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Turning Toward the World: Ngugi's Petals of Blood
By Paul Dorn
Originally written for ENG 631: Post-Colonial Literature, taught Spring 1999 at San Francisco State University by Prof. Loretta Stec
"Struggle" is a part of nature and a part of our history and cultures. As a central concept in my aesthetic or cultural vision, "struggle" has been developing, I think, starting from my essays on writers and politics. One can see this theme become more and more dominant in my cultural theory and aesthetic theory. "Struggle" is central to nature, to human art and to my history. --Ngugi wa Thiong'o, interview with Charles Cantalupo (222) For the proletariat to be able to dictate its will to modern society, its party must not be ashamed of being a proletarian party and of speaking its own language, not the language of national revanche, but the language of international revolution. -- Leon Trotsky, Against National Communism: Lessons of the "Red Referendum"
The characteristic disappointment of post-independence African literature is well expressed by the unnamed "Man" of Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. So this was the real gain. The only real gain. This was the thing for which poor men had fought and shouted. This was what it had come to: not that the whole thing might be overturned and ended, but that a few black men might be pushed closer to their masters, to eat some of the fat into their bellies too. That had been the entire end of it all. (126, emphasis mine)
One African writer with an explicit desire to overturn and end "the whole thing" is Kenyan (Gikuyu) writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Through his numerous plays, essays and novels, Ngugi has consistently positioned himself as an advocate for the ordinary peasants and workers of Kenya and, more generally, Africa. [ 1 ] Few writers anywhere in the world have been as committed as Ngugi to using their work to encourage the political advancement of exploited and oppressed peoples. As one critic has remarked: "Cut Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and he bleeds politics." (Wood)
And yet, as evidenced by his important 1977 novel Petals of Blood. Ngugi is still searching for a political strategy to successfully end "the whole thing" - global monopoly capitalism of which Africa is a constituent part. The slogans and demands that informed independence struggles such as Mau Mau have succeeded only in elevating a new ruling elite, merely replacing white oppressors with black ones. Ngugi is perhaps the most persistent literary voice in Africa condemning the depredations of imperialism, the highest form of capitalism. However, Ngugi is a product of his society, and his political outlook is shaped by the cultural and social environment of Kenya and reflects its shortcomings. As Ngugi himself has written:
Literature does not grow or even 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. The relationship between creative literature and these other forces cannot be ignored, especially in Africa, where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Our culture over the last hundred years has developed against the same stunting dwarfing background. (Homecoming, quoted in Cook and Okenimkpe, 19) What is true for literature, and all culture, is also true for politics. [ 2 ]
In Africa, as elsewhere, the genuine Marxist (i.e. non-Stalinist) tradition has been marginalized in political discourse. Immersed in the postcolonial African milieu, Ngugi can only offer hints in Petals of Blood of the international struggle necessary to achieve a democratic, egalitarian society in Kenya, and, in fact, the rest of the world. Ngugi's intelligence, integrity and passion suggest his great potential to overcome this political malady, which indeed afflicts the global progressive movement. However, as of Petals of Blood written in 1977, Ngugi still hadn't identified the political course for overturning "the whole thing."
Written in the US, Kenya and the USSR between 1970-75, Petals of Blood is widely regarded as an important transitional work in Ngugi's career, in which he moves from the anti-colonialist critique in his early works to a condemnation of the neocolonialist regimes of the African comprador bourgeoisie (McLaren, 73 - 89). As Cook and Okenimkpe write: "Petals of Blood is the first of Ngugi's novels which is fairly and squarely about independent Africa" (90). Petals of Blood was received as a "political bombshell" in Kenya and elsewhere, selling out repeatedly in Nairobi (Treister, 267). Together with Ngugi's 1977 play Ngaahika Ndeenda (translated as I Will Marry When I Want ), Petals of Blood was the work that led to his one-year incarceration at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison near Nairobi: I am told, for instance, that some time in December 1977, two gentlemen very highly placed in the government flew to Mombasa and demanded an urgent audience with Jomo Kenyatta. The each held a copy of Petals of Blood in one hand, and in the other, a copy of Ngaahika Ndeenda. The audience granted, they then proceed to read him, out of context of course, passages and lines and words allegedly subversive as evidence of highly suspicious intentions. The only way to thwart those intentions - whatever they were - was to detain him who harboured such dangerous intentions, they pleaded. [. ] And so to detention I was sent. (Ngugi, 1981, xvi)
Petals of Blood is set in the small remote village of Ilmorog, which serves for Ngugi as a metaphor for developments throughout Kenya in the postcolonial era. Four characters, each originally from the larger nearby city of Limuru, make their way to the village. [ 3 ] Each character comes to Ilmorog motivated largely by a desire to escape the pervasive malaise afflicting Kenya after Uhuru (independence); and each of the four characters serves to illustrate a different strategy for coping in the oppressive conditions of the new black-run country.
