Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129

In Petals of Blood, Ngugi comments on the effects of colonial and post-colonial rule on the lives of the Kenyan people. The narrative begins with events in the early 1970s, twelve years after Kenya gained independence, or Uhuru, from the British colonial government, but the legacy of colonialism is still felt as a strong presence by the villagers in Ilmorog. In the novel key periods and events in Kenyan history are recalled, from the early days of British colonists to the Mau Mau Uprising to the social struggles following independence.

Beginnings of Colonialism In 1887 a private British company attempted to start a trading business near the Kenyan coast, modeling itself after the British East India Company which had for years monopolized highly profitable European trade in India. While the Imperial British East Africa Company, as it was known, soon went bankrupt, the British government itself took over the territory in 1895, and over the next decade gradually gained administrative control of most of modern Kenya. The British government encouraged English "settlers" to move to the fertile highland regions, where they created gigantic plantations while displacing hundreds of thousands of native Kenyans, mostly ethnic Gikuyus, from their traditional lands.

The Years Leading to Independence For the next sixty years the economic, political, and social disparities between European settlers and native Kenyans gave rise to growing antagonism and conflict. It is estimated that by 1945 nearly twenty percent of Kenyan land (and clearly the most fertile) was owned by no more than 3,000 Europeans. Native Kenyans were used as laborers on these gigantic European plantations, or they were left to eke out a living on the remaining land that the Europeans found worthless. To make matters worse, the native peoples were treated by the ruling British as second-class citizens in their own land, forced to carry passports to travel from one section of the country to another, often restricted to certain areas of the land, barred from political office, and prohibited from voting and enjoying equal judicial rights.

The Gikuyu began organized protests against the British annexation of their traditional lands in 1924 with the formation of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Throughout the 1920s the KCA organized peasants to demand that the discriminatory passport laws be dropped, and by the late 1930s led increasingly militant protests against the forced sale of their farm animals to the British government. The colonial government tried to squash these protests by banning the KCA in 1940, but by 1944 growing resentment among a broader spectrum of disenfranchised Kenyan ethnic groups came together to form the Kenya Africa Union (KAU). In 1947 Jomo Kenyatta was named the leader of the new KAU, and he soon came under the watchful eye of the British government for his demands that Kenyans gain greater political representation.

Revolution and Independence By the early 1950s a growing segment within the KAU began to espouse violent revolt as the only means of freeing themselves from the tyranny of British colonialism. At the same time, the British government began to hear rumors of a covert association known as the Mau Mau. The group, they learned, was rapidly gaining converts who gave oaths of their determination to wipe out the British settlers and government from Kenya. At first the British banned the secret Mau Mau organization, but this seemed only to add fuel to the revolutionary fire. British settlers became more concerned when in 1951 a white farmer was murdered, followed in 1952 by the assassination of Senior Chief Waruhiu.

The settlers then demanded that the government take quick and decisive...

(This entire section contains 1129 words.)

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action to put down the revolt. In October 1952, a state of emergency was declared, and leaders of the KAU were rounded up and put on trial. Kenyatta himself was given seven years hard labor, although there was little evidence to support the colonial government's allegation that he advocated Mau Mau violence.

The jailing of their movements' leaders only intensified Kenyans' nationalism and the desire for revolution. Over the next four years rebel armies used acts of terrorism and guerrilla warfare to harass and intimidate the British administration as well as their Kenyan supporters. The British responded by reinforcing their troops, tightening restrictions on Kenyan movement, enforcing curfews, establishing holding camps, and executing Kenyans found guilty of carrying a weapon or taking the Mau Mau oath. By 1956 the last of the Mau Mau strongholds had been overrun, and in 1960 the state of emergency was ended.

The British colonial government came under considerable criticism both domestically and internationally for its tactics in ending the Mau Mau Uprising. Many Kenyans believed that the final death-counts (11,503 insurgents and 590 British security force members) clearly showed the British to be the offending party, and an even broader range of Kenyans banded together to call for the end of British colonial government. The British agreed to these demands, and in February 1961 allowed Kenyans to vote for a new parliament. Kenyatta's party, the Kenya African National Union, won, but refused to take office until Kenyatta was released from prison. Six months later Kenyatta was finally freed, and when new elections were held after the country gained its formal independence on December 12, 1963, KANU easily won and named Kenyatta as the first president.

