One of Africa’s greatest novelists, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, spoke to Ken Olende about his latest work, Wizard Of The Crow, and the state of the continent today
Wizard Of The Crow is a epic satire on neo-colonialism. It is set in the fictional country of Aburiria – a surreally re-imagined Kenya governed by a dictator known only as the Ruler.
His three fawning ministers have undergone plastic surgery to enlarge, respectively, their eyes, ears and tongue – the better to see, hear and denounce dissent. For his birthday one of them suggests building a tower so tall that the Ruler will be able to pop in on god – and so the Marching To Heaven project is born.
The Aburirian government tries to persuade the Global Bank to provide loans to fund Marching To Heaven – but it is set back by the organisation of the poor – and a group of militant women in particular – combined with the arrogant contempt of the bank.
“There is a way in which the West tries to imply that corruption, longing, starvation are peculiarly African – something to do with the biological character of the African,” said Ngugi.
“They wash their hands of what is happening, as if they have never had anything to do with the corruption, with massacres, with backwardness. My concern is with these colonial distortions. There are elements which are indigenous, but they are also external. You can't understand one without the other. The tendency is to leave out one of the elements in the equation. But an equation without all its elements is no longer an equation.”
The Marching To Heaven project is a parody of dictatorship, he added. “There is an element of dictatorships that always needs to say that god is on their side. In the past, authoritarian leaders would quite literally say, ‘You must accept us because we have been conversing with god.’ I wanted to bring in that element.”
As a novelist, Ngugi says he is very influenced by the “trickster” tradition. “The trickster character appears in tales all over the world,” he explained. “In West Africa it is Anansi the spider. Elsewhere it is Hare or Tortoise.
“The trickster is very interesting because he is always changing. He always questions the stability of a word or a narrative or an event. He is continually inventing and reinventing himself. He challenges the prevailing wisdom of who is strong and who is weak.”
One of the novel’s key characters is the impoverished Kamiti, who accidentally gains a reputation as a powerful sorcerer and becomes famous as the terrifyingly powerful Wizard of the Crow.
Working with Nyawira, a radical political activist and feminist, he uses his notoriety to help the poor and trick the rich, partly through curing their various sicknesses with his “magic” mirror.
The most debilitating illness is “whiteache” – an incapacitating desire to be white. In the Ruler’s case there is also the problem of his blowing up like an enormous and ever expanding balloon.
I asked Ngugi if he thought people in the West would understand the mixture of love, hate and envy that makes up “whiteache”. He said, “You have to look at colonialism at a psychological level. Whatever else it does economically or politically, it messes with the mind.
“For a long time the bourgeoisie from the ex-colonial states have had an image of the bourgeoisie in the West. This may not accord with reality, but they have an image of the international bourgeoisie and they are always looking for approval. But at the same time they are saying we are different.
“It is apparent in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, with the Norfolk hotel, the Malaya club and all the old colonial clubs that are still maintained. They have them to say we are the inheritors – but at the same time to say ‘we conquered this’.”
The main characters opposing the ruling clique, Kamiti and Nyawira, are archetypal figures that represent a number of things. “Kamiti means ‘of the trees’,” explained Ngugi. “In English you might call him Mr Woods. Nyawira means ‘she of work’. She is a worker. They are both real, common names.
“The struggle between a class or social consciousness and a national consciousness, which may also be a black or social consciousness, is also fascinating. There is a meeting point between different types of resistance, but often they are so divergent and this always fascinated me.”
The novel was originally written in Gikuyu, the language of the Kikuyu people to which Ngugi belongs.
He has produced his own English translation. He mainly writes for a Kenyan audience, so I wondered how the book was received when it was published there in Gikuyu.
“In Kenya we don’t have Gikuyu newspapers, so there are no reviews. What you get is oral reviews, word of mouth. You read it and tell someone else. And by that method word has been very good, even without the press.”
Given the fantastical nature of the book I asked about the influence of other writers, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “I regard Marquez as a master,” he replied. “But I am more influenced by African oral traditions and folk tales.
“The oral tale accepts magic as an element in life, which is no more than saying that reality is very magical. Change is inherent in nature and human society – change actually is magic.
“I’m fascinated by how any story is changed through telling and retelling, becoming more fantastic and being enriched by observations and emendations. This is why some stories from ancient Africa or Asia or Europe survive with all their beauty – they are the result of collective editorialising over and over again.”
