Wizard of the Crow

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437

Surely the most important novel to come from an African writer at the turn of the twenty-first century, Wizard of the Crow defies definition and categorization. Ngugi wa Thiong’o has written a political satire about African countries rendered in the context of Magical Realism. The narrative chugs on in numerous directions at once, encompassing themes and subthemes that include sorcery, love, truth, hypocrisy, greed, poverty, feminism, race relations, racial identity, religion, science, and technology. It is an unwieldy amalgamation of parts that somehow adhere into a successful literary work. Central to all, however, is surely the political satire reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963).

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Ngugi has based the novel loosely on aspects of his own life. Having been victimized for decades by oppressive regimes in his native Kenya, the author, a professor of language and literature at Kenya’s foremost university, was finally imprisoned for a year in the early 1980’s. When he was released in 1982, he went into exile in Europe and the United States, where he has taught at major universities in New York and California. Returning to Kenya for a visit in 2004 after an absence of two decades, he and his wife were assaulted and beaten (his wife raped in a hotel room) and tortured with guns and burning cigarettes. He clearly believed the thugs carrying out the assault were doing so at the behest of leaders of the Kenyan government. Given such experiences, it is little wonder that he attacks the problems of Africa with verve, ferocity, and bitternesscoupled with love and sentiment.

Wizard of the Crow has a plot that is impossible to summarize; nevertheless, a listing of main events can be given. The title character, Kimiti, is an unemployed, educated man who meets and falls in love with Nyawira, a feminist fighting to overthrow the government, headed by one simply known as The Ruler. This dictator and those who surround him are corrupt, hypocritical, ignorant, self-indulgent, and entirely self-serving caricatures of human beingsand thugswho have no possible thought for the welfare of the people whom they rule. They conspire to build a modern-day Tower of Babel, the project to be known as “Marching to Heaven.” It is basically an effort at a publicity stunt that must be financed by loans from the Global Bank (a mildly disguised reference to the World Bank) and that can come only with approval from countries in the West.

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After the police chase Kimiti and Nyawira into a residence, they paint a sorcerer’s sign over the door to ward off the entry of superstitious police; thus Kimiti is incarnated as the sorcerer known as Wizard of the Crow. Sometimes, Nyawira carries out the impersonation, and they become interchangeable accomplicesboth, somehow, with magical powers. Most of the work concerns their attempt to escape the police and the bumbling stupidity of The Ruler and his ministers as the government attempts to run the country through sheer terror coupled with stupidity. At times, the Wizard is summoned to help restore The Ruler’s health; the Wizard is also imprisoned in another identity. Finally, the novel moves to the collapse of The Ruler and his government.

The Ruler, a fictional, obtuse demagogue only slightly disguised as the embodiment of President Daniel arap Moi (who was in charge in Kenya for the last few decades of the twentieth century) is clearly the main target of attack in the political satire. The Ruler is totally removed from his people, oblivious to what goes on around him both in terms of the country as well as matters of state going on in his presence. He suffers from a metaphorical, “self-induced” pregnancy symbolizing The Ruler’s consummate birthing of things evil for the country. Eventually, Baby D is born, with the D for Democracy, but the democracy that comes is only a charade of obeisance to governments in Europe and the United States. Even so, in the pregnancy he becomes fat and inflatedso much so that eventually he must be chained down to prevent him from floating to the ceiling or off into the sky. He also joins several others in the novel in developing a sickness known as “white-ache,” in which he goes into manifest depression and is able to speak only one word, “if,” or the phrase “if only,” which is eventually revealed to mean “If I had been born white. . . .” Thus, the head of state suffers from a delusional disease with no real cause or cure, only symptoms. In the middle of the narrative, Nyawira and hundreds of other women moon him at an official state function on national and international television, thus assuring a disgrace from which he can never recover. Directly related to this event, The Ruler announces a national holiday in observance of wife beating, and, indeed, the men of the country practice and enjoy the day. Women of the resistance cannot respond effectively, but they do manage to kidnap Tajirika, an important government minister who is second in command to The Ruler, and return the beating and terrorizing in kind.

