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East Africa Through Ngugi Wa Thiongos Eyes History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Petals of Blood is a novel by Ngugi wa Thiong’o that is set in Kenya, East Africa just after independence. The novel revolves around four characters: Munira a teacher, Abdullaa a businessman who is an immigrant, Wanja a barmaid, and Karega a teaching assistant. Their lives are all intertwined due to the Mau Mau rebellion. In order to escape city life, each of them retreats to the small, pastoral village of Ilmorog.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o mainly focuses on the skepticism of change after Kenya’s liberation from the British Empire. He mainly writes about the challenges of capitalism, politics and the effects of modernization. The main characters are also united by Education, schools, and the Mau Mau rebellion. This is because they all share a common history…they all take part in the struggle for Kenya’s independence.

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s novel is based around the time Kenya got its independence from the British government. The four main characters who meet at Ilmorog leave the city as they have become tired of living there. Their move to the village coincides with the death of two prominent businessmen in Kenya. Even though they have gained independence, it still seems like Kenyans are still living under the colonial rule…they follow the ways of the British, their religion and education. This shows that even after independence, nothing much has changed.

Munira begins to teach in Ilmorog. However, the villagers are suspicious of him as they think that he will leave like other teachers who came before him. Due to this suspicion, there is a poor class attendance. Soon, Munira befriends Abdullah who also moved to Ilmorog and opened a bar and a small shop. Wanja escapes from the city and finds work in Abdullah’s bar as a barmaid. Believing that the city has much more to offer than the village of Ilmorog, Wanja moves back to Nairobi.

There are a few traditions that Kenyans still uphold even after colonization. When it doesn’t rain for several months, the villagers of Ilmorog receive a poor harvest. But, when it rains, they dance and rejoice while performing ancient rituals, which were also performed by their forefathers. This is just one of the African rituals. There are communities in Africa who believed that the gods had to eat first before they ate. Therefore before taking the first bite, they threw food on the ground to show that they were feeding the ancestors.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o covers several themes in Petals of Blood, Land being one of them. During the colonial rule, Kenyans were not allowed to own land. Most of the land was owned by the British government…in Kenya and East Africa as a whole. After independence, Kenyans were allowed to own land. Agriculture was important not only to Kenyans but to the East African community as a whole. Even though Ilmorog is an isolated, pastoral community, its villagers take farming seriously. After independence, the farmers’ lands are fenced off and, when they are unable to pay their loans, they are seized by the government. This theme is significant in that during colonization, Kenyans lost their land to the foreigners and the main thing they were fighting for in their struggle for independence was to reclaim their land. Land was the most treasured asset among Kenyans. It depicted their heritage. Selling land like Wanja did was a sign that one was a traitor.

Another major theme in Petals of Blood is capitalism. After independence, there emerged elite Kenyans who became successful entrepreneurs. Instead of helping their own, they began behaving like the colonists. Before the colonial rule, Kenyans could grow their crops anywhere. After independence, Farmers were forced to erect fences, put up boundaries and mortgage their lands with loans according to how successful their harvest was. In Petals of Blood when the harvest was minimal the farmers were forced to sell their lands because they could not meet the requirements of their loans.

Thang’eta which Nyakinyua uses to brew a traditional drink is another symbol of capitalism. Through marketing it becomes extremely popular. However, it is stolen from under her nose without receiving a dime from the big business men who force Wanja to stop her Thang’eta operation. The local brew that was a drink that helped the people of Ilmorog to relax becomes a drink of conflict. Emerging capitalists in Kenya began to live in cities. The village of Ilmorog was nothing like these cities. Capitalists began phasing out traditions in favor of modernization. Ilmorog started changing slowly by slowly. With the change of the village came the change of its inhabitants: They could not pass up a chance to trade more and according to Munira, nothing in Ilmorog was free anymore. This change was heavily influenced by capitalism and Ilmorog was soon known as the ‘New Ilmorog’.

