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Ngugi wa Thiongo,

Gender, and the Ethics of

Postcolonial Reading

Brendon Nicholls
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the
Ethics of Postcolonial Reading
To Karen, Lauren, and my family, with love
Ngugi wa Thiongo,
Gender, and the Ethics of
Postcolonial Reading

Brendon Nicholls
University of Leeds, UK
Brendon Nicholls 2010

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1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Nicholls, Brendon.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, gender, and the ethics of postcolonial reading.
1. Ngugi wa Thiongo, 1938 Criticism and interpretation. 2. Women in literature.
3. Gender identity in literature. 4. Kenya In literature.
I. Title

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Nicholls, Brendon.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, gender, and the ethics of postcolonial reading / by Brendon Nicholls.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 9780754658252 (alk. paper) ISBN 9780754699187 (ebook)
1. Ngugi wa Thiongo, 1938 Criticism and interpretation. 2. Gender identity in
literature. 3. Postcolonialism in literature.
I. Title.
PR9381.9.N45Z778 2010
823.914dc22 2009027381

Jacket illustration: The Kiss by Fazenda. Mixed media on canvas, 2006. Authors private
collection. Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holder for their permission
to reproduce this image.

ISBN 9780754658252 (hbk)

ISBN 9780754699187 (ebk.I)

Acknowledgements vii

Introduction 1

1 A Topography of Woman 11

2 Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 33

3 The Landscape of Insurgency 61

4 Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 85

5 Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 117

6 The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 151

Conclusion Prostituting Translation: An Ethics of Postcolonial Reading 191

Bibliography 203

Index 211
This page has been left blank intentionally

No book is ever written alone. In writing this one, I have benefited immeasurably
from the help, support, wisdom and kindness of many people. To these loved ones,
friends and colleagues, I record my thanks.
In Gail Fincham I had a superb research supervisor who made the early
stages of this work possible. I thank her for her exemplary rigour, enthusiasm and
meticulous critique. Richard Gray, Peter Hulme, Leslie Marx, Jonathan White,
Jeremy Krikler, Carli Coetzee, J. M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Stephen Watson,
Stewart Crehan, Itamar Avin, Ashok Bery, Pamela Ryan and Mikki Flockemann
have each played a part in improving my ideas and in supporting my development
as a young academic. I appreciate their collegiality and numerous kindnesses.
My original research on Ngugi was undertaken with the generous financial
assistance of the Centre for Science Development and the University of Cape
Town. All opinions expressed in this book are my own and are not necessarily
endorsed by these organizations. I thank Rowan and Herbert Nicholls for helping
to resource my doctoral studies. At Ashgate, Ann Donahue, Whitney Feininger,
Celia Barlow and Katherine Laidler have proven to be generous, patient and
meticulously professional editors. I thank them immensely for their guidance and
support, and hope that this book will repay their efforts in some part.
Portions of Chapter 1 were originally published in article form, entitled
The Topography of Woman in Ngugis Weep Not, Child, The Journal of
Commonwealth Literature, 40:3 (September 2005), pp. 81101. I am grateful to
Huw Alexander and SAGE for their kind permission to use the article here. An
earlier version of Chapter 2 was published in article form, entitled Clitoridectomy
and Gikuyu Nationalism in Ngugi wa Thiongos The River Between, Kunapipi:
Journal of Postcolonial Writing, XXV:2 (2003), pp. 4055. I am grateful to Anne
Collett and Kunapipi for their kind permission to use this material here.
In the School of English and the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies
at the University of Leeds, I have been fortunate enough to work alongside some
supremely gifted postcolonial colleagues. I have learned much from the intellectual
excellence of Shirley Chew, Stuart Murray, John McLeod, Sam Durrant, Ananya
Jahanara Kabir, Georgina Sinclair, Manuel Barcia Paz and Graham Huggan. I thank
them for their fine example, their friendship and professional advice. Jane Plastow
and Ray Bush have proven to be wonderfully astute and progressive colleagues
in the Leeds University Centre for African Studies, and I am grateful to a number
of other colleagues for their assistance and support: Mark and Juliette Taylor-
Batty, Bridget Bennett, Denis Flannery, Matt Rubery, Nick Ray, Jay Prosser,
Tracy Hargreaves, Mick Gidley, Andrew Warnes, Simon Swift, Jane Rickard, Ed
Larrissy, Viv Jones, John Whale, Catherine Bates and David Higgins.
viii Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

In common with other scholars, I am privileged to be part of a thriving

community of African and postcolonial scholarship. In particular, I am grateful
to John Thieme, Andrew van der Vlies, Patrick Flannery, Derek Attridge,
David Attwell, Ian Phimister, Neil Lazarus, Elleke Boehmer, Molara Ogundipe,
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Caroline Rooney, Rashmi Varma, Keyan Tomaselli, Julie
Mullaney, Eileen Julien, Glenn Hooper, Oliver Lovesey, Geoffrey Davis, Gerald
Gaylard, Stephen Turner, David Farrier, Dave Gunning, Dennis Walder, Krishna
Sen and Ganesh Devy for their brilliance, guidance and friendship.
I thank my parents, Gordon and Estelle Nicholls, for their love, encouragement
and support. They have constantly instilled in me a love of books and the value
of progressive education. Kelwin, Susan, Oliver and Amy Nicholls have been
unwavering in their encouragement. For this, and for much else, I am grateful.
I thank Jeff and Pauline Gearing for their generosity of spirit and for the interest
that they have taken in my research. Their assistance with the cover photograph is
also much appreciated.
Finally, I offer my heartfelt thanks to my wife, Karen Nicholls, for proofreading
the manuscript with a sharp eye and an equally sharp wit. Any errors, of course,
remain my own. My daughter, Lauren Grace Nicholls, has provided many welcome
distractions from high-minded intellectual considerations since her recent arrival
and has rightfully insisted upon a position at the centre of my thoughts. I thank
Karen and Lauren for enduring my upside-down days with patience and good
humour and for their ongoing love and companionship

While first working on Ngugi during the heady days of South Africas new-found
democracy, I witnessed a television programme about clitoridectomy among the
Maasai in Kenya aired by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. In that
documentary, an unnamed pubescent girl awaits her entry into womanhood, which
will commence after she has been clitoridectomized. She is a camera-shy child and
she laughs off the narrator/interviewers questions regarding the imminent event,
or answers in monosyllables. The preparations, the festivities and the responses
of her immediate family to the occasion are all captured by the camera. On the
day of the operation, the viewer is shown the celebratory dances, the slaughter
of a goat and the operators surgical razorblade. At the moment of the incision,
the camera is positioned some distance from the surgeons hut. The girl screams
twice. In the next scene, the surgeon explains (via the interviewer/translator) that
a second excision became necessary because the first had not removed all of the
clitoral tissue. The documentary then records the girls activities a month later,
immediately prior to her marriage. She no longer responds to the interviewers
questions. She is silent. Her father explains that he is now a contented man,
because his daughters beauty will fetch a reasonable bride-price in livestock from
the family of the future husband.
In World Press Photo 1996, six photographs record the circumcision of a 16-
year-old adolescent, Seita Lengila. Held down by her female relatives, her scream
is reported visually, if at all. It is silent. Another photo depicts Seita examining her
(now-public) parts in the bush some way from her homestead. According to the
captions, she is ascertaining what exactly has been done to her.
I introduce a book on Ngugi wa Thiongo, gender, and the ethics of postcolonial
reading in this way for a number of reasons. Such documents of clitoridectomy
are from our recent past and do not, of course, emerge from a Gikuyu cultural
milieu. But these visual records of the lived moment of excision speak powerfully
against the cosy cultural nationalist claims made in defence of the practice of
clitoridectomy in 1930s Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta himself writes in Facing Mount
Kenya that:

[cold] water is thrown on the girls sexual organ to make it numb and to arrest
profuse bleeding as well as to shock the girls nerves at the time, for she is not
supposed to show any fear or make any audible sign of emotion or even to
blink . The [female elder] takes from her pocket (mondo) the operating Gikuyu

Stephanie Welsh, Second Prize story on female circumcision, World Press Photo
1996 (London: Thames, 1996), pp. 2931.
 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

razor (rwenji), and in quick movements, and with the dexterity of a Harley Street
surgeon, proceeds to operate upon the girls. With a stroke she cuts off the tip of
the clitoris (rongotho) At this juncture the silence is broken and the crowd
begins to sing joyously in these words Our children are brave Did anyone
cry? No one cried hurrah!

There are a number of interesting observations one might make here. Firstly,
Kenyattas account insists upon the clinical modernity of the excision, comparing it
to surgery carried out in Harley Street. Secondly, he insists, somewhat tellingly, upon
the silence of the clitoridectomized girl. Much more is silenced here than a voice.
In fact, a primary site of female sexual pleasure one that exceeds the functions
of reproduction is effaced at a single stroke (or two?). Additionally, there is a
revealing discrepancy between contemporary media representations and Kenyattas
influential historical account of clitoridectomy in Kenya. Kenyattas insistence upon
the clitoridectomized womans silence is framed by a nationalist political interest
that is also invested in upholding Gikuyu patriarchy. The much more recent media
representations also omit the voice of the clitoridectomized female subject. However,
they do so in order to assign clitoridectomized women as victims who consolidate a
Western media mythology that claims to save Africa from its own worst excesses.
Kenyatta omits the possibility of the scream in the name of the Gikuyu subjects
bravery and resolve during a rite of passage. By contrast, the media coverage omits
to report the languages according to which the operation is framed and rendered
culturally intelligible by its key participants. Furthermore, although the media
accounts promise us the immediacy of the visual, they can never gain access to
the language with which these women invest the scream. Does the scream signify
pain, terror, fear, outrage, rebellion? If the scream is extra-linguistic, is it a site of
articulation that can ever really signify anything at all?
The postcolonial gender critic occupies an uneasy, and indeed compromised,
position in relation to these archives. The academic defences of clitoridectomy in
the Kenyan context have traditionally been written by men (most notably by Jomo
Kenyatta) and have invariably upheld a series of patriarchal prerogatives that
are inseparable from nationalist resistance. There is no immediate or automatic
recourse to a dialogue with clitoridectomized Gikuyu women of the 1930s or
indeed with clitoridectomized women presented in the contemporary global
media. Although Kenyattas account implies that peasant women are simply
content with the custom of clitoral excision, contemporary media accounts purport
to make such operations visible, but in fact mediate any dialogue by filtering
representations of clitoridectomy through opaque textual and filmic devices
such as narration, translation, the interview, captions and camera angles, among
others. Speaking from a position that is highly mediated by history and the opaque
framing devices that underpin visibility within the visual media and the written

Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (London:
Secker and Warburg, 1968 [1938]), p. 146.

archive, the postcolonial critic is placed within a limited and asymmetrical relation
to the subjects who comprise something like the female constituency envisaged in
Ngugis fiction.
I would argue that gender oppression is deeply implicated in the formation of and
construction of Kenyan postcolonial nationhood, with the result that some Kenyan
women have been placed in a fraught relationship to national subjectivity. Ngugis
fiction is informed by this fraught relationship and re-emphasizes it when the novels
rely upon the female characters as vehicles for Ngugis political vision. How, then,
might a postcolonial gender critic begin to address the representation of these female
characters in Ngugi wa Thiongos fiction, given that much of Ngugis early work
is informed by the very patriarchal discourses that are disseminated by Kenyattas
anthropological treatise on the Gikuyu, and are disseminated even more subtly and
perniciously by the contemporary global media? How might this critic interrogate
clitoridectomy and its historical significance to Gikuyu nationalism, as well as its
narrative import in Ngugis historiographic fiction? As we know from postcolonial
theory, and particularly the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the critic may
not speak for those African women whose voices are not recorded in the archive,
because the critics own highly mediated position as narrating subject would risk
simply compounding these womens historical silence. Equally, the critic may not
automatically assume that he or she can speak with African women whose voices are
not recorded in the archive, because to do so would collapse the class hierarchies,
the economic structures, the colonial history and the complex processes of subject
formation that differentiate the subject positions of critic and indigene.
My reading of Ngugis novels seeks to interrogate his representations of
women by questioning the fictions patriarchal assumptions and by inhabiting
the historical narratives enabled by his female representations. In producing
this study, I am aware that I also work problematically within the crisis of
representativeness that confronts the postcolonial gender critic who addresses the
historical circumstances of some Kenyan women from a comparatively privileged
location within a metropolitan academic institution. As such, I read Ngugis novels
in a qualified and highly provisional sense, in order to explore how his narratives
develop patriarchal and nationalist ideologies. I attempt to discover the itinerary
of gender silencing that frames Ngugis historiography of struggle. In the later
chapters of this book, I attempt to locate moments of disruption in Ngugis texts
that may offer a place from which the female peasant or worker (as a sexual agent
in insurgency) might begin to enter the field of fictional representation and its
rhetorics of struggle as a woman.
In my view, there is a compelling rationale for writing a book about Ngugis
representations of women in general, and his representations of clitoridectomy
in particular. When we plot the phases of Ngugis ideological development, it
becomes possible to relate these phases to his changing representations of women.
This study demonstrates that mechanisms of gender subordination are strategically
crucial to Ngugis political project from his first novel to his penultimate novel.
In other words, the female characters of Ngugis fiction prop up almost every
 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

ideological transformation through which Ngugis authorial trajectory moves. For

instance, the representations of women in Ngugis early fiction arise out of its
failed attempts to resolve ideological contradiction. This ideological contradiction
issues from the competition between Christian and Gikuyu traditionalist
discourses, between an elitist colonial education and militant nationalism,
between individualism and social responsibility. In the first two novels, the male
protagonists failure to resolve these contradictory forces leads to his attempt to
commit a messianic act of self-sacrifice. In keeping with this Christian motif, the
characteristic or valorized women of the early novels are virgins. Furthermore,
the love relationships between the heroes and virginal women remain either
unconsummated or emotionally unfulfilled, since that allows Ngugi to equate the
heros political failure with sexual failure. In the middle novels, which equate acts
of political resistance with virility, the privileged woman is the mother and her
reproductive functions are harnessed into a narrative of future utopian nationhood.
In the later novels, the characteristic woman is the fallen woman or prostitute
who translates the debased state of neocolonial Kenya, ravaged by the business
interests of the African capitalist lite and multinational corporations.
In fact, the kind of politics that we find in the fiction has a direct bearing on
the kinds of women we find there. And yet Ngugi has done more than any other
male African writer to revise and reconsider his female representations, perhaps
because his politics is so deeply invested in them. Even where his fiction appears to
subordinate women, it works hard to emphasize the resilience, courage, strength,
sagacity, loyalty, ability and integrity of the female characters. For this reason,
I concur with Giovanna La Magnas claim that the women in Ngugis novels
bear the sorrows of life without being crushed by them and with Chimalum
Nwankwos assessment that although Ngugis women suffer secondary roles in
certain respects, in others they are somewhat compensated. Nwankwo is also
right to suggest that questions about the general ability of women [are] answered
with varying degrees of satisfaction particularly in the novels. As a result of
this self-critical approach, Ngugis most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow, is a
very accomplished feminist novel that may have an impact not only in reshaping
the representation of female characters in African fiction, but also in improving
the quality of life enjoyed by African women, depending upon how the novels
readers receive it. It is this trajectory towards a truly feminist consciousness that
my book charts.
My study of Ngugi will focus primarily on the fiction, but it will also offer an
extended commentary on his plays, his essays, his prison diary and his childrens
stories in order to arrive at a comprehensive account of his works gender politics.

Giovanna La Magna, Women in Ngugis Novels, Quaderni di Lingue e Letteratur,
11 (1986), p. 93.

Chimalum Nwankwo, The Works of Ngugi wa Thiongo: Towards the Kingdom of
Woman and Man (Ikeja: Longman, 1992), p. 16.

Chimalum Nwankwo, The Works of Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 26.

Where texts have proven impossible to locate in an English version, such as Maitu
Njugira (Mother, Sing for Me) and Njamba Nene and the Cruel Colonial Chief,
I have been obliged to omit them from my commentary. Although each chapter
takes one of Ngugis novels as its central focus, the study is arranged thematically,
rather than in a strictly chronological order.
Chapter 1 analyzes Ngugis first published novel, Weep Not, Child, in terms of
the competing discourses that construct it (Christianity, nationalism, traditionalism)
and in terms of the hierarchies of gender that those discourses collectively produce.
The chapter develops one of this studys pivotal themes the gendering of the
landscape, which ultimately develops into the gendering of the nation in Ngugis
later novels. I argue that the female characters, like the land, are a consensual
trope between the colonizer and colonized. These consensual tropes provide the
male characters with a common terrain upon which politics and culture may be
contested. In this sense, the female characters become the ground of struggle in
Weep Not, Child and enable a contestatory discourse between male protagonists.
Chapter 2, on clitoridectomy and Gikuyu nationalism in The River Between,
provides an historical background to the Kenyan clitoridectomy debate (1928
31). The chapter demonstrates how this debate was the point at which Gikuyu
womens bodies became ideologically linked with Gikuyu nationalism and their
reproductive functions became a metaphor for the emergent postcolonial state. In
Chapter 2, I show that clitoridectomy during the debate was not simply a physical
amputation, but had a far greater social, political and ideological importance
in producing the sign woman. The cultural production of the sign woman
during the clitoridectomy debate helped to consolidate male socio-economic and
psychosexual prerogatives from which actual Gikuyu women were excluded. I
show how Jomo Kenyattas anthropological defence of clitoridectomy in Facing
Mount Kenya (1938) a text of crucial significance to the rise of Gikuyu cultural
nationalism attempts to naturalize these masculine prerogatives. Given that
Kenyatta later became the first president of an independent Kenya, and given
that The River Between draws upon the argument he developed in Facing Mount
Kenya, I argue that Ngugis representation of women is indebted to the founding
gender narratives of national struggle. In particular, the novels reproduce the forms
of uterine social organization that the clitoridectomy debate first instituted.
Following the work of Ian Glenn, Chapter 2 analyzes The River Betweens
representation of the clitoridectomy debate in terms of Ngugis own subject
formation as a member of the indigenous, educated lite. I argue that, at this point
in his development, Ngugis status as a member of this privileged class means
that he is torn between the exemplary individualism he embodies and the burden
of communal responsibility that the newly independent nation places upon his
shoulders. Further, I argue that the novel resolves this ambivalence by privileging
the hybrid characters who unite both sides of the clitoridectomy debate. The hybrid
characters individualism and heroic self-sacrifice is consistent with Ngugis English
liberal political sympathies at this point in his critical consciousness. In this sense,
 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

The River Between shapes its depiction of history according to the cultural pressures
affecting the moment of writing.
Chapter 3 continues the historical emphasis by providing an analysis of the Mau
Mau period in Kenyan history. Influenced by the groundbreaking critical work of
David Maughan-Brown, the chapter draws on historical scholars and Mau Mau
memoirs to show that although a rebellion undoubtedly did happen in Kenya in the
1950s, the discourse of Mau Mau was a figment of the colonial imagination later
appropriated by Gikuyu nationalist historians for their own revisionist narratives.
I demonstrate that Mau Mau is best understood in terms of the psychological
threat it posed, and that the Kenyan settlers brutal and disproportionate counter-
insurgency tactics may be read symptomatically as a direct result of this threat. I
argue that colonial discourses constructed Mau Mau according to a rhetoric of
hostile proximity that imbued previously trusted servants and employees with
sinister occult motives, rather than rational political or economic aspirations.
I also show how colonial military strategy responded to Mau Maus logic of
contamination. Despite nationalist historians (and Ngugis) representations to the
contrary, I furnish the evidence for Gikuyu womens indispensable roles within
the insurgent movement. One of these roles the Mau Mau prostitute and courier
becomes extremely important to my critical methodology in the later chapters
of the book. These women, footnoted by history, slept with British soldiers and
Kenyan loyalists, often for a single bullet, then carried the ammunition to Mau
Mau in the forests. Acting under threat of execution by both warring parties,
the Mau Mau prostitute offers an historical precedent for an unpoliced female
sexuality and a form of insurgent female agency that shuttles between two
patriarchies without acceding to either one. The figure of the Mau Mau prostitute
provides a viable model of female political and sexual agency that Ngugis later
fiction (with its tropes of the neocolony as a fallen woman or prostitute) half
discloses. The second half of Chapter 3 traces how colonial mythologies of Mau
Mau influence the representation of insurgency in the short stories collected in
Secret Lives. Although Ngugi draws on colonial rhetorics of Mau Maus hostile
proximity, he does so subversively in order to refuse colonialisms need for stable
and predictable political antagonisms. However, this subversive representation
of the Mau Mau insurgency is accompanied by a conventional and problematic
discourse of sexual conquest that contains exclusionary outcomes for the female
characters. This gender framing of the political is in place consistently throughout
the short stories in Secret Lives, even those stories whose historical setting is prior
to Mau Mau or is post-Independence.
Taken collectively, Chapters 4, 5 and 6 amount to a deconstruction of gender
hierarchies in Ngugis later fiction. These three chapters relate Ngugis increasing
emphasis on Gikuyu traditional cultural codes, folk mythology and folksong
to his construction of a masculine historical narrative. Chapter 4 argues that A
Grain of Wheat is a novel concerned with forging a national consciousness out
of a shared historical experience. In imagining the nation, the novel has recourse
to a number of desires, resistances and fantasies which, upon close scrutiny, turn

out to produce some spectacularly ahistorical narrative moments. In keeping with

previous scholarship on the novel, I view A Grain of Wheat as a crisis novel
that fails to translate adequately Ngugis conversion to Marxism. Hence, the
novel contains vestiges of Ngugis residual Christian and liberal sympathies. The
originality of this studys contribution resides in the fact that it views the novels
ideological crisis as containing a gendered dimension. In A Grain of Wheat, as
in the two subsequent novels, nationalism as a theory of political legitimacy
is collapsed quite simplistically into a theory of legitimate paternity, or at other
times a theory of legitimate patrilinear descent. Equally, political resistance is
cast in terms of a problematic myth of male potency or virility. I demonstrate
that A Grain of Wheat harnesses motherhood to nationalism via the legitimizing
mechanism of Gikuyu myth. I also show that Ngugi uses myth to construct the
Gikuyu nation retroactively as an entity spanning from prehistoric times (that is,
since before the invention of the nation as a political form) to a future beyond the
chronological frame of the novel. The effect of this construction of the nation is
to situate women in a prelapsarian past and a utopian future, thus excluding them
from political agency in the narrative present. In a reading against the grain of
the novel, Chapter 4 reads the female protagonists (Mumbis) act of infidelity
with a homeguard (Karanja) in terms of the Mau Mau prostitutes revolutionary
sexuality. Since Mumbis act of infidelity is never given a concrete motivation,
even when she confesses to it, the silences that surround her extramarital sex with
a political untouchable are equivalent to the historical silences within which the
Mau Mau prostitute conducts her covert revolutionary activities. To read Mumbi
in this way is to find in the novel a more enabling model of female sexual and
political agency than the narrative ostensibly allows.
Chapter 5 begins by looking at the intertextual influences on Petals of Blood
(including Yeats, Walcott, Blake, Whitman, Naipaul, Cabral and the Bible). It argues
that these multiple influences upon Ngugis novel ensure that it contains textual
strands that Ngugi himself has not authored, or fathered. As such, we encounter a
crisis of naming or nomination in Petals of Blood, since what is named is inevitably
multiple and mobile. I then relate this crisis of naming to the novels references to
the Gikuyu language, to historical events or to the heroes of Kenyan history. The
crisis of naming is also at work in these linguistic, historical and heroic references,
which tend to condense multiple allusions in a single reference (for instance,
the character Abdulla has multiple possible historical and literary counterparts).
Following on from the previous chapters analysis of Ngugis construction of
nationalism as a theory of legitimate paternity, Chapter 5 investigates the ways in
which that theory is adapted to post-Independence nationhood in Petals of Blood.
Specifically, the political leadership of neocolonial Kenya is represented via the
metaphor of illegitimate paternity. The female archetype who corresponds with
this version of the nation is the prostitute. In other words, the debasement of Wanja
(a prostitute) in Petals of Blood corresponds with the novels sense that the forces

Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002 [1983]), p. 1.
 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

of neocolonial capital and the indigenous comprador lite are defiling the Kenyan
national economy.
In a straightforward, simplistic reading, Wanja is morally redeemed by her
impending motherhood at the conclusion of the novel. Part of her redemption (and,
implicitly, the redemption of the nation) consists in the fact that she nominates
three former Mau Mau fighters as the respective actual and symbolic fathers of
her child. Using a deconstructive and psychoanalytical methodology, Chapter 5
argues the paternity of Wanjas child is not a logically necessary fiction, given that
she nominates more than one father for her child and given that her vocation as a
prostitute means that other contenders for the paternity of the child abound. In fact,
when it is opened up to scrutiny, the paternity of Wanjas child inhabits the very
same structure of illegitimacy and the very same crisis of naming that is central to
the organization of Petals of Blood.
In a reading against the grain of Ngugis novel that exploits paternitys legal
fictiveness, Chapter 5 suggests an alternative possible father for the child, so as
to unharness Wanjas motherhood from a masculine nationalist narrative and to
restore to her the sorts of insurgent female political and sexual agency that Kenyan
prostitutes historically performed during the Mau Mau rebellion. The alternative
possible father I suggest is a plausible choice within the narrative logic of Petals
of Blood. I interleave this potential father with a Gikuyu folksong performed by
brides-to-be, in which they refuse the husband who has been arranged for them. In
short, Chapter 5 tries to open up in Petals of Blood the traditional Gikuyu social
institutions that accommodate female dissent, without imposing a critical violence
upon the narrative structure of the novel or upon the Gikuyu cultural milieu that
informs the novel.
Chapter 6 continues to investigate the use of the fallen woman or prostitute
in Ngugis later fiction. It argues that Ngugi uses these figures to construct the
Kenyan neocolony as an economy prostituted to the interests of foreign capital.
This construction of the neocolony offers decidedly unfavourable outcomes to
Ngugis female characters, and, by implication, to his Kenyan female constituency.
The female characters redemption no longer resides in motherhood but in a
curious new development in adopting masculine characteristics, as critics such
as Elleke Boehmer and Florence Stratton have argued. Chapter 6 contends that
what we see in Devil on the Cross and Matigari is a shift from woman as a
signifier of lack redeemed by motherhood (as in the preceding novels) to woman
imbued with the masculine attribute of the phallus: the fetishized woman. In other
words, we see a shift from the female character whose desire and political agency
are repressed by clitoridectomy and motherhood to the female character whose
political agency represses her femininity. Turning to Wizard of the Crow, Chapter
6 argues that we see a familiar Oedipalization of the key characters (Kamiti and
Nyawira) and a familiar depiction of fallen women in the neocolony. However,
Ngugis latest novel contains genuine feminist advances in its depiction of
Nyawiras performative and composite femininity the narrative is in many ways
the chronicle of an unfulfilled search for her that ends up discovering a national

community of dissent. The novel also constructs the eponymous Wizard of the Crow
as a distributed subject made up of a genuine male and female partnership between
the two protagonists that contains a reflexive apparatus within itself. Nyawiras
feminine subjectivity is relayed between Kamiti and herself when she turns to
wizardry. This ontological instability is an enabling capacity in Nyawira, because
it is consistent with her transformative revolutionary impulses, her insurrectionary
disguises and her vocation as an actress.
My conclusion returns to the figure of the Mau Mau prostitute in order to
model a wider ethics of postcolonial reading. In this sense, my study moves from
history, through literature, in order to arrive at a theoretical model for reading
the postcolonial text in translation. Since Ngugis most recent novels have been
written in his Gikuyu home tongue and translated into English, my study concludes
by arguing that the critic who relies solely upon the English translation must
allow for the possibility that the original Gikuyu narrative may contain positive
possibilities for Kenyan women that are lost in translation and that the anglophone
postcolonial gender critic lacks the competence to decipher. Equally, since the
first Gikuyu orthographies were produced by rival missionaries in Kenya, Ngugis
return to writing in his mother tongue is not in any sense a return to a plentiful
origin uncontaminated by colonial influences. Rather, it is already shaped by
the very political lineage that it seeks to oppose. The conclusion constructs an
extended critical metaphor a conceit and argues that translation is one viable
space that Ngugis final texts may offer to female political and sexual agency. This
conceit views the Mau Mau prostitutes role in trafficking between colonizer and
insurgent shuttling between two patriarchies without necessarily subscribing to
the legitimizing myths of either as a cipher for the work of translation. I argue
that translation is one textual space that remains irreducible to the agendas of
either the Gikuyu author or the English-speaking critic. Understood in this sense,
translation the shuttling between two languages while productively exceeding
the subject positions made available by both might be designated an ethical
space for Kenyan female desire and political agency to inhabit in Ngugis Gikuyu
English texts.
In sum, this study is principally a cultural history. It is alert to the changing
historical formations of femininity in conditions of anti-imperial struggle and
in Ngugi wa Thiongos literary oeuvre. Ngugis novels themselves need to be
understood in terms of the array of cultural values that they seek to defend and
the histories of struggle that they seek to dignify. For this reason, I have elected to
relate my literary analyses to key texts on Kenyan history, Gikuyu anthropology
and feminist theory and activism, among others. The methodology of Ngugi
wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading is of necessity
interdisciplinary, resulting in an informed, multidimensional account of the literary
text and of the cultural milieu from which it emerges. This study of Ngugis fiction
differs significantly from existing studies in that it investigates how narrative
constructions of gender inequality and Ngugis anti-imperial gesture of writing
in the Gikuyu language should influence the reading practices we adopt. Given
10 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

that many of the women in Ngugis novels or Kenyan history might repudiate the
position from which this research addresses them, the importance of my work is that
it acknowledges the constituencies it addresses. It develops a reading method that
is forceful in terms of the positions it critiques, yet is also receptive to contestation
in the positions it adopts. In this way, my methodology aims to be both culturally
literate and responsive to the political claims of the Gikuyu community within
Kenya. The performative reading methodology developed in the later chapters
makes the conditions of one text (such as prostitution in Mau Mau histories)
active within another (Ngugis novels), in order to relate the disparities at work
in Ngugis literary representations of gender to their historical antecedents. These
correspondences between the literary text and historical context often function
to model disruptive and progressive forms of female historical agency. Such
clandestine forms of agency must at some level refuse the act of reading if they are
to work at all, so my reading methodology is ultimately compelled to accommodate
its own explanatory limitations. In this sense, it aims to acknowledge the limits
of reading without lapsing into a debilitating mood of cultural relativism that is
finally able to posit nothing.
My introduction began with a relativizing moment, in which Kenyattas apologia
for clitoridectomy was measured against contemporary media representations
of this cultural practice. In turn, the politicized legacy of clitoridectomy plays
a very direct role in Ngugis construction of his female characters from Weep
Not, Child to Devil on the Cross and Matigari. It is only when Ngugi arrives at
a performative and distributed model of femininity in Wizard of the Crow that
he finds his way out of the desire to turn his female characters into desexualized
mothers, hypersexualized prostitutes or finally into men.
Fictions aside, two million women are circumcised worldwide on an annual
basis. As many as one hundred million women worldwide may bear the mark of
lack that genital excision inscribes. There has been a substantial amount of criticism
directed at deconstruction as a relativist theory that levels all it engages and posits
nothing in place of its work. In contrast to the opponents of deconstruction, I
view a deconstructive postcolonial gender critique as offering the very means by
which cultural relativism invoked as an excuse for patriarchal praxes (such as
clitoridectomy) may be interdicted. If patriarchy is the law of the dead father,
a deconstructive postcolonial gender critique brings the law to account before
itself, disinterring the mark of patriarchal repression from cultures obfuscated
origins. Ngugi himself would not disagree with this method, since he himself has
argued that One of the positive sides of deconstruction aesthetics is the way it
makes one look at omissions, evasions, and echoes in literary images. Following
a deconstructive reading praxis, I write within, and occasionally against, Ngugis
pioneering literary narratives: weep not, child, but scream.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory
of the Arts and the State in Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 31.
Chapter 1
A Topography of Woman

Weep Not, Child, Ngugi wa Thiongos first published novel, takes its title from
a line in Walt Whitmans poem, On the Beach at Night. There are a number
of ways in which On the Beach at Night contributes to the framing of Ngugis
novel. Written in the autumn of 1870, during a period of spiritual convalescence
after the emotionally devastating American Civil War (186165), Whitmans
poem gestures towards the consolations provided by an emerging American
national unity. Ngugis novel a loosely autobiographical account of childhood
during the Mau Mau period (195257) and written on the cusp of Kenyan national
independence (1963) is similarly positioned in its meditations upon national
conflict and national reconciliation. Ngugis very title, Weep Not, Child, is a
consolatory statement. But whatever its implicit consolations, the novels title is
fraught with underlying anxieties that it is scarcely able to contain.
Firstly, Weep Not, Child is a gendered mode of address. In this, it emulates its
source material in Whitmans poem, where a child holds the hand of her father
and is comforted by him with these words. In Weep Not, Child, this gendered mode
of address works conveniently alongside the ubiquitous infantilization of women.
For example, we are told that Njoroge always longed for the day when he would
be a man, for then he would have the freedom to sit with big circumcised girls and
touch them as he saw the young men do. Here, circumcised women are big girls

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child (London: Heinemann, 1987 [1964]).

See Walt Whitman, On the Beach at Night in Emory Holloway (ed.), Walt Whitman:
Complete Poetry and Selected Prose and Letters (London: Nonesuch Press, 1938),
pp. 23940.

For an extended commentary on Whitmans influence upon Ngugi wa Thiongo,
see Sigurbjorg Sigurjonsdottir, Voices of Many Together in Two: Whitmans America and
Ngugis Kenya in Peter Nazareth, (ed.), Critical Essays on Ngugi wa Thiongo (New York:
Twayne Publishers, 2000), pp. 93122.

See Gay Wilson Allen, The New Walt Whitman Handbook (New York: New York
University Press, 1975), pp. 1823.

Allen suggests that On the Beach at Night in the 1871 edition answers the
despairing question of As I Ebbed with the Ocean of Life in the 1860 edition. By this time,
Whitmans spiritual crisis was completely over. What saved him, above all else, was the
unifying effect of the Civil War not only through his own patriotic and devoted services
in the army hospitals, but also because the war gave Whitman and the nation Abraham
Lincoln. Allen, New Walt Whitman Handbook, p. 43.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 22.
12 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

and therefore remain children despite the fact that it is exactly clitoridectomy
that traditionally confers adult status upon Gikuyu women. Hence, the distinction
between big circumcised girls (not women) and young men reveals a
mechanism of gender diminution that is arguably also at work in the novels title.
Unsurprisingly, the character who cries most abundantly in the novel is Njoroges
female childhood friend, Mwihaki, who is usually rendered in childlike imagery,
even as an adolescent. Njoroges inadequate political vision which at one point
aspires to the task of comforting people translates as his inability to console
Mwihaki. This inability contributes to the larger crisis in Njoroges masculinity
that culminates in his attempt to commit suicide.
Secondly, Weep Not, Child is an injunction to silence. It is a consolation, but
it forbids the expression of grief or pain.10 The expression of pain in this novel is
designated by a specific, and significant, utterance. We see this when Njoroge is
first familiarized with the vowels of the English alphabet at school:

Teacher (making another mark on the board) Say Eee.

Class Eeeeeeee.
That sounded nice and familiar. When a child cried he said, Eeeee, Eeeee.11

It is, of course, singularly ironic that Weep Not, Child would itself be unutterable
were it not to contain exactly those repetitious utterances of pain (the Eeeee,
Eeeee in Weep Not, Child) that it expressly attempts to silence. The novels
consolatory title ultimately pronounces itself imprisoned within the alienating and
violent English linguistic structures that have produced it. Equally, the narrative
of Weep Not, Child Njoroges story would be impossible to tell without the
failures of consolation. One of the failures of consolation in the novels title is that
it is indebted to a literary forbear, Walt Whitman, who is the subject of a gentle
critique elsewhere in Ngugis oeuvre.12 The title, ostensibly a texts declaration
of singularity and identity, is in this instance internally conflicted. Additionally,
given that Weep Not, Child is an injunction to silence, and given that this

The interested reader should consult Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya.

For example, see Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 13, 56, 945, 107, 1324.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 95.
A similar cultural injunction forbidding the expression of grief or pain is operative
as Gikuyu girls undergo clitoridectomy.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 33.
Of course, there are writers who show great sensitivity to the social evils perpetrated
against other peoples: William Blake, Walt Whitman, Brecht, Sartre for instance. But taken
as a whole this literature could not avoid being affected by the Eurocentric basis of its
world view or global vision, and most of it, even when sympathetic, could not altogether
escape from the racism inherent in Western enterprise in the rest of the world. Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms (London: James Currey,
1993), p. 14.
A Topography of Woman 13

silence is designated by a specific utterance (e) which evokes the alienating

English linguistic structures that support an ethnocentric system of value, the
anxiety of cultural influence associated with the father-poet suggests a latent
racial inscription: Whit[e]man.13 This is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of
critiquing a Western cultural legacy while working within its traditions.
As a citation, as a gendered utterance, as an injunction to silence and as a
consolation freighted with anxieties of influence, Weep Not, Child is reconciled
in the ideological device woman.14 The female characters in this novel inhabit
fictions of substantiality: they carry the burden of exemplification. Expressed
otherwise, they are figures that embody or incarnate an imported mythos. They
demonstrate historical effects and enable masculine anti-colonial critique.
Accordingly, their spaces of articulation are frequently also sites of censure or
repudiation. This is consistent with the forms of gendered silencing that Ngugis
title conducts.
At its most general level, my argument will take its cue from a statement made
by Cixous in Exchange (with Catherine Clment): Everything on the order of
culture and cultural objects has a prohibition placed on it, which causes class
positions in relation to culture. Likewise, woman is uneasy in relation to a certain
sort of production the production of signs 15 Although Cixous and Clments
statement clearly does not have colonial and post-Independence Kenya in mind,
I would like to examine the way in which something like this unease operates in
the first novel that Ngugi published. Weep Not, Child was written in 1962 and
published in 1964, and this corresponds with Kenyas transition from colony to
independent nation beginning with Kenyattas release from incarceration (1961)
and ending with the declaration of the Republic (1964).
The ideologically conflicted Kenya-in-transition that forms the backdrop to the
writing of Weep Not, Child may have helped to determine its generic organization
a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman that details an intellectual consciousness
whose evolution and whose contradictory affinities (traditionalism, liberal-
progressive colonial education, nationalism, Christianity) follow trajectories that
are occasionally at odds with its political conscientization. This patterning in turn
points to the fact that fictional texts may mirror, at some level, the social matrix in
which they are produced, because they partake of the discourses which construct
and contest that matrix. As is well known, Ngugis conversion to Marxism occurred

My terminology here, the anxiety of cultural influence, is indebted to Harold
Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (London: Oxford University Press,
Wherever I use the term woman, I refer not to an ahistorical, universal model of
femininity, but to an historically situated and culturally produced sign mobilized within the
ideological formation of Kenyan nationalism and imaginatively revisited via the female
characters in Ngugis fiction.
Hlne Cixous and Catherine Clment, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing
and intro. Sandra M. Gilbert (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p. 145.
14 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

at the University of Leeds after his first two novels had been written.16 However,
in a foreword to Homecoming, Ime Ikkideh mentions that Marxism provided
an ideological framework for opinions [Ngugi] already vaguely held.17 As if to
confirm Ikkidehs assertion, Weep Not, Child shows that Njoroges scholarliness is
occasioned by class anxieties: As [Njoroge] could not find companionship with
Jacobos children (except Mwihaki), for these belonged to the middle class that
was rising and beginning to be conscious of itself as such, he turned to reading.18
Of course, the solitary activity of reading is one form of middle-class insularity
into which Njoroge himself is becoming assimilated.
Unsurprisingly, then, there is already evidence of a nascent class analysis
in Weep Not, Child (and in The River Between). This class analysis is especially
noticeable in the different economic strata occupied by the tenant farmer Ngotho
and the landowner Jacobo. In addition, the novel is sensitive to the ways in which
educational achievements confer an upward social mobility upon Njoroge while
simultaneously alienating his sensibility, so that Njoroges sense of responsibility
to his community is compromised. I am not suggesting that the first two novels are
examples of a fully-fledged socialist realism, but merely that they indicate Ngugis
early predisposition towards the Marxist world view that he would later adopt. In
this sense, the first two novels are revealing in their relation to the later fictions.
Of course, vaguely held proto-Marxist opinions do not translate into complex
social representations at this point in Ngugis career. His early fiction isolates
certain social types in Kenyan society and it involves these figures in interpersonal
dramas played out on a political and economic stage. This isolation of social types
has a quadruple import. Firstly, it enables a young intellectual consciousness to
confront the complexities of a society in transition towards independence and to
render these complexities in a reduced, and hence manageable, form.19 Secondly,
the isolation of social types amounts to a privileging of individual consciousness
over collective consciousness. The type aggregates and simplifies the social and
its relations, personifying complexity in a single figure. Thirdly, the isolation of
social types and the sorts of consciousness it privileges amounts to what we might
term a privatization of the sensibility. In sociological terms, this privatization
to some extent emerges out of the intellectual lites exaggerated sense of its
own responsibility in shaping a society in transition to independence creating
obvious contradictions in its class solidarity with the peasant constituency it

Both Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965) were published while
Ngugi was studying at Leeds.
See Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature,
Culture and Politics (London: Heinemann, 1975), p. xiii.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 489.
Patrick Williams has commented that this reduction to type is fraught, since it turns
a systematic colonial policy [of repressive counter-insurgency] into a question of individual
malice. Patrick Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
1999), p. 44.
A Topography of Woman 15

seeks to address.20 Fourthly, the privatization of the sensibility requires a vehicle

to domesticate the larger national drama confronted by the native intellectual.
In Weep Not, Child, this vehicle is woman, a device that staves off ideological
contradiction. My reading will engage Weep Not, Child at the various points at
which Ngugi constructs the female subject. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that
the female characters are uneasily implicated in the social vision of the novel.21

Myths of Substantiality and the Landscape as a Consensual Trope

In Weep Not, Child, mechanisms of gender subordination enable an interplay of

the male-dominated discourses of Christianity, Gikuyu nationalism, anti-colonial
resistance and liberal-progressive education. The most obvious gender disparity
in the novel lies in the different values ascribed to the sexual conquests of the
male and female characters. When the barber recounts his reminiscences of the
Second World War to his incredulous customers, his self-construction as a military
adventurer is buttressed by demeaning constructions of women:

[In this war] we carried guns and we shot white men.

White men?
Y-e-e-e-s. They are not the gods we had thought them to be. We even slept with their
Ha! How are they ?
Not different. Not different. I like a good fleshy black body with sweat. But they
are you know so thin without flesh nothing.
But it was wonderful to
Well! Before you started you thought it was eh eh wonderful. But after
it was nothing. And you had to pay some money.22

The white woman is, like the gun, an enabling signifier in the barbers narrative. She
permits the colonized to transcend or transgress23 the rigidly hierarchical society

This argument is brilliantly developed in Ian Glenn, Ngugi wa Thiongo and the
Dilemmas of the Intellectual Elite in Africa: A Sociological Perspective, English in Africa,
8:2 (1981), pp. 5366.
For an excellent critique of Ngugis gender representations, see Elleke Boehmer, The
Masters Dance to the Masters Voice: Revolutionary Nationalism and the Representation
of Women in the Writing of Ngugi wa Thiongo, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature,
26:1 (1991), pp. 18897.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 910.
There is an echo of this transgression when Howlands daughter, a missionary,
comes to the school: Njoroge had not seen many Europeans at very close quarters. He was
now quite overawed by the whiteness and tenderness of this womans skin. He wondered,
What would I feel if I touched her skin? See Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child,
16 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

in colonial Kenya. Significantly, this act takes place outside of colonized space in
Jerusalem, an important geographical locus in the Christian religion. Of course,
Jerusalems significance in Christian mythology is that the Messiah was crucified
there. However, the barbers story inscribes a site privileged in Christian tradition
with an anti-colonial discourse: if white men are not gods, then their women who
accede to intercourse with black soldiers are not untouchable madonnas. The fantasy
of sexual possession operating in a problematic displacement of colonial space24
gestures somewhat inadequately towards the redistributive impulses that the novel
elsewhere avows in relation to the land. The barbers narrative of sexual triumph
instrumentalizes black and white women in its establishment of a chauvinistic
anti-colonial discourse. In other words, the anecdote produces woman as a sign
that enables the reciprocation of dialogue between male oppressed subjects and
the colonial Christian and racist discourses that have previously inscribed their
subjectivities. As Patrick Williams has noted, there is a contradiction in the fact that
the white women in this passage are at first not different to black women, only
to become so thin without flesh nothing when measured against a good
fleshy black body with sweat.25 In effect, then, the substantiality of black women
is a disempowering myth designed to consolidate the displacements and dispersals
of colonial space within which the texts narratives of resistance operate.
By contrast with the masculine sexual conquests in the barbers narrative, Ngugi
depicts the sexual relations between Italian prisoners of war and Kenyan women in
less flattering terms. While the barber entertains his clientele with a transgressive
fantasy of the sexual possession of white women including the disappointing
reality that white women are no different to black women in bed (except perhaps
that they are thinner and less sweaty!) a vastly different hierarchy of value is
attached to the interracial sexual relations conducted by Kenyan women:

The Italian prisoners who built the long tarmac road had left a name for
themselves because some went about with black women and black women had
white children. Only, the children by black mothers and Italian prisoners who
were also white men were not white in the usual way. They were ugly and some
grew up to have small wounds all over the body and especially around the mouth
so that flies followed them at all times and at all places. Some people said that

p. 46. Njoroges speculation here gestures towards the discourse of conquest that organizes
the barbers narrative. Frantz Fanon discusses the male colonizeds cross-racial desire as
a form of political conquest in The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), p. 30, and in Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles
Lam Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1968), p. 63.
The description of Jerusalems inhabitants as white assumes a series of flawed
ethnic, racial, geographical and historical definitions. The overarching category of whiteness
in the barbers tale does more to mystify the historical conditions of Kenyan oppression
than it does to overturn them.
Patrick Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 52.
A Topography of Woman 17

this was a punishment. Black people should not sleep with white men who ruled
them and treated them badly.26

The passage is explicit in its analysis of these sexual relations. The act offends
against the natural divide between oppressor and oppressed,27 resulting in a
diseased progeny the product of a meeting between representatives of conflicting
political groupings. However, it is difficult to conceive of the Italian prisoners of
war as oppressors. They are, like the black women, governed by a common British
political master. The same anti-colonial discourse that operates in the barbers
anecdote is at work in this passage. The wounds and flies associated with the
mixed-race children allude in one possible reading to the plagues of boils and
flies that beset the Egyptian oppressors of the Israelites.28 Hence, these children
prefigure later references to the myth of Kenyatta as the Black Moses. Once again,
women embody an imported mythos and establish a site of racialized critique in a
displaced or dispersed translation of colonial space. As in the barbers narrative,
the anti-colonial discourse established here takes womens bodies as its referent.
Female bodies become vectors that transmit (and translate) the racial impurity
of the Italian prisoners to their children. The situation of the wounds especially
around the mouth is suggestive. On one level, the children may have become
contaminated at the site of nurture (the breast) during suckling. Alternatively, they
may have inherited venereal disease.
The barbers tale is a travellers tale of daring and exotic knowledge29
indicative of the (active) speakers empowerment via carnal knowledge: whether
that knowledge originates in physiological intercourse with white prostitutes or in
its symbolic substitute, the penetration of white flesh by bullets. By contrast, the
description of the black women is rendered historically factual by an omniscient
narrator who has a panchronic perspective. This narrative strategy functions to
disempower the passive or spoken woman. Her offspring ineradicably signify
the carnal guilt that arises out of her sexual relations with a racially defined,
but historically anomalous, oppressor. To the extent that the female body (or
its product) signifies, it opens up a space of articulation that is ultimately a site
of censure. In other words, the diseased progeny are an enduring symbol of the

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 56.
Interestingly, the members of the indigenous landowning class (Jacobo, Juliana
and Lucia) all have Latinate names. This would align them structurally with the Italian
prisoners, inasmuch as both groupings are situated between the English colonizer and the
African peasantry.
See Exodus 8:2031 and 9:812.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Transformative Strategies in the Fiction of Ngugi wa
Thiongo in Abdulrazak Gurnah (ed.), Essays on African Writing (Oxford: Heinemann,
1993), p. 144.
18 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

unnatural intercourse between foreigner and black woman.30 Cumulatively, the

two passages construct a hierarchy of value that works to negate female sexual
agency. Gurnah points out the discrepancies between male and female sexuality
in Weep Not, Child:

What the barber and his listeners comment on is that white women for all their
grandness will still sleep with black men, a response which implies both self-
contempt and deference, the triumph of a discourse of conquest. The black
women having babies which are not white in the usual way, on the other
hand, offends a deeper sense of what is moral and clean. Underlying it is the
assumption that for women sex is equivalent to submission, which is itself
the bedrock of patriarchal authority. The white oppressor is indistinct and
undifferentiated in this case, different and same: Italian or English, prisoner or
settler. And since it was the whites who brought calamity on the people, for
African women to submit to them is abject.31

Gurnahs analysis of the logical inconsistencies in the political vision of the novel
is astute, but I would like to add two further observations. Firstly, the children
are posited as symptoms of colonization. Secondly, colonization is ubiquitously
depicted as an infectious phenomenon in Weep Not, Child, whether it is at the level
of physiology (as it is here) or at the level of economics.
In keeping with the myth of substantiality (and its attendant figuring of the
colony as an afflicted body), the black female characters share an affinity with
another contested domain: that of the land. No doubt, this affinity is informed
by the cultural, spiritual and ideological values that Jomo Kenyattas cultural
nationalist tract, Facing Mount Kenya, attaches to the land:

Communion with the ancestral spirits is perpetuated through contact with the
soil in which the ancestors of the tribe lie buried. The Gikuyu consider the earth
as the mother of the tribe, for the reason that the mother bears her burden for
about eight or nine moons while the child is in her womb, and then for a short
period of suckling. But it is the soil that feeds the child for a lifetime; and again
after death it is the soil that nurses the spirit of the dead for eternity.32

Kenyattas passage may explain the reasons for equating the subaltern woman
with the land in Weep Not, Child. Indeed, we are told that Ngotho practises
custodianship over the shamba, because he owes it to the dead, the living and

This episode arguably replays the original psychosexual crisis that the exploitative
and invasive colonial relation imposes upon the colonized. Self-evidently, however, the
novel revisits this crisis via an anachronous temporality.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Transformative Strategies, p. 144.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 21.
A Topography of Woman 19

the unborn of his line.33 However, the novel does not simply rehearse Kenyattas
narrative of the earths generative power, nor the myth of Gikuyu autochthony
that this narrative supports. The gendering of the landscape was also one of the
master-tropes of colonial fiction.34 Therefore, the equation of women with the land
has further antecedents in Ngugis subject formation within a Kenyan colonial
education. In my view, Weep Not, Child contains residues of both colonial fiction
and Gikuyu nationalist myths. As a result, the gendered landscape is something
like a consensual trope that allows colonial and anti-colonial discourses to
contest one another.
In Weep Not, Child, the land is a commodity around which the economic and
social lives of the male characters centre. It is the measure of a mans wealth (and,
therefore, of his social status) and it is the means whereby he may afford his wives:

Any man who had land was considered rich. If a man had plenty of money, many
motor cars, but no land, he could never be counted as rich. A man who went with
tattered clothes but had at least an acre of red earth was better off than the man
with money. Nganga could afford three wives, although he was younger than

Ngotho, himself a tenant farmer, describes how the aspirations of the Kenyan
soldiers who fought in the First World War were thwarted by the colonizing power,
which did not reward their military service with access to, or ownership of, the land.
Significantly, Ngotho locates the land within the discourse of love when he says,
We came home worn out but very ready for whatever the British might give us as
a reward. But, more than this, we wanted to go back to the soil and court it to yield,
to create, not to destroy. But Ngo! The land was gone.36 Howlands, who operates
in many respects as a double for Ngotho, also equates possession of the land with
sexual conquest.37 We are told that the farm was a woman whom [Howlands] had
wooed and conquered. He had to keep an eye on her lest she should be possessed
by someone else.38 Boros accusation against Howlands again reveals Ngugis

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 31.
For instance, David Bunn has demonstrated that there is an enabling relationship
between colonial discourse and the gendering of the landscape in two novels by Henry
Rider Haggard. See David Bunn, Embodying Africa: Women and Romance in Colonial
Fiction, English in Africa, 15 (1988), pp. 128. Ngugi acknowledges that Rider Haggard
was one of his literary precursors in Carol Sicherman, Ngugi wa Thiongo: The Making of
a Rebel (London: Hans Zell, 1990), p. 21.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 20.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 25.
I agree with Killams assessment that Howlands expounds the morality of paternal
colonialism in conjunction with a belief in his right to land. Douglas G. Killam, An
Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi (London: Heinemann, 1980), p. 49.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 127.
20 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

gendering of the land: Together, you killed many sons of the land. You raped our
women.39 The narratorial voice also contributes to the gendered constructions of
the land: This is my land. Mr Howlands said this as a man would say, This is my
woman.40 Despite their very different ideological moorings, Ngotho, Howlands,
Boro and the narrator all reciprocate a patriarchal discourse, for which women
and the land are enabling signifiers.
The trope of the raped land is developed early in the novel, when the landscape
is located in a discourse linking colonial history with pathology: You could tell
the land of Black People because it was red, rough and sickly, while the land of the
white settlers was green and was not lacerated into small strips.41 Significantly, the
surface of the black peoples land is infected or diseased in much the same manner
as the children of the Italian prisoners of war, and this infection is attributed to
the penetrative intrusion of the colonizer. The association of the female subject
with the land points to the idealization of the land as a woman and the reification
of woman as a palpable entity within culture. It also indicates that the primary
injury or wounding effected by colonization is not political (a denial of rights and
freedoms) nor material (a denial of commodities or of control over the means of
production) but psychosexual (a denial of potency).42 The emphasis placed on male
potency is ultimately consistent with a patriarchal construction of subjectivity.
Thus, once resistance is underway and the established colonial hierarchies are on
the brink of inversion, it is significant that Howlands has discovered that black
women could be a good relief43 from the political and sexual pressures of his
situation his wife has left for England during the emergency and, as District
Officer, he is responsible for the eradication of Mau Mau. Since his position on
the land is more precarious after the advent of Mau Mau, the most obvious respite
available to him is with that entity which Ngugi allies most closely with the land
the subaltern woman. Like the sign woman, the land serves simultaneously
to unite and divide colonial self and colonized other: it encloses male subjects in
a contestatory dialectic. By working for Howlands, Ngotho acts as the vicarious
custodian of his familys ancestral lands. Likewise, Howlands spiritual bond to
the land is established by proxy when he studies Ngothos affection for the farm.44
In this way, the land, like woman, enables the relationship between colonizer

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 128, my emphasis.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 129.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 7, my emphasis.
This claim is ultimately consistent with one critics assessment that Ngugi does not
merely look at the problems affecting the individual lives of his characters; he goes further
to expose the psychological struggles and changes these problems produce in them. Jane
C. Chesaina, East Africa Ngugi wa Thiongos The River Between and the African Oral
Tradition in Eddah Gacukia and Kichamu Akivaga (eds), Teaching of African Literature in
Schools (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1978), p. 62.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 128.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 2930.
A Topography of Woman 21

and colonized to become a mutually defining one. Ngugis association of the land
and the sign woman enables the reciprocity of political discourses (nationalist,
martial or colonial) between the male characters. This association covertly
institutes a disempowering gender mechanism: the female character is allied with
nature while her male counterparts dominate culture. Thus, the subaltern woman is
silenced in Ngugis text because she lacks political representation in it.
If there is a figure of the patriarch in Weep Not, Child, it would appear to find
its embodiment in Ngotho. Njoroge secretly adores and fears his father,45 and his
filial situation within the family is similar to that which Howlands has experienced
as a child: The joys, fears, and hopes of childhood were grand in their own way.
The little quarrels he had had; the father whom he had feared and revered; the
gentle mother in whose arms he could always find solace and comfort.46 As befits
a patriarch, Ngotho is a figure of supreme authority in the family. He governs it
with a degree of equanimity, but this equanimity merely functions to validate his
authority and to contain the threat of rebellion from his wives:

Ngotho bought four pounds of meat. But they were bound into two bundles
each of two pounds. One bundle was for his first wife, Njeri, and the other for
Nyokabi, his second wife. A husband had to be wise in these affairs otherwise a
small flaw or apparent bias could easily generate a civil war in the family. Not
that Ngotho feared this very much. He knew that his two wives liked each other
and were good companions and friends. But you could not quite trust women.
They were fickle and very jealous. When a woman was angry no amount of
beating would pacify her. Ngotho did not beat his wives much. On the contrary,
his home was well known for being a place of peace. All the same, one had to
be careful.47

Ngothos control over the affairs of his family deteriorates as conditions in Kenya
deteriorate. The suggestive metaphor of civil war is eventually realized in ways
that make familial discord a transparent allegory for national political upheaval.
This is one mode via which politics is patterned into patriarchy. Ngothos inability
to exert authority is most clearly evidenced in Boros disdain for his fathers
moderate politics, and most especially in Ngothos inability to command Boros
respect.48 The familys disintegration corresponds with the disintegration of its
patriarchal centre. Ngotho gradually faces a crisis of potency in respect of the
emasculating political and economic tyranny of the Kenyan colonial administration

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 123.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 76.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 11.
For a similar reading, see Clifford Robson, Ngugi wa Thiongo (New York: St.
Martins, 1979), p. 28.
22 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

and the loyalist classes.49 Since political and economic protest is predicated upon
male potency in this novel, the possibility of political failure must also include the
possibility of sexual impotence. Tellingly, when Ngotho does confront the colonial
powers by confessing to the murder of Jacobo (which Boro has committed), the
response of the administration is to castrate him.
Njoroges position in the family equates with his political position in the text.
He fears his father and finds solace in his mother. Similarly, he does not actively
challenge or resist the colonial government (as Boro and Kamau do) but finds
solace in his education. Njoroge is impotent in a double sense. Firstly, he does
not exercise his male sexual privilege in relation to womens bodies (although
he is circumcised), nor does he recognize his attraction to Mwihaki until it is too
late. Secondly, he continually defers active involvement in political change by
envisioning it as a withheld, future possibility.

