“The definitive African book of the twentieth century” (Moses Isegawa, from the Introduction) by the Nobel Prize–nominated Kenyan writer
The puzzling murder of three African directors of a foreign-owned brewery sets the scene for this fervent, hard-hitting novel about disillusionment in independent Kenya. A deceptively simple tale, Petals of Blood is on the surface a suspenseful investigation of a spectacular triple murder in upcountry Kenya. Yet as the intertwined stories of the four suspects unfold, a devastating picture emerges of a modern third-world nation whose frustrated people feel their leaders have failed them time after time.
First published in 1977, this novel was so explosive that its author was imprisoned without charges by the Kenyan government. His incarceration was so shocking that newspapers around the world called attention to the case, and protests were raised by human-rights groups, scholars, and writers, including James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Harold Pinter, and Margaret Drabble.
About the Author
Ngugi wa Thiong’o was born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1938. One of the leading African writers and scholars at work today, he is the author of many novels, short stories, essays, a memoir, and several plays, and recipient of numerous high honors. Currently he is Distinguished Professor in the School of Humanities and director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.
Moses Isegawa was born in Uganda and is the author of the novels Abyssinian Chronicles and Snakepit.
Read an Excerpt
Part One: Walking . . .
And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and he that
sat thereon had a bow: and there was given unto him a crown:
and he came forth conquering, and to conquer . . .
And another horse came forth, a red horse: and to him that
sat thereon it was given to take peace from the earth, that they should
slay one another: and was there given unto him a great sword . . .
And I saw, and behold, a black horse; and he that sat thereon
had a balance in his hand . . .
And I saw, and behold, a pale horse: and he that sat
upon him, his name was Death . . .
And there was given unto them authority over the fourth part of
earth, to kill with sword and with famine, and with death.
Revelation, Chapter 6
The people scorn’d the ferocity of kings . . .
But the sweetness of mercy brew’d destruction, and the frighten’d monarchs come back;
Each comes in state, with his train – hangman, priest, tax-gatherer,
Soldier, lawyer, lord, jailer, and sycophant.
1 ~ They came for him that Sunday. He had just returned from a night’s vigil on the mountain. He was resting on his bed, Bible open at the Book of Revelation, when two police constables, one tall, the other short, knocked at the door.
‘Are you Mr Munira?’ the short one asked. He had a star-shaped scar above the left brow.
‘You teach at the New Ilmorog Primary School?’
‘And where do you think you are now standing?’
‘Ah, yes. We try to be very sure. Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You are wanted at the New Ilmorog Police Station.’
‘Murder, of course – murder in Ilmorog.’
The tall one who so far had not spoken hastened to add: ‘It is nothing much, Mr Munira. Just routine questioning.’
‘Don’t explain. You are only doing your duty in this world. But let me put on my coat.’
They looked at one another, surprised at his cool reception of the news. He came back carrying the Holy Book in one hand.
‘You never leave the Book behind, Mr Munira,’ said the short one, impressed, and a little fearful of the Book’s power.
‘We must always be ready to plant the seed in these last days before His second coming. All the signs – strife, killing, wars, blood – are prophesied here.’
‘How long have you been in Ilmorog?’ asked the tall one, to change the subject from this talk of the end of the world and Christ’s second coming. He was a regular churchgoer and did not want to be caught on the wrong side.
‘You have already started your routine questions, eh?’
‘No, no, this is off the record, Mr Munira. It is just conversation. We have nothing against you.’
‘Twelve years!’ he told them.
‘Twelve years!’ both echoed.
‘Yes, twelve years in this wasteland.’
‘Well, that was – you must have been here before New Ilmorog was built . . .’
2 ~ Abdulla sat on a chair outside his hovel in the section of Ilmorog called the New Jerusalem. He looked at his bandaged left hand. He had not been kept long at the hospital. He felt strangely calm after the night’s ordeal. But he still could not understand what had really happened. Maybe in time, he thought – but would he ever be able to explain this fulfilment of what had only been a wish, an intention? How far had he willed it? He raised his head and saw a police constable looking at him.
‘I am a policeman on duty. You are wanted at the station.’
‘Will it take long?’
‘I don’t know. They want you to record a statement and to answer a few questions.’
‘That’s all right. Let me put this chair back inside the house.’
But at the station they locked him up in a cell. Abdulla protested against the deception. A policeman slapped him on the face. One day, one day, he tried to say in sudden resurgence of old anger and new bitterness at the latest provocation.
3 ~ A police officer went to the hospital where Wanja had been admitted.
‘I am afraid you cannot see her,’ said the doctor. ‘She is not in a position to answer questions. She is still in a delirium and keeps on shouting: “Fire . . . Fire . . . My mother’s sister . . . my dear aunt . . . put out the fire, put out the fire!” and such things.’
‘Record her words. It might give us a clue in case—’
‘No, she is not in a critical condition . . . just shock and hallucinations. In ten days’ time . . .’
4 ~ Karega was fast asleep. He had come late from an all-night executive meeting of Ilmorog Theng’eta Breweries Union. He heard a knock at the door. He leapt out of bed in his pyjamas. He found a heavily armed police contingent at the door. An officer in khaki clothes stepped forward.
‘What is the matter?’
‘You are wanted at the police station.’
‘Can’t it wait until tomorrow?’
‘I am afraid not.’
‘Let me change into something . . .’
He went back and changed. He wondered how he would contact the others. He had listened to the six o’clock news and so he knew that the strike had been banned. But he hoped that even if he was arrested, the strike would go on.
He was hurled into a waiting Land Rover, and driven off.
Akinyi, preparing to go to Ilmorog Church for the morning service, happened to look in the direction of his house. She always did this, automatically, and she had promised herself to cut out the habit. She saw the Land Rover drive away. She rushed to his place – she had never been there – and found the door padlocked.
Within a few hours word had spread. The workers, in a hostile mood, marched toward the police station demanding his release. A police officer came out and spoke to them in a surprisingly conciliatory manner.
‘Please disband peacefully. Karega is here for routine questioning. And it is not about your last night’s decision to take a strike action. It’s about murder – murder in Ilmorog.’
‘Murder of the workers!’ somebody retorted.
‘Murder of the workers’ movement!’
‘Long live the workers’ struggle!’
‘Please disband—’ appealed the officer, desperately.
‘Disband yourself . . . disband the tyranny of foreign companies and their local messengers!’
‘Out with foreign rule policed by colonized blackskins! Out with exploitation of our sweat!’
The crowd was getting into an angry, threatening mood. He signalled his lieutenants. They called out others who came with guns and chased the protesting workers right to the centre of Ilmorog. One or two workers sustained serious injuries and were taken to hospital.
Workers were waking to their own strength. Such a defiant confrontation with authority had never before happened in Ilmorog.
5 ~ One newspaper, the Daily Mouthpiece, brought out a special issue with a banner headline: MZIGO, CHUI, KIMERIA MURDERED.
A man, believed to be a trade-union agitator, has been held after a leading industrialist and two educationists, well known as the African directors of the internationally famous Theng’eta Breweries and Enterprises Ltd, were last night burnt to death in Ilmorog, only hours after taking a no-nonsense-no-pay-rise decision.
