the pro-capitalist KANU government was in the late 1970s. It must be remembered that when Kenyatta became prime minister of a newly independent Kenya in 1963, he was—despite his accommodation of settler interests and the maintenance, post-1963, of a significant landholding class—a hero of national independence. His anti-imperialist days as the leader of the Kenya African Union had led to his imprisonment as a Mau Mau organizer. As a matter of historical irony, Kenyatta's involvement with Mau Mau resistance, never very deep, was at its lowest when he was detained; however, when he was released it was as a hero of national liberation, and he was regarded as such until his death, even among populations who were hurt by his accommodation of multinational, and particularly American, business and military interests. However, the period during which Ngugi was developing the Kamiriithu project (I Will Marry When I Want began rehearsals in June 1977, and Mother, Sing for Me was scheduled to open in February 1982) was a profoundly precarious period for the Kenyan government. From 1975 on it was obvious that Kenyatta was ill and would not live much longer; the behind-the-scenes politicking that went on over his succession left the ruling party severely factionalized and weakened,10 while the Left politics of MP J. M. Kariuki (assassinated, as mentioned earlier, during this period) gained popularity and momentum. With incredible tenacity and some skillful politics, Moi, who had been Kenyatta's vice-president since 1967, managed not only to make sure he was appointed interim president after Kenyatta's death in 1978, but to win the 1979 election as well. But the popular support for Moi, who, pre-Independence, had been staunchly allied with the settlers while Kenyatta was in detention, could command nothing like the loyalty Kenyatta had earned, and his presidency was bought with patronage that his government could not keep up for long. In August 1982, seven months after Mother, Sing for Me was banned from the National Theater, the Air Force, supported by university students, staged a coup attempt. The aims of the coup have never been made clear, although it seems certain that, despite originating with the military, it was an attempt to move the country to the Left: at least popularly, the alliance of the highly educated air force with the student community suggested opposition to the single-party system. The appearance of the Kamiriithu project, like Brecht's Lehrstück period, took place in a brief window when radical political change seemed to be a possibility.

The question elided in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, however, resurfaces in another context. In The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, the allegorical representation of revolutionary consciousness subverted itself by celebrating as heroic victory—the future peasant revolution—what it must simultaneously show to be defeat—the failure of the past peasant revolution. The logic of Kimathi's martyrdom—victory-in-defeat—cannot ultimately be separated from the logic of Kenyan independence: defeat-in-victory. The later experimentation with the theater apparatus at Kamiriithu figures revolutionary consciousness in a different way, projecting by its very relations of production a utopian possibility along the lines of that which had opened up historically from 1952-56. This possibility is ultimately sealed off again, not by any internal dynamic, but by history itself; which is, in a certain way, internal to the Kamiriithu project after all. The “August Disturbances” that put a punctuation mark on the Kamiriithu project ultimately served only to justify Moi's consolidation of power as he continued to transfer police services from executive to party control, including the paramilitarization of the KANU Youth, which answered only to party authority. When the Kamiriithu project began, the populist and relatively permissive government of Jomo Kenyatta was weak and on the defensive; his strong-arm successor had yet to consolidate power, and indeed it seemed unlikely that he could hold on to it; prominent Left politicians were gaining popularity. It ended when Moi's regime consolidated power and Kenya became a state governed by a single political party with its own paramilitary. One might well ask when—and where—such a window will open again.


  1. Translations from the Swahili are my own.

  2. The question of whether Britain's handing over of power was a matter of British and world politics or directly due in some way to Mau Mau uprising is a matter of constant debate. A valuable resource (contemporary with the Kamiriithu plays, but still current) for this central issue is a 1977 special number of Kenya Historical Review, edited by William R. Ochieng' and Karim K. Janmohamed, Some Perspectives on the Mau Mau Movement. See esp. Maina wa Kinyatti and Kipkorir.

  3. Ngugi's recent writing seems to endorse this simpler reading. See Penpoints 48.

  4. See Kariuki's remarkable memoir, Mau Mau Detainee.

  5. In discussing the Kamiriithu plays, “Ngugi,” like “Brecht” in another context, actually signifies a number of people in collective effort. The shorthand is, I think, admissible, since Ngugi is, if nothing else, the reason we are aware of these plays. Ngugi himself is always careful to make clear others' contributions to his theater projects, as Brecht was not always concerned to do.

  6. Much of the information in this paragraph summarizes Detained 72-80.

  7. See Independent Kenya, particularly ch. 2, “KANU and Kenyatta: Independence for sale,” 13-36.

  8. This narrative of the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre is synthesized from accounts in Ngugi, Detained 72-80; Ngugi, Decolonising 34-62; and also Björkman 51-56.

  9. For a more detailed account of the production of Mother, Sing for Me, see Björkman 57-60.

  10. The most lively account of post-Independence Kenyan politics is probably D. Pal Ahluwalia's Postcolonialism and the Politics of Kenya. See particularly ch. 3-6, which try to make sense of political movements in the period between Kenyatta's illness and the attempted coup of 1982. For a specifically Marxist account, see Independent Kenya.

Works Cited

Ahluwalia, D. Pal. Postcolonialism and the Politics of Kenya. New York: Nova Science, 1996.

Björkman, Ingrid. “Mother, Sing for Me”: People's Theatre in Kenya. London: Zed, 1989.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

———. “The Anxieties of the Régime.” Poems 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Methuen, 1976. 296-98.

Frost, Richard. Race against Time: Human Relations and Politics in Kenya before Independence. London: Rex Collings, 1978.

Independent Kenya. Anonymous (sponsored by the Journal of African Marxists in solidarity with the authors). London: Zed, 1982.

Jameson, Fredric. Brecht and Method. London: Verso, 1998.

Kariuki, J. M. Mau Mau Detainee: The Account by a Kenya African of His Experiences in Detention Camps, 1953-60. London: Oxford UP, 1963.

Kipkorir, B. E. “Mau Mau and the Politics of the Transfer of Power in Kenya, 1957-1960.” Kenya Historical Review 5.2 (1977): 313-28.

Maina wa Kinyatti. “Mau Mau: The Peak of African Nationalism in Kenya.” Kenya Historical Review 5.2 (1977): 287-311.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. “Art War with the State: Writers and Guardians of Post-Colonial Society.” Penpoints 7-35.

———. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986.

———. Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

———. and Micere Githae Mugo. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. London: Heinemann, 1976.

———. and Ngugi wa Mirii. I Will Marry When I Want. Trans. Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ngugi wa Mirii. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Ochieng', William R., and Karim K. Janmohamed, eds. Some Perspectives on the Mau Mau Movement. Special issue of Kenya Historical Review 5.2 (1977).

Sicherman, Carol. Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel: A Sourcebook in Kenyan Literature and Resistance. London: Hans Zell, 1990.

Venys, Ladislav. A History of the Mau Mau Movement in Kenya. Prague: Charles UP, 1970.

Simon Gikandi (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Gikandi, Simon. “Traveling Theory: Ngugi's Return to English.” Research in African Literatures 31, no. 2 (summer 2000): 194-209.

[In the following essay, Gikandi examines Ngugi's role as an African public intellectual and discusses the reasons behind his decision to return to writing in English as opposed to his native Gikuyu language.]

Writing has always been my way of reconnecting myself to the landscape of my birth and upbringing.

Not surprisingly the natural landscape dominates the East African literary imagination. This awareness of the land as the central actor in our lives distinguishes East African literature from others in the continent and it certainly looms large in my own writing from The River Between to Matigari.

—Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom

In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi made two powerful statements that were going to dominate the nature of his critical and cultural work in the 1980s and 1990s and to perhaps haunt him at the dawn of the twenty-first century. He argued, first of all, that his decision to write fiction in Gikuyu, an African language, constituted an epistemological break with his previous practices; he also argued that the essays collected in this volume signified his “farewell to the English language as a vehicle for any of my writing” (xiv). For a brief period in the late 1980s, Ngugi was so determined to fulfil his pledge to abandon English as his linguistic medium that he even made conference presentations to European and American audiences in Gikuyu and published a significant critical essay in his mother tongue in the prestigious Yale Journal of Criticism. But soon after the publication of this essay, Ngugi returned, without explanation, to his familiar role as a critic of imperial European languages writing in English. By the time he took up a senior professorship at New York University in the early 1990s, it was clear that Ngugi's effort to use Gikuyu as the language of both his fiction and critical discourse had been defeated by the reality of exile and American professional life. Ngugi tried to keep Gikuyu as an important part of his intellectual and literary work through Mũtiiri, a journal he founded and edited through New York University, but in reading the criticism and fiction that he was presenting through this pioneering publication, one could not help noticing that his work was being haunted by the pressures of producing knowledge in an African language within the limits and demands of Western institutions of knowledge. What did it mean to produce a journal in Gikuyu when Ngugi was separated from his immediate readers and what he would consider to be the vital linguist resources of an African language? What dictated the themes and cultural grammar promoted by a Gikuyu journal produced in the heart of the most cosmopolitan city in the world?

In regard to the first question, Ngugi's efforts to produce a professional journal in an African language were impressive. The first volume of Mũtiiri offered essays on specialized topics in fields such as sociolinguistics, computing, and social theory that had rarely been taken up in publications in African languages. At the same time, however, there was no doubt that Ngugi saw the function of the journal not simply as communicative (the sharing and dissemination of knowledge within a community of readers united by a certain set of experiences and interests), but also vindictive (he wanted to prove that an African language could perform certain linguistic, philosophical, and scientific functions as well as European languages). And thus even in its concern with things Gikuyu or African, the journal seemed to function under the anxieties created by its conditions of production and distribution.

In regard to the second question, then, the very professionalism of the journal, its impressive list of contributors and choice of subjects, reflected the Ngugi's need to “Africanize” the practice of producing knowledge within the Western academy and also to “Westernize” Gikuyu discourses on subjects ranging from romance to multiculturalism. At first, Mũtiiri appeared to be an important project in Ngugi's critical discourse both because it embodied the kind of epistemological rupture he had sought when he “broke” with English and because it provided the editor and his associates with a space in which the cultural project initiated at Kamĩrĩĩthu could be continued in exile. On closer examination, however, the concerns of the journal seemed circumscribed not by its choice of subjects, readers, or contributors, but by its failure to rethink and expand the Kamĩrĩĩthu project. If the significance of Kamĩrĩĩthu lay in its challenge to the bourgeois public sphere and its reconceptualization of the role of audiences in performance, as I have argued elsewhere, the journal seemed to be acting as a forum for representing the cultural disenchantment of a Gikuyu émigré intelligentsia (see Gikandi, forthcoming). The journal's concern with questions of nation, culture, and language was being overdetermined not by the workers and peasants who had animated Ngugi's work at Kamĩrĩĩthu, but the ressentiment of metropolitan readers distanced from Kenyan sources and concerns. If the issues in the first volume are to be considered representative, Mũtiiri was being driven not so much by the concerns of Kenyan workers and peasants, but by the rhetoric of American identity politics and postcolonial nostalgia. The peasants and workers whom Ngugi had invited into the institutions of cultural production during his Kamĩrĩĩthu phase seemed to have disappeared in a project produced in their own language.