Godfrey Munira is a declassé bourgeoisie, the "black sheep" of an otherwise successful Christian family. His father Ezekiel Waweru is a wealthy and pious landowner who had been attacked by the Mau Mau rebels as a collaborator with the British colonizers. The change in regime has hardly affected his fortune; in fact, it has offered additional opportunities. Munira started on his path to "failure" when he is expelled for his relatively minor role in a student strike at the elite Sariana High School (modeled after Alliance High School, which Ngugi attended, Cook and Okenimkpe, 2). After several years as an itinerant educator, during which time he marries a Kenyan "pagan" who converts to Christianity to ingratiate herself to her powerful inlaws, Munira finds refuge as the headmaster of the poorly attended Ilmorog elementary school. His strategy for coping with the new Kenya, until interrupted by events, is to keep his head down, or "quietism." [ 4 ]
Munira is preceded in arriving at Ilmorog by Abdulla, who shares to a lesser extent the schoolteacher's demoralization and has come to the remote village to run a small store. "I wanted to go deep into the country where I would have no reminder of so bitter a betrayal" (255). However, Abdulla has the psychological advantage over Munira of having participated as an active fighter in the liberation struggle, losing part of a leg in the process. Abdulla had also once worked in a shoe factory that experienced frequent labor disputes, which had caused him to become class conscious and to question the realities of the national economy: He had asked himself several times: how was it that a boss who never once lifted a load, who never once dirtied his hands in the smelly water and air in the tannery or in any other part of the complex, could still live in a big house and own a car and employ a driver and more than four people only to cut grass in the compound? (136) Abdulla copes by reinventing himself as circumstances demand, shifting is principles within a narrow range.
Soon Munira and Abdulla are joined by Wanja, another refugee from the city, the granddaughter of one of Ilmorog's elder matriarchs. [ 5 ] A once promising student, Wanja had been shaken by a disastrous affair with the unscrupulous businessman Hawkins Kimeria. However, Wanja is not one to passively take life's blows, and survives by constantly metamorphisizing into new roles. She abandons the infant child resulting from the affair, and after a brief career in the city as a "barmaid," arrives in Ilmorog to begin anew. She persuades Abdulla to hire her, transforming the sleepy store into a lively watering hole, and beginning a (largely platonic) partnership that will continue throughout the book. As the old Ilmorog is destroyed by "progress," Wanja finally succumbs to the apparent national creed of the new postcolonial Kenya: "This world. this Kenya. this Africa knows only one law. You eat somebody or you are eaten. You sit on somebody or somebody sits on you. [. ] Kimeria, who had ruined my life [. ] this same Kimeria was one of those who would benefit from the new economic progress of Ilmorog. Why? Why? I asked myself. Why? Why? Had he not sinned as much as me? That's how one night I fully realized this law. Eat or you are eaten. [. ] Nothing would I ever let for free. [. ] No, I will never return to the herd of victims." (291 - 294)
The final arrival in Ilmorog is Karega, another one-time student rebel expelled from Sariana, and former pupil of Munira (and erstwhile lover of the headmaster's late sister Mukami.) Like the others, he comes to Ilmorog seeking answers to his own situation amid the ubiquitous national confusion. Eventually, after a period of drunken dissipation in the city, Karega settles into Ilmorog as the assistant teacher in Munira's growing school. While sharing Wanja's and Abdulla's capacity for personal transformation, Karega resolutely refuses to accept the new status quo, seeking an answer in collective struggle. Dismissed from his Ilmorog teaching post by Munira's jealous machinations, Karega studies and travels, and eventually becomes a union organizer in the new Ilmorog. His character provides the clearest articulation of Ngugi's politics.
