November 8, 2009


by Ngugi wa'Thiong'o

Review by Oliver Corlett

A Hundred Years of Swahilitude

It must have been easy to be an African writer in the 1950s and early 1960s. The colonial era was coming to an end, and African colonies, full of new vigor, were either newly independent or on the verge of independence. Tired old England couldn’t wait to shed the White Man’s Burden. Europe was riding an increasingly socialist wave, and the western intelligentsia – philosophers, economists, social scientists, writers and politicians – were generally in a mood to denigrate their imperial past and applaud any move towards the break up of the old establishment responsible for decades of horrific nationalistic wars. African countries looked forward with unbounded optimism to taking control of their own destinies, free of the imperialist yoke. All you had to do to write a thoroughly popular African novel, presumably, was to contrive stories decrying the destruction of African culture by bigoted missionaries, greedy settlers, arrogantly paternalistic colonial officers and bumbling bureaucrats from the distant corridors of power in Whitehall. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

For a decade or so, you could probably continue along those lines quite profitably, excusing the mis-steps as a legacy of the oppressive colonial past and getting the benefit of the doubt. But it must have become increasingly difficult. Idi Amin, hugely popular in the west after he toppled Milton Obote in Uganda, started stowing his victims’ heads in the kitchen fridge. Bokassa of the Central African Republic spent an entire year’s GNP on his coronation as Emperor (his friend Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the President of France, photographed by his side). Mobutu Sese Seko, protege of the USA in resource-rich Congo, climbed quickly up the Forbes 400, soon reaching the rarefied single-digit ionosphere while the unfortunate Zaireans he governed tried to figure out how to survive when a bag of rice cost a month’s wages. In Ghana, five coup attempts in five years, and a descent from the top of the African economic league tables to the bottom. A civil war in Nigeria, with pictures all over the world’s press of children starving in secessionist Biafra. Forced collectivization of farms in Tanzania. And so on. More like shooting fish in a desert. What was an African novelist to do? Chinua Achebe, author of the prototypical (and still the most successful) African novel, Things Fall Apart, just gave up writing novels for 20 years, apparently paralyzed by the disaster that quickly followed independence in Nigeria.

Ngugi wa Thiongo ( ) grew up in Kenya, which was one of the few countries that could lay some claim to success after the departure of the marching bands and the chaps in the ostrich-plume helmets. Not an unqualified success, it is true. President Jomo Kenyatta’s political opponents developed an uncanny knack for dying in car accidents or as the victims of mysterious murders. His policy of “Africanization”, as the satirical English magazine, Private Eye, noted at the time, seemed peculiarly directed at one particular African (and his fourth wife, known as Mama Ngina). The government and civil service were dominated by members of his tribe, the Kikuyu, and many of his close advisors began getting inexplicably rich, particularly as he grew older and more inclined to delegate.

Unlike other big-name African writers – Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka spring to mind – NwaT was really too young to face these inconvenient facts from the mature perspective of one who had come of age in more stable times when the colonial presence must have seemed immovable and everlasting. Born in 1938, he would have been about 15 at the beginning of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952-3. This grass-roots rebellion was largely a Kikuyu phenomenon, because it was they, as former inhabitants of the best land in Kenya, who bore the brunt of settler acquisitiveness, seeing their land progressively usurped until, after the Morris-Carter Land Commission report of 1934, they were relegated first to being tenant farmers and finally almost to the status of agricultural laborers on their own former holdings. NwaT’s step-brother was killed during the uprising and his mother allegedly tortured. The Mau Mau were pretty much suppressed by 1956 – though not before tens of thousands of Africans had died – but they set the stage for independence. Western corporate interests were, it is said, more favorably disposed towards a stable African state than an unstable colonial one, and independence was finally granted in 1963. NwaT would have been 25 – just the right age, perhaps, to participate most fully in the general optimism.

