Alternate question: Critical Analysis of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood.
Soon after the publication of Petals of Blood (1977) Ngugi wa Thiong’o was arrested, detained without charge and then sentenced to maximum security prison for one year by the then government of Kenya.
It was because this epic novel and his community-driven plays with the Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center which were written in Gikuyu such asNgaahika Ndeenda, criticized the manner in which the political ruling elite hoodwinked the peasant class into a position of socio-economic privilege while leaving the latter in a state of deprivation. Petals of Blood, which is based on an investigation into the puzzling murder case of three capitalists: Chui, Kimeria and Mzigo, is written such that it represents different types and classes of people in the Kenyan society during changing historical times: the pre-colonial, the colonial and the post-colonial eras. It reveals a society full of betrayals of the peasant class by the powerful ruling elite. Through this novel, which can be seen as a product of the then ongoing, albeit incomplete, transition from an Afro-European to an African novelistic style, Ngugi aims at awakening the revolutionary spirit among Kenyans similar to that of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) freedom fighters during the battle against the European settlers for independence. This national consciousness is modelled on Frantz Fanon’s conception of the writer as a native intellectual who is in one of the three phases: the first phase which is characterized by the writer’s unqualified assimilation, the second phase where the writer is ‘disturbed but decides to remember who he is’ by just recalling the past life of his people and the third phase which is the fighting phase where the writer becomes an ‘awakener of the people’ (Fanon 40–41). In this essay, I aim at analyzing how Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as an ‘awakener of the people,’ uses the novel Petals, to inspire national consciousness especially among the peasants in the neo-colonial Kenyan society.
The first, and arguably most important, factor to consider when determining Ngugi’s aspirations in Petals of Blood is the people he wrote the book for, his target audience. In his essay from Decolonizing the Mind, titledThe Language of African Fiction, while commenting on the language crisis he found himself in, Ngugi said-
I knew whom I was writing about but whom was I writing for?
(Decolonizing the Mind 72)
He termed Petals of Blood as ‘the climax’ of his Afro-European writing but it is quite clear that despite writing it in English, Ngugi had the Kenyan working class in mind as the novel’s primary audience. The novel is set in a remote, but changing, village of Ilmorog and the heroic characters such as Abdulla, Karega, Munira, Wanja and Nyakinyua are people that the Kenyan peasant population can identify with. In addition, Ngugi seems to be more accepting towards the peasant class and critical of those who do not conform to the ideals of this class. For instance, when Munira goes to Ilmorog at the beginning, he tries to settle in as an intellectual who does not seem, and is afraid, to understand the dynamics of the peasant class such as the rain patterns or the indo cia thakame, things of blood. Due to this tendency, he faces resistance from the local people such as Nyakinyua, who sees him as having come to fetch the remaining children to take them to the city (Petals 9) and Njuguna, Ruoro and Muturi who see him as a ‘msomi’ whose ‘hands are untouched by soil, as if they wear a ngome.’ (11) Ngugi’s portrayal of Munira here shows a rejection of the middle class intellectuals who refuse to be part of the people. The novel also chastises the capitalist and political classes through characters such as Mzigo, Chui and Kimeria, who end up being murdered at the end of the novel, and the sloganeering politician Nderi wa Riiera as well as Munira’s father Ezekieli. On the other hand, peasant characters such as Nyakinyua and Muturi are praised as the guardians of the people’s history but who are oppressed by the ruling class and who should therefore act together to change their situation. Karega, the son of a peasant Mariamu, is shown as the force behind the resistance of the Ilmorog people and workers against an oppressive regime and a profiteering capitalist class. This leaves no doubt that Ngugi seeks to provoke the have-nots in Kenya to see themselves in the characters and their struggles and realize their power to rise against the tyranny of the haves.
