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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Petals of Blood
Ngũgĩ moves to post-independence Kenya in this novel and finds many faults with it. The novel is set in the small town of Ilmorog – we will meet it again Devil on the Cross – an undeveloped village, subject to drought, in North-Central Kenya. However, in twelve years, it has developed considerably. Also, twelve years later, we learn that three prominent citizens have been murdered and four people are arrested by the police in connection with the murders. Much of the novel follows how these four came to Ilmorog, before the boom started, how their lives interact and how corruption has become endemic in the town. We start with Godfrey Munira, a schoolteacher, the first to be arrested. He arrives in the dry, dilapidated town but is committed to his teaching. Much of what we learn about not just himself but the others three, comes from a statement he makes to the police. Like others, he is escaping, in his case from a Christian wife and father though, ironically, he ends up a fanatical Christian himself. The second to be arrested is Abdulla. He had arrived in Ilmorog shortly before Munira and opened a small shop. He had been a Mau Mau guerrilla and hero but had not received any reward for his bravery. Ngũgĩ is making the point that the guerrillas who helped achieve independence were not rewarded, while those who stayed at home became the new capitalists and power brokers. When the people of the town march on Nairobi to present their grievances, it is Abdulla who is their inspiration.
The third one is the only woman, Wanja. She had wanted to become a teacher but had been seduced by Kimeria, one of the murder victims and then, when she became pregnant, was abandoned by him. She became a bargirl and then managed to set up a company making a traditional herbal brew, but loses out on that, too, and ends up as the madam of brothel, realizing that in this world it is screw or be screwed. The last one is Karega, who had had an affair with Wanja but left her. He is a trades union organiser, after being thrown out of school for organising a student strike and doing a series of odd jobs, including working as Munira’s assistant. In short, many of these show up the current crisis in Kenya, according to Ngũgĩ – from repression of women to over-reliance on foreign capitalism at the expense of the people to the new breed of African capitalists who had not contributed to the struggle for independence but are the ones who mainly benefit from it.
Many critics – with some justification – have claimed that this novel moves away from being a work of literature to being a political work. All of Ngũgĩ’s novels are, of course, politically based and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. While he certainly does make several strong political points in this novel, I did not feel that they distracted from the overall feel of the book. The different techniques – Munira’s police statement, Swahili songs, the use of local myth and the shifting viewpoints – make this novel more fragmented but that should certainly not be seen as a negative. The focus is on the four main characters but it is also on the changes in Kenya, as seen through Ilmorog, during the twelve year period and the changing fortunes of the four mirrors this change very effectively.
First published 1977 by Heinemann