NwaT attended Makerere University in Uganda, probably the foremost university in Africa at that time (i.e. before Idi Amin came to power), graduating with his BA in 1963. It was while he was at Leeds University in England in 1964 that his first novel, Weep Not, Child, was published (under the name James Ngugi, which he later changed). This, as well as his later novel, A Grain of Wheat, is set in the Mau Mau period. The requisite material was there: internal conflicts among the Kikuyu brought about by the policies of the colonial regime. The newly independent Africans had the moral high ground; and NwaT’s future as a novelist and intellectual was secure. So far so good.

For ten years, NwaT worked in academia, as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, as well as at Makerere and at Northwestern in the US. (Later, as a full-blown Marxist, he regretted this stage of his life as a descent into fruitless, self-indulgent bourgeoiserie.) Over that period, the true colors of the post-independence regime became blindingly clear, and the direction of NwaT’s fiction changed accordingly: in 1977, he published his fourth novel, Petals of Blood, a quasi-whodunit which exposed how the post-independence politicians were enriching themselves effectively in the same way, or worse, as the colonial oppressors of old. He called this “neo-colonialism”. The novel was followed shortly by a play (English title: I Will Marry When I Want), carrying much the same message. Kenyatta himself – formerly, to NwaT, a hero of sorts -- was probably too sick and old to care at this point; but the Vice President, Daniel arap Moi, was not amused at all, and in December 1977, NwaT, like others before him who had displeased the government, was thrown in jail, at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison outside Nairobi (the site, as it happens, of the execution by hanging of Mau Mau hero, Dedan Kimathi in 1957).

While in prison alongside several other political prisoners, NwaT began work on a new novel (English title: Devil On The Cross). By this time, he had decided he would no longer write in English, which he had long criticised as a “weapon of colonialism”, and confine himself to Gikuyu (his pronunciation) and Swahili. (Every reference to this period, including his own website biography, insists he wrote the novel on toilet paper. This raises all kinds of questions, doubts, images and cheap jokes which should perhaps be the material of a different essay. We will not allow them to distract us here).

A year or so later, in 1978, after pressure from Amnesty International and the death of Jomo Kenyatta, NwaT was released. He wasn’t, however, allowed to return to his job at Nairobi University, or to take up any other teaching job. While in Britain launching Devil On The Cross, he apparently learned of a plan to give him the so-called “red carpet treatment” when he returned to Kenya – the red in the carpet being, of course, his blood – and he prudently decided to live abroad. He has never returned to live in Kenya, despite the departure of his nemesis, Daniel arap Moi, to Elder Statesmanhood. Which brings us, finally, to Wizard of the Crow.

Wizard, published in 2006, was written in Kikuyu and translated, by its author, into English. It is set in the fictional African state of Aburiria, an economic disaster area plagued by poverty, unemployment and disease, and presided over by The Ruler and his scheming, sycophantic ministers. For a hint on how the author regards this stereotypical African country, consider that in Kikuyu the word “buri” apparently means “useless”. The currency of Aburiria is the Buri.

NwaT chose to write the story as a sort of slapstick satirical cartoon liberally laced with magical realism—no doubt as characteristic of Kikuyu and Swahili oral tradition as it is of the Marquezes of the world. Much of the plot revolves around Marching To Heaven, a gigantic White Elephant vanity project involving a tower so high that The Ruler will be able to ascend to its top and speak directly to God (with whom he is, implicitly, on more or less equal terms). Both The Ruler and the state – they are, as The Ruler often insists, like the Sun King, the same thing – will be glorified. Huge amounts of money will be required for this modern Babel, and, in keeping with the neo-patrimonial nature of this new African nation, everyone with any connection to The Ruler will be getting a piece of it. The mere announcement sparks off a frenzy of queueing – queueing for graft and queueing for jobs, which eventually degenerates into queueing because there’s a queue for something. Where, though, is the money going to come from to build this world-beating skyscraper? Well, like almost any self-respecting modern African state, Aburiria will rely on a handout from the West – a “loan”, in fact, from the Global Bank. A loan for which The Ruler will have, more or less, to grovel. Everything hinges on getting the money from the Global Bank.