The nature of the language in the novel also tells of a man clear in his address to the working class, albeit in transition in terms of the language of his writing. Ngugi uses cultural and local references without providing a clear background for the reader to contextualize the experience in the book. For instance, when the elderly men discus the weather patterns, not much detail is given and a reader unaccustomed to the knowledge of the place would find it difficult to make sense of their discussions. Also Ngugi sprinkles the novel with Gikuyu and Swahili terms without providing a glossary or translation for most of them. This is evidence of Ngugi’s increasing urge to write to his people rather than just writing about them only for another group of people to read about. From my own experience as a Gikuyu speaker and someone able to easily contextualize the condition of life as written in Petals of Blood, I found it much easier to access the meaning compared to my peers who were limited by the Gikuyu and Swahili in the text and lack of a complete description of the nature of the human condition in the novel.
It is however important to note that while writing Petals of Blood, Ngugi still maintained a certain level of doubt about the ability of the novel written in English to reach this targeted audience since most of them could not either speak English or had a non-English epistemic interpretation of things unlike the Kenyan upper class. As he wrote Petals of Blood, wa Thiong’o was simultaneously working with Ngugi wa Mirii and The Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center to write Gikuyu plays like Ngaahika Ndeenda which were more easily accessible to his primary audience. This must have been a product of his concerns over his confusion over who his primary audience was in a 1967 interview cited in The Language of African Fiction and would also explain his insistence that intellectuals from marginalized languages-languages that have been mainly ignored in literature-realize that their primary audience is the community that gave them their language (Pozo 2). This in turn explains his irrevocable decision to change the language of his creative works from English to Gikuyu, starting with his next novel Devil on The Cross published in 1981.
Additionally, some of the literary techniques that Ngugi wa Thiong’o employs in Petals of Blood show us a man implementing his own recommendations in The Language of African Fiction and whose product is likely to be that which he recommends in the essay. Examples of these include departure from a linear plot, stories within stories and a constant shift in the narrative voice. Ngugi employs these techniques both as a means of achieving a narrative of collective consciousness and a move towards a more African novel inspired by techniques from other experienced writers who influenced him. The shift in the narrative voice is particularly important for creating collective consciousness. While parts of the novel have an omniscient narrator or the diary form as Munira recalls memories of his twelve years in Ilmorog, the third person plural perspective, such as at the beginning of part three, depicts a community galvanized by their collective struggle against oppression.
The allegorical nature of Petals of Blood is another factor that can be seen as Ngugi’s effort to recreate revolutionary consciousness. As an allegory, Petals of Blood is aimed at recreating a representation of a neo-colonial Kenyan state through characters, places and events that mirror the reality of the actual post-independence Kenyan state. The class differences are created through the peasant class in the form of the Ilmorog farmers and herders such as Muturi, Nyakinyua, Njuguna and Ruoro vis-a-vis the capitalist and the political class represented by characters such as Nderi wa Riera, Mzigo, Chui and Kimeria. There is also a class trapped in the middle which is represented by the immigrants to Ilmorog, particularly through the character of Munira. In addition, each character in the novel seems to play a specific role which is typical of a certain group of people in the real Kenyan society. Munira, for instance, represents the middle class that ‘stood outside’ during the struggle for independence and is struggling to fit into the rest of society by attempting to ‘pay back’ through service but who still fear to explore the tough questions of the rampant inequality as depicted by his anxiety in refusing to answer the children’s questions about the ‘flower with petals of blood.’ (Petals 12, 26) Munira aptly represents the second phase of the native intellectual as conceptualized by Fanon. The more aggressive Karega, whose name coincidentally means ‘the one who resists’ in Gikuyu, is a representation of the third phase of the native intellectual who is willing to confront the history and material reality of his people and with his people. As a teacher, he teaches the children about the world outside Ilmorog and he actively seeks a deeper understanding of the historical and political nuances of his people especially after meeting the lawyer who represents a political class of revolutionaries but whose fixation on property is faulted. Wanja on her part represents the struggles of a Kenyan woman who is forced by the circumstances to use her sexual power to gain favours but who nevertheless resists the capitalistic class oppression. Abdulla represents the revolutionaries who have been part of historical struggles but who have been betrayed and continue to languish in abjection. Joseph and Wanja’s unborn baby seem to represent an upcoming generation of revolutionaries who shall fight for a more just Kenya. On the other hand, the capitalists (Kimeria, Chui and Mzigo) seem to represent ‘slaves of the monster god’ that is money while Nderi wa Riiera represents the deceitful neo-colonial politicians whose efforts to terrorize and divide the people through the Kamwene Cultural Organization (KCO) are purely for his selfish gain.
