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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Kenda Mũiyũru (The Perfect Nine)
This not a novel but a blank verse account of the origin myth of the Kikuyu people, Ngũgĩ’s own ethnic group. I do enjoy a good origin myth – and I have read many – not least because they are normally a good story with lots of colourful characters, strange characters and magical events. This one is certainly of that kind.
The Kikuyu origin myth is certainly known. You can read about it here and here. However, Ngũgĩ has expanded on it here. Whether all his information comes from traditional sources or he has invented some himself, I do not know though the official statement implies that it came to him as a revelation:
One particular night, Ngugi suddenly woke up
He felt like the eyes of his heart had been opened
He had got a revelation
He went to his living room and took a pen.
He started writing this story about Gikuyu and Mumbi
And their perfect nine.
So this is not history, it is a revelation
The original creators of the Kikuyu people were Gĩkũyũ and his wife Mũmbi. God (the Kikuyu are monotheistic) placed them on top of Mount Kenya though in this story they seem to see mountains forming, rocks rolling and mud sliding, clearly a reference to the early unsettled days of the planet. (It should be remembered that earliest man came from that part of the world, with Olduvai Gorge, in modern-day Tanzania, being a key site for early man. In other words, we are all descended from East Africans, even white supremacists.)
Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi manage to flee to a mountain and climb it. This is traditionally Mount Kenya, a mountain sacred to the Kikuyu and other neighbouring peoples. Once at the top, they slept for nine months. When they came down, as with the origin myths of other peoples, they find a paradise of fauna and flora and,as with other peoples, the numbers One and Three have mystical importance. Interestingly God is variously called he, she and it. (Most monotheistic religions have a male god.)
Without wasting any time, they produce ten daughters. Traditionally, only nine are mentioned but the last-born, Warigia, who is often omitted, is key to this story. She has crippled legs and this issue is also key. Each daughter is described (they are all individual and all of them have a name starting with W) and the Clan which she will head is also named.
All of them were, of course, beautiful and their fame spread thought the continent. A whole slew of suitors head for Mount Kenya to woo these beauties and ninety-nine of them make it. The rest of the story is about them and their wooing of our heroines.
The women show that they are just as tough and resourceful as the men. However, the men all tell their stories and that they came because of the famed beauty of the women. One of the suitors suggest they should fight for it, with the last ten winning. They are about to fight when Mũmbi berates them. She says: The human is driven by the quest for love or knowledge.
Every human is human because of other humans. My daughters will do the choosing But there is only one thing they cannot choose My daughters will not go away and leave us here alone. This reduces the numbers as eight leave, saying they only want a wife who would come home with them.
The men are to build ten huts, named after the women, but Warigia says she does not want a hut as she has already made a choice. The other daughters all pick the same man and then start squabbling but their mother berates them saying they must never fight over a man.
Inevitably there are various tests, at which the women do better than the men but the main test involves a long and hazardous journey to the Mountains of the Moon, legendary mountains. In particular, they are going to get a cure for Warigia’s legs, which involves outsmarting an ogre. Both the men and women go and it is a very exciting adventure, featuring numerous ogres, wild animals, treacherous landscape and all sorts of dangers and really sorts out the men (and women) from the boys, with quite a few giving up and others getting killed.
Obviously, enough survive. They marry, have children and, more or less, live happily ever after.
It is a thoroughly enjoyable story, full of the improbable, brave deeds and daring adventures. Interestingly, it is the women who are to the fore. In many origin myths, women are restricted to the limited roles of wife, mother and Earth goddess. Here the women are the tough ones. The men, who are not named, definitely play second fiddle to the women. It is relatively short so it won’t take you long to read it and you cannot help but enjoy it.
First published in 2018 by East African Educational Publishers
First English translation in 2020 by The New Press/Harvill Secker