It is believed that they were lured into a house where they were set on by hired thugs.
The three will be an irreplaceable loss to Ilmorog. They built Ilmorog from a tiny nineteenth-century village reminiscent of the days of Krapf and Rebman into a modern industrial town that even generations born after Gagarin and Armstrong will be proud to visit . . . etc . . . etc . . . Kimeria and Chui were prominent and founding fathers of KCO . . . etc . . . etc . . .
1 ~ But all that was twelve years after Godfrey Munira, a thin dustcloud trailing behind him, first rode a metal horse through Ilmorog to the door of a moss-grown two-roomed house in what was once a schoolyard. He got off and stood still, his right hand akimbo, his left holding the horse, his reddish lined eyes surveying the grey, dry lichen on a once white-ochred wall. Then, unhurriedly, he leaned the metal horse against the wall and, bending down, unclipped loose the trouser bottoms, beat them a little with his hands – a symbolic gesture, since the dust stubbornly clung to them and to his shoes – before moving back a few steps to re-survey the door, the falling-apart walls and the sun-rotted tin roof. Suddenly, determinedly, he strode to the door and tried the handle while pushing the door with his right shoulder. He crashed through into a room full of dead spiders and the wings of flies on cobwebs on all the walls, up to the eaves.
Another one has come into the village, went the news in Ilmorog. Children spied on him, on his frantic efforts to trim up and weed the place, and they reported everything to the old men and women. He would go away with the wind, said the elderly folk: had there not been others before him? Who would want to settle in this wasteland except those without limbs – may the devil swallow Abdulla – and those with aged loins – may the Lord bless Nyakinyua, the old woman.
The school itself was a four-roomed barrack with broken mud walls, a tin roof with gaping holes and more spiders’ webs and the wings and heads of dead flies. Was it any wonder that teachers ran away at the first glance? The pupils were mostly shepherd boys, who often did not finish a term but followed their fathers in search of new pastures and water for their cattle.
But Munira stayed on, and after a month we were all whispering – was he a little crazed – and he not so old? Was he a carrier of evil? — especially when he started holding classes under the acacia bush near the place rumoured to be the grave of the legendary Ndemi, whose spirit once kept watch over Ilmorog Country before imperialism came and changed the scheme of things. He is mocking Ndemi, said Mwathi wa Mugo, who divined for both the ridge and the plains and prescribed a deterrent. At night, under the cover of darkness, the old woman shat a mountain between the school building and the acacia bush. In the morning the children found a not-so-dry mound of shit. They ran back to their parents and told a funny story about the new teacher. For a week or so Munira galloped his horse the length of the hills and plains in pursuit of the disappearing pupils. He caught up with one. He got off his horse, letting it fall to the ground, and ran after the pupil.
‘What is your name?’ he asked, holding him by the shoulder.
‘That’s your mother?’
‘What about your father?’
‘He works far away.’
‘Tell me: why don’t you like school?’
The boy was drawing marks on the ground with his right toe, head bent to one side, holding back laughter with difficulty.
‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ he said, making as if to cry. Munira let him go after getting a promise that Muriuki would return and even bring the others. So they came back cautiously: they still thought him a bit odd and this time would not venture out of the closed walls.
She waited for Munira outside the school kei-apple hedge. He got off the metal horse. He stood aside, thinking she only wanted to pass. But she stood in the middle of the narrow track supporting herself against a twigged stick.
‘Where you come from: are there tarmac roads?’
‘And light that comes from wires on dry trees to make day out of night?’
‘Women in high heels?’
‘Oiled hair, singed goatskin smell?’
He looked at her furrowed face, at the light in her eyes. His own wandered past her, over the empty school, for it was after four o’clock, and he thought: what did she want?
‘They are beautiful and wise in the ways of the white man: is this not so?’
‘That they are: too wise, sometimes.’
‘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 the newborn with their grandmothers already aged with scratching this earth for a morsel of life. They say: there in the city there is room for only one . . . our employers, they don’t want babies about the tiny rooms in tiny yards. Have you ever heard of that? Unwanted children? The young men also. Some go and never return. Others sometimes come to see the wives they left behind, make them round-bellied, and quickly go away as if driven from Ilmorog by Uhere or Mutung’u. What should we call them? The new Uhere and Mutung’u generation: for was it not the same skin diseases and plagues that once in earlier times weakened our people in face of the Mzungu invasion? Tell me: what then brings you to a deserted homestead? Look at Abdulla. He came from over there and what did he bring us? A donkey. Now imagine, a donkey! What have you really come to fetch from our village? Is it the remaining children?’
He pondered this a few seconds. He plucked a ripened yellow kei-apple and crushed it between his fingers: isn’t there a safe corner in which to hide and do some work, plant a seed whose fruits one could see? The smell from the rotting fermenting kei-apple hit into his nostrils. He felt a sudden nausea, Lord deliver us from our past, and frantically fumbled in his pockets for a handkerchief to cover the sneeze. It was too late. A bit of mucus flew onto the woman’s furrowed face. She shrieked out, auuu-u, Nduri ici mutiuke muone, and fled in fright. He turned his face aside to hold back another sneeze. When a second later he looked to the path, he could not find a trace of her behind the kei-apple bush or anywhere. She had vanished.
Strange, mysterious, he muttered to himself. He got on his metal horse and slowly rode toward Abdulla’s shop.
Abdulla was also a newcomer to Ilmorog. He and little skinny Joseph had come into our midst in a donkey-cart full of an assortment of sufurias and plates and cheap blankets tightly packed into torn sisal sacks and dirty sheets knotted into temporary bags. This was going to be an eventful year, Njogu had exclaimed sarcastically on seeing the odd trio, and listening to their even more odd request: how in this desert place could anyone even think of rescuing the broken mud-walled shop that had once belonged to Dharamashah of Ilmorog legends? You can take the ghost . . . memories, curses and all . . . old Njogu had said, pointing to the building, whose roof and walls leaned to one side and looked indistinguishable from the dry weed and the red earth. We used to crowd his little shop and look curiously at his stumped leg and his miserable face and listen to his stream of curses at Joseph. Soon we were glad that at long last we had a place from which we could get salt and pepper. But we were rather alarmed at his donkey because it ate too much grass and drank too much water. Within a month Abdulla had added bar services to his supply of Jogoo Unga and pepper and salt. On a Friday or a Saturday the herdsmen from Ilmorog plains would descend on the store and drink and talk and sing about their cows and goats. They had a lot of money from the occasional sale of goats at Ruwa-ini Market, and they had no other use for it, carrying it hidden inside their red cloths in small tins hanging on strings from their necks. Afterward they would disappear for days or weeks before once again descending on Abdulla.
Munira entered the place through the back door and sat on the edge of a creaking bench. It’s strange, he muttered to himself again, recalling the encounter with the old woman as he waited for Joseph to bring him a Tusker beer. No sooner had he started drinking than three strongly built but elderly folk joined him at the table. Muturi, Njuguna and Ruoro were prosperous peasants, and as such they were the wise men, the athamaki, of the farming community. They settled disputes not only between the various families but also between this community and that of the herdsmen of the plains. For more serious disputes and problems they went to the diviner, Mwathi wa Mugo. They greeted Munira and started talking about the weather.