The way Ngugi potrays education in Petals of blood makes it seem almost cynical. Munira is a teacher who is not respected in the community of Ilmorog. Parents lack confidence in his staying power as they believe that he will return to Nairobi to look for greener pastures like his predecessors. Munira does not believe in traditional education- which is what the villagers of Ilmorog claim is the best education for their children. In Kenya, during the colonial rule, many parents also refused to take their children to school believing that teaching them about their traditions was more important. They criticized the foreign education system the way the villagers of Ilmorog did.

The community of Ilmorog starts believing that education can bring hope after Joseph’s success at Siriana. Before, many did not believe that education could bring freedom. Karega also questions the British form of education as he is able to educate himself. In Kenya and East Africa as a whole, parents preferred to home-school their children instead of taking them to the colonial schools in their villages. This is because they did not believe that foreign education could bring liberation. They believed that educating their children in schools would make them forget their traditions and start emulating the colonialists

Another important theme in Petals of Blood is betrayal. In the novel, Ngugi writes of social and political betrayal. It is fit to say that Kenya after independence is represented by Ilmorog in this novel. Even though fictional, this novel teaches a lot about the history of the country as most of the events that happen in the novel are similar to those that happened in Kenya before and after colonization.

Old Ilmorog is betrayed by the Kenyan government, especially their member of parliament Nderi wa Riera. When Munira first visits Ilmorog, he finds it in a state of neglect. As a member of parliament and a representative of Ilmorog, Nderi wa Riera is not doing anything to help his community. His only concern is the election, forgetting about the social and economic needs of his community. In Kenya, that was also the case; MPs were being elected into office [1] and forgetting about their communities. Their number one priority was always their salary increment and living in plush neighborhoods away from their communities.

Instead of working hand in hand with Munira, members of the Ilmorog community laugh at his efforts to reconstruct the school in the village. ”He would go away with the wind, said the elderly folk; had there not been others before him? Who would settle in this wasteland except those without limbs…” (Thiong’o 2005, 5). [2] In Ilmorog, Munira’s name means ‘stump’. Munira betrays his family and their religious beliefs by marrying Wanjiru who does not share in their religious beliefs.

Munira initially finds it hard to fit in with the members of the Ilmorog community. After a while, he realizes that the members of Ilmorog are the ones betraying their own community. Due to modernization, they are moving to Nairobi to search for ‘a better’ life, leaving their village lifeless. Instead of working to improve their community, the youths are moving to Nairobi leaving the old to fend for themselves. While talking to him, an old lady complains that:

Our young men and women have left us. The glittering metal has called them. They go and the young women only return now and then to deposit new born with their grandmothers already aged and scratching this earth for a morsel of life. They say: There in the city there is only room for only one… (Thiong’o 2005, 7). [3] 

The community of Ilmorog is in isolation, as it is located away from the city. One would expect that this would be a reason for the government to send aid on occasion. Instead, it betrays this community by sending a tax collector who comes to collect the little that they have worked so hard for. This is another portrayal of the Kenyan government. Most rural communities in Kenya lacked proper roads, their children never saw the inside of a class room because they studied under trees. [4] Modernization was supposed to bring necessities closer to communities. Instead, there were no hospitals in rural communities and one had to travel for miles to reach the nearby clinic. It was not for lack of funds that the government did this but out of greed. In Petals of Blood, Nderi wa Riera the MP of Ilmorog also has two agents, ‘fat stomach’ and ‘insect’ who come to collect money after the tax collector has taken his due.

Abdullah decides to take the leadership role after he becomes tired of being oppressed. He encourages the members of Ilmorog community to stand up for themselves and fight the betrayal of their MP and the government at large. Through Abdullah, some of the traditions of Ilmorog still remain intact as he teaches the children traditional tales like ‘the Ant and the Louse’.

In Petals of Blood, Ngugi wa Thiong’o uses Nyakinyua to reassess Ilmorog’s past. This is a community that has been neglected by its government after independence. Through Nyakinyua, Ilmorog regains its confidence and fights against the neo-colonial government. Ngugi writes that, ”…in those days there were no vultures in the sky waiting for the carcasses of dead workers and no insect flies feeding on the fat and blood of unsuspecting toilers”(Thiongo 2005, 120). [5] No one can justify killing children and women for any reason, but, the government found a way to ‘explain’ their massacre by foreigners. Nyakinyua’s stories were the link between Ilmorog and its past victories and defeats.