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Further attacks on the state (and therefore all African nations) are accomplished by the Wizard himself. Inexplicably possessed with a supernatural ability to fly across the ground and both see and divine the meaning of events on the landscape below, he is able to comment on the repeated, major happenings of the African countries: endless coups; famines and crop failures; misguided, foolish decisions and actions of government officials; ignorance and stupidity of leaders as well as the general populations; social demons; mental and physical disease; race problems; the promise of science and technology and the omnipresent failures to implement the possibilities; and even education. The Wizard has no hopeful visions for Africa in the twenty-first century: Things are a mess and doubtlessly will continue to deteriorate.

The West and its way of life are continually held up to ridicule in the novel as well. While problems in Africa are never as well known in Europe and the United States as they are described in the novel, the West provides neither the mechanisms nor the role model for rectifying troubles on the African continent. Those who are educated are unwanted on the job market; those who know modern medicine are always thwarted because of their lack of resources; those who could provide forceful, humane, efficacious leadership are immediately killed or imprisoned; teachers are not respected but ridiculed. The main social symbol in the novel is simply queuingsomething as harmless and orderly as standing in line to await one’s turn becomes the worst crime in the country. The Ruler pronounces queuing illegal, and the government wastes its resources in enforcing a law that is to the detriment of all. This society cannot manage to follow the example of the West, even in a matter that has absolutely no political ramification. Moreover, standing in line to acknowledge and symbolize an orderly progression of things, paired with an indication of civility and stability, is viewed by the leaders of the country as undesirable. Their continued existence depends upon the chaos.

The Magical Realism that pervades the novel is especially appropriate to the African context. With large populations steeped in witchcraft and the supernatural, the author creates a world in which fact and fiction intermingle to an extent that neither defines reality, but both explore it. The Wizard himself can sometimes cause these magical happenings, such as resurrection from the dead, the birth of Baby D, and, more pointedly, the growing of money on trees in the city garbage dump. However, when the money and the trees are collected, they rot. Herein lies heavy symbolism worthy of the South American masters of this literary technique. Similarly, science and technology become vehicles of the sorcery, as The Ruler’s ministers have various body parts surgically replaced to serve him better; for example, one has his ears enlarged; another, the eyes. The Ruler’s pregnancy and endless expansion have similar representations. Moreover, the magical birth of Baby D makes strong political commentary about the role of democracy as providing only false hope for postcolonial Kenya, and therefore for all of Africa, in this dystopia that can only become more and more dysfunctional.

The novel is not brought to a successful conclusion, perhaps because the author intends yet another political message: Africa and its countries will not find order, stability, and progress given its present occupations and pursuits, both collectively and individually. Rather, it is in something of a medial plateau in which matters simply pause for breath before continuing in decline and chaos.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273

Cantalupo, Charles, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong’o: Texts and Contexts. Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 1995. A collection of critical essays written by Kenyan scholars. Provides a fresh look at Ngugi’s life from those within the country Ngugi left behind; discusses why his work is still important in his homeland.

_______. The World of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 1995. A second collection of essays on Ngugi’s work, covering even the minor texts, including his children’s book. The criticism also covers Ngugi’s language arguments and historical research.

Gikandi, Simon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Juxtaposes Ngugi’s life with a social history of Kenya, providing a level of detail that only a native Kenyan could offer.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey, 1986. An important contribution to the theory and criticism of African, postcolonial, and Marxist literature. Although some of the material may be dated, the argument that language can be used as a tool in colonial domination is still a valid one.

Ogunde, James. Ngugi’s Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation. London: Pluto Press, 1999. Ogunde provides a critical examination of Ngugi’s earlier novels, while discussing Ngugi’s positioning of female characters and his value to Kenyan history.

Simatei, Triop Peter. The Novel and the Politics of Nation Building in East Africa. Edited by Eckhard Breitinger. Bayreuth African Studies Series 55. Bayreuth, Germany: Bayreuth University Press, 2001. Simatei examines Ngugi’s place among other writers from East Africa and ways in which his literary contributions have shaped nationalistic agendas in Kenya.

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Critical Essays