‘Where you come from: is it as dry as this place?’
‘It is . . . well . . . it is always hot in January.’
‘It’s the same season of course – githemithu season.’
‘Is that the name of it?’
‘These children . . . You have too much of the Foreigner’s maneno maneno in your heads. Did you have a good gathano harvest in your place? Here it was poor and we don’t know if the grains of maize and beans can last us to the end of the njahi rains. That is, if the rains come . . .’
‘I am not really a farmer,’ Munira hastened to explain, all this talk of njahi, themithu, gathano and mwere, confusing him.
‘We know, we know . . . the hands of a Msomi are themselves a book. Don’t I see those town-people when they come to visit us? Hands untouched by soil, it’s as if they wear ngome.’
Njuguna’s ambition had always been one day to wear ngome on his fingers’ knuckles as a sign that he had said kwaheri to soiling his hands. He would then be like some of the mbari lords of his youth. Some of the famous houses had had so much wealth in cows and goats they would get ahois and hangers-on to work for them. The ahois and the ndungatas of course hoped to get a goat in payment and strike out on their own in the virgin common lands or unclaimed grassfields. Other heads of big houses and clans and mbari had had enough wives and sons to do the work or enough daughters to bring in more wealth. But such prosperity had always escaped Njuguna. The land seemed not to yield much and there was now no virgin soil to escape to as in those days before colonialism. His sons had gone away to European farms or to the big towns. Daughters he had none: and what use were they nowadays? Old Njogu, after all, had several and they had only brought him sorrow instead of goats. So, Njuguna, like the other peasants in all the huts scattered about Ilmorog Country, had to be contented with small acreage, poor implements and with his own small family labour. But he kept on hoping.
‘We did not get enough rains last mwere season,’ Muturi was explaining. ‘Now we look at the sun and the wind and the thungururi birds in the sky and we fear that it may not rain. Of course njahi rains are still two moons away . . . but these birds, we fear.’
Munira was not interested in farming. And this talk of possible droughts and rain he had heard since his childhood. Farmers always talked of being threatened by droughts, as if giving voice to their fears would keep out such calamities.
‘I am sure it will rain,’ he said, just to assure them that he was interested. He tried to steer the conversation along different lines, and it was Abdulla who came to his rescue.
‘Do you think you can manage the school alone?’ Abdulla asked.
‘I hope that once Standard I and II classes start going I can get more teachers.’
‘Standard I and II, how?’
‘Well, Standard II in the mornings only. Standard I in the afternoons,’ he said.
‘You must be very dedicated,’ Abdulla said, and Munira did not know if it was said in sarcasm or in compliment. But he tried to answer it sincerely.
‘Some of us who had a schooling . . . we tended to leave the struggle for Uhuru to the ordinary people. We stood outside . . . the song I should say. But now, with independence, we have a chance to pay back . . . to show that we d . . . did not always choose to stand aside . . . That’s why . . . well . . . I chose transfer to this . . . to Ilmorog.’
‘I am not sure that some have not already started looking after their stomachs only,’ Abdulla said, and once again the tone made Munira slightly uncomfortable. It was as if Abdulla was already suspicious of, or else antagonistic to his . . . well . . . his rather missionary posture and fervour.
‘I can’t speak for everybody – but it seems that there is still enthusiasm and a belief that we can all do something to make our independence real . . .’ he said.
‘That’s the way to talk,’ said Muturi in compliment. ‘Those are good words.’
Munira now seized this chance to elaborate on the future prospects of the school and begged their co-operation. Kamuingi koyaga ndiri, he said, not believing it, but noting that the words impressed them. Later, after dusk, the three peasant farmers staggered back to their homes, but not before reporting their findings to Nyakinyua. They leaned a bit too heavily on their walking-sticks, eyes a little red, voices a little blurry: he is all right, they told the others who had gathered in Nyakinyua’s hut: he’s all right, they said, and looked at one another with knowing eyes.
He became one of us. The children sang a e i o u i u in loud voices. They also sang: Kamau wa Njoroge ena ndutu kuguru: and thought of their own jiggers eating their toes and scratched them against the floor in earnest. Some ran away from the school to whistle the true herdsman’s tune to their cattle or simply to climb up and down the miariki trees in the open fields. Others blubbered on for a week or so and they too rejoined the cattle trail. But this is the 1960s, not the 1860s, Munira reflected, a little disappointed.
Once more he ran about the ridge, caught up with a few and asked them to tell the others that he had called a School Assembly. Only five pupils turned up. He addressed them from the raised mud rostrum: ‘Listen, you have shown more than average diligence and even intelligence by attending this meeting. You are therefore promoted to the English beginners’ class. But you will need to get a teacher who can and will endure all this hostility and indifference of a people opposed to light and progress.’ He closed his first School Assembly by silently swearing never to come back to this God-forsaken place. His first conscious attempt to keep in step with the song seemed to have ended in yet another failure and defeat.
Spurs, stirrups, metal horseback, rider in a cloud of dust. Munira was aware of the many eyes that laughed at his failure behind the hedges. Nyakinyua, the old woman, stepped into the dusty track and shouted at him, at his retreating back. Further in the fields women mockingly sang to a gitiro tune of another horseman long ago, when Ilmorog was truly Ilmorog, and they chorused: Sons of Munoru we see; where now the stock of Ndemi?
He did not care. For a month they had made a fool of him. And even Abdulla, whose store and bar had become a daily refuge, would not help. ‘They are a bit suspicious of strangers and strange things. At first they did not like my donkey. They still don’t like it. And why? Because of the grass. Imagine that.’ He would turn to pour curses at Joseph before continuing, leaning toward Munira and assuming a conspiratorial voice: ‘Mwalimu, is it true that the old woman shat a mountain in your compound? A deed without a name. Ha! ha! Joseph, Gatutu Gaka, bring another beer for Mwalimu. But is it really true?’ And the crippled fellow would laugh at Munira’s discomfort.
The laughter, other memories, and now the road to Ruwa-ini, capital of Chiri District, did not improve Munira’s humour. The road was as treacherous as those hags and brats and cripples, he thought, riding through ruts and bumps and ditches.
The road had once been a railway line joining Ilmorog to Ruwa-ini. The line had carried wood and charcoal and wattle barks from Ilmorog forests to feed machines and men at Ruwa-ini. It had eaten the forests, and after accomplishing their task, the two rails were removed, and the ground became a road – a kind of a road – that now gave no evidence of its former exploiting glory.
He smiled once when he came to the tarmaced last stretch which zigzagged through coffee farms previously owned by whites. Even here there was no respite. He kept on diving into the bush to avoid the oncoming lorries whose drivers only laughed and made obscene gestures: let the cycle suckle the udder of the lorry.