Ideological Sympathies

Cook and Okenimpke claim that the novels ideological sympathies do not rest with
Njoroge, but lie inevitably with the freedom fighters.50 This view of Weep Not,
Child is misguided. Certainly, Njoroges perspective is not unequivocally endorsed,
but neither is that of the Mau Mau insurgents for that matter. If anything, Weep
Not, Child displays Ngugis attempts to redeem education (and, by implication, his
own position within Kenyas literate lite) by instrumentalizing the voices of Mau
Mau insurgents. We are told, somewhat improbably, that Boro had always shown
a marked interest in Njoroges progress at school.51 The more honest transcription
is arguably that Ngugis interest in collapsing the class differences between an
intellectual lite and a largely illiterate peasant constituency is indexed by Boros
interest in Njoroges progress. In fact, Ngugis self-inscription in relation to Mau
Mau is revealing. His brother, Wallace Mwangi a carpenter, like Kamau in Weep
Not, Child or Gikonyo in A Grain of Wheat was one of the forest fighters,52 but
the Mwangi of Weep Not, Child has died fighting for the British in the Second
World War. This is an important silence in the novel, and it may indicate Ngugis
early ideological ambivalence towards Mau Mau and a subconscious attempt to
distance his historical entanglements with it.53

In this sense, Gikandi is correct to assert that colonialism has emasculated the
father. Simon Gikandi, Ngugi wa Thiongo (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2000), p. 86.
David Cook and Michael Okenimpke, Ngugi wa Thiongo: An Exploration of His
Writings (London: Heinemann, 1983), p. 56.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 69.
See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 4.
For an excellent discussion of this ambivalence, see David Maughan-Brown, Land
Freedom and Fiction: History and Ideology in Kenya (London: Zed Books, 1985).
A Topography of Woman 23

Another revealing moment occurs when a letter is left on the church wall at
Njoroges school: The letter said that the head of the headmaster plus the heads
of forty children would be cut off if the school did not instantly close down. It was
signed with Kimathis name.54 Following this incident, Nyokabi forbids Njoroge
to attend the school, but Kamau persuades him to continue going. It is interesting
that Kamau (an illiterate craftsman with Mau Mau sympathies) should be so
unqualified in his support for Njoroges education. The narrative logic for such
unqualified support is unclear. Given that the letter is discovered by a character
called Kamau,55 Njoroges brother may be the one responsible for planting the
letter and may therefore be in a position to allay Njoroges fears of Mau Mau
reprisals if he continues to attend school. Alternatively, since Kamau does not
attend school and has no reason to be there, the Kamau mentioned in the passage
may simply share a name with Njoroges brother.
Regardless of what (flawed) statement the novel is making about Mau Maus
ideological support for education, the incident may amount to another moment of
interested self-inscription on Ngugis part. E. Carey Francis, Ngugis headmaster
at Alliance High School, recalls a similar incident to the one in Weep Not, Child:

Soon after the Lari massacre, 16 miles away, I went to a primary school [where]
Mau-Mau had been the night before, and damaged the school, tearing down
the doors and leaving broken windows and broken hinges. In the doorway there
was a blackboard with a message written on it in Gikuyu: If anyone teaches
here after March 29 he will be killed, by order of Dedan Kimathi At another
school something similar happened. There the message was a letter for the
teacher saying If the teacher comes here again he had better bring a basket for
his head.56

The syntax of the Carey Francis account does not make it clear whether the school
he visited was 16 miles away from the massacre or whether the massacre was 16
miles from his own school. Nevertheless, there is a distinct possibility that one of
the schools affected was Maanguu Karinga school, which Ngugi was attending at
the time (between 26 and 29 March 1953) and which is within 16 miles of Lari.57
If there is an ideology which is privileged in the text, it is to be found in the
most dominant (and most covert) voice in the novel that of the narrator. This
narratorial voice is partisan in relation to certain of the discourses and characters
in the novel. I have already examined the narrators counter-discourse which
incorporates the biblical myth of the Ten Plagues. This myth is a continuous
motif in the narrative. Jomo Kenyatta, the Black Moses, insists that the colonial

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 83.
See the answers to the headmasters questions. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not,
Child, p. 82.
See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 395.
See the scale map in Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, unpaginated.
24 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

authorities let his people go. Boro has told Kamau about Jomo, and Kamau relays
this information to Njoroge.58 The narrator alludes to the myth when Jomo is tried
by the colonial authorities: Everyone knew that Jomo would win. God would not
let his people alone. The children of Israel must win. Many people put all their
hopes on this eventual victory.59 The myth of the Black Moses is what unites the
fictional community of Weep Not, Child. This is not to say that all of the characters
subscribe to this myth, but that they assume their discursive positions in relation
to the discourse this myth represents. Moses rebellion against the Egyptians is a
principled, righteous rebellion (it is sanctioned by God). None of the characters
finally lives up to this ideal. Njoroge has high ideals regarding the liberation of the
Kenyan people, but he does not act upon those ideals. By contrast, Boro actively
resists the colonial authorities, but he does not do so to uphold a higher principle.
Asked by a Mau Mau lieutenant whether he believes in anything, Boro replies,
No. Nothing. Except revenge.60 Ngothos traditionalism, which holds that the
white mans demise has been predicted by the prophecies, is a complacent world
view. It has a spiritual basis, but lacks a coherent political praxis. These characters
are animated by conflicting discourses and the narratorial voice is the centripetal
device around which their diffuse positions are constellated.

The Female Characters

Mwihaki is the most ambivalent of the female figures in the novel. Her father is a
member of the landed class that is complicit with colonial capitalist domination.
Her mother, Juliana, has imported sensibilities that are alien to the Gikuyu
peasantry. At a Christmas meal at her house, she admonishes Njoroge for laughing
during grace, saying that she has raised her children to value Ustaarabu, unlike
children from primitive homes.61 Ustaarabu carries pejorative connotations. It
is of Kiswahili, rather than Gikuyu, origin.62 Its etymology derives from the word
arab, which implicates its adherents in behavioural codes established by the first
(known) colonizers of Africa. It translates roughly as civilization or culture and
is considered the embodiment of civilization at [the Kenyan] coast.63 Juliana
translates these foreign sensibilities into normative structures that consolidate her
class privilege.
Mwihakis ambivalence consists in the fact that she neither strictly adheres
to nor vehemently opposes her parents and the class consciousness which they
represent. Whereas Juliana admonishes Njoroge for his lack of manners, Mwihaki

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 43.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 72.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 102.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 1819.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 233.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 233.
A Topography of Woman 25

begins to take a greater interest in him.64 Similarly, Mwihaki defends Njoroge

when he first arrives at the school. As an Njuka (newcomer), he is expected to
be subservient to the older children, but she defiantly claims him as her Njuka.65
Nevertheless, despite Mwihakis qualities of generosity and strength of character,
these qualities are subordinated to her ideological functions. For example, the
dissimilarity in Njoroges and Mwihakis attitudes may be viewed as a difference
in class consciousness:

Sometimes they played. Njoroge was more reserved. But Mwihaki was more
playful. She picked flowers and threw them at him. He liked this and wanted to
retaliate but he did not like plucking a flower in bloom because it lost colour. He
said, Lets not play with flowers.
Oh, but I love flowers.66

Njoroge is a member of the dispossessed peasantry (the ahoi) which is represented

as loving the land that was once its own. His reverence for the flowers indicates a
political subtext of conserving of the land and that which issues from it. This reading
would be supported by reference to the myth of inheritance and proprietorship
recounted by Ngotho.67 By contrast, Mwihaki is a member of the landed class,
which is shown to be possessed of bourgeois acquisitiveness.
Njoroges relationship with Mwihaki operates on a denial of sexual attraction
consistent with his subscription to Christian theology. Njoroge wishes Mwihaki
were his sister and he comes to view their relation as a filial one.68 This filial
relationship thwarts the possibility of an amorous affiliation. Further, the fraternal
sororal relationship carries an implied third term: that of the parental figures
who regulate the filial relationship by imposing the incest taboo upon it. Like
Mwihaki, Njoroge is unable to escape an anxiety of (perceived) obligations to his
parents (and, more particularly, obligations to his mother). In order to circumvent
this anxiety, he accommodates his desire for Mwihaki by placing her within the
familial structure from which that anxiety emanates. This dynamic is expressed
somatically in the text:

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 19.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 1314. As Simon Gikandi reminds us,
njuka is a word that literally means a new arrival, but has the connotations of a novice
in initiation rite. The association between school and Gikuyu rites of initiation cannot be
missed; in fact, when the narrator reminds us that the school has become the most important
form of social institution, we cannot but read it as a supplement for traditional rites of
passage such as circumcision. See Simon Gikandi, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 89. Of course,
Njoroges education-as-rite-of-masculinity with the inadequate political vision and
incapacited efficacy it entails is never completely accomplished.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 36.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 234.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 55, 107.
26 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

When I come back, you will not let me alone? she appealed, again her eyes
dilating. She was sitting close to him. She touched the collar of his shirt and then
rubbed off an insect that was walking along it. He looked at her in a brotherly
fashion. He had now quickly forgotten their differences. To him she was a girl
who might easily have been his sister.69

Njoroge and Mwihaki are constructed with a vast erotic potential, but the increasing
physical proximity of the two characters does not translate into an admission of
their mutual attraction. Mwihaki and Njoroge are placed in a filial relation in
order to substitute for a thwarted amorous relation. The root of this substitution
is ideological: a love affair would collapse the class delineations that Ngugi has
so carefully constructed. Indeed, one of the reasons that Njoroge derives pleasure
from Mwihakis companionship as a playmate is that she is from a more affluent
class than his own.70 When Mwihaki brushes off the insect, the action invokes her
class situation: her father derives his income from the cultivation of pyrethrum,
which is used in insecticides. The inclusion of the insect demystifies the gender-
political premises that shape Njoroge and Mwihaki. In this moment, the text
illuminates what the narrative represses the possibility of mutual attraction
between the children. This attraction threatens to disrupt the circulation of desire
upon which the narrative is predicated, because it would severely undermine the
texts phallocentric premise: that Njoroges subscription to Christian discourse
and to Western-style education places him in a position of emasculated complicity
with the colonizing powers.
Unsurprisingly, the female characters also practise avoidance or, at best, non-
confrontation in relation to political matters. When a strike is mooted, Nyokabi
objects to Ngothos participation.71 Nyokabis objection is based upon her interest
in preserving the stability and prosperity of her family: which is why she has so
much invested in Njoroge receiving an education. However, Nyokabis private,
domestic interest runs contrary to the collective national interests of the oppressed
peasantry, for whom political uprising is a pressing necessity. The confrontation
between Nyokabi and Ngotho signals a conflict between two institutions: politics
(a masculine domain) and the family (a domain of masculine control and, to a
lesser extent, female responsibility). This confrontation is not specific to Nyokabis
family; similar disagreements have taken place between Juliana and Jacobo,72
and between Howlands and his wife.73 Although there are interesting structural
similarities between the three wives objections, it is evident that to heed their
warnings would be to permit the economic status quo to persist. When Ngotho,
Jacobo and Howlands ignore these objections, the class struggle becomes explicitly

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 96.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 15.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 523.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 56.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 77.
A Topography of Woman 27

confrontational and precipitates the events that follow. The upshot of Ngugis
placement of women in a reactionary discourse is that women are excluded from
political dialogue. It is interesting that the three men Howlands, Jacobo and
Ngotho hold dialogue with one another at various narrative junctures, whereas
their wives never once hold dialogue among themselves, nor with each others
husbands. This gender-political strategy situates women outside of history, denying
them sites of articulation and occasions for political community.
Having said this, the larger mechanisms of silencing at work in Ngugis novel
are mitigated by local instances in which female political agency is broached. We
see this, for example, when Njeri comments subtly and astutely on the unfairness
of Jomo Kenyattas trial:

Nyokabi said, I knew he would lose. I always said that white men are the same.
His lawyers must have been bribed.
It is more than that, said Njeri. And although I am only a woman and cannot
explain it, it seems all as clear as daylight. The white man makes a law or a rule.
Through that rule or law or what you may call it, he takes away the land and
then imposes many laws on the people concerning that land and many other
things, all without people agreeing first as in the old days of the tribe. Now a man
rises and opposes that law which made right the taking away of the land. Now
that man is taken by the same people who made the laws which that man was
fighting. He is tried under those alien rules. Now tell me who is that man who
can win even if the angels of God were his lawyers I mean.
Njeri was panting. Njoroge had never heard her speak for such a long time. Yet
there seemed to be something in what she had said.74

It would not be difficult to discern a paternalistic construction of Njeri at this point.

Her purported (but contradicted) inability to explain events would be consistent
with my claims about womens exclusion from political discourse. However,
despite Njeris disclaimer, her halting sentences, the non-specificity of her allusions
and her trailing conclusion, her speech contains a forceful rhetoric that crystallizes
the structures of dominance upon which the colonial administration is predicated.
Further, her speech exposes the inefficacy of Christianity as a liberatory discourse.
Njeris construction here is a tightly controlled deviation from patriarchal and
Christian ideologies. Ngugi grants her the power of acute observation regarding
the injustice of Kenyattas trial a sense of injustice that he undoubtedly shares.
Nevertheless, he limits her ability to express herself in a language equal to the
perspicuity of her observations.
In a more forthright manner, Mwihaki interrogates Njoroges idealistic
vision of a new Kenya. She exposes the inconsistency of a utopian politics that
is not rooted in social realities, telling Njoroge, You are always talking about
tomorrow, tomorrow. You are always talking about the country and the people.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 75.
28 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

What is tomorrow? And what is the People and the Country to you?75 Later, she
and Njoroge have reversed their ideological positions: he wills flight from Kenya,
while she realizes the obligations that she has at home. Ironically, she has adopted
the vision which he has abandoned, although it would appear that she is also aware
of the necessity for a commitment to family and community:

We had better wait. You told me that the sun will rise tomorrow. I think you
were right.
He looked at her tears and wanted to wipe them. She sat there, a lone tree defying
the darkness, trying to instil new life into him. But he did not want to live. Not
this kind of life. He felt betrayed.
All that was a dream. We can only live today.
Yes. But we have a duty. Our duty to other people is our biggest responsibility
as grown men and women.
Duty! Duty! he cried bitterly.
Yes, I have a duty, for instance to my mother 76

However, despite Mwihakis determination to reconstruct Kenya (which locates her

within the realm of political and social activity), Ngugis construction of her contains
a patriarchal subtext. She is described as a lone tree defying the darkness, which
imbricates her in the traditionalist myth of origin that Ngotho recounts: But in this,
at the foot of Kerinyaga, a tree rose. At first it was a small tree and grew up, finding
a way even through the darkness. It wanted to reach the light, and the sun. This tree
had Life.77 This is perhaps an instance of Ngugi situating women on either side of
the present. The tree represents both an idyllic past and a utopian future beyond
the darkness of the Emergency period. It embodies or possesses Life, and might
thus be equated with the reproductive functions of woman. However, there are
other cultural values at work here. The tree figures anti-colonial insurgency, since
Mau Mau insurgents hid in forests during the Emergency. The fact that Njoroge
chooses the tree78 upon which to hang himself suggests that he is a failure in
both political/military and sexual conquest. In Christian discourse, the tree evokes
an association between Njoroge who has profited from his education, at the
expense of his family, which is destroyed and Judas, the disciple who betrayed
Christ in the garden of Gethsemane and who hanged himself. Alternatively, the
tree may refer to the crucifix, which is sometimes depicted as the Tree of Life.79
Within both the Christian and liberatory novelistic discourses, the tree connotes

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 106.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 1334.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, pp. 234.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 135, my emphasis.
In terms of Ian Glenns argument, the crucifix would index the intellectual lites
resolution of its class-privilege in acts of symbolic self-sacrifice that aim to redeem the
A Topography of Woman 29

an individual interest that runs contrary to the interests of the societal or familial
collective. However, it is clear that Ngugi is not sympathetic towards the aims and
strategies of Mau Mau at this point in his development. Rather, his early heroes
and their potentials for redemptive self-sacrifice are homologous with his position
as a Christian and a member of the intellectual (literate) lite.80
The conclusion of the novel is ambivalent. Njoroges final abandonment of the
tree constitutes a return to the communal responsibility which his mothers (and,
later, Mwihaki) have come to represent. However, he is allocated a place among
women because of his political cowardice. Although Njoroge would seem to
occupy a position of relative inferiority when compared with those male characters
whose resistance to colonial authority has been more courageous (Boro, Kamau
and, in the final instance, Ngotho), the gains made by these characters have been
insubstantial. Their family has disintegrated and it has even less property than that
with which it began. It is therefore left to women to lead those who remain into
the future.
Despite the conclusion of Weep Not, Child, which seems to suggest that the
figure of woman (embodied in Nyokabi) is likely to play a part in the transition
to Kenyan independence, Nyokabis temporal situation ultimately remains
problematic. She is equated with a past which has been superseded by colonization81
and a future that has not yet been realized. Her agency falls on either side of the
present, even while she is reified as the terrain over which the struggle of the
present is fought. In short, Ngugi sometimes risks locating Gikuyu women outside
of history: a condition consistent with Hlne Cixous claims in another context
that women have been viewed as the principle of consistency, always somehow
the same, everyday and eternal.82
Some critics have not found the positioning of characters such as Nyokabi and
Njeri problematic. Rather, they have emphasized that it is precisely the consistency

In Weep Not, Child, Christianity and education lack potency as discourses of
resistance. The execution of Isaka, the revivalist, is pathetic because he does not resist
the soldiers at all. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Weep Not, Child, p. 101. Christianity is a form
of subjection, since its emphasis on ascetic quietism is antithetical to the redistributive
impulses of collective political resistance. Religious notions of an afterlife and Njoroges
private investments in gaining the qualifications for political leadership both involve a
deferral of rewards that equates with political apathy. Ngugis own ideological position at
the time of writing provides an interesting comparison. Not only was he highly educated
by Kenyan standards, but he had been a devout Christian for at least three years. See Carol
Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, pp. 46, and David Maughan Brown, Matigari and the
Rehabilitation of Religion, Research in African Literatures, 22:4 (Winter 1990), p. 173.
The discursive ambivalences in Weep Not, Child suggest that Ngugi was already beginning
to question the political and social efficacy of Christianity and education. By 1970, Ngugi
felt able to claim: I am not a man of the Church. I am not even a Christian. See Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 31.
See, for example, the first paragraph of the novel.
Hlne Cixous and Catherine Clment, The Newly Born Woman, p. 66.
30 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

of the female characters in the novel which gives its representations credibility.
In Jennifer Evans view, Njoroges two mothers [and Ngugis female characters
more generally] are all in their own ways resistance heroines and the strongest
symbols of cultural identity, community and continuity that these novels have to
offer.83 Cook and Okenimpke add:

Those who point the way are, as so often in Ngugi, the mother figures,
Nyokabi and Njeri. They, throughout, have been positive characters, the centre
of harmonious collaboration in Ngothos family, involved with other people,
concerned and informed about their environment. The rescue and possible
rehabilitation of Njoroge is their triumph, and this, with all its overtones and
undertones, is the concluding event of the book, reversing the negative trends,
and thrusting us out hopefully, actively into an unknown future.84

I would argue that Ngugis construction of Nyokabi and Njeri (whose name means
the devoted)85 is informed by religious/mythic productions of woman as nurturer
and homemaker. This construction entrenches traditional female roles and reinforces
patriarchal privilege. Nevertheless, these critics point to a certain quietism and
continuity, an enduring dutifulness in relation to the maintenance of the social
order on the part of the female characters, which demands respect despite the fact
that their acts of self-fulfilment are often framed by patriarchal perspectives. Read
in terms of their negotiations of constraint and their transgressions of ideological
framing, these women produce a politics of the everyday within which a version
of agency resides.
Of course, it must be said that at this formative stage in Ngugis authorial
development, a contemporary feminist awareness was only beginning to achieve
popular recognition in Europe and America. As such, a feminist reading of Weep
Not, Child may be an exercise in futility. However, Elleke Boehmer defends the
worth of such an exercise:

[The early female characters] are consistently viewed only in their relation
to men. Mwihaki gives Njoroge strength when he is wavering, yet the
ideals which she upholds are based upon what he has taught her Yet [such]
stereotypes are predictable: at this stage Ngugi had not yet come out in support
of sexual equality, let alone of class conflict. But it is for this very reason that
the characterization of women in the early novels provides a useful point of
reference. Here Ngugi upholds the patriarchal order by establishing archetypal

Jennifer Evans, Women and Resistance in Ngugis Devil on the Cross, (Women
in) African Literature Today, 15 (1987), p. 131.
David Cook and Michael Okenimpke, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 67
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed: The Political Dimension in the Language-
use of Ngugi wa Thiongo (Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1991), p. 30.
A Topography of Woman 31

roles and patterns of relationships that will continue, albeit in transmuted form,
into the later novels.86

Boehmers argument is a subtle one. She suggests that Ngugis earliest published
novel should not be critiqued retroactively according to feminist arguments that
the fiction could not have anticipated, but rather that the novel should be critiqued
on the basis of the fictional patterns that its narrative precedents do anticipate.


In this chapter, I have examined the gender disparities that inform Ngugis
writing and that contribute to the marginalization of women in Weep Not, Child.
These disparities originate in the novels contradictory ideological formations
and they cumulatively prioritize Gikuyu male prerogatives. In order to explain
the reasons for these ideological formations, it becomes necessary to investigate
Kenyan history (and Gikuyu traditionalisms reinscription by Gikuyu nationalism
in particular). In this way, we can establish those culturally specific material
conditions that construct the sign woman in Gikuyu patriarchy, as well as the
reasons for which it became necessary to deny Gikuyu women a political voice
issuing from a politicized body. The larger idealized or metaphysical binaries
that accompany the acquisition of a culturally and linguistically coded female
subjectivity emerge when the female body is appropriated, and its desire silenced,
by a male-dominated Symbolic Order an order that includes language, the law
and kinship structures. If the sign woman is produced in and by an exchange that
solidifies the relations between men, then the point at which the Gikuyu indigene
acquires her cultural significance is the point at which her body acquires value
for exogamy during the rite of clitoridectomy. As we shall see in the following
chapter, the Kenyan circumcision debate was an historical juncture that contained
tacit collusion between the colonial and anti-colonial patriarchies, leading to the
adoption of Gikuyu womens bodies as a terrain of struggle.

Elleke Boehmer, The Masters Dance to the Masters Voice, p. 193.
This page has been left blank intentionally
Chapter 2
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism

In this chapter, I shall examine the production of the sign woman in Ngugi wa
Thiongos early novel The River Between. The analysis of signs and of signifying
systems in the novel is only viable if one examines the movements of history that
have facilitated and necessitated the production of signs. Equally, it is important
to examine the subject formation of the historical person, (James) Ngugi, who acts
as an agent of particular discursive practices, motivated by specific ideological
interests. The River Between provides insight into a pivotal moment in Kenyan
history that of the Kenyan circumcision debate. This historical moment is
interesting for three reasons. Firstly, it highlights the contest between conflicting
power bases (traditionalism, education, Christian revivalism and Gikuyu
nationalism) in colonial Kenya. Secondly, the debate is particularly revealing of the
Gikuyu communitys production of female subjects within conflicting discourses
and it is revealing of these subjects marginalization from political debate (since
they become the site of contest in the debate). Thirdly, Ngugis re-presentation of
the debate in The River Between points to his own ideological unease in relation to
the discourses that inform his novel.
The originality of my contribution in this chapter will be threefold. Firstly, I
offer a way of theorizing the Gikuyu nationalism via the effacement of the clitoris.
Using Gayatri Spivaks concept of a uterine social organization, I frame a larger
anti-colonial political formation in terms of its gender dispositions. Secondly, I wish
to read symptomatically those points at which Ngugis fictional representations of
the circumcision ritual differ from Kenyattas orthodox though still politically
invested account. Such discrepancies offer readers a way of measuring the
contradictions and pressures that Ngugi was negotiating as a young, politically
conscious writer in a partially decolonized society. Thirdly, this chapter will offer
an original account of the hybrid characters in the novel (Waiyaki, Nyambura,
Muthoni) and will suggest that they are narrative vehicles designed to contain
ideological contradiction.

Although I am aware that circumcision is a dangerous term to employ in the
description of an amputation that differs substantially from the operation performed on
men, I have retained the term in places. In my opinion, clitoridectomy might be a far more
disabling term in an analysis of this kind, since it might confine a feminist discourse to the
specifically corporal (or bodily) effects of the operation. I therefore use clitoridectomy
to denote the physical operation, and I reserve circumcision to imply the cultural effects
attendant upon the rite.
34 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

The Circumcision Debate

The circumcision debate erupted in Kikuyuland in 1928 when several of the

missions located there (most notably the Church of Scotland Mission) initiated
a campaign against clitoridectomy and required their followers to renounce both
the custom and their membership of the Kenya Central Association, a nationalist
party of which Jomo Kenyatta was the general secretary. The Gikuyu community,
under the leadership of the Kenya Central Association, initiated a counter-
campaign of protests, letters to the press and pro-circumcision politicking.
The mission schools instructed pupils that circumcised students would not be
admitted. In the short term, the debate cost the missions most of their followers,
although many later returned. More importantly, it provided the Kenya Central
Association with an issue around which Gikuyu solidarity could be fostered. The
Kenya Central Association also began to see the need for an independent school
system and an African-controlled church, which would sanction both polygamy
and clitoridectomy. Rosberg and Nottingham inform us that the missions were
increasingly regarded as the spiritual edge of the colonial sword. In particular, the
dominant mission role in education was no longer regarded as sacrosanct. Out of
the controversy there developed a drive to establish a comprehensive educational
system independent of missionary control. The Kenya Central Association set
about establishing the Gikuyu Karinga Education Association (karinga denotes
nationalist or full blooded that is, non-hybrid) and the African Independent
Pentecostal Church. The feeling regarding the issue of clitoridectomy ran so
high that, on 2 January 1930, one of the missionaries, Miss Hulda Stumpf, was
reportedly attacked in her home and forcibly clitoridectomized, according to
unsubstantiated settler rumour. By 1931, more moderate voices within the
church had prevailed and the air cleared.
Despite the Gikuyu communitys and the missionaries representations to
the contrary, the circumcision debate did not centre on clitoridectomy as a
moral issue. The heat that the debate generated was largely due to the moral
indeterminacy which inhered between the conflicting ideologies of the Gikuyu

Self-evidently, this had the effect of politicizing clitoridectomy, since the requirement
to renounce membership of the Kenya Central Association brazenly targeted the organization
that was at the forefront of Gikuyu anti-colonial protest. The resulting polarization was
very damaging to the social fabric of the community, because the traditionalists called the
converts ahonoki (the saved ones) while the latter referred to the former as acenji
(the uncultured). The conflict between the two groups was so intense that it seemed like a
feud between two different ethnic groups rather than between members of the same society.
Jane C. Chesaina, East Africa Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 70.

Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya
(London: Pall Mall, 1966), p. 125.

Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 39.

Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, The Myth of Mau Mau, p. 124.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 35

and the missionaries. The churchs opposition to the ritual was relatively
straightforward: its intent was to eliminate an operation that is painful, sometimes
fatal and always irreversible. The clitoridectomy procedure was not carried
out in the sanitary conditions of a Western hospital and its function in terms of
Gikuyu spirituality was anathema to the Wests received notions of religious
worship. As such, clitoridectomy was deemed a barbaric and heathen practice.
The missionaries representation of clitoridectomy was an interested one their
civilizing mission consisted in the redemption of African subjects from the
clutches of darkness, but this mission was co-extensive with colonialism, because
both involved the eradication of the Gikuyus history, social organization and
sense of identity. Clitoridectomy produced a crisis for the missionaries because
the liberal-humanist discourse that informed their activity meant that they could
only recognize the Gikuyu subjects common humanity as long as that humanity
was constituted in the image of the West.
The Gikuyu communitys argument was more complex at least, from an
outsiders point of view. In its original cultural context, the operations were
the very fabric of community. Firstly, circumcision and clitoridectomy were
deciding factors in ones manhood or womanhood. Secondly, the operations
allowed one to marry. Thirdly, those circumcised together formed an age-group
that would eventually govern the community. Fourthly, the names given to each
age-group were the means by which the Gikuyu remembered their history.
Fifthly, circumcision gave men the right to own property. In these respects,
clitoridectomy and circumcision were absolutely crucial to the traditional social,
economic, sexual and political organization of the community.
Jomo Kenyattas account of clitoridectomy, which Ngugi follows in The
River Between, is the clearest exposition of the ritual and its importance in
Gikuyu culture. In Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta describes circumcision as a
deciding factor in giving a boy or a girl the status of manhood or womanhood
in the Gikuyu community. He continues, No proper Gikuyu would dream of
marrying a girl who has not been circumcised, and vice versa. It is taboo for
a Gikuyu man or woman to have sexual relations with someone who has not
undergone this operation. Furthermore, those detribalized Gikuyu who did
wish to settle down with an uncircumcised partner would not have enjoyed the
blessing of their family and would have faced exclusion from the homestead,
disinheritance and, therefore, landlessness. Kenyatta continues:

It is important to note that the moral code of the tribe is bound up with this
custom and that it symbolizes the unification of the whole tribal organization
The irua (ceremony) marks the commencement of participation in various

See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, pp. 634, and Carl Rosberg and John
Nottingham, The Myth of Mau Mau, pp. 11119.

Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 133.

Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 132.
36 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

governing groups in the tribal administration, because the real age-groups

begin from the day of the physical operation. The history and legends of the
people are explained and remembered according to the names given to various
age-groups at the time of the initiation ceremony.

More importantly, the parents of the initiates became members of the governing
council of elders (kiama) subsequent to the initiation of their first child. Hence,
clitoridectomy was far more than a quasi-medical operation or amputation. It
was also crucial to social organization and to the organization of power within
the Gikuyu community. However, circumcision was also of crucial importance
to the organization of sexual difference and male privilege in the community:

Before initiation it is considered right and proper for boys to practise

masturbation as a preparation for their future sexual activities. Sometimes two
or more boys compete in this, to see which can show himself more active
than the rest Masturbation among girls is considered wrong, and if a girl
is seen touching that part of her body she is at once told that she is doing
wrong. It may be said that this, among other reasons, is probably the motive of
trimming the clitoris, to prevent girls from developing sexual feelings around
that point.10

Clitoridectomy was thus tantamount to an erasure of one aspect of female

sexuality by a male-dominated culture. Allied with this negation was a series
of cultural relations that the operation enacted and instituted. It not only
dispossessed Gikuyu women of one site of bodily pleasure, but also dispossessed
them of material possessions. Becoming a woman among the Gikuyu meant
submitting to exclusion from the ownership and inheritance of land and from
access to political decision-making. In short, clitoridectomy enacted something
akin to the relations of male dominance and female submission that constitute a
patriarchal social order.11

Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 134.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 162.
I am aware that this structural reading of the clitoridectomy debate might
oversimplify Gikuyu womens terms of engagement with the struggle for independence.
For instance, more than a quarter of a century later, the Ngaitana movement comprised
women who clitoridectomized themselves in the midst of the Mau Mau insurgency. In the
context of the Kenyan emergency, the clitoris as a site of struggle appears misplaced. Yet it is
exactly this seizure of asymmetrical agency that resists co-option into masculine narratives
of Mau Mau. The definitive source on Ngaitana is Lynn M. Thomas, Politics of the Womb:
Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya (Berkeley: University of California Press,
2003), pp. 79102.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 37

Clitoridectomy and Nationalist Ideology

We have so far dwelt upon the traditional significance of clitoridectomy, but

during the clitoridectomy debate, the operation assumes a secondary nationalist
resonance. During clitoridectomy, the Gikuyu female body is intrumentalized
in the establishment of male prerogatives. Likewise, the Gikuyu female subject
is allocated an important place within culture, in spite of the fact that she will
never own that place. Her body founds the male right to property, the male
prerogative in the homestead, male accession to power, the male-defined dialectic
of desire. Her desire (which exceeds her reproductive functions) is partially
effaced in order to naturalize her subjection in culture. Spivaks explanation of
asymmetrical gendering is apposite here:

Male and female sexuality are asymmetrical. Male orgasmic pleasure normally
entails the male reproductive act semination. Female orgasmic pleasure (it
is not of course the same pleasure, only called by the same name) does not
entail any one element of the heterogeneous female reproductive scenario:
ovulation, fertilization, conception, gestation, birthing. The clitoris escapes
reproductive framing. In legally defining woman as an object of exchange,
passage or possession in terms of reproduction, it is not only the womb that
is literally appropriated; it is the clitoris as signifier of the sexed subject
that is effaced. All historical and theoretical investigation into the definition
of woman as legal object in or out of marriage; or as politico-economic
passageway for property and legitimacy would fall within the investigation of
the varieties of the effacement of the clitoris.12

Hence, there was far more at stake in the circumcision debate than a Gikuyu
womans right to determine whether or not to submit her body to clitoridectomy.
In fact, her assenting or dissenting voice was never an issue. Rather, the central
(but unspoken) issue in the debate was the material composition of the Kenyan
state. In order to clarify this point, I shall make use of Louis Althussers essay,
Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Althusser argues that the capitalist
state reproduces itself in two ways. Firstly, it must reproduce the skills and
materials required for production. Secondly, it must reproduce the labour forces
submissive relationship to the organizational hierarchy of the state:

To put this more scientifically, I shall say that the reproduction of labour
power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same
time, a reproduction of submission to the rules of the established order, i.e.
a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a
reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (New
York: Methuen, 1987), p. 151, italics in the original.
38 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

the agents of exploitation and repression, so that they, too, will provide for
the domination of the ruling class in words. In other words, the school (but
also other State institutions like the church ) teaches know-how, but in
forms which ensure subjection to the ruling ideology or the mastery of its

Althusser claims that the ruling ideology of the state is promulgated by

Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), which include the religious Ideological
State Apparatus (the system of different churches) and the educational Ideological
State Apparatus (the school system). Ideological State Apparatuses such as these
become not only the stake, but also the site of class struggle14 in the proletariats
attempts to ward off the ruling classs exploitation and to seize control of
the state. In pre-Independence Kenya, the Christian Churchs contribution to
colonialism was to ensure a docile populace, who could look forward to the
Kingdom of Heaven in the afterlife while enduring servitude on Earth. Equally,
the school system functioned to produce an African lite, who would emerge as
a buffer class between the settlers neo-aristocracy and the Kenyan peasantry.
In other words, the Ideological State Apparatuses constituted by the school
system and the missions enabled and perpetuated exploitative social formations
in colonial Kenya. In political terms, the circumcision debate marks a decisive
juncture in the history of Gikuyu resistance to colonial rule.15 The emergence
of the independent schools and the African churches was tantamount to the
emergence of powerful new Ideological State Apparatuses in the Kenyan state,
instituting a counter-colonial discourse. These Ideological State Apparatuses,
like the Gikuyu nationalism they fostered, had their ideological roots in Gikuyu
traditionalism. The advent of the Mau Mau insurgency,16 20 years later, may be

Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards
an Investigation) in Essays on Ideology (London: Verso, 1993), pp. 67, italics in the
Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, p. 21, italics in the
In this context, Hickeys argument that the missionaries at least raised objections to
a gender-oppressive cultural practice is slightly myopic. The missionaries intervention at a
politically sensitive time had the upshot of hardening ideological positions and harnessing
clitoridectomy to Kenyan nationalism for many years beyond the initial circumcision
debate. Hence, this intervention probably set back the anti-clitoridectomy cause by about
50 years. See Dennis Hickey, One Peoples Freedom, One Womans Pain: Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Alice Walker, and the Problem of Female Circumcision in Charles Cantalupo
(ed.), Ngugi Wa Thiongo: Texts and Contexts (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press,
1995), pp. 23146.
The predominantly Gikuyu Mau Mau uprising took place between 1952 and 1957.
Its association in the European mind with brutality and barbarism led to a disproportionate
backlash against the Gikuyu and to extreme civilian hardship. Despite its military failures,
Mau Mau precipitated Kenyan Independence in 1960.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 39

viewed as an attempt by the Gikuyu people (and others) to violently usurp the
Repressive State Apparatuses (the army, the police, the homeguard, the courts)
that enforced the last vestiges of colonial domination in Kenya.
Although the debate may have had far-reaching consequences for the
Gikuyu populace, the central figure in the debate the Gikuyu woman is
conspicuously silent. This silence may be understood in terms of Althussers
remark that [ideology] represents the imaginary relationship of individuals
to their real conditions of existence.17 In terms of this formulation, a Gikuyu
womans identity as a woman was produced by the ritual of circumcision and
its attendant cultural implications it was only by submitting to clitoridectomy
that a Gikuyu woman could call herself a Gikuyu woman (or, for that matter,
a patriot). Equally, it was only by refusing to be circumcised that a Kenyan
Christian woman could call herself a Christian woman (or, for that matter, a
good colonial subject).18 In Althussers terms, all ideology hails or interpellates
concrete individuals as concrete subjects.19 Despite the hostility that developed
on both sides, the result of the circumcision debate was the production of a
regime of signs in which the Gikuyu patriarchy and the colonial patriarchy
colluded to silence Gikuyu women.20 Evidence of this collusion may be found in
the strikingly similar conclusions that Kenyatta and the missionaries drew from
the events in 1931: that circumcision was a custom ingrained in Gikuyu culture,
and that it was best left to die out by itself.21
Although the Gikuyu community was the only party to advocate clitoridectomy
in the debate, the missionaries Christian belief system entailed the suppression of
the clitoris by a more subtle mechanism. As an example, one might cite the myth
of the Immaculate Conception (as Tobe Levins article on The River Between
does), in which Marys motherhood entails a lack of sexual participation, which
in turn constitutes an effacement of female desire. Mary is an icon of femininity
defined exclusively in terms of her reproductive capacities. In a related vein,

Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, p. 36.
Chris Duntons article unhelpfully reproduces this binaristic logic in stating that The
River Between is a novel that foregrounds a stated defence of this practice [clitoridectomy] in
the interests of the preservation of an indigenous social order (as against the process of social
transformation instigated under colonial rule). The neutrality with which colonial violence is
represented here limits the power of Duntons critique of clitoridectomy. See Chris Dunton,
This Rape is Political: The Siting of Womens Experience in Novels by Aidoo, Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Farah and El Saadawi, English in Africa, 27:1 (May 2000), p. 9.
Louis Althusser, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, p. 47.
Patrick Williams description of the Gikuyu female agency as ideologically
trapped is pertinent here. See Patrick Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 34.
Not astonishingly, Waiyaki the protagonist of The River Between reaches a
similar conclusion. Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between (London: Heinemann, 1965),
pp. 1412.
40 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Gayatri Spivak has provided an incisive critique of the ubiquitous symbolic

clitoridectomy of women:

Psychological investigation in this area cannot only confine itself to the effect
of clitoridectomy on women. It would also ask why and show how, since an
at least symbolic clitoridectomy has always been the normal accession to
womanhood and the unacknowledged name of motherhood [Spivak refers
here to Freuds assertion that womens psychosexual maturity rests upon a
change from clitoral to vaginal orgasm], it might be necessary to plot out the
entire geography of female sexuality in terms of the imagined possibility of
the dismemberment of the phallus. The arena of research here is not merely
remote and primitive societies The pre-comprehended suppression or
effacement of the clitoris relates to every move to define woman as sex-object,
or as means or agent of reproduction with no recourse to a subject-function
except in terms of those definitions or as imitators of men.22

If we read the Gikuyu rite of circumcision and the gendering of Christian myth in
this way, we can begin to see how there was a tacit form of collusion between two
seemingly intransigent political adversaries. The upshot of the collusion between
colonial-Christian and traditionalist-nationalist ideologues in the circumcision
debate was that both camps decided upon a shared referent (the Gikuyu
peasant woman) and differed only as to whether she should be symbolically or
physically clitoridectomized. Hence, the debate relies upon a consensual trope of
femininity in order to found political disagreement, with obviously exclusionary
outcomes for the women involved in the debate. There is a fossilizing of the
possibilities open to Gikuyu women at this point in Kenyan history. The female
body becomes politicized or ideologically inscribed in the clitoridectomy debate
womens bodies become a metaphor for the emergent Gikuyu nation. At an
institutional level, the creation of independent schools and churches represents
Gikuyu nationalisms seizure of two of the most powerful colonial institutions
(the Church and education) 30 years before the arrival of Kenyan independence.
This seizure is a crucial moment in the formation of the post-Independence state.
Thus, clitoridectomy was deeply enmeshed within the trajectory of Gikuyu
nationalism. And, more significantly perhaps, clitoridectomy instituted within
Gikuyu nationalism what Gayatri Spivak would call a uterine social organization
(the arrangement of the world in terms of the reproduction of future generations,
where the uterus is the chief agent and means of production).23 In other words,
womens anatomies and identities became symbolically bound to motherhood
and in turn to the emerging nation at the expense of female sexual and political
agency. The cultural suppression of the clitoris enabled womens reproductive
functions to eclipse other kinds of female agency.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 151.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 152.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 41

Ngugis own subject formation is an uneasy synthesis of the colonial and

counter-colonial ideologies that competed for primacy in the circumcision
debate. He was born into a family of ahoi (tenant farmers), and although his
parents were located within the Gikuyu peasantry, they distrusted Gikuyu
traditionalism. Their landlords were devout members of the Church of Scotland
Mission. The first three years of education Ngugi received were at a mission
school (Kamaandura). He then transferred to the Maanguua Karinga school,
which was one of the independent schools, and underwent circumcision at the
age of 15. He then attended Alliance High School, where he became rather
too serious a Christian.24 Shortly after writing The River Between in 1961
(originally and revealingly titled The Black Messiah), Ngugi wrote an article for
the Kenyan newspaper Sunday Nation with the propitiatory title of Let Us Be
Careful About What We Take From The Past. The article argues for selective
retention of things from the past in keeping with our progress to a higher and
fuller humanity [and] finds the Gikuyu the worst offenders, citing brutal
female circumcision and bride price as customs that have completely outlived
their purposes.25

The River Between

It is perhaps not surprising that representations of women in The River Between

reflect the tensions within Ngugis ideological formation. On one level, the
text reinforces the production of women in terms of traditionalist ideology.
For example, the free indirect discourse attributed to Chege reveals the social
importance with which clitoridectomy is invested: [circumcision] was a
central rite in the Gikuyu way of life. Who had ever heard of a girl that was not
circumcised? Who would ever pay cows and goats for such a girl?26 These words
are ambiguous. Firstly, it is ironic that it is precisely Cheges son (Waiyaki) who
falls in love with an uncircumcised girl (Nyambura). Yet Cheges thoughts prove
to be prophetic: events intrude upon the young lovers plans and prevent them
from marrying according to either Christian or African custom. As prophecy,
Cheges assertions are validated. As irony, they are deflated. This should point
us to Ngugis ambivalence in regard to both Gikuyu and Western belief systems,
which play out their confrontation in terms of the sign woman (or girl) that
can only be produced in exogamy. The exchange of women in Gikuyu culture
(and implicitly in the novel) is an exchange that cements social and political

See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 4.
Carol Sicherman, Ngugi wa Thiongo: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary
Sources (London: Hans Zell, 1989), p. 11.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, pp. 378.
42 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

relationships between men.27 Circumcision therefore provides a seal on the act of

exogamy it invests the goods with value.28
In one of its less equivocal moments, The River Between resorts to a free
indirect discourse that inadvertently exposes circumcision as a cornerstone upon
which the Gikuyu patriarchy is founded:

Circumcision was an important ritual to the tribe. It kept people together, bound
the tribe. It was at the core of the social structure, and a something that gave
meaning to a mans life. End the custom and the spiritual basis of the tribes
cohesion and integration would be no more. The cry was up. Gikuyu Karinga.
Keep the tribe pure. Tutikwenda Irigu [we do not want uncircumcized girls]. It
was a souls cry, a souls wish.29

Beyond the sexist language in this passage and its construction of a masculine
performative (we) that articulates the destiny of womens bodies in an
unimpeachably spiritual register, The River Between is a little simplistic in its
reduction of an entire tradition to one custom.30 However, the texts emphasis on
the spiritual importance of circumcision also obscures its material importance in
disciplining Gikuyu subjects:

The knife produced a thin sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon
had done his work. Blood trickled freely onto the ground, sinking into the soil.
Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an

Hence, there is a very subtle texturing to the novels understanding of love as a
metaphor for social unity. As one critic has argued, At the social level, Ngugi emphasizes
the value of unity and co-operation in the absence of which society disintegrates. Love is
presented as an essential element for human happiness and survival. Eddah Gachukia, The
Novels of James Ngugi in Eddah Gacukia and Kichamu Akivaga (eds), Teaching of African
Literature in Schools (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1978), p. 106. The failure of
love in The River Between is a metonym for Waiyakis failure to achieve political unity.
My argument here is indebted to Elizabeth Cowie, Woman as Sign, m/f, no.
1 (1978), pp. 4963. Cowie contends that the sign woman is socially constructed in
terms of the relationships in which women are positioned by exogamy. On one level, the
Gikuyu patriarchys intervention in the circumcision debate had the upshot of regulating
the exchange of women. The Kenya Central Association claimed, in a letter to the press,
that the missionaries attempts to outlaw clitoridectomy were motivated by a desire to
secure uncircumcised girls as wives. See Guy Arnold, Kenyatta and the Politics of Kenya
(London: Dent and Sons, 1974), p. 121.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 68, my emphasis.
James Ogude has written of the novel, The polity is constituted almost exclusively
through a religious myth of origin and the whole issue of tribal tradition is collapsed into
one single institution circumcision, which is seen as a fulcrum of the community. James
Ogude, Ngugis Novels and African History: Narrating the Nation (London: Pluto, 1999),
p. 16.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 43

offering. Around him women were shouting and praising him. The son of Chege
had proved himself. Such praises were only lavished on the brave.31

The blood that drops on to the earth during circumcision is supposed by the Gikuyu
subject to naturalize their bond with the land. This representation obfuscates the fact
that, unlike the empowering outcomes of the operation upon men, clitoridectomy
functions to acculturate Gikuyu subaltern women32 and to appropriate their bodies
in the service of oppressive social relations. The ritual re-enacts this silence because
the subject (whether male or female) is expected not to cry out, nor to register
pain.33 The material basis of circumcision becomes manifest if one examines these
silences in the text. If the ritual serves to naturalize the relationship between the
subject and the land, it may be viewed as a legitimizing enactment of Gikuyu
proprietorship of the land.
In a number of places, the text refers to a secret language of the Kenyan
highlands; a language that the colonizer does not understand. The content of
this secret language is not explicitly revealed to the reader, but it forms part of a
coded reference to Gikuyu proprietorship of the land at one point in the narrative:
On sunny days the green leaves and the virgin gaiety of the flowers made your
heart swell with expectation. At such times the women could be seen cultivating;
no, not cultivating, but talking in a secret language with the crops and the soil.
Women sang gay songs.34 The secret language of this passage is one which links
the subaltern woman with the land and that which issues from it the flowers
have a virgin gaiety (which might, in turn, imply the pristine agrarian society
prior to the advent of colonialism) and likewise the women sing gay songs. In
short, the privileged realm of womens dialogue is also a realm of suppression, in
which female speech is subsumed in landscape. Equally, in the Kenya of the early
1930s, the secret language of the Kenya Central Associations involvement in the
circumcision debate was that the cultural preservation of the ritual formed part of
its political programme for the reclamation of land alienated from the Gikuyu and
the reinstitution of a social order which was beginning to lapse under the weight
of the colonial incursion.
The alignment of women (or mothers, or virgins) with nature legitimizes
a broader narrative that divests women of a controlling hand in the realms of
culture and politics. This narrative is expressed in one of the Gikuyu myths that
appears more than once in Ngugis work. The myth describes the overthrow of
a prehistorical matriarchy in Gikuyuland. In Ngugis novel, Waiyaki asks why
antelope do not flee from women. Chege replies:

Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 45.
For the classical definition of the term subaltern, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,
Can the Subaltern Speak? in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds), Marxism and
the Interpretation of Culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988), pp. 271313.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 146.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 79.
44 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

You do not know this! Long ago women used to rule this land and its men. They
were harsh and men began to resent their hard hand. So when all the women
were pregnant, men came together and overthrew them. Before this, women
owned everything. The animal you saw was their goat. But because the women
could not manage them, the goats ran away. They knew women to be weak. So
why should they fear them?
It was then Waiyaki understood why his mother owned nothing.35

This passage naturalizes Gikuyu male privileges and prerogatives, both in Ngugis
novel and in the Gikuyu society from which the myth is drawn. The implication in
the myth is that women are suited to neither the ownership of property nor to the
offices of traditional governance. More importantly, the myth depicts the rise of the
Gikuyu patriarchy through an appropriation of womens reproductive capacities.
In this way, the myth is linked with the mobilization of circumcision within the
narrative of Kenyan nationalist resistance. Like clitoridectomy (symbolic or real),
the founding myth of Gikuyu patriarchy places women within a uterine social
organization in which womens bodies and identities are symbolically bound
to motherhood. As Spivak would argue, by symbolically binding women to
motherhood, excess female desire is effaced and the womb is appropriated for its
reproductive potential. Since the womb is a site of production, the appropriation
of the womb also, of course, exploits female labour in one of its forms. Thus,
the Gikuyu myth above undergirds a patriarchal system that is predicated on
the effacement of female sexuality and it comprises a symbolic effacement of
the clitoris (a metonym for female desire). The myth thus serves to legitimize
the practice of clitoridectomy and its subsequent cultural effects, including the
prohibition on female ownership of property. Further, the myth serves to forestall
Gikuyu womens claims to political self-representation. In a sense, the circumcision
debate and the myth that legitimizes male power conspire to place subaltern
women in a double bind from which even Ngugis hybrid female characters can
not escape. Effectively, the circumcision debate meant that a womans political
choice was exercised through her physiological status (clitoridectomized or not).
Contrarily, the myth legitimizing male power implies that it is precisely womens
physiology which prevents them from exercising political power.
However, my reading of The River Between has not taken into account the
contradictory status of the characters that are a synthesis or middle ground in the
ideological divide between Western Christianity and Gikuyu traditionalism. These
characters are hybrid and are therefore offered a revolutionary potential in the text.
It is clear that the text privileges these characters. Even the title, The River Between,
refers to the Honia river which serves as an ideological between a negotiated
position in the conflict between the Makuyu and Kameno ridges. Perhaps the most
important of these hybrid figures is Muthoni. Her decision to be both Christian
and circumcised is revolutionary in the context of the circumcision debate, and

Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 15.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 45

her justification of this decision provides Waiyaki with the first inklings of how he
may assist in the liberation of the Gikuyu from colonial rule. Muthoni says, I want
to be a woman. Father and Mother are circumcised. But why are they stopping me,
why do they deny me this? How could I be outside the tribe when all the girls born
with me at the same time have left me?36 Her position exposes the inconsistency of
her father, Joshuas, prohibition of circumcision. However, although her position
offers her a revolutionary potential in the text, it does not offer her liberation from
the strictures of the patriarchal order: I want to be a woman made beautiful in the
tribe; a husband for my bed; children to play around the hearth.37 Clearly, to be
made beautiful in the tribe is to acquire an ideologically determined beauty that
supports the patriarchal organization of the Gikuyu community. If clitoridectomy
effaces female desire in order to produce wives and mothers, then Muthonis words
indicate that she will find her own fulfilment in the role that has been allocated to
her. Muthonis hybrid status is further confirmed by her final words to Waiyaki:
I am still a Christian, see, a Christian in the tribe. Look. I am a woman and will
grow big and healthy in the tribe. [Tell] Nyambura I see Jesus. And I am a woman,
beautiful in the tribe 38 These affirmations are ironically deflated by Muthonis
death. In fact, the only authority her words may carry is that they confirm Waiyakis
Messianic pretensions Muthoni sees Jesus while Waiyaki is the only person in
her presence. Muthonis death functions to negate the positive possibilities that
the text affords her although she is admirably outspoken and rebellious, she
constitutes a failed attempt at an ideological synthesis of the Gikuyu nationalist
and Christian stances in relation to clitoridectomy. Significantly, the injuries that
she sustains during the operation can be cured neither by Gikuyu remedies nor
by Western medicine.39 Incidentally, Muthonis death signals another negated
possibility in the text. In Gikuyu, Muthoni means a relative by marriage, and the
reader later discovers that a marriage between Waiyaki and Nyambura is fated not
to take place.
The second hybrid character is Waiyaki. He is referred to as the Black
Messiah, and, as we have seen, there is some suggestion that Waiyaki is the Jesus
that Muthoni has seen on her deathbed.40 He is described in terms that evoke both
Gikuyu traditionalist and Christian discourses:

[His] voice was like the voice of his father no it was like the voice of the
great Gikuyus of old. Here again was a saviour, the one whose words touched
the souls of the people. People listened and their hearts moved with the vibration

Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 44.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 44.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 53.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 50.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 103.
46 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

of his voice. And he, like a shepherd speaking to his flock, avoided any words
that might be insulting.41

Likewise, Nyambura Muthonis sister and Waiyakis lover is offered a

revolutionary position. She is Christian and uncircumcised, and is therefore outcast
unclean according to the Kiama. She defies Joshuas order not to love Waiyaki,42
and when Waiyaki comes to warn Joshua and his followers of the Kiamas plans to
harm them, Nyambura does the unthinkable by declaring her love for him:

Joshua was fierce. He hated the young man with a hatred which a man of God
has towards Satan. There was another murmur in the room. Then silence reigned
as Nyambura walked across towards Waiyaki while all the eyes watched her.
Waiyaki and Joshua must have been struck by her grace and mature youthfulness.
She held Waiyakis hand and said what no other girl at that time would have
dared to say, what she herself could not have done a few days before.
You are brave and I love you.43

Nyamburas voice at this point becomes a powerful instrument for dissembling the
hardened ideological positions which contribute to the crisis in the text. However,
her voice is never permitted to exert any influence upon the action. Like Waiyaki,
Nyambura becomes a sacrificial victim of the Kiama; the scapegoat on to whom
all of the Gikuyu communitys guilt and hatred are transferred.

Class, Contradiction and the Post-Independence Intellectual

If hybrid characters such as Waiyaki, Nyambura and Muthoni are privileged in the
text, one might wonder why their ostensibly revolutionary potential is negated:
why do they fall foul of circumstance or of self-interested powermongers such
as Kabonyi? Significantly, Kabonyi is the archetypal villain, and, rather than
attempting to achieve a synthesis of the two ideological poles posited in the novel,
he fluctuates between them, first as a Christian convert and later as the leader of
the Kiama. The answer to my question has less to do with Ngugis contradictory
formation under Christian and Gikuyu discourses than it has to do with his
contradictory position within the educated lite in post-Independence Kenya.
These latter contradictions are outlined in Ian Glenns reading of Ngugis
fiction. Glenn emphasizes Ngugis class position within post-Independence
Kenya and he lists four features that characterize the intellectual lites in newly
independent states. Firstly, the intellectual lite plays a mediating role between the
colonizeds culture and Western culture. Secondly, it has an exaggerated sense of

Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 96.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 134.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 136.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 47

its own importance and representativeness in the shaping of the nation state and
its ideology.

The third notable feature of intellectual lites is that they are especially likely,
by virtue of their training, outlook and position, to stress intellectual and abstract
solutions to social and political problems The fourth feature of the intellectual
lite is that a member is a member, paradoxically, by having his [sic] own views,
opinions, conscience, judgement. He is likely to clash with traditional religious
belief, marriage practices and value systems. This stress on individualism offers
the temptation of a life of private consciousness, but in view of the lites sense
of idealism and of its own importance, this temptation will be resisted or take
particular forms. The two most important exceptions are the pursuit of a separate
religious goal or destiny for the transcendent self, or the exaltation of the self in
the most individualistic of relationships, that of romantic love, with its insistence
on the signs of a unique and individual attraction.44

Waiyaki exhibits all of these features. He is initiated into Gikuyu customs by his
father and by undergoing circumcision. He also receives an education at the Siriana
mission school. He sees himself as a visionary who has been chosen to redeem the
Gikuyu community from the conditions of its oppression, and the wistful solution
Waiyaki offers to these conditions is that of education. Further, it is precisely
Waiyakis ambition to enter into a companionate marriage with Nyambura that
marks his position as a half-outsider in relation to the Makuyu and Kameno
communities. If Waiyaki does share with Ngugi the features that characterize an
intellectual lite, one might expect the narrative to represent him in a considerably
sympathetic light. Why, then, is Waiyaki abandoned to the discipline of the Kiama
by the conclusion of the novel? Why is there a strong suggestion that his lover,
Nyambura, will be clitoridectomized or immolated? The unexpected turn of events
at the conclusion of the novel may be explained by Ian Glenns remark:

Clearly the situation and dilemma of the heroes [of Ngugis novels] is structurally
related to that of the lite whose alienation is, paradoxically, their source of
power. How are we to understand the persistent failure and sacrifice of the hero?
Is it a resurgence in African writing of the colonial novelists theme of the tragedy
of the educated African, the man of two worlds? In some sense, yes, it seems
to me that the novels reflect the strain of this mediating position, this double
alienation, and exonerate the hero by suggesting that the task of modernising his
primordial attachments or satisfying the various allegiances is impossible, that
the contradictions cannot be lived out. At the same time, in death as sacrifice, the

Ian Glenn, Ngugi wa Thiongo and the Dilemmas of the Intellectual Elite in
Africa, p. 62. Glenn notes a fifth feature which does not inform my analysis.
48 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

lite finds an ideal individualist gesture and intellectual act through which the
opposites may be reconciled.45

Although the two central female characters in The River Between are not explicitly
demarcated as intellectual figures, their mission school education and missionary
father demarcate their class affinity with a wealthy, literate minority. It is clear
that, like Waiyaki, these female characters respectively represent two poles of
hybridity in the narrative: Muthoni is clitoridectomized and Christian, whereas
Nyambura is uncircumcised and in love with a circumcised Gikuyu man. This
construction offers each of the sisters a reconciliatory potential in the narrative,
and yet this potential is negated by Muthonis death and Nyamburas uncertain
fate. The fates of both women are yoked into the heroic failure of their masculine
counterpart, Waiyaki. I would suggest, in agreement with Glenns critical position,
that The River Between plays out the possibilities and failures of a male intellectual
consciousness attempting to be representative of an emergent nationhood.
Ngugis reinscription of the myth of Waiyaki supports this latter contention.
The real or historical Waiyaki entered into a treaty with Lord Lugard,46 then
later initiated resistance against the British. He was captured and killed (allegedly
by being buried upside down while still alive). Nationalist historians depict
Waiyaki as an early Gikuyu martyr and a forerunner of nationalist resistance to
colonial domination. Mbugua Njamas pamphlet,47 which Ngugi translated into
English, is a representative example of this trend. However, Cora Ann Presley
labels Waiyaki an early collaborator.48 More importantly, she notes, Kikuyu
oral tradition maintains that Waiyaki was an ambitious young man from a poor
lineage who believed he could become a man of status, wealth and authority by
working with the Europeans.49 I would not like to argue for either the educated
nationalist lites or the illiterate peasantrys representations of Waiyaki. Rather,

Ian Glenn, Ngugi wa Thiongo and the Dilemmas of the Intellectual Elite in
Africa, p. 63.
Lord Frederick John Dealtry Lugard was a former military man who spent four
decisive years in East Africa (188892) (see Carol Sicherman, Making of A Rebel, pp. 1478)
during which he established the first British East Africa Company station in Kikuyuland (with
Waiyakis agreement) and urged the inclusion of Uganda into the British Empire. Lugards
other achievements include bringing Nigeria under British Administration (18951902) and
acting as the Nigerian Governor General (191219). Lugard was the architect of the British
policy of Indirect Rule in Nigeria. In a beautiful irony, Kenyattas anthropological studies
under Malinowski in London (1936), which led to the publication of Facing Mount Kenya,
were completed with the assistance of a scholarship from the International African Institute,
chaired by Lugard (see Guy Arnold, Kenyatta and the Politics of Kenya, p. 28).
See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, pp. 35055.
Cora Ann Presley, Kikuyu Women, the Mau Mau Rebellion, and Social Change in
Kenya (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1992), p. 9.
Cora Ann Presley, Kikuyu Women, p. 63.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 49

I would read the differences between the two versions as an allegory of the crisis
of representativeness that confronts Ngugi as an African intellectual, removed
from his constituent class by an education which is as disabling in political terms
as it is enabling in socio-economic terms.
Of course, the Waiyaki of The River Between is not the unqualified hero and
martyr of nationalist accounts, but he is always partially inscribed by the Waiyaki
of myth. This may be seen in the passage that relates to the Second Birth: The
women went on shouting but Waiyaki did not see them now. Their voices were
a distant buzz like another he had heard in a dream when a swarm of bees came
to attack him.50 Two points are important here. Firstly, the dream of the bees is
a proleptic moment in the narrative; it prefigures the immolation of Waiyaki and
Nyambura and thus enhances the suggestion that Waiyaki is a prophet chosen by
the Gikuyu gods to lead his people. Secondly, it resonates with a moment of divine
intervention in the myth of Waiyaki. Waiyaki has been captured and is being taken
to the coast by British soldiers. A group of warriors is following them in order to
free Waiyaki by force:

It is very significant that there were many guards with him, and when they were
travelling near Kabete a beehive, which no one had touched, fell from a tree,
and the bees burst out and attacked the people who were guarding Waiyaki. The
warriors wanted to fight; now they were being helped by the bees.51

There is an obvious difference in the function of the bees in the two stories. In
the myth, they protect Waiyaki. In the novel, they attack him. Ngugis novel
reinscribes the myth in order to act out the idealistic scenario of the individual
sacrifice/martyrdom of the hero. It is a gesture that reconciles Ngugis position
with that of the illiterate peasantry (as Glenn suggests) and it accords with Ngugis
Christian world view at the time of writing the sacrificial victim or messiah
reunites the collective.
Given that Ngugis novel broadly follows Kenyattas anthropological defence
of circumcision in Facing Mount Kenya, there is a very revealing disparity between
the two accounts of the Second Birth:

His mother sat near the fireplace in her hut as if in labour. Waiyaki sat between
her thighs. A thin cord taken from a slaughtered goat and tied to his mother
represented the umbilical cord. A woman, old enough to be a midwife, came and
cut the cord.52

Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 12.
Mbugua Njama, quoted in Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 352.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, The River Between, p. 12.
50 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

[The] gut is cut in a long ribbon, and while the initiates stand in one group close
together the ribbon encircles them, being tied so as to cover the navel of those
on the outside of the circle. They stand in position for a few minutes; then the
midwife comes along with a razor dipped in sheeps blood and cuts the ribbon
in two. This symbolizes the cutting of the umbilical cord at birth. This is done to
express the rebirth of the initiate.53

Ngugi reinscribes the Second Birth in two ways here. Firstly, it takes place
before Waiyakis circumcision, rather than afterwards (as in Kenyattas account).
Secondly, Ngugis account deals revealingly with an individual, rather
than with a collective. Ngugis text is marked by individualism (which, in turn,
evidences a self-interested account of Gikuyu culture and resistance). Further, this
account of the Second Birth defines Ngugis version of Kenyan history as a history
of individuals, heroes and martyrs.