Petals of Blood can also be seen as an African adaptation of the modernist form of artistic expression. Modernism is an artistic movement that started in the 19th Century and became more popular in the early 20th century through artists such as Pablo Picasso, Bertolt Brecht and Igor Stravinsky. It was characterized by a rejection of the norms set by prior forms such as realism and romanticism, criticism of the modern form of life dominated by capitalism and a higher level of alienation of the audience so as to stir deeper thinking and understanding. Edna Aizenberg argues that as African states found themselves in a post-independence era crisis, as the ruling class usurped the socio-economic power leaving the economies on the decline, the African intelligentsia felt the need to develop a ‘literary language to symbolically enact the disillusionment…a style in which the complex form, strained language and uncertain ground of the modernist aesthetic were melded with indigenous linguistic and narrative traditions to transmit the new instability and bitterness of African society” (Aizenberg 89). She correctly cites Ngugi wa Thiong’o, alongside Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Yambo Ouologuem and Kofi Awoonor, as part of this new movement of African writers. Petals of Blood, in many ways shows a novel fitting modernist ideals and aspirations, for instance through alienation by using Gikuyu words and phrases without translation, and espousing Marxist ideology to unsettle capitalistic inequality.
The didactic nature of Petals, which can also be viewed as a modernist resistance to the classical novelistic norms and a function of Ngugi’s address to Kenyan working class, also tells of a novel bent on teaching as a way of raising a national revolutionary consciousness. While a classical western novel would aim at entertaining its readers through its fiction in their leisure time, Petals of Blood takes a different path. While it certainly entertains as an investigative thriller, it also teaches Kenyan history and the present socio-economic and political condition. At some points, it takes on a completely didactic form to the extent that it looks like a textbook with elements of a novel. For instance, at the beginning of part two, Nyakinyua tells the Ilmorog people a story about the history of Ilmorog. Despite the fact that it takes on a narrative form, this part of the novel clearly teaches the pre-colonial history since the time of the founder of the community, Ndemi, to the coming of the colonialists when people like Munoru betrayed the community by collaborating and getting assimilated by the Europeans while Nyakinyua’s husband resisted (Petals 145–149). By doing this Ngugi wants the Kenyan people to understand their past, and while not romanticising it, learn lessons from it in order to change their current condition.
Also important in considering Petals of Blood as a tool for inspiring a revolutionary consciousness is the way in which Ngugi views Kenyan history as seen by different types of people. In the interview with Michael Pozo, Ngugi maintains that aesthetics do not occur in a social vacuum and as such art must reflect the conception of life which it represents (Pozo 2). For this reason, Ngugi looks into different versions of history ranging from the tautological “history is history” (Petals 206) by Chui at Siriana meant at institutionally assimilating Kenyan students to the black professors who viewed African history as “one of wanderlust and pointless warfare between peoples” (237). This is in sharp contrast to history that Nyakinyua made the Ilmorog people relive through her songs in the Theng’eta drinking session. The Theng’eta-inspired history is one that is in touch with the people’s present reality and the one that leads to the revelation of truth. This version of history, also praised by Fanon “the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities” (Fanon 42), is the one that Ngugi believes will awaken the people into national consciousness.
It is therefore clear that Ngugi used his last English literary work, Petals of Blood, to present the history and present reality of the Kenyan people in the form of an allegory that was constructed based on the collective struggle of the Ilmorog people to inspire consciousness among the Kenyan peasant and working class.