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Petals of Blood is rich in Kenyan history. Even though fictional, the massacres in the communities in the book are as real as those that went on during Kenya’s colonial era. The Mau Mau Revolution helped Kenya gain its independence. ”I will never let this soil go to the red stranger. I will never betray this piece of earth to foreigners,” (Thiong’o 2005, 136) [6] is a Maasai hymn sang by the Mau Mau movement in Petals of Blood. In Kenya, during the struggle for independence, members of the Mau Mau Revolution also took an oath to protect their country from the foreigners who came to colonize them. Petals of Blood can be used as a study guide for the history of Kenya and East Africa as a whole.

A Grain of Wheat

A Grain of Wheat is a novel by Ngugi wa Thiong’o that intertwines the stories of several people during the state of emergency in Kenya’s struggle for independence between 1952 and 1959. The novel focuses on Mugo, a quite man whose life is ruled by a dark secret. His home village is preparing for its celebrations for Uhuru Day, which is a day that marks Kenya’s Independence. The resistance fighters who’d fought for the country’s independence. General R and Koinandu want to publicly executing the traitor who betrayed Kihika their fellow resistance fighter on that day.

A Grain of Wheat is one of Ngugi’s novels that clearly portrays the history of Kenya before, during and after it gained independence. Mugo is a hero in his community’s eyes. He led a hunger strike in a British concentration camp which was a guarded compound that held members of ethnic groups of minority. These concentration camps were also used to hold political opponents. Mugo also intervened when a village guard was beating a pregnant woman. What the resistance fighters don’t know is that Mugo is the traitor who betrayed Kihika in an act to save himself from the British.

In A Grain of Wheat, Gikonyo is carpenter and business man who’s married to Mumbi. His loyalty is tested in the detention camp but he confesses to taking the oath of the resistance. This allows him to be released early, but, when he returns home, he finds that his wife has had a child with Karanja his rival. In Kenya’s history, members of communities had to pledge their loyalty to the Mau Mau just like most of the characters did in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s novel A Grain of Wheat. The oath bound them to the Mau Mau Revolution and its cause which was to fight for freedom. There were women who also took this oath, but, instead of going out to fight, they [i] would hide the resistance fighters in their homes when need arose. They would also make food and take it to places where the fighters had pitched camp for the night (mostly in forests).

Similar to Petals of Blood, Ngugi wa Thiong’o also writes about betrayal in A Grain of Wheat. Mugo betrays Kihika out of jealousy. Kihika was brought in a loving family. He was also lucky to get friends who appreciated him. Furthermore, he also gets the opportunity to attend school. With such a background, Kihika lived for the day that he would see a free Kenya. Fighting for Uhuru was his major aim in life. Mugo on the other hand was an orphan who never got the opportunity to go to school. He lives with Waitherero his aunt. She is a cold woman who does not appreciate his nephew. When she dies, Mugo has no one and is reduced to poverty. He lives in fear, unlike Kihika, he lacks self-confidence and he is filled with hatred. Mugo partly betrays Kihika because he does not want to be associated with anyone else (he was a loner most of his life). He reveals that he was the one who betrayed Kihika when he is asked to speak at the funeral in his memory. “I wanted to live my life. I never wanted to be involved in anything. Then he came into my life, here, a night like this, and pulled me into the stream. So I killed him” (Thiong’o 2008, 161). [7] 

Gikonyo breaks his oath of loyalty to the Mau Mau movement. When he is taken to jail, all he can think about is Mumbi his beautiful wife. In Gikonyo’s mind, Mumbi is a greater source of inspiration than patriotism. Mumbi on the other hand betrays Gikonyo by sleeping with Karanja his sworn enemy. When Gikonyo finds out that his wife has been unfaithful, he cannot get the image of Mumbi and Karanja out of his mind. Gikonyo had been gone for six years and Mumbi was left alone with no one to care for her. Karanja provided the solace that she needed. However, Wangari, Gikonyo’s mother speaks to him in the hope that he would change his mind and reconcile with his wife. She says:

see how you have broken your home .You have driven a good woman to misery for nothing , let us now see what profit will bring you , to go on poisoning your mind with these things when you should have accepted and sought how best to build your life . But you, like a foolish child, have never wanted to know what happened. Or what woman Mumbi really is (Thiong’o 2008, 161). [8] 