The Early Plays and Essays

Ngugis earliest plays and essays repeat this patterning of the political leader as an
exemplary individual riven by social contradiction. One might take as an example
The Black Hermit, whose title is akin to the original title Ngugi had in mind for
The River Between, The Black Messiah. The plays eponymous black hermit,
Remi, is living in the city in exile from his rural community. He has taken a white
girlfriend (Jane) and has thus abandoned his wife (Thoni) whose marriage to him
was arranged after the death of her first husband, Remis brother. In the village,
separate delegations are sent by the community elders and the Christian pastor to
persuade Remi to return home to his mother and his community, and to put his
education to use by taking up the mantle of political and religious leadership. As
an educated figure representing the vicarious ambitions of his entire community,
Remi has been elected to destiny. The double imperative that confronts him is
that he is expected both to serve and to save, but this imperative emerges from
different constituencies within the community the elders and the pastor. It is
fairly clear that the community here is divided along ethnic-traditionalist and
Christian lines, much as the community is in The River Between. This sense of
division is structurally repeated in Remis split loyalties to two different women,
the modern and urban Jane of his present, and the long-suffering and rural Thoni
of his past. These two women are located respectively in the loaded geographies
of country and city that give the first two acts their titles. As such, Thoni and
Jane symbolically contribute to a uterine social organization in the play their
femininity assists in organizing the communitys political stakes. Of course, like
Waiyaki in The River Between, Remi is destined to lose both of his prospective
lovers as a result of the contradictions in his position. Jane leaves him when she

Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 150.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 51

discovers that he is already married, and Thoni commits suicide after she overhears
him claiming that he was wrong to marry a woman who he believes never loved
him. Remi is unable to reconcile the responsibilities to his community with a
future with Jane, and he is unable to reconcile the communal customs via which
Thoni has become his wife with his modernizing vision. Political leadership,
as it expresses itself in the educated and idealistic Remi, is a cult of youth and its
failures are marked by sexual crisis.
Although Jane and Thoni are given articulate dialogue and both criticize the way
in which Remis sense of his mission removes him from the very constituencies he
would claim, both are placed in a subsidiary relation to him. Thoni, in particular,
claims that she cant do without a husband54 or a child of her own to make her
feel a new self55 and that she would rather die than have to find a replacement for
Remi. Likewise, Nyobi, Remis mother, locates social renewal in their marriage
and in Thonis childbearing capacities, which are figured in terms of a seedling
bearing fruit.56 Remi himself claims that a mans public life is given meaning
only by the stability of his private life.57 In short, all of the major characters in
The Black Hermit equate the domestic and the political in ways that are consistent
with Ngugis early fictional works. Indeed, one elder goes as far as to call Remi
a husband to all the land,58 repeating familiar tropes from the early novels that
collapse femininity into the landscape.
The Black Hermit and The River Between are consistent with Ngugis analysis
of post-Independence society at this point in his development. For Ngugi, the
political independence of Kenya carries with it the requirement of a unifying
national ideal that will circumvent tribal-ethnic, class and religious divisions and
form the basis for a broader community. In 1962, he argues in an essay titled
Kenya: The Two Rifts that Kenya exhibits two rifts. Firstly, there is a vertical
rift in Kenyas entrenched racial divisions, with the Asian struggling for political
equality with the European, and the African struggling for a better political and
economic dispensation.59 This rift is compounded by tribal conflicts and suspicions
among Africans. Secondly, Kenya exhibits a horizontal rift in the division of the
lite from the common mass of the people.60 Ngugis argument is that these two
rifts need to be overcome by a wider concept of human association not of
different tribal entities, but of individuals, free to journey to those heights of which
they are capable.61 Additionally, he advises that the traditional African concept of
the community should not be forgotten in our rush for western culture and political

James Ngugi, The Black Hermit (London: Heinemann, 1972 [1968]), p. 3.
James Ngugi, The Black Hermit, p. 3.
James Ngugi, The Black Hermit, p. 19.
James Ngugi, The Black Hermit, p. 41.
James Ngugi, The Black Hermit, p. 39.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 23.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 24.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 24.
52 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

institutions because the individual finds the fullest development of his personality
when he is working in and for the community.62 However, as the conclusion of
The Black Hermit indicates, the difficult double bind in such worthy ideals is how
to confront Tribe and Custom without destroying the personal relationships that
constitute community.63
A few points should be made here. Firstly, it is clear that Ngugi does not quite
manage to resolve the tension between individual self-actualization and communal
responsibility in his early essays, or in his early fictional and theatrical output.
Rather, the conflicting claims of the personal and the political are dramatized in
figures such as Waiyaki or Remi. Secondly, the two ridges in The River Between
approximate the two rifts that Ngugi sees at work in Kenya. In this sense, the
novel spatializes politics, just as The Black Hermit does in the titles of its first
two acts: The Country and The City. The novel and the play both submit the
unifying ideals of Remis African nationalism or Omanges worker solidarity to
the differentiations of national space. These differentiations of national space are
feminized, so that Thoni represents ethnically derived tradition in Kenyan rural
communities, while Jane represents urban modernity. What allows such social
contradictions to be placed in encounter is the mobility that the female subject
gains through the medium of exogamous exchange. In other words, by weighing
up his marital destiny between Thoni and Jane, Remi places a larger set of symbolic
affiliations into a meaningful social relation.
The irreconcilable differences at work within a wider concept of human
association also form a key concern of Ngugis second collection of plays, This
Time Tomorrow (1970). The collection comprises the plays The Rebels, The Wound
in the Heart and the eponymous This Time Tomorrow. The first play, The Rebels,
was performed in 1961 at a Makerere University Interhall Competition and was
broadcast a year later on the Ugandan Broadcasting Service.64 Unsurprisingly,
given its origins in Uganda, it tells the story of Charles, an intellectual returning to
his community with a Ugandan fiance, Mary. Unbeknownst to Charles, his father
has arranged for the Chiefs daughter, Mumbi, to marry Charles upon his return
from university. Nguru, Charles father, rejects Mary because she is Ugandan and,
crucially, because she is not clitoridectomized.65 Charles is unable to stand up to
his father and he assents to Ngurus wish that he should marry Mumbi partly
out of a sense of duty and obligation to his community for having received an
education. As a result, Mary leaves him. Meanwhile, Mumbi, who has heard of
Mary, runs away and is drowned while trying to cross a river. This action is framed
by the narrative of a stranger who has known Nguru as a younger man in his home
community of Muranga. Nguru carries a curse for marrying a woman who is

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 25.
James Ngugi, The Black Hermit, p. 76.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 5.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow (Nairobi: East African Literature Bureau, 1970),
pp. 810.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 53

unclean (with thahu) and for not attending his father on his deathbed, and, as a
result, Ngurus own children are destined to defy him. What is interesting in the
play is the tussle between Christian and Gikuyu traditional modes of belief, but
this is also a tussle between the two different economies at stake in arranged and
companionate marriages. This tussle is symbolically played out in the names of
Charless fiances, Mary (whose father is a clergyman) and Mumbi (whose father
is the Chief). These two women are ideological daughters, and both ultimately
reject Charles. In this sense, Charless class alienation from his community by
virtue of his education is filtered through constructions of femininity. By the end
of the play, Mary has left and Mumbi is dead. This distribution of fate might at first
seem to privilege Marys education and Christianity over Mumbis significance to
custom and community, and yet the ending is more equivocal than this. Charles
recognizes the failures in his communitys blind adherence to custom,66 but he
also recognizes that he has not been strong enough to adhere to his convictions.
After Charles leaves, Nguru is made to see the failure of his authority. And yet the
fulfilment of the curse from Ngurus past in Muranga for marrying a woman
with thahu (uncleanliness) and for disobeying and dishonouring his father
reinstates an older form of traditional, Oedipal authority that is laden with gender
determinants. The stranger may proclaim of Nguru, [t]he last of the tribe falls
and with him, a generation,67 but the prophetic force of the past and its traditions
is still left in place. What Ngugi is modelling in this play (as with the figures of
Chege and the historical Waiyaki in The River Between) is a social model in which
the political inefficacy of Gikuyu tradition is compensated for by its predictive
power. In this ambivalent twist, the past is never quite dispensed with. Its authority
lingers on in the unforeseen consequences of prophecy.
The returning Mau Mau detainee of The Wound in the Heart, Ruhiu, repeats the
gender patterning we have noticed at work in The Rebels. Once home, Ruhiu greets
his mother as mother of our Africa and of the black race and he greets the elders
as my fathers.68 There is a repetition here of the burden of exemplification that
we have seen at work in Weep Not, Child Ruhius mother, Wangari, is imagined
here to exemplify all of Africa and its diasporas. Similar forms of objectification
appear elsewhere in the play. Ruhiu describes his unnamed wife, who is given no
dialogue in the play, as a great possession.69 When he discovers that she has been
raped in his absence and has borne a child, Ruhiu goes on to claim:

I had beaten the white man? He has stabbed me in the heart. And yet oh
couldnt someone prevent the white man, the cursed District Officer, from
carrying her? I would have borne all. But this! this! oh, a child by a white man,

James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 15.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 16.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 23.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 25.
54 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

my enemy? God, you have in the past let him seize our property and now he
takes away our women.70

We see in this dialogue a familiar comparison between women and property, and
it seems clear that Ruhiu sees the child of interracial rape as the real injury, not
the rape itself. The theme of wounding is associated with mixed-race children, as
in Weep Not, Child, and it is likewise extended to the land. We are told that the
whole dark Emergency has left [an] incurable wound in the country, which might
go on bleeding for a long time.71 The Wound in the Heart is thus a meditation on
the capacity for national trauma to play itself out in multiple ways in the lives of
ordinary people; a point underscored by the deaths of both Ruhiu and his wife at
the end of the play.
Interestingly, we see a development of Ngugis concern with the lingering past,
especially in Ruhius initial debate with the elders. Although the elders encourage
Ruhiu to forget the past and look only for a new day tomorrow, he argues that
there is no tomorrow without yesterday.72 In this sense, The Wound in the Heart
broaches wider debates in Kenyan public life in the aftermath of the Mau Mau
war. Jomo Kenyatta famously advocated forgetting the divisive past in order
to advance the project of national unity and reconciliation.73 Ngugis fictional
works, especially A Grain of Wheat and Matigari, advocate a different approach
remembering the traumas and betrayals of the past in order to move on and to
ensure that the heroic participants in Kenyan anti-colonial resistance might realize
the economic and political gains for which they fought. The Wound in the Heart
perhaps fails to resolve its own impulses to remember the past, since the personal
and political injuries towards which it gestures become compounded when they
are placed in dialogue with one another. In Wangaris decision to care for the child
after losing her son and her daughter-in-law, the play ends on a note of resignation
that precludes the possibility of justice.
This Time Tomorrow tells the story of a mother and daughter, Njango and
Wanjiro, which unfolds while the shanty town in which they live is scheduled for
demolition. In an ironic twist, both women have been evicted from their homes
during the Mau Mau war and are about to have the same fate visited upon them
by the post-Independence authorities. Njango refuses to permit Wanjiro to see
her boyfriend, Asinjo, because he is not of [her] tribe.74 This refusal replays the
ethnic divisions at work in The Rebels and it poses a limit to the deep, horizontal
comradeship75 that a national consciousness requires. Wanjiros aspiration to be

James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 26.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 21.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 24.
See Patrick Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo, pp. 70, 723.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 45.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread
of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2002 [1983]), p. 7.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 55

like a European lady76 motivates her decision to leave the settlement in order
to be with Asinjo, whose job as a taxi driver she hopes will provide her with the
luxuries she desires. This aspiration, of course, replaces national consciousness
with cross-racial identification, and the legacy of colonial racism will ensure that
Asinjos aspiration to be like a European lady cannot truly be realized in good
faith.77 Interestingly, the stranger, an unnamed political activist who mobilizes
the community against their forced removal, is a figure who provides at least the
possibility of this horizontal comradeship in place of the informal settlements face-
to-face relations. As in The Rebels, the inclusion of the stranger as a character in
This Time Tomorrow might be viewed as a device that opens localized communal
relations to the broader possibilities of national consciousness, even if his vision
fails to inspire communal solidarity in the face of violent police repression.
Of course, the broader notion of a national consciousness is forestalled by the
journalists sensationalist framing of the tinsmiths and the shoemakers individual
stories78 and the assimilation of these complex personal histories into the national
print medias stock of saleable clichs. However, the female characters occupy an
asymmetrical position in relation to the stranger and to the broader possibilities he
represents. Njango notices that the strangers eyes remind her of her man,79 and
there are strong suggestions that the two men have parallel histories in joining Mau
Mau and enduring detention, although Njangos husband has been reported killed.
Likewise, Wanjiro notices that Asinjo has eyes like the stranger.80 In effect, then,
the political visionary is constructed like a sexual consort to the female heroines of
this play. These women identify with politics and national consciousness primarily
in their sexual and domestic capacities, rather than via more direct modes of
belief and commitment. The net effect of this identification is that these women
are placed at a remove from the collective identity that a national consciousness
inspires. They experience this collective national identity via the mediatory agency
of their male partners. As the bulldozers move in, Njangos final words If only
we could stand together81 therefore suggest the failure of communal solidarity,
but simultaneously invoke the more immediate dissolution of her family now that
Wanjiro has left her to live with Asinjo.
Chronologically and thematically, the three plays collected in This Time
Tomorrow are fascinating. Chronologically, they span the period 196170, which
means that their journey from performance to publication brackets the period

James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 46.
Simon Gikandi has identified the potential for horizontal comradeship at work in
the inter-ethnic relationship in The Rebels: by his willingness to marry a girl from another
ethnic group, Charles is performing the drama of nationhood and questioning old axioms of
social organization. Simon Gikandi, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 172.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, pp. 414.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 48.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 34.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 50.
56 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

in which Ngugi wrote his first three novels. Thematically, the first play (The
Rebels, 1961) maps on to the concern with an educated hero defying his father
in Weep Not, Child and the concern with circumcision in The River Between. The
second play (The Wound in the Heart, 1962) contains the heroic Ruhiu, who has
preached victory in the Mau Mau struggle82 after leaving school and who is
detained. He returns to find that his wife has been raped and has borne a child.
This storyline maps on to the GikonyoMumbi, the Kihika and the Dr Lynd
Koinandu subplots of A Grain of Wheat. The third play (This Time Tomorrow,
1967) focuses on the forced removal of a community living in an urban shanty
town. Their delegation to the City Council and the eventual bulldozing of the
settlement anticipates the delegation to the MP and the razing of old Ilmorog in
Petals of Blood. These three plays exhibit in some limited respects a similarity of
focus to Ngugis first four novels, and as such they are a very good indication of
how his disillusionment with post-Independence Kenya (already in evidence in A
Grain of Wheat) gathers pace in the late 1960s. However, although the plays may
be said to measure Ngugis increasing disillusionment with the project of Kenyan
nationalism, their representations of gender do not develop significantly beyond
Kenyan nationalisms emphasis upon a uterine social organization. In other words,
there is a residual nostalgia for nationalisms mobilization of gender at work in
the plays. Most tellingly, the collections title, This Time Tomorrow, is not only
inspired by Njangos question as the bulldozers move in to raze her informal
settlement: Where shall I be, this time tomorrow?83 It is not widely known that
This time tomorrow is also a phrase from a circumcision song, which contains
the words Ruciu ta riu ruiru hui / Ndi kamwana gatemete ndaka ruiru hui (This
time tomorrow / I will be a man).84 In my view, there are unconscious echoes of
the Kenyan circumcision debate running through this collection of plays, which
should signal to us the importance of the issues contained in The River Between
for the later development of Ngugis fiction.

Clitoridectomy and Contemporary Kenya

We have seen in The River Between that Ngugi rewrites aspects of circumcision
and Gikuyu myth in accordance with his position within the intellectual lite.
Despite the discrepancies that the novels interested accounts of circumcision
involve, there is also a sense in which The River Between leaves intact the
gender disparities produced by circumcision and the nationalist ideologies that
the Kenyan circumcision debate first enabled. The effacement of clitoral desire
is crucial to such nationalist ideologies, since their representations of women

James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 19.
James Ngugi, This Time Tomorrow, p. 50.
Mary W. Wanyoike, Wangu wa Makeri (Nairobi: East African Educational
Publishers, 2002), p. 6.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 57

rely fundamentally upon the iconography of motherhood. In her analysis of The

River Between, Tobe Levin locates the sociocultural basis for clitoridectomy in a
masculine fear of clitoral power. In an even-handed way, Levin highlights Ngugis
ironic juxtaposition of Gikuyu and Christian religious belief:

Christianitys failure is perhaps of far greater concern to the author than the
obviously reactionary stance of the Kiama. One needs little maturity to doubt
the credibility of an organization condemning clitoridectomy but espousing
belief in a virgin birth. In fact, concerning sexual matters, the tribe appears to be
infinitely more sophisticated than the Christians. For example, the clitoris is at
least acknowledged by the former (being too powerful, it is removed), while the
organ has been treated by western ideology as though it didnt exist.85

Levin also argues that clitoridectomy serves to produce docile wives. The ritual
enables Gikuyu culture to appropriate the female desire that threatens to introduce
social disorder. Equally, in the Kenya of 1929, the female body is appropriated
for the production of manpower, which the postcolonial state in embryo requires
in order to be born. In terms of this dynamic, Gikuyu womens bodies become
the baby factories that service culture. There are resonances of this appropriation
in Ngugis subsequent novel, A Grain of Wheat. At the conclusion of this novel,
Gikonyo envisages a pregnant Mumbi. In Gikuyu mythology, Mumbi is the mother
of the Gikuyu community, and Mumbis (the characters) pregnancy presages the
birth of a new Kenya. Thus, Mumbi is situated on either side of the present as
part of a mythical past and an uncertain future and is therefore excluded from
history. She only achieves historical presence once she has been inseminated by
her male counterpart.86
If we wish to interrogate Ngugis production of woman as a sign, we may trace
many of his later heroines back to the production of women in the circumcision
debate. Gikuyu nationalism took shape around the issue of clitoridectomy. At this
juncture in Kenyan history, the Gikuyu female body became a metaphor for the
social composition of the state. To be uncircumcised was to uphold the Christian-
colonialist establishment and to be clitoridectomized was to support the institution
of an independent Kenya, purified of colonial influences and controlled and peopled
by Africans. The role of Gikuyu women in the debate was productive inasmuch
as they helped to initiate the resistance that would later topple the colonial order,
but it was a role that has proven to be expensive in retrospect. Immediately after

Tobe Levin, Women as Scapegoats of Culture and Cult: An Activists View of
Female Circumcision in Ngugis The River Between in Carol Boyce Davies and Anne
Adams Graves (eds), Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature (Trenton, New
Jersey: Africa World Press, 1986), p. 214.
Referring to Ngugis earliest short story Mugumo, Simon Gikandi states that
reproduction is justified by its capacity to give life to the new nation. Simon Gikandi,
Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 44.
58 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Independence, Kenyattas first legislative act was to abolish the prohibition on

clitoridectomy. Levin comments on the increasing prevalence of the operation in
latter-day Kenya. She remarks that there has been:

an accelerating neglect of the rite accompanied by the spread of excision

performed in hospitals on girls at increasingly younger ages, for whom the
amputation is totally divorced from any kind of moral, ethical or even sex-
educational dimension. The death of 14 young girls in 1983 led to the passage of
an edict against the operations in Kenya. At the same time, law without the force
of custom remains impotent 87

Levins claims are supported by the statistics in one available study of clitoridectomy
in Kenya, which claims that 4.74 million of the 7.9 million women in Kenya in
1985 had undergone clitoridectomy a figure of roughly 60 per cent.88


If this trend has continued unchecked, then it would appear that the Gikuyu
patriarchy is producing disciplined bodies as effectively as it ever has. Furthermore,
the only difference between the Kenya of today and the Kenya of the 1930s would
be that the patriarch now has Western medical technology at his disposal. I am
not claiming that Ngugi shares complicity in these atrocities, but rather that his
consistent and idealistic equation of the female characters body with the body
of the state contains problematic implications for Kenyan women, and does not
afford them the emancipation or the agency that it initially appears to promise.89 In
fairness, the recent publication of a Kenyan school textbook edition of The River
Between reportedly expunges the clitoridectomy debate entirely from its plot. This
revision presumably authorized by Ngugi might be construed as consistent
with the muting of sexual issues for a young readership, and it is also consistent
with the journey towards feminist consciousness that we shall see that Ngugi has
undertaken and completed in his most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow. Such
revisions of the basis of anti-colonial struggle cannot, however, be consistent with
Kenyan history. Recent changes notwithstanding, Ngugis third novel, A Grain
of Wheat, most certainly entertains the forms of symbolic discipline and material
dispossession that clitoridectomy instituted. As we shall see in the Chapter 4,
A Grain of Wheat emphasizes an iconographic motherhood and a reproductive,

Tobe Levin, Women as Scapegoats of Culture and Cult, p. 216.
Leonard Kouba and Judith Muasher, Female Circumcision in Africa: An Overview,
African Studies Review, 28:1 (March 1985), p. 99.
Regarding solutions for Gikuyu women, Levin notes that one activist (Awa Thiam)
has gone as far as to suggest radical lesbianism for gender-oppressed African women. Tobe
Levin, Women as Scapegoats of Culture and Cult, p. 220.
Clitoridectomy and Gikuyu Nationalism 59

rather than a desiring, female subject. By symbolically yoking womens bodies

and identities to motherhood, A Grain of Wheat partially attempts to erase the
possibility of female forms of revolutionary agency and, with it, the possibility
of a female national subject. In order to find those forms of female revolutionary
agency, we need to turn to the history of Mau Mau. As the reader will see presently
in the chapter that follows, Ngugi is alert to Mau Maus subversive political
impact and he measures this impact in his collection of short stories, Secret
Lives. However, he frames the insurgency in masculine terms in order to stage a
contestatory discourse between colonizer and colonized.
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Chapter 3
The Landscape of Insurgency

There is a tendency to think of colonial discourse and its language of stereotype

as instilling a monolithic system of power and perception that buttresses the
imperialist project. But in the Kenyan Mau Mau Emergency (195260), we witness
the full onslaught of colonial stereotype and racist iconography being brought to
bear on a thing that did not exist, in order to conceptualize it in terms that did not
apply, and to meet it with a brutality as overwhelmingly disproportionate as it was
misdirected. In an expanded definition, Mau Mau as settler fantasy, as colonial
discourse or imperial military strategy is only readable in terms of exaggeration
or distortion, excess or oversight. The severity of the settlers response to a threat
that they themselves had largely manufactured ultimately rendered not only
their counter-insurgency tactics but also the entire apparatus of Kenyan colonial
rule utterly indefensible. Hence, far from shoring up white control of Kenya, or
disciplining its unruly antagonists, the colonial discourses that produced Mau
Mau as an object of knowledge became hindrances in the war on the insurgents,
and ultimately proved fatal to the imperialist project in its Kenyan manifestation.
In the Mau Mau period, British colonialism in Kenya was finally subdued by its
own neurotic excesses.
Militarily, Mau Mau failed. Psychologically, Mau Mau was an incontestable
force that continues to occupy an unsettling or disturbing place in the European
and white African imagination. Significantly, the term Mau Mau was a
chimera, a pure figment of the settler imagination. Constituted by and existing
only within colonial discourse, Mau Mau cannot credibly be made to fit into
the Gikuyu linguistic code. Indeed, the insurgents never called themselves Mau
Mau. Hence, all attempts to translate or define Mau Mau and there have
been many are destined to fail. Mau Mau refers to an intransigent absence
since the term is symbolically indeterminate. It is remarkable that so many of
the received etymologies of the term rely upon notions of linguistic slippage,
in which Mau Mau was a product of letter transposition, a settler misprision
of Gikuyu onomatopoeia, an Anglicization of the Gikuyu for oath (muma), a

Despite popular myth and colonial propaganda to the contrary, Mau Mau killed a
mere 32 European civilians. The Emergency death toll for Gikuyu civilians may well be in
excess of 1,000 times that figure.

David Maughan-Brown, Land, Freedom and Fiction, p. 260.

For a list of some of the names used by the insurgents themselves, see Donald
Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within: An Analysis of Kenyas Peasant Revolt
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), pp. 545.
62 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Maasais mispronunciation of muma, a Gikuyu term for non-specific objects

(a thingamajig), a Swahili acronym, an English acronym reversed, an allusion
to Chairman Mao, a name derived from the Mau Forest in the Maasai region,
or a transcription of the last cries of a sacred wild cat killed by an unthinking
white farmer. This linguistic slippage, this referential vertigo, meant that it was
impossible for the Kenyan settler to speak of Mau Mau from a position of any
authority. Every attempt to master Mau Mau in discourse gave way to, or even
instilled, the authority and mastery of the Other. In Mau Mau, the settlers
became unsettled, and their relationship to place, space and landscape entered
a phase of crisis.

Losing Ground

In response to Mau Maus destabilization of the colonizers relationship to colonial

space, the British military introduced a programme which aimed at the complete
reordering of African space. The colonizers production of the Kenyan landscape
during the Emergency period evidences an attempt to isolate Mau Mau in the
landscape, to contain it within certain boundaries or beyond impermeable barriers
to define its dimensions in discourse, to locate it within spatial parameters, and
thereby to eliminate it. If the colonizer conceived of Mau Mau as an atavistic and
unpredictable insurgency, then the military strategies (of detection, containment,
infiltration, detention, torture and the forced removals of vast swathes of the
population from their homes) index an attempt by the colonial government to

The etymologies of Mau Mau are listed by Carol Sicherman, The Making of a Rebel,
pp. 21415; Robert Edgerton, Mau Mau: An African Crucible (New York: Ballantine, 1989),
pp. 567; Credo Mutwa, My People: The Writings of a Zulu Witchdoctor (London: Penguin,
1977), p. 175; and Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, pp. 534.

Leading on from this point, the etymologies ascribed uncritically to Mau Mau
in historical accounts point towards the efforts of both colonial and African historians
to appropriate the term for either the colonial or Gikuyu nationalist constructions of the
insurgency. These historians attempt to produce the Mau Mau insurgent as an homogeneous
historical subject. As such, the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army, with its heterogeneous
and, at times, divided or discontinuous membership, aims and strategies, is almost
invariably recuperated in terms of a colonial or nationalist narrative. The proper name Mau
Mau is a site of contested desires and interests in the colonial social matrix. In addition,
it is a term whose paleonomy which Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak glosses as the charge
which words carry on their shoulders in Sarah Harasym (ed.), The Post-Colonial Critic:
Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 25 overwhelmingly
locates and narrates the historian who uses it. I have opted to retain the term Mau Mau
because I am overtly engaged with its discursive dimensions, but also because I believe that
the insurgents themselves are better represented via a conscious misnomer (Mau Mau)
than an appropriated silence (the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army).

See C. T. Stoneham, Mau Mau (London: Museum Press, 1953), pp. 612.
The Landscape of Insurgency 63

produce a spatial knowledge of Mau Mau, and thereby to restore to itself sovereign
control of the landscape.
In all of its aspects, this spatial knowledge relied fundamentally upon
technologies of the visible to accomplish its aims. Unfortunately, colonial military
strategy was premised upon stereotypical assumptions of the African, so that Mau
Mau was typically associated in the settler mind with the bestial, the occult and the
primordial. As a result, what the colonial forces set out to find impeded what they
were actually able to see. Accordingly, the Kenyan administration sought to render
Mau Mau visible by containing it within the wild spaces of the forests, so that the
civilian areas occupied by supposedly docile and loyal Gikuyu subjects could remain
sanitized domestic spaces uncontaminated by Mau Maus pernicious influence.
The colonial caricatures of the insurgency could only be emplotted on the landscape
by imposing the most horrific brutality upon the Kenyan population. If the colonial
government sought to produce a spatial taxonomy of Mau Mau, then the borders
between the artificial categories it imposed had to be policed with brute force, with
civilians bearing the brunt of military whim. In other words, the landscape had to be
inscribed with the violence of the colonisers narrative of self-legitimation.
Colonial military strategy was articulated throughout the 195260 period in
five distinct phases. Firstly, there was Operation Jock Scott (1952), in which the
leaders of the Kenya African Union were arrested and detained. Secondly, the
Rehabilitation programme was introduced (195359), in which Mau Mau suspects
were detained in concentration camps until confessing the oath, after which they
graduated through successive camps (the pipe-line) until they were considered to
be innocuous enough for release. Confessions were believed to cure the prisoners

There were severe restrictions on the movement and employment of Gikuyu, Embu
and Meru people. See Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a
Peasant Revolt (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), pp. 867, 9091.

Incidentally, during the Emergency, the settlers pet name for the Gikuyu was
Nugu, or baboon. See Robert Edgerton, Mau Mau, p. 162. Edgerton also records that the
term Mickeys (from Mickey Mouse) was used by British and Loyalist forces to describe
Mau Mau. See Mau Mau, pp. 1516. Edgerton comments on the British Army in Kenya,
Most of these officers and men had left Britain with firm convictions about the racial
superiority of whites and their service overseas in places like Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine,
and Malaya had only confirmed for them that wogs and niggers were a lower form
of life. See Mau Mau, p. 165. The ferocity of the British Armys attacks on and reprisals
against Mau Mau (including civilians) suggests that these experienced soldiers were in no
mood to humour uncooperative natives. Despite its overt resonances in Disney lore, the use
of the term Mickeys may also have displaced an unconscious animosity towards Micks
(the Irish) on to Mau Mau and the Gikuyu. Expanding on this theme, the Kenyan conflict
may have concentrated a number of post-imperial resentments, and its brutal moments may
have provided psychological compensation for earlier imperial losses such as Egyptian
(1922), Irish (1922) and Indian independence (1947), and the establishment of the Irish
Republic (1949).

For one example among many, see C. T. Stoneham, Mau Mau, p. 27.
64 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

pathological political sympathies and were extracted using inducements (such as

prostitutes), brainwashing, propaganda, hard labour and, if all else failed, beatings
and torture. Significantly, the treatment of prisoners in the camps by their guards
and superintendents was as depraved as anything the settlers had claimed in regard
to Mau Mau atrocities:

Electric shock was widely used, and so was fire. Women were choked and held
under water; gun barrels, beer bottles, and even knives were thrust into their
vaginas. Men had beer bottles thrust into their rectums, were dragged behind
Land Rovers, whipped, burned and bayoneted. Their fingers were chopped off,
and sometimes their testicles were crushed with pliers.10

The severity of the prisoners punishment regimes in the camps depended on

whether they were classified black (hardcore), grey (Mau Mau supporters) or
white (clear or rehabilitated). Some 80,000 Gikuyu were detained in concentration
camps, many without trial. Ultimately, the brutality of the Rehabilitation
programme proved to be self-defeating. In Hola detention camp, 11 recalcitrant
prisoners designated as hardcore Mau Mau were beaten to death for refusing to
work. After a settler cover-up was exposed and their political position in Kenya
was revealed to be untenable, the British Parliament resolved to embark upon the
path towards Kenyan independence. The third phase of colonial military strategy
was Operation Anvil (1954), in which 25,000 men of the governments forces
surrounded Nairobi and searched it, sector by sector, for Mau Mau operatives.
After being screened by hooded informants and interrogated by the authorities,
approximately 30,000 Nairobi Gikuyu were sent to detention camps.11 Fourthly, the
Villagization programme of forced removals (195457) was implemented, which
entailed the relocation of Gikuyu civilians to safe villages (that is, surrounded
by barbed wire and cut off from the forest by a trench 50 miles long, 10 feet deep
and 16 feet wide, filled with barbed wire, sharpened stakes and booby traps), in
order to minimize the contact between Mau Mau and its civilian wing. Almost all
of the women in the villages were coerced into digging the trench that would limit
Mau Maus access to supplies, food and ammunition. The settler administration
espoused the preposterous hope that the Villagization and Land Consolidation
programmes would produce a harmonious society of prosperous villages and
sturdy yeoman farmers immune to the appeals of political radicalism. In the end,
the Emergency became an attempt to re-create the administrations idealised
image of the organic community of traditional England.12 In other words, the
colonial administration sought to produce in the landscape a civilian population
that was domesticated, easily subjected to surveillance and utterly visible, because

Robert Edgerton, Mau Mau, p. 160.
Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, p. 86.
Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa
Violence and Ethnicity (Book Two) (London: James Currey, 1992), p. 254.
The Landscape of Insurgency 65

community and landscape were essentially transcriptions of an English rural

idyll. But Old England was simulated at a terrible human cost, and over 250,000
people were removed from their homes in the forests or on the perimeters of the
mountain ranges to villagized settlements.13 By early 1955, over a million Gikuyu
had been settled in these villages,14 and Mau Mau operations in a given area led
to communal punishments.15 Since Mau Mau was alleged to be hiding in Gikuyu
gardens, crops were destroyed. In conjunction with forced labour and curfews,
the colonial administration effectively instituted widespread famine among the
civilian population by keeping communities from their fields where they might
assist Mau Mau fighters,16 leading to an as yet unquantified civilian death toll.17
The fifth and final phase of colonial military strategy entailed Operations Hammer,
Schlemozzle, Bullrush, Dante, Hannibal and First Flute (195556), in which the
Aberdare forest was swept for insurgents. Some of the tactics employed against
the forest fighters included using infrared technology to scan the forests and then
bombing heat sources,18 or, in the colonizers more telling Conradian moments,
shelling the edge of the forest randomly with light artillery at hourly intervals.19
The Villagization programme and the Rehabilitation programme fashioned the
Emergency landscape in ways that reflected colonial constructions of Mau Mau. If
Mau Mau issued from the adverse influence of the primordial and inscrutable African
landscape, then the organization could be made visible by completely redefining
space in the rural Kenyan countryside. If Mau Mau was a contaminant or a disease,
then the body politic could be cured by quarantining the afflicted in concentration
camps and removing the infection by tried and tested methods (torture, brutality).
And if the good African was docile and domesticated, then this good African could
be produced in the orderly space of the villagized settlements and disciplined with
industrious time-management and work regimes (curfews and forced labour). Of
course, the boundaries that policed Kenyan subjectivities in the Emergency period
could only be established by imposing overwhelming violence on a recalcitrant
population. Much of this violence issued from legal and paralegal redefinitions of
colonial space. For instance, a corridor 100 miles long and between one and three
miles wide was established between the forests and the Gikuyu population. Huts,
food stores and crops were burned and the inhabitants were evicted. The corridor
and parts of the forest were made Prohibited Areas, where unauthorized Africans

Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 209.
Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, p. 90.
Marshall Clough, Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory, Politics (Boulder,
Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 1998), p. 156.
Clough, Mau Mau Memoirs, p. 159.
The food that was distributed was given in small quantities, to eliminate the sharing
of rations with Mau Mau. See Tabitha Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau
(London: James Currey, 1987), p. 143.
Animal fatalities are not recorded.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 223.
66 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

could be shot on sight.20 The majority of administrative districts in the Central and
Rift Valley Provinces (the Gikuyu reserve) were made Special Areas, in which a
person failing to halt when challenged could be shot.21 Under Emergency powers,
this sanction also applied to military installations, prisons and power stations
in danger areas and thousands of African deaths resulted from this loophole in
the law, along with the claims that the victims had been trying to escape.22 The
topography of the Emergency period with its restrictions on human movement,
villagized settlements, fortifications, booby-trapped trenches, infrared scanning,
concentration camps, torture chambers, no-go areas dramatized an afflicted
colonial psyche in the theatre of war. In other words, the Emergency landscape
evidenced the way in which the political imagination of the settler asserted itself
upon space.
The Emergency period was marked by a colonial mythology of the domestic
and familiar giving way to the demonic and treacherous, the hospitable and
habitable giving way to the unhomely, the trusted houseservant metamorphosing
inexplicably into the treacherous or crazed fanatic23 as if the cultivated and
civilized landscape of settler farms had been breached by the primordial landscape
of the forests in which the insurgents sheltered,24 as if anti-colonial resistance could
only be explained by pathologizing the primitive or superstitious psychology of
the African.25 For the settler, a primeval environment accounted for the Africans
unpromising political and socio-economic destiny. Unsurprisingly, given the
instability of colonial space and the pathologizing of Mau Maus political
grievances, the colonial representation of Mau Mau relied heavily upon a rhetoric
of contamination.26 To some extent, Mau Mau memoirs written by the insurgents

Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 211.
Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, p. 92; Donald Barnett and Karari
Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 211.
Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, pp. 923.
This mythology fuelled settler hysteria: Farmers and their wives, even little
children, were hacked to death by devils who up to the moment of their black treachery had
been treated as loyal and trusted friends. See Christopher Wilson, Kenyas Warning: The
Challenge to White Supremacy in our British Colony (Nairobi: The English Press, 1954),
p. 56.
[Eric Bowyers farm] was no more than a mile from the forest, in whose depths
wild beasts, and wilder men, might lurk C. T. Stoneham, Mau Mau, p. 70.
The Nairobi houseboy or Government clerk may even be a devout Christian,
but still the superstitious terrors imbibed with his mothers milk will be lurking at the back
of his consciousness, ready to creep forth for his undoing. Stoneham, Mau Mau, p. 141.
At an election meeting at Londiani, Hubert Buxton, a retired District Commissioner,
warned that virtually the whole Kikuyu tribe had been contaminated with Mau Mau.
See David W. Throup, Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau (London: James Currey,
1987), p. 226. Early on, Michael Blundell, the leader of the white elected members of
Kenyas Legislative Council also warned of a subversive organization which is like a
disease, spreading through the Colony See Legislative Council Debates, second series,
The Landscape of Insurgency 67

themselves attest to the fact that the movement was able to infiltrate prohibited
or sacrosanct spaces as part of its psychological weaponry and tactical capacity.
For instance, when three of his men were captured, Brigadier Nyama Nduru (the
nom de guerre of Paul Mahehu) arranged to sweep the remand toilets of the High
Court on the trial day, working as a uniformed City Council employee.27 Nyama
Nduru retained his broom and gave one of his three comrades the principal
defendant in the case an overall and a bucket, and the two men walked out of
the court undetected, with the result that the trial collapsed. On other occasions,
disguised as a policeman and with an accomplice disguised as a servant, Nyama
Nduru stole weapons from the private armoury of Governor Evelyn Baring and
organised the theft of 39 rounds of ammunition from the home of Mr Edward
Windley, the Chief Native Commissioner.28
Mau Maus relatively unhindered passage across the landscape, and the ease
with which it trespassed in the citadels of colonial power, is a direct result of
the discourse that yoked the insurgency to narratives of the crazed fanatic or the
Gikuyu possessed by demonic tribal oaths.29 In fact, Mau Maus mobility and
in some cases, its continuing organizational survival relied heavily upon covert
support from a large, dormant civilian wing, and extensive collaboration by
black colonial officials, loyal houseservants, the Kings African Rifles,30 and the
loyalist, paramilitary homeguards. Only the settler truly respected the battle lines
that had been drawn. As the example of Nyama Nduru demonstrates, Mau Mau
evaded detection by performing identities and subjectivities that went unchecked
in the colonial landscape: it was only because the settler was on the lookout for
a dangerous intruder that a Mau Mau raider was able to disguise himself as a
compliant houseservant or a protective policeman. It was only because the settler
sought an unruly antagonist that the Mau Mau prisoner could walk unnoticed to
his freedom, dressed as a prison warder.31 Moreover, it was only because the Mau
Mau operative was officially an ethnic Gikuyu that the Mau Mau escapee could
perform Somali ethnicity (by donning a turban, robe and false beard) with impunity

vol. xlviii, 1952, first session, second sitting, 10 July 1952, cols. 1728; and 11 July 1952,
cols. 281349, quoted in David W. Throup, Economic and Social Origins, p. 225.
Waruhiu Itote (General China), Mau Mau General (Nairobi: East African
Publishing House, 1967), p. 114.
Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, pp. 11213. I view this theft as an example of
what I would call a rhetoric of hostile proximity employed in Mau Maus psychological
Edgerton notes that, after the declaration of the Emergency, Michael Blundell gave
Mau Mau fighters the derogatory label of debased creatures of the forest, but that as the
war took its toll upon the remaining fighters in the latter stages of the conflict, the fighters
truly became creatures of the forest in their resourceful survival of hardship. See Robert
Edgerton, Mau Mau, pp. 107, 138.
See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, p. 106.
See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, p. 116.
68 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

while running from the law,32 or the warrior pass undetected by braiding his hair
in the fashion favoured by the Maasai.33 In short, official colonial knowledges
of what Mau Mau was their reductive tableaux of the human figure in colonial
space34 enabled many of the mutinous successes that Mau Mau achieved.

Gaining Ground

By contrast, Mau Maus relationship to the landscape was strategically canny.35

Insurgents used the forests for camouflage and for shelter it was a home and a
fortress as well as the provider of [their] most basic needs.36 They raided crops and
livestock from nearby farms, hunted wild animals or located hives laid by honey
harvesters in the forests when they were hungry.37 They relied upon sympathetic
civilian populations near the reserves to bury stores and supplies in prearranged
caches. Some Mau Mau groups even adopted vegetarianism during the rainy
season, when livestock raids would leave tracks betraying the way to their camps
in the forest.38 In addition, their childhood experiences as cattle herders equipped
them to find water in inhospitable terrain.39 The landscape was also a repository of
significance for Mau Mau fighters, since it occasionally articulated their situation in
times of difficulty. For recent Mau Mau escapees from the Manyani concentration
camp, a nearby rhinoceros herd became a security cordon keeping watch over their
sleep.40 And for the injured fugitive left by his fellow escapees to fend for himself
in an inhospitable landscape, a nearby anthill became a moral lesson in social
cooperation and solidarity, so sadly lacking in the moment of his abandonment.41
Among the fighters, animals were a tactical resource. Elephant tracks guided
them across rough terrain and showed the most direct route to water.42 By listening
attentively to forest sounds, such as bird calls or the erratic movements of
frightened animals,43 the insurgents produced a sympathetic sensory landscape in

See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, p. 115.
See Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 174.
C. T. Stonehams account is saturated with ethnic stereotypes of Mau Mau.
Since Mau Mau strategies and objectives varied between its component units, my
version of Mau Mau is located less in the uniformity of its action than in the proliferation
of its practices.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 146.
See Joram Wamweya, Freedom Fighter (Nairobi: East African Publishing House,
1967), p. 151.
See Joram Wamweya, Freedom Fighter, p. 163.
See Joram Wamweya, Freedom Fighter, p. 93.
See Joram Wamweya, Freedom Fighter, pp. 912.
See Joram Wamweya, Freedom Fighter, p. 107.
See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, p. 76.
See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, pp. 7071.
The Landscape of Insurgency 69

which the dangers of attack or discovery were signalled long before they became
imminent and in which surveillance was delegated to omnipresent, non-human
military allies, some of whom had become used to the insurgents presence in the
forests.44 The cooperation and acceptance of animals and birds was taken to be a
sign that Ngai (God) had given them power to assist the insurgents in thwarting the
enemy.45 Indeed, enemy soldiers were occasionally ambushed and chased deeper
into the forest, where they could be picked off at will in hostile terrain or left to
contend with marauding wildlife.46
In religious terms, many insurgents viewed their relationship to the landscape
as a sacred one. Before embarking for the forests, they received instruction in
forest lore from Gikuyu elders.47 These elders invested the landscape with
spiritual significance, in which the slightest human action (such as cutting down
trees, killing animals needlessly or shooting towards mountains in which spirits
dwelled) interacted with a network of taboos and portents and could invoke
adverse meteorological, military or even cosmological consequences. Portent and
prophecy occasionally informed Mau Maus battle strategy, as when the appearance
of a particularly bright star in the sky prompted the insurgents to conduct the raid
on Naivasha Police Station (26 March 1953) without fear of capture or death.48
Before and after important military operations, the fighters prayed facing the sacred
landmark, Mount Kenya, frequently with a ball of earth held aloft.49 The spiritual
dimensions of Mau Mau led to the adoption of some unpredictable military tactics
as when the mundu mugo (religious practitioner) halted raids because a gazelle
had crossed the fighters path.50
In political terms, ownership of the land was one of the crucial aims of the
movement that named itself, among other things, the Kenyan Land and Freedom
Army. One of the political grievances that facilitated Mau Maus emergence was
the colonial administrations policy of preventing soil erosion. The agricultural
campaign, with its compulsory communal terracing two mornings per week, had
provided the Nairobi militants with a ready-made constituency with which to
challenge the African moderates rural power base.51 In some instances, insurgents
had an intimate relationship with the land on which, and for which, they fought.
For example, Karari Njama became politicized when he realized (at a rally held by

Among themselves, the fighters passed a law prohibiting the killing of friendly
wildlife. See Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 146.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 167.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 207.
See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, pp. 612. Although Itote dismisses the
elders admonitions on empirical grounds, he states that most of the men believed these
Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, pp. 823.
See Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 162.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 205.
David, W. Throup, Economic and Social Origins, p. 240.
70 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Jomo Kenyatta) that his family had been dispossessed of the land that bore his and
his grandfathers name Kararis Hill, alienated by the colonial government in
1910. Significantly, Njamas Mau Mau unit was initially stationed in the Aberdare
forest reserve on the land formerly owned by his grandfather.52 The landscape
was invested with other forms of cultural memory. For instance, Mau Mau raiders
killed Gray Arundel Leakey (Dr Louis Leakeys uncle) by burying him alive
upside down, his feet left protruding from the earth.53 As appalling as this murder
appeared, and as much as it seemed to confirm settler claims about Mau Maus
depravity, the method of execution had a straightforward rationale: the act was
ordered by a Gikuyu seer who claimed that the colonizer would only be chased
out of Kenya when a settler elder had been killed in the same way as the British
had killed Waiyaki (an early Gikuyu prophet) in one widely believed version of
Gikuyu folk history.54
When Mau Mau groups moved, they were mindful of leaving the landscape
and the forest foliage undisturbed,55 of walking backwards to confuse trackers, and
of splitting up into groups and walking in different directions to throw the enemies
bloodhounds off the scent before meeting up again at an agreed rendezvous point.56
Hence, Mau Maus choreography of revolution became a highly reflexive act of
writing on the landscape that largely flouted the colonizers strategies of detection
and containment in the early years of the insurgency. But beyond evading the
colonizers technologies of visibility, one of Mau Maus most ingenious strategies
was to stage its own absence in the landscape for example, by setting up mock
camps for the enemy to bomb, or by sending a small detail to attack a homeguard
post in the Gikuyu reserve in order to prompt the immediate withdrawal from the
forest of nearby government forces searching for Mau Mau.57 Similar tactics of
deflection were used to alleviate the sufferings of the civilian wing under security
force control. In Nairobi, Mau Maus urban wing was highly mobile, with its
operatives executing informants in the back seats of moving taxis.

Separating the Women from the Boys

Women were Mau Maus most transgressive principle. In the reserves and in
the cities, they provided a largely invisible backbone to the movement and their
contributions were made at the cost of enormous adversity and suffering. It was

See Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, pp. 74, 856.
Robert Edgerton, Mau Mau, p. 97.
Robert Edgerton, Mau Mau, p. 97.
See Joram Wamweya, Freedom Fighter, p. 143.
Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, p. 73.
Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, pp. 712.
The Landscape of Insurgency 71

precisely the colonial assumption that Gikuyu women were backward58 that
contributed to the Kenyan governments underestimation of Mau Maus passive or
civilian wing. As a result, women were able to pass through the landscape largely
undetected by colonial surveillance. Colonial discourses on women in Mau Mau
built failure into the colonizers look:

When womens activism is described in pro-colonial historiography, two

portrayals of women emerge. They project women as either victims of Mau Mau
or prostitutes who, through personal [read sexual] contact with male nationalists,
were drawn to Mau Mau while resident in Nairobi. The view of women as
victims of Mau Mau originates from the colonial record. Women are presented
by colonial officials as physical and psychological victims of atavism Women
nationalists were relegated to the role of adoring female hangers-on.59

These misguided notions of women as victims meant that they were able to
conduct Mau Maus business uninterrupted and unnoticed. Speaking of Mau Mau
scouts, Itote says, Girls found it simpler to disguise themselves, or at least to
be inconspicuous,60 and that all a woman had to do to escape attention when
cornered was to pretend to garden.
Mau Mau constructions of women were uneven. Karari Njamas memoir
is perhaps the most revealing example of the ways in which femininity was
instrumentalized in Mau Mau narratives of the insurgency. He describes the
administration of the Batuni Oath (a corruption of the English military usage
platoon), during which the Mau Mau initiates penis was inserted into a hole
in a goats throat. The fighters in the Aberdare Mountains referred to their lovers
or sexual consorts as kabatuni, or small platoons,61 establishing an obvious link
between male virility, resistance and the diminution of women. The sexual imagery
in the more advanced oathing procedures, such as the Batuni oath, was pervasive.62
In addition, the leadership of Mau Mau referred to its enemies (loyalists, traitors
and homeguards) as thata cia bururi the barren ones of the country63 thus
constructing Mau Mau according to a narrative of male potency. Some (contested)
accounts of oathing ceremonies point towards the use of womens private parts
in the initiation of new fighters.64 Njamas memoir marks a sexually ambivalent
relation to women within the movement:

See Christopher Wilson, Kenyas Warning, pp. 789. Wilson seems to suggest that
one result of the womens backwardness is their unsophisticated agricultural methods. His
implicit argument is that the settler is a better custodian of the land.
Cora Ann Presley, Kikuyu Women, p. 158.
Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, p. 78.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 242.
See Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, pp. 1046.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 349.
See Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, pp. 106, 195 n. 57.
72 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

To feed and defend women [I thought] is an unnecessary burden to our warriors.

Sleeping with them would bring calamity to our camps, weaken our itungati
[warriors] and, probably, they would become pregnant and would be unable to
run away from the enemies, and they would be killed For generations, women
had been a source of conflicts between men 65

In other Mau Mau narratives most notably in Kariukis66 the struggles of female
insurgents are either strategically omitted or received as textual asides.
Despite the lack of archival material dealing with the struggles and aims
of women within Mau Mau, their role within the movement was crucial to its
successes, and possibly to its survival. Womens roles:

included organization and maintenance of the supply lines which directed

food, supplies, medicine, guns and information to the forest forces. Those
women who went to the forest were responsible for cooking, water-hauling,
knitting sweaters etc.
Women formed the valuable link between the forest fighters and the passive
wing in the reserves. Those women who went to the forests tended on the whole
to be engaged in noncombat roles, acting as transport, signals, medical corps
and ordnance to their male counterparts.67

Further, Mau Mau women in the reserves and in the city procured ammunition for the
forest fighters by submitting to intercourse with government forces. Karari Njama
tells us that Bullets had become token payment [from security force personnel]
to prostitutes who later sent them to our warriors,68 and Edgerton confirms that
some Mau Mau women did seduce British soldiers in the hope of receiving a
bullet or two in return.69 The Mau Mau prostitute and courier is an important
figure. The male fighters forbade women to sleep with the enemy and yet it was
precisely the prostitute who sustained the supply of guns and ammunition to the
forests. Waruhiu Itote, who provides two anecdotes of women using their sexuality
to obtain arms and ammunition, omits any mention of intercourse.70 The prostitute
subverts Mau Mau narratives of phallic heroism and Mau Maus policing of female
sexuality. She provides us with a model of sexwork-in-insurgency, a specifically
female form of militancy in which sex is not capitulation, but revolution. Her
perilous journeys between the security forces and the rebels, from settlement to
countryside and back again, meant that she shuttled between the extremities of the

Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 242.
J. M. Kariuki, Mau Mau Detainee (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1963).
Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, p. 177, quoting Presley and Gachihi.
Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 208.
Robert Edgerton, Mau Mau, p. 168.
Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General, pp. 100101.
The Landscape of Insurgency 73

Emergency landscape in full view of the colonial surveillance apparatus and made
an invaluable contribution to Mau Maus military survival.