And this is, essentially, the current state of the typical African nation, in NwaT’s interpretation of African history: first, there was slavery; then there was colonialism; now there is neo-colonialism, or, as he calls it in the book, “corporonialism”. In each stage of thie progression, there are African toadies, and the enrichment of the few by the oppression of the many. For a current view, incidentally, of how corruption operates in the real Aburiria, there is a recent book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower, by Michela Wrong, published by Harper NY, August 2009.

The wizard hero, who bears the same name – Kamiti – as the Maximum Security Prison in which NwaT spent most of 1978 – is a young Aburirian with an education, including an MBA obtained at university in India, bought for him by virtue of enormous sacrifice on the part of his peasant parents. He had hoped he would return in triumph, settle into gainful employment and, in gratitude, repay their generosity. Instead, he has trekked for three years from one fruitless job interview to another and, too proud to beg and too ashamed even to visit his rural parents, he has more or less reached the end of his rope. At the beginning of the book, he is literally a corpse, lying in a threadbare suit at the foot of one of the many garbage piles to be found in the streets of the capital, his spirit wandering the country like a bird and trying to decide whether or not to return to his body. By a peculiar set of circumstances, he is soon ensconced in a small shack in one of the city’s shanty towns, practising healing as The Wizard of the Crow and living with the heroine, who takes the part of the Wizard when he is away, a young woman who is somehow connected with a subversive political movement dedicated to the emancipation of women, the ending of traditional wife-beating and the humiliation of The Ruler (a staunch supporter of wife beating, naturally).

Kamiti is just a guy trying to get along. He’s not interested in becoming involved in politics, and he does not seek fame, but fame is slowly and increasingly thrust upon him as the story progresses. The rumor-mongering and superstition so prevalent among Africans – among all of us, perhaps, though the forms may be different in the West – propels Kamiti to the center of the plot. One of his first patients is the Chairman of Marching To Heaven, Titus Tajirika (“Get Rich” in Swahili), who, awed by the potential riches of his position, has been struck with an affliction whereby he can only stand in front of his bathroom mirror and keep uttering, over and over again, the word: “If!”. Like most successful sorcerers, perhaps, Kamiti is a brilliant psychoanalyst. True, his skill is reinforced by a little hereditary talent as a seer, but the scene in which, by some extraordinarily perceptive questioning and inference, he diagnoses Tajirika’s illness, is one of the highlights of the book; and it is repeated as his reputation spreads and his list of well-connected patients grows and grows. All who come before him are astonished at his ability to see their secrets. His final patient, naturally, is The Ruler himself, who, on a visit to New York to try, unsuccessfully, to persuade The Global Bank to fund Marching To Heaven ,is first struck by the “If!” affliction and then by what a Harvard medical expert labels Self Induced Expansion. When, finally, proof is offered that the Wizard knows how to make money grow on trees – and by money we mean Dollars, not the useless Buri – The Ruler, by now inflated to the size of a room, conceives of a plan to extort his secrets from him and become the greatest sorcerer in the land.

As a collection of yarns, narrated from the points of view of several of the novel’s various characters in a way which is said to imitate the oral traditions of Kikuyu and Swahili, Wizard is quite successful. Apparently, it is often read aloud in Kenyan bars, in the original Kikuyu, to raucous acclaim; and it does have that certain shaggy-dog quality of the best of oral tradition. Some reviewers have complained at the length – 768 pages – but this one found it quite easy going, with the possible exception of a slightly tedious opening rather over-seasoned with the magical realism.

As a politico-historical thesis, it works moderately well, too. NwaT is a Marxist, and whatever you may feel about Marxism, it’s hard to contest his Marxist view of Africa, that the history of most African countries is a tale of the oppression and exploitation of its masses. You might argue that the oppression was worse in some stages than others – and it’s an important argument, given the opprobrium usually heaped on the heads of what were in many cases quite well-meaning colonialists – but the statement feels broadly true. In Wizard, NwaT is showing the final stage of the Marxist progression (primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism). The transition to capitalism is even reflected in the uniform worn by the Ruler and his entourage: no longer the traditional dress and fly-whisk of the newly independent – everyone wears a suit and tie.