Did the language of Mũtiiri, then, make any difference to the kind of topics it seemed to favor or the discursive economies it seemed to promote? What did it mean to produce literature and theory in an African language according to the protocols established by American and European institutions? These questions were made more urgent by what appeared to be Ngugi's sudden—and unaccounted—return to the English he had loudly rejected in Decolonising the Mind, a return that was manifested in his interregnum work, Moving the Center, his revised edition of Writers in Politics, and more decisively in his Clarendon Lectures published as Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. Now, Ngugi's “return” to English was perhaps not surprising given the difficulties of working and living in exile. The more complicated problem for students of his works has been how to read a radical cultural politics within this “return” to English and to provide a critical accounting for Ngugi's theories and practices as they were being shaped, not by the peasants and workers of Kenya, or even African institutions of higher learning, but by the very Western establishment whose policies and practices he had previously attacked.

In the following examination of Ngugi's ambiguous adventure in the culture of English, I am interested in exploring two related questions: What is the relationship between the practice of critique (one directed at what the author now calls “capitalist fundamentalism” [Ngugi, Penpoints 130]) and the site of enunciation (the American university)? Whatever happened to Marxism in Ngugi's ideological schema and aesthetic? I will address these questions by making three discursive moves: I will first consider Ngugi's role as a public intellectual because I want to make the claim that what has changed in his reflections on questions about language, literature, and the state, is a direct result of his displaced political and intellectual function. I will then examine some of the key revisions Ngugi makes in the new edition of Writers in Politics as evidence of this displacement. Finally, I will turn to his Clarendon lectures as examples of what I consider—in a nonpejorative sense—to be his reentry into the institution of English (see Gikandi, Maps of Englishness 32-44). An international audience obsessed with Ngugi's pronouncement on certain metropolitan concerns such as race, multiculturalism, and postcolonialism is bound to miss the simple factor that from the advent of self-government in Kenya in 1962 to his forced exile in 1982, the source of his authority as a writer and critic often depended on the role he cultivated and played as an intellectual with a keen interest in public affairs. Ngugi's most influential essays were not produced in the seminar rooms of the African university or written for learned journals; on the contrary, they began as reflections on questions that were central to the definition and redefinition of the colonial and postcolonial public sphere. For example, Ngugi's historic critique of the role of Christianity in Africa took the form of an address to the governing body of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, the spiritual home of Kenya's postcolonial elite in the 1960s and 1970s. His famous essay on the abolition of the English department, a work now considered central to debates about the curriculum in “postcolonial countries,” was originally a memo (co-written with Owour Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong), submitted to the senate of the University College of East Africa in Nairobi (see Ngugi, Homecoming, Appendix). The signature essays in the original edition of Writers in Politics were written as direct interventions in a raging debate on the teaching of literature in Kenya and the place of English in a postcolonial African state. During the same period, Ngugi wrote important articles and essays either as a mode of public commentary on topical issues or, as in the case of the two essays on J. M. Kariuki collected in Writers in Politics, as an intellectual intervention in the shaping of public discourse at a moment of national crisis.

It is, therefore, not an exaggeration to note that for most of the 1960s and 1970s, Ngugi's pronouncement on public matters provided a radical point of debate and, in some cases, an important conduit, through which ideas could flow from the University of Nairobi's radical student and faculty caucus to a petty bourgeois readership increasingly disenchanted with the postcolonial state. The theoretical significance of these public debates can be discerned both within their more immediate context—what one may call their site of reception and dissemination—and in their universal implication. Three points need to be considered in any location of these discourses both within their local and global contexts: First, the topicality of these essays determined both their tenor and conceptual claims. In other words, it was because such issues as church and state, curriculum reform, and political assassinations were topical in their immediate context that Ngugi could find himself functioning in a linguistic universe defined by what has come to be called, after Habermas, communicative reason—the “will to communicate something about a shared lifeworld and to reach a common understanding about it” (see Coole 224). Second, the communicative reason assumed in the original edition of Writers in Politics arose from Ngugi's assumption—quite evident in the rhetorical posture he adopted at the time—that such discourses were intended to redefine the bourgeois public sphere by changing the terms by which political discourse was conducted, represented, and received.

Let us consider an exemplary case of Ngugi's intervention in Kenyan political discourse. On the week of 24 March 1975, a few days after the assassination of J. M. Kariuki, a leading opponent of the Kenyan Government, Ngugi wrote an essay for The Weekly Review, an essay that stands out as the best illustration of the “communicative rationality” that made his critical interventions so powerful. In the days preceding Ngugi's intervention, the city of Nairobi and the country as a whole were gripped by fear and a sense of chaos: the public was in outrage, students had blockaded the streets of the capital, and a mute government was, in the view of its emboldened opponents, on the brink of collapse. Amidst the chaos and confusion surrounding Kariuki's death, Ngugi's essay began by providing a human face to the politician's mutilated body and some logical explanation to the competing narratives surrounding the murder: Ngugi recalled how he had met Kariuki in the early days of independence and his numerous encounters with the dead politician during key moments of their country's history; he was also careful to call attention to their shared identity as writers. Kariuki had published Mau Mau Detainee in 1963, on the eve of Kenya's independence, and Ngugi had welcomed the work both as the first insider's view of “Mau Mau” and as an exemplar of a different kind of political education, one in direct opposition to the colonial education the novelist had acquired at Makerere University College, an education which, as he notes in Writers in Politics, had blinded him “to the true nature of colonialism and imperialism” (83).

In this essay, then, what Ngugi was doing—perhaps more than saying—was that contrary to the public's perception, Kariuki's assassination was not a senseless and irrational political act. On the contrary, given his history and experience as a product of anticolonial resistance in a postcolonial landscape dominated by infamous supporters of the colonial regime, Kariuki posed a real threat to the postcolonial state. There was, therefore, a clear rationale for his assassination. Ngugi admitted that he too had shared the confusion and bewilderment that the assassination had triggered in its early hours, but he indirectly appealed to his readers to go beyond this “irrational” response and confront the painful truth: “Who betrayed J. M. Kariuki? Who killed him?. … it was we, we who have kept silent and propped up an unjust oppressive system” (Ngugi, Writers in Politics 85).

Ngugi ended his essay by calling attention to the symbolism of Mwangi Kariuki's name—a generation resurrected—and proffered it as a harbinger of a moment of revolution beyond the current crisis. By locating Kariuki both in the past (in the history of nationalism) and in the future (as a figure of a revolution yet to be born), what this essay did, in a quite remarkable and unexpected way, was redirect the passions generated by the politician's death into a rational communicative exchange, one guided by measured rhetoric and appropriate symbolism. By the end of the week, a petty bourgeois readership that had been outraged enough by Kariuki's assassination to burn the property of its protectors, was now clamoring for a discourse that would take it beyond the crisis of death and despair.

Now, the issue of whether Ngugi's public intervention—the redirecting of bourgeois passion into a rational discourse—actually saved the Kenyatta regime is highly debatable. What concerns me here—and this is my third point about Ngugi's role as a public intellectual—is how his intervention provided direction to both common readers and radical opponents of the postcolonial state. It is my claim that Ngugi's oppositional role, while genuinely driven by the desire to protect the proletariat and peasant interest within the bourgeois public sphere, depended on its reception (that is, its reading) rather than the force of the arguments he presented. In other words, the efficacy and effect of essays such as the tribute to J. M. Kariuki discussed above depended not so much on Ngugi's agitation—or longing for revolution—but on his ability to persuade his readers to deploy this discourse as a mode of rationalizing their own implication in the oppressive system. In reading Ngugi's reflections on the assassination of Kariuki, middle-class readers in Kenya had their first lessons in the discourse on underdevelopment and neocolonialism.

Similarly, what made Ngugi's pronouncements on issues ranging from the literary canon to political culture central to public discourse in Kenya was not their originality or their theoretical import, but their capacity to change the desires of their audience through the process of reading. The potential for change embedded in the essays collected in Writers in Politics depended not so much on the claims they were making, but by what Ross Chambers would call their readability: “Textual authority is not determined by the social characteristics of an author so much as it is produced in specific circumstances of reading, and the specificity of a given text will arise from the way the relation of text and reader is mediated, whether and whenever the text is read” (5-6). The readability of Ngugi's essays—and by implication their capacity to influence the public—depended on the presumed life world shared by the writer and his readers.1 It is, indeed, one of the great ironies of Ngugi's critical practice that the essays that had the most impact in a Kenyan context (the Kariuki and the curriculum debate essays are exemplary here) did not even interest international readers. In their close relationship and concerned with local cultural politics, these essays did not aspire for the kind of universality that now seems to dominate Ngugi's recent critical work. I will return to this point later.

What needs to be underscored here is the simple—but not always obvious—fact that Ngugi's critical practice had been developed in response to local needs and by the novelist's role as a public intellectual forced to define himself against the pressures of everyday life in the postcolony. If we keep this point in mind, we can better understand how, by being forced into exile in 1982, Ngugi was deprived of the communicative contact that had made his work so central to the transformation of public debates in Kenya. In exile Ngugi had to retool his critical practice away from his native grounds, as it were; he needed to develop a new intellectual project outside the boundaries of the nation. But for most of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not clear what form this project would take. What was apparent, however, was the fact that he was confronted with the same choices as other postcolonial émigré intellectuals: he could either become a “native informant,” processing and reprocessing African worlds for Western readers; or he could recast his discourse in the language of cosmopolitanism and thus reread local knowledge and the situations that produced it as integers of a new global culture.

In spite of what has been misinterpreted as his nativism (especially during his “break” with English), Ngugi has never been comfortable with the role of the native informant. Indeed, his literary oeuvre is remarkable for its impatience with colonial and postcolonial theories of Africans and romantic attempts to recuperate an essential and unanimous African culture. Given his uneasiness with nativism, then, it should not come as a surprise to his readers that Ngugi's response to the problem I sketched above—what does it mean to be an African intellectual in the West?—has been to fall back on the language of globalization. This language of globalization begins in the revised edition of Writers in Politics and becomes full blown in Penpoints. In the latter book, as I will argue below, the language of globalization can be read as the mask for a universalistic discourse without precedent in Ngugi's critical work.

Reading Ngugi's movement from the particularism that defined the first edition of Writers in Politics to the universalism of the revised edition is an intriguing process—it reflects the history of African literature and theory from its high nationalist period in the 1960s to the troubled search for a home in the West whose history and ideologies it sought to negate. More specifically, the most important revisions in Writers in Politics, revisions that are more apparent in the added and expanded essays than the expurgated ones, reflect Ngugi's own awareness of how the original cultural project of Writers in Politics has been superseded by global events (such as the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the triumph of capitalism) and his own changed position vis-à-vis his readership. Ngugi retains the original title of the book because his concerns still revolve around the relationship between literature and politics, but he adds an important subtitle: “A re-engagement with issues of literature and society.” What does it mean to re-engage with issues that the author had once considered settled?

There is no doubt that Ngugi conceives “re-engagement” as simultaneously a gesture of retour—the return to a previously-evacuated discursive site—and a rethinking of this locality as the mark of a break with the original. Re-engagement is here posited as both a semantic sign of difference and repetition; under its umbrella, continuity is affirmed even when the evidence points to theoretical and historical discontinuity. Indeed, Ngugi's desire to present his new project as a continuity of the old one is often in conflict with the desire for theoretical rupture demanded by his new location within the American academy. In constructing his revisions around identical terms as the ones in the original text—writers, politics, literature, and society—Ngugi creates the impression that he is still functioning within the same ideological structure. A closer examination of his critical grammar, however, foregrounds his movement from the ideologies of the Fourth International so apparent in the first edition Writers in Politics to the new (post) modern language of globalization.