The Secret Lives of Mau Mau

In Secret Lives, Ngugi embellishes upon historical representations of Mau Mau as a

radical entity that will not settle down into a stable contestatory position. However,
while such fictional embellishments transgress against the colonial framing of the
insurgency, they also rely upon women or metaphors of the feminine as referents.
The most obvious example is to be found in Goodbye Africa, where the shamba
boy progressively flouts the authority of the white male protagonist in his social
capacities as employer, screening officer, district officer and, finally, husband.
The servant refuses to accept the hand-me-downs that consolidate the masters
status as the wishfully benevolent European settler, whose mission to uplift the
moral and material conditions of the African obscures his complicity with imperial
capitalisms expropriation of land and resources from the Kenyan peasantry. The
employers memories of his former employee coexist with memories of his wife:

Then one Christmas, the boy suddenly threw back at him the gift of a long coat
and ten shillings. The boy had laughed and walked out of his service. For a long
time, he could never forget the laughter. This he could have forgiven. But the
grief and the misery in his wifes face at the news of the boys disappearance
was something else.71

The boys refusal of servility amounts to a refusal of imperialisms imposition

of race and class determinations. His laughter is an unanticipated antagonistic
response that remains with the master as a form of disjunctive affect. This last
laugh continues and haunts, separated from its original object. Such a refusal of
stable and predictable political antagonisms enables the possibility of a return
of the repressed to the white male protagonists colonial selfhood. We see this
return especially in the way that the dreams of the settler progressively transform
themselves into a delusional reality:

He had forgotten the incident until these, his last months in Africa. Then he had
started re-enacting the scene in his dreams, the vision becoming more and more
vivid as days and months whistled by. At first the face had only appeared to him
by night. His bed held terror for him. Then suddenly, these last few days, the face
started appearing before him in broad daylight.72

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives and Other Stories (Oxford: Heinemann, 1975),
p. 73.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 72.
74 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

This passage bears out my assertion that the settler rhetoric of Mau Maus
hostile proximity produces the insurgency as an indeterminate semi-presence
on the borders of settler consciousness. This rhetoric of hostile proximity is the
inevitable consequence of the colonizers entry into a dialogue of misprision and
political misrecognition. It is this dialogue of misprision and misrecognition that
Ngugis fiction outlines so clearly. What is interesting in Goodbye Africa is that
the shamba boys sexuality becomes crucial in the representation of Mau Maus
destabilizing effects upon the colonialist. In Goodbye Africa, this dialogue is
rendered in the settler protagonists letter to his wife in his notebook. The letter
asks, Was it wrong for us, with our capital, with our knowledge, with our years
of Christian civilization to open and lift a dark country onto the stage of history?
I played my part.73 The misprision of Africa in the letter arises from the settlers
belief in the superiority of European culture, knowledge and belief systems over
those of Africa. The possibility that this belief might not be shared by the colonized
subject unsettles the colonizers own subjectivity in a profound manner. Since the
other remains unassimilable to the protagonists consciousness (his sense of self
and his perceived place within the larger narrative of imperialism), the other is

Do you remember him? The one who spurned my gift and disappeared, maybe
to the forest? He stood in the office with that sneer in his face like like the
devil. The servile submissive face when he worked for you had gone I felt a
violent rage within such as I had never felt before I could not bear that grin. I
stood and spat into his face.74

This passage shares a remarkable affinity with passages in colonial mythologies of

Mau Mau as a mocking demonic presence, as we will see. In Goodbye Africa, the
settler orders the execution of the shamba boy. Nonetheless, with the approach
of Independence, the young mans face returns to haunt the settler. Additionally,
the settler is replaced in his job by a black district officer and, most tellingly, the
settler discovers that the disappointment that his wife registered when the shamba
boy walked out of their employ derived from her emotional and sexual attachment
to the young man. We might conclude, therefore, that the young mans agency is
an agency associated with the revisions of the past that of necessity accompany
moments of political transformation.
I regard the young mans politicized sexuality as symptomatic of the crisis
of potency that colonization imposes upon the colonized in Ngugis fiction. The
transition in attitude that takes place in the settlers wife is equally revealing of
Ngugis gender-political standpoint. It demonstrates that his female characters
are positioned at a limit between male antagonists in order to enable a liberatory
discourse. We are told that:

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 75.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 75.
The Landscape of Insurgency 75

[She] wanted to understand Africa, to touch the centre, and feel a huge continent
throb on her fingers It was during one of her walks that the boy had first made
love to her among the banana plantations. Freedom. And afterward their fevered
love-making had finally severed her from the world of her husband and other
District Officers.75

The unnamed womans desire for her former employee (as a man rather than as the
fantasized embodiment of Africa) is never elaborated, and it is clear that Ngugis
representation of her offers the possibility of a sexual realm that is discrete from
a realm of politics. And yet, although this possibility works to free her from the
oppressive colonial establishment, it also inevitably severs her from the political
landscape in which she finds herself. The semi-obscure rationale for her adultery
consequently translates her sexual agency into a sociosexual defeat for her husband
and a political conquest for the young man. Her own political interest is never
disclosed. In short, she becomes something like a sign that is exchanged in order
to validate a liberatory discourse, and her sexual desire is located outside of the
available masculine historical narratives.
The female settler is also in this sense instrumentalized by her husbands
confession, which is a predictable apologia for his imperialist sympathies. She
is the silent addressee of the letter and, when her husband burns his notebook
after hearing of her affair, her silence is compounded. The subject who does speak
through the flames is the young man. His history (sexual, political and economic)
is what unwrites the husbands imperialist history. The husband locates his
unconsciously dysfunctional relationship with his wife within a broader narrative
of imperial values. For instance, his entry in the notebook indicates that The
white man in Africa must accept a more stringent moral code in the family and
in the society at large. For we must set the ideals to which our African subjects
must aspire.76 On the other hand, the young mans colonized history returns as
something unthought within imperial narratives. We are told of the settler that
the young mans ghost would forever pursue him. Africa.77 This return of the
unthought is positioned within a discourse of sexual conquest.
In contrast to the representations of the colonizers sexuality-in-crisis in
Goodbye Africa, The Return plays out a crisis of potency that confronts a male
insurgent, Kamau. The return to which the storys title refers is both a double return
and a non-return. Kamau returns from a past of resistance and incarceration to his
village, family and friends, only to find that both the landscape and his former
acquaintances have changed under the Emergency conditions. The villagized
settlement and the people in it now carry the traces of imperialist counter-
insurgency strategies. These traces imply a return of Kamaus history under
colonial forms of domination which runs counter to his recent liberation from

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, pp. 767.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 79.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 79.
76 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

the concentration camps. If Kamau returns home free, an unfree home returns to
him. In this sense, his return is a double return. Furthermore, Kamaus return is a
non-return because he returns to nothing: the familiar ways of life and established
human relations have been fragmented under the Emergency in one of liberations
cruellest twists.
Kamaus crisis may be adduced to a mutual lack of recognition. His home
environment has altered and his reappearance in it goes unacknowledged,
especially by the women who remain in the villagized settlement. This lack of
recognition leads Kamau to realize that the old village had not even waited
for him. And suddenly he felt a strong nostalgia for his old home, friends and
surroundings. But for all that, Muthoni, just as she had been in the old days,
came back to his mind.78 Kamaus nostalgia is a desire for an originary plenitude,
and Muthoni, his wife, is the most important sign of that plenitude. Of course, a
proleptic reading of this moment points to the possibility that Muthoni (like the old
village) has not waited for Kamau and that she has therefore been subsumed into
the rural landscape. We soon find out that she has left the village with a love rival,
Karanja, who lied to the villagers that Kamau was dead. The idea of a woman as
a lost plenitude is, of course, a familiar one. It points to an Oedipalized form of
masculinity that appears throughout Ngugis work at this point. Women in Ngugis
representations of the Emergency period are, perhaps unavoidably, lost objects.
For instance, when Kamaus fellow detainees discuss their various lost loved ones,
it is evident that the prisoners identities as resisters or as victims of colonialism
their constructions of self are predicated on constructions of women, birth and
home. The resumption of life after incarceration is metaphorically equated with
the resumption of procreation. One detainee says, For me, I left my woman with
a baby. She had just been delivered. We were all happy. But on the same day, I was
arrested And so they went on. All of them longed for one day the day of their
return home. Then life would begin anew.79 Here, home is figured as new life and
is implicitly associated with rebirth.
For the detainees, women are the signs of a lost past and of an harmonious
future to which men will return after colonialism has ceased. The Return shares
a number of thematic and ideological affinities with A Grain of Wheat; the most
important of which is Ngugis location of the feminine as an idealized category
outside of history. At the most straightforward level, Kamaus inability to identify
with the changes brought about by the Mau Mau insurgency and the Security
Forces counter-insurgency efforts reflects his inability to reidentify with the
woman who might reconsolidate his identity: Muthoni. The only other transcendent
sign in the narrative is that of the river (Honia river still flowed80), and Muthoni
is aligned with the river when Kamau drops his bundle into Honia. The loss of his
spouse becomes water under the bridge and paradoxically realigns femininity

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, pp. 5051.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 51.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 50.
The Landscape of Insurgency 77

with nature, reinforcing the patterning of womanhood as a transcendent category

outside of history. Kamaus crisis is resolved in the narrative when a linear history
under colonization (his arrest, Muthonis loss, his return) is replaced by a cyclical
history (Honias English translation as bring-back-to-life implies the seasonal and
the perennial). In turn, this cyclical history accords with the destiny of Oedipalized
male heterosexuality, in which the male subjects desire for the original lost object
(the mother) must repeatedly be invested elsewhere.
The encounter between Kamau and his captors depicts his crisis of potency
in the face of the emasculating machinery of imperial dominance. After suffering
many humiliations without resisting, he assures himself that no one would ever
flout his manhood again.81 We might say that Ngugis protagonist conforms with a
fairly conventional phallic heroism that is, of course, deflated by Karanjas betrayal.
Significantly, this heroism emerges from a subjugated protagonist and relies upon
a discourse of conquest in order to establish itself. In Ngugis symbolic universe,
conquest takes the form of the eradication of the white settlers presence in Kenya,
the retrieval (winning back) of alienated land, and the sexual command of women.
The Martyr is perhaps the most ambivalent representation of Mau Mau in
Ngugis short fiction. The story exposes the inconsistencies and disparities in the
settlers constructions of self and other. Mrs Hardy and Mrs Smiles are clearly
exponents of the imperialist narrative, even when this narrative is becoming
redundant in practice. When they visit Mrs Hills house to discuss the murder of
Mr and Mrs Garstone, they wore a look of sad triumph sad because Europeans
(not just Mr and Mrs Garstone) had been killed, and of triumph, because the
essential depravity and ingratitude of the natives had been demonstrated beyond
all doubt.82 Their responses emphasize the racism that informs Mrs Hardys and
Mrs Smiless appraisal of the murder, and they also point to the failure of Mrs
Hills widely reputed liberal-humanist perspective. We are told explicitly that Mrs
Hill could no longer maintain that natives could be civilized if only they were
handled in the right manner.83 Of course, the failure of liberal-humanist ideology
is structural within colonial contexts. The cornerstone of liberal humanism is that
people may relate on equal terms because they share an underlying humanity,
and in the process it ignores the material asymmetries which make some subjects
more human than others.
Notwithstanding the critique of Mrs Hardys and Mrs Smiless racism, we
might detect in the story a lingering and uncomfortable liberal-humanism within
Ngugi himself. The Martyr is implicitly a critique of Mrs Hills liberalism,
but I would suggest that this critique is contaminated by the very ideology that
Ngugi seeks to oppose. Mrs Hill is an apologist for the imperialist narrative of
civilization. Her construction of colonized Kenyans is premised on flagstone
liberal values such as tolerance and co-option. She is unconsciously complicit

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 52.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 39.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 39.
78 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

with imperialism because she represents its beneficent face, excusing the violent
seizure of land by assuming that no one else ever lived on it before she arrived.
As she remembers her pioneering days, she forgets colonial violence and
expropriation: She and her husband and others had tamed the wilderness of
this country and had tamed the unoccupied land. People like Njoroge now lived
contented without a single worry about tribal wars. They had a lot to thank the
Europeans for.84 Mrs Hills retrospective dialogue with colonial Kenya and the
peasantry is founded on misprision. By contrast, Njoroges memories of his father
and his familys claim to the land she now occupies provide a counter-narrative to
Mrs Hills interested self-authorization. Equally, it emerges that Njoroge is, quite
rightly, far from contented.
After learning that the Garstones have been murdered, we are told that nowhere
was the matter more thoroughly discussed than in a lonely, remote house built
on a hill, which belonged, quite appropriately, to Mrs Hill.85 Clearly, Mrs Hills
naturalization of her privilege is represented as an accident of language. In its
choice to exercise such natural language in relation to colonization, Ngugis
short story becomes uncomfortably complicit with Mrs Hills naturalization of her
privilege. By contrast with Mrs Hills naturalization of her privilege, Njoroges
counter-narrative subverts his employers seemingly natural ownership of the land.
Significantly, his arrival in her employ is also the result of a strange coincidence
because a big portion of the land now occupied by Mrs Hill was the land his father
had shown him as belonging to the family He knew where every boundary
went through.86 Njoroges counter-memory of his ancestral land illustrates that
colonization is accompanied by an inscription of the landscape that fragments
the peasantrys relationship to its environment and to its past. Since Njoroges
father tells him to remember and recognize the land by a fig tree (Mugumo)
planted on it, his relation to the land is naturalized by a myth of origin, legation
and patrilinear succession. To this extent, it is implicated in a chauvinist cultural
discourse. As such, Njoroges claim to proprietorship of the farm is a tellingly
gendered claim.
The Martyr contains another double inscription, which may be found in
the dual significances attached to the sign boy. The sign forms part of Mrs
Hills linguistic arsenal as a term that both domesticates and diminishes her
male African employees.87 Further, this usage is subjected to authorial irony
when Njoroge is described as Mrs Hills houseboy, and we are then told that
he was a tall, broad-shouldered man nearing middle age.88 Njoroge, on the
other hand, uses the word Boys to denote the Freedom Boys (Ihii), who are

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 46.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 39.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 43.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, pp. 412.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 41.
The Landscape of Insurgency 79

Mau Mau insurgents.89 The capital letter used here points towards the authorial
valorization of this usage. The activities of Mau Mau in this story imply a form
of political and socio-economic empowerment for male colonized subjects such
as Njoroge. However, as we might already expect, this empowerment is framed
in sociosexual terms. The term ihii signifies uncircumcised boys. Its occurrence
in the story recuperates a Mau Mau symbolism of revolution as a male rite of
passage. Given that revolution in this story would mean the murder of Mrs Hill,
Mau Mau symbolism is ultimately consolidated by the intention to silence a
woman, even if Njoroges intervention thwarts the insurgents plans.
The resolution of Njoroges plot to murder Mrs Hill is interesting because
the conclusion of The Martyr finally denies Njoroge the possibility of masculine
mastery. Rather, Njoroges death enacts a symbolic castration. Yet, prior to the
(accidental) shooting, Njoroge and Mrs Hill have separately reached a private
rapprochement with each other, despite the marked differences in their ideological
positions. The negated possibility of a negotiated middle ground is what fuels the
narratives tragic trajectory. This middle ground warrants much closer attention:

[Mrs Hill] thought of Njoroge. A queer boy. Had he many wives? Had he a large
family? It was surprising even to her to find that she had lived with him for so long,
yet had never thought of these things. This reflection shocked her a little. It was the
first time she had ever thought of him as a man with a family. She had always seen
him as her servant. Even now it seemed ridiculous to think of her houseboy as a
father with a family This was something to be righted in future.90

[Njoroge] knew that [Mrs Hill] had loved her husband. Of that he was sure.
She almost died of grief when she had learnt of his death. In that moment her
settlerism had been shorn off. In that naked moment, Njoroge had been able
to pity her. Then the children! He had known them. He had seen them grow
up like any other children. Almost like his own And then he realized, all
too suddenly, that he could not do it. He could not tell how, but Mrs Hill had
suddenly crystallized into a woman, a wife, somebody like Njeri or Wambui, and
above all, a mother. He could not kill a woman. He could not kill a mother.91

The terminology of the latter passage is suggestive: the naked moment and
the children who are almost like Njoroges own perhaps hint at Njoroges latent
desire for Mrs Hill. In fact, Njoroge and Mrs Hill reach a middle ground in a
private, psychosexual realm. This ideational realm is unrealizable in the material
circumstances of revolution. In short, we see a familiar binary here between the
domestic and the political that is characteristic of Ngugis early and middle fiction.
Importantly, Mrs Hill progressively becomes a woman, a wife and above

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, pp. 446.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 47.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 45.
80 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

all, a mother in a sequence that might be read as an allegory of the formation of

female subjectivity within a uterine social organization. Quite clearly, despite Mrs
Hills position of ideological complicity with the dominant culture, her gendered
physiology redeems her. Njoroge and Mrs Hill both succumb to a seductive
mythology of the family as a realm somehow outside of politics. Whatever their
individual generosity towards each others circumstances, both obscure the
familys importance as a political institution that produces, and is in turn produced
by, ideologies of gender. In short, Ngugis patriarchal interest is made explicit here.
The possibility of a negotiated intersubjectivity in this story relies upon employer
and employee, oppressor and oppressed, relating as gendered subjects instead of as
political or economic subjects. Njoroge is sacrificed to an ideal that colonial subjects
may ignore their interpellation into asymmetrical subject positions dominant and
dominated, paternalizing and inimical, privileged and abject and find their equality
in their respective memberships of the human family. Here, Ngugi resurrects the
liberal-humanist discourse that his fiction has so carefully exposed.
Mrs Hill misprises Njoroges impulse to save her, and her misprision originates
in the colonial rhetoric of Mau Maus hostile proximity (So Njoroge had led them
here!92). Even after Njoroge has died, Mrs Hills ideological position is far from
consolidated. She finds the circumstances of his death a puzzle and refuses to
confirm Mrs Hardys and Mrs Smiless assumptions that black Kenyans are all
bad.93 Mrs Hills inability to make sense of the incident translates as an inability
to perpetuate a narrative of settler identity that contributes to the broader narrative
of imperialism. Her final subject position in the story is unstable because it admits
to an outside an unknown elsewhere.
We might acknowledge that Ngugis representations of Mau Mau in Secret
Lives are ultimately transgressive, insofar as they frame Mau Mau as an unhomely
presence in the colonizers consciousness. Nevertheless, the short stories in
Secret Lives often construct the insurgents according to a chauvinistic historical
narrative, neglecting in the process the Kenyan women who formed the backbone
of the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army. In fact, the stories that treat women at
length tend to bracket them within a domestic and purely reproductive social
narrative that takes place prior to or after Mau Mau insurgency. We see this, for
example, in the first section of Secret Lives, which is explicitly titled Of Mothers
and Children. To be fair, many of the stories in this section were published or
written very early on in Ngugis career. As such, stories such as Mugumo and
And the Rain Came Down! belong with the fiction written before Ngugi had
given gender concerns his full consideration. In the former story, Mukami goes
to the mugumo (fig) tree because she fears that she is barren and is therefore
not desirable to her husband, Muthoga. Under the mugumo, she falls asleep and
wakes up after having dreamt that Gikuyu has touched her. She recalls Mumbis

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 47.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, pp. 478.
The Landscape of Insurgency 81

assertion that she is the mother of a nation.94 Mukami then realizes that she has
been pregnant for some time. In short, Mukami re-enacts the foundation myth
of the Gikuyu people under the sacred mugumo tree, and becomes a version of
Mumbi, the female archetype. By contrast, And the Rain Came Down! features
a character called Nyokabi who is childless. She has the one desire, to marry and
have children.95 Nyokabi discovers the lost child of another woman, Njeri, in the
middle of a forest during a rainstorm and undertakes an act of motherly rescue.
She vows that she is willing to sacrifice her life if the child can only be allowed
to live. Upon her return home, Nyokabis husband recognizes the child as Njeris
son and returns him to his biological mother. Although we never learn whether or
not Nyokabi survives her ordeal, the story ends with a kind of compensation for
her barren status. Her husband is proud that his wife has overcome her jealousy
of Njeri and has accomplished this selfless feat of endurance. These two stories
are stories of feminine rivalry and of unfulfilled motherhood that serve to separate
womens issues from the political. These two stories are miniatures that are more
extensively treated in Weep Not, Child and The River Between. Nyokabi and
Njeri, of course, share their names with Njoroges mothers in Weep Not, Child.
Moreover, the mugumo myth features prominently in both of Ngugis first two
novels. By contrast, Gone with the Drought is an early version of one of the
subplots in A Grain of Wheat, in which an old woman goes mad due to the loss
of her son, Githogo. In Gone with the Drought, the death of the son is due to
colonial maladministration in the period immediately after Mau Mau and prior to
Independence. In this story, the narrator serves as the old womans surrogate son,
whom she temporarily misrecognizes as her own when he takes her some food.
Upon her death from starvation, the narrator comes to the same conclusion as his
father that the old womans madness is a misdiagnosis. She has been labelled
mad by a community who might have intervened to help her feed her starving son
and who continue to misrecognize the ways in which inefficient colonial famine
relief has contributed to the old womans tragedy.
There are other forms of unfulfilment to which the female characters are
subjected. In this sense, many of the short stories pattern femininity through modes
of lack. We might think, for instance, of Wamaitha, the lover of the handsome
loner, Mangara, in The Black Bird. Wamaitha loses him to a curse placed upon
his family by a traditional spiritualist whose property is destroyed by Mangaras
grandfather, who has become an over-zealous convert to Christianity during
the colonial period. In a sense, Wamaitha loses her loved one to an undisclosed
patrilinear inheritance. The story of the black bird is related to the narrator of
the story, but Mangara proclaims that Wamaitha wont understand.96 Just as
Mangara and Wamaitha are at their happiest moment in love, this is described as

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 7.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 10.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 33.
82 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

a new world97 into which the black bird steals, noticed only by him. In effect,
Wamaitha is a woman excluded not only from knowledge of the historical legacy
of colonial injustice, but also from access to the story of The Black Bird in which
she is such a prominent presence. Wamaithas femininity debars her from both
history and its contemporary reworking as narrative. Although Mangara wrestles
with the return of historical repression in the dream-like figure of the black bird,
and although it is strongly suggested that he is able to bring closure to both history
and narrative by undergoing a purifying ritual under the mugumo tree before his
untimely death, Wamaitha inhabits repression tout court and is none the wiser in
relation to her tragic situation. If Mangara is haunted by intergenerational unease,
then a similar form of Oedipal crisis affects the hero of A Meeting in the Dark.
John is the uncircumcised son of a puritanical clergyman and he is destined to go
to Makerere University on a scholarship. His bright, upwardly mobile prospects
and his obedience to his fathers religious authority are thrown into disarray when
his circumcised girlfriend, Wamuhu, falls pregnant. John has a dream of being
circumcised before meeting her, but then imagines himself being destroyed by
ghosts. Rather than owning up to the truth and challenging his fathers authority,
John tries to silence Wamuhu by bribing her and then throttles her in a frenzy
when she refuses to be bought off. Again, a female character succumbs to a
male characters conflicted political and Oedipal crises. Although Johns flawed
attempts to preserve his own interests are subjected to sincere and stinging critique
by Ngugis deft authorial framing, the murder of Wamuhu is consistent with the
patterns of earlier stories. The difficulty here is that in seeking to vilify Johns
sexism and to dignify Wamuhus integrity and fortitude, Ngugi does not succeed
in examining the gendering at work in his own narrative mechanisms. There is
altogether too neat a symmetry within the clergymans status as a familial, religious
and cultural authority, and too neat a distinction between Wamuhus feminized
tradition and Johns masculine modernity.
The stories in the final section of Secret Lives deal with the aftermaths of Mau
Mau and the disappointments of the post-Independence era. In this sense, they are
very much akin to the later novels. Indeed, we might even say that the character of
Beatrice in Minutes of Glory is an early precursor of Wanja in Petals of Blood, or
that Wedding at the Cross is an earlier version of the inverted theology of Devil
on the Cross. These stories detail neocolonial depredation and its effects upon
family and sexual relationships. In Minutes of Glory, Beatrice is seduced by a
man who lures her away from home with promises of work in Nairobi. Without
support of any kind in the city, she drifts into prostitution. She struggles for custom
and is jealous of Nyaguthii, a fellow prostitute for whose attention and services
the male clientele often compete. When a regular lorry-driving client falls asleep
during Beatrices story of her unhappy entry into the life of prostitution, she steals
his money. Beatrice spends his money on clothes and accessories and returns to
work to enjoy a night of unprecedented attention from the punters. Her minutes

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 37.
The Landscape of Insurgency 83

of glory come to an end when the lorry driver returns with the police to arrest her.
In this story, neocolonial femininity is reduced to a sexual commodity that is only
marketable when it carries the costly outer trappings of beauty: wigs, clothes,
skin-lightening creams, accessories. Beatrice is trapped in a cycle of poverty by
a lack of available options. At home, she is unable to find work. In the city, she
is unable to find custom and loses her job as a barmaid for refusing the advances
of her boss. Even the lorry-driving customer places a higher value on his own
property than upon Beatrices tragic life history. Only Nyaguthii is able to relate to
Beatrices plight, and it is, of course, a plight that Nyaguthii herself shares.
If Minutes of Glory details the life of the single prostitute, then the
circumstances of the married woman are no less advantageous. In Wedding at the
Cross, Miriamu is the daughter of a God-fearing Christian called Douglas Jones,
who belittles Wariuki, Miriamus suitor, due to his lack of money. In response
to this slight, Wariuki sets about striving for upward mobility. He fights for the
British colonial power in the Second World War, becomes a collaborator during
the Mau Mau period, joins the church, renames himself Dodge W. Livingstone, Jr.
and then profits from the Asian exodus from East Africa to become a prosperous
timber merchant. When Dodge insists upon marrying Miriamu in church, she
finally realizes at the altar that the man she is about to marry is no longer Wariuki.
In striving to avenge himself upon Douglas Jones for the slight, Wariuki has finally
become another version of Jones himself, and in the process his own former self
has died. For this reason, Miriamu refuses to take the wedding vows. The man
she once fell in love with has not survived his own immersion in the neocolonial
socio-economic order. Driven by the originary wound of inequality, Wariuki has
become corrupted by aspiration. Miriamus love for him becomes a measure of
misrecognition indicating how sizeable his transition has been.
A similar story of decline is evident in A Mercedes Funeral. The narrator
and Wahinya have both attended school during the Mau Mau era, but Wahinyas
school is burned down by the colonial forces who suspect it to be in league with
the insurgents. While the narrator prospers and progresses to the missionary-
administered Siriana high school and then to university, Wahinya undertakes a
succession of low-paid jobs as a porter, a matatu turn-boy and a watchman, all the
time dreaming of completing his education. These dreams are continually frustrated
and he succumbs to alcoholism. In a cruel irony, Wahinyas desire to die in a
Mercedes Benz is fulfilled when a corrupt MP seeking re-election loans the vehicle
out to Wahinyas family as a hearse, thinking that this move will secure popular
support among the electorate. The story highlights the formative consequences of
accidents of fate and suggests that a colonial education has conferred a series of
arbitrary privileges upon the narrator.98

Ngugi has a strong and ethical investment in this storyline. In his critical writing,
he remembers his own fortune in this way: I remember one boy in my class of 1954
who had distinctions in all subjects except English, which he had failed. He was made
to fail the entire exam. He went on to become the turn boy in a bus company. I who had
84 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

The concluding story, The Mubenzi Tribesman, analyzes the ways in which
neocolonialism corrupts. This corruption is registered dramatically in terms of
the decline of the family life of the protagonist, Waruhiu. As a villager with a
university education, Waruhiu marries an urbanite named Ruth. He takes up a post
as a teacher, ploughing his learning back into his community. She works in the
city. Accordingly, the economic activity within their marriage is distributed across
rural and metropolitan space. The constant approaches of Waruhius relations
for help with financial problems irks Ruth and she persuades him to move to the
city. Once there, he takes up a position in an oil company, but soon finds that he
needs to embezzle money in order to keep pace with the affluent lifestyle and
conspicuous consumption expected of him by his new Wabenzi tribesmen and by
his wife. Once caught, Waruhiu is imprisoned. Upon his release, he discovers that
his wife will have nothing to do with him. Perhaps the most interesting dimension
of the story is that exogamy becomes a metaphor for detribalization. Marrying
Ruth and marrying into the values of social mobility and class aspiration that she
embodies is equivalent to becoming part of a new tribe the privileged stratum of
neocolonial fatcats dubbed the Wabenzi due to their love of the Mercedes Benz
and other luxury foreign products. Waruhius final recognition is of a coruscating
self-loathing within himself. Having cut ties with his community, having been
subjected to the very public disgrace of a guilty verdict and having finally lost his
wife, he ultimately dissociates even from himself and finds that he is involuntarily
emitting a hoarse ugly laughter.99 In short, neocolonial values and material
aspirations run so deeply against the grain of Waruhius community that he takes
on an entirely new ethnicity and is finally unable to recognize himself upon his
release from prison.
Taken collectively, the stories in Secret Lives and Other Stories offer Ngugis
readers a fictional cross-section of Kenyan historical experience. They follow a
movement from the initially depoliticized stories of mothers and children, through
to the stories of Mau Mau-inspired neuroses in both the settler and the colonized
subject, through to the alienations of African subjectivity that accompany
neocolonialism. In this sense, these stories encompass a transitional phase of
disquiet that is more broadly at work in the shift from the early novels to the late
novels. This transitional phase of disquiet finds its fullest expression in Ngugis
two middle novels, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood. It is to these to novels
and their gender complexities that we must now turn.

only passes but a credit in English got a place in Alliance High School, one of the most
elitist institutions for Africans in colonial Kenya. The accidental nature of privilege in this
example is in direct proportion to the violence of colonial cultural imposition. Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London:
James Currey, 1989 [1986]), p. 12.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Secret Lives, p. 144.
Chapter 4
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat)

In this chapter, I shall discuss the ways in which Ngugi wa Thiongos A Grain of
Wheat narrates the Kenyan nation in the moment of reckoning immediately prior
to Independence. Obviously, a figure like Benedict Anderson looms large in this
theoretical context, with his definition of the nation as an imagined community
and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. I propose to work within
the idiom of Andersons definition, by focusing on how A Grain of Wheat invents
and delimits colonial and decolonized Kenyan national identities. An endeavour
of this kind requires one to explore the sorts of fantasies or narratives involved in
imagining a community. A Grain of Wheat is ideally suited to this purpose. It is a
novel concerned with forging a national consciousness out of a shared historical
experience. The main characters desperately need to reconcile themselves to their
unavowable histories of mutual betrayal before embracing a collective future.
These unresolved individual pasts and their subtle interconnections are revealed
via a series of recollections, flashbacks and confessions. Hence, each characters
life story is carefully woven into the broader narrative of Kenyan history. The
result is a complex, layered and multidimensional narrative.
However, whatever its formal complexities and nuances, A Grain of Wheat
is itself a symptom of the historical processes and the ideological formations it
describes. Moreover, the novels narration of the national moment of reckoning
at Kenyan Independence is textured by post-Independence disappointments that
coincide with the moment of writing. As such, A Grain of Wheat is an historical
novel that of necessity buys into a series of spectacularly ahistorical fantasies. Chief
among these fantasies are the colonial representations of Mau Mau that inform
Ngugis depiction of Kenyan history. Since the publication of David Maughan-
Browns Land, Freedom and Fiction, it has almost become a critical orthodoxy
to say that A Grain of Wheat is a crisis novel, whose residual sympathies with
English liberalism lead it to exaggerate Mau Mau violence in the name of a flawed
ideology of aesthetic balance. In other words, by trying to tell both sides of the
story, A Grain of Wheat equivocates in its account of Kenyan history. In seeking to
make A Grain of Wheat a balanced historical novel, Ngugi unbalances the novels
historiographic integrity.
What has less often been remarked upon is that the novels gendering of
politics also ensures the impossibility of its historical representations. Admittedly,
the novels gendering of history is in some senses a response to one of the
psychosexual injuries that colonialism inflicts upon its subjects a denial of the

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 6.
86 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

colonizeds potency. Ngugi adopts a number of strategies in order to recuperate

Gikuyu male potency and these strategies consist in silencing the female characters
in A Grain of Wheat. As such, Ngugis novel erroneously constructs Mau Mau as
a male nationalist movement and frequently excludes womens contributions to
the struggle or filters these contributions through domestic sexual or reproductive
roles. This means that A Grain of Wheat ultimately articulates Mau Mau at the
expense of female articulation and gender-political agency. Although the novel
offers a number of positive representations of Gikuyu women, in which their
capacity for political and sexual articulation is privileged, these representations
are almost invariably susceptible to reappropriation by a patriarchal discourse.
I would like to suggest three things in this chapter. Firstly, I shall argue that A
Grain of Wheat brings a gender framing to bear on its imagining of community. The
nation in this novel is metaphorically female. Secondly, the metaphorically female
nation is also a site of psychosexual desire. As a result, the novels ideologies of
gender instigate unconscious processes of displacement and distortion that skew its
representations of history. The result is that the novels retrospective impulses and
their attempts to recuperate a kind of phallic heroism readily give way to moments
of anachronistic wish-fulfilment. As we shall see, such moments of anachronistic
wish-fulfilment are especially evident in the differences between the original 1967
version and the revised 1986 edition of A Grain of Wheat. Thirdly, I would like to
propose that if one reads A Grain of Wheat against the grain, it is possible to locate
a site of female sexual and political agency that is also historically apt. Simply
put, if the novel addresses colonialism and its legacy in terms of a masculine
psychosexual crisis, it follows that its constructions of patriarchal authority are
inevitably compromised. Therefore, the novel covertly sets in place the conditions
for alternative possible narratives of female sexual and historical agency.

Ngugis Ambivalence towards Mau Mau

Despite his espousal of Marxism while at Leeds University, Ngugis fictional

representation of Mau Mau reveals an extraordinary ambivalence towards Mau
Mau violence. David Maughan-Brown argues that this contradiction can be
attributed to two factors:

Firstly, the fiction is clearly rendering visible residual ideological formations,

most traces of which have been consciously expunged from [Ngugis]
essays. Secondly, Ngugis notion of good fiction, based on an aesthetic
ideology derived from his literary education in English departments oriented
towards traditional critical orthodoxies, demanded a balance which prevented
the fictional expression of certain positions (particularly those tending towards
the deconstruction of concepts like violence) articulated outside the fiction.

David Maughan-Brown, Land, Freedom and Fiction, p. 252.

Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 87

Here Maughan-Brown identifies a faultline between the aesthetic demands

of Ngugis received notions of literary form and the political demands of his
recent conscientization at the University of Leeds. Maughan-Brown goes on to
suggest that Ngugis representations of Mau Mau are tainted by an emphasis
on individualism, rather than on the collective (but by no means homogeneous)
resistance of the community. This stress on individualism problematizes Ngugis
Marxian sympathies, because the fictional representatives of collective resistance
emerge only as savage killers (General R., who has assassinated a clergyman) or
rapists (Koinandu) or self-styled Messianic heroes (Kihika). More dangerously,
perhaps, the privatized sensibility for which the novel appears to argue is
ideologically suspect, since it excuses the characters various political betrayals on
the grounds of human frailty. Maughan-Brown makes this point quite forcefully:

Ngugis general implication seems to be that once concepts like the masses
and collective consciousness are subjected to the test of close-up scrutiny
what emerges is a network of private, self-delusory, messianic identifications
which testify to an underlying principle of competition as the mainspring of
human conduct. Thus endemic guilt and bad faith underlie even the best deeds
another formula for original sin.

As Maughan-Brown suggests, a residual Christianity underpins Ngugis

representations of the Mau Mau insurgency. One of the implications of this
patterning is that Ngugis representations of Mau Mau do not privilege the rank and
file members (such as Koinandu) or even the peasant leadership (General R.s real
name, Muhoya, also denotes a tenant farmer or Muhoi). Rather, Ngugi privileges a
literate, Christian Mau Mau, which synthesizes the liberal ideal of principled rebellion
and which inevitably gestures towards an litist reconstruction of the insurgencys
guiding values and orientations. In my view, such moments reflect ideological
compromises between Ngugis political vision and his subject formation.
For instance, the exemplary figure of Kihika carries a double historical
inscription. Firstly, the details of his life parallel those of Dedan Kimathi, a
prominent general in the Land and Freedom Army. Secondly, his name evokes
one of the arathi (prophets), Reuben Kihiko, who was the leader of a breakaway

Readers should note that unless otherwise indicated I refer to the first, unrevised
edition of Ngugis novel (1967). It is also worth noting here that the revision of a novel
purporting to be historical begs all sorts of questions about the constructedness of Ngugis
historical accounts.

Ngugis tendency towards a Messianic mode of characterization expresses a type of
individualism that is, I think, typically petty-bourgeois. Its role is not so much historically
illuminating as ideological. Michael Vaughan, African Fiction and Popular Struggle: The
Case of A Grain of Wheat, English in Africa 8:2 (1981), p. 27.

David Maughan-Brown, Land, Freedom and Fiction, pp. 24950.

See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, pp. 1335.
88 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Christian sect called the Dini ya Jesu Kristo. Kihikos followers espoused a
Gikuyu traditionalist version of the Christian myth, and they were considered by
the colonial authorities to be subversive. In December 1947, they clashed with
the Kenyan police and killed three policemen, resulting in Kihikos arrest and
execution. Certain colonial accounts of Mau Mau claim that the insurgency had
its origins in sects such as the Dini ya Jesu Kristo. Ngugi himself has argued in an
essay that the conflict between the Kenyan people and the missionary churches, the
subsequent setting up of African independent churches, and the religious aspects
of the Mau Mau liberation movement, were direct results of the culture conflict
initiated by the missionary holy zeal. In fact, Kihikas crucifixion by hanging
is suggestive of a Christ-like dimension and accords with Ngugis later thinking
about the role for the Church in post-Independence Kenya: One could say that if
Christ had lived in Kenya in 1952, or in South Africa or Rhodesia today, he would
have been crucified as a Mau Mau terrorist or Communist.10 Certainly, Kihikas
first revolutionary inclinations are demonstrated in a theological dispute with
Teacher Muniu on the grounds that [the] Bible does not talk about circumcising
women and that it therefore does not specifically condemn Gikuyu initiation
ceremonies.11 However, Ngugis representation of Mau Mau in A Grain of Wheat
is not necessarily ideologically aligned with colonial narratives of the Mau Mau
insurgencys origins in the breakaway African churches and Christian sects.
Rather, Kihika, as both Kimathi and Kihiko, indexes Ngugis attempt to bridge the
disparate ideological subtexts of Christian nationalism and Gikuyu traditionalism.
Kimathi was a christian rebel and Kihiko was a rebellious christian (the lower
case denotes a para-institutional theology). These two models fit comfortably
together as prototypes of principled resistance in Kenya, which was clearly the
sort of resistance Ngugi privileged before writing A Grain of Wheat. In Mau
Mau, Violence and Culture (1963), he writes, Violence in order to change an
intolerable unjust social order is not savagery: it purifies man. Violence to protect
and preserve an unjust, oppressive social order is criminal, and diminishes man.12
And in a much later essay, Church, Culture and Politics (1970), Ngugi describes
the Churchs complicity with imperialism, but qualifies his arguments in this way:
I want to stress that I am talking of the Church as a corporate body, an institution,
and not of the individual holders of the faith.13 This qualification points to a
residual sympathy towards Christianity and individualism in Ngugi, and perhaps
accounts for the crisis between Christian nationalism, Gikuyu traditionalism and

Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, The Myth of Mau Mau, pp. 3278.

See, for example, D. H. Rawcliffe, The Struggle For Kenya (London: Victor
Gollancz, 1954), p. 34.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 32.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 34.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat (Oxford: Heinemann, 1978 [1967]), p. 75.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 28.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 34
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 89

socialism in A Grain of Wheat. If Ngugi was still expressing latent support for
Christianity at this point in his development, it was evidently the Christian aversion
to violence that he risked importing into his novel. Significantly, this latent support
for Christianity also contains gender implications. The para-institutional theology
that Ngugis novel upholds is much the same as that developed by the African
independent churches in post-1920s Kenya. As we saw in Chapter 2, the African
independent churches were enmeshed with Gikuyu nationalisms discursive
formations. Their para-institutional theology legitimized polygamy as a form of
domestic organization and clitoridectomy as a determinant in the sociopolitical
(and discursive) construction of female sexuality. Hence, the kind of Mau Mau we
receive in A Grain of Wheat also at some level determines the kind of woman that
we encounter there.
If Ngugis account of Mau Mau is ideologically conflicted, there may be
additional reasons for his residual distrust of the resistance movement, some of
which speak to Oedipal or gender-political antecedents. Firstly, his half-brother
(Mwangi) was an active member of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. Secondly,
and as a result, his mother underwent three months of torture at Kamiriithu home-
guard post.14 Additionally, on a first reading of A Grain of Wheat, I was struck
by the pathos of Gitogos murder at the hands of the Security Forces. It seemed a
gratuitous and sentimental representation of settler atrocities under the Emergency:
a deaf and mute Gikuyu man is shot in the back because he does not register the
Security Forces command to Halt!15 However, this is in fact an important moment
of self-inscription in the novel, because Ngugis deaf-and-dumb step-brother
[was] shot dead in circumstances identical to those of Gitogo, whose name he
shared.16 In the passage dealing with the murder, there is a poignant significance in
Gitogos motives: he flees home in order to save his mother from the approaching
government forces. I shall suggest in this chapter that the sign woman in A
Grain of Wheat is produced as a discursive intersection between Mau Mau and
the Security Forces, much as Ngugis mother was produced as that intersection
during her detention at one point during his formative years. Although I concur
with Maughan-Browns sense that the novel privileges heroic individualism, I
would argue that the principle of communal unity which ostensibly underlies the
novel is the category of the feminine. History in this novel is a public, masculine
affair, and community is a private, feminine affair. My argument here coincides
with Michael Vaughans claim that Ngugis treatment of the significance of the
experience of women tends to work symbolically and metaphorically rather than
by means of a plain and open realism. Nevertheless, it is clear that for Ngugi

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained: A Writers Prison Diary (Oxford: Heinemann,
1981), p. 109.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 6.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 3. See also David Cook and Michael
Okenimpke, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 4.
90 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

women have a very specific relation to community and communal values.17

The sign woman enables notions of community and, therefore, the economy
of relations in A Grain of Wheat. The sign woman, as it is exchanged between
characters in the text (via desire or narrative construction) and between author
and readership (via significance or meaning constitution), is crucial to Ngugis
representation of Kenya during the Emergency. The characters may be politically
indexed according to their malefemale relations. As we shall see much later in
this chapter, the pivotal female character is Mumbi, who is absolutely crucial to
this political indexing.

Representing Resistance, Betrayal and Liberation

Even if we were not to take Mumbis pivotal role into consideration, the male
characters are all constellated in terms of the various subsidiary women who
surround them. For example, Kihikas entry into the public though clandestine
domain of insurrection entails leaving behind a private or domestic domain as
Wambukus lover. These two domains are established by a crucial misunderstanding
between the pair:

Youll not go away from me. Youll not leave me alone, she said in
Never! Kihika cried in ecstasy, seeing Wambuku at his side always. When the
call for action came, he alone among the other men would have a woman he
loved fighting at his side.
His one word like a knife stabbed Wambuku, thrilling her into a momentary
vision of happiness now and ever; would Kihika now leave the demon [of
political resistance] alone, content with life in the village like the other men?
They walked back to the dancers in the wood, hands linked, their faces lit, both
happy, for the moment, in their separate delusions.18

This passage is a synecdoche of the narrative as a whole, in that it severs the

female private or domestic domain from the male domain of public culture or
politics. These gender binates permeate Ngugis narrative and are crucial in the
establishment of the feminine as a consensual trope that defines the terrain of
struggle between the government forces and the insurgents. Of course, Wambuku
and Kihika cannot reconcile their differences in aspiration. They inhabit their
separate delusions (a form of false consciousness) because they respectively
inhabit two irreconcilably gendered spheres. Hence, this passage insidiously
establishes gender binarism only to withhold its resolution, which in turn enables
the novel to suggest that gender dialogue is always-already a discussion at cross-

Michael Vaughan, African Fiction and Popular Struggle, p. 48.


Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 86.

Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 91

purposes. Kihika soon leaves Wambuku, in order to engage in active resistance, but
he is joined by her rival, Njeri, in the forest. Njeri joins the forest fighters because
she loves Kihika, in the absence of her own political ambitions or motivations.
Njeris passionate devotion to her handsome warrior19 implies that Kihika is as
much an icon of potency as he is a figure of resistance. Of course, this iconic status
means that it is exclusively Kihikas phallic heroism that can enjoin the domestic
with the political, which equates masculine sexual and cultural prerogatives in an
extremely subtle move.
Kihika is not the only Mau Mau representative whose martial activity is formed
in relation to the feminine. Muhoya (General R.) begins his military training
with the British in World War I after he has attempted, unsuccessfully, to rescue
his mother from being beaten by his father, and has been expelled from his home
village as a result.20 General R. confesses to Koinandu that Reverend Jackson
Kigondu (the loyalist clergyman that General R. has executed) looked like [his]
father.21 These Oedipal underpinnings to General R.s killing of a Kenyan loyalist
retroactively divest the act of any political motive.
On completely the opposite side of the political spectrum, the homeguard
Karanjas relations with his mother are also significant. His idleness is a source
of contention between them and, in an agricultural society such as that of the
Gikuyu peasantry among whom the novel places itself, this idleness compounds
Wairimus economic hardship. She disapproves of Karanjas loyalist activities.
However, as a long-suffering mother, she consoles herself with the traditional
saying (itself complicit with the subjection of subaltern women who inhabit a
society geared towards uterine production) a child from your own womb is never
thrown away.22 Again, in Wairimu we see the cleaving of the domestic and the
political along gender lines. Her motherly responsibilities and loyalties to Karanja
place her at a remove from her communitys political interests.
A further example can be seen in Mugo. Mugos stature as a half-outsider in
the community is not only a result of his apolitical inclinations. It is also, I think,
integrally linked with his lack of a mother. He has two mother substitutes: his
aunt and the old woman who is Gitogos mother. His aunt is a drunkard and an
imperious harridan, and her characterization corresponds with the other matriarchs
in the novel Queen Elizabeth and Wangu Makeri. These matriarchs share an
affinity in that they all compromise male potency and potentially threaten the
phallocentric momentum of Ngugis historical narrative. Mugos aunt, Waitherero,
asks him confrontationally, [W]hats your penis worth?23 and Mugos one desire
is to kill her by strangulation.24 This desire is to castrate rather than to be castrated

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 89.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, pp. 1845.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 191.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 196.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 8.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, pp. 89.
92 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

and it reappears in the narrative when Mugo attempts to throttle Mumbi after he
has confessed to betraying Kihika (the betrayal results in Kihikas execution by
hanging). Other than confessing to Kihikas betrayal,25 Mugos one significant act
of heroism occurs when he intervenes to save Wambuku, pregnant with child,
from a beating by the homeguards. His stature within the community, and the
Messianic desire he inspires, is indicated in the song that relates his heroism:

And he jumped into the trench,

The words he told the soldier pierced my heart like a spear;
You will not beat a pregnant woman, he said,
You will not beat a pregnant woman, he told the soldier26

If I am correct that there is a uterine social organization in the novels iconography

of nationhood, then Wambukus pregnancy is manifestly significant. It figures
not only personal but also national suffering during the Emergency and arguably
accords with the phallocentric narratives of resistance that we encounter elsewhere
in the novel. As in nationalist and imperialist accounts of Mau Mau, Ngugis text
positions the women as the limit between Mau Mau and the government forces.
In this episode, home guard violence occurs in an historically plausible site of
colonial anti-insurgent strategy. During the Emergency, the trench was designed
to be a defensive military barrier against Mau Mau attacks. It was completed
by coercing civilian, and largely female, labour into its excavation. But beyond
the trenchs topological position as a limit or boundary, the woman involved
(Wambuku) invokes a significant set of homosocial relations in Ngugis novel.
Wambuku, whom Mugo tries to save from the beating by a homeguard, has been
Kihikas lover prior to his involvement in active combat, and she later dies during
pregnancy as a result of her injuries. In larger symbolic terms, just as we have
noticed in Weep Not, Child, the sign woman is a consensual trope that encloses
masculine subjects within a contestatory dialectic.
If female characters in the novel are positioned as consensual tropes, then it
is understandable that a figure like Mumbi occupies a crucial place in the moral
economy of confession and reconciliation those sites from which a post-Uhuru
consensus will emerge. Mumbi is Mugos confiteor and inspires [his] social
redemption,27 and her role is deeply enmeshed with her sexuality. Before Mugo
confesses to Mumbi, she speculates about his desire for her and half-admits to her
own desire for him. As Mumbi goes to meet Mugo, her thoughts are offered to us
through the following sexualized language: The thrill sharpened as later in that
evening she set out for Mugos hut. Mumbi felt like a girl again, braving the

As many critics have noticed, Mugos private and public confessions are similar
to those made by Razumov to Natalia and to the revolutionaries in Joseph Conrad, Under
Western Eyes (London: Methuen, 1923 [1911]), pp. 297, 307.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 156.
Michael Vaughan, African Fiction and Popular Struggle, p. 48.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 93

dark and the wind and the storm, to meet her lover. What if Mugo should she
left the question and answer in abeyance.28 Of course, Mumbis desire is tightly
controlled by the use of simile and of free indirect discourse in the passage, and
by the fact that she does not quite manage to express the possibility of mutual
attraction. Once Mumbi is in Mugos hut, we are told that He was handsome and
lonely, she bit her lower lip to steady herself. Yet she allowed irrelevant thoughts
to capture her fancy; if he should want me If he should 29 It is, of course, to
Ngugis considerable credit that he is almost able to write Mumbis sexual desires.
But the device that makes these desires possible is Mumbis mistaken belief in
Mugos heroism, and the myth of warrior masculinity that this mistaken belief
allows her to attach to him. Since we soon discover that the largely apolitical
Mugo has betrayed Kihika, Mumbis desire for him constrained as it is is
ultimately debunked as another form of false consciousness that she was never
quite able to admit to in the first place.
Unlike Kihikas visions of revolutionary self-sacrifice, Mumbis version of
Messianic heroism is that of Christ betrayed we are told that her idea of glory was
something nearer the agony of Christ at the Garden of Gethsemane.30 As Kihikas
Judas, Mugos confession to Mumbi in private presages his eventual confession
in public.31 Mugos interior monologue, in which he recalls his confession to
Mumbi, confirms that she is placed similarly to other female characters in relation
to masculine narratives of the insurgency:

[Mumbi] had sat there, and talked to him and given him a glimpse of a new
earth. That night, he hardly closed his eyes. The picture of Mumbi merged
with that of the village and the detention camps. He would look at Mumbi and
she would immediately change into his aunt or the old woman.32

We should notice three patterns of association here. Firstly, we should notice the
association between Mumbi and a utopian new earth. Secondly, Mumbis transition
into Mugos two mothers-by-proxy is, I think, symptomatic of the uterine textual
organization of the novel. In other words, once feminine subjectivity is delimited
to female mothering capacities, it risks becoming reduced to the monadic womb
(at the expense of desire that exceeds reproductive framing and that Spivak or
Cixous might term clitoral). Tellingly, after Mugo has confessed to Mumbi, he is
reunited with the old woman; a mother-by-proxy, who in turn mistakes him for her

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 158.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 159.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 77.
See David Maughan-Brown, Mau Mau and Violence in Ngugis Novels,
English in Africa, 8:2 (1981), p. 13.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 203.
94 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

own lost son, Gitogo.33 To Mugo, Mumbi now seems a thing of the past.34 Bearing
in mind that Gitogos construction reveals a private investment on Ngugis part,
I would argue that this symbolic resolution of two disquieting narrative moments
(Mugos betrayal and Gitogos murder) reconciles the discrete spheres of private
and public. It anticipates a more general reconciliation between the characters
traumatic personal histories and the collective Kenyan national identity that Ngugi
would like to see formed in common. It is this reconciliation that Mugos ultimate
affiliation with a mother-by-proxy symbolically enacts, and it is his confession to
Mumbi that enables it. Finally, the third pattern we should notice in the quotation
above is that it places Mumbi recognizably at the intersection between colonial
and nationalist discursive sites in the Emergency landscape (the detention camps
and the village). As such, she becomes something like the site and the stake of
a struggle played out between the conflicting sexual and political masculinities
that Gikonyo and Karanja represent. Mumbis merging with the village and the
detention camps contaminates the discrete spaces of private confession (of the
oath in the torture chamber) and public confession (of Kihikas betrayal in the
cathartic scene that begets the solidarity of the post-Independence community).
It is one of the unconscious ironies of A Grain of Wheat that its vision of Kenyan
national identity relies upon the same confessional logic as that of the colonial
torture chamber in the detention camps. Again, it needs to be remarked that both
the private and public spaces of confession are gendered. We do not only see
this in Mugos hallucination of Mumbi blurring into the village and the detention
camps; the name of the village in which the novel is predominantly set, Thabai
(Kenya in microcosm), effects a similar blurring of these spaces. Thabai denotes
the stinging nettles that the starving villagized populations were forced to rely
upon for food and which were inserted into womens vaginas as a form of torture
in settings such as the detention camps.35 If Mumbis womb is the site and stake
of struggle between Karanja and Gikonyo and the larger colonial and anti-colonial
forces that they represent, then the symbolic allusiveness of blurring Mumbi on to
Thabai and the detention camps is consistent with such a uterine organization of
female subjectivity.
There are other ways in which the novel instrumentalizes femininity in its
depiction of conflicting discursive formations during the crisis of insurgency. The
effects of Villagization upon Thabai are described as follows:

Men, finding women like Mumbi on the roof hammering in the nails, stopped to
tease them: it was all because a woman a new Wangu in England had been
crowned: what good ever came of a womans rule?

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 205.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 205.
See Donald Barnett and Karari wa Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 209. For
more information about Thabai (Urtica Massaica), see F. N. Gachathi, Kikuyu Botanical
Dictionary of Plant Names and Uses (Nairobi, 1989), pp. 1434.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 95

Aah, but that is not true, the women would reply at times, glad for the
interruption. Doesnt Governor Baring, who rules Kenya, have a penis?
Aah, its still the womans shauri [affair]. See how you women have sent all
the men to detention for their penis to rot there, unwilling husbands to Queen
And to the forests, too, the women would burst out, the raillery turning into
bitterness. And without another word the men would hurry back to their own
sites to continue the metallic cries of the hammer and nail.36

The passage likens the Emergency to female rulership under Wangu Makeri in order
to rationalize Gikuyu male dominance in public affairs. The rejoinder that refers to
Mau Mau fighters in the forest presumably offers resistance as a recuperation of
Gikuyu male potency. Incidentally, the roofs of the huts in New Thabai are made
of metal, indicating that the traditional thatching (performed by women) has been
replaced with metal and that the roofing of huts is now increasingly performed by
feminized men. As such, the Emergency and its Villagization programme have,
in Ngugis analysis, severed the Gikuyu from the time-honoured traditions and the
gendered division of labour that constitute their social relations. Of course, with
the novels emphasis on having a penis as a precondition of power (like Baring),
Gikuyu history is depicted in androcentric terms.
As we have seen, female misrule is linked explicitly with the history of
colonization under the British, ruled by a female monarch. Gatus story in
the concentration camp undermines the authority of the British monarch by
representing her as a prostitute, willing to sell her body in exchange for the valley
in which he was born:

She said (mimics her): If you sell me your valley, Ill let you once. Women
are women you know. In my country, I told her, we do not buy that thing from
our women. We get it free. But man, my own thing troubled me. I had not seen
a woman for many years. However, before I could even say anything more, she
had called in her soldiers, who bound my hands and feet and drew me out of
the valley. Man, he said after the laughter. I wish I had agreed at once to
satisfy my thing which troubles me to this day.37

Sex translates as a form of political conquest in this passage, and female desire is
fantasized however humorously as a form of political misrule. If colonization
is cast in terms of sexual disempowerment, then it is telling that resistance is cast
in terms of potency. This framing of anti-colonial resistance is extended to other
characters in the novel. When we are introduced to Wambui (whose construction
is partially based upon Mary Nyanjiru, the first Kenyan woman to die in resistance

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 124.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 94, first ellipsis in the original.
96 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

to colonial rule), we are told that as a younger women she criticized the reticence
of male workers to go on strike at a shoe factory:

She believed in the power of women to influence events, especially where men
had failed to act, or seemed indecisive. Many people in old Thabai remembered
her now-famous drama at the workers strike in 1950. The strike was meant to
paralyse the country and make it more difficult for the whiteman to govern. A
few men who worked at a big shoe factory near Thabai and in the settled area,
grumbled and even said, so the rumours went, that they would not come out
on strike. The Party convened a general meeting at Rungei. At the height of
the proceedings, Wambui suddenly broke through the crowd and led a group of
women to the platform. She grabbed the microphone from the speakers. People
were interested. Was there any circumcised man who felt water in his stomach
at the sight of the whiteman? Women, she said, had brought their Mithuru and
Miengu [long skirts and aprons] to the platform. Let therefore such men, she
jeered, come forward, wear womens skirts and aprons and give up their trousers
to the women. The next day all the men stayed away from work.38

This passage predicates male potency upon ones circumcised status. At first
reading, Wambuis actions and words in this passage ostensibly offer her a
position from which to transgress the cultural codes that silence Gikuyu womens
dissenting political voices. Paradoxically, however, her voice is recuperated for
the Gikuyu patriarchy by the gender framing of her dissent. The men strike, not
because they have been persuaded of the necessity of strike action, but because
they do not wish to be upstaged by a woman. Wambui holds them accountable as
members of a dominant and privileged gender, but her appeals to the potency or
bravery of men also serve to reinforce that dominance and privilege.
If both colonization and resistance are couched in sexualized description, then
it is unsurprising that the climactic description of Uhuru celebrations follows this
pattern. The description of the communitys tense moments of anticipation in the
moments leading up to Independence renders visible a patriarchal subtext:

As usual, on such occasions, some young men walked in gangs, carrying torches,
lurked and whispered in dark corners and the fringes, really looking for love-
mates among the crowd. Mothers warned their daughters to take care not to be
raped in the dark. The girls danced in the middle, thrusting out their buttocks
provokingly, knowing that the men in corners watched them. Everybody waited
for something to happen. This waiting and the uncertainty that went with it
like a woman torn between fear and joy during birth motions was a taut cord
beneath the screams and shouts and the laughter.39

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 157.


Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 177.

Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 97

Immediately afterwards, the villagers wait outside Mugos hut and, at the hour
of Independence, the women cry out the five Ngemi to welcome a son at birth
or at circumcision.40 In passages like these, the novels narration of the history
of resistance explicitly locates Independence within the ambit of circumcision,
copulation and reproduction. In other words, national politics is collapsed
conveniently on to sexuality and reproduction. To this extent, A Grain of Wheat
instrumentalizes the sign woman as a metaphor for the nation in the novels
narration of history. The upshot of these associations is that the Kenya of A Grain
of Wheat emerges as a theatre of desire and gender-political interest.

Transgressive Female Representations

It would be difficult to argue, as Kirsten Holst Peterson does in Birth Pangs

of a National Consciousness, that A Grain of Wheat operates with complete
political consciousness, coupled with revolutionary action.41 Quite obviously,
the implicit tensions between a Christian discourse (however revised it may be)
and cultural nationalist discourses (which elide the privileged class position of
educated exponents of Kenyan nationalism) preclude an oversimplified reading
of Ngugis political vision at this point in his development. Additionally, we
surely have to acknowledge that political consciousness in Ngugis novel or in
any other can never be complete when gender operates as a blind spot within it.
Indeed, the metaphor implicit in the title of Petersons article (Birth Pangs of a
National Consciousness) suggests the infiltration into her perspective of exactly
the patriarchal discourses that underpin Ngugis writing of history.
Some critics have not perceived anything problematic with the ways in which
femininity is constructed in A Grain of Wheat. Charles A. Nama argues, in
Daughters of Moombi, that Ngugis heroines occupy a special place in his fiction,
with respect to their function as custodians and defenders of traditional Gikuyu
aesthetics and culture. Nama does not interrogate the more manifest moments
of sexism in the novel or the historical gendering of national resistance during
the circumcision debate. This oversight manifests as a slight anomaly in Namas
article. Namas misreading of one of the passages of A Grain of Wheat is perhaps
attributable to the traditionalist interests implied in the title of his article: When
Karanja, Kihika and Gitongo [sic] encounter Mumbi at Gikonyos workshop she
is addressed in glowing terms by Karanga [sic], Mother of Men, we have come
make us some tea These tributes to Mumbi also illustrate her role in the world
of the novel.42 In fact, Karanja addresses Wangari, and he addresses her in this

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 178.
Kirsten Holst Petersen, Birth Pangs of a National Consciousness: Mau Mau and
Ngugi wa Thiongo, World Literature Written in English, 20:2 (Autumn 1981), p. 218.
Charles Nama, Daughters of Moombi: Ngugis Heroines and Traditional Gikuyu
Aesthetics in Carol Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (eds), Ngambika: Studies of
98 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

way: Mother of men, we have come. Make us tea.43 Namas misreading is perhaps
not terribly important in the broader scheme of the novel. After all, Wangari is also
a traditional heroine. However, this is exactly where I take issue with Namas
reading of Ngugis fiction. The seemingly interchangeable tribute to Wangari
(or Mumbi, or woman) reinforces Gikuyu male privilege by revering Gikuyu
womens reproductive and child-rearing capacities. Karanjas tribute endorses a
cultural world view that emerges from the uterine social organization of traditional
Gikuyu society, at least as it is represented in A Grain of Wheat. Women are
thus constituted as heroines while they perform their duties as gender-oppressed
entities. Indeed, the tribute Mother of men might be interrogated via Spivaks
critique of Freud: Everywhere there is a non-confrontation with the idea of the
womb as a workshop, except to produce a surrogate penis.44
Not all of Ngugis female characters are figured in this way. One of the delights
of his fiction is the way in which it strains against its ideological patterning. For
example, Wambuis construction as a figure of resistance is largely positive. For
one thing, her activities during the Emergency are consistent with the resistance to
colonial authority offered by the passive wing of Mau Mau:

Wambui was not very old, although she had lost most of her teeth. During the
Emergency, she carried secrets from the villages to the forest and back to the
villages and towns. She knew the underground movements in Nakuru, Njoro,
Elburgon and other places in and outside the Rift Valley. The story is told how
she once carried a pistol tied to her thighs near the groin. She was dressed in long,
wide and heavy clothes, the picture of decrepitude and senile decay. She was
taking the gun to Naivasha. As luck would have it, she was suddenly caught in
one of those sporadic military and police operations which plagued the country.
Soon came her turn to be searched. Her tooth started aching; she twisted her
lips, moaned; saliva tossed out of the corners of her mouth and flowed down her
chin. The Gikuyu policeman searching her was saying in Swahili: Pole mama:
made other sympathetic noises and went on searching. He started from her chest,
rummaged under her armpits, gradually working his way down towards the vital
spot. And suddenly Wambui screamed, the man stopped, astonished.
The children of these days, she began. Have you lost all your shame? Just
because the whiteman tells you so, you would actually touch your own mothers
the woman who gave you birth? All right, Ill lift the clothes and you can
have a look at your mother, it is so aged, and see what gain itll bring you for the
rest of your life.

Women in African Literature (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1986), p. 142.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 70.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 81.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 99

She actually made as if to lift her clothes and expose her nakedness. The man
involuntarily turned his eyes away.45

We should notice here that A Grain of Wheat highlights through Wambui

womens vital roles as Mau Mau arms couriers roles which are bracketed in
so many historical accounts of the insurgency. But more importantly, Wambuis
evasion of colonial strategies of detection is conducted via an ingenious appeal
to her revered position as a mother within traditional society. Although her
subterfuge is unavoidably predicated upon patriarchal ideologies and a uterine
social organization, she recasts gender oppression by inhabiting it as a strategic
performance, evacuating it of its authoritative claims upon her in the name of
There are other ways in which A Grain of Wheat exposes the inconsistency of
a uterine textual organization. Mumbis child unsettles Gikonyos masculinity in a
profound manner. The child is the cause of Gikonyos neurotic reaction to Mumbi,
a reaction which leads to Mumbi leaving the household:

Previously, Gikonyo also treated the boy politely, showing neither resentment
nor affection. For, as he argued in his heart, a child was a child and was not
responsible for his birth. The boy had sensed a coldness and instinctively respected
the distance. Today, however, he propped himself in between Gikonyos knees,
and started chattering, desiring to be friendly.
Grandma has told me such a story a good one about about Do you know
the one about the Irimu?
Gikonyo roughly pushed the boy away from the knees, disgust on his face. The
boy staggered and fell on his back and burst into tears.46

Of course, Gikonyo knows the story all too well. The story of the irimu (an
ogre) is one in which a girl takes the wrong path in a forest and fails to keep an
appointment with her lover (a warrior). The irimu captures her and wishes to eat
her. She delays his advances by singing to him that she knows of a nicer place to
be eaten. Eventually, her lover arrives and kills the ogre.47 Okpewho states that this
story may have been influenced by the Mau Mau war. Gikonyo is, on one level, the
Mau Mau warrior who makes love with Mumbi in the forest and who leaves her in
order to fight in the forest. Karanja is the ogre who begets a son by Mumbi in his
absence. The child is the son of an ogre and Karanjas mother is named Wairimu
(the son/daughter of an irimu). These metonymic associations conspire together in
the childs innocent intercourse, provoking Gikonyo to respond irrationally. This

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 19, second ellipsis in the original.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, pp. 1456.
Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 21920.
100 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

textual moment constitutes a return of the repressed, as is evident in the imagery

of flooding and overflow in Mumbis speech:

What sort of a man do you call yourself? Have you no manly courage to touch
me? Why do turn your anger on a child, a little child She seethed like a river
that has broken a dam. Words tossed out; they came in floods, filling her mouth
so that she could hardly articulate them.48

At this point in the narrative, Mumbis voice is privileged as an excess; an excess

which unsettles the fixity with which the novel elsewhere constructs female desire as
political misrule. If the novels ordering of male and female subjectivities functions
on the repression of one of the binates, then Mumbis speech encapsulates the
return which disrupts that economy. Equally, Wangari becomes directly involved
in the conflict on Mumbis behalf:

This does not concern you, Mother! [Gikonyo] said.