After Independence Kenyan enthusiasm for a future freed from colonial exploitation soon became tempered by new issues, however. Within months of independence Kenya began a three-year war with neighboring Somalia over their common border. Domestically, the new government struggled to extend the school system to more rural communities and to redistribute some of the land and businesses that had been owned by Europeans and East Indians (many of whom were allowed to keep their property in exchange for taking Kenyan citizenship) to those Kenyans who had fought for independence. Increasingly, however, a large number of Kenyans began to believe that independence had done little to improve their lives, as a new set of rulers had simply taken over the few positions of power and wealth vacated by the British administration. The new government also grappled with how to build national unity out of a country of so many fragmented ethnic and social groups.

In 1969 Kenyatta alarmed many citizens when he dissolved the Kenya People's Union, an opposition party that had formed in 1966, claiming that their leaders engaged in anti-government activities. The Kenyatta government's fear of dissent was also made clear with Ngugi's arrest in 1977. After Kenyatta died in 1978, the vice-president, Daniel T. arap Moi, became president. In 1982 Moi made it constitutionally illegal to form any opposition party to the KANU. Although protests finally re-established the legality of the multi-party system in 1991, Moi used his considerable power base to be re-elected to new five-year terms in 1992 and 1997. The Moi government has been harshly criticized by international human rights organizations for its silencing of various political dissidents using violent means.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on March 14, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366

Point of View

One of the most striking features of Petals of Blood is its narrative style that uses multiple points of view to weave together the stories of the protagonists and those around them. In the opening pages of the novel, events are seen through the eyes of each of the four protagonists. As the novel progresses, an omniscient, third-person voice enters and recounts parts of story. This narrator sometimes comments upon and interprets the events, but on occasion offers a more detached perspective. There is also a second narrative voice, which seems to be a collective one of the villagers of Ilmorog. In the early chapters of the novel, as Munira remembers his arrival in Ilmorog, his voice almost merges with that of the omniscient narrator. Indeed as each other character tells his or her story—whether old Nyakinyua or the lawyer, Karega or Wanja—the reader is drawn in and made to see the world from that personal standpoint. However, the reader must decide which voice and which version of the story to trust. In the context of a detective novel, the multiple points of view, overlapping timelines, and interrupted narratives make it difficult to piece together the "jigsaw puzzle'' that will reveal the truth about the murders.

The fact that the story is told from very personal standpoints, often as confessions, also allows readers to understand characters not only as they are seen but as they see themselves. The revelations of characters also seeks to show how their lives are interrelated even as they speak from positions of isolation—it is in the retelling of their past lives Munira learns of his sister's affair with Karega, that Karega finds out that Abdullah fought with his brother in the resistance, etc. It is interesting that Ngugi never allows his villains to offer their perspectives; we learn only from the protagonists and the villagers of these men's horrible deeds.


Most of the action in Petals of Blood takes place in the north-central Kenyan town of Ilmorog. The town is in many ways one of the key characters in the novel. Its transformation parallels the transformation of the lives of its inhabitants and that of post-independence Kenya. None of the four protagonists comes from Ilmorog; all have fled to this dusty "wasteland" to escape their troubled pasts.

Like the characters of the novel and like Kenya itself, Ilmorog is a complex place—it has been ravaged by colonial exploitation but still reflects communal values. Its traditional spirit is seen in stark contrast to the concern with money and power that is a feature of the city. The building of the Trans-Africa Highway through the town cleaves it into two and ushers in what seems to be its final destruction, as with the new influx of people and money it adopts shallow, urban materialistic values. However, at the end of the novel Karega offers hope for a reconstruction of Ilmorog—and Kenya—by calling for a revolution of the people to take back the land that was traditionally theirs.