Whereas the original edition had emphasized workers' solidarity and resistance against imperialism—then defined in its Leninist terms as the highest stage of capitalism—the new edition speaks a language familiar to the proponents of multiculturalism, including the politics of the canon, education and identity, the discourse of human rights, and the primacy of culture in the new world order. And while many of the revisions in the new edition are superficial (reflected more in the new titles and subtitles of the essays rather than in their substantive character), they are clearly intended to have a different readerly or performative effect. In these new titles and subtitles, we see an African author struggling to drag his aesthetic claims into a sometimes recalcitrant Western Lebenswelt.

It is not hard to find instances of Ngugi's move from the Fourth International to multiculturalism. In “Repression in North Korea,” an essay expurgated from the revised edition of Writers in Politics, Ngugi's ideological sympathies were clearly with the international socialist movement; his language invoked familiar images of class struggle against a totalized imperial center led by the United States. Writing specifically about the repression of writers in South Korea, Ngugi's goal in this essay was to draw parallels between the common experiences of victims of tyranny under the shadow of international capital. The assumed similitude between the oppression of intellectuals in Korea and Kenya was predicated on the international nature of capitalism and local resistance toward it; oppressed peoples could only institute new cultural formations in a world liberated from the tyrannical of capital. Separated in time and space, Korea and Kenya were brought together by the grand narrative of capital; the solidarity of cultural workers in these countries was ensured by their continuous struggle against the demon of capitalism.

In the new edition of Writers in Politics, in a replacement essay aptly called “Culture in Crisis: Problems of Creativity and the New World Order,” international capital no longer seems to determine cultural production—and the question of human rights—in the same uniform and hegemonic way. Deprived of its overdetermining force, capital is no longer a singular force cutting across communities and cultures, but an effect of the multiple configuration of power relations—on both a local and global scale—that followed the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Global culture, Ngugi seems to suggest, is produced in a network of relations in which neither the logic of capital, nor the dream of socialism, is a major or decisive force. While Ngugi is still concerned with problems of domination and resistance, the new essay clearly seeks to shun ideology altogether; evacuated from the scene of analysis, the grammar of the Fourth International has been replaced by the idiom of North American multiculturalism with its easily consumable notions of identity and alterity.

To be fair to him, Ngugi's concern with the organization of literary knowledge in a situation of domination predates the American debate on the literary canon. Indeed, it is in his engagement with issues of curriculum and pedagogy that he can claim a fundamental continuity between what one may call his Nairobi and New York projects as they are mapped out in Writers in Politics. Ngugi makes minor revisions in the essays devoted to the teaching of literature, but in rereading these essays, I am easily convinced by his claim that the issues that preoccupied him in Kenya in the 1970s contain useful lessons for American institutions going through a similar period of self-questioning and reform. But the continuity these essays presuppose also calls attention to the problems of cultural translation that become an issue when one tries to apply reflections from one situation to another, especially within the uneven epistemological structures that govern the relations between the metropolitan centers and its margins. Simply put, the only way Ngugi can make the lessons learnt in Nairobi applicable—or even intelligible—to American institutions of knowledge is by invoking a language of universality which is at times at odds with his commitment to local knowledge.

Two kinds of revisions are particularly germane here. First of all, as I have already noted, even when the substance of the work remains the same, the second edition has new titles that carefully foreground the universality that makes them attractive to Western readers. This universality is embedded in what I have already called the idiom of multiculturalism. The second kind of revision can be founded in what appears to be Ngugi's attempt to create a teleology for his earlier works—to identify their concerns, in a distant time and place, as inherently connected to the moment of revision denoted by the new edition of Writers in Politics. This second mode of revision appears in the essay on J. M. Kariuki mentioned earlier and in an expanded article on the launching of Petals of Blood. If in the original edition Ngugi had sought to use the body of Kariuki as a conduit through which national rage could be channeled into productive knowledge—that is, as an allegorical commentary on the failure of the postcolonial state in Kenya—the new edition recuperates the dead politician as a universal hero. Kariuki is now introduced to Western readers as “a symbol of resistance,” the figure who connects “the colonial and the post-colonial”; Mau Mau Detainee is defined retrospectively as a part of a growing literature of imprisonment in the world and the “founding text of Kenya's prison literature” (110). In this invocation of the familiar idiom of postcoloniality, Ngugi acquaints his Western readers with what might otherwise be an obscure Kenyan event.

The essay on the launching of Petals of Blood is rewritten in a similar vein. In the original edition, this essay was a brief reflection on the painful process of writing a novel about underdevelopment; it was intended to be a statement of acknowledgment to the people who had been crucial in Ngugi's constitution as a writer—his mother and his teachers. In the revised edition, the autobiographical element of the essay still remains, but the expanded essay is presented to us as a testament to something larger than the travail of writing a major novel—it becomes one of Ngugi's most powerful reflections on what it means to be a writer in a postcolonial state. If, in the original essay, the subjective act of writing was seen as perfunctory, a minor aspect of the author's conception of literature as “a reflection of the material reality under which we live” (96), in the revised edition, Ngugi's retrospective reflection on the launching of his signature work is represented as nothing less than his attempt to account for his own production as a colonial and postcolonial subject. This is now an essay on the novelist's subjective quest for a room of his own in the global economy of culture, a place in the house that “capitalist fundamentalism” built (93). What we hear now is an African writer also talking about himself to a cosmopolitan audience that assumes the centrality of subjectivity in the production of literature.

Where do Ngugi's Clarendon lectures fit in these acts of revision, in these movements from local sites of production to a Western cosmopolitanism that conceals its privileges under the guise of global culture? On the surface, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams would appear to be the continuation of one of Ngugi's oldest cultural projects—his attempt to understand the relationship between the artist and the state in Africa. But the choice of subjects here, especially the emphasis on the relationship between art and power, represents both continuity and discontinuity in Ngugi's critical practice. The continuity is apparent in Ngugi's concern with the institution of art, most specifically literature and performance, in a context dominated by questions of power. It is not hard to understand why the question of power has been so central to Ngugi's critical discourse: he came of age under the domination of the colonial state in Kenya at one of its most violent phases, the state of emergency in the 1950s; he matured as a writer in that unfortunate phase in African history when the liberal postcolonial state adopted the oppressive mechanisms of its colonial predecessor.

But beneath the author's relentless concern with how power affects artistic production, there is a less apparent mode of discontinuity in his sociology of literature. This discontinuity is to be found in a dual shift: first, there is a shift in the locus of writing, more specifically a move from the novel to performance as genres of cultural criticism; second, there is a shift from the notion of society, a concept that had dominated Ngugi's earlier works, to the social and analytical category of the state.

Of these two shifts, the first one is the easiest to explain. After his experiment at Kamĩrĩĩthu—a project that involved, it must be emphasized, a rethinking of the place of the audience in the making of drama—Ngugi seems to have recognized the power of performance as a force of social change. Among the many things Ngugi discovered at Kamĩrĩĩthu, as he constantly reminds his readers throughout Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, was that the site of performance represented a unique example of how practitioners of the theater could break down the barrier between producers of art and its recipients, between the act of power and its subversion. His basic claim, then, is that when it is opened up to the world outside its own spatial confines, theater can turn audiences into active social agents. And it is because it recognized the subversive potential of the performative space, Ngugi argues, that the state had historically sought to either control or destroy performance. This was the most important lesson learnt at Kamĩrĩĩthu and Ngugi is determined to spread the message even further. Although he continues to define himself as a novelist, it is apparent that Ngugi is no longer content with forms of art that are restricted to individual and privileged bourgeois readers. This shift from the scriptural economy to orality is already apparent in the performative dimension of Matigari; it also explains Ngugi's serious investment in theater and cinema during the early days of his exile.

The question of Ngugi's shift from the theoretical problem of society in literature to the conceptual category of the state is far more complex. It is made much more complicated by a set of closely related factors: As an African intellectual in Europe or North America, Ngugi's works are no longer overdetermined by the postcolonial state. In exile, the questions that had made the state the overwhelming presence in the production of Ngugi's art while he was living in Africa—censorship, imprisonment, and the culture of silence—are, ironically, no longer important or urgent. At the same time, however, the notion of society—and social relationships—that Ngugi had deployed in his earlier essays seemed to have been over-taken by historical events—the end of the cold war and the triumph of capitalism. Remember, after all, that in his early essays, Ngugi's understanding of society as a social and analytical category had been intimately connected to Marxist ideology and a socialist aesthetic. In Ngugi's Marxist essays, for example, social relationships are conceived, inherently, as the product of the relationship between “men” and their productive forces; the category of society is mediated by the notion of class struggle; its history is defined by a teleology that leads from primitive production, through the crisis of capitalism, toward a classless society. This narrative, borrowed from Marx's Grundrisse and the German Ideology, is the engine driving the essays and fiction Ngugi produced in the 1970s. Similarly, the socialist aesthetic in these works was premised on a very specific understanding of the relation between society and the subject and form of literature.2

Except for those instances when Ngugi provided his readers with trenchant critiques of specific postcolonial regimes and their unsavory practices, the Marxist essays did not seem to be interested in the state as a theoretical category. This disinterest in the problematic of the state was itself a direct product of the Marxist theory that Ngugi had inherited, albeit indirectly, from Hegel and Lenin. Marxism's residual Hegelianism, for example, enabled it to conceive the state, in its idealized and abstract form, as a guarantor of rights. This investment in the role of the state as a agent of freedom was also apparent in the Leninist belief that the revolutionary state had a crucial role to play in the construction of socialist society (the idea of revolution was, after all, dependent on the ability of radical forces to control the state apparatus). Against this background, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams provides a startling shift in Ngugi's theoretical concerns even when it seems to rehearse familiar positions.

None of these concerns is more pressing and troublesome than Ngugi's totalized conception of the state as the enemy of art, his valorization of performance as a genre that is inherently revolutionary, and the ultimate disappearance of society as a theoretical category in his critical thought. Clearly, the power of Ngugi's thesis in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams—that art consolidates its identity and function in opposition to “the state's terror and paranoia”—depends on his conception of the totalized identity of the state and its irrationalism (2). Ngugi's basis premise is that the state has a universal history, character, and function. Indeed, in order to make the claim that art acquires its political identity as an oppositional force in the human community, it seems almost imperative for the critic to build his case on examples that take the universality of his objects of analysis (the state and art) for granted. Thus, lessons drawn from Gikuyu oral culture are brought into direct comparison with stories in the Old Testament, which intersect with dialogues from Plato's Republic, which are in turn drawn into a dialogical relationship with more recent victims of postcolonial terror such as Nawal el Sa'adawi. There is something attractive in this method of analysis: Ngugi reads local cultures for their global implications; he analyzes specific instances of cultural production (such as the struggle for control of the national theater in Kenya) for their global meaning. In addition, his delineation of the relationship between art and the state is notable for its clarity of expression and vision, its cognizance of how local and global knowledge provide similar points of reflection.

At the same time, however, Ngugi's argument—his primary claim that art is conceptualized in opposition to state power—is disappointing in its refusal, or inability, to confront its own contradictions and to account for its exclusions. Consider, for example, Ngugi's premise that art has a “godlike” aspect reflected in the fact that it is celebrated by different cultures around the world as a mode of creation (10-12). Ngugi begins by reading what appears to be the worship of art and the artist in “traditional” society as the basis of its oppositional beginnings, then he moves on quickly to contrast the diachronic nature of art with what he sees as the synchronizing function of the state. Ngugi's broad and consistent claim is that “a state, any state, is conservative by its very nature as a state” (13). Indeed, the opposition between a conservative and destructive state and a radical and redemptive aesthetic is the conceptual cornerstone of Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams:

It would seem to me, taking all the four aspects of art and their opposites in the state into account, that the state, when functioning to its logical conclusion as the state, and art functioning as art are antagonistic. They are continuously at war. The state in a class society is an instrument of control in the hands of whatever is the dominant social force. Art, on the other hand, in its beginnings was always an ally of the human search for freedom from hostile nature and nurture.