Does not concern me? She raised her voice, slapping her sides with both
hands. Come all the earth and see what a son, my son, answers me. Does not
concern me who brought you forth from these thighs? That the day should
come hah! Touch her again if you call yourself a man!49

Wangaris admonishment of Gikonyo causes him to leave the hut in defeat, and is
thus a privileging of female speech within a largely male-dominated narrative. Her
argument exposes the limits of a uterine social organization. If women are revered
in Gikuyu society because of their ability to produce children and to become
mothers of men at the expense of female desire (and, specifically, the clitoris)
then Wangari points out the inconsistencies in Gikonyos claim to proprietorship
of Mumbis child-bearing capacities. She accomplishes this by allowing that it does
not matter who has fathered the child. The name of the father is immaterial to a
womans status as a mother of men. Wangari thus silences Gikonyos patriarchal
violence by exposing the limits of a discourse that demarcates female subjectivity
exclusively within womens mothering functions. In short, Wangari and Mumbi
forge a subaltern sisterhood that plays devils advocate to the patriarchal law.

The Gender Framing of the Nation

Not only are women intricately bound up with the symbolization of community.
In a much larger sense, they are harnessed into the novels gender framing of
the nation. Like the signifiers community or Kenya, Mumbi forms the nexus
for social relations between the male protagonists. She is Gikonyos wife, and

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 146, ellipsis in the original.


Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 146.

Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 101

since the category of the familial and domestic is a privileged realm in A Grain
of Wheat, this relationship is the most important in terms of the novels politics.
Mumbi is Kihikas sister and has been moved by her brothers words into visions
of a heroic past in other lands marked by acts of sacrificial martyrdom.50 Since
brother and sister are both possessed of strong spiritual convictions and notions of
redemptive self-sacrifice, their relationship translates the messianism implicit in
Ngugis subject formation within Christian discourses. As we have seen, Mumbi is
Mugos confessor, a medium through which the violent truths of nation formation
are revealed. Mumbi and the loyalist Karanja conceive a child in an illegitimate
relationship that equates with Karanjas illegitimate political relation to post-
Independence Kenya. Of course, Karanja initially becomes a homeguard not for
ideological, political or material reasons, but because he wishes to win Mumbi for
himself. Therefore, even without her framing in Gikuyu myths of origin, Mumbi
enables the most important homosocial and political constellations in the novel.51
More broadly, we might say that A Grain of Wheat associates the sign woman
with the Kenyan nation in a number of ways, especially via the construction of
Ernest Gellner, a theorist of nationalism, has defined nationalism as a theory
of political legitimacy.52 In A Grain of Wheat and in Ngugis subsequent novels,
the theory of political legitimacy is collapsed quite simplistically into a theory
of legitimate paternity, or at other times a theory of legitimate patrilinear descent.
It will already be clear to readers from my discussion of The River Between that
this gendering of the nation occurs for historical reasons. Historically, Gikuyu
nationalism consolidated itself during the Kenyan clitoridectomy debate. During
this debate, the clitoridectomized woman came to symbolize Gikuyu resistance
and this instituted a uterine social organization within Gikuyu nationalism. Hence,
female identities and anatomies became symbolically bound to motherhood and to
the nation at the expense of female political agency and female sexual agency.
This discursive formation was consistent with clitoridectomys privileging of
Gikuyu womens reproductive capacities over their sexual capacities. Given these
historical and institutional foundations, it is unsurprising that we find a privileging
of motherhood in Ngugis fiction. Kihika, the Mau Mau hero in A Grain of Wheat,
says explicitly, With us, Kenya is our mother.53
More significantly perhaps, there is an obvious gender framing of the nation
at work in the marital relationship between Gikonyo and Mumbi. Gikonyo and
Mumbi are not only characters in a post-Independence Kenyan novel. As any reader
of Ngugis fiction will know, Gikonyo and Mumbis names also evoke the two

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 77.
As Patrick Williams suggests, the extent to which the central male characters
achieve or experience significant existence is precisely in relation to [Mumbi]. Patrick
Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 64.
Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, p. 1.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 78.
102 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

legendary founders of the Gikuyu community; Gikuyu and Mumbi. Given their
correspondences with the male and female archetypes in the Gikuyu foundation
myth, Gikonyo and Mumbi each represent a gendered collective. Mumbis name
has remained unchanged, but Gikonyos name is a derivative of Gikuyu. His
name also denotes the Lincoln bombers which used infrared scanning to detect
Mau Mau insurgents body heat in the forest. The bombers were dubbed Gikonyo
(meaning, literally, navel) because the doors of their bomb-bays were located
beneath the planes.54 In terms of this association, Gikonyo represents the Gikuyu
male peasant whose identity has been fragmented by colonial strategies of
detection and detention during the Kenyan Emergency. His activity as a Mau Mau
member is dispersed across three sites: as a member of the passive wing in Thabai,
as a detainee in Rira and as a fighter in the forest. However, his name also invokes
his separation from the mythical past in which Gikuyu reigned supreme it
bears the inscription of modernity. Mumbi as a character or as an archetype of all
Gikuyu women is situated conveniently on either side of the narrative present (in
Gikuyu myths of historical origin and as a figure of deferred utopian nationhood).
As a transhistorical constant, Mumbi is located at the furthermost reaches of
the Gikuyu historical experience: as a source from which the gravid effects of
history issue, or as an unrealized national destination. She is excluded from the
present and, arguably, from the processes of history itself.55 Gikonyo, whose
mythical name (Gikuyu) bears the inscription of modernity and is therefore part
of the historical process, holds sway over the post-Independence present. Hence,
Gikonyo and Mumbis framing in Gikuyu folklore yokes them into a nationalist
lineage originating in a mythical prehistory that precedes the emergence of the
nation as a modern political form. Therefore, Gikonyo and Mumbi index Gikuyu
communal origins and all of Gikuyu history.
But Gikonyo and Mumbi are freighted with a great deal more ideological
baggage than that. When Mumbi first approaches Gikonyo with a panga for repair,
the resistance song that he sings invokes further inscriptions of their relationship:

Gikuyu na Mumbi
Gikuyu na Mumbi
Gikuyu na Mumbi
Nikihiu ngwatiro.56

The first phrase in the song does not only denote the archetypal founders of the
Gikuyu community (Gikuyu and Mumbi). Gikuyu na Mumbi is also one of the

See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 201.


Patrick Williams asserts, Charm and beauty some of Ngugis female characters

may have, but at this stage, real power is something they are not allowed to get their hands
on. Patrick Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 66.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 69.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 103

names which the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army used for itself it never called
itself Mau Mau. The second phrase in the song is a proverb suggesting the
pressure of time. Ngugi translates it the firebrand is burned at the handle.57
In terms of this translation, the exchange between Gikonyo and Mumbi relates
the urgent need for military successes in the Mau Mau insurgency. However, the
songs reference to the archetypal male and female figures (Gikuyu and Mumbi)
suggests that it is using gender as a framing device for anti-colonial struggle. This
reading is confirmed in a secondary resonance of the song, confirmed by Ashcroft,
Griffiths and Tiffin:

Nikihiu literally means that something is cooked. Ngwatiro is literally a

handle. But when used together the term means that someone is in trouble
because the handle is too hot. The song as invented by Kihika means that the
relationship between man and woman spells trouble. The relationship is too
hot to handle and as a chorus it has both sexual and political overtones. 58

Mumbi finds a poignant irony in the songs applicability to the mundane situation
in which the two characters find themselves:

Oh Carpenter, Carpenter. So you know why I came?

I dont! he said, puzzled.
But you sing to me and Gikuyu telling us it is burnt at the handle.
She turned to a small basket she was carrying and took out a panga.
You see this panga needs a wooden handle. The old one was burned in the fire
by mistake. My mother wants it quickly because it is the only one she has got
for cultivating.59

There is a very careful overlaying here of the secular world of mens and womens
work on to the political world of revolution and the sacred world of Gikuyu belief
systems. This episode in the novel introduces the relationship between Gikonyo
and Mumbi, which prior to Gikonyos detention is depicted as a harmonious
extension of Gikonyos organic relation to his work as a Gikuyu craftsman and
artist. When he fixes the handle of the panga, his work is a labour of love:

Gikonyo saw Mumbis gait, her very gestures, in the feel and movement in the
plane. Her voice was in the air as he bent down and traced the shape of the panga
on the wood. Everything, Thabai, the whole world was under the control of

Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 201.
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory
and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 58.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 70.
104 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

his hand. Suddenly the wave of power broke into an ecstasy, an exultation. Peace
settled in his heart. He felt a holy calm; he was in love with all the earth.60

Gikonyos work culminates in a moment of political and religious peace, which

contains resonances of sexual afterglow. Moreover, the climactic language in this
passage anticipates the later consummation of Gikonyos love for Mumbi, when
we are told that Gikonyo passed his hands through her hair and over her breasts,
slowly coaxing and smoothing stiffness from her body, until she lay limp in his
hands.61 Gikonyos lovemaking is implicitly a form of craftsmanship; smoothing
out the rough edges of the embattled manwoman relationship to which the
resistance song refers. As if to underscore this seamless relationship between
Gikonyos vocation and his sexuality, the setting in which Gikonyo and Mumbi
first have sex is the forest, which is also the setting of the resistance staged by
Mau Mau, as well as the source of raw material (wood) for Gikonyos labour as
a carpenter. Michael Vaughans article on A Grain of Wheat, with which I am in
general agreement, has the following insights to offer about the relation between
Gikonyos work and his love for Mumbi:

Because of the nature of Gikonyos work that of an independent craftsman

Ngugi is able to seize the element of personal control over the labour process
and treat it as a moment of purely individual self-realisation. Gikonyo fuses with
the totality. But this is the totality of creation, of nature, not of society.
In the second place, the prosaic actuality of the labour process counts for nothing
here. Economic life has no meaning in itself. The cycle of labour becomes
meaningful when it is meshed with the cycle of romantic love.62

In my view, the absence of prosaic actuality in the depiction of Gikonyo and

Mumbi arises out of the fact that they are characters encumbered with political,
but also mythical, functions. As markers of transhistorical belief, Gikonyo and
Mumbi are associated with the foundation of the Gikuyu people and an as-yet-
unrecognized utopian post-Independence future that is deferred beyond the
chronological frame of the novel (we see this in Gikonyo and Mumbis imminent
sexual reconciliation at the end of the novel).
The cultural resources that Ngugi is drawing upon in his naming of Gikonyo
and Mumbi mean that the novel equates the sexual and the political in other ways
too. When Mumbis hut is burned down as part of the anti-Mau Mau Villagization
programme, we need to remember that the wifes hut in Gikuyu culture is called
Nyumba ya Mumbi, the House of Mumbi. In its traditional context, the House
of Mumbi is the name of the hut in which children are conceived and raised it
is a physical edifice. In addition, the House of Mumbi denotes the elementary

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 71.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 80.
Michael Vaughan, African Fiction and Popular Struggle, p. 37.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 105

[or nuclear-polygamous] family in the Gikuyu community.63 In other words, the

House of Mumbi is a gender-political institution. However, Nyumba ya Mumbi
(the House of Mumbi) was also one of the Gikuyu nationalists names for the
Kenyan nation a political metaphor.
Before Mumbi is relocated to New Thabai by the colonial authorities, her hut
is set on fire. This event is charged with Gikuyu cultural significances. Firstly, the
Gikuyu womans hut (Nyumba ya Mumbi House of Mumbi) is the equivalent
of a gynaeceum.64 All sexual relations between spouses take place in it (rather
than in the dwelling of the husband the thingira) and children inhabit this hut
prior to their initiation into adulthood via circumcision.65 Secondly, women are
responsible for the thatching of huts. Charles A. Nama explains:

While building huts was the work of men, the women were charged with the
responsibility of beautifying it with thatching. This symbolic completion
of a Gikuyu homestead underscores the artistic prowess of Gikuyu women in
enhancing the beauty of Gikuyu art forms.66

Following Nama, we might say that the burning of the hut by the homeguards
constitutes an affront against both womens work under the sexual division of
labour and womens mothering function (the two forms of work are interrelated
and should perhaps not be distinguished so easily from one another). These two
forms of work are partially subsumed under the cultural-nationalist construction
of Kenya as the House of Mumbi.67
Since all of the major characters experience a disparity between the discrete
categories of the domestic and the political, the task of reconstructing Kenya
is rendered by the metaphor of the reconstruction of the homestead. The tragic
national parable of a Mau Mau prisoner, Gatu, makes this metaphor explicit:

A certain man, the only son of his parents, once wanted a woman. And the woman
also wanted to marry him and have children. But the man kept on putting off
the marriage because he wanted to build a new hut so that the children would be

Carol Sicherman, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 228.


For the term gynaeceum, I am indebted to an interview with Michel Tournier,


in which he says: Initiation cannot have the same meaning for [girls] as it does for boys.
Brought up by women, like their brothers, they obviously do not have to break with that
milieu and become integrated into another group, like boys. Normally, they are destined
to remain within the gynaeceum. See Michel Tournier, The Fetishist (London: Minerva,
1992), p. 219. My reading of the term House of Mumbi is that it retains women within
one social position (that of childbearers or future mothers) whether the girl resides with her
mother, or the wife with her husband.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, pp. 834.
Charles Nama, Daughters of Moombi, p. 140.
See Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau From Within, p. 182.
106 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

born in a different hut. We can build it together, she often told him. In the end,
she was tired of waiting and letting life dry in her. She married another man. The
first man went on trying to build the hut. It was never finished. Our people say
that building a hut is a lifelong process. As a result the man never had a woman
or children to continue his family fire.68

Gatus parable is, of course, prophetic, since Gikonyo returns to find that Mumbi
has slept with Karanja. Arguably, the new hut to which Gatu refers (Nyumba ya
Mumbi) is a metaphor for a new Kenya. In terms of Gikuyu cultural codes, it
is the gynaeceum. This passage, spoken by the most outspoken critic of British
imperialism in the novel, reveals that political dissent in A Grain of Wheat is
informed by a desire for mastery of the domestic; a mastery that entails Gikuyu
male prerogatives in culture at large.
So when Gikonyo imagines impregnating Mumbi at the end of A Grain of
Wheat, this fantasy or prediction prefigures the rebuilding of the House of Mumbi
as a physical edifice or a social institution, but also the reinstating of the Gikuyu
nation at a metaphorical level. In brief, the construction of Gikonyo and Mumbi
allows Ngugi to reduce a complex national confrontation to an estrangement
between spouses and to resolve this confrontation in terms of Mumbis reproductive
capacities. Of course, the Emergency did fragment the lives of families and
communities, and it would seem obvious to use a love relationship as the model
for social discord or social cohesion at the most microcosmic level. However,
a gender analysis of the novel reveals that even the homestead is the site of an
ideological struggle between male and female subjects who are socially constructed
and hierarchically organized. By framing Gikonyo and Mumbis relationship in
orature, Ngugi renders this ideological struggle transparent. A Grain of Wheat tries
to resolve the legacy of colonialism by suggesting that the child resulting from
Gikonyo and Mumbis sexual reconciliation will herald the long-delayed arrival
of a truly egalitarian and democratic Kenya.
Of course, a univocal reading of the novels conclusion would seem to suggest
a cause for optimism. After all, Gikonyo determines to reckon with [Mumbis]
feelings, her thoughts, her desires,69 promising a consensual relationship between
the spouses. However, the sculpture on which Gikonyo is working invites a
reappraisal of the conclusion. Gikonyos resolution to change the womans
figure and carve a woman big big with child may presage the resumption of
Gikuyu male privilege in culture.70 On the novels own terms, a reading in which
the nationhood that fulfils the destiny of Mau Mau resistance is aligned with the

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 96.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 213.
Strattons comment about Devil on the Cross that while women serve as an
index of the state of the nation, men make up the nations citizenry is also apposite here.
Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender (London:
Routledge, 1994), p. 161.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 107

parturition that fulfils male potency would not be unfounded.71 During Gikonyos
incarceration, this association has been made explicit. The free indirect discourse
framing Gikonyos thoughts tells us that [his] reunion with Mumbi would see the
birth of a new Kenya. Jomo had lost the case at Kapenguria. The whiteman
would silence the father and the orphans would be left without a helper.72 It is a
telling silence that the orphans mother is neither named nor represented here. It
is as if Ngugis economy of signs permits mothering few political functions other
than the (re)production of manpower required by post-Independence Kenya.
The birth of a new Kenya heralded at the conclusion of A Grain of Wheat at
one level works to silence femininity. In my view, it replays the myth depicting
the emergence of the Gikuyu patriarchy a narrative that engenders an ethnic
political community at the expense of female political agency. In its closing pages,
Ngugis novel reworks this myth to anticipate the post-Independence national
political community. Fortuitously, this Kenya will comfortably coincide with
the resumption of a legitimate Gikuyu patrilineage. For here, we cannot help but
remember the legitimizing myth of Gikuyu patriarchy described early in the novel.
The prehistorical matriarchy, we are told, was weak and tyrannical and so the men
got together, impregnated all the women simultaneously and took over the running
of culture while the erstwhile matriarchs were otherwise indisposed:

It was many, many years ago. Then women ruled the land of the Agikuyu.
Men had no property, they were only there to serve the whims and needs of the
women. Those were hard years. So they waited for the women to go to war, they
plotted a revolt, taking an oath of secrecy to keep them bound each to each in the
common pursuit of freedom. They would sleep with all the women at once, for
didnt they know the heroines would return hungry for love and relaxation? Fate
did the rest; women were pregnant; the takeover met with little resistance.73

We have seen that nationalism as a theory of legitimacy becomes a theory

of legitimate paternity in A Grain of Wheat. We have seen that colonialism is
repeatedly figured in terms of female misrule and that political revolution is
figured in terms of male potency. The references to the mythical overthrow of the
matriarchy sit uncomfortably within this broader logic. In effect, insurrection and

For the reason that A Grain of Wheat turns sentimentally towards a uterine national
allegory at its conclusion, I am unconvinced by Gikandis claim that Ngugi expects readers
to enter his novel through two scenes of reading: an allegorical scene in which we are
invited to identify with the grand narrative of nationalism and its desires, and an ironic
scene in which we are asked to be alert to the discrepancies between the structure of the
narrative and the experiences it represents. Simon Gikandi, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 113.
Self-evidently, Mumbis imminent pregnancy at the conclusion of the novel romantically
reasserts an allegorical frame.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 92.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 11.
108 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

impregnation become equivalent and interchangeable terms, with the result that
Mumbis imminent pregnancy at the end of the novel begins to look a little less
promising! Given Mumbis own implication in Gikuyu myths of origin, it begins
to look as if her reproductive functions will be used to exclude her from political
agency. As a mother, she will represent the nation, but her pregnancy will exclude
her from power. She is positioned within the iconography of historical tradition
and future aspiration, but she is divested of political agency in the present moment.
In other words, Mumbi is both symbolically valorized and politically incapacitated
at the novels conclusion.
In short, A Grain of Wheat orchestrates home as a metaphor for nation, even
though its valorization of the masculine requires a largely unbridgeable severance
of the privatedomestic from the publicpolitical. If home is nation in this novel,
then Kenya ends up as a nation divided. One of Ngugis most astute critics, Michael
Vaughan, locates this severance of the domestic and the political in a nostalgia for
individual or privatized consciousness:

[Ngugis] subject-matter is imperfectly rendered in social and historical terms.

An ahistorical, individualist core of values, produced by a human nature at once
guilty and redeemed, abased and heroic, resists the penetration of social and
historical determinants. Instead of dialectics, we encounter utopian idealism and
political pessimism. The novel falls apart, torn between social commitment and

Vaughan locates the failure of Ngugis political commitments in the authors

representation of the home as an apolitical institution and space. The home
thus becomes the site of harmonious prelapsarian social (and gender) relations
and, I would add, the model for a post-Emergency utopia.75 My one important
reservation regarding Vaughans article is that it is something of an anomaly to
speak of a communal consciousness (or, more precisely, class consciousness) in
the context of the Mau Mau insurgency, in either a fictive or an historical or
even a critical text. The guerillas did not operate with a unified set of aims or
strategies. Their activities were often based upon random contingencies. Militarily,
they frequently confronted found situations in canny, opportunistic ways. Ngugi
himself acknowledges this in his essay Mau Mau, Violence and Culture when
he writes that after the capture of Dedan Kimathi the men became disorganized,
became desperate and tended to rely more and more on the advice of witchdoctors

Michael Vaughan, African Fiction and Popular Struggle, pp. 456.


Vaughan is perhaps too quick to overlook Ngugis stated intentions. In Church,


Culture and Politics, Ngugi states: I write about people: I am interested in their hidden
lives; their fears and hopes, their loves and hates, and how the very tension in their hearts
affects their daily contact with other men: how, in other words, the emotional stream of the
man within interacts with the social reality. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 31.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 109

instead of a clear analysis and understanding of the forces against them.76 As a

subaltern community, the Gikuyu peasantry, and the collective resistance to which
it contributed, had not yet developed a class consciousness. Spivak is explicit on
this point: Subalternity is not, after all and strictly speaking, a class-position; it
is the detritus of colonialism, a dislocated (cultural) idiom. Indeed, this is one
of the reasons why the rational Marxian subject is not discursively in tune with
subalternity.77 By the same token, my slight reservation in regard to Vaughans
article is not intended to provide justification for Ngugis ideological refuge from
the realm of the political in a discrete realm of the domestic. In the context of
my gender-political reading of A Grain of Wheat, Vaughans argument provides a
useful articulation of how the novel departs from Ngugis stated political position.
Further, it is Vaughans astute reading of the category of the home in Ngugis text
which I find particularly pertinent for a gender critique. If, at the most reductive
level, Ngugis fiction espouses an utopian rhetoric, rooted in the home and based
upon malefemale relations which are, on the face of it, free of ideological
determinants and if it is this utopian rhetoric which derails Ngugis sociopolitical
convictions then this should alert the literary critic to the possibility that it is
precisely Ngugis phallocentric representations of subaltern women which translate
the impossibility of the novels social vision.

Problems of History

I would now like to move on to my second larger point about A Grain of Wheat,
and to begin thinking about the problems of historical representation that the
gendering of the nation institutes. The larger implication of the gendering of the
nation is that the novels historical vision becomes unworkable. The most obvious
example of this is the glaring anomaly in the 1967 version of the novel, in which
Lieutenant Koinandu rapes Dr Lynd, despite the fact that not even in the most rabid
colonial accounts of Mau Mau is it accused of raping white women. And although
critics such as David Maughan-Brown have noticed this historical anomaly in A
Grain of Wheat and have viewed it as a symptom of Ngugis residual ambivalence
towards Mau Mau violence, no one has made the straightforward observation that
the rape episode is not only an exaggerated or hyperbolic act of violence; it is
also, quite obviously and quite crucially, an act of gendered violence. Koinandus
act of political betrayal and his subsequent trauma takes place with the rape of Dr
Lynd. His violation of her both affirms and denies his potency as a member of the
resistance movement:

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 29.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Academic Freedom, Pretexts: Studies in Writing
and Culture, 5:12 (1995), p. 122.
110 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

[Not] one of the bloody scenes in which he had taken part had broken into his
sleep. On the contrary the fight for freedom had given him a purpose. It had
made him a man. Why then did her ghost shake him so? He and the two
men laid her on the ground. He vibrated with fear and intense hatred. He hated
the whiteman every one. He was being avenged on them now; he felt their
frightened cry in the womans wild breathing. Whiteman nothing. Whiteman
nothing. Doing to you what you did to us to black people he told himself as
he thrust into her in fear and cruel desperation.78

Sex translates as a form of political conquest in this passage, in a manner that

recapitulates motifs that we have noticed at work throughout A Grain of Wheat.
Koinandus act is, as Maughan-Brown notes, the one account in all the literature
on Mau Mau of the rape of a white woman by a Mau Mau combatant.79 Maughan-
Brown is also correct in pointing out that Koinandu does not enjoy the sympathy
of the author. Nevertheless, this passage constructs woman (as a biological,
rather than class or racial entity) as a linkage between the discursive formations
produced by freedom fighter and colonizer. In other words, by violating Lynd (or
by the even more bizarre gesture of felling her dog with panga blows in the revised
edition), Koinandu (or Koina) supposedly avenges himself and his people upon
the colonial master.
In my view, the rape episode is the flipside of the novels equation of political
resistance with male sexual potency. The rape episode may be an historical
anomaly, but in terms of the novels ideologies of gender it is simply at the
extreme end of a largely coherent spectrum. Of course, Ngugi has corrected the
historical anomaly by omitting the rape scene from the revised edition of A Grain
of Wheat, published in 1986. In the revised edition, Koinandu is renamed Koina
and, instead of raping Dr Lynd, he kills her pet dog. When asked in 1990 about
his reasons for the revisions described above, Ngugi cited his growing familiarity
with the history of the period covered by A Grain of Wheat. (For example, there
was an incident in which a white man shot an African for raising not throwing
a stone against his dog.)80 In this incident, a 29-year-old English electrician
named Peter Richard Harold Poole killed Kamawe Musunge, his house-servant.
His subsequent execution in 1960 made him the first European to receive capital
punishment for the murder of an African and signalled British political willingness
to give Kenya independence.81 Karanjas raising of a stone in self-defence against
Dr Lynds dog is an incident partially based upon Musunges tragic death.82 But

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, pp. 1856.
Maughan-Brown, Mau Mau and Violence in Ngugis Novels, p. 18.
Kathleen Greenfield, Murdering the Sleep of Dictators in Charles Cantalupo (ed.),
The World of Ngugi wa Thiongo (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1993), p. 33.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 84.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat revised edition (Oxford: Heinemann, 1986
[1967]), p. 42.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 111

despite Ngugis claims of greater verisimilitude in the revised edition, what we see
is not a more accurate portrayal of history, but instead an attempt to compensate for
an historical injustice. In other words, what we have in the revised scene between
Koina and Dr Lynd is a kind of historical wish-fulfilment that is, in any case,
utterly anachronistic. Quite self-evidently, the historical stone-throwing incident
resulted in the death of a black Kenyan. Ngugis fictional episode results in the
death of a house-pet. The stone-throwing incident took place in 1959, three years
after Mau Mau hostilities ended in 1956. So Ngugis revision of the rape scene
does not evidence a growing familiarity with the history of the period as he claims
but, in fact, the exact opposite. Koinas killing of Dr Lynds dog is a construction
of Mau Mau violence that attempts to compensate for an historical injustice that,
in terms of the novels own chronology, could not possibly have happened yet.
Although Ngugis revised novel has substantially scaled back the extremity of
Mau Mau violence in the original version of the novel, he has not revisited its
gendered components. As a result, these components exercise a shaping function
that displaces and distorts the availability of history in A Grain of Wheat. In short,
when Ngugi genders the nation female, he also opens his novel up to unconscious
psychosexual slippages. The fantasies of gender at work in A Grain of Wheat
ensure the impossibility of its politics.

Reading against the Grain

Given the disempowering and distorting equation between feminity and the
nation, I think it is necessary to read the novel against the grain in order to clear a
space for female political and historical agency, and indeed to clear a space for a
more accurate presentation of Kenyan history. Despite the fact that woman in A
Grain of Wheat is an ideologically overdetermined sign, there are ways in which a
subaltern historiography may be brought to bear on the texts narration of history.
My methodology here is indebted to Spivaks guidance on reading against the grain
of subaltern historiography: You can only read against the grain if misfits in the
text signal the way. (These are sometimes called moments of transgression.)83
Spivaks strategy of reading in the margins is gleaned from deconstruction. She
acknowledges this political debt by quoting Derridas Of Grammatology:

Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic
resources of subversion from the old structure, borrowing them structurally, that
is to say without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of
deconstruction always in a certain way falls prey to its own work.84

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 211.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 201. See also Jacques Derrida, Of
Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1976), p. 24.
112 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

By falling prey to its own work, a deconstructive reading methodology places

literary criticism within a necessarily provisional and self-qualifying structure. This
provisional structure is necessary when we read Ngugis fiction in order to ensure
that critical self-interest does not efface or seize the articulatory position of the
female peasant constituency that criticism seeks to address. This constituency may
be removed from the moment of reading by historical and geographical distance,
race, class, gender, political interest, language, literacy, education and any number
of possible differences of positioning. As such, the moment of reading is always
destined to rely upon a constitutional ignorance of its failures of relation. Noting
these failures of relation within ones reading is the basis upon which a relation
of reciprocity might begin to meet its minimal conditions of possibility. Spivak
asserts, This is the greatest gift of deconstruction: to question the authority of the
investigating subject without paralysing him, persistently transforming situations
of impossibility into possibility.85 I find this reading strategy particularly useful to
my own analysis of Ngugis novel, given that Mau Mau (but not the Kenyan Land
and Freedom Army!) is a figment of colonial and bourgeois nationalist discourse
and that the subaltern insurgent (male or female) only ever emerges as an obscured
subject already submitted to the mechanics of representation in narratives of
Mau Mau. The gender-political critic confronts a palimpsest when attempting to
address subaltern women. Reading against the grain enables one to submit the
layers of interested representations of Mau Mau to a play of signification, even as
the critics own interlocution is rendered unstable by writing.
In my view, the novels privileged symbolism of the grain of wheat casts an
unexpected light on the ways in which readers might think about Mumbi. As we
have seen, Kihikas Messianic heroism enjoins the domestic and the political, and
the imagery of the grain of wheat is crucial to the novels imageries of rebirth.
The novel accomplishes an ideological suturing of the domestic and the political
by constructing a complex mythology, in which Kihika (as martyr) is the grain
which must die in order that the fruits of his vision might be born. This is clearly
also a copulative metaphor that recuperates the equation (established during the
circumcision debate) between the body of woman and the social composition
of the state. However, the grain of wheat is also the bullet which is instrumental
to Mau Mau resistance. General R. states that bullets were called maize grains
in the forest86 and we know from the novels epigraphs taken from St John and
Corinthians that the corn of wheat may chance of wheat or of some other grain.87
To sum up, then, the metaphor of the grain of wheat conflates insemination,
Kihikas self-sacrifice, his utopian vision and the bullets used by the insurgents of
which he is the most eminent example. If one were to read against the grain in
search of alternative possibilities for Mumbi, then a different story might emerge.
Here, we might be guided by questions that the novel does not really broach.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 201.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 132.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, p. 175, unpaginated frontispiece.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 113

What might it mean to insert Mumbi into the mythology of the grain of wheat?
As Kihikas sister, in what capacities might Mumbis kinship with revolution be
A viable space for female political and historical agency in A Grain of Wheat
emerges when we re-examine Mumbis adulterous relationship with the colonial
loyalist Karanja during the Mau Mau period. One of the signal misfits in A Grain
of Wheat is that Mumbis desire for Karanja, or her submission to his sexual
demands, remains largely unexplained. Even when Mumbi confesses her infidelity,
the reasons for it are never quite made clear. She is the only character in A Grain of
Wheat that does not really get to confess. Her confessions, such as they are, take
the form of questions. Here is the passage:

[Karanja] came to where I was standing and showed me a long sheet of paper
with government stamps. There was a list of names of those on their way back
to the villages. Gikonyos name was there.
What else is there to tell you? That I remember being full of submissive gratitude?
That I laughed even welcomed Karanjas cold lips on my face? I was in a
strange world, and it was like if I was mad. And need I tell you more?
I let Karanja make love to me.88

Mumbis confession is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, but most especially

because she makes no positive statement as to her adulterous motivations.89 Her
desire and her political motivation in this passage are a cipher. Indeed, the only
statement she makes is that she let Karanja have intercourse with her. This
passive construction of Mumbis desire is consistent with the novels phallocentric
construction of female sexuality according to a model of lack. However, the
novels privileged symbolism of the grain of wheat which, in an expanded
reading, references self-sacrifice, insemination and Mau Maus bullets may offer
the gender-political critic a means of speaking both to Mumbis desire and to her
political investment in this unthinkable act.
If we make the secret history of womens contributions to Mau Mau
performative in this text, we can begin to see a space of female desire and political
agency emerge in a way that is consistent with Mumbis confession. One of the
contributions of women to Mau Mau was to conduct a revolutionary form of
prostitution. Hence, given Mumbis own sexual indiscretions, we might read the
role of the Mau Mau prostitute into the passage in which she confesses to Mugo.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, pp. 1312.
Perera terms this moment a very weak piece of writing and an artistic lapse. In
particular, Mumbis actions are inconceivable. S. W. Perera, From Mumbi to Wanja: The
Emergence of the Woman in Ngugis Fiction, Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 14:2
(1992), p. 70.
114 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

These women, footnoted by the historical record,90 slept with British soldiers and
loyalists (like Karanja), often for a single bullet, then carried the ammunition to
Mau Mau in the forests. The Mau Mau prostitute sleeps with the enemy for the
bullet that he would shoot her with if he caught her carrying ammunition,91 and she
delivers the bullet to the Mau Mau fighter who might execute her with it if he knew
she was sleeping with the enemy.92 The Mau Mau prostitute shuttles between two
oppressive structures, between two patriarchies, without acceding to either one.
And she does so in a way that resists conceptualization or framing in colonialist or
nationalist histories of Mau Mau. Such revolutionary sexualities therefore amount to
an unassimilable and undisclosed form of female agency. This historical precedent
for characters like Mumbi (an adulteress) and Wanja (a prostitute) permits us to
read Ngugis fiction for a form of female political and sexual agency that escapes
its framing in literary narrative and in critical discourse. The Mau Mau prostitute
is not the good mother of Ngugis nationalist iconography, nor is she the model of
female sexual lack constructed by the clitoridectomy debate. Mumbis confession,
I think, needs to be reread in the light of what it is unable to disclose, in the light
of what it must keep secret in the name of revolution. Mumbis confession needs
to be reread in the context of womens specifically gendered contributions to the
Mau Mau revolution. It is obvious that what we are working with here is a kind of
impossible agency that can be neither disclosed nor articulated. If this agency is to
work, its dimensions or implications must forever remain open-ended or aporetic.
An agency of this kind exposes the explanatory limits of our gender-political

Itote offers this very coy allusion: The parties which our girl scouts arranged for

police and Government soldiers often yielded valuable supplies of arms and ammunition.
Elsewhere, he alludes to innocent flirtation between Mau Mau women and enemy soldiers,
but omits any description of sexual intercourse. See Waruhiu Itote, Mau Mau General,
pp. 78, 100101.
Extrajudicial killings were not uncommon: In protected and special areas,
members of the armed forces could shoot anyone who failed to stop when ordered to do so.
And so naturally, this became the most common cause of shootings of Africans in Central
Province by the security forces. Thousands were shot while attempting to escape. ... As
the emergency progressed, the law provided for the death penalty through a variety of
offenses which lended themselves to abuse through false accusations. The most notable
of these offenses were consorting with terrorists and supporting and aiding terrorists.
Wunyabari O. Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, pp. 923.
Together with other members of the movement, the girls chosen to run Mau Mau
errands, such as delivering food, were made to understand, through the strictest threats, that
being a Mau Mau woman was a serious and dangerous business and entailed extreme self-
restraint in all sorts of ways. For example, it was impressed upon women who had taken
the oath that they were not to get involved with non-Kikuyu men (nduriri), the obvious
implication being that a non-Kikuyu man would not belong to Mau Mau and was therefore
an enemy. Mau Mau women were banned from prostitution although the women were
allowed to flirt with the enemies for the purposes of gathering vital information. Tabitha
Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, p. 145.
Reading against the Grain (of Wheat) 115

readings of Ngugis novel, since part of the story must remain untold. Hence, we
find in Mumbi a form of female agency that disturbs literary criticisms own self-
imaging tendencies.
If Mumbi were imagined as one of the historical women who prostituted
themselves to procure bullets for the Land and Freedom Army martyring her
desire to Karanja in favour of an anti-colonial political interest then one would
be able to see her as an asymmetrical agent who contributes to the economy of
significance in the novel, rather than being constructed and instrumentalized
by that economy. Her political interest in, and contribution to, the struggle for
independence would subvert her positioning within patriarchal discourses because
her child would be historically legitimized even as it is not subject to the patronym.
Equally, Mumbis desire would retain its integrity even as it feigns complicity
with imperialism and bargains into phallocentrism. The broader implication of
this reading against the grain is that it reverses and displaces Ngugis narrative
by treating it as instrumental to Mumbis agency.93 This interested reading must
work strategically within, and against, the dominant symbolisms of A Grain of
Wheat and the marginalia of Mau Mau histories in order to discover the spaces
that these texts make available to a female sexual and revolutionary subject. As
the first fallen woman in Ngugis novels, Mumbi anticipates the prostitute Wanja
in Petals of Blood, the single mother Wariinga in Devil on the Cross, and the
prostitute Guthera in Matigari. More importantly, the revolutionary sexuality of
the Mau Mau prostitute allows us a critical model with which to reconceptualize
the problems of textuality and translation that we find at work in the later novels.

For a collection of short stories which approaches a literary representation of
Kenyan subaltern women, see Muthoni Likimani, Passbook Number F. 47927: Women
and Mau Mau in Kenya (London: MacMillan, 1985). Likimani nowhere attempts an
investigation of the activities of Mau Mau prostitutes during the Kenyan emergency, but
her collection points to some of the complexities of subaltern womens political and gender
positions, and their multiple forms of resistance during the insurgency.
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Chapter 5
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality

In Petals of Blood, we see a crucial sea change taking place in Ngugis political
vision. Concomitantly, there are new strategic affiliations into which his fiction
must enter at this point. Up until A Grain of Wheat, Ngugis project might be
broadly thought of as being oriented towards a decolonizing nationalism, in
which socio-economic oppression although propelled by foreign pressures is
comprehended in terms of its local effects within the geographical boundaries of
Kenya. By contrast, Petals of Blood arrives at the recognition that neocolonial
exploitation is global in scope and therefore demands postnational axes of
identification in the formulation of a novelistic response. The emergence of these
postnational axes of affiliation may be traced to Ngugis University of Leeds
Master of Arts dissertation on George Lamming in particular, and to his wider
investments in Caribbean literature more generally. We should recall that Ngugi
names Petals of Blood after a line in Derek Walcotts poem The Swamp and
that he alludes to at least two of V. S. Naipauls novels (The Mystic Masseur and
The Mimic Men) as the narrative unfolds. But it is the influence of Lamming in
particular that we might identify with the making of Petals of Blood. In fact, the
introduction to Ngugis essay on In the Castle of My Skin might even be read as
the genesis of a plot structure for Petals of Blood:

It will be our argument that although it is set in a village in a period well before
any of the West Indian islands had achieved independence, In the Castle of My
Skin is a study of a colonial revolt; that it shows the motive forces behind it
and its development through three main stages: a static phase, then a phase of
rebellion, ending in a phase of achievement and disillusionment with society
poised on the edge of a new struggle; that it sharply delineates the opposition
between the aspirations of the peasantry and those of the emergent native lite,
an opposition which, masked in the second phase, becomes clear during the
stage of apparent achievement. The novel itself is built on a three-tier structure
corresponding broadly to our three stages: the first three chapters describe stable
life, a village community whose social consciousness is limited to a struggle with
immediate nature; the next six chapters deal with a village whose consciousness
is awakened into a wider vision; involving challenge of and struggle against the
accepted order of things; while the last chapters show the ironic denouement;
a new class of native lawyers, merchants, teachers has further displaced the
peasantry from the land. But underlying the storys progress in time is a general
conception of human history as a movement from the state of nature to a higher
118 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

consciousness; it is a movement from relative stability in a rural culture to a state

of alienation, strife and uncertainty in the modern world.

We might detect similar stages at work in Ngugis Petals of Blood, beginning with
the drought (mirroring Lammings flood), continuing with the journey to the city
to protest to the MP (equating to the strike and the riots of In the Castle of My
Skin), and concluding with the final phase in which the apparent marketability of
Thengeta results in the influx of corrupting economic forces and the establishment
of New Ilmorog (just as Lammings landlord Creighton has sold up and the new
owners have decided to sell the villagers homes out from under them). The death
of Ngugis Nyakinyua before she loses her land mirrors closely the death of the
old woman in Lammings village before the Friendly Society and the Penny
Bank evict her husband to the Alms House. Both novels mix third person and
first person narration. Both interweave a series of perspectivally bound narratives.
These perspectivally bound narratives amplify each others dimensions and build
to the profundity of a fully elaborated historical perspective.
In Caribbean literature and in the black diaspora, Ngugi discovers a shared
past of world historical proportions, and a community whose grievances and
possibilities are global in scope. Within this radically amplified arena, Petals
of Blood undertakes an aesthetic of reconnection with the aim of overthrowing
global oppression by mobilizing global dissent. The importance of paternity to
this project is that it models a lineage that, if it were sufficiently excavated and
expressed, would reveal a common point of convergence within the African past.
It is something like this point of convergence that Wanja, Abdulla, Nyakinyua,
Karega and Munira arrive at in their discovery of a shared past. In his essay on
Caribbean fiction, A Kind of Homecoming, Ngugi acknowledges that the West
Indies has been very formative in Africas political and literary consciousness.
Additionally, the essay quotes E. R. Braithwaites A Kind of Homecoming (which
gives Ngugis essay and Homecoming their titles) in which the Guyanese writer
claims he gave up the struggle to find a particular point of origin [in Africa] and
embraced the whole continent. Africa and the West Indies, then, are becoming
mutually constitutive origins in Ngugis political and literary vision at this point,
leading potentially to an emptying out of national and ethnic categories and to a
broader basis for political and cultural identification.
Accordingly, the affiliations of Petals of Blood are diasporic, the scale of its
ambition is epic, and I would argue that its profundity is ultimately of a biblical
weight. This is no exaggeration: Ngugi claims that, in fact, there is something
about the Jewish experience the biblical experience which appeals to the West

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 111.

See George Lamming, In the Castle of my Skin (New York: Longman, 1979).

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 81.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 82.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 119

Indian novelist. Biblical man has been a slave and an exile from home. The
biblical narrative appeals because it is at one level a story of homecoming from
exile, and some constituencies in the Caribbean might be read metaphorically
as being in exile from Africa. Lammings character, Trumper, who has been to
America like Ngugis character, the lawyer, resolves this exile by identifying
with African-Americans at the level of race. Although Ngugi cautions in What
is My Colour, What is My Race? that to create a religion out of skin colour
is to despair of a solution for social injustice, he also adds that to ignore it is
dangerous. In fact, What is My Colour, What is My Race? argues that race
and class discrimination are twin modes of oppression facing the communities of
the black diaspora, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Petals of Blood construes
both race and class liberation as having a millennial significance. We should not
forget here that the Yeatsian section headings of the novel (Walking Toward
Bethlehem To Be Born Again La Luta Continua!) read like an extremely
abbreviated account of Christian belief, encompassing the Jewish exodus from
Egypt, the birth of Christ and, naturally enough, the Second Coming. Moreover,
Ilmorogs historical development from Ndemi na Mathathis edenic founding of
the cultural clearing to the closing passages invoking apocalyptic gnomic angels
reads like the biblical development from Genesis to Revelation.
What we have in Petals of Blood is a vision of socialist liberation as the
realization of a faith in collective human potentials, and a vision of black history
as culminating in apotheosis. In this understanding, freedom crafts a god who
may be recognized only in the dignity of other men (and women!). Hence, Petals
of Blood is, in one possible reading, nothing less than the bible of black world-
historical experience. Although this novel is of epic theological dimensions, it is
also very precisely engaged with global Cold War politics, since its black theology
opposes itself quite consciously to anti-Communist Christian evangelism during
the Cold War.


Among its more modest accomplishments, Petals of Blood is an African

detective novel. By generic convention, the detective novel culminates in an act
of nomination, when the processes of deduction combine to name the criminal.
However, Petals of Blood is a rather anomalous or unusual species of detective

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 89.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 108.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood (London: Heinemann, 1986 [1977]), p. 344.

As Georg M. Gugelberger has observed, the villagers journey to the city also has
biblical overtones: They are led by Abdullahs donkey, an ironic allusion to Christs entry
into Jerusalem. Georg M. Gugelberger, Blake Neruda, Ngugi wa Thiongo: Issues in Third
World Literature, Comparative Literature Studies, 21:4 (1984), p. 473.
120 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

novel, because in it the victims of murder (Chui, Mzigo and Kimeria Hawkins)
are ultimately revealed to have been perpetrators of the real crime: the capitalist
exploitation of neocolonial Kenya. To complicate matters further, Petals of Blood
gives the same name Godfrey to its irreligious detective and to its devout
murderer in a move that entangles the novels constructions of the law. In short,
Petals of Blood does not merely invert our common understanding of the victim
and the criminal. It also contaminates the positions of the criminal and the officer of
the law in ways that stump the novels own deductive processes.10 Petals of Blood
works its way towards a vision of Kenyan social justice, but, by flouting the laws
of the detective novel, its narrative scheme may also at some level be hatching a
profoundly antisocial plot. Quite simply, Petals of Blood insists on pointing out the
failures of the law, only to exploit comparable loopholes within its own expository
mode. In this sense, the novel evacuates its own authenticating premises.
If I have made much of these generic idiosyncrasies, it is because they are merely
one instance of a much larger nominative crisis at work in Ngugis novel. Petals of
Blood complicates the act of naming in any number of ways. This is a strategically
disabling manoeuvre, because it places the novels construction of paternity (the
nomination of the father) under perpetual erasure. Structurally speaking, the
institution of paternity relies upon a surmise that suggests the detectives method.
Indeed, Freuds account of the prehistorical advent of patriarchy invokes a process
of ratiocination:

This turning from the mother to the father, however, signifies in addition a
victory of intellectuality over the sensuality that is, an advance in civilization,
since maternity is proved by the evidence of the senses whereas paternity is a
hypothesis, based on an inference and a premiss.11

In translation, the name Godfrey implies both irreligiousness (God-free) and
piety (it is derived from the German Gottfried, meaning God is satisfied). See Sigmund
Freud, Moses and Monotheism, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, and Other Works, The
Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Volume 23,
trans. James Strachey (London: Vintage and The Hogarth Press, 2001 [1939]), p. 23, n. 1.
This argument is indebted to Steven R. Carters very perceptive analysis of the
novel: There is not much of a distinction to be made between this criminal and this detective,
unlike Ngugis usually sharp distinction between the oppressed and the oppressor. But in a
criminal system, what is a crime? Individual criminals must be viewed differently when the
structure of society is the primary source of evil and viciousness. Quite clearly, notions of
the law become impossible in the context of injustice. Steven R. Carter, Decolonization and
Detective Fiction: Ngugi wa Thiongos Petals of Blood, Clues: A Journal of Detection,
8:1 (1987), p. 105.
Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, p. 114.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 121

Betsy Wings translation of this passage in Hlne Cixous and Catherine Clments
The Newly Born Woman reflects even more clearly the narrative of detection
embedded within claims to paternity:

This turning from the mother to the father, however, signifies above all a victory
of spirituality over the senses that is to say, a step forward in culture, since
maternity is proved by the senses whereas paternity is a surmise based on a
deduction and a premiss.12

In Freuds view, the turn from a matriarchal order to a patriarchal order is a

monumental development in the advancement of culture, and it is enabled by a
triumph of masculine rationality over the female body of evidence. Ngugis novel
contains a strikingly similar myth. On the Ilmorog villagers journey to the city,
Njuguna (the common man13) teases Nyakinyua that antelopes are supposed by
Gikuyu custom to be womens goats which had run wild because the women
could not look after them.14 This allusion refers to the founding myth of the
Gikuyu patriarchy, in which men, knowing women to be polyandrous, tyrannical
rulers (and poor shepherds!) conspired to impregnate all of the women at once and
took over the running of culture while the erstwhile matriarchs were otherwise
indisposed.15 The mythical advent of the Gikuyu patriarchy, therefore, purports in
its way to be a triumph of rational masculine rule over capricious female desire.
Ngugis novel extrapolates this myth in its imaging of anti-colonial resistance, by
equating revolutionary heroism with virility.
In Petals of Blood, however, the surmise that institutes paternity is destined
to fail. As I shall demonstrate, such premises are inherently untenable and such
deductions finally impossible. At first glance, paternity would appear to function
as a narrative metaphor for legitimate political succession (that is, a passage
of authority, power and property) from an illegitimate colonial father.16 But
the novels nominative crisis renders this analysis of history unworkable the
legitimate cultural father can never quite be named in an unimpeachable manner,
due to his illegitimate colonial ancestry.17 Indeed, impediments to filial succession

Hlne Cixous and Catherine Clment, The Newly Born Woman, p. 100.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 34.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 139.
See Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 8.
As one critic has observed, the patrilineal system of inheritance of property forms
part of womens oppression. Kavetsa Adagala, Wanja of Petals of Blood: The Woman
Question and Imperialism in Kenya (Nairobi: Derika Associates, 1985), p. 4.
The primal scene that founds the Gikuyu patriarchy, the illegitimate (neo)colonial
scene in which sexual tourism and prostitution flourish, and the re-legitimizing scene of
post-colonial rebirth are at one level simply versions of one another. In each, sexual
intercourse translates as the overthrow of a pre-existent political order. In Petals of Blood, all
of the modulations of Gikuyu history are structured by relations to the phallus, the symbolic
122 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

are an inescapable consequence when one inhabits a filial relation and receives a
political inheritance that must both be disavowed. In short, the novels sense of
social justice (embedded in its narratives of detection) and its vision of paternity
(as a mode of political legitimacy) are structurally linked, but they share a common
predicament. In both cases, games with names thwart the assignation of blame.
The novels generic predicament and its ideological predicament both emerge
out of its gendering of the nation. Its privileged model of Gikuyu femininity
is mother Kenya, and its subordinate construction is of the Gikuyu woman
as a fallen woman who translates a prostituted economy. This subordinate
construction betrays a psychosexual anxiety the unrestrained female desire of
the prostitute substitutes for the unregulated forces of monopoly capitalism that
beset the neocolony. Elleke Boehmer has made this point quite forcefully: In
Petals of Blood, once again, a woman is used as victim. As a thriving madam,
obviously equipped with an extremely durable vagina, Wanja becomes a ready
symbol for the ravaged state of Kenya.18 I would add that Wanja, who has had an
illegitimate child by Kimeria Hawkins (a member of the comprador class), bodies
forth a bastardized history that bears the inscription of an illegitimate (neo)colonial
father. The name of the legitimate father, or the patronym towards which Ngugis
history is oriented, is the name of Gikuyu resistance.19 In Wanjas case, it is the
name of Dedan Kimathi; one of the leaders of the Mau Mau insurgents. However,
as I shall show, it is precisely the durability of Wanjas vagina that resists the
novels authenticating paternalistic impulses. In short, Ngugis ideologically
interested narration of Kenyan history is initiated and ultimately scuttled by
the patriarchal construction of Wanja. I view Petals of Blood as Ngugis attempt
to contest neocolonialism (coextensive with multinational capitalism, the English
language and Eurocentric culture) with indigenous patriarchal discourses (which
are not, at this point in Ngugis development, entirely coextensive with the Gikuyu
language). Given Ngugis androcentric project, history in this novel is contested
by claims to a legitimate law of resistance over against an illegitimate law of
oppression. Thus, in an anti-colonial feminist reading, historical representations
in Petals of Blood are tantamount to claims of paternity. Since acts of nomination
(and hence, claims of paternity) are unstable in this novel, I shall argue that Ngugis
chauvinistic narration of the nation can be submitted to the undecidability of the
paternal fiction in ways that make political, historical and sexual agency available
to Kenyan women.

arbiter of political power. Such phallic primacy self-evidently contains exclusionary

outcomes for women.
Elleke Boehmer, The Masters Dance, p. 193.
Against the broader historical backdrop of multi-ethnic Kenyan resistance, Ngugis
narrative is Gikuyu-centric, even though he seems in places to be espousing more broad-
based socialist ideals.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 123

The Gendering of the Landscape and Circumcision as History

The gendering of the landscape is one of the most obvious ways in which female
agency is silenced or contained in Petals of Blood. Despite the different ideological
and class positions of Ngugis male protagonists (peasant, worker, bourgeois), they
express a commonality in their constructions of women. In each case, womens
sexual and reproductive potentials are associated with the generative agricultural
potential of the land, which at one point is described as wearing a floral cloth.20
The peasant focalizer, Njuguna, makes the colonial influence on a gendered
landscape clear when he reflects that The land seemed not to yield much and
there was now no virgin soil to escape to as in those days before colonialism.21
Likewise, Munira, the schoolteacher of bourgeois Christian origins, views women
on various occasions as being inseparable from or at one with the land.22 Before
he sleeps with Wanja, he refers to the act with anticipation as my harvest23
and dreams of the perfumed garden that was her body.24 For Munira, Ilmorog
during Wanjas absence becomes a land of drought,25 and he fantasizes about
sleeping with Wanja again so that he may be reborn into history.26 Although sex
with Wanja seems to promise a utopian future for Munira, it offers a return to an
idyllic past for Karega, the teaching assistant who later becomes a small trader
and union organizer. When Karega and Wanja have intercourse, we are told that
they work together in rhythmic search for a lost kingdom.27 After they have slept
together, Karegas reminiscences explicitly align Wanja with the land: So many
experiences, so many discoveries in a night and a half. Harvest time for seeds
planted in time past.28 The communal narrator adds, we were soon intrigued,
fascinated, moved by the entwinement and flowering of youthful love and life
and we whispered: see the wonder-gift of God. Crops will sprout luxuriant and
green. We shall eat our fill and drink Thengeta at harvest time.29 At this point
in the novel, Munira jealously observes of Wanja, I watched her undergo yet
another change. It was a new, youthful, life-full, luscious growth after the rains

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 32.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 9.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 47, 24.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 66.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 34.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 83.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 217.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 230.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 234.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 243. Curiously enough, one of the rare
terms for the clitoris mugina also denotes a young plant or sapling. See T. G. Benson
(ed.), KikuyuEnglish Dictionary (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 114. Read in
this light, the imagery of petals of blood may contain undertones of circumcision.
124 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Their love seemed to grow with the rains.30 In response to Munira, Wanja herself
argues, I feel I am about to flower.31 Femininity and sexuality are constructed
through these consensual tropes of harvesting and flowering throughout Petals
of Blood.
The harvest imagery is not only related to agriculture and sexuality. It
becomes a more general metaphor for the expropriation of wealth from the
Kenyan peasantry, as seen in Karega the union organizers assertion that [We]
shall no longer let others reap where they never planted, harvest where they never
cultivated.32 To the extent that the agricultural imagery is invoked consensually
by all the main characters, it becomes a marker of the commonality of oppression.
The broader implication is that the economic exploitation of Kenyan labour
contains overtones of sexual imposition. This gendering of oppression partly
originates from the generative dimensions of the agricultural economy within
which Ngugis peasant characters find themselves, but it is also derived from the
more complex institutions of circumcision and governance in the Gikuyu cultural
past. The floral and agricultural imagery is based upon assumptions of generative
sexual and economic activity, seasonal time and cyclical governance, and an idea
of generational history.
These interlinked assumptions require careful explanation. To begin with,
harvesting in Petals of Blood encodes male virility and paternity. This is
demonstrated in the description of the antelope at harvest time in Ilmorog, because
we are told that the male would run after a young female, giving it no rest or time
to eat, expecting another kind of harvest.33 In terms of the seasonal calendar of this
agricultural society, circumcision occurs after the harvest, and the dialogue of the
male characters reiterates the association between Thengeta, harvesting and birth:

[Thengeta] must be ready on the day of circumcision. When the elders are
having their Njohi [beer] we too can join them with our Thengeta.
Why not? To celebrate! To say farewell to a season of drought, said Karega
with boyish enthusiasm. To celebrate a big harvest.
Farewell to the drought in our lives, added Abdulla.
And for more sperms of God [rain] to fertilize the earth, Munira said.34

The importance of Thengeta, of its petals of blood, to Ngugis narrative is that it

encodes the fertility of Gikuyu female subjects, marriage and circumcision the
very fabric of traditional Gikuyu communal cohesion regulated by patriarchal law.
In other words, the rite of Thengeta drinking, in its traditional context at least, is
institutionally imbricated in female subjecthood and in the cultural constitution

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 244.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 251.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 326.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 2034.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 205.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 125

of the Gikuyu woman as a woman. We are told that Thengeta is traditionally

only ever drunk after the ceremony of circumcision or marriage or itwika,
and after a harvest;35 a set of occasions that are deeply enmeshed with gender
associations. Moreover, the overdetermined constitution of femininity, especially
via clitoridectomy, is used to reinforce narratives of anti-colonial resistance. For
instance, Nyakinyuas performance of a song on the eve of the circumcision
ceremony locates resistance to colonialism within the ambit of circumcision:

She sang of other struggles, of other wars the arrival of colonialism and the
fierce struggles waged against it by newly circumcised youth. Yes, it was always
the duty of the youth to drive out foreigners and enemies lodged amongst the
people: it was always the duty of the youth to fight all the Marimus, all the two-
mouthed Ogres, and that was the meaning of the blood shed at circumcision.36

This passage anticipates Ngugis use of the ogre myth in Devil on the Cross and
Matigari, and the ogre like the monster-god to which the lawyer in Petals of
Blood refers37 is a folkloric symbol that naturalizes a contest over femininity within
Ngugis construction of the representatives of neocolonial corporate capital.
There is a very complex set of folkloric allusions at work in Thengetas
association with itwika and Nyakinyuas references to the banishing of ogres.
According to Gikuyu myth, a harsh king called Gikuyu refused to permit his
nomadic people to settle and cultivate the land. The iregi age-set (derived from
rega, denoting to refuse or revolt38) overthrew Gikuyu, and the ndemi age-set
which followed cleared the land of forests in order that the people might cultivate
their crops. Ndemi is called the founding patriarch of Ilmorog,39 and his name
denotes the cut40 that produces the cultural clearing. Out of the iregi and ndemi
revolutions, the custom of itwika developed, in which a peaceful transfer of
power from one generation to the next, approximately every 30 years, ensured
a democratic (in Kenyattas term) system of government.41 The last itwika was
held between 1890 and 1898. The successive itwika (scheduled for 192528) was
banned by the colonial government, thus displacing Gikuyu history from a cyclical
repetition into a linear progression. Sicherman notes:

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 2045.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 210.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 1634.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 186.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 120.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 187.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, pp. 18797. See also Carol Sicherman,
Making of a Rebel, pp. 1667.
126 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Dedan Kimathi is of Iregi generation this is not to be taken as a literal

reference to his age-set but to Kimathis role as revolter the actual meaning
of the word.42

Karegas name derives from the verb rega (Sicherman glosses Karega as rebel43)
and encodes the iregi age-set. Nyakinyua and her husband are of the ndemi age-
set.44 When, Nyakinyua refers to the Member of Parliament for Ilmorog as this
Ndamathia which only takes but never gives back,45 she refers to the banishing of
a river-monster (Ndamathia) by the Ndemi generation after the itwika.46 We can
see here something like the narratives blueprint for the revolutionary overthrow
of the Kenyan government. Via its heroes of resistance Ndemi, Kimathi and
Karega Petals of Blood argues for the revolutionary or innovative institution
of a democratic form of Gikuyu traditional government to replace colonial and
neocolonial misrule. History here is generational and therefore democratic. But
generational histories require a vehicle of production. In Petals of Blood, this
vehicle is, quite simply, a transhistorical and static model of femininity, whose
raison dtre resides in motherhood.
If one pauses for a moment to reflect on the complex set of gender associations
at work in Thengeta, circumcision, seasonal harvesting and cyclical male
governance, then it becomes possible to see that Ngugi is attempting, unsuccessfully,
to naturalize a traditional mythical narrative of revolution into a dialectic that is
not Marxist but familial, and whose sublimate is a new generation of children
who comprise the revitalized social order. History in Petals of Blood is ostensibly
both cyclical (in which women repeatedly produce children) and linear (in which
men become heroes of historical struggle). This distribution of gender imbalances
produces an unbalanced and ultimately divisive model of history that is at once
progressive and recursive. While Karega and Joseph succeed Abdulla in struggle
at the end of the novel, Wanjas trajectory is resolved via a more politically
satisfactory repeat of her earlier pregnancy.
Resistance in Petals of Blood offers self-transformative possibilities to the
male subject, but one must surely question whether equivalent possibilities are
offered to the female characters. We see a generational idea of history at work in
Abdullas commitment to political struggle:

He had indeed endured thirst and hunger, briars and thorns in scaly flesh in the
service of that vision which first opened out to him the day he had taken both the
oath of unity and the Batuni oath. How he trembled as the vision opened out,
embracing new thoughts, new desires, new possibilities! To redeem the land: to

Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 238.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 207.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 166.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 116.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, pp. 18797.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 127

fight so that the industries like the shoe-factory which had swallowed his sweat
could belong to the people: so that his children could one day have enough to eat
and to wear under adequate shelter from rain: so that they would say in pride, my
father died that I might live: this had transformed him from a slave before a boss
into a man. That was the day of his true circumcision into a man.47

There is a crucially silent figure who accompanies such lofty reminiscences. The
Kenyan Land and Freedom Armys Batuni oath occasionally indentured Kenyan
women to receive the penises of the initiates, and yet they are forgotten here.
Instead, Abdulla frames resistance within a discourse of the family (a discourse
in which Ngugis construction of women is overdetermined). In a certain sense,
Wanja becomes the vehicle for Abdullas vision by carrying his child at the end
of the novel.
Abdullas generational model of history is derived from Gikuyu oral traditions.
In other words, the patrilinear construction of Gikuyu history in Petals of Blood
relies to some extent upon indigenous mechanisms of naming associated with
circumcision. Traditionally, Gikuyu oral history is remembered via the significant
names given annually to the circumcision age-sets, and these names link each
generation to the significant historical events that accompany their rite of passage.
These aptronymic processes provide the means by which Gikuyu history is
traditionally remembered and retold. We see an example of this mnemonic history
at work when Munira narrates his recollection of going to school at Siriana:

Siriana, you should have been there in our time, before and during the period
of the big, costly European dance of death and even after: you might say that
our petty lives and their fears and crises took place against a background of
tremendous changes and troubles, as can be seen by the names given to the age-
sets between Nyabani [Japan] and Hitira [Hitler]: Mwomboko [a dance]
Karanji [college?], Boti [forty], Ngunga [army worms], Muthuu [a dance
performed before circumcision], Ngaragu Ya Mianga, Bamiti [permit], Gicina
Bangi, Cugini-Mburaki [black market].48

The names of the age-sets were given annually, after the harvest, so that Gikuyu
history was seasonal and cyclical. Many of these names are Anglicized corruptions
and carry the inscription of a colonial father: for example, Hitira (Hitler), Boti
([Nineteen] Forty) and Bamiti (Permit). In a sense then, the novel is relating a
history in which the communal relation to its past has been bastardized by colonial
intrusion. So, for example, the Boti (Forty) age-set was circumcised in 1947, the
Hitira age-set was named in solidarity with Hitler, a fellow enemy of the British

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 136.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 27. See Carol Sicherman, The Making of
a Rebel, pp. 2369, for a detailed explanation of the names of the age-sets. All translations
are taken from this source.
128 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

colonial power, and so on. In its filtering of communal history through the age-sets,
it is quite clear that Petals of Blood is privileging a notion of generational struggle
that, when viewed diachronically through its nominative mechanisms, produces
a patrilineage. The circumcision age-sets and the uterine social organization that
they institute thus become a way of theorizing political power. Implicit in this
theory of political power is a rhetoric of reproduction, couched in a metaphor of
efflorescence. Upon his release from incarceration, Abdulla makes this metaphor
clear, wishing that Ndinguri and Ole Masai and others were there to witness the
flowering of faith.49

Petals of Blood: Whats in a Name?