Karanja betrays his community by choosing to side with the British. He becomes a traitor in the eyes of his community. Ngugi writes that, “That is when Karanja became a Chief. Soon he proved himself more terrifying than the one before him. He led other home guards into the forest to hunt down the Freedom Fighters” (Thiong’o 2008, 143). [9] Karanja left his village to join the home guards instead of the Mau Mau movement that was fighting for the freedom of his people. In Kenyan history, there were a few people who took the side of the British colonialists instead of the movement that was fighting for the liberation of their country.

Karanja sleeps with Mumbi out of attraction and his ongoing competition with Gikonyo. Karanja does not heed his mother’s advice when she tells him not to betray his own community. She warns him not to, “go against his own people. A man who ignores the voice of his own people comes to no good end” (Thiong’o 2008, 222). [10] So, when the rest of the community if celebrating Kenya’s independence, Karanja does not share in their joy as he betrayed the movement and took the side of the colonists. He has to flee to Githima to avoid being punished for his betrayal.

During the colonial period, the thought of having a black leader rarely crossed the mind of any Kenyan. All figures of authority were British. In A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes that, “In the days when European and Indian immigrants wrestled to control Kenya-then any thought of a black man near the seat of power was beyond the reach of the wildest imagination…” (Thiong’o 2008, 33 [11] ). Owning land during that time was out of question for the black man. Another major theme in A Grain of Wheat is land. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s novel borrows heavily from Kenya’s history as most of the events in his book were actual events during the country’s struggle for independence. Mr. Rogers is a British agricultural officer whose passion does not lie in politics like many British settlers. In his mind, he has already built a Forestry Research Station in Githima forest.

Another major theme in the novel is exploitation. In the book, the British settlers exploit Kenyans by taking their land. They did not just take any land, but the fertile ones leaving Kenyans with unfertile lands that could not be used for farming. Gikonyo’s land is taken by the colonists while he is still in prison. The Europeans turned these lands into plantations and forced the Kenyans to work on them. Some characters in the novel are also subjected to slavery (just like most communities were before Kenya got its independence). Karanja is sent to buy meat for Dr. Lynd’s dog. In Kenya, before 1963, and other East African countries, the British settlers forcefully took lands from the communities and forced them to work for minimal wages. They also took Kenyans as slaves to build the railway line (the Iron Snake) in the colonial period. As an African elite, the MP abuses his power and exploits the community he is supposed to be helping.

Kenyans in A Grain of Wheat are also oppressed. Their houses were burnt down and they were forced to move away without being compensated. This happened mostly when white settlers wanted to convert these lands into plantations…which they forced the Kenyans to work in as slaves. Ngugi writes that, “The Indians and Europeans controlled the commercial and the social life of the city. The African only came there to sweep the streets, drive the buses, shop and then go home to the outskirts before nightfall”(Thiong’o 2008, 61). [12] These were Gikonyo’s thoughts when he was in Nairobi on his way to se the MP. Being poor, they could not afford education, an example was Mugo who could not afford to attend school out of poverty. The oppression at times became physical abuse. Mugo was spat on by the District Officer (D.O) when he went to tell him about Kihika. This left him in humiliation.

This book can be used for reference when one is looking into the history of Kenya and East Africa. The detention camps in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s book were there in Kenya before 1963 and they were used by the British to detain the freedom fighters. Kihika and his fellow resistance fighters symbolize the ‘Kapenguria Seven’ that spearheaded the movement that led Kenya to its independence. Kenyans were also forced to give up their lands; some of them went missing without being heard of ever again. Just like in the book, in the colonial era, women were raped and humiliated sexually by British soldiers.


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