The title of the novel is taken from a poem, "The Swamp,’’ by the West-Indian writer Derek Walcott. The poem describes a huge tree preventing a little flower from reaching out into the light. According to Ngugi in a 1977 interview in the Nairobi Sunday Nation, the contemporary situation in Kenya and the effects of colonialism and neocolonialism similarly prevent the peasants and workers in Kenya from ‘‘flowering in dignity and glory.’’ In the novel, the flower represents the repression of workers, peasants, and students from reaching out and achieving their potential. One of Munira's students shows him a flower that has ‘‘petals of blood.’’ Munira smothers the student's imagination by correcting him, saying ‘‘there is no color called blood,’’ and throughout the novel the education system is seen as being repressive and stifling of students' idealism and curiosity. Joseph, once given the opportunity, does begin to grow and flower, and one of the questions of the novel is how he will respond to the challenges that his education brings.

The "petals of blood'' figure again during the circumcision ceremony as Nyakinyua cooks up the traditional brew, Theng'eta. The secret ingredient in the recipe is the blood-colored flower petal. However, again the evil hand of capitalism and its collusion with foreign interests and corporations reaches out and appropriates what traditionally belonged to the people—the traditional drink is mass-marketed as a soporific to keep peasants and workers in check and uncomplaining of their exploitation.

Another symbol related to the petals of blood of the title is fire. Fire is used repeatedly in the novel as an agent of destruction but also as a mysterious and purifying force. There are many other powerful symbols in the novel that reinforce its central ideas. The Trans-Africa Highway, which is a subject of discussion from the beginning of the novel, finally splits the village in half and allows in the predators that transform the land. Its arrival is heralded by the airplane, another symbol of progress and negative transformation. The airplane at first scares Abdullah's donkey and finally kills it. The symbol of the journey in the novel points to positive transformation: the villagers' journey strengthens their communal spirit and Karega's travels around the country help him to find his calling. Many of the characters or their features are also symbolic. Abdullah's stump leg can be seen as a physical symbol of the psychological maiming that is a feature of so many of the characters. The murdered brewery directors are clearly symbols for the evils of capitalism, the villagers are symbols of traditional (although sometimes unenlightened and misguided) values, and Fraudsham is a symbol of the warped ideologies of British rulers.

Literary Heritage

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

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

Compare and Contrast

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1930: Few Kenyans are given opportunities to study in the English colonial schools. Those who do are forced to accept a curriculum heavy on European classics and short on African traditions or texts.

1963: The newly independent Kenyan government responds to popular demand by building many new schools, including some in remote areas. Private citizens also found schools to meet the demand.

1969: Students at Nairobi University protest in opposition to the western bias in the educational curriculum.

Today: There are three national universities in Kenya. While schooling is not compulsory, eighty percent of children receive at least an elementary-level education. Works by African authors and scholars are featured in the curriculum.

Today: Education is compulsory up to age sixteen for children in the United States. Schools respond to a growing demand for a multicultural curriculum to reflect the diversity of the population.

1900: European settlers control twenty percent of all Kenyan land, which is most of the rich agricultural land suitable for farming. Native Kenyans are forced to work as laborers on European farms. They do not enjoy rights as full citizens under the law.

1965: The newly independent Kenyan government takes over many farms and businesses owned by non-Africans, and sells or rents them to non-Africans. Non-Africans who become Kenyan citizens are allowed to keep their property. Many Kenyan peasants continue to work on land owned by Europeans or wealthy Africans to eke out a living.

Today: About forty-five percent of the total area under cultivation in Kenya is occupied by large farms that employ laborers who earn low wages. Most of the rest of the land is held by cooperatives or subsistence farmers. Three-quarters of Kenya's population lives in rural areas and most people are employed in agriculture. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution guarantees the rights to private property. However, almost half of all Native Americans, the original inhabitants of the country, still live on reservation land, where unemployment, birth, and death rates are high, and suicides occur at twice the national rate.

1776: The United States gains independence from Britain.

1895: Kenya becomes a colony of Britain.

1965: Kenya achieves independence from Britain.

