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Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Murogi was Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow)

Ngũgĩ is back with a satire on the various Africans who, he believes, have betrayed their trust of the people. The main attack is on a man merely called the Ruler. While clearly influenced by Daniel arap Moi, there is no doubt that the Ruler is also based on other African leaders, such as Paul Biya, Mobutu and Idi Amin. But Ngũgĩ does not focus his attack just on the Ruler, but also attacks corrupt African politicians, the police, corrupt African businessmen, sexist African males, the World Bank, fake healers, the US medical establishment, Christians, Africans who want to be white and the talentless freeloaders to be found in any country but prevalent in this country.

This country is Aburĩria, not necessarily Kenya but doubtless based on that country. We learnt that the Ruler has become dictator by cleverly ingratiating himself first with his colonial masters and then with the first ruler of the country (who mysteriously died). When he took over from the first ruler, he was able to suppress the opposition socialists by claiming that they were communists, in league with the Soviet Union, thereby getting the support of the USA and Western Europe for his brutal and violent suppression of them. (This, of course, reflects Moi’s criticism of the Communists when he became president in Kenya.) Since then, while the country is nominally democratic, there is only one party, with only one leader and even to think of replacing him is treason. He has a cabinet of toadying ministers whom he fires and replaces (and occasionally reinstates) at whim. The main two are the Foreign Minister, Machokali, who allegedly had his eyes surgically enhanced so he could better spot the Ruler’s enemies and Sikiokuu, Minister of State (i.e. head of the security services), who allegedly had his ears enlarged, so as to better hear the Ruler’s enemies. The two are bitter rivals and are always trying to undermine one another. The Ruler knows this and plays them off against one another.

At the beginning of the novel there is a discussion about what to get the Ruler for a birthday present. (The Ruler, as he is the Ruler, can have his birthday when he wants and he does.) Machokali, to outdo his rival, proposes a massive tower, like the Tower of Babel, to reach up to the skies which the Ruler graciously accepts. This leads to several plot strands. Firstly, there is a question of funding and it is decided to get a loan from the Global Bank (i.e. the World Bank) to fund it and this attempt to get the loan is one theme. Secondly, a local businessman and head of a construction company, Titus Tajirika, is appointed chair of the Marching to Heaven (as the tower is known) Committee. The problems he faces and the many attempts both to bribe him and to undermine him are a second theme. Finally the third main plot strand is the opposition to the project as there are people (mainly a group of women) who feel that the money could better be spent on improving the lot of the people of Aburĩria.

These plots all revolve around the Wizard of the Crow, a fake though successful healer. He is, in fact, two people. The first is Kamĩita, a man who has been educated in India and who is looking for a job with Titus Tajirika and the second is Nyawĩra, a woman who has been disowned by her rich family for marrying a man they did not like. She has now divorced this man – John Kaniũru – as she has realised how shallow he is. However, during the course of the book, he manages to worm his way into positions of powers, including as Tajirika’s deputy on the Marching to Heaven Committee. Nyawĩra has recently started working as Tajirika’s secretary and is also a member of a secretive group composed mainly of women, called The Movement for the Voice of the People. The two meet when a demonstration against the Tower finds them being chased by the police. They flee together and hide out. To deter the police, they put up a sign indicating that the Wizard of the Crow lives there and he is all powerful. The problem is that one of the police officers – the one that nearly caught them – comes to consult the Wizard and the advice he is given leads, indirectly, to his being given a promotion. He tells his colleagues and then others and soon the Wizard is seen as a great oracle, consulted by many. Kamĩita and Nyawĩra give advice, often free, to many people, including Sikiokuu and, finally, the Ruler himself. Part of the problem of the important people is that they get stuck on the word If which they can say but cannot move beyond that. The Wizard knows that what they mean is If only I were white and mocks the African desire to be white.

Meanwhile, the protest against the Marching to Heaven tower proceeds, with the women being most visible. The police and authorities soon work out that Nyawĩra is somehow responsible but are unable to catch her, despite that the fact many of the key players, such as Titus Tajirika, Tajirika’s wife and John Kaniũru, actually speak to her without realising who she is, even though all know her well. The Global Bank is less than forthcoming, so the Ruler and Machokali head off to New York to try and persuade the Bank to change its mind and it is there that the Ruler succumbs to the If disease and to a disease that is known as Self-Inflating Disease (SID), which causes him to expand enormously and it is even rumoured that he is pregnant. The Wizard is summoned to New York to help him, which he does, giving Ngũgĩ a chance to mock US medicine.

But the Global Bank does not give the loan, the Wizard disappears and the Ruler hurries back home (with difficulty, given his size). Much of the rest of the novel is given to the various jockeyings for positions of power by the various key players, with several ending up dead. The Ruler expands (physically) further. A new political dawn, called Baby Democracy, is created in Aburĩria, whereby there are multiple political parties but the Ruler is head of them all and Ngũgĩ drives his satirical points further home. But it is a love story as well and, on that front, things seem to work out much better than they do on the political front.

Ngũgĩ’s point is to viciously satirise African political dictators, Moi in particular, and in that he or more or less succeeds. Sometimes he does seem to go over the top but, with the excesses of many dictators, reality can be so outrageous that fiction has to be even more fanciful. The novel is 768 pages long, which is a lot of novel to mock African politics and, frankly, at times the novel does drag a bit but it is still cleverly ambitious, witty, well told, dipping occasionally into magic realism and always leaving us wondering what is going to happen next. It is not the Great African Novel (Things Fall Apart still holds that title) but it is still a very fine work.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by East African Educational Publishers Ltd
First English translation by Harvill Secker/Pantheon 2006