The buildings of Ruwa-ini came to view and it suddenly occurred to him that he had not yet thought of an alternative. He remembered why he had earlier so readily chosen Ilmorog and all sounds of fury inside were replaced by the fear of going to work in Limuru against the shadow of his father’s success compared to his own failure, and so admitting to failure.
The thought suddenly made him stop. He got off the bicycle. He leaned on it and watched the scene over the hedge. Stretching for a mile or so outside Ruwa-ini was a golf course of neatly trimmed green lawn. Three Africans were laughing at a big-bellied fourth who kept on swinging the stick without hitting the ball. Caddy boys, in torn clothes, stood at a respectful distance weighed down by bags of golfsticks and white balls. Aah, this world, Munira roused himself and quickly rode his bicycle into Ruwa-ini.
Mzigo’s office was a specklessly clean affair with a tray for incoming mail, a tray for outgoing mail and one for miscellaneous mail plus numerous pens and pencils beside each of the three enormous inkwells. On the wall hung a map of Chiri District with the location of the various schools marked in with drawing-pins.
‘How goes your school?’ Mzigo asked and, swaying ever so slightly on the swivel chair, he glanced at the pin-dotted map.
‘You sent me to an empty school. No teachers.’
‘I thought you wanted a place of peace? A challenging place?’
‘No pupils even.’
‘I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with that school. No teacher wants to stay there. One year, two years, and they leave. If you should find a teacher, even UTs, we shall certainly employ them.’
‘But . . .’
‘I’ll shortly be coming there, I’ll shortly be coming round. Do you have good roads? You know these damned cars – a real nuisance, the true black man’s burden – believe me, Mr eeh, eeh – Munira – a bicycle is so much less trouble.’
He now glanced at Munira, his lips split into an ironic smile as if to say: You should have known – trying to escape . . . but then, thought Munira, how could Mzigo have known? And suddenly, remembering the lorries and the matatu drivers who had forced him into the bush on his way here, he saw great wit in Mzigo’s condescending compliment on bicycles. His inward rage gave way to laughter. He laughed until his ribs pained and he felt better, lighter inside. ‘You don’t believe me, eh?’ Mzigo was asking. Munira was now thinking of Abdulla, the cripple; Nyakinyua, the old woman; the children who preferred herding cattle and climbing up miariki trees to going to school. He contrasted their direct approach with this pomposity; their atmosphere of curiosity with the fear behind the faces that sat in the back corners of sleek Mercedes Benzes, behind the walls of the once for-Europeans-only mansions and private clubs; their sincerity with the bellies pregnant with malice and cunning that walked the length of a golf course negotiating business deals, and recalling Abdulla’s words he felt kindly toward Ilmorog.
Maybe he had not understood Nyakinyua, Abdulla, Njogu, Njuguna, Ruoro and all the others, he now reflected. He did not say a word about resigning or asking for a transfer. He collected chalk, exercise books and some writing paper.
‘Mr Mzigo, are you serious . . . do you mean what you said just now? That I could recruit UT help?’
‘Yes, Mr Munira, provided you bring them to me for formal appointment. I want to see that school grow. I would like to see all the classes going.’
He stayed the night at Furaha house in Ruwa-ini. The following day he crossed over into Kiambu District. He wanted to spend a day or two at his home in Limuru before pedalling back to Ilmorog.
He had until now practically lived all his life at Limuru. After leaving Siriana in 1946, he had taught in many schools around Limuru: Rironi, Kamandura, Tiekunu, Gatharaini and for the last six years or so at Manguo. Hence he felt his heart quicken at his return to a seat of his past. But it pained him that he still depended on his father for a place in which to set a home. He had always thought of striking out on his own but he had remained circling around his father’s property without at the same time being fully part of it. This was unlike his more successful brothers. The one following him had even gone to England and returned to a successful career with the banks. The other had just finished Makerere and was PRO with an oil company. Yet another was in Makerere doing medicine. The first two sisters had successfully completed their high schools: one was in England training as a nurse: the other was at Goddard College, Vermont, USA, taking a BA in Business Administration. One, Mukami, had recently died and he still felt deeply saddened at the memory because, although she was much younger than himself, yet he felt that she somehow sided with him, and did not look upon him as a failure. She was of a lively, rebellious spirit: Mukami had once or twice been beaten for joining the children of the squatters in stealing plums and pears from her father’s fruit farm. Often, even after she had been admitted to Kenya High School, she would, while on leave, join the gang of workers and she would help in picking pyrethrum flowers. Her mother would remonstrate her with: ‘They are paid to work!’ Her committing suicide – she had jumped off a quarry cliff overlooking Manguo Marshes – must have been her act of saying a final ‘No’ to a trying world.
His father Ezekieli, tall, severe in his austere aloofness, was a wealthy landowner and a respected elder in the hierarchy of the Presbyterian Church. He was tall and mean in his austere holiness. He believed that children should be brought up on boiled maize grains sprinkled with a few beans and on tea with only tiny drops of milk and no sugar, but all crowned with words of God and prayers. He was, despite his rations, especially successful in attracting faithful labour on his farm. Two of the labourers had remained in his father’s employment ever since Munira could remember – still wearing the same type of patched up trousers and nginyira for shoes. Off and on, over the years, he had engaged many hands – some from as far as Gaki, Metumi, Gussiland – to help him in cultivating his fields, picking his pyrethrum flowers all the year round and drying them, and picking red ripe plums in December, putting them in boxes, and taking them to the Indian shops to sell. They nearly all had one thing in common: submission to the Lord. They called him Brother Ezekieli, our brother in Christ, and they would gather in the yard of the house after work for prayers and thanksgiving. There were of course some who had devilish spirits which drove them to demand higher wages and create trouble on the farm and they would be dismissed. One of them attempted to organize the workers into a branch of the Plantation Workers’ Union that operated on European farms. He argued that there was no difference between African and European employers of labour. He too was instantly dismissed. He was even denounced in a church sermon. He was given as an example of ‘the recent trials and temptations of Brother Ezekiel’. But Munira even as a boy was quick to notice that away from his father’s house, in their quarters down the farm, the workers, even as they praised the Lord, were less stilted, were more free and seemed to praise and sing to the Lord with greater conviction and more holiness. He felt a little awed by their total conviction and by their belief in a literal heaven to come. It was at one of their meetings that Munira once during his holidays from Siriana had felt a slight trembling of the heart and a consciousness of the enormity of the sin he had earlier committed, his very first, with Amina, a bad woman, at Kamiritho. He had felt the need to confess, to be cleansed by the Lord, but somehow, on the verge of saying it, he felt as if they would not believe his confession – and how anyway would he have found the words? Instead, he had gone home, convinced that inwardly he had given himself up to the Lord, and decided to do something about his sins. He stole a matchbox, collected a bit of grass and dry cowdung and built an imitation of Amina’s house at Kamiritho where he had sinned against the Lord, and burnt it. He watched the flames and he felt truly purified by fire. He went to bed at ease with himself and peaceful in his knowledge of being accepted by the Lord. Shalom. But the cowdung had retained the fire and at night the wind fanned it into flames which would have licked up the whole barn had it not been discovered in time. In the morning he heard them talking about it – saying that maybe some jealous neighbours had done it – and he decided to keep quiet. But he felt as if his father knew and this had added to his consciousness of guilt.