Ngugi places these four characters in remote Ilmorog, once a thriving commercial center, now inhabited only by those too old, young, feeble or tired to move to a city and its greater opportunities. A few of Ilmorog's older residents, such as Wanja's grandmother Nyankinyua, offer residual memories of the village's former glory. The community is presided over by Mwathi wa Mugo, the unseen and mysterious occult priest. Cook and Okenimkpe suggest that Ngugi portrays Mwathi: With a rare double-edged irony, ambivalence and scepticism which call into question the validity of the fundamental metaphysical beliefs of the Ilmorog villagers, perhaps of Africa at large. (93)
When a persistent drought threatens the very survival of the village's residents, Karega suggests a delegation travel to Nairobi to appeal for assistance from their Member of Parliament. The four former city dwellers lead a motley group of peasants on a pivotal trip that will forever change the fortunes of Ilmorog. Ngugi uses the delegation's reception in Nairobi to reveal the hypocrisy of various elite-run institutions in postcolonial Kenya. A church leader, Jerrod Brown, offers the ailing Ilmorog group mere "spiritual" sustenance, refusing to provide the weary travelers any food, water or shelter. The educational leader Chui is entertaining a select crowd and can't be bothered assisting poor villagers. Wealthy businessman Kimeria holds some members of the delegation hostage while raping Wanja. And Ilmorog's MP, Nderi wa Riera (Gikuyo for "vulture son of air," Treister, 268) offers a reluctant welcome before unleashing the police on his ragged constituents for disturbing the (his) peace.
The most propitious event of the villagers' urban sojourn is their connection with "the lawyer," a liberal or social-democratic Kenyan who attempts to uphold the grand vision of Uhuru, using his education to assist Kenya's poor. (Cook and Okenimkpe suggest "the lawyer" is based on the real-life Kenyan activist Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, 91.) The lawyer becomes the Ilmorog contingent's most important benefactor in Nairobi, offering them shelter, but more importantly becoming their advocate and spokesperson. The lawyer also benefits from the publicity surrounding the Ilmorog delegation's visit and rebuke by their MP, eventually gaining election himself to parliament.
The lawyer is also significant for helping to direct Karega into class-conscious political activism, through conversation, correspondence and shared reading materials. As he grows and develops his politics, Karega suggests something of author Ngugi's own dissatisfaction with African literature: Imaginative literature was not much different: the authors described the conditions correctly: they seemed able to reflect accurately the contemporary situation of fear, oppression and deprivation: but thereafter they lead him down the paths of pessimism, obscurity and mysticism: was there no way out except cynicism? Were people helpless victims? (200) When the lawyer is assassinated--with little doubt as a consequence of his reformist efforts in parliament--he provides another lesson to Karega: that relief from neo-colonial oppression won't come from elite institutions such as Parliament.
The lawyer, though a relatively minimal presence in Petals of Blood. has crucial importance for relating Ngugi's political views. While hosting the Ilmorog delegation, the lawyer gives the most explicit account of how Kenyan liberation was sacrificed to the capitalist "monster-god." The lawyer also begins to transcend race and nationality, indicating the international class dimensions of the post-colonial dilemma. He relates his experiences in the United States, where he gained direct experience with racist violence and oppression directed against blacks: "Is this not what has been happening in Kenya since 1896? So I said to myself: a black man is not safe at home; a black man is not safe abroad. What then is the meaning of it all? Then I saw in the cities of America white people also begging. saw white women selling their bodies for a few dollars. In America vice is a selling commodity. I worked alongside white and black workers in a Detroit factory. We worked overtime to make a meagre living. I saw a lot of unemployment in Chicago and other cities. I was confused. So I said: let me return to my home, now that the black man has come to power. And suddenly as in a flash of lightning I saw that we were serving the same monster-god as they were in America. I saw the same signs, the same symptoms, and even the same sickness." (166, emphasis mine)
After the pivotal Ilmorog delegation visit to the national capitol, Petals of Blood concludes by relating the destruction wrought to the old village by "progress." For a brief period the rains and optimism return to Ilmorog, allowing Karega and Wanja time to fall in love, realizing a brief shared moment of personal satisfaction. However, the village is soon visited by increasing intrusion from the city: a church, a police station, the African Economic Bank and eventually the Trans-Africa highway, which symbolically crushes the abode of the town's elder spirit Mwathi wa Mugo. The New Ilmorog becomes a boom town, complete with all the urban vices, led by the most despicable of selfish exploiters: Kimeria, Mzigo and Chui. Just as this demonic trio are about to plot their response to Karega's successful union agitation, they are consumed in a fire at Wanja's brothel started by Munira, a recent convert to fanatical Christian evangelicalism. [ 6 ]
Ngugi's novel offers a searing condemnation of Kenyan ruling elites who exploit the country's workers and peasants, and also offers vigorous and unrelenting criticism of neocolonialist institutions -- Christianity, politicians, schools, businesses, banks, landlords, highways(!). Petals of Blood also demonstrates the importance of collective action to empower ordinary people to resist oppression, such as Ilmorog's delegation to Nairobi; strikes at the Theng'eta Brewing Company; student struggles at the elite Sariana academy.