But this kind of claim only invites more vexed questions: Can the state ever be an agent of social good, as both Liberals and Marxists have argued for almost two centuries, or is it inherently evil? Is the power and function of art ensured by its inherently redemptive quality, or is the association between the work of art and freedom adscititious? And if we are to take the polarization between art and the state seriously, what are we to make of the argument, often made in regard to the cultural institutions of European fascism, that theories of the aesthetic had a logical connection to the cultural politics of the fascist state (see Jay). Ngugi might argue, in response to the last question, that what was happening in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy was an instance of the state misusing art for its destructive ends. Still, it is hard to dismiss the argument that certain ideologies of art are inherently connected to fascist ideology, or to argue that the conservatism of the state is inherent in its conceptualization rather than structure.

Similar problems are discernible in Ngugi's exploration of what he calls the “Socratic” aspect of art: “Art has more questions than it has answers. Art starts with a position of not knowing and it seeks to know” (15). The problem here is not so much the claim that art has an interrogative and, by extension, epistemological function; rather, in his generalized reading of the kinds of question art raises, questions he traces all the way from Plato to Nietzsche, Ngugi avoids the more difficult problem in this discourse: what are the conditions in which certain questions are raised and not others? Plato's Socrates is not merely interested in raising questions; he is involved in a philosophical project whose goal is to secure the idealism of the state, or the authority of the moral order, as an ideal order that predates representation (mimesis). As is well known, Plato banishes art from the ideal Republic because it promotes a mode of knowledge that contravenes the idealism of the moral order, an order that is guaranteed by the state. For Nietzsche, on the other hand, the failure of art is implicit in its classical association with idealism; he asks questions whose goal is to break down the logic of art, or rather its association with rationality. If Plato sees art as dangerous because it has no capacity for truth, Nietzsche attacks art for being imprisoned in rationalism.3 The two philosophers pose their questions about art in specific circumstances in the history of “Western” thought—Plato at the infancy of the state and the inaugural moment of poetic reflection; Nietzsche at what has come to be construed as the end of both processes.

Do Old Testament and Gikuyu sages pose the same question in similar ways in different circumstances? Is the colonial and postcolonial state in Africa identical to Socrates's Athenian state? The problem with the theory of art in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams is not that Ngugi fails to provide the kind of qualifiers that his assertions seem to demand. Indeed, he is fully aware of “the complexities of history and social formations” that make it impossible for us to posit the function of either art or the state as “logical absolutes” (28). The problem is much more elementary—the positing of art and state as conceptual and moral absolutes posited in opposition to one another.

The arguments presented in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams are much successful when Ngugi turns to the specific relation between power and the politics of performance (ch. 2); language, democracy, and globalization (ch. 3); and the challenge of orality to theories of art built on the unquestioned primacy of writing (ch. 4). What is impressive about these chapters is not their power of critique or theoretical reflection, but Ngugi's ability to link his own observations and experiences as a practitioner of the theater arts to some of the issues that have come to dominate debates about performance. In discussing the problem of space in the theater, for example, Ngugi restates, or slightly revises, the dominant view in the field of performance studies that the power of the theatrical space depends on its openness and/or enclosure; but he then moves on to reflect on his own encounters with the politics of performance in Kenya which complicate some of the established positions on spatiality in the theater.

Given his past experiences with the state, Ngugi is attuned to the real, as opposed to the theoretical, questions that arise when the artist uses space to question the organization of power and political practices. Thus, he draws on his experiences at both the National Theater in Kenya and Kamĩrĩĩthu, to present a series of arguments that are as much about space as they are about imprisoned bodies. Two important observations emerge out of this discussion. First, in reflecting on the nature of imprisonment in Africa, Ngugi recognizes and calls attention to the role of prison as “the enclosure in which the state organizes the use of space and time in such a way as to achieve what Foucault calls ‘docile bodies’ and hence docile minds” (58). Secondly, he notes that the openness of the performance space terrifies “those in possession of repressive power” (63) in very concrete terms. When the Kenyan government set out to destroy the Kamĩrĩĩthu theater in 1982, Ngugi notes, it had already identified the physical space of performance as the bearer of political meanings that couldn't be contained within the space of the stage.

But how exactly does the space of performance function as a site of opposition to political power? Ngugi is sensitive to the different ways in which power engages with the open space and he presents some compelling examples from colonial and postcolonial Africa. The most revealing of these examples are two in which he was personally involved: the dispute surrounding the production of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi at the National Theater in Nairobi in 1976 and the banning of the production of I Will Marry When I Want in 1977. In the former instance, he recalls, the regime was unhappy with the ideological message of The Trial, a work that challenged the legitimacy of the postcolonial state by calling attention to its decidedly colonial foundations; but the state did not consider this threat strong enough to ban the production of the play or to imprison its author. In contrast, I Will Marry When I Want, a work that bore the same ideological message and structure as The Trial, was considered such a threat to the national security interest that it was banned after only a few months of performance and its author was subsequently imprisoned and exiled. How do we explain these divergent reactions by state power to the work of art? Ngugi explains the difference in spatial terms: produced at the National Theater in Nairobi, The Trial was a subversive play, but it was being performed within the space authorized by the Kenyan state and bourgeois culture; in contrast, the space at Kamĩrĩĩthu was constructed in opposition to the authorized institutions of the theater. Ngugi's emphatic claim is that the “open space among the people is the most dangerous area because the most vital” (68).

But in this conclusion—as in the spatial terms that precede it—we can detect what I consider to be the weakness of the grammar of performance studies that Ngugi adopts in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams. Surely the issue here goes beyond the nature of the space of performance. What is at stake, also, is a complex network of political interests—and paranoia—which the space of performance foregrounds. In the case of Kamĩrĩĩthu, for example, the Kenyan state was involved in a larger political drama than the one contained in the spaces of performance. It was involved in a political drama about the practice of power itself, namely the postcolonial Kenyan state's growing insecurity in the late 1970s over the question of the Kenyatta succession. It was involved in a struggle over radical politics (Marxism was acceptable so long as it was confined to bourgeois institutions such as the National Theater and the university). In addition, the Kenya state couldn't conceive of a play in an African language outside its own paranoia about class and ethnicity: the Kenyatta government was frightened by the possibility of an alliance between a radicalized intelligentsia and a disgruntled peasantry; the Moi regime lived in fear of a resurgency of Gikuyu nationalism, which had often used culture as its most powerful mode of insurgency. What made one performance space more open than the other had to do with a configuration of all these forces and the desires of the real and projected audience.

But knowing that the author is perhaps one of the best students of cultural politics in Africa, one cannot help wondering why the grammar of performance seems to take precedence over culture and politics, what the earlier Ngugi would consider to be the ideological imperative. Is there a paradigmatic shift here? If so how can we explain this shift? One could try and explain Ngugi's move away from ideology in terms of his location within an America institution in which the language of disciplines seems to be more important or intelligible than Ideologiekritik. In this case, one could argue that Ngugi is trying to represent African cultural practices in the familiar language of performance criticism. Alternatively, one could argue that Ngugi's affinity for the universal language of space emerges from the exiled artist's alienation from “the space which nourishes his imagination,” an alienation which he tries to overcome by occupying “the global space” (61-62).

The centering of global space in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams is an important and welcome development in Ngugi's cultural criticism. But if some readers look at this development with some trepidation, it is because they are aware of the simple fact that Ngugi's best fictional work was nourished by his dynamic relationship to local sources, his relationship with the East African landscape, and his compelling argument that art in Africa had to function as an instrument of Ideologiekritik if it was to live up to its historical mission and the expectations of its audience. What is going to nourish Ngugi's imagination in exile? And whatever happened to the grammar of Marxism and the project of socialism that dominated his critical writings throughout the 1970s? If there is one thing I miss in Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, it is Ngugi's ruminations on the nature of art and society as defined by the Marxist aesthetic.

I miss this dimension for both personal and intellectual reasons: for those of us who were students at the University of Nairobi in the late 1970s, Ngugi's Marxism provided an indispensable language for understanding the destructive politics of the postcolonial state and what Frantz Fanon called the “pitfalls of national consciousness” (148-205). Ngugi's uncompromising political stance emboldened my generation in its demands for democratic rights and social justice in the postcolony. For this, countless numbers of Ngugi's former students and associates paid a heavy price in the dark days after his exile in 1982. This was a time when any association with one of his political and cultural projects was construed to be Marxist, hence subversive and undesirable. Condemned as Marxists at the University of Nairobi, these students were to undertake their “postgraduate studies” at maximum security prisons—Kamiti, Naivasha, Kisumu, and Shimo la Tewa—that had been made infamous by the colonial government and had now been resurrected by the Kenyan state as re-education camps for its perceived political enemies. Ngugi is aware of this history of postcolonial terror in Kenya. Indeed, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams is dedicated to the memory of Karimi Nduthu, an uncompromising graduate of the state prison system in Kenya and one of the most recent victims of postcolonial terror. Still, many of Ngugi's former students and associates await his reflections on the future of Marxism and socialism after the end of the cold war.


  1. The concepts of lifeworld and public sphere used here are borrowed from the works of Jïürgen Habermas, most notably, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

  2. In the key essays collected in the first edition of Writers in Politics, Ngugi's adoption of a fairly traditional Marxist aesthetic is not in doubt. The framework for this aesthetic is laid out in “Literature and Society,” the first essay in the collection.

  3. Plato's famous rejection of the ethical claims of art can be found in Book 10 of The Republic; his critique of representation is in Ion. Nietzsche's most famous dissociation of art and rationality is in The Birth of Tragedy. For excellent selections from these works, see David Richter, The Critical Tradition.

Parts of this review essay are excerpted from my recently completed book—Simon Gikandi, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000—and are used with permission from Cambridge University Press.

Works Cited

Coole, Diana. “Habermas and the Question of Alterity.” Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity: Critical Essays on the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Ed. Maurizio Passerin d'Entrèves. Cambridge: Polity, 1996. 221-43.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1968.

Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, forthcoming.

———. Maps of Englishness: Writing Identity in the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

Habermas, Jïürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT P, 1991.

———. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Trans. Frederick G. Lawrence. Cambridge: MIT P, 1990.

Jay, Martin. “‘The Aesthetic Ideology’ as Ideology; or, What Does It Mean to Aestheticize Politics?” Cultural Critique (1992): 41-61.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature and Politics. London: Heinemann, 1972; Westport: Lawrence and Hill, 1973; rpt. 1983.

———. Writers in Politics. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Decolonising the Mind. London: James Currey, 1986.

———. “Kĩĩingeretha: Ruthiomi rwa Thĩ Yoothe? Kaba Gĩtwaĩri (sic)” (“English as a Global Language? Perhaps Swahili”). Yale Journal of Criticism 5.1 (1991): 269-94.

———. Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey, 1993.

———. Mũtiiri: Njaranda ya Miikarĩre, Vol. 1. Newark: Mutiiri Abirika, 1994.

———. Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature and Society. Revised and enlarged edition, London: James Currey, 1997.

———. Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Toward a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa, Oxford: Clarendon. 1998.

Helen Hayward (review date 15 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Hayward, Helen. “A New Dispossession.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5163 (15 March 2002): 25.

