Tuesday, August 3

Considering Ngugi wa Thiong'o's “Petals of Blood”

One has to go back centuries in history to find a time that some person, some group was not interested in improving Kenya and greater Africa. It is an idea hardly unique to untold numbers of governmental organizations, non-profit groups, philanthropists and volunteers who operate there now. First there were the British colonialists. While thoughts of expanding the empire and reaping the bounties of the Rift Valley were the strongest of their motivations, I do not doubt that most, if not all, believed that they were improving Kenya, whether by introducing the local peoples to Christianity or by bringing in modern technologies and medicine. Given time and enough exploitation and ill treatment, the native people began to clamor for independence as they believed that they could better govern themselves. Short years after the British withdrew and it became clear that the mere transfer of power from whites to blacks would not bring about the promises of uhuru, the politically inconsequential of Kenya began to act themselves to bring their new nation to its fullest potential.

And this is where Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood begins. Godfrey Munira of New Ilmorog, along with three others, is taken in for questioning following the murders of three prominent men in the community. Waiting for the investigator to meet with him, Munira begins to write his memoirs and reveal his relationships with the suspects and victims, beginning with his arrival in the town, twelve years ago when it was still just Ilmorog. His reasons are complex, but he tells everyone that he has come to open a primary school that no other teacher has run longer than a year at. At this time Ilmorog is a pastoral village. Its inhabitants are all farmers and herders pass through regularly. Munira is an outsider. His understanding of their concerns is limited, but he is afraid of returning to his father a failure and is content to remain an observer in this village which remains the idealized image of Kenya and much of Africa for most Westerners still today.

In time other outsiders come to Ilmorog with their own hard pasts. There is Abdulla who was active in the Mau Mau War in providing the soldiers in the forests with ammunition. There is Wanja, a wanderer whose grandmother is a pillar of the community. Last comes Karega who was expelled from the same secondary school as Munira following their participation in student strikes. In their own small ways, they want to make Ilmorog and Kenya better. Abdulla and Wanja operate the only bar in town and make it a place welcoming to all. Karega joins Munira at the school that they may hold more classes.

It would be fair to say that they are tolerated fairly well. They are different and have different ideas from the people of Ilmorog, but they mostly appreciate what the outsiders do and try to do. Then a drought descends upon the region, and the outsiders prove their worth. Karega proposes a delegation visit their Member of Parliament, and a group is organized. It is only through the efforts of the outsiders that the delegation succeeds at all. In celebrating the next harvest, the four are invited to drink theng'eta, distilled from millet, and share themselves.

It is the last happy time in Ilmorog. The seeds of its destruction and descent as New Ilmorog are sown already in their visit to Nairobi. Through their appearance in the capital, the Honorable Nderi wa Riera and powerful others learn for the first time about the existence of this village and make plans for it to profit themselves.

Petals of Blood is reminiscent of The Brothers K in its efforts to capture the spirit and breadth of a time and place, explain some things and hope for others. The characters in their backgrounds, in their efforts at change, in their responses to the annihilation of Ilmorog and ascent of New Ilmorog are types for wider forces, movements and populations in Kenya.

The reasons for the continued exploitation and crippling of Kenya after independence are simple for Ngugi. The British may have left but colonialism remains. European investment in Kenya remains heavy, and those most willing to take advantage of it, no matter the cost to the people, are those who profit. It is not the Mau Mau warriors who lead the country, but those who betrayed them to the British. The student revolutionary who led Munira to expulsion returns years later to become headmaster when old Fraudsham is forced to resign in the face of a second student strike. Rather than teach African history, literature and ideas, the dreams of the students, he enforces the British system even more strictly than his predecessor. Those who honestly work in the interests of the people are shot.

There is a particularly telling scene that still rings true to me today when the Ilmorog delegation meets their MP in Nairobi. At first Nderi is concerned it may be a ploy devised by his political rivals to weaken him in Parliament, diverting his attention and resources away from other matters. He speaks to the delegation and suggests that they may best help themselves by donating toward his campaign that he may then organize effective assistance later. Even after a media shaming forces him to provide assistance for the drought stricken, Nderi dreams of turning Ilmorog into a cultural village for European tourists and turning theng'eta from a celebration of a successful harvest into a cheap high available throughout the year. His first and only concern is protecting himself and his power. The rest of the world is divided into threats against him and those things that can profit him.

The hope against the corruption and exploitation is less clear. Munira, Wanja, Karega and Abulla all have their own responses as Ilmorog changes. Ngugi's sympathies are most with Karega, the union organizer well versed in Lenin and Marx, but Petals is not merely an extended pamphlet on the wonder of communism, though Ngugi does thank thank the Soviet Writer's Union for allowing him the use of the Yalta home to complete the novel. More powerful is the fate of Joseph, the street child adopted as a brother by Abdulla and later supported by Wanja throughout secondary school. It is their simple and great compassion for this one unfortunate child that has greater promise for Kenya's future than all of Karega's secret meetings.

I wonder what Ngugi would think of Kenya today. One of his dreams has been realized. It is an African curriculum in Kenya now. Secondary students read his novels, and African history is taught. Other failures remain entrenched still three decades after Petals was published. Capitalism still fails Kenya. The nation is one of the greatest producers of flowers and black teas in the world, but the sales of these have yet to trickle down to the workers in any meaningful way. The politically powerful protect only themselves and profit the most handsomely from all efforts to make things better for the weakest. Other problems have emerged. Tribalism, given only the briefest mention in Petals emerged in the harshest light in the post-election violence at the beginning of 2008.

1 comment:

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