However, at the end, Petals of Blood concludes with rather vague and tenuous reasons for optimism: Wanja's pregnancy, Joseph's school rebellion, Karega's faith in renewed strikes and protests in Ilmorog. Several scholars have remarked on the thin hope Ngugi offers. Neil Lazarus writes: "It would only be in (Petals of Blood ). that Ngugi would be able to find a less intellectualist register for his new political sensitivity. And even here, in the formulaic quality of the final pages, in which the specter of proletarian internationalism is rather unconvincingly seen to be arising in the collective political imagination of Kenyan workers and peasants, there is the suggestion of residual intellectualism." (22, emphasis mine)
Craig V. Smith also notes: "But the revolution remains a hope and a promise. The most subversive act undertaken in the narrative present arises from religious zeal, not class politics." (99)
Ngugi came of age politically in an environment and a continent still burdened with the detritus of Stalinism, a reactionary perversion of Marxism, fusing nationalism onto proletarian political movements. Stalin's theoretical suggestion of the possibility of "socialism in one country" -- an improbable workers' paradise surrounded by a sea of capitalist sharks -- countered the insistent internationalism of the classical Marxist tradition. Stalinism (and localized variations of it promulgated by the likes of Mao, Nkrumah, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Tito) retarded workers' movements internationally. Nowhere have the consequences of this ideological handcuffing of the class struggle been more disastrous than in Africa. [ 7 ]
We are now thankfully moving beyond the era when Stalinist ideological hegemony held a stranglehold on progressive intellectual culture. The demise of Stalinism has created an opportunity to rebuild a genuine revolutionary left. Such a renewed revolutionary movement would necessarily need internationalism as its foundation. Proletarians have no country. Yet, at least at the time of writing Petals of Blood. Ngugi seems to have had difficulty moving beyond the Kenyan context toward a global revolutionary strategy. [ 8 ]
The lawyer in Petals of Blood provides the novel's only indication of the unity of interests between workers in the West and those in Africa. Both are oppressed and exploited by the corporate creepocracy running the "monster-god" of transnational capitalism. Ngugi no doubt recognizes that ending "the whole thing" requires united struggle with proletarian allies in the West. However, with Petals of Blood. readers are still left wondering if Ngugi can develop the vernacular necessary to build that unity, to transcend his national origins and assume a place on the global stage? More importantly, can we? [ 9 ]
Armah, Ayi Kwei. The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1997.
Cantalupo, Charles, ed. The World of Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc. 1995.
Cook, David, and Okenimkpe, Michael. Ngugi wa Thiong'o: An Exploration of His Writings. London: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd. 1983.
Killiam, G.D. An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi. London: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd. 1980.
- - - - -. Critical Perspectives on Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Washington: Three Continents Press, 1984.
Lazarus, Neil. "(Re)turn to the People: Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Crisis of Postcolonial African Intellectualism." Cantalupo 11 - 25.
McLaren, Joseph. "Ideology and Form: The Critical Reception of Petals of Blood ." Cantalupo, 73 - 91.
Ngugi wa Thiongo. Petals of Blood. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1978.
- - - - -. Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary. London: Heinemann Educational Books, Ltd, 1981.
Schatten, Fritz. Communism in Africa. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. 1966.
Sharma, Govind Narain. "Ngugi's Apocalypse: Marxism, Christianity and African Utopianism." Killiam, 1984, 292 - 304.
Smith, Craig V. "Rainbow Memories of Gain and Loss": Petals of Blood and the New Resistance." Cantalupo, 93 - 108.
Treister, Cyril. "An Addition to the Genre Of The Proletariat Novel." Killiam, 1984, 267-270.
Wood, Carl. "Banned in Africa." Christian Science Monitor, September 5, 1986.