[In the following review, Hayward contends that The River Between, A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood are important works for understanding postcolonial African writing, notable for their political nature as well as their emphasis on subtleties within historical events.]

In this trio of roughly chronological novels [The River Between,A Grain of Wheat, and Petals of Blood,], Ngugi wa Thiong'o portrays the disruption of Kikuyu society as a result of the invasive pressure of colonialism; he depicts the struggle against colonial rule that culminated in Kenya's acquisition of independence in 1963, and traces the betrayal, by a corrupt postcolonial state, of the hopes which had been invested in self-government.

The River Between, which was first published in 1965, is set at the time of the arrival of European missionaries. It recreates the reverences and order of Kikuyu society under threat from an alien, disruptive presence, and shows the importance of ritual in unifying the community. The novel is imbued with a Lawrentian sense of the spiritual dimension of experience. Syncretism is represented both as a tool of resistance and as leading to unresolvable conflicts. The hero seeks to learn the secrets of the white men while remaining true to his people; the conclusion of the story suggests that his attempts to reconcile the two cultures were unsustainable. Betrayal and division are central themes of all three books; betrayals caused the internal differences that weakened African society and facilitated its conquest. But neutrality is impossible; not to resist is to collaborate with the process of enslavement: “You serve the people who struggle; or you serve those who rob the people.” Ngugi writes of the importance of choices, and of taking political action: not to act is to consign yourself to an insubstantial twilight existence.

Betrayals also proliferate in A Grain of Wheat (1967), set at the time of independence but looking back to earlier struggles. The main characters are tied together by a web of betrayals, both political and personal. The novel painstakingly reconstructs the complex factors that lie behind events, and shows the present to be saturated in the influence of the past.

Ngugi's novels seek to show the course of history through an interweaving of public and private events, exploring the interaction between individual motives and the wider forces of historical change. His sense of the workings of history is grounded in “the efforts of the people and their struggle in the past”, and underpinned by economic analysis. The dispossession of rural peoples from their land is seen as playing an important part in the colonization of the region, forcing the population into a cash economy. If there is any source of optimism here, it may be found in the belief that collective struggle survives the individual, that actions are “a link in the chain in the long struggle of African people through different times at different places”.

In Petals of Blood (1977), the ultimate betrayal occurs—of all those who have suffered for independence: a “massacre of hopes and dreams and beauty”. The political satire here grows bitter and forced; the parasitic wealthy Kenyans, who have rushed to replace the departed colonizers, are seen as perpetuating “the reign of the few over many, and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh”. The new elite disguises “robbery and exploitation” with a spurious nationalism and pride in African culture, while currying favour with foreign investors. Prostitution is a feature of this society and a metaphor for its condition: “in a world of grab and take, in a world built on a structure of inequality and injustice … we are all prostituted.” The novel tells the story of a new dispossession. The village of Ilmorog exists in a state of pastoral innocence, impoverished and neglected, but with its own customs and poetic rituals. A period of drought forces the villagers to seek outside help, but their actions misfire; they bring back only “spiritual drought” from the city. When development comes, it forces them from their lands and destroys the community; they are displaced into shanty towns and waged labour, while outsiders enrich themselves at their expense.

Like the striking schoolboys he portrays, Ngugi fights for “the right to define ourselves … a new image of self”. These three novels are important documents in the history of postcolonial writing, distinguished by the urgency of their political engagement and the subtlety of their historical grasp.

Bonnie Roos (essay date summer 2002)

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SOURCE: Roos, Bonnie. “Re-Historicizing the Conflicted Figure of Woman in Ngugi's Petals of Blood.Research in African Literatures 33, no. 2 (summer 2002): 154-70.

[In the following essay, Roos acknowledges the contradictory traits of the character Wanja in Petals of Blood, asserting that “the great beauty of Ngugi's characterization is that he recognizes these conflicts within himself and in the people around him.”]

The 1972 novel Petals of Blood marks Ngugi wa Thiong'o's growing interest in strong women characters like Wanja. Wanja succeeds in areas where women literary figures traditionally do not. In her relationship to the land, her strength as a mother/nurturer figure for the entire village, and her ability to forge her own destiny, Wanja is a female figure rife with agency and power. She steadfastly resolves to accompany others in their return to the city despite the unpleasant memories it holds for her, and she continues the trek even after she is raped. She improves Abdulla's business with her knowledge of advertising and marketing and eventually makes a significant profit for them both through her appropriation of the theng'eta drink. Her final turn to prostitution, though certainly a tragic and cynical decision on her part, is also a reasoned and logical solution to the problems she faces.

As the only primary woman figure, Wanja's character at first glance carries auspicious—if tenuous—hopes for African women and for their depiction in the works of a growing body of the African canon and postcolonial literature more generally. This agency is precisely the part of Wanja's characterization that is so uncritically appealing to many feminists. We find Wanja a refreshing change from traditional, passive, melodramatic, male-dependent, lackluster heroines. As a result, Ngugi has a long list of feminist supporters. For example, Judith Cochrane argues that it is the Gikuyu women “rather than their menfolk who seem to have the better understanding of the needs of their own people and of the new Kenya, and who seem better able to reconcile those needs with traditional values and customs” (90). Deirdre LaPin writes that Wanja is an “admirable, indeed heroic, character” (116). And Eustace Palmer confirms that Wanja is “brave, resilient, resourceful and determined” (278-79).

Yet these critics have overlooked the use of Wanja as trope, or the archetypal nature of her characterization. Indeed, where they have identified it, feminist critics applaud this use of trope. Palmer, for example, who writes in such glowing terms of Wanja, nonetheless identifies Ngugi's use of her as an allegory for Kenya and Africa:

The drought is also political, spiritual, economic and emotional, as with Wanja who, yearning after a release from barrenness, becomes restless and moody in proportion to the aridity of the environment. The drought generally refers to the people's deprivation of all those things that should make life meaningful.


And this reading is certainly not confined to feminist critics. As Govind Narain Sharma suggests, Wanja “is the spirit and earth of Kenya, humiliated, exploited and ill-used” (302). This all-affirming acceptance of Ngugi's use of Wanja as trope has left him open to other important and little discussed criticism that has gone unanswered; or perhaps the lack of discussion is answer in itself. For whenever a male author—regardless of his race, sexual preference, or intentions—sets out to characterize a female figure, he invites particular criticism and speculation. This is true even for an author like Ngugi, who regularly demonstrates his support of women and women's rights in interviews and lectures.1 In her article “The Mother Africa Trope,” Florence Stratton takes Ngugi to task not only for using Wanja as a trope for Africa and Kenya, but also for restricting her to clichéd Western representations of woman as mother, virgin, or whore, all equally defined and reflected through male desire. In fact, Stratton admits, the launching of such a scathing attack on Ngugi is necessitated precisely because he is “the male [African] writer who has been most lionized by feminist critics” (54).

This paper intends to respond to Stratton's criticism in part with a historical analysis of Kenyan women, particularly mothers and prostitutes. In my understanding of Petals, there is no denying that Ngugi relies heavily upon trope and archetype in his representation of woman. But I want to suggest that there is a strategy to the trope, rooted in Ngugi's Marxist philosophies, and that he also complicates this characterization with the use of Kenyan women's historical specificity. The fact of and meaning behind this specificity eludes Stratton's criticism precisely because her critique is Western feminist before it is postcolonial. In bringing to light the historical position of Kenyan women at the time the book takes place, I hope to illuminate Wanja's character in such a way that we can see her, like Munira, Karega, and Abdulla, as a very real representative of the Kenyan nation.

Wanja is one of four main characters depicted by Ngugi to dramatize the theories of Marxist philosopher Frantz Fanon. Fanon's theories, like Ngugi's Petals of Blood, chronicle the process of colonization to decolonization and the subsequent neocolonization of Africa. Fanon concludes that the violence done by colonization cannot be entirely eradicated until a people's revolution demands a socialist government, through violence as necessary.2 Specifically, both Fanon and Ngugi blame the new native middle class for effectively perpetuating the colonial regime, especially through their encouragement of tourist industries. They idealize the revolution of the agricultural working masses as the people of the nation; they see the people's resulting kinship to the soil as instrumental in its successful provision for all the needs of the population.

It is this vision of “nation,” understood by Stratton as primarily masses of working men, led by activists who are once again men, that lies at the base of her criticism. She argues that Ngugi creates

a gendered theory of nationhood and of writing, one that excludes women from the creative production of the national polity or identity and of literary texts. Instead, woman herself is produced or constructed by the male writer as an embodiment of his literary/political vision […]. So constructed, woman is defined as her body, as her sexuality: she is an ideal virgin-mother figure and/or a prostitute, ‘Madammadonna’, ‘a barmaid farmer’.


I take issue with Stratton's criticism here on three grounds. First, I would argue that Wanja is not always defined by her body, as her work in the fields, her entrepreneurial skills, her own expressions of artistry, and her depth of character go to show. Second, in assuming that Ngugi does no more than tell an allegory of his own “literary/political vision,” Stratton underestimates Ngugi's brilliance as a writer, as a storyteller. She falls into the trend discussed by Carol Sicherman of many “establishment critics” who find in Ngugi's more recent works, since A Grain of Wheat, a “lack of artistry” replaced by “mere ‘propaganda’” (359). In so doing, Stratton fails to acknowledge Ngugi's rich layers of symbolic motifs, the beauty of his prose style that mixes tradition with modern language, or his ability to expand upon philosophy with a compelling, human narrative thread. But I want to take particular issue with Stratton's claim that Ngugi's sense of nation is gendered. Her critique might be valid for Marxist politics in general and for Fanon's Marxism more specifically, but Ngugi puts his own spin on these theories. It is precisely with his use of Wanja as earthy mother, prostitute, and sexual being that he is able to portray a nation that addresses the issues of women as well as those of men.

Even given Wanja's complexity, certainly she is, as are the other main protagonists, archetypal; she is archetypal to the extent that any character intended to dramatize an abstract philosophy, like Fanon's, must be archetypal. The unusual, eccentric figure cannot function to represent a large portion or “type” of society and a truly individual character would run counter to Ngugi's “collective” Marxist philosophies. It is for this reason that there are collective—rather than singular—heroes and villains of the novel: Munira, Karega, Abdulla, and Wanja form a heroic worker foursome; Kimeria, Chui, and Mzigo form a similar antagonistic force of oppression. Like her male counterparts—the political activist, the teacher, the small entrepreneur—Wanja is “typed” to represent a collective women's identity in Ngugi's vision of nation. This becomes evident, to begin with, in Wanja's beauty, which increases directly in proportion to her closeness to the land.

Petals of Blood provides numerous examples of this environmental connection for all the villagers, in fact, for anyone closer to the land rather than associated with the city. This special link between Wanja and land, the earth, is revealed in the scene when Wanja brings life back to the very soils of Ilmorog. She organizes a women's collective work force to till the earth, and she is among the first to reap its bounty when, after a long dry spell, it finally yields a harvest. As Palmer argues, Wanja's “dynamism and vitality are suggested by her association with the fields and the plains” (278-79). But Wanja's treatment, as the story progresses, becomes even more organic, and it is clear that as she works the soil, together with a group labor force of her own creation, she becomes all the more empowered:

Within a short time of her contact with the soil […], her eyes had become less exaggeratedly bright, more subdued, with a different kind of softness, no longer caressing people in the first hour of contact. She had become a less fully fleshed beauty, more of an angular beauty of a peasant woman.