One woman Munira always remembered: although she never went to church she stood out as holier than all the others and more sincere in her splendid withdrawal and isolation in her hut surrounded by five cypress trees. Her hut was exactly halfway between their big house and the other workers’ quarters. Old Mariamu had a son who used to be Munira’s playmate before he went to Siriana. And even after Munira had come back from Siriana they kept some kind of company – not much – but enough to have made Munira really shocked when in 1953 or so he heard that Mariamu’s son had been caught carrying weapons for Mau Mau and was subsequently hanged. But the main reason he remembered her was because she would protest against low pay or failure to be paid on time where others trusted his father’s word and his goodwill. She was respectful to Ezekieli but never afraid of him. Yet he never rebuked her or dismissed her. He had once heard her name mentioned in connection with his father’s missing right ear – it had been cut off by Mau Mau guerrillas – and more recently in connection with Mukami’s suicide. But he himself never forgot his childhood escapades to tea and to charcoal-roasted potatoes in Mariamu’s hut.
Now Munira stood for a while by the cypress trees where her hut used to stand before she along with the others were moved to the new Concentration village of Kamiritho. What had happened to her? It surprised him how, in his self-isolation, nursing his failure at Siriana, he had lost touch with and interest in active life at Limuru . . . he was of it . . . and yet not of it . . . everything about his past since Siriana was so vague, unreal, a mist . . . It was as if there was a big break in the continuity of his life and of his memories. So that taking a definite decision to go to Ilmorog was like his first conscious act of breaking with this sense of non-being.
He played with his two children, wondering for a time what image he presented to their young minds. Did he have the same austerity and holy aloofness as his own father? He told them about Ilmorog. He dwelt on the flies that massed around the eyes and noses of the shepherd boys until his wife exclaimed: ‘How can you—?’ He told them how Ilmorog was once haunted by one-eyed Marimu; funny old women shitting mountains; morose cripples with streams of curses from their foul mouths, until once again his wife exclaimed: ‘How can you—?’ without finishing the sentence. He was not being very amusing and he felt ridiculous in their unlaughing eyes. OK, I will read you something from the Bible, he told them, and his wife’s face beamed with pleasure. And Jesus told them: Go ye unto the villages and dark places of the earth and light my lamp paraffined with the holy spirit. So be it. Aamen.
When the children had gone to bed she immediately turned to him with half-severe, half-reproachful eyes. She could have been beautiful but too much righteous living and Bible-reading and daily prayers had drained her of all sensuality and what remained now was the cold incandescence of the spirit.
‘You should be ashamed, blaspheming to the children. You should know that this world is not our home and we should be preparing them and ourselves for the next one.’
‘Don’t worry, I myself have never belonged to this world . . . even to Limuru . . . Maybe Ilmorog . . . for a change.’
So Godfrey Munira once again galloped his metal horse into Ilmorog, and this time people actually came out to greet him. The old woman went to the school compound and said: You have indeed come back, God bless you: and she showered a bit of saliva into her hands in blessing. He shrank a little but he was glad that Nyakinyua was now not hostile.
He resumed his teaching, now warming to their apparent acceptance of him. The listening silence of the children – those who turned up for classes – thrilled him. All Ilmorog seemed suddenly attentive to his voice.
He became a daily feature in Ilmorog, a guardian knight of knowledge for part-time pupils. Standard II or what he called the English beginners’ class met in the morning: Standard I in the afternoon. The pupils came in and out as they liked and he took this lack of expected order, this erratic behaviour, even the talk of drought with an aloof understanding and benign indifference. It was enough for him that to the old men and women and others in Ilmorog he was the teacher of their children, the one who carried the wisdom of the new age in his head. They appreciated it that he from the other world had agreed to stay among them. They could see his readiness to stay in his eyes, which did not carry restlessness: the others had always carried wanting-to-run-away eyes and once they had the slightest complaint they always went away in a hurry and never returned. Munira stayed on. They anxiously watched him, at the end of every month, prepare to go to Ruwa-ini to fetch his salary, but they saw that he always came back, and they said amongst themselves: ‘This one will stay.’ Now they brought him eggs, occasionally a chicken, and he accepted this homage with gratitude. He strolled across the ridge following the paths scattered all over. The people would stand aside, in reverence, to let him pass and he would accept this with a slight nod or a smile. He was amused by their ndunyu which was more of a social gathering of friends than a place for exchanging commodities and haggling over prices. They met on the ridge whenever the need arose on an evening before sunset. Those from the plains would bring milk and beadwork, occasionally skins, and they would buy or exchange them for snuff, beans, and maize. One could more or less do without hard cash except when one went to Abdulla’s shop or to Ruwa-ini. Money or food or an item of clothing: any of these would do as a basis of exchange. Money anyway was saved only to buy other articles for use. Once he saw one or two spears and knives being sold and he was surprised to learn that it was the work of Muturi. ‘But he can only make them at Mwathi’s place,’ Nyakinyua confided in him, ‘for in beating and bending iron with bellows and hammer, he must be protected from the power of evil and envious eyes.’ And he came to know that Mwathi wa Mugo was the spiritual power over both Ilmorog ridge and Ilmorog plains, somehow, invisibly, regulating their lives. He it was who advised on the best day for planting seeds or the appropriate day for the herdsmen to move. Munira had never seen him: nobody below a certain age could see him: but he was shown his homestead hedged round with thabai, and he was grateful to know this, for in future he would avoid passing anywhere near the place. Otherwise he felt secure: to be so liked, honoured, venerated, without the mess which comes from hasty involvement in other people’s lives: this struck him as a late gift of God. He tried to forget his fears, his guilt, his frozen years: he stifled any unpleasant memories of his father or his wife or of his childhood and youth with a drink or so. He liked it especially when the herdsmen from the plains came to Abdulla’s store. They would plant their spears outside and drink and talk about cows and make jokes about those who lived like moles, digging the soil. The peasant farmers of Ilmorog, though they were worried and anxious about the lateness of the rains, would hold themselves ready to defend themselves and their calling. Then a heated debate would follow between the tillers and the herdsmen as to which was more important: animals or crops. Cattle were wealth – the only wealth. Was it not the ambition of every real man, especially before the white man came, to possess cows and goats? A man without a goat would often plant fields and fields of sweet potatoes, vines, millet or yams, sugarcane or bananas. In the end, he would try to sell these for a goat – one kid, even. And had it not been known for people to hire themselves as ndungata in the hope of one day getting a goat? People sold their daughters for goats, not for crops: smiths, workers in pottery and basketry or in beautiful trinkets would more often than not only exchange their wares for things of blood. And why did nations go to war, if not to secure these things of blood? But the others argued that goats were not wealth. Since wealth was expressed in goats and cows, the same could not be the wealth. Wealth was in the soil and the crops worked by a man’s hands. Didn’t they know the saying that wealth was sweat on one’s hands? Look at white people: they first took our land; then our youth; only later, cows and sheep. Oh no, the other side would argue: the white man first took the land, then the goats and cows, saying these were hut taxes or fines after every armed clash, and only later did he capture the youth to work on the land. The line of division was not always clear since some owned crop fields and cattle as well. These said that both were important: a person paid goats for a girl, true: but he looked for the one who was not afraid of work. And why did wealthy people keep ndungata and ahoi? Not only to look after cows and goats but also after the crops. And why did the colonial settler and his policeman capture the youth? To cultivate his fields and also to look after the cows. The foreigner from Europe was cunning: he took their land, their sweat and their wealth and told them that the coins he had brought, which could not be eaten, were the true wealth! And so the debate would go on. Munira did not take part in such talk: he felt an outsider to their involvement with both the land and what they called ‘things of blood’. Any talk about colonialism made him uneasy. He would suddenly become conscious of never having done or willed anything to happen, that he seemed doomed to roam this world, a stranger. And yet, yet, why this ready acceptance of undeserved homage, why this secret pleasure at the illusion of being of them?