The imagery of flowering is given a privileged place in Petals of Blood, since

it all but names this novel. This imagery of flowering is also associated with
Wanja, but in her case it figures private, rather than public, concerns. Her
redemption from life as a prostitute (a deflowered woman) is accomplished
via the recuperation of her errant desire for a patriarchal construction of Gikuyu
motherhood. This change is described as a new flowering of self.50 Wanjas
decision to abandon her career in prostitution is motivated by two humiliating
experiences: her failed relationship with a truck-driver client, and the incident in
which a German national attempts to drug her in order to export her to Europe
for resale as a prostitute. The personal sexual history with which Wanja wishes
to break is symbolically conflated with a turning point in the national history of
Kenya as a prostituted economy.
We can see an equivalent gendering of the nation at work in the title of the
novel. Petals of Blood is ostensibly derived from a passage in Derek Walcotts
poem The Swamp, which the novel adopts as an epigraph:

Toadstools, the potent ginger-lily,

Petals of blood,

The speckled vulva of the tiger-orchid;

Outlandish phalloi
Haunting the travellers of its one road.51

It is clear that the floral genitalia in Walcotts poem fit quite comfortably with the
ubiquitous gendering of the landscape in Ngugis novel. For example, the petals
of blood apply both to the Thengeta plant and to the beanflower with petals of

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 253.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 107.
Derek Walcott, The Swamp, Collected Poems, 19481984, by Derek Walcott
(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), pp. 5960.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 129

blood52 in which Muniras school pupils discover an outlandish phallus (a worm).

Through the course of the narrative, the worm-eaten flower is established as a
figure for political corruption, but it is also, of course, a figure for sexual crisis.
What this gendering of the landscape allows is a reproductive framing of historical
struggle. Since the land is a female and a generative space, political struggle for
the land is ultimately reduced to a contest between two masculine proprietorial
discourses: imperialist and anti-imperialist. That is why the petals of blood apply
metaphorically to Wanja, a prostitute who accommodates outlandish phalloi with
some regularity, thus representing the debased state of the Kenyan neocolony.53 As
a fallen woman, Wanja is repeatedly rendered in terms of imagery of deflowering.
Unsurprisingly, her moral redemption finally consists in motherhood. In fact,
we are even told that Wanjas sexual self-restraint is the precondition for a new
flowering of self.54 Here, a questionable binarism equates (male) potency with an
emergence into historical agency and equates (female) celibacy with a breaking
from the past. Petals of Bloods analysis of history is, therefore, cast in terms
of a male psychosexual crisis, in which the claims of a legitimate law of anti-
imperialist resistance are measured against an illegitimate law of neocolonial
oppression. This masculine psychosexual crisis is finally resolved through the act
of sexual reproduction and a claim to paternity. The upshot of this reproductive
framing of history is that Kenyan nationalism as a theory of political legitimacy55
is collapsed quite simplistically into a theory of legitimate paternity. If political
representations in Petals of Blood are tantamount to claims of paternity, then I
hope to show that these claims are mutually exclusive with the crisis of nomination
at work in Petals of Blood.

Intertextuality: A Rose by Any Other Name

This crisis of nomination works at two levels. Firstly, there are a number of
illegitimate fathers and children in Petals of Blood. For instance, both Karega
and Joseph are born out of wedlock, and Abdulla states that Joseph is [not] my
brother. He is more of a son to me.56 Secondly, the novels own acts of naming are
complicated by a proliferation of references. Central to my argument is the idea
that the allusions which comprise the novels historical and intertextual weave
may be read as citations or signatures of illegitimate fathers. In short, the multiple
references in Petals of Blood contest the unity of its authority. I am influenced by

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 212.
Significantly, just before Munira and Mukami first sleep together at Manguo Lake,
he plucks a leech from her chin, causing it to bleed. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood,
pp. 21819.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 107.
Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, p. 1.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 285.
130 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Gayatri Spivaks deconstructive reading of the patronym here. Spivak notes that
[quotation] in Derrida is a mark of non-self-identity: the defining predication of
a woman, whose very name is changeable.57 To read for female agency in Petals
of Blood is to read for a changeability of references that renders the deduction of
paternity impossible.
In other words, the mechanism by which paternity is usually brought into being
a single, unequivocal act of nomination is ultimately rendered impossible by
the symbolic saturation we find at work in the novel.
This symbolic saturation is at work even in the title of Petals of Blood. We
have seen that the title is derived from Walcotts poem The Swamp. But Ngugis
title and the novels central motif are arguably also informed by an extract from
Walt Whitmans poem Resurgemus,58 which decries those who are paid to defile
the people Worming from his simplicity the poor mans wages.59 Resurgemus
celebrates the revolutionary movements of 1848 in Europe60 and depicts political
corruption as a shadowy figure clad in red:

Yet, behind all, lo, a Shape

Vague as the night, draped interminably, head front and form in scarlet folds,
Whose face and eyes none may see,
Out of its robes only this the red robes, lifted by the arm,
One finger pointed high over the top, like the head of a snake appears.61

The snake in scarlet folds is, of course, a version of the worm in the flower. In fact,
Petals of Blood uses the passages immediately preceding and following this extract
as epigraphs for Part One and Part Four of the novel. Hence, the extract from
Resurgemus that provides the novel with its name and central motif functions as
an excluded middle an invaginated larval presence enfolded within the leaves
of Ngugis book. Whitmans wish in Resurgemus is that the spirits of the men
murdered by tyrants will live on to fight for Liberty.62 Likewise, Petals of Blood
aspires to an efflorescence of revolutionary sacrifice, but this wish is imaginatively

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Displacement and the Discourse of Woman in Mark
Krupnick (ed.), Displacement: Derrida and After (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1983), p. 171.
Published before Leaves of Grass, Resurgemus was untitled when reprinted in the
1855 edition. In the 1856 edition, it acquired the name Poem of The Dead Young Men of
Europe, the 72d and 73d Years of These States. Walt Whitman, Resurgemus/Poem of
The Dead Young Men of Europe, the 72d and 73d Years of These States, Leaves of Grass
(Brooklyn, New York, 1856), pp. 2524.
Walt Whitman, Resurgemus/Europe, p. 252.
Roger Asselineau, The Evolution of Walt Whitman (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 38.
Walt Whitman, Resurgemus/Europe, p. 253.
See Gay Wilson Allen, New Walt Whitman Handbook, p. 80.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 131

fulfilled by reducing women to Woman, a monolithic transhistorical vehicle

through which the revolutionary spirit may incubated and enlivened.63
Some critics have sought to describe Whitmans Resurgemus as Gothicized
protest, located in an American lineage.64 Indeed, it exhibits obvious similarities
with Edgar Allan Poes poem The Conqueror Worm, included in the short
story Ligeia (1845). In this poem, an airborne Invisible Wo!65 presides over
a theatrical performance of human tragedy while the angels spectate, following
which a monstrous interloper appears on stage:

But see, amid the mimic rout,

A crawling shape intrude !
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude !
It writhes ! it writhes ! with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And the seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

Out out are the lights out all!

And over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, Man,
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.66

In formal and thematic terms, Poes story is highly evocative of the central motif in
Petals of Blood. The fact that we encounter a poems intrusion within a short story
as a vehicle for theatre means that Poes text itself contains generic aberrations

Significantly, Whitman argued in his journalism for the legalization of prostitution.
In this, he was influenced by a women reformer the poignantly named Ernestine L. Rose.
Roses remarkable campaigns for the political and social enfranchisement of women and
African-Americans is detailed in Sherry Ceniza, Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women
Reformers (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1998), pp. 14080.
See David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitmans America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
1995), pp. 1312. Reynolds, however, dismisses the notion of Poes influence in favour of
a Lippardian influence.
Edgar Allan Poe, Ligeia in David Galloway (ed.), The Fall of the House of Usher
and Other Writings (London: Penguin, 1986 [1845]), p. 116.
Poe, Ligeia, p. 117.
132 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

comparable to those we have noticed in Petals of Blood.67 Quite simply, Poes

Ligeia is, like Ngugis Petals of Blood, a genre-bender. More importantly, if
The Conqueror Worm (a poem) resides inside a woman (the short story Ligeia)
who then becomes the stage for a pageant of metaphysical proportions (the
tragedy, Man), this means that we have another plausible originary scene for
Ngugis Petals of Blood in which a worm/phallus and a flower/woman illustrate
a clash of masculine world-historical forces (imperial capitalism and its organic
communist antithesis in Ngugis novel). Although one might not expect an African
writer like Ngugi to have been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, there is at least one
other striking similarity in Ligeia and Petals of Blood. Foreshadowing her death
and subsequent resurrection, Ligeia asks Poes narrator, Shall this Conqueror
[Worm] be not once conquered?68 This question is rephrased in Petals of Blood
when the schoolchildren question Munira about the worm-eaten beanflower (Why
cant the eaten eat back?69) anticipating a revolutionary reawakening in Kenya.
Whereas Munira declines to answer the childrens question, Wanjas conclusions
after realizing that Kimeria would benefit from the economic progress of Ilmorog
provide an answer to the childrens question:

Eat or be eaten. If you have a cunt excuse my language but it seems the curse
of Adams Eve on those who are born with it if you are born with this hole,
instead of it being a source of pride, you are doomed to either marrying someone
or else being a whore. You eat or you are eaten.70

The biblical reference is apt here, because the worm in the flower is simply another
version of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The first epigraph to Part One of
the novel is a quotation from the Book of Revelation. By moving from edenic
imagery to apocalyptic imagery via the metaphoric vehicles of the worm/snake
and the fire that occur in both Genesis and Revelation, Petals of Blood builds to
a theology of black oppression and liberation. However, although this repetitive
imagery provides the novel with a narrative thread, the imagerys repetitions at
biblical origin and outcome also collapse the very history that the novel purports
to explain.
Given the number of William Blakes poems used as epigraphs for the four parts
into which the novel is divided, another plausible source for the floral imagery in
Petals of Blood is his poem The Sick Rose. Poes Ligeia and Ngugis Petals of

The Conqueror Worm, with three sentences before and two paragraphs after the
poem, was inserted when Poe revised the story for the New York New World in early 1845.
See J. Gerald Kennedy, Poe, Ligeia, and the Problem of Dying Women in Kenneth
Silverman (ed.), New Essays on Poes Major Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1993), p. 120.
Edgar Allan Poe, Ligeia, p. 117.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 22.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 293.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 133

Blood are almost certainly derived from this source,71 which repeats the scene of
the flower afflicted by an outlandish phallus:

The Sick Rose

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.72

In this poem, as in Ligeia, something interesting is happening with gender.

Michael Simpson has argued:

the rose may be sick because its life is being destroyed by the worms dark
secret love or because this dark secret love is being destroyed by the roses
life. The factor that specifically allows his dark secret love to be read as
the object of destroy and thy life as the subject, is the rhetorical figure of
syntactic inversion called anastrophe.73

In other words, the final two lines of the poem are ambiguous as to whether the worms
dark secret love destroys the roses life, or whether the roses life does destroy
the worms dark secret love. There is a question of agency here: of whether the
rose is destroyed or destructive, castrated or castrating. The primal scene in Blakes
poem, then, introduces a fluctuating organization of sexual difference (just as the
primal scene does in the example of Freuds the Wolf-Man). Quite simply, Blakes

The storm, the airborne Invisible Wo! and the rubicund conqueror worm in Poes
poem metonymically evoke Blakes The Sick Rose. But whereas Blakes worm suggests
the destructive power of sexual desire, Poes worm suggests the triumph of death over
human mortality and humanitys divine ambitions.
William Blake, The Sick Rose in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), Blake: Complete Writings
with Variant Readings (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 175.
Simpsons comment on the performative act of reading Blakes poem might also
be applied to the vexed relation between Petals of Bloods title, its gendered motifs and its
intertextual affinities: What happens to the text determines what happens in the text (this
continuity is incidentally signalled by the punning title of the [text], for it names an item
within the text as well as the text itself). Michael Simpson, Who Didnt Kill Blakes Fly:
Moral Law and the Rule of Grammar in Songs of Experience, Style, 30:2 (Summer,
1996), p. 223.
134 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

rose, like Wanja Kahii (tomboy) in Petals of Blood, is a gender-bender.74 Curiously,

what Blakes feminine rose ultimately discloses is a covert form of masculinity, as
the etymology of crimson suggests. Nathan Cervo explains that the word crimson
is essential to Blakes meaning, for the word crimson can be traced to the Sanskrit
krmi (worm) and jan (to generate).75 Etymologically speaking, the roses crimson
joy generates a worm (a phallus). Given the transports of etymology, we could
make the obvious statement that the roses crimson colouring (or that of her fellows
in the flowerbed) encodes her procreative or generative female capacities. But, in a
more radical reading, the rose inherently expresses a cryptophallic disposition she
is secretly masculine. This masculine disposition leads to a paradoxical double-
movement. The roses crimson joy (krmi jan) belatedly originates her own demise
by generating the worm (krmi jan) who has arrived to destroy her life. Additionally,
she ensures that her successor (the worm) is preoriginated in the crimson joy to
which he succeeds the worm comes to destroy the roses life and what he finds
in her crimson joy is the thing that made him. We might say that the rose makes
the worm who destroys her, and the worm discovers in her crimson joy his own
disputed origins the cause, perhaps, of his invisibility. The rose thus proliferates
the worms anterior moment and complicates his succession. (In Blakes anastrophic
reversals, of course, the worms succession does not ever completely occur.) Both
rose and worm ultimately consume themselves through the mediatory agency of the
other. To put this another way, the eaten eat back.
The other prominent figurative pattern in Petals of Blood involves imagery of
fire. Munira commits two purificatory acts of arson. The first is after his sexual
experience with Amina (Amen / so be it76), a prostitute to whom Munira has lost
his virginity, and whom he attempts to forget by burning a matchbox effigy of her
hut. This incident prefigures Muniras torching of Wanjas brothel in order to save
Karega from Wanja, in the distorted logic of his Christian-influenced apocalyptic
or redemptive vision. In a curious symmetry, Wanjas aunt a courier of arms and
ammunition for Mau Mau has perished when her hut is mistakenly torched by
a cousins husband, who fears that his wife has been going about with men.77
Wanja, in turn, survives three fires. The first is the fire started when the pressure-
lamp tips over in her bedroom.78 The second is an act of arson designed to trap

In the notebook containing the first draft of The Sick Rose, the crucial line read
And [his del.] her dark secret love. The pronoun underwent subsequent gender reassignment
and reverted to its original masculine form. See Geoffrey Keynes, Blake, p. 175.
Nathan Cervo, Blakes THE SICK ROSE, The Explicator, 48:4 (Summer, 1990),
p. 253, italics in the original.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 61.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 64. In my view, the cousin and aunt
are characters designed to decouple the Mau Mau prostitutes revolutionary and sexual
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 62.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 135

Wanja in her room with her regular, the Somali truck driver.79 The third is Muniras
torching of her brothel; the moment when Wanja eats back by killing Kimeria
even as the flames rise to consume her. In a moment of prolepsis, Wanja tells her
friends that she harbours suicidal thoughts of setting herself on fire, associating
this with the water and the fire of the beginning and the water and the fire of the
second coming.80 The fire imagery, especially when arson is conceived as an act
of purification after sexually promiscuity, is inspired by Genesis and the Book
of Revelation. Clearly, the whore of Babylon, sitting upon a scarlet beast81 and
arrayed in purple and scarlet colour82 who shall be utterly burned with fire83
informs the characterization of Wanja, the scarlet woman who substitutes for the
debased polis and who is injured by Muniras climactic act of purificatory arson in
Ngugis novel. However, the fire imagery is also derived from another of Blakes
poems, which Ngugi uses as the epigraph of Part Three of Petals of Blood:

Morning blushd fiery red:

Mary was found in an Adulterous bed;
Earth groand beneath, and Heaven above
Trembled at the discovery of love.84

Although the flower and fire imageries may have been inspired by Blakes poems,
these imageries are also replayed in the Caribbean literatures exerting an influence
upon Ngugis thinking at this point in his development. We know that the flower
imagery of Petals of Blood is inspired by a line in Derek Walcotts poem The
Swamp. What is less obvious is that the fire imagery is inspired by V. S. Naipauls
novel The Mimic Men. Specifically, Muniras act of arson, which dispenses with
the villains of Ilmorogs neocolonial history, has its sources in Gurudevas burning
of the Deschampneufs horse, Tamango, in Naipauls novel. In both novels, an
act of arson laden with political implications is ironically motivated by religious
delusion.85 It is quite possible that Karegas vision of Ndinguri is also informed
by The Mimic Men. During his brothers visitation (as a ghost), Karega is surprised
that Ndinguri knows him, given that he might not yet have been born while
Ndinguri was alive. Ndinguri answers:

Seedlings from the same womb. Kinsmen. Mumbis children. Nyumba ya

Mumbi [House of Mumbi]. It does matter, or is it not so?

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 98.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 65.
Revelation 17:3.
Revelation 17:4.
Revelation 18:8.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 189.
V. S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men (London: Picador, 2002 [1969]), pp. 16970.
136 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Why are you adrift on a raft?

Tell me one black man who is not adrift even in the land of his birth. But
you? For a second I thought I knew you. Listen, my brothers, the true house of
Mumbi, Mumbi the mother creator, is all the black toiling masses carrying a
jembe in one hand and three bullets in the other, struggling against centuries of
drifting, sole witnesses of their own homecoming. That is why in 1952 we took
the oath.86

Ndinguris use of the word brothers includes Karega in a familial framework

of reference that extends to all of the African diaspora. Like Wanja, Mumbi is
equipped with exceptionally durable sexual capacities, as were the Gikuyu women
indentured to receive the penises of male insurgents who took the Batuni oath
during the Mau Mau insurgency. Clearly, Ndinguris words privilege the maternal
functions of Gikuyu women encoded in the term Nyumba ya Mumbi (the House
of Mumbi, implying both Kenya, the family and the gynaeceum) over the
possibility that they might use their sexual organs for other forms of production,
such as sex work. Ndinguris placement upon the raft and his assertions about
being adrift suggests the influence of John Pepper Clarks play The Raft, in which
one of the characters says of his situation and his nation, We are a castaway
people.87 However, Ndinguri is also arguably inspired by the presiding imagery
of shipwreck in The Mimic Men. In Homecoming, Ngugi writes that the image of
the shipwreck this feeling of being adrift stands astride [Naipauls] novel, a
colossus of loneliness amidst disorder.88
The fire motif in Petals of Blood also owes something to the title of Billy
Grahams World Aflame89 and to Richard Wurmbrands name (worm brand).90
Both of these Christian anti-communist authors are referenced specifically in
relation to the evangelical movement that Lillith leads.91 By drawing on these
two Christian evangelical sources in its patterning of Muniras arson, the novels
aesthetic entertains what is ideologically negated. In other words, Ngugi references

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 237.
J. P. Clark, Three Plays: Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft (London:
Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 101.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Homecoming, p. 91.
Billy Graham, World Aflame (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1965).
Anyone who has read Wurmbrands work will know that his allusions to African
societies are frequently patronizing. His account of the conversion of fellow Romanian
political prisoners to Christianity is couched in imagery that Ngugis novel may also be
consciously resisting: For the first time, a few ugly worms, caterpillars which creep on
leaves, understood that, after this miserable existence, there comes life as a beautiful
butterfly, multicoloured butterfly, able to fly from flower to flower. Richard Wurmbrand,
Tortured for Christ: Christians Suffering in Communist Prisons (New York: Spire Books,
1969), p. 54.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 306.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 137

Graham and Wurmbrand because he wishes to oppose evangelical Christianitys

ideological functions during the Cold War with a form of theological belief rooted
in worldly institutions. In Petals of Blood, the most important of these worldly
institutions is the secular red church of socialism. In this sense, Petals of Blood
intervenes in Cold War politics by producing an anti-theology implicit in the
section headings echoes of The Second Coming. Writ large, Ngugis Gikuyu
modes of generational history and cyclical governance amount to nothing less than
the epochal world-historical shifts of the Yeatsian gyre. The novels intervention
into Cold War cultural politics is further evidenced by the lawyers allusion to Josh
Whites version of Strange Fruit, whose lyrics again approximate the leitmotif
of petals of blood:

Southern trees
Bear strange fruits
Blood around the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black body swaying
In a southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from poplar trees.92

The reason that the lawyer hums the Josh White version, rather than the Billie
Holiday version, is that White was forced to appear before the House Un-American
Activities Committee as part of its investigation of communist influence upon the
African-American community. During his testimony, White read out the lyrics of
the song, ensuring that its scathing indictment of lynching registered subtly on
the Congressional record.93 It is something like this inscription of black historical
experience into the narratives of the Cold War that Ngugis novel attempts to
Hence, there are a number of literary ancestors (St John the Divine, William
Blake, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Derek Walcott, Richard Wurmbrand, V.
S. Naipaul, George Lamming, John Pepper Clark, Josh White, Billie Holliday,
William Butler Yeats, Okot pBitek) who contend for the status of father-poet
in this novel, so that the neither the title of Petals of Blood nor its narrative
progression will settle down into a single, stable representational field. Although
the novels floral imagery and its reproductive framing of history might at first
appear to provide Petals of Blood with an organic mode of address in relation
to the Kenyan landscape and post-Independence national politics, upon closer
inspection the narratives symbolic authority relies upon a series of outlandish
literary progenitors. Expressed succinctly, neither the identity nor the provenance
nor the referential impetus of Petals of Blood is underwritten by cohesive

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 165.
Nat Hentoff, American Music Is, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press,
2004), p. 5.
138 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

ontological guarantees. In other words, by mooting several father-poets, Petals

of Blood begins to undermine exactly the forms of deducible authority that a
patrilinear narrative of history would seem to require. Embedded within Ngugis
novel are the foundations of its own critique, and the crux of this critique resides
in the impossibility of the novels asymmetrical constructions of gender. Opening
Ngugis Petals of Blood to close scrutiny, one discovers not so much a parasite as
a large-scale infestation; not so much a primal scene as an interminable orgy.

Onomastic Corruptions

The crisis of fatherhood in the novel expresses itself symptomatically through an

anxiety about names. The novels own onomastic (naming) processes are fraught
and rapidly become corrupted. One of the crucial moves in Petals of Blood is to
adopt a critique by naming. So invested is the novel in this critique that it discloses
its own ideological moorings in the process of naming its characters. Just as
Kimathi was a teacher who became a revolutionary,94 we find that the teacher
Muniras name denotes the stump95 missing from the body of the amputee
Abdulla, the Mau Mau insurgent. Additionally, the unrelated figures of Abdullas
adopted son Joseph (the exemplary revolutionary student) and Karegas peasant
mother, Old Mariamu (a Swahili translation of Mary96), collectively comprise a
Christian symbolism. When we consider this choice of names, we are not far from
locating Ngugis self-interested representation of an intellectual lite that grafts
itself on to the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army and re-members Mau Mau and
infuses the peasantry with the divine word they lack. Furthermore, we are close to
detecting in Petals of Blood the collapsing of class distinctions which should be so
central to Ngugis Marxist thesis, despite Karegas concluding polemic about the
impending revolution of workers and peasants.97
But more broadly than this, the novel maps out its national political constellations
in terms of the names of its characters. What we encounter in the characters is a
series of aptronymic condensations. This means that the characters names map
conveniently on to their political characteristics. However, these aptronymic
condensations rapidly become mobile and proliferate they will not stay still. As
a result, there are very few characters in Petals of Blood who have only one name.
Hence, the view of Kenyan history as a generational struggle and its resulting
myth of patrilinear succession finally succumb to the larger nominative crises
at work in the novel. It is perfectly clear that Petals of Blood interrogates the
unexamined adoption of Western standards and ideals into an African context.

Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 133.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 33.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 35.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 3445.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 139

Karega, for example, rejects the adoption of Anglicized values that accompanies
Africans assuming the names of an illegitimate colonial father:

It is not that I dont believe in names. For what could be a more ridiculous
caricature of self than those of our African brothers and sisters proudly calling
themselves James Phillipson, Rispa, Hotensiah, Ron Rodgerson, Richard
Glucose, Charity, Honey Moonsnow, Ezekiel, Shiprah, Winterbottomson all
the collection of names and non-names from the Western world? It is rather
that I believe in the reality of whats being named than the name itself.98

However, there is a significant blindness in the novels own acts of naming. Petals
of Blood begins to bargain into the very problematic of naming that it wishes to
resolve. The novels blindness consists in the fact that its critique by naming is itself
susceptible to a critique of naming. In short, the very processes by which the novel
contests the name are the same as those processes via which its own acts of naming
might be critiqued. Although the novel undertakes an aptronymic project, almost
every character in it has more than one name, ensuring the contestability of its
references. The reality of what is being named begins to slide. For instance, Kimeria
wa Kamia Nja has renamed himself Kimeria Hawkins (hawk that swallows99),
Raymond Chui has become Chui Rimui (chui denotes leopard100), then is
nicknamed Shakespeare and Joe Louis by his fellow pupils.101 David Samuel
becomes Nderi wa Riera (vulture of the air102). Reverend Kamau has assumed
the name Reverend Jerrod Brown, and Muniras father Waweru assumes the name
Ezekieli in line with his Christian faith. Muniras wife Wanjiru (the black one103)
alters her name to Julia. Built into the names of Cambridge Fraudsham and the
Reverend Hallowes Ironmonger are subversive translations of their fraudulent and
inflexible dispositions, and Mzigos name translates as a burden.104 Additionally,
there is a counterbalancing of Hallowes Ironmongers religious authority in the
mysterious figure of Mwathi wa Mugo, a traditional healer who manufactures iron
implements and who requires secrecy in order to be protected from the power
of evil and envious eyes.105 Mwathis real identity is that of Muturi, a peasant
elder, whose name denotes smith.106 It is obvious enough that many of the names
in the novel work to parody or critique the name(s) of the colonial father. What

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 125.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 209.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 198.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 28, 167.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 224.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 94.
Lisa Curtis, The Divergence of Art and Ideology in the Later Novels of Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Ufahamu: Journal of the African Activist Association, 13:2 (1984), p. 205.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 17.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 222.
140 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

is perhaps less obvious, but more important for a gender-political reading, is that
this critique by naming tries and fails to foreclose the very possibility of hybridity
which the form of an intertextual Petals of Blood admits.
There are many examples of how this proliferation of signs works. The first
example I would offer is Abdulla, the former Mau Mau fighter. In a discussion
with Wanja and Karega about names, Abdulla reveals that his own name has its
origins in a category mistake. Wanja speaks first:

Karega [Wanja] said aloud. What a funny name!

Ritwa ni mbukio [Ritwa resembles the person hes named after], Karega quoted
the proverb. Somebody a long time ago asked the question: Whats in a name?
And he answered that a rose would still be a rose even by another name.
Names are actually funny. My real name is not Abdulla. It is Murira [one who
asks]. But I baptized myself Abdulla. Now everybody calls me Abdulla.
You mean, you thought Abdulla was a Christian name? Wanja asked.
Yes. Yes.107

Although Abdullas name passes as a mistake, it arguably also alludes to the name
of the dissident Kenyan Swahili poet Abdilatif Abdalla, who was sentenced to
three years imprisonment in 1969 for publishing a pamphlet entitled Kenya,
Where Are We Heading?108 The passage I have quoted might even be read as
an interested silencing of the struggles of Indian or Muslim Kenyans against
common structures of neocolonial subjection afflicting their African compatriots.
Ole Masai, Abdullas comrade in Mau Mau, has similarly plural origins. Popularly
known by the Gikuyu nickname Muhindi,109 he is the son of Njogus daughter
and Ramjeeh Ramlagoon Dharamshah, who occupied the shop prior to Abdullas
arrival. Ramlagoon is, of course, an allusion to Ramlogan, the troublesome
shop owner in V. S. Naipauls The Mystic Masseur. We are told in Petals of Blood
that Ole Masai hates himself, his mother, his father, his divided self.110 His name
denotes the son of a Masai,111 and his character is possibly based in part on
Joseph Murumbi (who is half-Maasai, half-Goan), a KAU activist educated in
India [and the] first vice-president of Kenya.112 Where, then, should we locate Ole
Masais patronym? Is it Dharamshah, Murumbi, Ramlogan or given by a Maasai
man, a Goan man, or his comrades among the Mau Mau insurgents? Equally,
why should Ole Masai hate his divided self when Abdullas name invokes the
patronym of Abdilatif Abdalla and when Ole Masai himself descends partly from
a novel by V. S. Naipaul? The answer, I think, is ideological. It is to be found in

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 61.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 94.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 137.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 137.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 228.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 152.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 141

Ngugis interested representation of a Gikuyu-centric, masculine historiographic

narrative that attempts to foreclose the possibilities of marketable intercourse
outside of exogamic strictures (prostitution) and the hybrid subjects who might
issue from illegitimate liaisons. Ole Masais anger is based, in part, on the fact
that Dharamshah has not financially supported his former mistress, Oles mother.
Beyond the allusive reference to Abdilatif Abdalla, Abdullas characterization
in Petals of Blood is partly inspired by the shop owners, Behari and Ramlogan,
in Naipauls The Mystic Masseur.113 As we have seen, Ramjeeh Ramlagoon
Dharamshahs name is also derived from this source, indicating a common literary
parentage for a hero and a villain of Ilmorogs history. Like Petals of Blood, The
Mystic Masseur also contains a female shop assistant with a penchant for placing
notices in the shop window (Leela, who corresponds to Wanja). Both novels contain
a spiritually minded teacher (Ganesh, who corresponds to Munira). Ganeshs
visceral aunt in The Mystic Masseur, the Great Belcher, corresponds to Wanjas
grandmother Nyakinyua (who shits outside the school when Munira first arrives in
Ilmorog). So Abdullas origins are already arguably in four places: his real name
is Murira, his adopted name mistakenly alludes to Christianity and acknowledges
a dissident Kenyan poet, and his characterization is indebted to a Caribbean novel
by an Indo-Trinidadian writer. By any measure, the Abdullas origins are multiple
and mobile. Given the fact that Abdulla has lost a leg, we might mischievously
add that his real name Murira is simply a truncated version of Munira,
whose name, in turn, translates as stump114 an allusion to the epithet attached
to the educated character, Ocol, in Okot pBiteks Song of Lawino.115 In Munira
we see the ironic figure of justice who sets fire to the neocolonial villains for
misplaced reasons and who restores to Abdulla his missing limb, so that what has
been ideologically removed is also symbolically present.
A similar instability is at work within Wanja, the prostitute. Petals of Blood
reflects an anxiety about sexually licentious women namely, that they reverse or
destabilize gender roles. There is a curious moment in the novel, in which Wanja
and Karega leave the rest of the encamped Ilmorog villagers and encounter a hill.
Wanja speaks:

That! It is called the hill of uncircumcised boys. It is said that if a boy runs right
round it, he will turn into a girl and a girl will turn into a boy. Do you believe
that too?
No, I dont. We should have heard of cases of some who had tried and were
changed into their opposites.

V. S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1977).
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 159.
See Steven R. Carter, Decolonization and Detective Fiction, p. 109. See also
Okot pBitek Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, intro. G. A. Heron and illus. Frank Horley
(Heinemann: Oxford, 1990 [1969]).
142 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

I wish it were true! she said rather fiercely, almost bitterly.116

In a certain sense, Wanjas wish, or Ngugis wish for her, has already been
accomplished. Wanjas name, given to her by her playmates at school and by the
Ilmorog townsfolk,117 is Wanja Kahii (kahii denotes an uncircumcised boy118),
because she was considered a tomboy in her youth. The anxiety in the naming
here, like Wanjas wish to change her gender in front of a feature in the landscape
whose name she shares, forms part of a broader anxiety in Ngugis later fiction.
As Florence Stratton puts it, from Ngugis perspective, a strong determined
woman is to all intents and purposes a man. The identification of his heroine with
masculine values is Ngugis response to the question of how to create a female
national subject ... [Rather] than rewriting nationalism, he rewrites woman.119 In
fact, we see a comparable hermaphroditic fantasy in the sculpture of a freedom
fighter that the Ilmorog villagers discuss at the lawyers house:

Abdulla stood a few seconds in front of Kimathis picture and then he abruptly
hobbled across the room and out into the garden. The others surrounded the
sculpture and commented on the fighters hair, the heavy lips and tongue in
open laughter, and the sword around the waist. But why did he possess breasts,
somebody asked: it was as if it was a man and a woman in one: how could
that be?
They started arguing about it until Nyakinyua almost silenced them with her
simple logic.
A man cannot have a child without a woman. A woman cannot have a child
without a man. And was it not a man and a woman who fought to redeem this

A few observations are pertinent here. Firstly, as we shall see presently, the
sculpture and the picture of Kimathi are both included in Wanjas gesture towards
the father of her child. At some level, Wanjas final nomination of a father for her
child invokes the sexual union of a hermaphrodite and a transsexual: a resolution
in which all gender binaries begin to spiral uncontrollably. Secondly, Nyakinyuas
inference is consistent with the uterine logic all of Ngugis novels, in which the
child as a sexual product is associated with the social product of resistance: the
utopia. Thirdly, I read into the fantasies of hermaphroditic men and transsexual
women fantasies which are themselves not symmetrical a metaphor for the

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 122.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 25, 264.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 206.
Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender,
p. 163.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 161.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 143

displaced womb envy at work within the patronym. The child, produced in the
womb, and the mother as its producer are claimed by the fathers name.
This act of rewriting Wanja as a man can never be completely successful in a
book in which names proliferate at a rate faster than its uterine logic is able to keep
pace with. I find in the younger Wanja, impregnated by Kimeria Hawkins (then
named Kimeria wa Kamia Nja121), an outlaw woman, rather than the narratives
sentimental construction of a fallen waif who discards her child in a latrine and
then languishes in unfulfilled motherhood.122 Kimerias patronym which might
ordinarily have named the child and claimed Wanja the mother is wa Kamia
Nja (denoting son of the one who shits outside123). Wanja throws the baby out
with the bathwater and returns it to shit (Kamia). By discarding her child in the
latrine, Wanja restores her own name; a name that is not a proper name, but an
unnameable impropriety. Wanja (denoting the girl [or] someone who used to sit
on the outside of her living house, the outsider124) restores wa Kamia Nja to
WA (kamia) NJA. Wanja thus remains Wa Nja (outside the living house), an
unaccommodated subject who is unreclaimable for patriarchy. What living house
might Wanja be outside? In Chapter 4, we saw that the womans hut in Gikuyu
culture is called Nyumba ya Mumbi, the House of Mumbi. The House of Mumbi
also invokes the family and is a political metaphor for the nation. As a prostitute,
Wanja is outside the House of Mumbi. Because her sexuality is deviant, she is by
definition excluded from the equation between motherhood and the nation, allowing
her limited space for a disruptive agency. When Wanja is finally redeemed from
her fallen status by becoming pregnant at the end of the novel, I think we need to
be extremely suspicious of this cosy resolution. Quite clearly, if Wanja is about to
have a child, then she is being brought back into the House of Mumbi, into the fold
of childbearing and the nation. And if Wanja is brought into the House of Mumbi,
quite clearly she can no longer be outside of the house (wa Nja), she can no
longer be Wanja, and she will at some level be obliterated. A similar obliteration
is at work in Karegas thoughts, which conclude the novel. While being visited by
a woman named Akinyi, he reflects as follows:

Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and
seizing power to overturn the system of all its preying bloodthirsty gods and

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 317.
The original and sentimental working title of the novel was Ballad for a Barmaid.
James Currey, Publishing Ngugi, Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 68 (May 2006), p. 40.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 101. As with the name of Sir Swallow
Bloodall in Petals of Blood, Ngugi is equating Kimerias name with excrement and with
visceral qualities. This tendency is even more pronounced in the names given to many
of the neocolonial ogres in his subsequent novel, Devil on the Cross. These aptronyms
index capitalisms exploitative and acquisitive impulses in terms of parasitism and visceral
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 34.
144 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

gnomic angels, bringing to an end the reign of a few and the era of drinking
blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then, would the kingdom of
man and woman really begin, they joying and loving in creative labour ... For
a minute he was so carried on the waves of this vision and of the possibilities
it opened up for all the Kenyan working and peasant masses that he forgot the
woman beside him.
Youll come back, she said again in a quiet affirmation of faith in eventual
He looked hard at her, then past her to Mukami of Manguo Marshes and again
back to Nyakinyua, his mother and even beyond Akinyi to the future! And he
smiled through his sorrow.
Tomorrow ... tomorrow ... he murmured to himself.
Tomorrow ... and he knew he was no longer alone.125

Akinyis name means one who is to come or the people who are to arrive126
and it is clear that Karega not only forgets her while she is beside him, but that he
also looks beyond Akinyi in the future in which she is to come. Akinyi is thus
perpetually overlooked, and is only acknowledged by Karega when she confirms
his tomorrow; the tomorrow in which she herself will be negated if Karega
looks beyond Akinyi to the future! And yet Ngugis novel does give Akinyi the
last word. Even if her last word is Tomorrow a temporal deferral it is also
a repetition with a crucial difference and as such is freighted with symbolism. In
Wanjas example, her symbolic obliteration at the end of the novel is staved off
by a final word that will not settle down the proliferating names of the father
of her child.

The Paternal Fiction: Names that Might (Never) Have Been

Kimerias activities do not merely amount to sexual villainy. He betrays Karegas

brother Ndinguri to the security forces because Ndinguri is sexually involved with
Kimerias sister. Ndinguri, in turn, understands colonial oppression to include not
only the theft of the land, but also the ruination of our women.127 But the ruination
of women is construed somewhat uncritically in Petals of Blood. Ndinguri,
whose name denotes one who possesses courage or strength,128 is ubiquitously
privileged in the novel. His courage presumably extends to his ability to rape
women: he and Abdulla share a woman sexually, despite her unwillingness, and
later wonder if she, now a happily married mother of two, even remembered that

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, pp. 3445.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 155.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 222.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 224.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 145

night.129 The mode of revolutionary presencing here has the effect of aggregating
the revolutionary male subject, of reducing him to a phallic monad, and hence
limiting the occasion for story. The implication in Abdullas reminiscences of this
moment of sexual comradeship is that it is perfectly acceptable for rape to be the
testing ground for virile heroes, because these women are so contented with their
lot once they have become married mothers that they have also become amnesiacs.
The amnesiac is a subject without a history, and amnesiac motherhood, of course,
is the alternative offered to Wanja at the conclusion of the narrative when she
remembers the long-deceased Kimathi as the father of her child.
Given the fact that Petals of Blood presents us with a masculine construction
of history from which womens contributions to political struggle are bracketed
and in which their subjecthood is ultimately violated or obliterated, I think it is
necessary to read the ending of the novel against the grain in order to disclose
a space of female historical and sexual agency. Just as we saw with Mumbi in A
Grain of Wheat, we might find historical antecedents for a sex worker like Wanja
in the revolutionary form of prostitution conducted by Mau Mau women. These
women, footnoted by the historical record, slept with British soldiers and loyalists,
often for a single bullet, then carried the ammunition to Mau Mau in the forests.
As we have previously noticed, the Mau Mau prostitute sleeps with the enemy
for the bullet that he would shoot her with if he caught her carrying ammunition,
and she delivers the bullet to the Mau Mau fighter who might execute her with it
if he knew that she was sleeping with the enemy. The Mau Mau prostitute shuttles
between two oppressive structures, between two patriarchies, without acceding
to either one, in a way that contaminates two contradictory systems of law.
This revolutionary agency resists conceptualization or framing in colonialist or
nationalist histories of Mau Mau.
It is precisely this kind of revolutionary female sexual agency that Petals
of Blood is concerned to foreclose, because revolutionary prostitution does not
enable resistance to be represented as masculine virility and sexual potency. As
in Ngugis subsequent novels, Devil on the Cross and Matigari, the prostitution
performed by Kenyan women is of ideological necessity ascribed to a colonial
or loyalist influence. For example, Kimeria Hawkins, who betrays Ndinguri
(Karegas brother and Abdullas comrade) and impregnates the younger Wanja, is
recalled in this way by Abdulla: [We] were going to meet a man, our man, who had
some shadowy connections with the colonial police and used to get bullets from
them and in exchange, according to him, he would bring them juicy women.130
It is interesting that Ngugi should elide the agency-in-insurgency of the Limuru
prostitutes to whom he is referring by regulating their subversive exchanges
through a male character, and especially a character who is ubiquitously depicted
as counter-revolutionary. Here, history is a transaction conducted between men,
and female agency-in-insurgency is strategically omitted. Gikuyu womens

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 222.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 221.
146 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

historical contributions to Mau Mau are mediated by men, thus negating female
political-historical agency and reducing womens involvement in the rebellion to
the marketability of their sex functions.131 How might we read Wanja in terms of
the Mau Mau prostitutes agency? And given that Wanja is a vehicle for national
self-imaging in Ngugis novel, how might our reading avoid repeating a similarly
self-interested manoeuvre? In other words, how might we find in the novel a
form of female agency that finally disturbs literary criticisms own self-imaging
My sense is that the crisis of nomination that we have identified in Petals of
Blood allows us to contest the paternity of Wanjas unborn child. Here, the novels
own nominative mechanisms establish a precedent that makes the nomination of
a father to Wanjas child unfinalizable. Part of Wanjas moral redemption resides
in the fact that she nominates no less than three former Mau Mau fighters as the
actual and symbolic fathers of her child. When her mother asks her who the father
of the child is, Wanja draws him on a board:

I think ... I am ... I think I am with child. No I am sure of it, mother.

Her mother was silent for a few seconds.
Whose ... whose child?
Wanja got a piece of charcoal and a piece of cardboard. For one hour or so she
remained completely absorbed in her sketching. And suddenly she felt lifted out
of her own self, she felt waves of emotion she had never before experienced. The
figure began to take shape on the board. It was a combination of the sculpture
she once saw at the lawyers place [this statue depicts a rank and file Mau Mau
fighter] in Nairobi and images of Kimathi [one of the leaders of Mau Mau] in
his moments of triumph and laughter and sorrow and terror but without one
leg [Abdulla].132

Who, then, is the father of Wanjas child? Abdulla is implied and Kimathi and a rank
and file Mau Mau fighter are represented. Rather than opting for a univocal reading
of Wanjas act of nomination a nomination which disintegrates even as it begins
to form I would suggest that any patronym that names the child must necessarily
be a fiction. Wanjas profession as a sex worker asserts the very impossibility
of deducing a patrilineage for her child. This impossible deduction becomes, in
turn, the fantasized extreme of Ngugis narrative. To take such extreme lengths to
reconcile national struggle and human reproduction must finally assert disjuncture,
and it is within this disjuncture that we may begin to read. The father might be
Kimeria, Chui, Mzigo, Munira, one of the townsmen or workers, or Abdulla.
Wanjas gesture and it is just that, because she cannot name the patriarchal law

For an excellent historical account of prostitution during the Mau Mau period, see
Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 20420.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 338, ellipses in the original.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 147

from the place of castration to which it readily admits (her) might at first be seen
as self-affirming, but it is too easily recoupable for the narrative of the potency
that constructs Ngugis representation of Gikuyu masculine resistance. In other
words, the paternal fiction that operates here is an interested fiction. Kimathi could
not be the real father he is already dead before the novels chronology begins
despite the monumental virility accorded to Ngugis heroes. Quite clearly, Wanja
is being instrumentalized at this point in the novel. Her reproductive functions are
being pressed into the service of a narrative that equates political resistance and
revolutionary heroism with masculine virility.
My critique of Petals of Blood is that even in Wanjas nomination of a father
for her child, paternity remains uncertain. How could Wanja possibly know who
the father of the child is, given that shes a prostitute? How can there be only one
father when she names at least three?133 At this crucial juncture, we might read
the novel against the grain, using Hlne Cixous analysis of paternity as a legal
fiction. Cixous offers the following rejoinder to Freuds claims that the turn from
maternity to paternity is a cultural advance:

What is a father? Fatherhood is a legal fiction, said Joyce. Paternity, which is

a fiction, is fiction passing itself off as truth. Paternity is the lack of being which
is called God. Mens cleverness was in passing themselves off as fathers and
repatriating womens fruits as their own. A naming trick. Magic of absence.
God is mens secret.134

The patronym the paternal fiction reconstructs the patriarchal edifice through
a sign that constitutes the proper name as law. In this fictional manoeuvre, a
masculine ruse posits fixity over the undecidable and asserts the imperatives of
phallic privilege. According to Spivak, the result of this ruse is that male and
female bodies are ultimately placed in an unequal relationship to the law:

The difference in the womans body [is] that it exists too much, as the place of
evidence, of the law as writing I am speaking in the narrow sense, of the law
as code of legitimacy and inheritance.
One version of this simple law is written on the womans body as an historical
instrument of reproduction. A woman has no need to prove maternity. The
institution of phallocentric law is congruent with the need to prove paternity
and authority, to secure property by transforming the woman into a mediating
instrument of the production and passage of property.135

Bonnie Roos has also noticed this: When asked who the father of her child is,
Wanja declines a name Bonnie Roos, Re-Historicizing the Conflicted Figure of Woman
in Ngugis Petals of Blood, Research in African Literatures, 33:2 (2002), p. 159.
Hlne Cixous and Catherine Clment, The Newly Born Woman, p. 101.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Displacement and the Discourse of Woman, p. 184.
148 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

One of the important implications of Cixous and Spivaks critiques of the

patronym is that they enable us to interrogate both the posited father (Kimathi) and
the deducible father (Abdulla) of Wanjas unborn child at the conclusion of Petals
of Blood. Women know they are mothers because they have empirical evidence
to support their claim. Men can only claim paternity on the basis of speculation.
If paternity is a legal fiction, then Abdullas paternity of Wanjas child is not a
logically necessary fiction, given that Abdulla himself is not a stable, uniform or
incontestable symbolic entity, given that Wanja nominates more than one father
for her child and given that her vocation as a prostitute means that other possible
contenders for the paternity of the child abound. Since the father Wanja nominates
has only one leg, it is not even too extravagant or outlandish to speculate that she
may be alluding to Munira whose name translates as stump. The contaminations
of the law and the crime mentioned at the beginning of this chapter would allow us
to make that argument too.
In fact, the paternity of Wanjas child could hypothetically be contested at any
number of levels. I would like suggest an alternative possible father for the child.
I make this ideological intervention in order to unharness Wanjas pregnancy from
a patriarchal nationalist narrative. The father I propose would be an unpopular,
but perfectly plausible, choice. He is one of the African capitalist lite, Raymond
Chui (whose name translates as leopard136). Both Wanja, the prostitute, and Chui,
the footballer, play the field at certain narrative junctures. Since any attempt to
deduce paternity must be fictional, my reading is not interested in recuperating a
paternal fiction. Rather, it investigates the gender-political implications of mooting
a (possible) theoretical fiction. Here, we are required to embrace contamination as
an act of critique but then Petals of Blood does exactly this in its eclectic array
of literary precursors and in its construction of Godfrey Munira and Inspector
Godfrey, which contaminates the positions of the criminal and the officer of the
law. In my reading against the grain of Petals of Blood, I would like to interweave
this potential father, Chui the leopard with a Gikuyu folksong performed by
brides-to-be, in which they refuse the husband who has been arranged for them:

We have many names for leopards, some owing their origin to superstition and
others to the leopards way of behaviour which has earned him respect as well
as hatred and notoriety. Among our people it is considered bad manners to look
a mother-in-law straight in the eye, especially in the case of newly married or
engaged couples. From this relationship the leopard got the title of mother-in-
law, because of the way he looks at you In this very old shanty, sung by the
girls as an excuse for not saying yes to a proposal, you will note that they
make the leopard [ngari] their hero.

Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 198. It would not matter here whether the
patronym is the first name or the surname, since Chui is variously called Raymond Chui
and Chui Rimui.
Paternity, Illegitimacy and Intertextuality 149

I waigoko, I waigoko; Oh, Oh, old man

Maitu araraga akinuma, Mum nags me the whole night
Akinuma, akinuma Persuading me to accept a lover.
Akiningiriria wainoga. A tired old wart with grey hair on his
I wainoga, I wainoga chest.
Mundu uri nderu githuri, Old tired wart, old tired wart.
I githuri, I githuri, She does not think I am able to find
Na ndangireka ndayethere A young and healthy man
Ndiyethere, ndiyethere, Young healthy man, young healthy man
Kimongonye kia mwanake, Who will make me turn my eyes down
Kia mwanake, kia mwanake, Turn my eyes down, turn my eyes down
Kirindoraga, ngainama, Like a leopard
I ngainama, I ngainama Like a leopard, like a leopard
Ngainamia maitho ta ngari Or sheep grazing in the field.
I tangari, I tangari kana ngodu Old chum *
I kiria nyeki waigoko.

* Source: Muga Gicaru, Land of Sunshine: Scenes of Life in Kenya before Mau Mau
(London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1958), pp. 278.

By performatively reading this song into Petals of Blood, I am making an interested

ideological intervention. I am trying to open up in the text the traditional Gikuyu
social institutions that articulate female desire and dissent. What are the logical
steps here? The novel equates heroism with virility. According to that logic, when
we propose Chui (the leopard) as the father of Wanjas child, we construct him as
a virile hero. By making the leopard Wanjas hero, we imagine a textual space
in which she might invoke the song that spurns his advances. Equally, Wanjas
potential choice of the leopard, ngari (or ngare),137 as hero is also an appeal to the
mother-in-law. However, this appeal does not denote submission or servility, since
the song subverts the sociosexual exchange, instituted by marriage, that would
produce the very subject position of mother-in-law in the first place. In other
words, by reading along these lines, we would be placing Wanja in a structure
that undoes itself in much the same way as the Mau Mau prostitute undoes the
structures that situate her. And in relying upon the slippage between the Swahili
chui and the Gikuyu ngari, we would ensure that the critical violence that
we have imposed upon the narrative structure of Petals of Blood cannot remain
self-proximate or self-identical. In other words, the semiotic differential between
chui and ngari operates as a disruptive force within my own reading position.
My reading is therefore a purposeful ideological intervention that tries to imagine
a space of female desire and political dissent, while leaving the possibility of
cultural resistance intact. In other words, we would open a space of articulation for
Wanja and, with it, a form of cultural agency that refuses its own framing. In this,
we aim to posit gender alternatives while suspending our own explanatory force.

J. K. Njoroge, Tit for Tat and Other Stories (Nairobi: Phoenix, 1993), p. 50.
150 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

In conclusion, Petals of Blood critiques the ways in which the remnants of

colonial power continue to name post-Independence Kenya. But the novels
reliance upon paternalistic constructions of history is inconsistent with its
disruption of nominative processes. In other words, Petals of Blood is susceptible
to the very critique of naming and the very contestation of paternity that the novel
itself institutes. Although that may contain damaging implications for a patrilinear
construction of historical struggle, I think it also opens up a space in which a
radical form of female agency can emerge.
One might wonder why there should be a crisis of legitimacy in A Grain of
Wheat (in which Karanja the traitor fathers Mumbis child instead of Gikonyo,
her heroic husband) and then a crisis of nomination in Petals of Blood (in which
the father of the child himself becomes difficult to name). The answer, I think,
is that the crisis of paternal legitimacy and then the more acute crisis of naming
reflect Ngugis increasing anxieties about the use of the English language and its
cultural inheritances. If names in Petals of Blood will not stay still and readily tip
over into their ideological opposites, then this may well be an unconscious way
of acknowledging the deeply compromising act of writing against colonialism in
English: one of colonialisms primary legacies. As such, Petals of Blood is only
really explicable by thinking about where Ngugi goes next: his revolutionary
decision to write in Gikuyu. In my view, the Gikuyu novels Devil on the Cross,
Matigari and Wizard of the Crow attempt to answer the questions of praxis first
formulated in unconscious ways in the narrative of Petals of Blood.
Chapter 6
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy

Ngugi is perhaps most famous for his decision to write his later novels Devil
on the Cross, Matigari and Wizard of the Crow in Gikuyu. This linguistic turn
in his writing career was, of course, the result of ideas about the place of African
languages in African literatures that Ngugi had worked out very carefully and
had documented fastidiously in his essay collections. But it was also, I think, the
result of new modes of cultural engagement that Ngugi and his fellow playwrights
first trialled in theatre. We see in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976) and I Will
Marry When I Want (1982) something like the shift from the acts of historical
retrieval in Petals of Blood (1977) to the acts of popular cultural retrieval in Devil
on the Cross (1981). In this sense, the two plays act as barometers of feeling and
orientation during the key period in Ngugis transition from Anglophone writer to
cultural activist championing African indigenous expression.
The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is broadly oriented towards a peoples history of
revolution. Since the eponymous character, Kimathi, is already incarcerated when
the play commences, much of the action is devolved to the community outside the
prison walls. In fact, Kimathi himself is incidental to the play in a very special sense.
As Ngugis introduction tells us, The play is not a reproduction of the farcical
trial at Nyeri. It is rather an imaginative recreation and interpretation of the
collective will of the Kenyan peasants and workers in their historical and ongoing
efforts to resist and overcome oppression and exploitation. Hence, the challenge
was to truly depict the masses (symbolized by Kimathi) in the only historically
correct perspective: positively, heroically and as the true makers of history. In
facing this challenge, Kenyan literature indeed all African Literature, and its
writers is [sic] on trial. There is a very clear historical and collectivist orientation
here. Kimathi is a representative of a broader collective struggle, but he is also
quite crucially a representative of a responsive literary or cultural orientation.
Shaw Henderson, Kimathis captor in the play, calls him a poet and a dreamer.
Ngugi himself has written that he co-authored The Trial of Dedan Kimaathi to

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (London:
Heinemann, 1976), unpaginated preface.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
unpaginated preface.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
unpaginated preface.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, p. 33.
152 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

rescue him from political and literary burial. This is a point underlined by the
people who proudly remember the historical Kimathi as a committed organiser
of a theatre group he named Gichamu when Ngugi and Micere Githae Mugo visit
Karunaini, the Mau Mau leaders hometown.
There is a fascinating coincidence here between the activities of theatre or
performance and those of revolution Kimathis organizational capacities in both
spheres are legendary. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is all too keen to highlight this
coincidence in the masquerades and disguises donned by its key characters. The
unnamed woman who is attempting to free Kimathi impersonates Watunda, the fruit
seller and Mau Mau contact to whom she was supposed to deliver a gun hidden in
a loaf of bread. When she is stopped by a white soldier, Johnnie, who threatens to
eat the bread, she first adopts a surprised air of pretended indifference, then falls
on her knees in a gesture described in the stage directions as overreacting, so that
the breads contents will not be discovered. When two other soldiers later happen
upon the oranges that Johnnie has spilled from the womans basket, they argue over
whether or not this is a sign that Mau Mau has been in the vicinity and, ironically
enough, it has. These episodes hint towards the theatricality of revolution, because
Mau Mau had to perform within a framework of normalcy in order not to give away
its identity to the states surveillance apparatus and because the civilian population
was so brutalized by the Emergency that even domesticity became a performance
in the villagized settlements. In fact, one of the key features of Mau Mau in public
discourse was that the everyday had begun to assume an uncanny agency, as in
the colonial myth of the trusted house-servant killing his master under Mau Maus
perverse influence. In The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Kimathi himself is reputed
to have warned the governor that he would be attending the governors dinner,
and then to have attended the dinner disguised as a European inspector of police.
Furthermore, in an exchange with his captor, prosecutor, judge and childhood
bully, Shaw Henderson, Kimathi argues that it is only when the hunted has truly
learnt to hunt his hunter [that] the hunting game will be no more.10 In short, the
revolutionary performances that we witness in the play are designed to abolish the
differentiated roles of the oppressor and the oppressed.
Such performances, of course, are never politically neutral. But more importantly,
they are never gender neutral. When the woman assumes Watundas guise as a (male)
fruit seller, we see a fantasy of gender reassignment that accords with the patterning

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 138.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
unpaginated preface.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
pp. 78, 14.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
pp. 9, 11.