1 Ngugi's works in English include the novels Weep Not, Child (1964); The River Between (1965); A Grain of Wheat (1967); the non-fiction books Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary (1981), Writers in Politics (1981); Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983); Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986); Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (1993) and Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of the Arts and the State in Africa (1998); and the plays The Black Hermit (1962) and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976). Since 1986 Ngugi has written his imaginative works in Gikuyu, often translating them into English himself together with explicatory essays. See Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Literary Databases, available online at http://www.galenetservlet/GLD. Back to text
2 While asserting the legitimacy of African culture, Ngugi is notable among African intellectuals for his rejection of "negritude" and other essentialisms. "Because racism does not emanate from some biological arrangement, I must assume that it can be changed. We can see racism as a phenomenon that has social, political and economic bases and origins and is thus, subject to social, political and economic solutions. [. ] Thus, Black people must realize themselves on the level of class and take anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist positions." (Killiam, 1980, 6) Back to text
3 The fact that all four principal characters are former urban dwellers again raises the issue of "subaltern" expression and the impossibility of independent political action by peasants. See my 4/22/99 paper, "Dark Ghost of the European: The Comprador Bourgeoisie in Africa," available online at http://userwww.sfsu
4 "His shame over his father's collaboration with the British, and the wealth that it allowed, complicates Munira's consciousness: torn by loyalty to family versus loyalty to a cause (Mau Mau), Munira ends up ashamed of his past, longing to participate in Kenya's present but paralyzed by an alienation which results from his refusal to recognize any symbiosis between the personal and the political. The novel faults him for his quietism, revealing to us what Munira must face for himself: he has compromised." (Smith, 97) Back to text
5 "Wanja" is a adaptation of the Gikuyu word for "mother earth" or "spirit of the land"; suggesting that Ngugi intends Wanja as a metaphor for Kenya. If Wanja becomes a sullied prostitute, that is because it is the only option offered by the imperialist oppressors. "She is not the wicked and shameless woman, the Jezebel of Scripture, as Munira takes her to be. [. ] (Wanja) is the spirit and earth of Kenya, humiliated, exploited and ill-used by the Kimerias, Chuis and Mzigos, fighting for sheer survival and hungering for fulfillment, still retaining her beauty and kindliness, dignity and decency." (Sharma, 302) Back to text
7 Africa's independence movements, and others elsewhere, were severely damaged by Stalinism. The Communist International (Comintern), originally a grouping of the leading socialist revolutionaries from around the world, had by the mid-1920s disintegrated into a mere tool of Russian foreign policy. The Comintern subordinated working class struggle in other countries to the national interests of the USSR. During World War II, when the British Empire was extremely vulnerable to national liberation movements, the USSR urged colonial peace for the sake of "anti-fascist" unity. "The great alliance between the Soviets and the Western Powers between 1941 and 1945 resulted in the complete neglect of colonial problems by the communists (sic); clearly, consideration for their new allies forbade any intervention in colonial affairs. It was not until Mao's success in China, the rising of the post-war anti-colonial wave in Asia and the Near East, and the gradual formation of nationalist groups in Africa, that the attention of the Russians was again - 20 years after the Sixth Congress of the Comintern - irresistibly turned towards developments in Asia and Africa." (Schatten, 68) To ingratiate himself to his capitalist allies, Stalin disbanded the Comintern entirely in 1943, the end of any vestige of USSR-led revolutionary internationalism. Back to text
8 One is disappointed that Petals of Blood provides not a single sympathetic, let alone revolutionary European or American. Perhaps this suggests the continued influence of Maoism in Africa, many adherents of which assert that the working class in advanced capitalist nations has been "bought off" with the "super profits" of imperialism. Ngugi's frequent assertion of "workers and peasants" is reminiscent of a Maoist formulation, wrongly suggesting an equivalent weight of these class groupings. Capitalism oppresses many groups. Of these, Marx identified the proletariat (workers, not "workers and peasants") as the group with the social power to liberate all society, including petit bourgeois, peasants, lumpen-proletarians, national minorities and others. As capitalism industrializes more of the planet, the relative social and political weight of the proletariat grows while that of the peasantry diminishes. Those who dismiss the revolutionary potential of the major portion of the world's working class, at the same time the peasantry continues to decline in such potential, are left with little but the cynicism and hopelessness Ngugi's character Karega indicates as the problem of African literature. Back to text
9 The revolutionary socialist tradition that has upheld 1) the centrality of the proletariat, 2) revolutionary struggle and 3) internationalism has largely built on the foundations laid by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (who was no slouch as a writer, either). See John Molyneux, Leon Trotsky's Theory of Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981. Other important thinkers in this tradition include such figures as Tony Cliff, Alex Callinicos, Lindsay German, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, Raya Dunayevskaya, John Berger, Terry Eagleton and others. The most important figure in the Trotskyist tradition who dealt extensively with Africa and the Caribbean is C.L.R. James. See my essay "A Controversial Caribbean: C.L.R. James," available online at http://www.runmukipaul/CLR_James.html. Back to text