He would try to change the subject. Who was their MP? A heated exchange would follow. Some could not remember his name. They had heard of him during the last elections. He had visited the area to ask to be given votes. He had made several promises. He had even collected two shillings from each household in his constituency for a Harambee water project, and a ranching scheme. But they had hardly seen him since. Nderi wa Riera-aa, that was the name, somebody remembered. What was an MP? A new type of government agent? But why had he needed votes? Even such a talk would make Munira fidgety. He would ask yet other questions hoping for a conversation that would not make demands on him to choose this or that position in politics. Didn’t they ever get visitors from the outside? Yes, yes, they used to have teachers. But these ran away (back to the cities) just before independence. The few who later came never stayed. Also at the end of every harvest, some people, traders, would come with lorries. They bought some of the produce. Sometimes too, at the beginning of each year, the Chief, the tax gatherer and a policeman would come and they would terrorize them into paying their dues. Thus the money from the seasonal traders would end up in the hands of the tax gatherer. But this was nothing new. It had always been so, these many many past years, and the only thing that pained them was this youth running away from the land. The movement away had started after the second Big War . . . No . . . before that . . . No, it was worse after Mau Mau War . . . No, it was the railway . . . all right, all right . . . even this had always been so since European colonists came into their midst, these ghosts from another world. But they of Ilmorog . . . they now would have to find a way of avoiding those taxes . . .Politics! Couldn’t one escape from these things, Munira thought impatiently?
He developed a working pattern: classes all day; a walk to the ridge; then a stroll to Abdulla’s place. In time, even Abdulla came to accept him and he would curse Joseph into bringing a chair for Mwalimu at the sight of Munira in the distance. Only his tone in conversation – between friendly hostility and playful contempt – sat disagreeably in Munira’s stomach as he sipped beer in this land of easeful dreams. But occasionally Abdulla would get into one of his vicious moods and would remind him of his first reception in Ilmorog. Abdulla would lean towards him and assume an intimate tone of false conspiracy:
‘These people – you know – too suspicious. Have you seen their anxious faces raised to the sky? I bet that if it refused to rain they would blame it on my donkey. They would even go to Mwathi’s place to ask him about the donkey. Have you ever seen this priest of theirs? Actually he has a reputation. A good reputation. But I have never seen him. A mystery, eh? Look at Muturi, Njuguna, Ruoro and even old man Njogu: they don’t like my donkey. Do you know why? They say it eats grass enough for several cows. It cannot be slaughtered. But I know they are really envious of the appetite of my donkey. It can even eat roots, you see: it can find water where no cow or goat will find any. That’s why there is that look in the eyes of these people. Have you seen the old woman’s eyes? The glint . . . evil, don’t you think? You should know. But tell me, Mwalimu: is it true that she once shat a mountain in your compound? And the children thought it was you? Ha! ha! ha! Brought all that shit from out there? Ha! ha! ha! Joseph – you lazybones – have you ever met a little nigger that was so lazy? Another beer for Mwalimu – but tell me, was it really true?’
‘Listen, Abdulla,’ Munira would say, trying to steer the conversation away from this delicate area, ‘now that you have brought up the question of education, why don’t you let Joseph enrol in the school?’
‘And bring my donkey to run errands in this shop as it does outside?’
Excepting for such small irritations Munira had come to like Ilmorog, and now he even tended to view the other world of his wife and Mzigo and his father with suspicion and hostility. At home he hardly ever stayed more than a night, suddenly feeling his new sense of ‘being without involvement’ threatened by their inquiries. Mzigo’s routine questions came to acquire menacing edges in Munira’s own mind: might he not actually carry out his own promises and visit Ilmorog? Munira had worked out a routine answer: ‘That place . . . hell . . .’ and he hoped this would deter Mzigo from a visit. He did not want anyone to interfere with his teaching rhythm, and with his world. Sometimes he made them sing nonsense songs like: Mburi ni indo; ngombe ni indo, mbeca ni indo; ngai muheani. Sometimes he would give the children addition or subtraction sums and go out into the sun.
He would watch the peasants in the fields going through motions of working but really waiting for the rains, and he would vaguely feel with them in their anxieties over the weather. But the sun was nice and warm on his skin and he would suddenly be filled with a largeness of heart that embraced all Ilmorog, men, women, children, the land, everything. His home and its problems were far, far away!
At the beginning of April it started raining. The eyes of the elders beamed with expectation of new life over Ilmorog: their wrinkled faces seemed to stretch and tighten with sinews of energy. Everybody was busy about the fields. Muturi, Njuguna, Ruoro, Njogu: even these, for a time, would not come by Abdulla’s shop for they were tired out after the day’s involvement with planting or walking their cows and goats in muddy fields. Time was when men did no planting except for things like yams, sugarcane and bananas, but times were changing, and the elders had been unable to prevent the youth from going away. So during the period of planting, Munira drank alone or with only Abdulla and Joseph for company. He now missed their idle gossip, their anecdotes, and even their comments and debates on unsettling issues.
He walked or cycled to his house, an outsider to their activities on the land, and he felt sad and a little abandoned.
The women only threw him hurried greetings as they rushed to the fields between bouts of heavy downpour.
But he tried to understand and he even made a lesson out of it all: ‘There is dignity in labour,’ he told the children. He made them sing even more fervently:
Cows are wealth
Work is health
Goats are wealth
Work is health
Crops are wealth
Work is health
Money is wealth
Work is health
God the Almighty Giver
God Bringer of rains!
So within six months he came to feel as if Ilmorog was his personal possession: he was a feudal head of a big house or a big mbari lord surveying his estate, but without the lord’s pain of working out losses and gains, the goats lost and the young goats born. When the rains had come and seeds sprouted and then, in June, flowers came he felt as if the whole of Ilmorog had put on a vast floral-patterned cloth to greet its lord and master.
He took the children out into the field to study nature, as he put it. He picked flowers and taught them the names of the various parts: the stigma, the pistil, pollen, the petals. He told them a little about fertilization. One child cried out:
‘Look. A flower with petals of blood.’