But while Wanja's sexuality may be less brazen through her contact with the land, it is by no means diminished. By the time the rains begin, she becomes particularly sexualized through her association with the earth. Ngugi writes, “Wanja was possessed of the rain-spirit. She walked through it, clothes drenched, skirt-hem tight against her thighs, reveling in the waters from heaven” (196). Wanja's fertile, rejuvenated body inherently belongs to the land and the land to her. Ngugi's depiction of Wanja's connection to the earth and soil never borders on the pejorative. Wanja becomes a kind of archetypal Earth mother, a fertility goddess, who retains an idealized, intrinsic organic relationship that reveals Ngugi's Marxist, agricultural agenda.

But there remains more to this relationship between women, land, and sexuality than Ngugi's politics: it is also related to Gikuyu tradition.3 More often than not, Carolyn Martin Shaw argues, the Gikuyu women do most of the extensive heavy labor in the fields.4 Thus, as Wanja works the fields with the Ndemi-Nyakinyua Group and feels, in her ripening relationship with Karega, “about to flower” (251), she may be seen as culturally specific as well as archetypal. Furthermore, according to Gikuyu tradition, woman is associated with land and land transfer; she functions as a mark of purity in this process. As Cora Ann Presley explains:

Women [of Gikuyu tradition] played an important role on ceremonial occasions, acting as witnesses and participants in rituals of primary importance to the community […] the ceremony of transfer was not complete without the presence and involvement of the Kikuyu participant's wives in the ritual that finalized the transfer of land. In another case when the kiama elders wished to purify a village [or a homestead] women's participation in the ceremony was required.


While on the one hand women's presence might be read as symbolic of property and ownership in the ceremonies and rituals Presley mentions, their presence is equally required in the use of village purification—a noneconomic, nonproperty-oriented ceremony. In this case, Gikuyu tradition resolves to some degree the possible paradox of Wanja's association with both sexuality and purity because it links all women with purity, regardless of any necessarily sexual implications. Presley does not state, for example, that only virgin or “chaste” women were considered correct subjects for rituals of purity. Indeed, wives—sexually knowledgeable women with “a large degree of sexual freedom, even within marriage” (Shaw 72-73)—were often required. Rather it is woman herself who has some inherently pure qualities. In her closeness to the land, and her extensive labor upon it, Wanja not only fulfills her Marxist obligation to benefit physiologically from the produce reaped from her lands, but she also fulfills a specifically Gikuyu ideal in deriving purity from the lands and working it together with other women. Rather than choosing a “virginal” Western archetype—despite Munira's disturbing acronyms to the contrary—Ngugi can be seen as using Wanja to purify the sacred earth—the New Jerusalem, as much as the earth purifies her. If read in this manner, Wanja's story becomes tied to tribal ritual; she becomes a pure Gikuyu (barmaid) farmer, both culturally specific and archetypal representative of a kind of women's nation.

Wanja's desire to be a mother can also be read as both a generalization of the situation in Africa and as a specific allusion to women's history. The death of Wanja's first child as a symbol for the death of Kenya's children is clear. And the child's death at the hands of its mother is a distinct reference to the burgeoning Independent Kenya, which is quashed by those very heroes who once struggled to create and nurture it. Thus, for example, Chui himself, taking the side of the students and workers, is originally expelled for initiating the strike against the establishment that worked to oppress the students and train them to accept their plight—an establishment represented by the aptly named new headmaster, Cambridge Fraudsham (29). For awhile, Chui becomes a popular hero, “‘a man … a legend’” and there are indications of “a new youth emerging, a youth freed from the direct shame and humiliation of the past and hence not so spiritually wounded as those who had gone before” (168; 167). These students insist, by Karega's account: “We wanted to be taught African literature, African history, for we wanted to know ourselves better […]. We wanted an African headmaster and African teachers. We denounced the prefect system” (170). Finally, the rioting students demand to have the heroic strike-leader Chui as their new headmaster. But when he arrives to take charge of Karega's school, Chui is no more than “a black replica of Fraudsham” (171). He insists that “there would be no hasty programme of Africanisation” and that “[f]ar from destroying the prefect system, he would inject it with new blood. Obedience was the royal road to order and stability, the only basis of sound education” (171). Similarly, the ex-Mau Mau fighter and first Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta himself was instrumental in developing Ngugi's despised tourism and banking industries in order to stimulate Kenya's economic growth, for example.5 Thus, like Wanja, Kenya and Africa have a history of “murdering” their children.

Wanja's second pregnancy and her epiphany after Karega's rejection signal new hope for new Kenya, a second chance to right old wrongs. But Wanja, who has murdered her child in youthful confusion and desperation, is in many ways an unlikely “Madonna” figure, as evidenced in the volatile, loaded image chosen to represent this betrayal—a mother abandoning her own child in a latrine. Although the repentant Wanja is kind to Joseph, empathetic in the extreme, and regretful of her tragic error, her mothering and nurturing behavior is not altogether consistent. For, as Jennifer Evans points out, Wanja “can at times be selfish, callous and vindictive” (59). She avenges herself on Munira in humiliating him by making him pay for sex with her (279), fulfilling her promise to be “a hard woman … and somebody, either now or later, will have to pay” (251). Wanja also kills Kimeria out of vengeance (328), an utterly undomestic, unmotherly act that accords with Wanja's paradoxical sense of self as a woman: “Cooking and the kitchen become the most important link in the drama [of avenging herself upon Chui, Mzigo and Kimeria] and she was beginning to enjoy it” (329). Wanja's murder of Kimeria is designed to show that her anger is now directed in an appropriate direction; it demonstrates that, unlike any metaphysical mother of mercy, she will remain as unforgiving as she is unforgiven.6 In other words, despite her numerous strengths, Wanja is quite human, and subject to human pride and error, anger, and passion. And though she certainly functions as allegory, she is not merely the archetypal mother.

Ngugi, true to his desire to tell a human history, uses her plight to comment on the situations of many young Kenyan women. For Ngugi adds impact to the story by referencing infanticide, which was not uncommon among city women according to historical record. Luise White cites interviews and literature where she suggests that infanticide “was not a rare occurrence” in Nairobi in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and that residents talked about it “matter-of-factly.” She interviews one citizen who nonchalantly admits “I used to see dead babies in the toilets all the time” (117). Newborn babies were frequently discovered in the city toilets, and regulations were sometimes implemented to attempt to control the practice. Here, the history can be said to enhance the story, for certainly Ngugi does not confine himself to a simple retelling of facts. Again, Ngugi's “nation” seems to include much more than a consideration of the difficulties faced by working class men.

For all that Ngugi posits hope for Wanja derived from her child, Wanja is herself, regardless of her role as a mother, a signal of hope, as she channels her passions into more suitable venues for resistance:

Wanja got a piece of charcoal and a piece of cardboard. For one hour or so she remained completely absorbed in her sketching. And suddenly she felt lifted out of her own self, she felt waves of emotion she had never before experienced. The figure began to take shape on the board. It was a combination of the [androgynous] sculpture she once saw at the lawyer's place in Nairobi and the images of Kimathi in his moments of triumph and laughter and sorrow and terror—but without one limb. When it was over, she felt a tremendous calm, a kind of inner assurance to the possibilities of a new kind of power.


Wanja's hope and newfound power do not derive exclusively from the new child within her. Rather, they come from something she has possessed all along. She has learned to speak with her art, something evident earlier, but unrecognized in herself, in the sign she designs for Abdulla's bar, which brings customers running (55), in her expression of frustration with Ilmorog, as the farmers' wait for rain is symbolized by the women running from the lusty sunshine and chasing after a puny rain man (75), by her fascination with people's faces, the part of her job as a barmaid she particularly enjoys (130), and by her ability to see colors with different kinds of music (57). Perhaps more like Ngugi himself than any other character, she is an artist, capturing aesthetics and politics in her images of the working class. When asked who the father of her child is, Wanja declines a name, and instead finds in her artistry the ability to link past, present, and future, sorrows and triumphs, and man and woman, all into the image of Abdulla. This unity is the father of Wanja's child. Like Ngugi, Wanja reveals in her powers of representation a new birth, and the potential for a new future of hope and strength in a manner that, finally, is consistent with Ngugi's Marxist ideal. In this sense, Wanja is not only a historically specific representative of the female perspective of nation, but she also becomes instrumental, in Ngugi's ideal new Kenya, in the creation and revisioning of that new Kenya through her newfound artistic power—one that rivals Ngugi's own. In fact, her image of Abdulla closely reflects Ngugi's own perception of art and its relation to history. As Ngugi contends, “From my writing one can see that the past, present and future are bound and interrelated. My interest in the past is because of the present and there is no way to discuss the future or present separate from the past” (“Literature and Society” 58). Like Ngugi, Wanja has the potential, through her art, to become a force in the creation of a new nation, as well as a representative of it.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this archetypal figure is not her mothering, nor her close relationship to the land, but her sexuality and its relationship to the “nation.” I find compelling Stratton's reproach of Ngugi for his use of Wanja's sexuality as the primary link between the three main protagonists and three main antagonists, insisting,

[t]o ensure that there is no mistake about the source of his power, [the male author] links male sexual potency with male political potency […]. For Wanja is made to bed down with nearly every man in the text so that her author can compare the potency of his own ideology with that of his competitors.


Indeed there is no avoiding the fact that Ngugi makes frequent use of Wanja's free sexuality—something that in and of itself, some feminists might find a positive aspect of her character and a source of strength—in order to demonstrate the potency of his male characters.

And yet Stratton fails to account for what free sexuality means for woman in a post(neo)colonial Kenya, whose very national independence is premised in part upon the reinstitution of traditional customs, most notably, among the Gikuyu, female circumcision. When female pleasure is proscribed within this national context, woman's body itself signifies either adherence to New Kenyan masculinist philosophies or “liberated” but racist philosophies, a situation where one dislikes, in either case, one's bedfellows, so to speak. Ngugi's Wanja manages to merge ambivalently these traditional divides somewhat because, though presumably uncircumcised and therefore able to enjoy sex, she still remains, as Palmer suggests, a kind of keeper of Gikuyu tradition. Wanja's uncircumcised body suggests that she is a modern woman who refuses to allow men to dominate her. But her own recognition of the fact that “in the long run it was men who triumphed and walked over her body, buying insurance against deep involvement with money and guilty smiles or in exaggerated fits of jealousy” (56), suggests that she knows her sexuality is most often used against her.

Wanja's sexuality is rarely “free,” in any sense. Even when she recalls her seduction by Kimeria, she sees herself going with him partly in exchange for the new floral dress and the film show in the city, a symbol of the modern life that he seems to promise and she to desire (39). When she sleeps with Munira for the first time, she demands that he bring her rice (41). Though to some degree she recognizes it as an illusion, Wanja likes “being bought a dress or something without her demanding it as a bargain” (56); and to some degree, Wanja is taken in by the illusion, explaining that a “barmaid does not take herself to be a prostitute. We are girls in search of work and men” (130). But she eventually admits to Munira, “with most men I have gone to them with a purpose” (250). And of course, with creation of the Sunshine Lodge, her illusions are finished. She tells Munira, “You want it, you pay for it, for the bed and the light and my time and the drink that I shall give you and the breakfast tomorrow” (279).