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, p. 61.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, p. 34.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 153

of revolutionary femininity in Ngugis later novels.11 The boy and girl whom the
woman befriends ultimately deliver the loaf of bread to her disguised as Maasai, all
the while assuming that she is a man.12 When the mutual ruse is revealed, a second
level of symbolic performance ensues, in which the woman takes the children
aside and talks to them in a way that represents all the working mothers talking to
their children.13 In effect, a stabilizing domestic scenario is finally superimposed
upon the vicissitudes of revolutionary performance. The closure effected upon the
accomplishment of Mau Maus local tactical aims (for instance, the delivery of a
gun) is the reinstitution of a global family structure that each of the key revolutionary
agents in the play appears initially to lack. Kimathi, who like all of the other adult
male revolutionaries in the play is named, fulfils the nominative role of the father
in this structure. Quite crucially, the woman is never named, even though there are
mild hints that she is in likeness and proximity comparable to Kimathis consort,
Wanjiru.14 The historical Wanjiru, upon capture by the security forces, raged against
being called Kimathis woman rather than by her own name.15 In effect, The
Trial of Dedan Kimathi superimposes a family structure upon the nation. Insofar as
women are silenced or rendered anonymous in this process, we see a patterning that
is consistent with all of Ngugis previous works.
Given its polemical orientation, the play is geared towards the devolution
of struggle to the youth of Kenya. Since Kimathis trials and temptations by a
range of pro-colonial figures construct him as a Christ-like martyr, his eventual
resurrection is achieved through the vicarious continuation of the struggle by his
successors. Moreover, since the woman is finally imprisoned and leaves the boy
and girl to conduct an armed uprising in the courtroom, revolution is figured as a
family inheritance of a sort at the conclusion of the play. This outcome amounts to
a continuation of the generational histories outlined in Petals of Blood. By treating
Kimathi as a symbol of the masses, the transgenerational struggle in The Trial of
Dedan Kimathi is consistent with the claims at the end of the play (and the claims
of Kimathis real-life community) that he has not died. Ngugi himself later claims
in an essay written in the early 1980s that, insofar as progressive historians were
articulating the desires of the masses, Mau Mau was coming back during the early
1980s before the Kenyan state clamped down both on dissident intellectuals such
as Maina wa Kinyatti and on popular and patriotic theatre such as Ngugis own

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
pp. 223.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
pp. 589.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, p. 59.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
pp. 10, 63.
See Luise White, Separating the Men from the Boys: Constructions of Gender,
Sexuality, and Terrorism in Central Kenya, 19391959, The International Journal of
African Historical Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1990), p. 14, n. 67.
154 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Kamirithuu Theatre experiments.16 Additionally, Ngugi sees patriotic song, and

especially the Mau Mau songs such as those recorded for posterity by Kinyatti, as
awakening the masses to their desire for change.17 In this sense, the reawakening
of a cultural mood for change through transgenerational struggle is equivalent to
the resurrection of Kimathi in The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.
And yet this cosy family structure is itself shadowed by the ontological
instability of performance. The woman admits that she was a bad woman prior
to her involvement in Mau Mau, and the girl admits that she ran away from home
to avoid sexual molestation and child labour, only to become a prostitute in the
city.18 Both of these female characters act as Mau Mau couriers at key points in the
play, and the coincidence of their sexual histories and their revolutionary activities
almost approaches the revolutionary contributions of the Mau Mau prostitute. The
woman is most certainly sexualized in her interactions with Johnnie, even if she
spurns his advances. What we see in these female figures is a hinge between the
revolutionary women who were involved in Mau Mau and the fallen women or
prostitutes who are so characteristic of Ngugis later work, but the play seemingly
lacks the ability to synthesize these two types into the kinds of revolutionary
female sexual agency that the Mau Mau prostitute embodies.
Unsurprisingly, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi privileges performance, and
especially song, as a means via which the peoples history may be expressed. We
see this especially in the vignettes of black history that open the play and in the
triumphant freedom song with which the play concludes.19 Each of the acts of the
play is called a movement, in a formulation that may refer to political struggle,
historical change or a musical arrangement. The stage directions emphasize that this
organization of the play is introduced to collapse the distinction between formal and
infinite time and to draw attention to the complexity, duality and interrelationships
of people and events.20 The community of the play, its spatial presentation and its
experience of history are all arranged with the fluidity of music. What music as
a popular cultural form offers Ngugi and Mugo is a participatory and expressive
model of community, a common narrative of oral history and a vehicle for political
mobilization to which all might eventually contribute. In fact, Ngugi has argued
that if modern Kenyan national culture (including theatre) is rooted in concrete
experience, it will then be a symphony played by a huge orchestra of all Kenyan
communities in harmony.21 Theatres role in this model of communal harmony is

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial
Kenya (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1983), p. 16.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barrel of a Pen, p. 16.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, pp. 19,
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,
pp. 46, 845.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, p. 2.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 195.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 155

not simply to entertain, or even to articulate. Its role is also to develop and uplift
communities. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi set out to improve living conditions
and life expectations in the impoverished town of Kamirithu, by entertaining and
educating the community, by providing reading material for literacy programmes
and by funding other initiatives (such as health initiatives).22 It is clear that Ngugis
theatre is theorizing its own practice, its historiography, its cultural import and
its relations to community in some fairly complex ways at this point. Music and
theatre, especially where they comprise popular song and dance-steps, are not only
a convenient model for communal cohesion-in-diversity. Instead, both popular
forms represent an important cultural touchstone: popular theatrical and musical
modes were central in the history of anti-colonial resistance. Ngugi himself has
argued for the centrality of popular cultural forms as a site of struggle:

Finally, the institution of British theatre in Kenya in the 1950s was a reactionary
response to the resurgence of a popular dance and theatre following the return
of embittered Kenyan soldiers from the European-generated Second World War.
The colonial regime had cause for alarm. The anti-imperialist Muthuu dances
had spread in central Kenya like a fire across a dry plain. In Nyeri, Kimaathi had
started the Gicamu theatre movement with its base in Karuna-ini. Patriotic dance
and theatre had become a common feature in all the peoples own [Karinga]
schools. The British countered this by starting theatre clubs for British plays and
players 23

In fact, Ngugis own play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, suffered similar forms of
repression when its performance at the Kenyan National Theatre was obstructed
by European management. On the opening night, the audience followed the actors
as they processed down the aisle and out of the theatre during the finale of the play,
participating in a triumphant freedom song. The procession continued to the Norfolk
Hotel, built by Lord Delamere and overlooking the site of the 1922 massacre of
workers protesting the imprisonment of Harry Thuku, where it was turned back
by a contingent of Kenyan policemen. Ngugi and Seth Adagala received a police
summons and faced questioning following this incident.24 It is clear that what
Ngugi might term the plays external relations to the wider symbolic geographies
at work in public space were beginning to unsettle the Kenyan authorities. Popular
songs and dances were the vehicle through which such external relations were
made possible.
If song and dance are popular theatrical modes and if they are also conduits
to a sophisticated cultural understanding of the history of anti-colonial resistance
and to Kenyan symbolic geographies more generally, then we can see why both
forms become so central to Ngugis I Will Marry When I Want. Embedded in this

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 76.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 67.
See Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams, pp. 4251.
156 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

play is an idea of theatre as a participatory mode in which Kenyan communities

can rehearse their own historical articulations of dissent. In this sense, I Will Marry
When I Want presents us with the history of Kenya through a history of song. Songs
and dances such as Kiguundas performance of the harvest dance Mucungwa,25
the more modern Mwomboko, whose performance on stage is interrupted by the
arrival of the Emergency,26 and the Gitiiro opera performing the Ngurario wedding
ceremony of Gicaamba and Njooki all articulate the relationship of the Kenyan
people to the changing conditions of their existence and to the changing modes of
their oppression. What we see here are the changing cultural and political textures
of Kenyan history filtered through song, which is understood to be a model of
communal articulation. However, I Will Marry When I Want is much more than
a theatrical treatise on the history of Kenyan popular song. In its involvement
of the peasantry in the processes of theatrical production, in its performance in
Kamirithuu and in its cultural symbolism, it is a play with very firmly conceived
notions of popular performance and of theatre as a democratic public space.
Notwithstanding the changing theory and practice of Ngugis dramatic art at
this point, the gender coordinates of I Will Marry When I Want are disturbingly
familiar. We see the habitual association of the family with the nation in Gicaambas
assertion that a blessed marriage is when / Two people accept to be patriots /
Defending home and nation.27 This association is at work throughout the play, since
the songs articulating peoples resistance frequently gesture towards courtship and
marriage. Admittedly, the central conceit of I Will Marry When I Want introduces
new complexities into the equation between nation and family. The key figures,
Kiguunda and Wangeci, are ageing peasants who are painfully reminded that the
sacrifices made by their generation in the struggle for freedom have been followed
by the disappointments of independence. All that they really own is their home, and
they are dispossessed of even this by the end of the play. Moreover, Kiguunda and
Wangecis daughter, Gathoni, is a fallen woman. Asserting her right to marry when
she wants, she runs off with and is impregnated by John Muhuuni, the son of Ahab
Kioi wa Kanoru. Johns mother is the significantly named Jezebel, bearing out my
assertion that Ngugis later work figures the neocolony as a prostituted economy.
When John refuses to acknowledge his unborn child, Gathoni is forced into a
life as a barmaid and prostitute.28 Even before she becomes a barmaid, Kiguunda
accuses his daughter of wearing the fineries of a whore.29 For his part, Muhuuni
calls Gathoni a prostitute when she tells him of her pregnancy.30 These accusations
between the seemingly politically opposed representatives of the peasantry and

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want (London:
Heinemann, 1982), pp. 1113.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want, pp. 245.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want, p. 64.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want, p. 104.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want, p. 51.
Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want, p. 98.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 157

the comprador classes Kiguunda and Muhuuni collude to determine Gathonis

destiny as a fallen woman, despite Gicaambas counsel that women have always
borne the brunt of economic and political pressures upon men and that gender
stereotyping has played a considerable part in Gathonis predicament.31

Regression in the Njamba Nene Stories

If The Trial of Dedan Kimathi begins to work with a devolved model, in which
revolution is a family inheritance, then this may explain Ngugis turn towards
writing for children in the early 1980s. Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus and
Njamba Nenes Pistol feature a child hero. In the first of the two books, the
eponymous hero, Njamba Nene, is an outcast at school because he is from a
poor family and because he speaks Gikuyu and other African languages better
than he speaks English. And yet Njamba Nenes fluency in indigenous languages
paradoxically better equips him to know his own African setting. His Mother Wacu
has taught him a lot of songs about birds, rain, seasons, traditions, culture, as well
as others about war and politics.32 In this sense, he supersedes the Eurocentric
knowledge of his teacher, Fartwell Kigorogoru, and his peers. There is an implicit
logic of reversal here, in which the child surpasses his teacher both in what he
knows and in the political values he holds. This logic is primarily regressive the
child is given cultural primacy over the adult. Njamba Nenes cultural knowledge
is gleaned from his Mother Wacu, who is the constant reference point for culture,
history and moral values in the stories. We might go further and say that Mother
Wacu is a vehicle for referentiality in the stories. Njamba Nenes desire repeatedly
returns to her (absence) via the signifying chain. To this extent, the loss or lack
that Mother Wacu represents is a driving force underlying his desire. It is Mother
Wacus teaching of indigenous language and culture that anchors Njamba Nenes
knowledge to his primary lifeworld. We see this especially when the bus in which
the schoolchildren are travelling on an outing suddenly takes flight. While one
child fears that Well disappear into heaven and never come back, Njamba Nene
is able to offer the comforts of emotional balance that correspond to a version of
the scientific law of gravity: Let us not be afraid. My Mother Wacu says that life
is full of ups and downs. One moment you are happy, the other minute you are
very sad.33 If we follow the rhetorical logic here, it is Mother Wacu who anchors
her son to the land amid the onslaught of alienating Eurocentric levity. When the
bus lands in a forest, it becomes clear that only Njamba Nenes local knowledge
will help the lost boys:

Ngugi wa Thiongo and Ngugi wa Mirii, I Will Marry When I Want, pp. 1045.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus, trans. Wangui wa Goro and
illus. Emmanuel Kariuki (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986 [1984]), p. 10.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus, p. 15.
158 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

How can we know where we came from, and where we are? someone asked. I
dont even know what the map of this country looks like, he added.
If we were in England, I would tell you where we are, John Bull said. I know
the map of England like the palm of my hand!
That is all very well, but we are not in England. We are in Africa, and we must
know Africa. We are in Kenya, and it is our country Kenya that we must know.
We cannot know where we are, without first finding out where we came from.34

The leading antagonist here, John Bull, represents cultural dislocation. By contrast,
Njamba Nenes local knowledge springs from his knowledge of indigenous
languages and landscapes. And yet the indigenous landscape here is not organized
according to a language, but is rather textured according to prelinguistic emotions,
affects and moods. In this sense, it corresponds with the wider logic of regression
that the Njamba Nene series and Devil on the Cross exhibit. In exploring this
landscape, Njamba Nene and his friends negotiate the Imaginary that Mother
Wacu represents. Guiding his classmates, Njamba Nene tells them:

We will go up Kagerangoro [Measure for Endurance] mountain, cross the

Depression of Tears and then go down the Valley of Laughter. If we endure all
tribulations and overcome all trials, we shall at the end arrive at the River of
Life. We shall walk along its banks, and we shall eventually reach home and rest.
But there is another river. This is the river of the Valley of Death. If we cross it
or drink of its waters, none of us will ever get home.35

The watershed to which Njamba Nene refers is not merely a feature in the
landscape. It is also the endpoint in a narrative of cultural experience, which moves
from endurance, through depression, tears and laughter to life. More importantly,
it is a watershed in political allegiance. When the children arrive at the two rivers,
they are forced to choose between moving towards white security forces across
one river and Mau Mau fighters across another. Those who move towards the
white counter-insurgency forces are mistaken for terrorists and shot. Njamba Nene
and the others move towards the Mau Mau fighters and are directed homewards.
In sum, we see Ngugis model of indigenous linguistic referentiality linked to
knowledge of the African lifeworld and to a politics of struggle. Tellingly, this
coalescence of concerns is accomplished via Njamba Nenes modes of address to
an absent woman, Mother Wacu.
In the second of the childrens stories, Njamba Nenes Pistol, we see a concern
with masculine rites of passage played out through the figure of the child. Njamba
Nene (whose name means Superman or Champ. Literally: Big Hero36) here

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus, p. 19.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus, p. 25.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus, p. 1.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 159

embodies a secondary connotation implicit in his name (well-armed37). In this

story, Njamba Nene is asked to courier a pistol hidden in a loaf of bread to a
Mau Mau leader, General Ruheni. This act is explicitly cast as initiation for the
nation38 and it parallels circumcision. In other words, Njamba Nenes progress
through the narrative entails a revolutionary rite of passage that parallels a cultural
process of gendering. Since he is a child, we might say that the narrative logic is
again regressive Njamba Nene is a small child whose name means big hero.
He is in this sense something like a premature man. When Njamba Nene is caught
by the counter-insurgency forces, he outwits them by claiming that his Mother
Wacu sent him to buy the bread.39 Here, femininity is again construed as loss or
lack: a domestic alibi that enables covert male political rivalries. This ruse enables
Njamba Nene to hold the counter-insurgency forces up at gunpoint and to free
the other Mau Mau detainees.40 Njamba Nenes initiation ultimately results in
him taking a Mau Mau oath and being given the pistol (a substitute phallus) to
keep.41 He thus proves the truth of one of Mother Wacus proverbs (A hero is not
judged by his large build42) and fulfils the regressive logic of the narrative into
the bargain.

Desire in Devil on the Cross

As we shall see, a similar regressive logic is at work in Devil on the Cross. The
novel was written during 197879, while Ngugi was imprisoned without charge in
Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. Due to the vastly restricted facilities for research
and writing, Devil on the Cross was written on toilet paper and was a collaborative
endeavour insofar as Ngugi benefited from the varied expertise and anecdotes of
his fellow political prisoners.43 In such personally restrictive conditions, writing
the novel became an insurrectionary assertion of intellectual freedom. But it is
more than this. The disappearance without explanation of a high-profile public
figure like Ngugi at the hands of the state is a form of public display aimed at the
psychological torture of the nation. The sequestered prisoner is deprived not of
his public profile, but of his private moments, since he is watched continuously.
Hence, the act of writing though collaboratively researched is actually a very
powerful reassertion of privacy and self-reliance in an environment of heightened
scrutiny and limited resources. In imprisoning the writer, the state covets not the

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 28.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nenes Pistol, trans. Wangui wa Goro and illus.
Emmanuel Kariuki (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986 [1984]), p. 10.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nenes Pistol, p. 21.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nenes Pistol, p. 23.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nenes Pistol, p. 32.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nenes Pistol, p. 33.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, pp. 89.
160 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

writers public status, but literatures capacity for secrecy and mystery.44 It is
precisely for this reason that the manuscript of Devil on the Cross was confiscated
by one of Ngugis prison officers, then returned because the difficult Gikuyu prose
revealed nothing wrong.45
The novels Gikuyu medium of expression was Ngugis response to a challenge
by a warder chiding Ngugi for writing in English.46 More interesting, however, are
the inspirations for its heroine, Wariinga. Ngugi states explicitly that he developed
Wariinga as a tribute to the heroines of Kenyan history, including Mau Maus
female cadres.47 But it is also clear from his prison diary that the idea of Kenya
as a fallen woman was prominent in his thinking at this point. For instance, he
compares the neocolonial comprador class to a pimp who would proudly hold his
mother down to be raped by foreigners and states that this class had grown in the
womb of the colonial regime.48 In this way, Wariingas development from fallen
woman to heroine of Kenyan resistance reflects Ngugis larger metaphorical
aspirations for Kenya. Quite clearly, if Ngugi likens Kenya to a mother who carries
the monstrous comprador child of the British colonial regime and who is then
pimped to this illegitimate cultural father by the comprador bourgeoisie, then his
own act of writing a woman (Wariinga) as Kenya ultimately aims to reconstitute
the mothers body.
At one level, this is the condition of all writing. In The Pleasure of the Text,
Roland Barthes states that the writer is one who plays with the body of his
mother.49 Barthes is adopting a psychoanalytic, and, specifically, a Lacanian, view
of language and narration. In terms of psychoanalytic theory, the establishment of
significance (whether by author or reader) is a production according to the
subjects desire. In an Oedipalized subject, this desire addresses (through the
vicarious medium of the signifier) the original lost object the mother.
I find this observation by Barthes particularly enabling for my analysis of
Devil on the Cross. This is a novel patterned by loss in terms of economic
dispossession, in terms of neocolonial political reversals, and in terms of
psychosexual anxieties. Wariingas mother provides the impulse to narrate in
Devil on the Cross, ostensibly because she has lost, or wishes to recover, a child.
Once we have read the novel, we are able to surmise that this loss has occurred
when Wariinga walks out into an unknown future at the conclusion, for we are told

See Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 20.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 165.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 130.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, pp. 1011. Since one meaning of Wariingas name
is a woman in chains, it is possible that she has an imaginative function as a prison
consort. For this translation, see Simon Gikandi, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 216.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, pp. 13, 53.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p. 37.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 161

in the final sentence that the hardest struggles of her lifes journey lay ahead.50
By telling Wariingas story in retrospect, the Gicaandi players song leads us to
the moment of her disappearance. This is a narrative that begins with its ending
and ends with its beginnings. It operates within a nostalgic logic of reversal whose
corollary in the human subject is infantile regression. As the Gicaandi player tells
us, Wariingas mother has asked him to reconstruct the events leading to the
moment of loss:

And then Wariingas mother came to me when dawn was breaking, and in tears
she beseeched me: Gicaandi player, tell the story of the child I loved so dearly.
Cast light upon all that happened, so that each may pass judgement only when
he knows the whole truth. Gicaandi player, reveal all that is hidden.51

By reconstructing that which is prior to the moment of loss, there is a way in which
Devil on the Cross metaphorically plays with the mothers body. Interestingly,
immediately after Wariinga has killed her prospective father-in-law and
immediately prior to her disappearance, her fianc, Gatuiria, resembles nothing
so much as an infant regressing from Oedipal fantasies to the pre-individuated
stage in which it is a Lacanian hommelette, an uncoordinated bundle of preverbal
drives: Gatuiria did not know what to do: to deal with his fathers body, to comfort
his mother or to follow Wariinga. He stood there in the yard, as if he had lost
the use of his tongue, his arms, his legs.52 If Devil on the Cross metaphorically
plays with the mothers body, then this metaphor is reiterated at the level of form.
The framing of the narrative in the Gicaandi players song stages an address to
the mother (Wariingas mother) through the medium of signification, such that
Wariinga emerges as a narrative subject through the mediation of language. In a
movement marked by rupture or loss, Warringa disappears only to be recalled in
song and story. This rupture or loss marks something approximating the movement
from history to literature.
What interests me is that it should be necessary for Wariingas mother to make
such a request in the first place. Why should she not narrate Wariingas story?
Traditionally, the Gicaandi player fulfils the role of storyteller in Gikuyu culture.
Hence, Ngugis use of this figure signals a creative intervention that works to
indigenize the novel format to adapt it so that it can accommodate African cultural
forms like Gicaandi and their participative modes of social critique. Likewise,
Devil on the Cross was the first novel that Ngugi wrote in Gikuyu, his mother
tongue. Hence, this novel is ultimately an attempt at cultural retrieval. Culturally
speaking, it produces a restorative narrative; a narrative that by definition is
always founded on loss. In Wariingas mothers request, I find an allegory of

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross (Heinemann: London, 1987 [1982]),
p. 254.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 7.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 254.
162 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

feminine subject formation under patriarchy. The Gicaandi player, the prophet
of justice, has access to the Symbolic Order and is representative of the law.
Narration (the production of significance) and desire are solely his prerogatives.
Wariingas mother, who beseeches him (rather than telling him, commanding him
or relating to him) is construed according to a lack of desire, because she opens
up the space of loss in which narrative and signification occur. Thus, there is a
differentiation between active/dominant and passive/receptive modes of desire.
Wariingas mother is constructed so as to respond only in the latter mode.

Corpulent Capital

Not only is this novel based upon Gikuyu performance genres like Gicaandi, but
its content also includes myths and stories from the oral folkloric tradition. One
of the myths informing the novel is that of the irimu (plural marimu), or ogre.53
As we have seen in A Grain of Wheat, one story about the ogre involves a girl
who takes the wrong path in a forest and fails to keep an appointment with her
lover (a warrior). The irimu captures her and wishes to eat her. She delays his
advances by singing to him that she knows of a nicer place to be eaten. Eventually,
her lover arrives and kills the ogre.54 The continuation of ogre stories as critical
metaphors for socio-economic exploitation is consistent with Ngugis attempt to
reflect the contemporary problematic of the neocolonial in a recognizable cultural
form. In The Language of African Fiction, collected in Decolonising the Mind,
Ngugi writes of this attempt:

Marimu were supposed to possess two mouths, one in front and the other at
the back. The one at the back was covered with long hair. They were cruel,
very greedy, and they lived on the labour of humans. What about the latter day
Marimus? Would the Marimu characters provide me with the image I sought?55

The Marimu figures are appropriate to Ngugis anti-neocolonial project for four
reasons. Firstly, they live on the labour of humans and are therefore analytically
cognate with a critique of neocolonial capital. Secondly, they are cruel and
therefore connote an aspect of neocolonialisms affective texture. Thirdly, they
are greedy, reflecting neocolonialisms uneven concentrations of appetite or
economic demand. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, the Marimu figures
are caricatures of the human, and Ngugi himself has suggested of such political
caricature that it accurately describes the infantile imitative mentality, the crass

Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 213.
Isidore Okpewho, African Oral Literature, pp. 21920.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 81.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 163

world outlook which like borrowed robes sits uneasily on them and the total lack
of any originality in the Kenyan neocolonial ruling class.56
In Devil on the Cross, the three stories that the old man from Bahati relates to
Gatuiria57 contribute to the construction of the neocolonists as ogres. The first story
is of a peasant who carries an ogre on his back, works for the ogre (gathering food,
water and firewood, and cooking) and wastes away while the ogre prospers. The
second story is about a girl:

She was named Nyanjiru Kanyarari for three reasons: she was black; she
was truly beautiful; and she had rejected the hand of all the young men in her
country. But when Nyanjiru saw a young man from a foreign country one day,
she immediately claimed that he was the one for whom she had been waiting.
She followed him. And do you know what? The young foreigner was a man-
eating ogre. He tore off Nyanjirus limbs one by one and ate them.58

This passage exhibits similarities with the story of the ogre as a kidnapper. But
here the ogre story becomes a tale of sexual predation. And it relies fundamentally
on a miscegenist myth that we have already noticed at work in Weep Not, Child, in
which sexual relations with foreigners offend against nature. The central problem
with such a myth is that it turns an analysis of political and economic inequalities
into a way of policing female sexuality and disciplining female desire. In the third
story, a poor man, Ndinguri:

went to a certain cave where the evil spirits dwelt. At the entrance to the cave
he was met by a spirit in the shape of an ogre. He had long hair, the colour of
mole skin, and the hair fell about his shoulders like a girls. He had two mouths,
one on his forehead and the other at the back of his head.59

Ndinguri trades his soul for wealth and is transformed into an ogre who feeds on
human blood. He accrues great riches but is eventually killed when his community
discovers his secret.
Collectively, these three stories frame Ngugis representations of the neocolonial
comprador class. The compradorsmonstrous appearance emphasizes their exorbitant
physiological and acquisitive appetites. Their names are also aptronymically
placed in the service of a rhetoric of monstrosity. The ogres names in Devil on
the Cross usually suggest either a voracious potential or a visceral construction of
consumption. Their names are: Gitutu wa Gataanguru (the hated or incorrigible,
detested, inhuman tapeworm60); Mwireri wa Mukiraai (one who rears himself

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barrel of a Pen, p. 20.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 626.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 62.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 634.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 201.
164 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

[and who] silences other people61); Nditika wa Nguunji (a giant or shapeless person
who folds [or] strangles62); Fathog Marura wa Kimeengemeenge (the first word
refers to a plant used to make sleeping mats or the ceiling of a thatched roof;
the second word refers to something huge, shapeless or ugly63); and Kimeendeeri
wa Kanyuanjii (he who crushes or grinds the juice out of someone64). Even
Kihaahu wa Gatheecas name suggests gluttony. Sicherman translates it as a bully
or neurotic (Kihaahu) and a glutton (Gatheeca, which literally means one who
stabs). One translation might therefore be schizophrenic eater.65 This locates
Kihaahu within narrative constructions of the visceral, despite his thin body. Like
the ogres of myth, the neocolonial acolytes in Devil on the Cross feed on the
labour of workers in the name of foreign economic interests, meet in a cave and
defile the purity of Kenyan women.
In Matigari too, the ogres currently running the country66 translate the
defilement of Kenyan women. To cite just one example of this defilement, at a
prayer meeting the police attack university students and a woman who is eight
months pregnant [has] a miscarriage there and then.67 However, the ogre
myth also serves the purpose of privileging Gikuyu men as the custodians of
Gikuyu women. For example, in Matigari, Matigaris decision to resume the
armed struggle is informed by the gender-ideological rationale that the ogre myth
consolidates: When the worker in metals returned home, and found an ogre
starving his expectant wife, did he send the ogre peace greetings? Did he not first
sharpen his spear?68 Furthermore, the worker imprisoned with Matigari speaks of
the neocolonial villains in these terms: Every worker knows that Robert Williams
and John Boy are like twins born out of the womb of the same ogre.69 Given that
human motherhood is granted a privileged place in all of Ngugis fiction, it is
unthinkable that the neocolonial representatives could be born of a human female.
Production in a human womb is, as we shall see, reserved for the heroes of Kenyan
resistance. Hence, the ogre figure does not simply contribute to a vernacular theory
of neocolonial oppression in Devil on the Cross and Matigari. It also establishes
a gendered theory of oppression and national resistance. The ideological upshot is
a paternal militarism that must police errant female desire in order to shore up its
own founding justifications.

Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 223.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 225.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 213.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 209.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 209.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, trans. Wangui wa Goro (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1990
[1987]), p. 56.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, p. 90.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, p. 131.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, p. 65.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 165

In Devil on the Cross, Ngugi is using myths of the ogre in order to naturalize a
certain model of consumption, although the consumption in that novel is predicated,
quite crucially, on constructions of the visceral, rather than on constructions of the
pecuniary or fiscal. I find the metaphor of visceral greed (including genital and
alimentary lusts), which constructs the African representatives of global-industrial
corporate capital, a useful point of critical departure from which to interrogate
Ngugis representation of the Kenyan neocolony as a prostituted economy. In
effect, the thieves sexual relations are an extension of their exploitative financial
relations with the Kenyan populace. For this reason, Ngugis later novels tend to
focus on female sexual objectification as one form of neocolonial commodification,
rather than on female economic exploitation or on female revolutionary agency.
Once again, Kenyan women bear the burden of political exemplification and are
consigned to an object status that leaves a gender-conscious author very little
narrative or conceptual space in which to manoeuvre. Most of the thieves are
depicted as corpulent and greedy, and all of the thieves have mistresses. These
women are either prostitutes or paid-up lovers lured by the material benefits that
accompany their status as fallen women. Gitutu wa Gataangurus claim that
modern love is inconsistent with a tight fist70 collapses the distinction between
his mistresses and the figure of the prostitute, because he implies that love in the
neocolony always involves a financial transaction.
Of course, the characters who are imbued with the monstrous aspect of the
ogre are not privileged, although their hideousness implies an investment of
significance which is the converse of that which is invested in the beautiful.
Nevertheless, the representations of these characters wives and mistresses rely
upon the same patriarchal constructions as those which inform the representation
of Ngugis heroine, Wariinga, who is transferred by her uncle to the Rich Old Man
in order to consolidate a business deal. Like the sugar-girls who are symbolically
devoured by their ogre lovers, Wariinga is soft food for a toothless old man.71
Hence, neocolonialisms debasement of Kenyan women is rendered primarily in
sexual terms, rather than in economic or political terms. And this is a polemical
rather than an analytical manoeuvre on Ngugis part. It seeks to sway sympathies
rather than to address causes.

Tropes of the Fallen Woman

In Devil on the Cross, Ngugi revisits Gikuyu indigenous forms as part of his
political, cultural and aesthetic commitments. However, he does not substantially
revise Gikuyu patriarchal productions of the sign woman or constructions of
femininity more generally. It is not surprising, then, that Wariinga associates her
own reproductive history with the speeches of the thieves. When Wariinga leaves

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 100.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 142.
166 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

the cave, we are told: The speeches, the thieves attire, their hymns of self-praise, all
these things reminded her of the problems she had faced since she became pregnant
by the Rich Old Man from Ngorika and gave birth to a baby girl.72 Obviously,
Wariingas own sexual history that of a young girl seduced, impregnated and
then dumped by a wealthy older man is being collapsed quite straightforwardly
on to a national historical narrative. By offering Wariingas past tribulations as a
microcosm of the larger national picture, Devil on the Cross offers us a reductive
reading of the gender issues confronting Kenyan women. Furthermore, Wariinga
voices the well-worn metaphor equating motherhood with the nation in her musings
on the fiscal forces at work in neocolonial Kenya: Wariinga spoke to herself out
loud: Local and International thieves gathered in the same lair, debating ways and
means of depriving the whole nation of its rights Thats like a child planning to
rob its mother and inviting others to join in the crime!73
Wariinga is not the only character to use the mother as a metaphor for nation.
During the journey to Ilmorog, Muturi, the worker, states that This country, our
country, is pregnant. What it will give birth to, God only knows 74 Wangari, the
peasant, responds to the next mornings speeches in the cave with the question,
So it really is true that from the womb of the same country emerges both the
thief and the witch?75 At the Devils Feast, Mwireri wa Mukiraais nationalist
capitalism advocates that every robber should go home and rob his own
mother [that is, nation]!76 and the demonic Voice that Wariinga comes across on
the golf course counters Mwireris argument with the question, Werent we the
ones who kept his mother as our mistress although, admittedly, we had to rape
her in the first place?77 Gatuiria, the intellectual, responds to the resemblances
between Wariingas daughter, Wambui, and himself by dismissing ethnic divisions
in Kenya:

A child is a child. We all come from the same womb, the common womb of
one Kenya. The blood shed for our freedom has washed away the differences
between that clan and this one. Today there is no Luo, Gikuyu, Kamba, Giriama,
Luhya, Maasai, Meru, Kalenjin or Turkana. We are all children of one mother.
Our mother is Kenya, the mother of all Kenyan people.78

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 182.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 184, italics in the original.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 456.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 1556.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 171.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 1934.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 2345. Obviously, the fact that Gatuiria
and Wambui are paternal half-siblings means that his words are unwittingly ironic. The two
characters issue not from the same womb but from the same father: Hispaniora Greenway
Ghitahy, who is also known as the Rich Old Man from Ngorika. Again, though, this ironic
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 167

The equation of Kenya with a mother is produced by almost all of the voices
in Ngugis narrative, regardless of whether or not those voices are privileged.
This recapitulates patterns that we have noticed elsewhere in Ngugis fiction, in
which a gendered consensus enables political dispute. Again, there is a uterine
social organization at work in the novel. This uterine organization works to
constrain female sexual and political agency, by limiting the subject positions
available to women.
We see a similar uterine organization at work in the novels imagery. The fruit
imagery that indexes labour exploitation in Kenya is not only consistent with the
novels constructions of corpulent capital and neocolonialist monstrosity. It is also
bound into the equation of motherhood and nationhood. As far as the peasant or
worker is concerned, the fruit represents their material lacks, needs and demands.
Muturi and Wangaris exchange in Mwauras taxi makes this figuration clear:

Imagine! The children of us workers are fated to stay out in the sun, thirsty,
hungry, naked, gazing at fruit ripening on trees which they cant pick even to
quieten a demanding belly! Fated to lie awake all night telling each another
[sic] stories about tears and sorrow, asking one another to guess the same riddle
day after day: Oh for a piece of one of those!
Ripe bananas! Wangari replied, as if Muturi had asked her a real riddle.79

Although this dialogue overtly addresses the starvation of workers children in

the context of an economic system that the workers themselves prop up with their
labour, I think it is not coincidental that the passage immediately follows Muturis
associations between Kenya and the figure of the pregnant woman, which I have
quoted above.
As regards the Kenyan neocolonial comprador class, the fruit is a sign of
power, privilege and prerogatives. For instance, Gitutu wa Gataangurus speech
relates how he acquired the land that founded his fortune by borrowing money
from a bank employee who has been given an Uhuru fruit.80 The Uhuru fruit,
monetary in form, is metaphorically rendered as a commodity for alimentary
consumption. It attests to the greed of the comprador class that devours all of the
commodities and resources in Kenya, including land, wealth, food and women.
In addition, it is clear that the Uhuru fruit includes the commodification of female
sexuality. Another neocolonial acolyte, Kihaahu wa Gatheeca, speaks in wonder of
the Uhuru fruit that leads one parliamentary candidate to sell his farm and auction
his very beautiful wife in order to meet his election expenses. Could it be
that this tree yields more fruit than all other trees?81 The wives and daughters of

device offers us an indirect critique of the exploitative comprador class through a latent
account of Wariingas reproductive history.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 46.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 104.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 114.
168 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

which Kihaahu wa Gatheeca speaks are prostituted in the broader sense of the
word by the extensive influence of foreign capital. In effect, their oppression
shares a commonality with Wariinga, Kareendi and all of the other fallen women
in Ngugis later fiction. By proposing a relatively uniform or consistent mode of
gender oppression applicable to both the richest and the poorest Kenyan women,
Devil on the Cross elides both the category of the social and, incidentally, the
possibility of unsexualized female labour. In other words, Ngugi fails to differentiate
female oppression in terms of class. This is another form of gender exclusion that
his novel operates, because if women are unavailable to class analysis, then they
are arguably also unavailable to class-bound mobilization against neocolonialism
and consequently unavailable to the theorization of history.
The commonality of gender oppression contains damaging implications, even
when the novel attempts to write women in progressive ways. For instance, where
the Gikuyu woman aspires to foreign standards of beauty by masking herself in
whiteface, she begins to assume the aspect of the ogre. When we first meet Wariinga,
she has hair the colour of moleskin82 due to hair-straightening procedures. In
contrast to this simulated beauty, Ngugi posits Wariingas originary, natural
beauty: Often, when she walked along the road without self-consciousness, her
breasts swaying jauntily like two ripe fruits in a breeze, Wariinga stopped men in
their tracks.83 I find the fruit images associated with Wariingas body and breasts
(the sign of womans nurturing capacity) significant, because they suggest the
consumption of the female body by the male gaze a look which orders its object
according to the bearers desire. Here, there seems to be little that distinguishes
a scopophilic narrative from the gluttony of the ogre who devours the beautiful,
unattainable Nyanjiru Kanyarari.84 The consistency of gender representations
across politically differentiated contexts would appear to bear out my assertions
that Ngugis novels mobilize woman as a consensual trope that enables political
critique. In Elleke Boehmers incisive assessment:

Ngugi stands with many others when he attacks the colossus of white Western
maledom, yet hesitates to dislodge the ramparts of its patriarchy. Simply
expressed, the problem would rather seem to be an identification of national
freedom with male freedom and an inherited state structure. Thus a patriarchal
order survives intact.85

Hence, what is at issue in Ngugis narrative is not the production of a (gendered)

other by the colonial or indigenous patriarchies, but the substitution of one
phallocratic order for another. And, as the barmaids attire at the Devils Feast
shows us, even this substitution is incomplete. The barmaids are dressed as playboy

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 11.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 11.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 62.
Elleke Boehmer, The Masters Dance, p. 195.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 169

bunnies. Furthermore: On their breasts were pinned two plastic fruits. The girls
looked like apparitions from another world.86 Significantly, the barmaids breasts
are covered by plastic fruit, much as Wariingas breasts are inscribed with the
image of fruit. The desire that organizes the debased femininity of the barmaids is,
I would argue, almost indistinguishable from the desire that informs the description
of Wariingas body. In the field of representation, there is very little difference
between simile (Wariingas breasts like two ripe fruit) and simulation (the fake,
plastic fruits pinned on the barmaids breasts). Therefore, Wariingas femininity
is validated in precisely the same terms as the barmaids femininity is degraded.
In my view, the fruit are symbolic substitutes for womans produce or production
the child that exceeds the closed circle of reproduction and that must be named
in order to reiterate the paternal fiction and appropriate female production for a
patriarchal economy. The only distinction between the barmaids and Wariinga is
that the formers fruits are not real or natural (they are simulations), whereas
the latters fruits are real or natural (and therefore beautiful). The barmaids are
constructed according to a model of lack. Wariinga is constructed as the bearer of
truth, beauty or meaning. Hence, Wariinga corresponds with the opposite pole
of femininity produced by patriarchy. She is woman invested with the phallus,
the fetishized woman. Elleke Boehmer has argued along similar lines that Ngugis
fetishized women are invested with male, or phallic, attributes:

Instead of preparing the way towards liberation by dismantling those structures

that marginalise and oppress women, [Ngugi] disguises the rigid distinctions
that such structures enforce when his women come dressed as men. Instead of
questioning processes of objectification, he places a male weapon in the hands
of his women characters and sets them on pedestals as glorified revolutionaries,
inspiriting symbols for a male struggle. Male values thus come encased in female
shape, just as guns come disguised in loaves of bread.87

If the fruit imagery that constructs Wariinga in Devil on the Cross invests her
with the phallus, then we might well ask what unconscious itinerary informs this
move. In my view, Wariingas breasts like two ripe fruits88 might be read
as a displacement of the womb envy latent in the Gikuyu patriarchys mythical
reconstruction of prehistory. According to Gikuyu myth, harsh and promiscuous
matriarchal rulers were overthrown when men decided to inseminate them
simultaneously and thus incapacitate them. Subsequently, women became mothers
of men. Wariingas breasts like two ripe fruits imply a displaced womb and a
divested sexuality, resituated for alimentary consumption at the site of the (male)
infants nexus with the body of the mother. The waitresses at the feast with two
plastic fruits pinned on their breasts are, in this reading, barren. As consorts to the

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 92.
Elleke Boehmer, The Masters Dance, p. 195.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 11.
170 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

contemporary neocolonial class that has betrayed Kenya, the waitresses barrenness
parallels one of the Mau Mau epithets for the treachery of Kenyan homeguards:
thata cia bururi (the barren ones of the country). The narrators construction
of the homeguards in Devil on the Cross is redolent of these representations. He
addresses, the homeguards, [the] faithful Kenyan watchdogs you sterile
bastards: you sold our country for the sake of your bellies 89
Against the sterility of the homeguards and their political legacy, the novel
offers us a model of fecundity and social regeneration in the figure of the mother.
In effect, it is the contemporary debasement of the social that allows Ngugis
later fiction to universalize the plight of Kenyan women. For instance, Wariinga
proposes that Kenyan womens defilement consists in the frustration of an originary
and universal ambition. She says:

Let me tell you. When a woman is in her youth, she has beautiful dreams about a
future in which she and her husband and her children will dwell forever in domestic
peace in a house of their own. There are some who dream of the educational heights
they will scale, of the demanding jobs they will take on, of the heroic deeds they
will do on behalf of their country, deeds that will inspire later generations to sing
their praises thus: Oh, our mother, a selfmade national hero!90

These assertions elide any notions that a woman may be a cultural agent who
exists independently of the terms man or husband. It is not only sentimental
but also patently sexist to assume that Kenyan womens ambitions should, or even
can, lie solely in obtaining a husband, bearing children and residing in domestic
bliss thereafter. Wariinga continues by saying:

There, scattered on the sandy floor, lie the fragments of her illusions How
did the boys put it in their Muthuu dance-song?

An amazing sight,
The clay pot is now broken!
When I came from Nairobi,
I never knew that
I would give birth to
A child named
Producer of wondrous courage.

Today we can only be called the bearers of doomed children instead of the
bearers of children of heroic stature.91

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 138.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 136.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 1367.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 171

The Muthuu dance-song that Wariinga quotes is traditionally performed by Gikuyu

boys prior to circumcision. The dance-song became popular in the 1940s, when
Gikuyu soldiers returned from service in World War II and walked along the River
Road in Nairobi, relating their exploits. It was performed by Mau Mau insurgents
in the forests, and it praised Kenyatta considerably.92 Significantly, Mumbi
(Moombi) is glossed by Kenyatta as Moulder, potter, creator; name of the first
Gikuyu woman. The mother of the Gikuyu nation.93 In addition, the Muthuu song
invokes the traditional Gikuyu saying, Moombi arugaga na ngeo the potter
cooks with broken pots.94 Kenyatta explains the saying in this way:

In the pottery industry all the work, from start to finish, is done by women Men
are debarred by custom from approaching the moulding-place, especially when the
work is in progress Should some of the pots break, as they usually do, during
the burning time, the women always suspect that some ill-behaved man has crept
to the spot during the night and has spoiled their work. To avoid this suspicion
men keep away from this sacred ground until the work is finished. Very few
potters have good pots for themselves; they sell all the good ones to others, leaving
themselves with the bad ones This shows that the Gikuyu have developed a
system of trading far beyond working merely to satisfy family needs.95

In the context of Wariingas allusions, the Muthuu dance-song encodes the

traditional sexual division of labour in Gikuyu society (upheld by the myth of
Mumbi, an archetype of womanhood), the circumcision ritual and the male
potency of erstwhile Gikuyu resistance movements. What is interesting here is
that Wariinga should ventriloquize the song by quoting it, rather than performing
it and thus assuming a subject position within it. In effect, she is debarred from
a nationalist lineage of performance by her gender and she uses this lineage
to reiterate the idea that neocolonialism impacts upon womens reproductive
outcomes rather than their cultural or economic opportunities.
As Wariinga tells us, those women who pursue education, employment or
heroic deeds are automatically subsumed under the category of our mother, a
self-made national hero! This construction is problematic because female cultural
achievements are insidiously reduced to biological ones. Of course, the mother
never inhabits an entirely self-made subjectivity. Conceptually speaking,
motherhood always by definition includes the implied term of the biological
father. In other words, Ngugis ideological investment in motherhood unavoidably
includes a moment of masculine self-inscription. In a related vein, motherhood
in Ngugis texts often consists in reproducing male heroes. This is suggested in

See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 222, and Donald Barnett and Karari
Njama, Mau Mau from Within, p. 175.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 324.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, p. 324.
Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya, pp. 878.
172 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Matigari, by the women singing that they will give birth to more Matigari ma
Njiruungi,96 and in Devil on the Cross by Wariingas rhetorical question, Wasnt
Kimaathi born of a Kenyan woman?97 Quite clearly, her question engenders
its own answer. Mothers are not only mothers. In a manoeuvre that makes
female subjectivity not only limiting, but also derivative, they are destined to be
mothers of men.
When Gatuiria reports Wangaris confrontation with the thieves, prior to her
arrest, her words are symptomatic of exactly the derivative status that femininity
occupies in Devil on the Cross. Wangaris words, already derivatively framed by
Gatuirias narration, are: These are the imperialist watchdogs throw them
into the Eternal Jail For thats the fate of all those who sell foreigners the
heritage of our founding patriarchs and patriots!98 I view this textual moment
as one of slippage, in which Ngugis uncritical affiliation with the Gikuyu
patriarchy is demystified, somewhat ironically, by Wangaris uncritical support
of the patriarchal legacy of Gikuyu resistance. Even as she confronts imperialism,
Wangari allows male prerogatives (tantamount to History itself) to supersede
female contributions to the founding of culture. In other words, even as she
confronts imperialism, Wangari is at some level silenced. She is instrumentalized
so as to elide the crucial roles played by the Gikuyu subaltern in supporting and
maintaining Mau Mau. As this study has previously outlined, one of these roles
was enacted by Nairobi prostitutes who obtained bullets (or, often, a single bullet)
from their homeguard clientele. There, the economy of insurgency predicated on
female sexual production was not alimentary or visceral, although one need not in
principle preclude the possibility that the job at hand or the necessity of concealing
the clandestine produce may have required the prostitutes to bite the bullet on
occasion. Such readings of insurgency are, nonetheless, foreclosed by Ngugis
A similar form of historical silencing is at work as Gatuiria continues to relate
Wangaris confrontation with the thieves to Wariinga:

Wariinga, how can I describe the scene adequately? It looked as if everyone

in the cave had been transfixed by the electric power of Wangaris words. Oh,
Wangari was beautiful, I can tell you. Oh, yes, Wangaris face shone as she stood
before us all, and it looked as if her courage had stripped years from her body
and given her new life. It was as if the light in her face were illuminating the
hearts of all those present, and her voice carried the power and the authority of
a peoples judge.99

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, p. 119.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 132.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, pp. 1967.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 197, italics in the original.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 173

The value that accrues to Wangari, once she has assumed her patriarchal alias,
is youth and beauty. In her younger days, during her resistance activities, she
has missed out on the chance to beautify herself in accordance with Gikuyu
custom.100 Wangaris beauty at this point is not natural, but rather compensatory.
It naturalizes the ideology of male privilege. Gatuirias (gendered) focalization
reveals this in a moment of transgression: Oh, Wangari was beautiful, I can tell
you. Wangaris beauty, in order for that value to accrue to her, must be registered
by a male gaze which discovers itself vicariously through its gendered other. In
other words, Wangaris beauty bears the mark of male authority and legitimation.
Once a courier for Mau Mau, she now carries the power and authority of a
peoples judge.
Ngugis logocentrism is centred on a nebulously defined peoples justice as
due process and the law.101 In Devil on the Cross, the narratives phallocentrism
is centred on two determinant moments the student leader giving Wariinga the
invitation to the Devils feast (in order that she may know the causes of her
subjection), and Muturi giving Wariinga the pistol (in order that she may effect her
liberation). Here, we are not far from locating Ngugis self-interested representation
of the transparent position of the educated subject who reveals to the masses the
causes of their oppression, in order that they may liberate themselves, or from
the masculine investment which produces the fetishized woman, bearer of the
phallus. Further, the novels phallogocentrism is centred on the hierarchical logic
of two binary oppositions: the privileged gender binary is the legitimate male
worker-peasant / woman as mother as Kenya and the subordinated gender binary
is illegitimate male ogre-thief-boss-lover-seducer / Kenya as rapable-prostituted-
mistress (who is either barren or an irresponsible mother).102
An obvious point, but one worth making, is that these binaries are by no
means self-evident or true. They only become meaningful because Devil on the

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 127.
See, for example, General Ruhenis words to Njamba Nene: But let me tell you
this: there is no law that is laid down by Mau Mau that is not in the interest of the people.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Njamba Nenes Pistol, p. 9.
I am working within Gayatri Spivaks formulation: the discourse of man is in
the metaphor of woman. She proceeds to delineate some of the key facets of Derridas
work in order to submit deconstruction to a feminist critique: The desire to make ones
progeny represent his presence is akin to the desire to make ones words represent the full
meaning of ones intention. Hermeneutic, legal or patrilinear, it is the prerogative of the
phallus to declare itself the sovereign source. Its causes are also its effects: a social structure
centred on due process and the law (logocentrism); a structure of argument centred on the
sovereignty of the engendering self and the determinacy of meaning (phallogocentrism);
a structure of the text centred on the phallus as the determining moment (phallocentrism)
or signifier. Spivaks reading of Derrida is applicable to Devil on the Cross, but since
we are dealing with an African text rather than with French philosophy I have shifted
the framework of her reference. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Displacement and the
Discourse of Woman, pp. 16970.
174 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Cross narrativizes history into an ideologically constructed logic of binarism, and

because the signs woman or mother or Wariinga are the bearers of historys
significance. It seems to me that it is precisely because Ngugis interest lies in a
self-engendering masculine historical narrative (in which woman or mother is
subsumed by the sign Kenya) that he overlooks the pervasive silencing of Kenyan
womens voices in narratives of Kenyan history, as well as the possibility that
Kenyan womens subjection may consist as much in the institution and practices
of marriage as it does in their restricted access to the job market.
Wariingas transformation into the new Kenyan woman is, in my reading,
something of an anomaly, given that the new Kenyan woman is construed
according to the vestiges of (very old) Gikuyu patriarchal structures of dominance.
As Florence Stratton puts it, from Ngugis perspective, a strong determined
woman is to all intents and purposes a man. The identification of his heroine with
masculine values is Ngugis response to the question of how to create a female
national subject [Rather] than rewriting nationalism, he rewrites woman.103
Jacinta Wariinga (whose name means in one possible translation the flower
decorated with wire ornaments104) is rendered in terms of pastoral imagery in
Devil on the Cross so that the narration constructs Kenyan womanhood in precisely
the same terms as the neocolonial acolytes debase it.105 On the one hand, Wariinga
refuses to be a mere flower to decorate the doors and windows and tables of
other peoples lives.106 On the other hand, her breasts sway jauntily like two
ripe fruits in a breeze107 and her clothes fit her so perfectly, its as if she was
created in them.108 This inconsistency in the representation of Wariinga is implicit
in Ngugis attempt to confront Gikuyu womens oppression without confronting
the Gikuyu traditional and neocolonial patriarchies.109 Furthermore, with Muturis
pistol on her person, Wariinga biologically coded as female is narratively
and historiographically coded male. Indeed, Elleke Boehmer claims that the gun
bestowed upon Wariinga is the quintessential emblem of phallic power and that
women in his texts are not to be left out of the military-preparedness program.110

Florence Stratton, Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender,
p. 163.
Herta Meyer, Justice for the Oppressed, p. 104.
The Rich Old Man who has seduced Wariinga as a girl calls her My little fruit, my
little orange, my flower to brighten my old age! Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross,
p. 253.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 216.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 11.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 217.
Patrick Williams expresses this tension very well when he writes that while
Wariinga spectacularly gets it right in terms of the successful transformation of her
life, in the eyes of some feminist critics her creator fails, at the ideological level at least, to
equal that process of successful change. Patrick Williams, Ngugi wa Thiongo, p. 103.
Elleke Boehmer, The Masters Dance, p. 195.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 175

However, I would qualify my support for Boehmers comments, because she

incorrectly implies that woman is a subject who does not go to war: an implication
that is simply not borne out by the activities of subaltern women who engaged in
active combat during the Mau Mau insurgency. The chauvinism that produces the
gun as a symbol of phallic power in Devil on the Cross consists in the fact that
it is made by the hands of the (male) workers Muturis name denotes smith
and that Wariinga derives strength from the possession of the gun. As I have
already suggested, what we see in Wariinga is a shift away from woman as a lack
redeemed by motherhood (as in the preceding novels) to woman imbued with
the masculine attribute of phallus the fetishized woman. In other words, we see
a shift from the female character whose desire and political agency are negated
by clitoridectomy and motherhood, to the female character whose politics negates
her femininity.
In a peculiar moment of slippage, the novels patriarchal master-discourse is
demystified when Wariinga confronts the Rich Old Man. Realizing that the Rich
Old Man is Gatuirias father, and that he wishes his sons engagement to Wariinga
to end, Wariinga offers the following bargain: All right. Do you want to marry
me? That is, do you want to go through a wedding ceremony so that I can become
your second wife?111 The implication here is that the Rich Old Mans seduction of
the younger Wariinga would be ameliorated if he were to marry the older Wariinga
in order to restore her former honour. It is also remarkable that, in a moment of
truth, immediately prior to his death, the Rich Old Man falls to his knees when he
recognizes Wariingas beauty.112 Of course, Wariingas beauty is not ever hers.
In a phallocentric narrative, feminine attractiveness is always organized by a
male gaze: beauty is in the look of the beholder. In Devil on the Cross, beauty is
the cultural value that accrues to Wariinga as a biological female, and this value
circulates in an economy of narrative significance which is operated by masculine
political investments.
In a certain sense, then, Wariinga is a prostitute in the novels economy of signs.
What Ngugi is ideologically unable to accept is that beauty and motherhood (the
propensity for reproduction of man-power), which are privileged characteristics
in his field of the feminine, are also modes of subjection by which a patriarchal
narrative discourse interpellates its objects. Equally, Ngugis subordination of the
prostitute or fallen woman carries within it the assumption that she is a palpable
entity within culture (she is, in the novels nomenclature, Ready-to-Yield).
It seems to me that Ngugis oeuvre up to this point attempts, and largely fails,
to open up positive spaces of political agency for women.113 Leaving aside the
symbolic and institutional importance of clitoridectomy, which props up Ngugis

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 253.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Devil on the Cross, p. 253.
The two notable exceptions are Njeri (the Mau Mau fighter) and Wambui (the Mau
Mau courier) in A Grain of Wheat.
176 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

ideological positions throughout the bulk of his fiction,114 the gendering of the
landscape and the nation in Ngugis fiction works to domesticate female sexuality
and to privilege male political prerogatives. From the pristine, agrarian landscapes
equated with motherhood in the early novels, to the polluted, grotesque landscapes
equated with prostitution or sexual debasement in the later novels, Ngugis
heroines cannot take up an active role in culture unless they forfeit both their
femininity and their sexuality. Where Ngugi does represent Mau Mau women, he
never allows the characters to use their sexuality as a weapon in the struggle. And
where he represents prostitutes or sexually uninhibited women, he denies them
a meaningful contribution to the struggle in an ideological manoeuvre that the
history of the Mau Mau prostitute largely contradicts.
There is an important exception to this rule. In Matigari, Guthera will not
at first prostitute herself with a policeman to rescue her father from execution
during the Emergency years he has acted as a Mau Mau courier, carrying bullets
in his Bible. This representation initially represses the historical contribution of
prostitutes to Mau Mau. However, Guthera does eventually sleep with a policeman
(whom she considers an untouchable) in order to free Matigari from imprisonment
and from his fate at the hands of the neocolonial government. By trading sex for
Matigari wa Njiruungis (the patriots who survived the bullets or The Kenyan
Land and Freedom Armys) freedom, Guthera symbolically prostitutes herself
for bullets or seeds (Njiruungi)115 and belatedly restores female sexwork-in-
insurgency to Ngugis narrative of the nation. Of course, Guthera is ultimately
reincorporated into the family structure:

Yes. We are the children of Matigari ma Njiruungi, Muruiki said. We are the
children of the patriots who survived the war.
And their wives as well! said Guthera, smiling. Or which other wives and
children were you looking for?116

One might displace the subordinate construction of the prostitute in Ngugis

later fiction by arguing that prostitution in Kenya speaks to the propensity of
female desire to bargain outside of the reproductive enclosure, and outside of
the institution of marriage for that matter. In this argument, prostitution is one
means by which some Kenyan women have exploited their commodification as
beautiful and desirable objects. Further, it was precisely the class-transgressive
potential of prostitutes that contributed materially to the Mau Mau insurgency.

See the song (maranjara) performed during circumcision/clitoridectomy and in
preparation for armed struggle. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, pp. 4, 126.
For a fascinating explanation of Gikuyu polysemy in Matigari, see Ann Biersteker,
Matigari ma Njiruungi: What Grows from the Leftover Seeds of Chat Trees? in Charles
Cantalupo (ed.), The World of Ngugi wa Thiongo (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World
Press, 1995), pp. 14158.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Matigari, p. 139.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 177

A subversive reading of Ngugis later fiction might investigate the possible loci
of Gikuyu subaltern womens agency by prostituting Ngugis economy of signs.
In such a reading, texts like Devil on the Cross or Matigari might begin to speak
a bit more fruitfully to Kenyan women who actively inhabit the subject position
of sex workers, rather than fallen women, defiled mothers or metaphors for a
prelapsarian past and a postlapsarian utopia.