It was a solitary red beanflower in a field dominated by white, blue and violet flowers. No matter how you looked at it, it gave you the impression of a flow of blood. Munira bent over it and with a trembling hand plucked it. It had probably been the light playing upon it, for now it was just a red flower.
‘There is no colour called blood. What you mean is that it is red. You see? You must learn the names of the seven colours of the rainbow. Flowers are of different kinds, different colours. Now I want each one of you to pick a flower . . . Count the number of petals and pistils and show me its pollen . . .’
He stood looking at the flower he had plucked and then threw the lifeless petals away. Yet another boy cried:
‘I have found another. Petals of blood — I mean red . . . It has no stigma or pistils . . . nothing inside.’
He went to him and the others surrounded him:
‘No, you are wrong,’ he said, taking the flower. ‘This colour is not even red . . . it does not have the fullness of colour of the other one. This one is yellowish red. Now you say it has nothing inside. Look at the stem from which you got it. You see anything?’
‘Yes,’ cried the boys. ‘There is a worm – a green worm with several hands or legs.’
‘Right. This is a worm-eaten flower . . . It cannot bear fruit. That’s why we must always kill worms . . . A flower can also become this colour if it’s prevented from reaching the light.’
He was pleased with himself. But then the children started asking him awkward questions. Why did things eat each other? Why can’t the eaten eat back? Why did God allow this and that to happen? He had never bothered with those kind of questions and to silence them he told them that it was simply a law of nature. What was a law? What was nature? Was he a man? Was he God? A law was simply a law and nature was nature. What about men and God? Children, he told them, it’s time for a break.
Man . . . law . . . God . . . nature: he had never thought deeply about these things, and he swore that he would never again take the children to the fields. Enclosed in the four walls he was the master, aloof, dispensing knowledge to a concentration of faces looking up to him. There he could avoid being drawn in . . . But out in the fields, outside the walls, he felt insecure. He strolled to the acacia bush and started breaking its thorn-tips. He remembered that his first troubles in the place had started because of taking the children into the open. How Nyakinyua had frightened him! and at the thought, he instinctively looked to the spot where she had once stood and questioned him about the city and ladies in high heels.
For a few seconds Munira’s heart stood still: he could hardly believe his eyes. She left the village path and walked toward him. A bright coloured kitenge cloth, tied loose on the head, fell wide on her shoulders so that her face was half veiled from the sun.
‘Are you well, Mwalimu?’ she called out boldly. Her voice had a studied vibrant purity: the tone was rich and pleasant to his ears. There was a calculated submissive deference in her bearing as she stretched out a small hand and looked at him full in the eyes, suddenly lowering them in childlike shyness. He swallowed something before answering.
‘I am well. It is a bit hot, though.’
‘That is why I came here.’
‘No. Here in your place. Have you any water to spare? I know that water is like thahabu in these parts.’
‘It has rained recently. Ilmorog river is full.’
‘I stopped at the right place then,’ she said cooingly. Her words and voice lingered in the air, caressing the heat-filled silence between them.
‘Come into the house,’ he said.
The water was in a clay pot in a corner of the sitting-room under a bookshelf. She drank from a cup and he watched the slight motion of her Adam’s apple along the bow-tightness thrust toward him. Her neck was long and graceful: she-gazelle of the Ilmorog plains.
‘Some more, if there is,’ she said, panting a little.
‘Perhaps you would like some tea,’ he said. ‘They say tea heats the blood in cold weather and cools it in hot weather.’
‘Tea and water go down different gullets. I would like another cup of water. As for tea, don’t trouble yourself. I will make it.’
He gave her another cup of water. He showed her where the different things were. He felt a little generous within, even a bit warm. But he was suddenly shaken out of this mood by her vigorous laughter. He instinctively looked at the zip of his trousers and he found it in place.
‘Men, men,’ she was saying. ‘So it is true, what they say of you in the village. You are indeed a bachelor boy. One saucepan, one plate, one knife, two spoons, two cups: don’t you ever get visitors? Don’t you have a teacher’s darling girl?’ she asked, a wicked glint in her eyes.
‘Why! How long have you been here?’
‘I came yesterday evening.’
Yesterday! and she already knew about him! He was tense . . . he felt his six months’ security threatened: what did they really say about him in the village? Was there nothing that could cleanse him from doubts, this unknowing? He excused himself and walked toward the classroom. Let her spy on him, on his doings, the defiant thought gave him momentary relief: what did it matter? He was only an outsider, fated to watch, adrift, but never one to make things happen.
He heard feet bustling and books rustling. The brats had been watching the whole scene through windows and cracks in the wall. Their exaggerated concentration on their books confirmed his suspicion. He now put the question to himself: what did the children really think of him? Then he dismissed it with another: what did it matter one way or the other? He had taught for so many years now – teaching ready-made stuff must be in his blood – and one did all right as long as one was careful not to be dragged into . . . into . . . an area of darkness . . . Yes . . . darkness unknown, unknowable . . . like the flowers with petals of blood and questions about God, law . . . things like that. He could not teach now: he dismissed the class a few minutes before time and went back to the house. He wanted to ask the stranger girl more questions: what was her name? Where did she come from? And so on, carefully, gingerly toward the inevitable: had she been sent by Mzigo to spy on him? But why was he scared of being seen?
He found the floor swept: the dishes were washed and placed on two sticks as a rack on the floor to dry. But she herself was not there.
2 ~ Munira’s life in Ilmorog had up to now been one unbroken twilight. It was not only the high esteem in which the village held him: he cherished and was often thrilled by the sight of women scratching the earth because they seemed at one with the green land. He would always remember that period when the rains came and everybody was in the muddy fields, sacks on their heads – not to protect them really from rain but to cushion its fall on the body – and they were all busy putting seeds in the soil, and he had watched them from the safety of his classroom or of Abdulla’s shop! There was a cruel side: this he had to admit. A few roads and a reliable water system would have improved their lives. A dispensary might have been a useful addition.
The children especially were often a nauseating sight: flies swarming around the sore eyes and mucus-blocked noses. Most had only tattered calicoes for clothing.
But transcending this absurdity was the care they had for one another. He would often meet them, a handsome trio: one rocked a crying baby strapped on the back; the third would pat-pat the crying baby to the rhythm with a rocking lullaby:
Do not cry, our little one.
Whoever dares beat our little one,
May he be cursed with thorns in his flesh.
If you stop crying, child of our mother,
She will soon come home from the fields
And bring you gitete-calabash of milk.
Their voices – two, three or more – raised in unison emphasized the solitude he associated with his rural cloister. It reminded him of similar scenes of rocking, lullaby-singing children on his father’s pyrethrum fields before the Mau Mau violence.
Otherwise the village never intruded into his life: why should he – stranger-watchman at the gate – interfere in theirs?
Today as he walked to Abdulla’s place he felt slightly uncomfortable at the elusive shadow that had earlier crossed his path. Yet Ilmorog ridge was quiet, serene: let it be, let it be, world without end, he murmured.