Ngugi's use of Wanja's prostitution is, in fact, the central point with which Stratton takes issue because, as she puts it, “rather than being related to women's social condition, prostitution is equated to men's degradation” (53). In other words, the female body is exploited to explain a male condition, thereby disempowering and “feminizing” woman once again. Stratton here responds uncomfortably to Karega's repeated claims that Wanja's rape, for example, “was a collective humiliation” (161), or Ngugi's claim that tourism is prostitution, as the lawyer comments upon trying to rescue Wanja from prostitution: “This is what happens when you turn tourism into a national religion and build it shrines of worship all over the country” (134).7 This issue points to Stratton's discomfort with Marxist philosophy as much as it expresses her displeasure with Ngugi's story. After all, in a similar manner at the end, when Karega the individual has been beaten, electrocuted, and mentally harassed, he also feels new strength from a sense of unity among the workers outside his prison, and that, Christ-like, he will be reborn to come again among them, because he is not an individual, but a manifestation of the people's will (343-45). To what extent an individual experience can be collective is questionable, and Karega's views seem idealistic.

But then Karega does not necessarily reflect Ngugi's sole voice by the end of the novel: in addition to using Wanja to echo his sensibilities about art, Ngugi's voice is also transferred to Abdulla. By the time Wanja decides to sell her body openly in beginning the Sunshine Lodge brothel, she recognizes that her sexual desirability is worthy enough of marketability. And, in the sense that she is an employer, a capitalist, and a tourist attraction, Ngugi cannot condone the prostitute's actions or see her as anything other than exploitation of Africa and African peoples and resources. Thus we see some of the complexities of the problem of Ngugi's own perception played out on the figure of Wanja herself. She is a historical agent of change in the city of Ilmorog, but she is also responsible for her ignorance in not creating the kind of change Ngugi sees as necessary. As Evans comments, “it would be a mistake to see Wanja simply as an innocent victim. Her potential is wasted and she is exploited, but she also exploits others, most obviously in running her own whorehouse” (58). Thus Ngugi celebrates Wanja as a symbol of modern woman's liberation and active strength, of which we have ample evidence throughout the book, while he stigmatizes the prostitute, implied in Wanja's rejection by Karega, up to this point, Ngugi's mouthpiece, in the final scenes of the novel. As Evans notes, Wanja's confrontation with Karega is really a confrontation with herself, where she imagines the possibility of re-channeling her ambitions and strengths in a manner more consistent with Ngugi's choice of resistance (61).

As a product of both Western and non-Western worlds, Ngugi perhaps does not know how to reconcile his own conflicting images of prostitute as degraded, stigmatized, capitalistic commodity and prostitute as independent, heroic revolutionary. Perhaps, with his habit of creating “types” that resist categorization, he simply refuses to choose between them, leaving them to reside together, more or less comfortably, in his female protagonist. If Karega—with his role as a teacher and revolutionary Marxist leader—is any indication, Ngugi's revulsion for Wanja outweighs his attraction to her as a character. And yet, there is a significant transferal of Ngugi's voice in the final passages of the book. This is the moment in which Abdulla, in his first fully articulated political/philosophical observation, questions Karega's views and is, notably, the only person to do so throughout the novel:

I thought [Karega] was going too far in overstretching the importance of workers' solidarity aided by small farmers. What about the unemployed? The small traders? I believed, and I told him so, that land should be available to everybody; that loans should be readily available to the small man; that nobody should have too many businesses under him—in a word, fair distribution of opportunities.


The worker uprising in the final pages is a combination of their separate dreams, “not just the union of workers at the breweries. All workers in Ilmorog and the unemployed will join us. And the small farmers … and even some small traders …” (343). It is a movement that seems to reflect Ngugi's ideal, the birth of a new Africa. But though it is true that Karega recognizes this activism as a realization of his own dreams for the people, he has difficulty connecting directly with the people, forgiving them their pasts, and forgiving Wanja in particular. In this, he is not more Christ-like than she is a Madonna figure. In fact Karega's authenticity as Ngugi's “ideal” role model is critically challenged precisely because of his final rejection of Wanja, with whom reader sympathies lie. Once again, it is Abdulla, who has been employer and employee, activist and conformist, sinner, and saint, who is able to make this imperative connection. It is significant that Wanja is finally linked to Abdulla sexually; but she is also linked to him through her empathy and her acceptance, gained from her experiences as a barmaid, her ability to learn from her experiences and take responsibility for her actions, and in her violent but heroic, warrior-like action in killing Kimeria. In this sense, she, like Karega and Abdulla, becomes an expression of Ngugi's voice.

That this voice should be heard in the character of a prostitute is not really surprising. In terms of literary history—even within the Western tradition to which Stratton refers—the figure of the prostitute often functions as a powerful figure, capable of acting from both within and outside of norms. While it is true that she often indexes the particular plight of women's poverty and can be used to represent the “degradation” of the nation, the prostitute is also an appealing figure because she represents the ability to challenge traditional thinking, to cross between the customary divide between the lower and upper classes. As LaPin writes of the figure of the prostitute:

Wives and mothers in literature were not the first women to realize the feminine potential unlocked by social change. For this part, male authors seized upon ‘free’ women who were seasoned participants in a man's world. Prostitutes and courtesans openly challenged the established norms of sexual politics and roles. A degree of personal independence offset their marginal social position and often propelled them into the service of the larger society through politically significant acts.


Wanja moves between these two worlds herself. It is, for example, Wanja's prostitution (as a barmaid in the city) that allows her insights and sensitivity inaccessible to others, noticing that “It is as if [Abdulla] is carrying much suffering, not in his crippled leg, but in his heart. I suppose we are all alike” (73). This vision of equality makes her one with the working masses, and grants her an empathetic personality that Karega, for all his good deeds and efforts on behalf of the union, never possesses. It is also through her prostitution, her dealings with the upperclass Mzigo, Chui, and Kimeria, that Wanja is able succeed in areas where she might not have otherwise: she warns Karega of their plot to kill him, and their method for destroying worker unity, insisting, “They have sworn to kill you—to eliminate you … the way they did the lawyer. All those who are against KCO must be eliminated […] I know it. Don't ask me how” (326); she provides for the girls who are in her employ explaining, “I promised them security … and for that … they let me trade their bodies” (293); and she gains a kind of power over her three lover-rivals, for “[i]t has been the only way I can get my own back on Chui, Mzigo, and Kimeria … I go with all of them now … I play them against one another […] they pay for it … they pay for their rivalry to possess me … each wants to make me his sole woman …” (293). In using her sexual power to turn these three capitalist oppressors against each other, Wanja in some way manages to reflect their efforts to divide the workers' union through tribalism. Using their mutual desire to possess her exclusively, she fragments and compartmentalizes their power, literally and figuratively, placing each in a separate room, locking the door, and keeping each in the dark about the others' activities (329). From her liminal position, Wanja is capable of moving between worlds, and effecting change where she wills it, to a degree. The prostitute's ability to challenge tradition without disrupting social norms is on the one hand a use for the figure undiscovered in Stratton's critique, but on the other hand, perhaps no less problematic. If Ngugi chooses the figure of the prostitute in order to represent a challenge to traditional thinking, he once again fails to directly address women's specific “social condition” even though he may reflect a more positive use of the figure of the prostitute than Stratton seems willing to grant.

Wanja's positioning as prostitute, however, is not entirely derived from some misplaced desire to perpetuate a long history of Western literary tradition; in fact, his use of the figure of the prostitute once again has specific reference to Kenyan history and narrative. Ngugi's literature is largely intended to teach the masses a rather specific Kenyan history.8 Indeed the “existence” of prostitution in Kenya, as Kenneth Little argues, “is partly due to the hiring of girls by European bachelors” (94). In other words, though Ngugi uses Wanja's exploitation and inability to master her materialism to demonstrate Kenya's similar domination, he also chooses a historically specific trade that reflects a colonial cause at its root. For Ngugi, Wanja as prostitute can therefore function as both ideological and historical critique against colonialism, as well as representative victim of that colonialism. Ngugi's specific attention to historical details like this use of the prostitute suggests that he is aware of the colonial history of exploitation as not merely a male, but also a female phenomenon. On this level, Ngugi represents a collective national subject made up of both male and female histories.

Women often chose prostitution in light of the poverty of entire clans; prostitution was not just the story of an occasional child who wandered into the city without funds or friends. As White points out, the data from Nairobi indicates that many

prostitutes worked intensively for relatively short periods—measured in years, however—to revive the failing economies of their families of origin. These women willingly accepted—indeed, many sought—the mean conditions of wazi-wazi work because almost all the monies so earned could be funneled back to their parents.

(Comforts 20)

Prostitution for Ngugi, as for White, is not only a product of colonialism, but also a direct result of its instigating poverty, a by-product of it. Many prostitutes became one of the primary economic supports of their village families in times of need. In Wanja's case, she does not originally become a barmaid to help her family, but instead to avoid the humiliation she feels from her father and Kimeria. But for her adopted and extended family, she uses prostitution to their profit. She uses the money to save Nyakinyua's land, which is of vital philosophical importance to both herself and Karega, and to Gikuyu tradition, even if she uses it for the wrong reasons—“[H]ow could I have let this land go to the African Economic Bank […]. Even if I had to sell myself over and over again” (325). She also puts Joseph through school, believing it to be “the only good thing she had ever done” (328).9 Thus, like many real prostitutes, Wanja is a caretaker of her adopted family, of Abdulla and Joseph, and as one who upholds Nyakinyua's traditions.

Some critics go so far as to suggest that the figure of the prostitute, by White's account, can be almost read as a working-class, economic hero of the people. And they read Wanja accordingly. David Cook and Michael Okenimkpe suggest, for example, that the

most enigmatic aspect of [Wanja's] life is her exultant assertion of prostitution as a weapon for revenge in the new Ilmorog. She now has other options, but she prefers to set up her perfected brothel in Sunshine Lodge and to outface all those who have belittled and degraded her and her sisterhood.


But I would argue that Wanja's “weapon of revenge” is much more an acknowledgment of defeat than Cook and Okenimkpe are willing to admit. It is not so much an “exultant” refusal to be beaten by the system as it is a pragmatic solution to the difficulties she faces. As Palmer explains, Wanja is

a practical realist who recognizes that in order to survive in this new society one must be prepared to use its weapons. Mere idealism will never do. Like Karega, we may not agree with her methods, but we can certainly appreciate her reasons.


Ngugi's careful portrayal of Wanja discovers a character infinitely more complex than one who is traditionally “feminized,” weak and downtrodden, lost and without recourse in the neocolonialist system. She is always depicted as acting or reacting from the numerous strengths she possesses, rather than giving in to weakness or desperation. Once again she reflects a real history of strong women who did the best they could, given the circumstances around them.

The fact that she is successful in her work is indicative of something as well. For given Ngugi's Marxist politics, what is always more critical about Wanja at any given moment than her social condition (i.e., gender position), is her economic self-sufficiency, whether through prostitution or some other means. Kenyan prostitutes, it would seem, have always been more independent than many of their Western counterparts. For according to White, there “were no pimps at any time in Kenya's history, so that prostitutes were able to retain control over their earnings—when they so desired—and have intimate and stable relations with the laboring men who were their customers” (Comforts 1). Thus, while a prostitute was dependent upon the money of her (presumably male) customers, she was under no obligation to share this money with anyone. The result of this profession with lucrative advantages as well as drawbacks is a strange ambivalence about the work. Ngugi is cognizant of the thin line he walks between Wanja as fully taken in by the capitalist advantages offered by prostitution and her truth to herself and her own ideals. This awareness becomes expressed in Wanja's “painful” recognition of the dangerous the barmaid profession holds for her, despite her desire to leave it:

She was somehow sure of her power over men: she knew how they could be very weak before her body. Sometimes she was afraid of this power and she often had wanted to run away from bar kingdoms. But she was not really fit for much else and besides, she thought with a shuddering pain of recognition, she had come to enjoy the elation at seeing a trick—a smile, a certain look, maybe even raising one's brow, or a gesture like carelessly brushing against a customer—turn a man into a captive and a sighing fool […] she would then suddenly become aware that in the long run it was men who triumphed and walked over her body buying insurance against deep involvement with money and guilty smiles or in exaggerated fits of jealousy. She would often seek somebody in whom she could be involved, somebody for whom she could care and be proud to carry his child. For that reason she had somehow avoided direct trading, and that was why she had run away from her cousin who had wanted her straight in the market.