The novel is filled with proverbs and excerpts from songs whose meanings shift and reverse. “With a proverb it always matters how it is taken,” said Ngugi. “Some people subvert the meaning of a proverb, some invert it – so you find proverbs playing against each other in the narrative.”
There are also many references to Western philosophers through Rene Descartes to Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre. Once more, their arguments are often turned around or simply misunderstood, particularly by the rulers.
'When we look at state pronouncements we have to be very sceptical,' Ngugi explained. 'That's why I introduced Descartes – both interpreted and misinterpreted. Descartes himself doubted whether to be a conservative or a revolutionary. He is an ambivalent figure. The two sidedness of words and the two sidedness of reality is always there. It questions the state of being. 'I question therefore I add,' as Descartes might have said.'
There is a lot of humour in the book, and it is not afraid to use buckets of shit to show its disgust with the rulers. Ngugi explained, 'I thought it would be healthy to define what I thought was so perverted about these neo-colonial vampires. The moral decay that is part of that kind of society. I think scatological humour helps capture the moral decay. You don’t want to immerse people in the real smell of the moral decay. Here I have a way of suggesting it, without always showing the real horror. This kind of language is a way for people to cope with it.'
Ngugi grew up in Kenya during the Mau Mau war in the 1950s, when rebels challenged colonial rule. His elder brother joined the resistance in the forests.
Ngugi is pleased that at last people in the West are coming to hear about the long hidden crimes committed by the settlers and the British army, in books such as Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins and Histories Of The Hanged by David Anderson.
He said, “For a long time I was a lonely voice in literature talking about the torture.
“I was a student at Makere University in Uganda during the early 1960s.
“We used to have an inter-college drama competition and I wrote a one-act play set in Kenya during the Mau Mau war. In it, a Mau Mau detainee returns home and finds his wife has been raped by a white colonial officer.
“Although the play was passed, the judges, who were British teachers, said it was exaggerated. They told me a British officer would not do that.
“Normally the play that came first would automatically become part of a drama competition organised by the British Council at the Uganda National Theatre. But my play was filtered out – it was never performed.
“There was a myth perpetrated about how the British colonialists performed in Kenya, and it was believed. I am very happy that the truth is being discussed now, the truth that some of us have been saying for many years and has been backed by academic research.”
By 1967 Ngugi was lecturing in the English department at the University of Nairobi, and pushing for it to be replaced by a literature department that would cover not just English literature, but also the new African and world literature.
He spoke about the huge significance of that wave of writing. “There was a genuine excitement. It covered writers from South Africa, West Africa and the Caribbean. It was like being drunk with possibilities.
“Although more recently I have been very critical of this, we used English and French as a vehicle for our imagination. But that literature created for the first time a genuine pan-African writing. Look at Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe. Those people are seen as our writers. People don’t think of Achebe as a writer who comes from Nigeria, although he does. He is welcomed not as someone who comes from outside, but as one of our own.”
Ngugi was successful in his campaign for a literature department, of which he became head, but became increasingly critical of the post-colonial government.
He also became frustrated that the main audience for his criticisms were the English-speaking middle classes, rather than the poor peasants and workers he looked to for change in society.
In the mid-1970s he started writing in his mother tongue, Gikuyu.
Unfortunately the success of this strategy was only too evident when he was detained for a year by the government, after helping organise peasants to produce a semi-improvised play, published in English as I Will Marry When I Want. In English he had already produced works critical of the government – a play about the Mau Mau struggle, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, and a novel about modern Kenya, Petals of Blood.
But it was when he started actively organising with workers and peasants in the language that they spoke that the state moved against him.
While imprisoned he wrote his first novel in Gikuyu, Devil On The Cross, on toilet paper. He has lived in exile since the early 1980s. He wrote a second novel in Gikuyu, Matigari in 1987 and Wizard Of The Crow is his first new fiction since that.
Ngugi has continued to write critically on literature and politics, particularly encouraging authors from the Global South to write in their mother tongues.
He said, “We keep knowledge from the majority of people by denying them knowledge in the language they use.
“There is something very wrong in saying to a human being, ‘Let me cut off your legs and I will give you artificial ones, which will be perfect.’ I’m saying let us walk on our own two feet.
“There is a younger generation now who are willing to contemplate literature or the possibility of literature in African languages.
“This is not just African, it applies across the Global South – there is an enormous heritage that has been lying untouched. It really excites me, even though it is not now the dominant thread. We must make the marginalised languages accessible. Then the elevation of translation should be part and parcel of a modern education, along with the acquisition of more than one language.”