Today: There are still countries under direct or indirect control of foreign powers and whose people (although not always unanimously) call for self-rule. For example, Tibet calls for independence from China, Ireland from Britain, Puerto Rico from the United States, and East Timor from Indonesia.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Boehmer, Elleke, ‘‘The Master's Dance to the Master's Voice: Revolutionary Nationalism and the Representation of Women in the Writing of Ngugi wa Thiong' o," in Postcolonial Literatures, edited by Michael Parker and Roger Starkey, Macmillan Press, 1995, pp. 143-53.

Cook, David, and Michale Okenimpkpe, "Petals of Blood,'' in their Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings, Heinemann Educational Books, 1983, pp. 87-112.

Crehan, Stewart, "The Politics of the Signifier: Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood,’’ in Postcolonial Literatures, edited by Michael Parker and Roger Starkey, Macmillan Press, 1995, pp. 101-26.

Gikandi, Simon, ‘‘The Political Novel,’’ in his Reading the African Novel, Heinemann Kenya, 1987, pp. 111-48.

Killam, G. D., ‘‘Petals of Blood,’’ in An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi, Heinemann, 1980, pp. 96-118.

McLaren, Joseph, "Ideology and Form: The Critical Reception of Petals of Blood,’’ in Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry, Translations, and Letters, Vol. 20, Nos. 29-30, Spring/ Autumn, 1993, pp. 73-91.

''Ngugi interviewed by Magina Magina,'' in African Report, No. 90, February, 1979, pp. 30-31.

Further Study Chileshe, John, "Petals of Blood: Ideology and Imaginative Expression,’’ in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1980, pp. 133-37. Explores the conflict of authorial ideology and literary mode of expression in Petals of Blood and says that it is in part due to historical factors.

Killam, G. D., ‘‘A Note on the Title of Petals of Blood,’’ in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1980, pp. 125-32. Discusses how Ngugi uses the resources of Walcott's poem "Swamp" in Petals of Blood.

Kozain, Rustum, ‘‘Form as Politics, or the Tyranny of Narrativity: Re-Reading Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood,’’ in Ufahamu, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1990, pp. 77-90. Offers a reading of Petals of Blood analyzing its form in relation to its political content.

Ogude, James, Ngugi's Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation, Pluto Press, 1999, p. 183 Discussion of Ngugi's novels placing them in their contemporary historical and social contexts; includes a detailed discussion of women as victims in Petals of Blood.

Palmer, Eustace, ‘‘Ngugi's Petals of Blood,’’ in African Literature Today, Vol. 10, 1979, pp. 152-66. Critical overview of the novel that sees it as Ngugi's most ambitious work, noting the novel's strengths and weaknesses.

Sicherman, Carol, Ngugi wa Thiong'o: The Making of Rebel: A Source Book in Kenyan Literature and Resistance, Hans Zell Publishers, 1990, 486 p. A source book that traces the historical, political, and cultural background of Ngugi's work, with a chronology of his career as well as documents that provide insight into Kenya's history.

Smith, Craig V., '‘‘Rainbow Memories of Gain and Loss': Petals of Blood and the New Resistance,'' in Paintbrush: A Journal of Poetry, Translations, and Letters, Vol. 20, Nos. 29-30, Spring/Autumn, 1993, pp. 92-108. Says that the revolutionary desire in Petals of Blood revises the past.

Stratton, Florence, "Cyclical Patterns in Petals of Blood,’’ in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1980, pp. 116-24. Sees the novel as an interpretation of history that is applicable in all times and places.


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Cima, Richard. Review in Library Journal. CIII (October 15, 1978), p. 2135.

Ikiddeh, Ime. “James Ngugi as Novelist,” in African Literature Today. No. 2 (1969), pp. 3-10.

Moore, Gerald. Twelve African Writers, 1980.

Ms. Review. VIII (July, 1979), p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. Review. LXXVIII (February 19, 1978), p. 3.

Robson, Clifford B. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1979.

Updike, John. Review in The New Yorker. LV (July 2, 1979), p. 89.


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