Wizard of the Crow

Wizard of the Crow (2008) is Ngugis most recent Gikuyu novel. At over 750
pages in length, it is epic in scope. In its conspicuous internationalism, Wizard of
the Crow is the natural political successor to Petals of Blood. In its polyphonic
narrative form, it is the natural literary successor to Devil on the Cross and
Matigari. In this sense, Wizard of the Crow consolidates Ngugis trajectory and
might even be said to constitute the pinnacle of his considerable achievements so
far. As one might expect from Ngugi, the distribution of the novel in Kenya was
attentive to the needs of an indigenous readership (and listenership). Accordingly,
the Gikuyu version of Wizard of the Crow was published in a series of instalments,
allowing for oral transmission over a number of sittings117 among the non-book-
buying community in the manner of the novels predecessor, Matigari.
Unsurprisingly, given Ngugis novelistic career up to this point, familiar themes
return. The novel is set in a fictional state called Aburiria, like the Ilmorog of the
preceding three novels. Like Kihika or Matigari of earlier fictional generations,
the eponymous Wizard of the Crow is an explicitly intellectual figure who exhibits
the combined qualities of spiritual leadership and social activism. The political
corruption and misrule of Aburiria is scathingly satirized, and its distortion of human
possibilities is finally embodied in the grotesque transformation of Titus Tajirika,
a businessman who overthrows and replaces the Ruler. Tajirika undergoes plastic
surgery as part of an unsuccessful attempt at biological race change and, as a result,
comes to resemble the ogres of Gikuyu myth. Tajirikas transformation is prefigured
by the earlier comment of his secretary, Nyawira, that businessmen are the new
ogres who break from tradition by feeding constantly on human flesh.118 Moreover,
Nyawira tells Tajirikas two children, Gaciru and Gacigua, a story about a blacksmiths
rescue of his wife and child from an ogre. This story and the community of interest
it forms between teller and listeners becomes crucial towards the conclusion of
the novel, when Gaciru accuses her father of becoming an ogre.119 This episode
tells us much about Ngugis hopes for the community-building and consciousness-

Andrew van der Vlies, The Ruler and His Henchmen: Portrait of an African
Kleptocracy, Times Literary Supplement (20 October 2006), p. 21.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow (London: Harvill Secker, 2006),
pp. 612.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 739.
178 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

raising possibilities of story. In it, a form of communal self-knowledge spread by

word of mouth is set against the coercive excesses of the state. For this reason, it is
unsurprising that Wizard of the Crow readily cites both Ngugis own earlier novels,
Devil on the Cross (which Nyawira has been reading) and Matigari, and novels by
African women Tsitsi Dangarembgas Nervous Conditions, Mariam Bas So Long
a Letter and Buchi Emechetas Second Class Citizen.120
The emphasis on bodily monstrosity in Wizard of the Crow is not simply the
result of the scatological impulse at work in political satire. It is intrinsic to the
novels analysis of absolute autocratic power. In a complete autocracy, absolute
power is vested in the person of the Ruler. As a result, political power in Aburiria
is patterned as embodiment, so that the Rulers bodily functions become national
news from eating, shitting, sneezing, or blowing his nose to yawning.121 This
inflated exaggeration of the bodys least remarkable functions is a corollary to the
impulsive and capricious reflexes that characterize the Rulers political decrees.
The Rulers political henchmen each possess the exaggerated physical features
that are necessary to run the police state. As Minister of Information, Benjamin
Mambo has an enlarged tongue; as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Markus Machokali
has enlarged eyes; and as Minister of State, Silver Sikiokuu has enlarged ears.122
Moreover, the peoples history becomes the Rulers story, so that even the populace
becomes subsumed into a single corpus of state self-interest.123 In effect, Aburiria
is a body monstrously bloated with absolute power; its faculties and organs of state
turned towards its own preservation.
There are interesting gender implications of this corporeal organization of
power. Since Aburirias Ruler can only conceive of the nepotistic succession of his
absolute power to his four sons, Wizard of the Crows critique of dynastic regimes
is conducted via a critique of the family.124 The Ruler is not only a father; he is
also the Father of the Nation.125 Yet this coincidence of family and nation a
recognizable and relatively unquestioned motif in Ngugis earlier novels is here
submitted to satire. The Rulers national family is dysfunctional. For instance, he
places his wife, Rachael, under house arrest because she has pointed out that it is
unseemly for the Father of the Nation to be sleeping with schoolgirls. Rachaels
refusal to let the Ruler see her tears while she endures years of house arrest is an
ongoing rebellion against the Rulers fatherly authority. In its quiet defiance,
Rachaels rebellion is highly reminiscent of Bilquis Hyders in Salman Rushdies
Shame.126 Under house arrest, Bilquis weaves shawls that quietly and persistently
detail the various political and personal betrayals committed by her husband, Raza

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 63, 593, 83, respectively.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 3.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 1315.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 20.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 9.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 6.
Salman Rushdie, Shame (London: Cape, 1983).
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 179

Hyder. But there are other literary influences at work in Rachael. Since the Ruler
has stopped all the clocks in the house to remind Rachael of the moment when she
dared to question his authority, Rachael is also a sequestered wife in the manner of
Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens Great Expectations127 or even Bertha Mason
in Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre.128 These associations are underlined by Rachaels
demise in a fire after the Ruler and his henchman, Luminous Karamu-Mbu, pay
her a visit.129
As with Ngugis other recent novels, neocolonialism is associated with fallen
women in Wizard of the Crow. The male hero, Kamiti wa Karimiri, has an ex-
girlfriend, Wariara, whose inability to find employment leads her to break up with
him and enter into a life of prostitution on Angels Corner.130 The heroine, Grace
Nyawira, is also a fallen woman in the sense that she has endured a failed marriage
to a gold-digging suitor, John Kaniuru.131 The novels emphasis upon fallen women
is consistent with Nyawiras feminist claim that, in times of economic hardship,
womens reduced possibilities make them dependent upon men for financial
support.132 However, despite identifying the forms of female dependency that
facilitate chauvinistic abuse, Wizard of the Crow ultimately endorses the logic of
the family, and equates both family and women with the nation. For instance, when
Titus Tajirika is brought before the peoples court for beating his wife, Vinjinia, and
argues that no one can tell him how to run his home, he is told, man, woman,
and child compose a home, and if one pillar is weak, the family is weak, and if
the family is weak, the nation is weak. So what happens in a home is the business
of the nation and the other way round.133 Moreover, Titus Tajirikas abduction by
Nyawiras female accomplices mimics his earlier abduction by Silver Sikiokuu, as
if the womens group who comprise the peoples court is a reflected image of the
state in miniature. This implicit patterning of women as the nation in miniature is
consistent with all of Ngugis earlier fiction. Indeed, in a moment that echoes one
of Gatus stories in A Grain of Wheat and its metaphorical echoes of the nation as
the House of Mumbi (Nyumba ya Mumbi), Kamiti proposes marriage to Nyawira
by suggesting, somewhat opaquely, that they should build a new home.134
Given its latent associations between the family and the nation, it is
unsurprising that both the hero and heroine of Wizard of the Crow should have to
negotiate Oedipal conflicts as part of their political maturation. Nyawira is hunted

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1969
Charlotte Bront, Jane Eyre (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1971
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 708.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 6670.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 7882.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 83.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 435.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 724.
180 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

by the Rulers cronies, including her ex-husband, John Kaniuru, throughout the
narrative, because she is the leader of the Voice of the People Movement and has
held several highly visible womens protests against both the Rulers desire to
build the Marching to Heaven tower and his incarceration of his wife, Rachael.
In an attempt to lure Nyawira out of hiding, John Kaniuru persuades her father
to threaten to publicly divorce her.135 As the word divorce suggests, there is an
Oedipalization of Nyawiras politics in the novel. In fact, her primary conflicts
at this point are Oedipal, not ideological. Like earlier heroines such as Mumbi,
Nyawira mediates in many of the key antagonistic masculine relationships in
the novel. She is Tajirikas employee. She is the ex-wife of Tajirikas deputy,
Kaniuru. She is Kamitis partner in love and in wizardry, and introduces Tajirika
to the Wizard of the Crow via Vinjinia. She also intervenes between Kamiti and
Sikiokuus men, Njoya and Kahiga, when he is imprisoned.136
Kamitis Oedipalization is more obscure, and it is more successfully resolved.
His powers of wizardry such as they are are inherited through the patrilinear line.
We are told that Kamiti has inherited his powers of wizardry from his grandfather,
who died fighting the British during the war of independence. The powers of
prophecy have skipped a generation, since Kamitis father is not a seer. In this way,
Kamitis wizardry is a patrilinear inheritance that, in a cunning narrative twist,
avoids Oedipal conflict with the father. Moreover, the only injunction that his
father applies to his wizardry is that Kamiti may not use his powers for personal
material gain. Instead, his mother, Nungari, tells him, There is no wealth greater
than a home of ones own. A home is husband, wife, and children.137 In short,
Kamitis wizardry is placed within a heritage of family resistance to British rule
in Aburiria, repeating notions of generational history that are at work in Petals of
Blood. The injunction not to use his powers for personal gain places him within
a substitutive structure in which a wife and children compensate for his lack of
class mobility. We might say that Kamitis wizardry repeats the uterine social
organization that we have seen at work throughout Ngugis novels, from the
circumcised female subject of Gikuyu resistance in The River Between, to Mumbi
the mother of a new Kenya in A Grain of Wheat, through to Wanja whose desire
for motherhood is finally fulfilled in Petals of Blood. It is unsurprising that the
Wizard of the Crows most important acts of healing intervene to assist marriages
in trouble. Firstly, Kamiti helps the ageing Christian couple, Maritha and Mariko,
to overcome their waning desire for one another. 138 Secondly, at the request of
the long-suffering wife, Vinjinia, Kamiti temporarily heals Titus Tajirika of an
illness inspired by racial envy. Kamitis partner in wizardry, Nyawira, also turns
many of her revolutionary efforts towards rescuing women in failed marriages.
Posing with a group of woman dancers as entertainment for foreign dignitaries,

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 297.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 374.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 295.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 27681.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 181

she demands that the Ruler set Rachael free. They sing in protest, You imprison
a woman and you have imprisoned a nation.139 As I have already suggested, it is
as if women comprise a sequestered state in Wizard of the Crow. In the novels
analysis, when the state is personified in the masculine body of the Ruler, womens
bodies must become sequestered from view, their physiologies associated with
potentials that the state cannot countenance. Perhaps this is why Titus Tajirika a
victim of Silver Sikiokuus plotting against his political rival, Macho Machokali
is so easily persuaded to blame Vinjinia for the political intrigues from which
he has suffered.140 As a politically unconnected man, Tajirika is unable to detect
the layers of political influence and intrigue in which he is enmeshed. Tajirika
therefore points the blame towards Vinjinia, who falls within the sphere of
domestic influence with which he is familiar. A similar version of this theme is at
work when John Kaniurus mistress, Jane Kanyori, returns to demand marriage
and half his property with the threat that she will reveal his involvement in the
fraudulent embezzlement of money. Her previous sexual intimacy with him has
allowed her access to those secrets that make a kleptocracy operate. In this sense,
womens sequestration from public political affairs paradoxically gives them a
privileged purchase on the levers of political power.
There is an interesting corollary to this construction of women as a sequestered
state. Wizard of the Crow is at one level the story of the Aburirian Rulers futile
search for Nyawira, and this search ends up finding an entire community in
Nyawiras place: when Kamiti is forced to publicly reveal Nyawiras whereabouts,
he makes the rousing claim that Nyawira is you and me and others, and this
leads every person assembled to profess that he or she is Nyawira.141 In this way,
the assemblys claim to be Nyawira is also the communitys claim upon political
dissent in an autocratic state.
Despite containing gender motifs that seem similar to those we have discovered
in Ngugis earlier fiction, Wizard of the Crow constitutes an unprecedented
advance in its advocacy of womens issues and concerns. The novel explicitly
tackles pernicious social ills such as wife-beating and the gendering of poverty.
More broadly, Wizard of the Crow addresses the specificity of Aburirian womens
issues, but in its obligations to Aburiria as a fiction the novel avoids a parochialism
of focus. The novel scathingly satirizes the Rulers pseudo-philosophical tract,
Magnus Africanus: A Prolegomenon to Future Happiness, by the Ruler, which
argues that women must get circumcised and show submission by always walking
a few steps behind their men.142 But perhaps the novels most courageous move
consists in including frank and mature allusions to the debilitating illness of HIV/
AIDS that has swept the African continent in the years since the publication of
Devil on the Cross. Tajirika, for example, successfully uses the threat of the virus

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 253.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 352.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 688.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 621.
182 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

of death contained in his faeces to demand an audience with Silver Sikiokuu when
he is falsely imprisoned.143 The spurious scientific basis of Tajirikas threat since
the AIDS virus is not transmitted via excrement serves to heighten the comic
scatological effect. In fact, Tajirikas descriptions of his mysterious illness to
Elijah Njoya align it strongly with sexually transmitted diseases and the ubiquitous
habits of non-disclosure adopted by sufferers:

when gonorrhoea and syphilis were deadly menaces, people suffering from
them were often described as having fallen victim to a severe strand of flu. It is
the same today with the virus of death. Every victim of the virus is said to have
died of a kidney problem. My illness was not quite of the heart I mean it was
really an illness without a name.144

There is a very powerful link made here between Tajirikas previous unarticulated
affliction and an illness that dare not speak its name. If we are correct to draw such
parallels, then the Wizard of the Crows talking cure is a powerful argument for the
need to address illness openly and publicly.
Even more directly and more bravely, Nyawira refuses to have sex with Kamiti
early in the novel, telling him that if a person refuses to wear a condom in these
days of the deadly virus and he still wants to go the distance, he is my enemy,
not my lovemate, and I should not let him touch me. That is why I threw you
off, because I thought you were one of those men who think it unmanly to wear
condoms.145 When Kamiti and Nyawira eventually do sleep together, the heat of
passion is briefly interrupted so that he may don a condom.146 It is difficult to praise
Wizard of the Crow enough for such deeply responsible acts of storytelling. The
novel leads by setting an example on the crucial issues affecting the lives of many
African women. In fact, Nyawira functions as a crucial vehicle of a truly feminist
consciousness throughout the novel, instructing Vinjinia not to accept Tajirikas
abuse and educating her, and no doubt some readers, with statements such as
Rape is rape even when done by a friend or a husband.147 Such moments amount
to a pinnacle in Ngugis laudable and career-long efforts to engage seriously with
sexism and other issues affecting women. In moments such as these, Wizard of
the Crow is a responsible masterpiece that truly befits Ngugis status as a titan of
world letters.
Wizard of the Crows critique of state power proceeds through the careful
negotiation of a double bind. When the Rulers public works project, Marching to
Heaven, fails, it is strongly implied that power has foundered on polyglot interests,
as in the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel. If the Rulers power is based upon

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 387.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 337.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 92.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 2023.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 429.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 183

a very literal substitution of the real with aspects of himself (as when he appoints
two cabinet ministers to take care of Baby D.), then his will to embody power
is surely undermined by a multilingual proliferation of his modes of reference.
However, a problem emerges here: if multilingualism is a site of political critique
upon which unhindered state power founders, is multilingualism not also a site
for the reconstruction of ethnic division? After all, Nyawira points out that class
stratification in Aburiria is maintained by dividing the masses along ethnic and
sometimes gender and religious lines.148 In this context, the progressive assertion
of linguistic difference is potentially recoupable for the polarizing language of
ethnic difference. Wizard of the Crow is aware of the dangers here and addresses
them through instances of destabilizing translation. For example, there are
numerous examples of scatological misprision aimed at the Ruler, especially by
an old man who is not conversant with the lingua franca of Swahili:

[When] the old man began to speak it was clear he had difficulty in pronouncing
Swahili words for the Ruler, Mtukufu Rais, calling out instead, Mtukundu Rahisi.
Horrified at the Ruler being called a Cheap Excellency, one of the policemen
quickly whispered in the old mans ear that the phrase was Mtukufu Rais or Rais
Mtukufu, which confused him even more. Coughing and clearing his throat to
still himself, he called out into the microphone, Rahisi Mkundu. Oh no, it is not
Cheap Arsehole, the other policeman whispered in the other ear, no, no, it is
His Holy Mightiness, Mtukufu Mtakatifu, which did not help matters because
the old man now said, with what the old man thought was confidence, Mkundu
Takatifu. At the mention of His Holy Arsehole, the multitude broke out into
hilarious laughter 149

In passages such as these, the transformative possibilities of translation and

misprision subject absolute power to ridicule. Although Wizard of the Crow is
resolutely polyglot in its own expression and multilingual in its orientation, the
novel is aware that languages transformative power often resides in its breakdown.
In fact, state power falters upon its inability to impress a unitary message across
multiple sites of instantiation within the populace. For example, when one of
the Rulers outriders on a motorbike tries to announce a message to a queue of
jobseekers waiting for work, he finds the queue so long that he is forced to reduce
the message to its constituent syllables, with the effect that its force becomes lost
upon his listeners.150 One of the reasons that official narratives fail and the Wizards
cures succeed in Wizard of the Crow is that their reception and transmission by
the populace submits such narratives to a disseminative force. The Rulers decrees
and the Wizards feats are inflected with speculation, hyperbole and misprision
in the Aburirian popular imagination. The powerful force of rumour is that it

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 7256.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 1718.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 158.
184 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

evokes comradeship because it belongs to every reader or transmitter. No

one is its origin or source. Thus rumor is not error but primordially (originarily)
errant, always in circulation with no assignable source. This illegitimacy makes
it accessible to insurgency.151 The rumours surrounding the Ruler and the Wizard
work to foster a political community, and this feature of the novel is the culmination
of ideas first formed in Petals of Blood, in which a character called Ruma Monga
(Rumour Monger) spreads stories of the coming revolution. Equally, Ngugi
himself has witnessed how readings of Matigari in Kenya led to stories of
Matigari spreading among the Kenyan community. Such subversive rumours of
a troublemaker demanding truth and justice culminated in a nationwide search
for Matigari (a fictional character) by the Kenyan government.152 The Wizard of
the Crows artistic or theatrical performances occasion the rumours that form
insurgent collectives. It is significant that the Wizard of the Crows own curative
powers contain a linguistic dimension. When Tajirika is afflicted by an illness in
which he obsessively repeats the words if and if only, the Wizard prompts him
to undertake a talking cure by articulating the treacherous thought.153 Tajirika
responds by articulating his thoughts more fully: If my skin were
not black! If only my skin were white!154 Here, the Aburirian states stifling
of possibilities and its (neo)colonial legacy conspire to produce neurosis in its
population. In short, Tajirika suffers because it would be treasonous for him to
articulate his racial envy. Since he is compelled to repress his desire for racial
transformation, the repressed thought returns to iterate itself as an hysterical
symptom. The Ruler is cured of a similar affliction by the Wizard.155
An important part of the Wizards curative process is to ask his patients to
consult a reflection of themselves in a mirror. At work in this method is a complex
set of associations between the mirror and the work of literary fiction as a reflection
of the society in which it is produced. Ngugi writes in Barrel of a Pen:

The arts then are a form of knowledge about reality acquired through a pile of
images. But these images are not neutral. The images given us by the arts try to
make us not only see and understand the world of man and nature, apprehend it,
but to see and understand it in a certain way, or from the angle of vision of the
artist. The way or the angle of vision is itself largely affected by the margin of
natural, social and spiritual freedom within which the practitioner of skills (the
writer, the musician, the painter) is operating.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 213.
Oliver Lovesey, The Sound of the Horn of Justice in Ngugi wa Thiongos
Narrative, in Susan VanZanten Gallagher (ed.), Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical
Call for Justice (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), p. 152.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 179.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 179.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 491.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 185

Let me put it another way. The arts present us with a set of images of the world in
which we live. The arts then act like a reflecting mirror. The artist is like the hand
that holds and moves the mirror, this way and that way, to explore all corners
of the universe. But what is reflected in the mirror depends on where the holder
stands in relation to the object.156

By the time he writes Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi has developed a reflective but
non-mimetic theory of artistic creativity that is grounded in social freedoms. In
fact, he argues very pointedly that social repression potentially inhibits creative
expression, if the artist chooses not to oppose it. If we follow this idea of a
politically oppositional and reflective artistic model, then it becomes clear that
one vital function of art is to produce political self-consciousness in the masses
(whose own freedom of labour is the final artist157) and in the ruling lite. In this
model, art is a call to political responsibility,158 because politics itself draws upon
artistic modes. For instance, in a wonderful extension of his ideas about theatre,
Ngugi argues in Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams that:

The concept of performance is opening out new possibilities in the analysis

of human behaviour, including literature. The exercise of power, for instance,
involves variations on the performance theme. Performance distinguishes
political prison narratives from other narratives, including those by non-
political prisoners or other narratives for that matter. The prison is like a stage,
but with the audience outside the walls. Both the prisoner and the state are aware
of this audience and it explains some of the behaviour of the state and the artist-

When we read passages like this, arts disposition towards power becomes of
great interest. In a stunning reversal of the coercive power that the absolutist state
claims for itself, the artist-prisoner at some level directs the prison-theatre and
commands the private stage upon which only he or she is possessed of genuine
insight. Elsewhere, Ngugi suggests that this reversal is accomplished when the
artist resorts to pen and paper so that his or her prison narrative may contest the
performance space of the state.160 Ngugi develops this theory consistently when
he argues that The artistic process is like a mirror lodged in the consciousness.
It reflects whatever is before it and it even has the capacity to mirror what it
below the surface of things.161 The reflective and intuitive capacities of the artistic
process affect state power because they alter the definition of the spaces in which

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barrel of a Pen, pp. 578.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barrel of a Pen, p. 59.
See Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, p. 5.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, pp. 56.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, p. 57.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, pp. 2021.
186 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

power is performed. Hence, theatre or political performance is conceived as a

field of tensions and conflicts that is transformed into a sphere of power.162
For Ngugi, political theatre is a site of power, especially when it configures its
external relations in such a way that the masses have access to the space of the
The whole of Wizard of the Crow is the maturation of Ngugis vision of the
corrupt state and the artist being inimically opposed. The Wizards curative method
involving mirrors is grounded in a theory of political reflexivity and insight that
alters the states relationship to the performance space that it would command. In
other words, the patients encounter with the mirror prompts them into an encounter
with a site of self positioned outside of the self. As such, the mirror-image or
reflection of the patient establishes the therapeutic subject as a distributed self
that is, a split self which is to be found as much in others as it is to be experienced
from within the body. This is stated most explicitly during the cure of the Wizards
most successful analysand, Constable Arigaigai (A. G.) Gathere: We need mirrors
to see our shadows. We need mirrors to see other peoples shadows crossing
ours ...163 Moreover, this curative method and its dispositions of self become the
basis for an ethical orientation towards the world, since the Wizard tells Arigaigai
that his actions will be henceforth be the mirror of his soul. As such, the self becomes
a self divided within its intentions and articulated by its effects upon the worlds
of others. This is, in effect, the claim that the Wizard makes in his encounter with
Silver Sikiokuu. Kamiti tells him that a mirror captures shadows of ourselves.
Shadows that pass through the mirror dont go away. Traces remain, reflections of
ourselves, our hearts, the effects of our actions on ourselves. The only problem is
that shadows can intermingle, preventing now one, now another, from being seen
clearly 164 Kamiti is not, of course, really referring to the physics and chemistry
of mirrors. He is theorizing power. Wizard of the Crow details a society in which
there is no distinction between the person of the Ruler and the government. In
such an absolute dispensation of power, all political decision-making is ultimately
reduced to impulses and reflexes that originate in the lower functions and pleasures
of the body. The birth of Baby D. (short for Democracy) is simply the most
graphic demonstration of this analysis. Additionally, due to the absolutist nature of
the state, all desires for or formulations of power are reduced to code, as when the
very long queues seeking employment on the Marching to Heaven project become
variously misconstrued as support for the Ruler and dissent against his decrees.165
The mirror, then, becomes a critical metaphor for the delirious encounter of

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, pp. 3940.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 116.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 410.
In this respect, Sikiokuu is correct to notice that Tajirikas actual desire for power
came out coded as a desire to be white because the code substituted for a treasonous desire
to usurp the absolute power of the Ruler. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 343.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 187

absolute, solipsistic power with its own unintended or malinformed effects upon
the world.
However, as I have indicated above, the mirror is also a critical metaphor for
the relationship between art and the state. In fact, since art gives voice to silence
in the great prophetic tradition,166 Kamitis reflective function is to confront
the representatives of the state with those silences that they would prefer not
to acknowledge. It is in this aspect that Kamitis magical powers reside they
articulate those possibilities that political realities cannot possibly contain. As
such, the Wizards mirrors have a basis in dissidence, even though Kamitis own
political orientation is at times less direct and authentic than Nyawiras. Having
said this, Nyawira operates with a very firm sense of the theatrical in her moments
of dissidence. She is a consummate performer of guises, roles and subterfuges.
As a theatre student, she could change herself into any character, sometimes so
realistically that even those who thought they knew her well because of seeing her
on the platforms in many student political events were often unable to say whether
it was really Nyawira on the stage.167 When Kamiti meets her, she is disguised as
a beggar, inhabiting what she calls the theatre of politics.168 Ngugi, of course, is
very well aware that theatrical performances and theatre groups have played an
important role in Kenyas anti-colonial heritage.169 For Nyawira, the performance
of everyday life takes place in accordance with a predetermining political script.170
Moreover, the everyday is a performance that allows the dissident to infiltrate
state power and humiliate the Ruler, as when Nyawira and other women suddenly
emerge from an undifferentiated crowd to expose their buttocks to foreign
dignitaries and a mission from the global bank to protest against the Marching to
Heaven project. Disguised as a traditional dancer, Nyawira leads a group of women
singing and dancing in protest at Tajirikas abduction and imprisonment and she
goes unrecognized by all who are in the audience: including Vinjinia (on behalf of
whom she is performing), her former lover, Kaniuru, and the government minister

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams, p. 27.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 80.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 86.
See, for example, Ngugis extended passage on the history of Kenyan theatre and
resistance in Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, pp. 679. He also writes extensively on the
suppression of theatre within post-Independence Kenya that began with the banning of
school plays in 1979 and culminated in the arrests of Maina wa Kinyatti and Al Amin
Mazrui in 1982. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Barrel of a Pen, pp. 646, 1819.
Ngugis autobiographical writings refer extensively to politics as theatre. Speaking
of the moment in which the warders at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison maintain the
pretence that Kenyatta is still alive, and he and his fellow detainees maintain the pretence
of not noticing, he observes: It was a most unreal situation. There was an important drama
in Kenyas history being played outside the walls and here at Kamiti we were all pretences,
actors in a theatre of extreme absurdity. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 157.
188 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

looking for her, Silver Sikiokuu.171 Even Nyawiras name is a performance, since
she is addressed by various combinations of her full name:

There was a time when she called herself Engenethi Nyawira Charles Matthew
Mugwanja Wangahu, often writing it as E.N.C.M.M. Wangahu. She was not
very keen on Engenethi and became Grace Mugwanja. Grace Mugwanja stuck,
mostly in the village community, and she held onto it for a while. Her father
liked Grace more than Engenethi, and Roithi, her mother, liked Engenethi more
than Grace, and both hated Mugwanja with equal intensity, and so to her parents
she would always be either Engenethi or Grace. She herself continued struggling
with these markers of identity, and after going to college she eventually settled on
Nyawira wa Wangahu, though there were some who could not bring themselves
to call her anything but Grace Mugwanja.172

Clearly, Nyawiras identity is both internally differentiated, differently instantiated

by her mother, father and community, and distributed across multiple sites. This
bewildering array of possible Nyawiras amounts to a proliferation of the patronym
in a manner akin to the dynamics at work in Wanja in Petals of Blood. Even if
Nyawira were located by Kaniuru or Sikiokuu, the real Nyawira could never
really be found. Her identity will not settle. I see this ontological instability as an
enabling capacity within Nyawira and it is consistent both with her transformative
revolutionary impulses and her vocation as an actress. Identity for Nyawira is
always destined to be nothing more and nothing less than theatre. Even her most
habitual moniker in the novel, Grace Nyawira, is translatable. Since Nyawira
means work173 Grace Nyawira is a politically mobile term that in itself does the
work of translation between languages, and that signifies something like the grace
in work or the work of grace perhaps? In short, Nyawira draws our attention to
African female subjectivity as a composite of roles, positions, translations and
capacities. In this, she is Ngugis most truly feminist female character because
she does not settle down into a position that can be instrumentalized. The final
triumph of Nyawiras characterization is that she has to assume Kamitis duties as
the Wizard of the Crow when he is imprisoned.174 It is this ability of the Wizard of
the Crow to be in two places at once (in America and in Aburiria) that confounds
Sikiokuu and leads him to half-believe in the Wizards ability to create living
shadows.175 But more importantly, the Wizard is not a conventionally gendered
construct but a genuine and equal revolutionary partnership between Kamiti and

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, pp. 30711.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 78.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 450.
Kamitis name shows an astonishing resemblance to the Kamiti Maximum Security
Prison in which Ngugi was detained without trial. The resources that feed into Kamitis
spiritual wisdom are no doubt very deep indeed.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Wizard of the Crow, p. 461.
The Neocolony as a Prostituted Economy 189

Nyawira. The distribution of function within the Wizard is a metonym for the
corporate nature of revolution and contains the reflexive apparatus of the mirror
within it. The Wizards magic is ultimately a cipher for the immateriality of
revolution that moment in which the self is shadowed in its political purposes by
multiple other selves.
Of course, the postcolonial critic who reads in translation with a sense of the
historical community addressed in fiction must also acknowledge this moment
of shadowing. I reserve for my conclusion the problematics of reading Ngugis
Gikuyu texts in translation and the ethical responsibilities that this circumstance
of reading obliges of the Anglophone reader.
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Prostituting Translation: An Ethics of
Postcolonial Reading

In a footnote to her reading of Mahasweta Devis The Breast-Giver, Spivak

mentions that English is a medium of defilement in that text. The same might
be said of the English and Kiswahili passages that we find in the Gikuyu editions
of Devil on the Cross and Matigari. The ogres in these two novels (which
include the foreign delegates to the Devils Feast, John Boy junior and Robert
Williams junior) defile the Gikuyu language passages via their foreign mediums of
expression. Hence, Gikuyu is in these novels posited as an originary language that
translates the autochthony or historical priority of the speaking subject. I conclude
my study of Ngugis fiction with a consideration of the responsibilities that the
language politics of his later fiction might oblige during the act of reading his
Gikuyu texts in English translation. This consideration is best undertaken via a
discussion of Ngugis three essay collections: Writers in Politics, Decolonising the
Mind and Moving the Centre. In sum, these collections require us to examine how
we position literary critical readings in relation to an African cultural politics that
might contest our founding assumptions.
At the most straightforward level, the act of reading a literary text is itself an
exclusionary and litist gesture in Kenya, since it would have excluded over 90 per
cent of the Kenyan population when Ngugi wrote his novels in the 1980s. As Ngugi
himself has noted, the present language situation in Kenya means that over ninety
percent of Kenyans (mostly peasants) are completely excluded from participation
in national debates conducted in the written word. He states that while writing
A Grain of Wheat, he came to realise only too painfully that the novel in which
I had so carefully painted the struggle of the Kenyan peasantry against colonial
oppression would never be read by them. Given such high levels of illiteracy,
the postcolonial gender critic must immediately mark an asymmetry in his or her
position. But even if we were to disregard this substantial caveat, Ngugis novels
are accompanied by a theory of writing and of language that is rooted in a defined
historical constituency. He argues that the very act of writing implies a social
relationship: one is writing about somebody for somebody. Moreover, in Ngugis
classical Marxist view, social relations ultimately emerge out of the totality of

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds, p. 309.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 43.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 9.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 5.
192 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

the relations of production. In fact, he suggests that the wealth and power and
self-image of a community are inseparable. Elsewhere, Ngugi states explicitly
that there is no area of our lives including the very boundaries of our imagination
which is not affected by the way society is organized. If we concede that the
imagination is shaped by power and that this dispensation of power limits the
social relationships that our readings may permit, then the postcolonial gender
critic enmeshed in economic privilege, in undisclosed ideological complicities
and in the institutions of Anglophone literary criticism cannot simply assume an
unmediated social relationship to a Kenyan peasant constituency. Ngugis critique
of literary syllabi at least as they have operated in Kenya and in other former
colonies is that they have frequently functioned as imperial mechanisms, and
he goes so far as to claim that cultural imperialism becomes the major agency
of control during neo-colonialism. For Ngugi, literary criticism is not free of
a cultural imperialist potential, especially when it emerges from metropolitan
locations. He writes: you have only to look around you and see the mad rush
of European critics who only a few years ago, before independence, were so
disparaging about African literature and African writers. Now they are the new
interpreters, interpreting African literature for the African. Moreover, he bemoans
the situation in which no expert on the so-called African literatures need ever
show even the slightest acquaintance with any African language. Ngugi views
literature as a subtle weapon of cultural imperialism, because literature works
through influencing emotions, the imagination, the consciousness of a people in
a certain way; to make the colonized see the world as seen, analyzed, and defined
by the artists and the intellectuals of the western literary classes.10 In this sense,
intellectual production sets in place powers of definition that work upon the
sensibilities of the disempowered to mystify the conditions of their oppression, and
that produce an African permanently injured by a feeling of inadequacy, a person
who would look up with reverent awe to the achievements of Europe.11 If Ngugis
first move is to reject the notion that a Kenyan childs route to self-realization
must be via European heritages and cultures, distorting the values of national
liberation,12 then it is obvious that literary criticisms latent orientations and values
are neither neutral nor innocuous. In this sense, the position from which one reads
and the interests that are at work in ones reading assume a crucial importance. In
Ngugis view, literary criticism aided and abetted colonialism, since the economic
domination of Africans was effected through politics and culture. Economic and

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. xv.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 71.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 5.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 25.

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 23.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 15.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 23.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 35.
Conclusion 193

political control of a people can never be complete without cultural control, and
here scholarly practice, irrespective of any individual interpretation and handling
of the practice, fitted well the logic and aim of the system as a whole.13 Moreover,
literary criticism is never neutral or transparent.14 It is always historically and
politically located, because:

the critic, whether teacher, lecturer, interpreter or analyst, is a product of

class society. Therefore, their interpretation of literature and culture and
history will be influenced by their philosophical standpoint, or intellectual base,
and their conscious or unconscious sympathies. In criticism, as in creative
writing, there is an ideological struggle.15

Operated by demands that are both professional and disciplinary (that is to say,
institutional and ideological), the postcolonial gender critic may risk perpetuating
cultural imperialist agencies of control, regardless of honorable intentions or
individual goodwill.
If the politics of literature and literary criticism are complex, then the language
that one chooses as ones medium of expression is even more so. Ngugis signal
contribution to debates about the language of African literature presumes an idea
of a readership and a constituency: the choice of language already pre-determines
the answer to the most important question for producers of imaginative literature:
For whom do I write? Who is my audience?16 Far more is at stake in these
questions than the simple decision about which readers are qualified to read or
are disqualified from reading a particular passage as a result of their particular
linguistic competences. Ngugis assumption is that language is a peoples collective
memory-bank of historical experience and that it is a space in which all the living
and ancestral voices of a community are articulated.17 He delineates this assumption
even more directly in Decolonising the Mind, when he writes that language is a
carrier of culture.18 At stake in the writers choice of language is nothing less
than a communitys possibilities for self-definition,19 since indigenous languages

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 93.
[T]here are only two types of scholars: those on the side of oppression and those
on the side of resistance. Neutrality in such a situation is a myth; or, rather, it means that
such a scholar is basically on the side of the bully. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre,
pp. 867.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, pp. 1045.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, pp. 534. Ngugi argues elsewhere that For
the African writer, the language he has chosen already has chosen his audience. Ngugi wa
Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 73.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Writers in Politics, p. 60.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 13.
See Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 4.
194 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

contain the lived and accrued idiom of historical experience.20 Moreover, language
mediates all notions of subjecthood, social relations and relations of production:
Language as culture is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my
own self and other selves, between me and nature. Language is thus mediating in
my very being.21 When we notice the profundity of indigenous languages and the
immense cultural and spiritual weight with which they are invested, the complicity
of the English language with colonial violence is self-explanatory. Historically,
the English language assumed primacy in national culture and in education. It
was a prerequisite to rapid class advancement. It was both the language of the
elect22 and a language in which African communities were subject to colonial
devaluation.23 In this way, the English language came to dominate the mental
universe of the colonized.24 Its institutionalization resulted in the disassociation
of [a Kenyan] child from his natural and social environment, what we might call
colonial alienation.25 But English was not only a vehicle of domination. It has also
been a mechanism for the expropriation of cultural value: In the area of culture,
the raw material of African orature and histories developed by African languages
are taken, repackaged through English or French or Portuguese and then resold
back to Africa.26
It is for all of these considered reasons that Ngugi took the revolutionary
decision to write in his Gikuyu mother tongue, and the consequences of this
decision introduce considerable ethical dilemmas for the attentive postcolonial
critic. To begin with, there is the immediate difficulty of engaging with gender
constructions in a text in translation. Since Ngugis final two novels were written
in his Gikuyu home tongue and translated into English, the English reader surely
needs to make allowance for the epistemological uncertainties that translation
introduces into a feminist reading.27 Indeed, I would argue that the English reader
who relies solely upon the English translation must allow for the possibility that
the original Gikuyu narrative may contain unanticipated positive (or negative)
spaces for Kenyan women. When one reads a translated text in the target language,
one must play host to all of the hidden possibilities and limitations at work upon
ones readings that the source language makes available in the original. How, after
all, might an Anglophone critic ever know whether or not the English translations
of Devil on the Cross, Matigari and Wizard of the Crow are faithful to the
spirit of the original Gikuyu texts? More generally, is any text ever completely

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, pp. 45, 54.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 15.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 32.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 35.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 16.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 17.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 20.
Ngugi certainly conceives of his decision to write in Gikuyu as an epistemological
break with his past. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 44.
Conclusion 195

capable of fidelity to its intertexts? Is it not possible that, even as Ngugis later
texts such as Devil on the Cross and Matigari collapse strategies of inclusion
(of Kenyan women into political life) into strategies of recuperation (of Kenyan
women into patriarchy), these texts might equally be opening spaces of dissent or
opportunity for Kenyan women; spaces that are lost in translation or in cultural
recoding and that the English reader lacks the competence to decipher?28 The
Anglophone postcolonial critic is caught in an uncomfortable double bind when
confronting the text in translation. Analysis and critique must necessarily waver
between appropriating Kenyan female characters into the self-confirming and
culturally ignorant logic of ones own reading, or lapsing into the debilitating
logic of their unrepresentability. Either of these two positions might recuperate the
proto-imperialist narratives of an African subject who is capable of being easily
appropriated for the consolidation of the imperialist project, or the racist delusion
of an inscrutable African subject, whose supposed illegibility confers upon them a
subhuman object status. To assume either mode of critique would be to place the
postcolonial critic in an unacceptable position of complicity with the mechanics of
cultural colonization. In short, reading in translation always carries the latent risk
that the critic may read for gender possibility while simultaneously evolving new
forms of cultural violence.
Following Gayatri Chakravorty Spivaks deconstructive reading praxis, I would
suggest that the impossibility of criticism posits the very necessity for criticism,
even while one accepts that english criticism can never fully have access to the
original Gikuyu texts. I use the lower case (english) here to denote my use of a
hybrid, cosmopolitan English which coexists among other varieties of equal value.
In this sense, I broadly follow Ashcroft, Tiffin and Griffiths theoretical model,
in which the lower case functions as a sign of the subversion of the claims to
status and privilege to which English usage clings.29 In other words, the language
of literary criticism is never entirely self-present or undifferentiated. However,
the Gikuyu original in Ngugis fiction is clearly not an undifferentiated or self-
present origin either. Ngugis return to writing in his Gikuyu mother tongue is
arguably not a return to a plentiful cultural space uncontaminated by colonial
influences. Indeed, as Ngugi points out in The Language of African Fiction, the
Gikuyu language also contains the traces of colonial cultural violence:

Rival imperialisms and the colonial practice of divide and rule introduced
contradictory representations of the sound systems of the very same language, let
alone of similar African languages in the same colonial boundary. For instance
the Gikuyu language had two rival orthographies developed by the protestant and
catholic missionaries. Before this was rectified, two Gikuyu speaking children

On the epistemology of translation in Matigari, see Simon Gikandi, The
Epistemology of Translation: Ngugi, Matigari, and the Politics of Language, Research in
African Literatures 22:4 (Winter, 1991), pp. 1617.
Bill Ashcroft, Helen Tiffin and Gareth Griffiths, The Empire Writes Back, p. 217.
196 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

could well have been in the position where they could not read each others [sic]
letters or essays.30

Of course, Ngugi himself was involved in attempting to rectify the contradictions

in the two orthographies. From 1979 to 1982 in other words, a period covering
his release from prison and the publication of the Gikuyu original of Devil on the
Cross (Caitaani Mutharaba-ini) he initiated a study group led by Karega Mutahi,
U of Nairobi linguist, to revise inconsistent and inaccurate Gikuyu orthography
established by missionaries [and this] group includes writers such as Gakaara
wa Wanjau and Ngugi wa Mirii and church officials.31 This intervention on
Ngugis part does not mean, however, that Gikuyu orthography was restored
to a state of pre-existing purity. To claim this would be to suggest that Ngugis
own ambivalent subject formation within the educated lite had had no lasting
intellectual or ideological legacy. It would also suggest that those participants
involved had exerted no ideological or institutional influence upon the revised
orthography. Most controversially, such a claim would also deny that colonialism
and its latter-day transformations had exerted any shaping force on Ngugi or on
Gikuyu culture more generally. A denial of this kind would simply remove the
entire basis for Ngugis creative and theoretical contributions to African thought.
Hence, far from treating the Gikuyu language as a pristine repository of culture
or heritage, we should entertain the more likely probability that modern Gikuyu,
whether it is spoken by the bourgeoisie or the worker, or indeed the peasant, carries
traces of the institutional and epistemological violence of colonialism. If this is
the case, then the gikuyu32 used by Ngugi in Matigari or Devil on the Cross is
not an homogeneous or undifferentiated means of communication and carrier of
culture,33 nor the founding moment of a community of workers and peasants, but
an irredeemably prostituted mother tongue. Even Kenya, defined geographically
by boundaries agreed upon by colonial powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884
85, is a motherland forever accompanied by colonial inscriptions.34
Again, I think that a performative reading guided by Ngugis own critical
thought and by postcolonial theories of translation can help us in conditions
of impossibility. Even as he formulated his decision to write in Gikuyu, Ngugi
was already thinking about the possibilities that might be created by a model of
polycentric translation. That is to say, Ngugi was contemplating the need for the
global hegemony of the English language to be replaced by the multiple linguistic
centres that minority languages provide. Accompanying these multiple centres, he

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, pp. 667.
Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, pp. 1213.
I use the lower-case gikuyu to denote an indigenous African language differentiated
or even fragmented by colonial epistemic violence and neocolonial devaluation.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Decolonising the Mind, p. 13.
See Carol Sicherman, Making of a Rebel, p. 45, and Ngugi wa Thiongo,
Decolonising the Mind, p. 23.
Conclusion 197

envisaged translation becoming a crucial mode of relation in progressive cultural


We live in one world. All the languages in the world are real products of human
They are our common heritage. A world of many languages should be like a field
of flowers of different colours. [Our] languages can, should, and must express
our common being. All our languages should join in the demand for a new
international economic, political, and cultural order.
Then the different languages should be encouraged to talk to one another through
the medium of interpretation and translation.35

In Ngugis view, polycentric translation is the cultural corollary to the lateral

distribution of global power and wealth.36 If we are at all attentive to the linguistic
mechanisms of translation and their wider cultural possibilities, then our
postcolonial feminist readings surely need to refuse self-confirmatory guarantees.
I would like to work within this general idiom, in order to extend the act of reading
in translation to encompass a progressive gender politics.
Here, a performative methodology geared towards an ethics of postcolonial
reading is required of us, and the available precedents within postcolonial feminist
theory will prove helpful. In one of her essays, Echo, Gayatri Chakravorty
Spivak makes use of translation to disrupt the symmetrical binarism within which
gender identities are habitually framed. Spivaks primary aim in the essay is
to read against psychoanalytic theorys habitual association of narcissism with
women by returning to Ovids original account of Narcissus and looking for the
female protagonist, Echo. Since Echo echoes, she poses a logical problem for
Spivak. Echo confirms Narcissus self-love by repeating himself back to him. As
such, her agency risks being obscured in the itinerary of his utterances. Spivak has
written of a strategic blindness in Ovids Metamorposes, in which Echos response
to Narcissus cannot remain proper to his originary speech:

Echo in Ovid is staged as the instrument of the possibility of a truth not

dependent upon intention, a reward uncoupled from, indeed set free from, the
recipient. Throughout the reported exchange between Narcissus and Echo, she
behaves according to her punishment and gives back the end of each statement.
Ovid quotes her, except when Narcissus asks, Quid me fugis (Why do you
fly from me [Metamorphoses, 150, lines 3834])? Caught in the discrepancy

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving the Centre, p. 39.
Speaking of his intellectual preoccupations while a student at Leeds, Ngugi writes:
It was once again the question of moving the centre: from European languages to all the
other languages all over Africa and the world; a move if you like towards a pluralism of
languages as legitimate vehicles of the human imagination. Ngugi wa Thiongo, Moving
the Centre, p. 10.
198 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

between the second person interrogative (fugis) and the imperative (fugi), Ovid
cannot allow her to be, even Echo, so that Narcissus, flying from her could
have made the ethical structure of response a fulfilled antiphone. He reports her
speech in the name of Narcissus: quot dixit, verba recipit [Metamorphoses, 150,
line 384] he receives back the words he says. The discrepancy is effaced in the
discrepancy of translation. In English, Echo could have echoed Fly from me
and remained echo.37

What Spivak notices here is that there is a grammatical discrepancy between the
interrogative and the imperative forms of the verb to fly (fugis and fugi). This
discrepancy means that if she echoed Narcissus words, Echo would transform
them and break the narcissistic logic of self-reflection. By resorting to reported
speech, Ovid disguises the anomaly. It is precisely as an inadequate, and, for that
reason, interceptive, translation that Echos replies retain their ethical integrity.
If Echo were permitted by Ovid to truly echo, she would coax Narcissus out of
self-fixation and self-interest into a form of relation. Moreover, since Echo cannot
be fully translated, her desire eludes Narcissus. This is why Spivak claims that
Ethics are not a problem of knowledge but a call of relationship (where being
without relationship is the limit case). But the problem and the call are in a
deconstructive embrace: Narcissus and Echo.38 Spivak extrapolates this axiom as
a way of thinking about the ethical relationship between the postcolonial feminist
critic and the subaltern woman:

This feminist is culturally divided from the women at the bottom. I have already
indicated that what she sees as her face she knows to be an it which she loves,
and of which she desires the disappearance the precarious moment of the
Ovidian Narcissus in order not to speak for, speak to, listen to, but to respond
to the subaltern sister. In the current conjuncture, national identity debates in the
South and liberal multiculturalism in the North want her to engage in restricted-
definition narcissism as well. Simply put: love-your-own-face, love-your-own-
culture, remain-fixated-in-cultural-difference, simulate what is really pathogenic
repression in the form of questioning the European universalist superego.39

Echos undoing moment40 therefore offers an important corrective to the self-

imaging tendencies of the postcolonial gender critic and the wider cultural

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Echo, in Donna Landry and Gerald Maclean (eds),
The Spivak Reader (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 183, italics in the original. Spivak
is quoting Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller (Loeb Classical Library),
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966), vol. 1.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Echo, p. 190.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Echo, p. 186.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Echo, p. 186.
Conclusion 199

narcissism that such self-imaging betokens. In disrupting the cultural self-interest

of the critic, Echo opens a space for ethical response to subaltern women.
The role of translation is crucial in this ethical structure. Translation is a space in
which languages formulate relations in conditions of incommensurability if only
because source language (for example, fugis or gikuyu) and target language (for
example, fugi or english) do not exhibit likenesses. This formulation of relations
in conditions of incommensurability, I think, means that translation provides us
with a critical metaphor for how subjects with differently positioned claims upon
the world may arrive at a consensual idiom in which ethical reciprocity is possible.
I would suggest that the later novels, written for translation, place Gikuyu and
non-Gikuyu readers alike in an ethical structure, in which analysis must always
account for the linguistically unassimilable. This relational space, I would argue,
offers a site of fluid agency, in which the mutability of translation might be thought
of as enabling unanticipated and transformatory subject positions. In short, since
translation formulates relations in conditions of incommensurability, it becomes
something like a critical metaphor for a postcolonial reading ethics.
How might a performative methodology of this kind offer an ethically
responsive gender critique of Ngugis later fiction in translation? As we have seen,
the gikuyu text is irreducible to the critic reading in translation (it can not be
colonized) and it is also irreducible to the intentions of the author writing in his
indigenous language (it is already colonized). One productive reading, then, would
be to equate both english and gikuyu texts with the Mau Mau prostitute, who
works in the between of colonization and insurgency, and who is finally mastered by
neither the masculine insurgent (her political investment is outside of phallocentric
narratives of resistance) nor by the colonizing zeal of her clientele (she militates
against sexual and racial conquest even as she accedes to it). Of course, the equation
between the agency of an historical figure (the Mau Mau prostitute) and a textual
feature (translation) is always a catachrestical move that superimposes seemingly
irreconcilable orders of human endeavour upon one another.
Yet, within the logic of my reading of Ngugis novels, and within the logic of
the novels own gender-political moves, such an analogy is not unfounded. Ngugi
himself has written that Devil on the Cross, his first novel in Gikuyu, was a fictional
reflection of the resistance heroine of Kenyan history, such as Mau Mau women
cadres.41 Moreover, as we have seen throughout this study, Ngugis women act as
mediatory agents of male historical exchange. In this sense, they perform the role
of translation between irreconcilable political orders. Additionally, Evan Mwangi
has argued very compellingly that the untranslated Gikuyu allusions in Petals of
Blood form a gendered matrix exhibiting an irresolvable or aporetical quality.
One of Mwangis most brilliant analytical strategies is to read these untranslated
moments as metonymic of the frustrated struggles to convert revolution into final
liberation. The metonymy of untranslated language is backed by structural and
gendered contradictions that draw our attention to the narratives demand to be

Ngugi wa Thiongo, Detained, p. 10.
200 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

read against the grain.42 Mwangi argues further that there is a key contradiction
in the taboo references to female sexuality in Petals of Blood. Specifically, he has
noticed that when the villagers overhear the partygoers at Chuis house singing
circumcision songs, there is a discrepant censoring of derogatory Gikuyu words
denoting the vagina (cunt).43 These words are rendered in English translation:

Njuguma nduku
A big club.
Ya gukura kru kabucu
For pulling out a jaw of cunt.
Kna igoto
Cunt with banana leaves.44

The discrepancy of cultural value between cunt and kru is, in my view,
very telling. It indicates that something unnameable () supplementing female
sexuality and sexual organs is readable only in Gikuyu, but not in English. More
interestingly, this unnameable supplement suspends the narratives nominative
power in a manner that is consistent with my argument that Wanjas career in
prostitution and the historical agency of the Mau Mau prostitute both critique the
operation of the patronym in Petals of Blood. If we were to read the unnameable
supplement historically, we might argue that it could be read as the clandestine bullet
garnered by the Mau Mau prostitutes revolutionary sexuality. This unnameable
supplement to female sexuality is a taboo within the Gikuyu revolutionary culture
to which it contributes, and it is invisible to the English colonial culture that it
aims to destabilize. In short, within Ngugis own fiction, we have a precedent that
equates the agency of an historical figure (the Mau Mau prostitute) and a textual
feature (translation). To put this another way, if the English language translation
defiles the gendered Gikuyu matrix of the original text, and if translation is always
that irresolvable mediatory moment in which two irreconcilable languages are
placed in relation, then the analytical conditions within which a reading of Ngugis
language politics takes place at the very least invoke the historical activities of the
Mau Mau prostitute. In translation, a space of revolutionary female agency and
articulation brings the irreconcilable positions of Gikuyu author and Anglophone
critic into productive crisis.
In short, we could construct an extended metaphor a conceit and argue that
translation is one viable space that Ngugis Gikuyu novels may offer to female
political articulation and sexual agency. We could suggest that translation is one
textual space that remains irreducible to the agendas of either the Gikuyu author

Evan Mwangi, The Gendered Politics of Untranslated Language and Aporia in
Ngugi wa Thiongos Petals of Blood, Research in African Literatures, 35:4 (Winter
2004), pp. 667.
Evan Mwangi, The Gendered Politics of Untranslated Language, pp. 689.
Ngugi wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood, p. 130.
Conclusion 201

or the English reader, in just the same way as the Mau Mau prostitutes agency
remains irreducible to both her colonial clientele and to her Mau Mau comrades.
We could suggest that translation the shuttling between two incommensurate
languages might be designated an ethical space for Kenyan female desire and
political agency to inhabit in Ngugis novels.
In conclusion, we have moved a long way from the cultural injunction to
silence that traditionally accompanies clitoridectomy. We have moved a long way
beyond the limiting female subject positions that were historically constructed
within the uterine social organization of Kenyan national struggle. We have also
moved a long way from a Eurocentric framework of reference in relation to Ngugis
African literary texts. In the Mau Mau prostitutes revolutionary sexuality and her
undisclosed investments in national struggle, we have found an historical example
of a Kenyan female subject position that is both extraordinarily empowered and
necessarily covert. If we are attentive to the forms of agency allowed by this
relayed or distributed model of revolutionary femininity, we arrive not merely
at the critique of sexist literary representations, nor simply the destabilization of
Eurocentric literary critical assumptions. We arrive at something that is surely
crucial to the progressive, polycentric global culture that Ngugi has done so much
to champion an ethics of postcolonial reading.
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Abdalla, Abdilatif 14041 Conrad, Joseph 65, 92

Adagala, Kavetsa 121 Cook, David and Okenimpke, Michael 22,
African independent churches 34, 38, 40, 30, 89
889 Cowie, Elizabeth 42
Allen, Gay Wilson 11, 130 Currey, James 64
Althusser, Louis 379 Curtis, Lisa 139
Anderson, Benedict 54, 85
Arnold, Guy 42, 48 Dangarembga, Tsitsi 178
Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth, and Tiffin, Derrida, Jacques 111, 130, 173
Helen 103, 195 deconstruction 10, 111, 173
Asselineau, Roger 130 Dickens, Charles 179
Dunton, Chris 39
Ba, Mariam 178
Barnett, Donald, and Njama, Karari 612, Edgerton, Robert 624, 67, 70, 72
656, 6872, 94, 105, 171 Emecheta, Buchi 178
Barthes, Roland 160 ethics of postcolonial reading 194201
Benson, T. G. 123 Evans, Jennifer 30
Berman, Bruce, and Lonsdale, John 64
Bible, The Holy 7, 23, 88, 11819, 132, 182 Fanon, Frantz 16
Biersteker, Ann 176 feminism 4, 89, 3031, 33, 58, 122,
Blake, William 7, 12, 1325, 137 1734, 179, 182, 188, 194, 1978
Bloom, Harold 13 Freud, Sigmund 40, 98, 12021, 133, 147
Boehmer, Elleke 9, 15, 3031, 122, 1689,
1745 Gachathi, F. N. 94
Bront, Charlotte 179 Gacukia, Eddah 20, 42
Bunn, David 19 Gellner Ernest 7, 101
Gicaru, Muga 1489
Carter, Steven R. 120, 141 Gikandi, Simon 22, 25, 55, 57, 107, 160,
Ceniza, Sherry 131 195
Cervo, Nathan 134 Glenn, Ian 5, 15, 28, 469
Chesaina, Jane C. 20, 34 Graham, Billy 1367
Christianity 345, 3840, 88, 119, 1367 Greenfield, Kathleen 110
Cixous, Hlne, and Clment, Catherine Gugelberger, Georg M. 119
13, 29, 93, 121, 1478 Gurnah, Abdulrazak 1718
Clark, John Pepper 1367
clitoridectomy (circumcision) 13, 5, 10, Harasym, Sarah 62
1112, 22, 25, 3159, 79, 82, 88, Hentoff, Nat 137
967, 101, 105, 112, 1238, 1412, Hickey, Dennis 38
159, 171, 1756, 18081, 200 HIV/AIDS 1812
Clough, Marshall 65 Holloway, Emory 11
212 Ngugi wa Thiongo, Gender, and the Ethics of Postcolonial Reading

Itote, Waruhiu (General China) 6772, 114 Meyer, Herta 30, 34, 121, 134, 1389, 141,
1434, 174
Kanogo, Tabitha 114 Murumbi, Joseph 140
karinga independent schools 34, 38, 40 Musunge, Kamawe 110
Kariuki, J. M. 72 Mutwa, Credo 62
Kennedy, J. Gerald 132 Mwangi, Evan 199200
Kenyatta, Jomo 13, 5, 10, 12, 13, 1719,
23, 27, 336, 39, 43, 4850, 54, 58, Naipaul, V. S. 7, 117, 1357, 14041
70, 105, 121, 1256, 171, 187 Nama, Charles 978, 105
Keynes, Geoffrey 1334 nationalism 18, 13, 15, 1819, 21, 31,
Kihiko, Reuben 878 334, 378, 40, 445, 489, 52,
Killam, Douglas G. 19 567, 62, 71, 86, 889, 92, 94, 97,
Kimathi, Dedan 23, 878, 108, 122, 126, 1012, 105, 107, 112, 114, 117,
138, 142, 1458, 1515, 157, 172 129, 142, 145, 148, 166, 171, 174
Kouba, Leonard and Muasher, Judith 58 Nduru, Nyama (Paul Mahehu) 67
Ngugi wa Thiongo (James Ngugi)
Lacan, Jacques 161 biography
La Magna, Giovanna 4 Christianity 29, 41, 879, 97, 101
Lamming, George 11719, 137 circumcision 41
Lengila, Seita 1 education 234, 41, 834, 117,
Levin, Tobe 58 197
Likimani, Muthoni 115 imprisonment 15960, 185, 187,
Lovesey, Oliver 185 188
Lugard, Lord Frederick John Dealty 48 language politics 15051, 158,
Maina wa Kinyatti 1534, 187 Marxism 867, 1912
Makeri, Wangu 91, 95 Mau Mau 223, 89
Maloba, Wunyabari O. 636, 712, 114 orature 99, 1028, 125, 127,
Marxism 7, 1314, 867, 109, 126, 138, 191 1489, 1546, 15963, 1778
Maughan-Brown, David 6, 22, 29, 61, works
857, 89, 93, 10910 The Black Hermit 5052
Mau Mau (Kenya Land and Freedom Barrel of a Pen 154, 163, 1845,
Army) 610, 11, 20, 22, 224, 187
289, 36, 38, 536, 5990, 92, Decolonising the Mind 84, 162,
95, 98106, 10815, 122, 134, 1934, 196
136, 138, 140, 1457, 149, 1524, Detained 90, 152, 1545, 15960,
15860, 17073, 1757, 199201 187, 199
colonial military strategy 626 Devil on the Cross 8, 10, 82, 106,
colonial mythologies 667, 74 115, 125, 143, 145, 150, 151,
disguises 678 15978, 181, 191, 1946, 199
etymologies 612 A Grain of Wheat 67, 22, 54, 569,
military successes 67 76, 81, 84, 85115, 117, 145,
oath 61, 63, 67, 71, 94, 114, 1267, 150, 162, 175, 179, 180, 191
136, 159 Homecoming 14, 29, 512, 88,
tactics 6870 1089, 11819, 136
torture 62, 646, 89, 94 Matigari 8, 10, 54, 115, 125, 145,
women 7073 150, 151, 164, 172, 1768,
Mazrui, Al Amin 187 184, 191, 1946
Index 213

Moving the Centre 12, 140, 1914, Rawcliffe, D. H. 88

197 Reynolds, David S. 131
Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus Robson, Clifford 21
1578 Roos, Bonnie 147
Njamba Nenes Pistol 1589, 173 Rosberg, Carl, and Nottingham, John 345
Penpoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams Rushdie, Salman 17980
10, 155, 1857
Petals of Blood 78, 56, 82, 84, Sicherman, Carol 19, 224, 29, 35, 41,
115, 11750, 151, 153, 177, 489, 52, 62, 87, 89, 1023, 105,
180, 184, 188, 199200 110, 1257, 13840, 142, 144, 148,
The River Between 56, 14, 3353, 1624, 171, 196
568, 81, 101, 180 Sigurjonsdottir, Sigurbjorg 11
Secret Lives 6, 59, 7384 Simpson, Michael 133
This Time Tomorrow 526 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty 3, 33, 37,
Weep Not, Child 5, 10, 1131, 40, 434, 62, 93, 98, 109, 11112,
534, 56, 81, 92, 163 130, 1478, 173, 184, 191, 195,
Wizard of the Crow 4, 810, 58, 1978
150, 151, 17789, 194 Stoneham, C. T. 623, 66,
(with Micere Githae Mugo) The Stratton, Florence 9, 106, 142, 174
Trial of Dedan Kimathi 1515,
157 Thomas, Lynn M. 36
(with Ngugi wa Mirii) I Will Marry Throup, David W. 667, 69
When I Want 151, 1557 Thuku, Harry 155
Njama, Mbugua 48 Tournier, Michel 105
Njoroge, J. K. 149 translation 2, 9, 17, 77, 103, 115, 120,
Nwankwo, Chimalum 4 1389, 160, 164, 174, 183,
Nyanjiru, Mary 956 188201

Ogude, James 42 van der Vlies, Andrew 177

Okpewho, Isidore 99, 162 Vaughan, Michael 87, 8990, 92, 104,
Ovid 1979 1089

pBitek, Okot 137, 141 Waiyaki 489, 70

Perera, S. W. 113 Walcott, Derek 7, 117, 128, 130, 135, 137
performative reading 11115, 14650, Wamweya, Joram 68
197201 Wanjiru 153
Petersen, Kirsten Holst 97 Wanyoike, Mary W. 56
Poe, Edgar Allan 1313, 137 Welsh, Stephanie 1
Poole, Peter Richard Harold 110 White, Josh 137
Presley, Cora Ann 48, 712 White, Luise 146, 153
prostitution 4, 610, 17, 64, 712, 823, Whitman, Walt 7, 1112, 13031, 137
95, 11315, 1213, 1289, 131, Williams, Patrick 14, 16, 39, 54, 101, 102,
134, 141, 143, 1459, 154, 156, 174
165, 168, 172, 173, 1757, 179, Wilson, Christopher 66, 71
196, 199201 Wurmbrand, Richard 1367

rape 54, 56, 96, 10911, 1445, 166, Yeats, W. B. 7, 119, 137
17071, 183