Wizard Of The Crow can be seen as a satire on the regime of President Daniel arap Moi, which came to an end in 2002, when the new “anti-corruption” government of Mwai Kibaki came to power in Kenya. That anti-corruption government is now mired in corruption.
“When Moi suffered his electoral defeat I said, ‘What we have in Kenya is Moi-ism without Moi’,” said Ngugi. “There has been a terrible moral decay. An individual can go, but the system continues.
“The civil service is the same. The head is no longer there. We won’t get out of this until we change the system and realise what Moi-ism actually meant.
“There is one major difference. That is in the area of being able to speak without necessarily being imprisoned, or eliminated, or driven into exile. So now people can talk more freely about corruption than under the Moi regime, and hopefully organise against it.”
After 20 years of exile, Ngugi, with his wife Njeeri, returned to Kenya in 2004 to promote the release of the Gikuyu version of Wizard Of The Crow.
During the trip armed men attacked and robbed the couple.
Ngugi was tortured and burned with cigarettes while Njeeri was stabbed and raped.
They survived and even continued to promote the book. However they have not returned to live in Kenya. I asked if he feels he is still in exile.
He said, “People used to say I was in self-imposed exile. This is not true. I could not return without being eliminated. Now, there was the brutal attack on us in our apartment.
“I believe the attack was political and connected to the same forces that have always opposed me. Nevertheless I do feel that I can return, and I shall be returning now and then.”
He is depressed by the “war on terror”, but excited by the global anti-capitalist movement: “History, like god, works in mysterious ways.
“Personally I feel that out of the imperial chaos that is ruling the world will emerge a more global awareness that corporatism – what I call in the novel ‘corporonialism’ – can only bring disaster.
“It must be replaced by something else, also global in nature, but overcoming global corporatism.
“On the one hand globalisation is very depressing, but in another way our globalisation opens possibilities. Social movements in Africa, Europe or Latin America can communicate. So the possibility is that in the very act of globalisation we see the roots of a genuine global community.”
Ngugi is pleased that more people in the West are reading his books and others by writers from the Global South. “There is a way in which talking about struggle against colonial empires is also talking about people in the US and so on.
“So this literature becomes a global literature – it raises global concerns with which everybody can identify, concerns in which we can all see ourselves.”
In general he thinks art is underestimated as a tool for change, “Art is a most potent tool. Think of art as a flower. The flower is an expression of the entire plant, but additionally the flower holds the seeds for the future of the plant.
“Flowers are decorative, but they are more than that. In the same way, art is a product of the entire social tree and also holds the seeds of our future.
'Without romanticising it, art is by its very nature revolutionary. You cannot think of art – even a picture on the wall – without movement and change. And that is why the moment of social revolution is when the movement and art come together for a period and that's why that moment whether it is old, new or avant garde it links with the movement. After that moment they will tend to part company.
'In my book Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams I theorised about literature, art and social movements. The state is conservative by its very nature – even the most revolutionary state. There cannot be a revolution everyday. The state creates law, which it has to conserve and so on. While art, in its very nature as art embodies the idea of change.
'But you shouldn’t forget that societies in the past did not have states as we know it. Look at the various norms that were accepted and controlled the relations between one person and another. They were very strong moral norms.
'In my view the goal of human society is not just to feed and clothe and shelter. There must be a spiritual dimension. For me religion is an expression of our desires and our spiritual being. There is no reason why art will not always express our ethics or ideals. Stories will always be there. The struggle to transform ourselves will always be there and that struggle will always be expressed in art.”
Ngugi’s novels from the 1960s – Weep Not Child, The River Between and A Grain of Wheat – detailed the arrival of the colonialists and the responses of Kikuyu people up to Kenya’s independence. He also produced a play The Black Hermit and a collection of short stories Secret Lives
In the 1970s he became increasingly critical of the post-colonial government with Petals of Blood and his play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (written with Micere Githae Mugo).
He produced the play I Will Marry When I Want (written with Ngugi wa Mirii) and the novels Devil on the Cross and Matigari, in Gikuyu, along with Detained, on his period of detention.
He has produced several volumes of essays and criticism, including Homecoming (1972), Barrel of a Pen (1983), Moving the Centre (1993) and Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams (1998).
He now lives in the US and lectures at the University of California, Irvine.
Most of his books are still in print and, along with his new novel Wizard of the Crow, are available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com