As he was about to knock at the back door to Abdulla’s shop, he felt blood rush to his head: for a second he felt as if his brain was drugged . . . perhaps . . . not too old . . . oh hell . . . yes . . . hell is woman . . . heaven is woman. He steeled himself and entered:
‘This is your other hiding-place, Mwalimu,’ she said. ‘You see, I am finding out all about your secrets.’
‘This . . . no secret . . .’ he said as he sat. ‘I only come to wet my throat.’
‘Your tea chased away my thirst. It was really good—’
‘But beer is better than tea. Ask Abdulla. He tells me: Baada ya kazi, jiburudishe na Tusker. Won’t you have another?’
‘That I’ll not refuse,’ she said, laughing, throwing back her head, breasts thrust out in a fatal challenge. She turned to Abdulla. ‘They say that if you don’t drink your share on earth, in heaven you will have too much in stock.’
Abdulla shouted at Joseph to bring in more beer. He himself hobbled about and brought a paraffin lamp, cleaned the glass and lit the lamp, and sat down to drink.
‘What is your name?’ Munira was asking the woman.
‘Wanja Kahii?’ Abdulla joined in.
‘How did you know that? It is what they used to call me at school. I often wrestled with the boys. I also did some drills only done by boys. Freewheeling. Walking on my hands. Wheelbarrow. I would tuck in my skirt and hold it tight between my legs. I also climbed up trees.’
‘Wanja . . . Wanja . . .’ repeated Munira. ‘And you don’t have another?’
‘I have never asked: maybe I should. Why not? My grandmother here would know.’
‘Who is your grandmother?’ Abdulla asked.
‘Nyakinyua . . . don’t you know her? She it is who told me about you two: that you are strangers to Ilmorog.’
‘She is well known,’ Munira said uncertainly.
‘We know her,’ Abdulla responded.
‘I suppose you have come to visit her?’ added Munira.
Excerpted from "Petals of Blood"
Copyright © 2005 Ngugi wa Thiong'o.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Ambitious, caustic, and impassioned." —The New Yorker
"A mind-blowing political statement, an anguished cry of despair... a bombshell." —The Weekly Review, Kenya
Reading Group Guide
The Mau Mau rebellion, as it is often called, which began in Kenya in the early 1950s, was a nationalist, anticolonial armed resistance against the British colonial state. The guerrilla movement called itself the Kenya Land Freedom Army; the British dubbed the movement "mau mau," a meaningless name, to obscure the aims otherwise so clear in the resistance army's name. Ngugi Wa Thiongío's Petals of Blood examines, among other things, the betrayal by the postcolonial regime of the ideals of this anticolonial struggle that helped Kenya achieve its independence.
The novel revolves around three men and a woman. The four friends reveal different aspects of their history to each other piecemeal, just as their families had guardedly explained the past to them. The lingering effects of the Mau Mau revolt have affected all their lives and by the end of the novel, each character is wrapped up in his or her own exclusive epiphany about life in Kenya.
Abdullah, the trader, thinks he failed the movement because he did not avenge the death of a friend who was a revolutionary and who was betrayed. Munira, the schoolteacher and eventual wide-eyed prophet, is paralyzed by the shadow of his successful father, who condemned the Mau Mau but aided the crony corruption of independent Kenya. Wanja, the beauty from a broken home, learns that it was two generations of revolutionary fervor that distorted the home she grew up in. And Karega, Thiongío's union-pushing hero, scrutinizes the history of Mau Mau as if it were a sacred text. Somewhere in that history, they all believe, is the key to wisdom and justice.
No one reading Petals of Blood can doubt Thiongío's faith in the power of national myths. But, like Faulkner writing about the American South or Shakespeare writing about England, he also understands how our obsessions with them can ennoble citizens but also can transform them into something grotesque. The messages of Petals of Blood can be as opaque as the history of Kenya, but in that it reflects the relationship most of us have with our own national mythos.
ABOUT NGUGI WA THIONGÍO
Ngugi lived through the wrenching cultural change he writes about in Petals of Blood. His parents separated when he was a boy, and his education veered from one centered on Kenya's native Gikuyu language to instruction in English. It was under English schooling that Ngugi fell in love with writing—he emphasizes Robert Louis Stevenson's Treausure Island as a book that "set my imagination flying." A gifted child, Ngugi gained admission to an elite high school, and there he became politically radicalized. His whole life was filtered through his Christian faith, his campaigning for more Afrocentric education, and his obsession with writing. In 1955, he returned home from school to a less cerebral agitation: his home village had been ripped apart by an antiguerrilla campaign.
Ngugi's mother would be tortured for three months because of her suspected collaboration with the guerrillas. It is a testament to Ngugi's faith in the power of education that, faced with trauma like this, he threw himself into his studies and continued to distinguish himself academically. At Uganda's Makerere University Ngugi edited magazines, wrote fiction and plays, and became a columnist for Kenya's flagship newspaper the Daily Nation. After graduating from Makerere, he attended Leeds University in England, where he was introduced to Marxist and anticolonial writers.
Ngugi's fierce intellect as well as his ideas on labor and African authenticity made him a professional star. In the late '60s, he became the first African lecturer in Nairobi College's English department, and eventually moved the department's emphasis from English to literature in languages from across the African diaspora. He began publishing award-winning novels, and in 1970 he started Petals of Blood, which he finished five years later at the Soviet Writers Union in Yalta.
At the 1977 book launch for Petals, Kenyan Vice President Mwai Kibaki (Kenya's current president) cited his own attendance as evidence that Kenya was a defender of free speech. But that same year, Ngugi was detained for a year "for possessing banned books." While in detention, writing parts of a new book on toilet paper, his youngest child was born, and was dubbed Wamuinigi by locals of his hometown: "she who belongs to the people."
Ngugi faced harassment thereafter but never again as seriously. In the mid-'80s, he began writing in the Gikuyu language of his family and his first school, and has continued to the present. Today he is an A-list academic, making the rounds at prestigious English departments around the world.
In 1959 Ngugi made a life-changing train journey to Uganda; it was the first among may journeys that would lead him away from home and from the landscape, the people, the country he loved. He left behind a country wracked by the war the Kenya Land Freedom Army, also called Mau Mau, was waging against the mighty colonial government. It was a war that touched the popular imagination and was forever to change the fate of Kenya and many other countries under British rule. For the first time peasants, the wretched of the earth, were taking the war to a highly sophisticated country with a long military history. Many expected the revolt to end quickly. Britain would triumph. It did not, despite the state of emergency laws and a particularly brutal military campaign, well-captured in one of Ngugi's books: "It was a period of mass trials, mass murder, and mass torture of Kenyans."
The name Mau Mau made hearts tremble with dreams, hope, and fear. Ngugi's elder brother joined the fighters, his mother was arrested and tortured, and his village was razed to the ground. The Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi, took on almost mythical proportions for Ngugi and for many Kenyans. After all, he was said to turn into a bird, a stone, a white man, anything. Only those who have grown up in war-ravaged times know deep down that wars never end; they just mutate and live on in other forms. For Ngugi that war still goes on, and the mission born of it has made literature that much richer. Reading Ngugi is like feeling a fire, scorching your psyche, your heart, your being. —Moses Isegawa, from the Introduction