During the whole Cold War period, most of the newly independent African countries were one-party (feudal) states led by dictators, and western aid tended to go to those dictator-lackeys who, while perhaps paying lip service to non-alignment, passed the loyalty test in the battle against the Great Communist Peril. Certainly, The Ruler complains peevishly, he wiped out plenty of Aburirians to demonstrate his devotion to the western ideology, and he’s more than happy to do it again, so why is the Global Bank suddenly being so tight-fisted?

In this final Marxist transition, The Ruler is out of touch with the times. As the American Ambassador, Gabriel Gemstone, primly explains (remembering that the biblical Gabriel is the Messenger of God):

“Circumstances have changed, and we believe that alternative measures exist. Give your people something to make them happy. Don’t you have a proverb that says if you throw peanuts to a monkey you will distract it long enough to be able to snatch the baby?”

Ah, yes! Multi-party democracy, that’s the thing.

If The Ruler doesn’t get the point, his new Minister of Finance, Tajirika, has tasted quite fully of the Reagan-Thatcher-Bush Kool Aid:

“The Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance are clearly looking to privatize countries, nations, and states... The world will no longer be composed of the outmoded twentieth-century divisions of East, West and a directionless Third. The world will become one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated. We should volunteer Abruriria to become the first voluntary corporate colony...”

Despite its successes as a picaresque and as a political exposition, though, Wizard qua novel suffers from a number of flaws. The fact that the author hasn’t lived in Kenya, or any other African country, for thirty years or so shows in a certain poverty of description. We are never really made to inhabit the country the author is describing. There is some general description, but not enough to make us feel as though we are there. Certainly, Kenya and Nairobi (the presumed models for Aburiria and its capital city, Eldares) are bursting with strangenesses – God’s gift to novelists, really – and the novel fails to deliver on what should be an easy job, to bring them alive for those who haven’t been there.

The various characters who are effectively the Kikuyu/Swahili oral narrators suffer from inconsistency, their feelings and actions bent to the exigencies of the plot. Tajirika, for example, is smart when he’s required to be smart, stupid when required to be stupid, strong when required, weak when required, and so on. The Ruler himself is not very credible as a ruler – we can’t quite believe he has the intelligence to hold on to power. (For a much more real – and chilling – portrait of an African dictator-politician, try Michael Holman’s satire, also plainly based on Kenya, Last Orders At Harrods.) The plot drives the characters instead of the other way round, so that both the characters and the plot feel somewhat improvised.

In something of the same way, the message drives the plot instead of the plot driving the message. The problem, perhaps, lies in NwaT’s strong political convictions. What he is trying to achieve here is really a discourse on politics and history. It is very hard for a writer with strong convictions to avoid preaching. But in a well constructed novel, he must be content for the reader to draw his own conclusions, for the message to arise unspoken out of the plot. Not that you don’t get the message, you do, but in Wizard, there is a tendency to deliver it verbatim, and so it lacks force. Instead of a final climactic conflict between the characters, the ending is a series of sermons, speeches and historical essays, and, as a result, the ending is a bit of a letdown.

Still, the book is worth reading if only for Kamiti. Kamiti, presumably the embodiment of the author in this story, is an agreeably human character for a wizard. He has no supernatural powers, really, other than mild clairvoyance and a penchant for astral travel. He is easy to empathize with. What makes him successful as a wizard – apart from the marvellous power of rumor and superstition – is his fixed and unwavering focus on the truth. The main tool of his trade is a mirror. When patients come to him with an illness or a problem, he uses a mirror to diagnose and cure them.

“Your actions will be the mirror of the soul”, he tells one of them. “Look into the mirror always... Watch what you do to others instead of always thinking about what others do to you”.

In effect, his patients cure themselves, because the mirror guides them to the truth they already know within themselves. Wizard of the Crow, in a way, is a mirror held up to modern Africa, and Ngugi wa Thiongo is the wizard who holds it up. For all its shortcomings, its lessons are well worth learning.

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