Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
Munira, the protagonist, carries the main thread of the narrative. Born to a wealthy family, his father a prominent landlord and his brother “a big man in an oil company,” Munira is obsessed with doing good. It is this motivation that brings him to the village of Ilmorog to start a school. He is described by Inspector Godfrey as “the odd man, the black sheep of an otherwise white family.” Munira is a complex character, and in his creation Ngugi has attempted to introduce a man of epic proportions, dramatizing many of the contradictions of Africa itself. He is a genuinely religious man, but his fervor spills over into fanaticism, leading to tragedy.
The other characters are not so fully developed. Abdulla, the shopkeeper and bar owner, is a former Mau-Mau resistance fighter, a forgotten hero. It appears that Ngugi sought to evoke a sense of pathos in the distance between Abdulla’s heroic past and his drab present, but the characterization is too sketchy, and it is impossible to take Abdulla seriously.
Karega is a stubborn young man. Munira takes to him right away and to some extent educates and awakens Karega’s potential for action. When Munira learns that his sister Mukami (now dead) and Karega were lovers, he is alienated from Karega, but he still wants to save him from Wanja.
Wanja is introduced as she lies in a state of delirium in the hospital, as a result of the fire which burned down her house. Her background is gradually presented; she is described as a very beautiful young woman, her head crowned “with a mass of shiny black hair.” She disappears from Ilmorog and later returns in a white Peugeot loaded with merchandise, the envy of the village; at first, the source of her newfound affluence is not known. In depicting her transition from rural innocence to urban decadence, Ngugi suggests the impact of industrialization on a rural community.
Inspector Godfrey is something of a caricature. A self-made man, he is a firm believer in the “sanctity of private property.” He sees himself as the protector of the new Kenya, and he is unable to understand the radicalism of men such as Karega and Munira. Men such as Karega, he believes, ought to be shipped out of Kenya. While he is disturbed that a man such as Munira, the son of a wealthy family, should espouse radical social views, he acknowledges the need for the high moral standards that Munira demands—a vital need in a would-be capitalist democracy. He is all the more shocked, then, when he learns that Munira has committed murder in the “name of moral purity.”
Chui, Munira’s former classmate, was in their high school days regarded as the man most likely to succeed. In the figure of Chui, Ngugi embodies the British traditions of pre-independence Kenya. In school, Chui was the quintessential athlete, always neatly dressed, quoting Shakespeare. When the seeds of unrest stirred Kenya, however, Chui was one of the first to join Munira and lead a strike; both were expelled. In independent Kenya, Munira continued to be critical of the establishment, but Chui became increasingly supportive of the status quo, enjoying the good life in the new Ilmorog Golf Club, feeling “his huge stomach with one hand, glass of champagne in the other.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658
Godfrey Munira (mew-NEE-rah), the headmaster of a school in the town of Ilmorog, Kenya. An ordinary-looking African in his forties, the deeply religious Munira emerges as something of a saint as the story of his twelve years in Ilmorog unfolds. Even though he came from a wealthy, landowning family, he devotes his life to teaching peasant children. He describes the corruption that has dashed the dreams of those who fought for Kenya’s independence. Like many a saint, though, Munira goes too far in his unbridled desire to correct injustice: When he burns a house used as a brothel, three men die, and he is charged with murder. Although Munira represents the conscience of modern Kenya and takes on symbolic overtones in his character, he still emerges as a believable, admirable, and humble man.
Wanja (WAHN-jah), a beautiful young woman with magnificent hair, a full body, and rhythmic movements. She returns from the city, where she had been a prostitute, to her native Ilmorog, where she might recapture her innocence. Soon becoming a part of Munira’s circle, she wants to marry Munira, but he rejects her. The break with Munira leads her once more into prostitution, and it is her brothel that Munira burns. While ostensibly joining the nation’s corrupters by catering to their sexual needs, in truth she remains faithful to Munira and to the high cause he represents.
Abdulla (ahb-DEW-lah), a shop and bar owner in Ilmorog. He is middle-aged and disabled but possesses a comic sense of life in spite of his poverty and physical condition. Once a freedom fighter in the Mau Mau, he, like Munira, deplores the rampant corruption in the newly independent Kenya, especially as Ilmorog grows and his business stagnates. Abdulla’s heroic past contrasts sharply with his dreary present, made even bleaker by his arrest as an accomplice in the arson and murder at Wanja’s place of business.
Karega (kah-RAY-gah), a teacher in Munira’s school. Karega, a young man who has been expelled from college for leading a strike, became a political activist after an unhappy affair with Munira’s sister. Like the others in Munira’s group, he condemns the greed and repression practiced by the regime that has made a mockery of independence. Lacking Munira’s spiritual dimensions and delusions, Karega is an angry, stubborn, and hard man who eventually becomes a loved and respected leader of the workers. Along with Munira, he is accused of the murders at Wanja’s house. Even as he lingers in prison at the novel’s end, he envisions the workers rising against the system, which suggests that the author sees Kenya being redeemed by practical men such as Karega, not by visionaries such as Munira.
Joseph, Abdulla’s servant. At the outset, he is a skinny, pathetic seven-year-old boy who is grossly mistreated by his master. At the novel’s end, he has grown into a young man determined to alter the country’s destiny.
Chui (CHEW-ee), Munira’s former classmate and a businessman in the new Kenya. A tall, rebellious, athletic youth who loved English literature in his school days, Chui as an adult has betrayed his earlier revolutionary beliefs and become a corrupt, greedy industrialist. He has even developed a huge stomach, one mark of success among such men. Chui is one of the brewery directors killed in the fire set by Munira.
Inspector Godfrey, an investigator of the fire and murders. The elderly Godfrey is a stereotypical civil servant, with an expressionless face. He is said to have served the colonial government as faithfully as he now conducts the new nation’s nasty business. Intrigued with the workings of crime, which he considers a kind of jigsaw puzzle, Godfrey unravels Munira’s story and the part that Munira, along with Wanja, Abdulla, and Karega, played in the climactic events leading to the fire and murders.