Wanja likes to feel strong and powerful over men, and yet knows that they use money to avoid commitment, connection—to avoid getting more involved with her, and thereby reaffirming their power over her. Within her (at this point) unacknowledged profession as prostitute, Wanja's denial of the commercialism of her venture allows her still further independence to choose or not choose to be with one man or another; she also finds that there are aspects of the work—singing, dancing, musing over the faces of her customers—that she truly enjoys.

In her final and self-acknowledged turn to prostitution at the Sunshine Lodge, Wanja may well have made enough money to allow her limited access into the world of Mzigo, Chui, and Kimeria to enable her revenge. In an article regarding the very end of the colonial period, about a decade before Wanja's move to the city, White claims that

prostitutes earned almost twice what unskilled male laborers earned; as high commodity costs eroded larger and larger proportions of their incomes, the number of women who achieved the status of property owners declined, but the number who prospered, who made history, and good money as well, in the unsolicited and appalling conditions of the colonial experience did not.

(“Domestic” 157)

White also suggests that though prostitution becomes more dangerous in Nairobi after this time period, it also becomes all the more lucrative. Clearly Ngugi is not arguing that prostitution is a redeeming career move, and as White notes and as Ngugi would note as well, prostitutes were increasingly unlikely to be landowners. But at the end of Kenyan colonization (proper), prostitution allowed women to be economically independent, in fact, even more so than mass (male) laborers of the city. With respect to Petals of Blood, it is not until the final chapters that Wanja cedes to the demands of materialism: until then, she had resisted, perhaps as much out of fear as out of a sense morality, taking European customers and fully integrating herself into the market. But it is interesting to note that Wanja is at all times financially independent of any male, even as a barmaid. As a Marxist, Ngugi could not have overlooked this economic power.

Furthermore, Wanja's position as a prostitute is especially fortuitous because she is not only a potential economic and ideological hero, but also a plausible, real historical force of resistance, a political hero of the people, the masses. In the real Mau Mau rebellion—glorified by Ngugi with the “rejuvenation” of the ex-Mau Mau warrior Abdulla—women served as both soldiers and messengers. Many of the women fighters were prostitutes. As B. A. Ogot and W. R. Ochieng' suggest, the Mau Mau rebels were primarily comprised of the “unemployed, hawkers, chupa na ndebe, collectors, pickpockets, thieves, prostitutes and beer-sellers [like Abdulla and Wanja, which] was an available mass for political activism” (35). In retelling the glorious fight for independence and ultimately the revolution for socialism, Ngugi sees woman as figuring substantially among the masses, and it is no accident that he will eventually pair Abdulla with Wanja, and that they share a certain kinship. Of particular importance to this heritage of strength is not only the fact that Wanja eventually sees herself as she truly is, and decides to reject her prostitution in the hope of something new, but the fact that she directly kills the man who has been so instrumental in her humiliation, and thereby moves to set her new life in motion. In fact, it is her position as a prostitute that also enables her to become indirectly complicit in the deaths of Chui and Mzigo, who might have escaped the burning whorehouse had she not locked their doors (329). In using, whether intentionally or no, her sexuality to renew her closeness to Kimeria and initiating a closeness to Mzigo and Chui, Wanja succeeds in realizing her lifelong will to avenge herself, settling a debt “with the world, out there” (78), and of killing Kimeria specifically: “He must die, a voice thudded within, he must die. It was simple. It was bitterly sweet” (157). In this effort, she simultaneously avenges Karega (whose brother was murdered by Kimeria) and Abdulla, (who was betrayed by Kimeria). Both vow to destroy Kimeria and/or his conspirators Mzigo and Chui, but fail to do so. However, Wanja succeeds in emulating the very action that Abdulla, the heroic warrior, intends to take later that evening, but beats him to it. To the extent that she is also responsible for killing Chui and Mzigo, she avenges not just herself, Karega, and Abdulla, but also Munira, Nyakinyua, and the entire village of Ilmorog whose land has been co-opted and stolen by these three villains. Unlike Munira, whose actions are intentional but incorrectly directed against Wanja—a Kenyan worker killing a newly “reborn” worker—Wanja's murders naturally direct themselves against the real villains; through her reformation, she unknowingly turns Munira's bungling efforts into directed violence. In this sense, though acting on her own behalf, she also represents the will of the people to overthrow their oppressors though violent action.

Though Wanja functions as “type,” she resists being “typed.” She stands outside of Western ability to categorize as traditional “mother,” “virgin,” or “whore.” In this complexity, Ngugi reflects the diversity possible within a literature that makes use of both Western and non-Western influences. The conflicts that remain within Wanja's character become symbolic of the refusal of the corresponding cultural clashes to dissolve themselves into a neat “middle-zone,” or “melting pot” of watered-down culture: Wanja is heroic, but she is also degraded; she is nurturing, yet she is vengeful; she is innocent, and she is knowledgeable. And these radical, irresolvable oppositions within her rend her soul and pull her in impossible directions. The great beauty of Ngugi's characterization is that he recognizes these conflicts within himself and in the people around him. He thus becomes capable of depicting incompatible qualities on the same character—and he steadfastly resists the impulse to resolve them. There is no repentance evident in Wanja for the murder she has just committed; and it has no bearing on her ability to become a nurturing, caring mother for the child that will be born. In this sense, her character, like Africa, is marked with Fanon's violence. Wanja mirrors an inability of the new native middle class, of which Ngugi is in many ways a part, to reconcile the conflicting influences of its world. But Wanja also underscores strength of character in a united nation of people—masses of both working men and women—upon whom the violence of this cultural confrontation has been written, and continues to be written, and remains enduringly unresolved. Ngugi leaves Wanja a contradictory, paradoxical character consistent only in that she defies all critical attempts to entrap her within a facile and rather doctrinaire Western classification. And he sees Wanja, woman, as a critical figure of this nation not only in the past, as his historical specificity suggests, but integral to defining and creating the Kenyan future.


  1. Florence Stratton grants that Ngugi has “made non-literary declarations in favour of the emancipation of women” and condemns what he calls “the double oppression of women” (51).

  2. Fanon's chapter entitled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” in Wretched of the Earth is a particularly parallel account to the one related in Petals of Blood. It is worth nothing that Fanon sees the violence that has been done in the name of colonization as resulting in necessarily violent revolution.

  3. Stratton is perhaps aware of this or other similar traditions, as she also notes “the trope also has a history within African literature” (40; emphasis in the original).

  4. Many Western feminists believe Gikuyu men to be oppressive to Gikuyu women. Yet these same women also have a large degree of sexual freedom, even within marriage (Shaw 72-73).

  5. There are still more pronounced similarities between Kenyatta and Chui. In her book Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel, Sicherman creates a biographical glossary with an entry for Jomo Kenyatta (130-32) where she states that “Burning Spear” is the meaning of Jomo (130). Chui's name in Petals is also related to a spear, as in “Shaake … spear the ball,” whereupon Chui is known as Shakespeare (28). Further, Chui reassures white teachers that their jobs are secure, though at first among them “there was only gloom and uncertainty: one or two did in fact resign” (171). But Chui assures them that “[i]t was his desire, nay his fervent prayer, that all the teachers should stay, knowing that he had not come to wreck but to build on what was already there” (171). Similarly, after his release from prison in 1961, Sicherman writes: “Kenyatta toured the country assuring whites that their positions would remain secure [. … It] seemed to some Kenyan critics an early sign of neocolonialist sellout” (131-32).

  6. A comparison might be made between Wanja of Petals and Sethe of Toni Morrison's Beloved. Like Wanja, Sethe will eventually reenact the moment of her decision to save her child from slavery by murdering her. She too will now turn her ice pick toward those she sees as her oppressors instead of her child.

  7. This sentiment is echoed in other moments as well, for example, when Riera must go to Mombasa to check on “two tourist resorts which had been mentioned in a foreign newspaper as ‘special places where even an ageing European could buy an authentic African virgin girl of fourteen to fifteen for the price of a ticket to a cheap cinema show’” (175 and when Wanja comments, “Women go there to sing native songs and dance for white tourists … they are paid … well … that's another story …” (292).

  8. For a more detailed sense of Ngugi's specific understanding of history within Petals of Blood and a discussion of his coming to terms with this history in preceding works, see Sicherman, “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Writing of Kenyan History.”

  9. Wanja's position as a prostitute is arguable at the point at which she determines that Joseph should go to school, but eventually, she pays all of his school fees from her whorehouse work.

Works Cited

Cochrane, Judith. “Women as Guardians of the Tribe in Ngugi's Novels.” Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Ed. G. D. Killam. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1984. 90-100.

Cook, David, and Michael Okenimkpe. Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1983.

Evans, Jennifer. “Mother Africa and the Heroic Whore: Female Images in Petals of Blood.Contemporary African Literature. Ed. Hal Wylie, Eileen Julien, and Rusell J. Linnemann; with Sue Houchins and Marie Shelton. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1983. 57-65.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness.” The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove, 1963. 148-205.

Killam, G. D., ed. Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1984.

LaPin, Deirdre. “Women in African Literature.” African Women South of the Sahara. Ed. Margaret Jean Hay and Sharon Stichter. Essex: Longman, 1984. 102-18,

Little, Kenneth. African Women in Towns: An Aspect of Africa's Social Revolution. London: Cambridge UP, 1973.

Ngugi, wa Thiong'o. “Literature and Society.” Killam 17-45.

———. Petals of Blood. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Ogot, B. A., and W. R. Ochieng'. Decolonization and Independence in Kenya 1940-93. London: James Currey, 1995.

Palmer, Eustace. “Ngugi's Petals of Blood.” Killam 271-84.

Presley, Cora Ann. Kikuyu Women, the Mau Mau Rebellion, and Social Change in Kenya. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

Robson, Clifford. Ngugi wa Thiong'o. New York: Saint Martin's, 1979.

Sharma, Govind Narain. “Ngugi's Apocalypse: Marxism, Christianity and African Utopianism in Petals of Blood.” Killam 292-306.

Sicherman, Carol. “Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Writing of Kenyan History.” Research in African Literatures. 20.3 (1989): 347-70.

———. Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of a Rebel: A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. London: Hans Zell, 1990.

Shaw, Carolyn Martin. Colonial Inscriptions: Race, Sex and Class in Kenya. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995.

Stratton, Florence. “Gender on Agenda.” Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1994. 39-57.

Treister, Cyril. “An Addition to the Genre of the Proletariat Novel.” Killam 267-70.

White, Luise. The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

———. “Domestic Labor in a Colonial City: Prostitution in Nairobi 1900-1952.” Patriarchy and Class: African Women in the Home and the Workforce. Ed. Sharon B. Stichter and Jane. L. Parpart. Boulder: Westview, 1988. 139-60.


Ngugi wa Thiong'o World Literature Analysis


Wa Thiong'o, Ngugi