The OF Blog: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Petals of Blood

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Petals of Blood

They came for him that Sunday.  He had just returned from a night's vigil on the mountain.  He was resting on his bed, Bible open at the Book of Revelation, when two police constables, one tall, the other short, knocked at the door.

"Are you Mr. Munira?" the short one asked.  He had a star-shaped scar above the left brow.


"You teach at the New Ilmorog Primary School?"

"And where do you think you are now standing?"

"Ah, yes.  We try to be very sure.  Murder, after all, is not irio or ugali."

"What are you talking about?"

"You are wanted at the New Ilmorog Police Station."


"Murder, of course - murder in Ilmorog."

The tall one who so far had not spoken hastened to add:  "It is nothing much, Mr. Munira.  Just routine questioning."

"Don't explain.  You are only doing your duty in the world.  But lt me put on my coat."

They looked at one another, surprised at his cool reception of the news.  He came back carrying the Holy Book in one hand.

"You never leave the Book behind, Mr. Munira," said the short one, impressed, and a little fearful of the book's power.

"We must always be ready to plant the seed in these last days before His second coming.  All the signs - strife, killing, wars, blood - are prophesied here." (p. 3)

The opening scene to Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's 1977 novel, Petals of Blood, foreshadow only only the book's plot, but also the intricate web of social and religious concerns that have been a central element of Kenyan life ever since its independence from Great Britain was achieved in the 1960s.  Consider first the characters who appear in this scene above:  a schoolteacher and two police officers.  While the appearance of officers investigating a murder (in this case, a triple murder), may be cause for consternation for most anyone, there is a secondary level of apprehension that may have been felt by Kenyan's of Thiong'o's generation who were taken in for questioning.

Furthermore, consider the short policeman's reaction to Mr. Munira's carrying of the Bible with him.  "Impressed, and a little fearful of the book's power."  What does this say about the power of religious beliefs (or superstitions) among the Kenyans of the immediate post-independence years?  Can the reader at this point, after just one short snippet from the novel's opening scene, begin to guess what sort of novel may be unfolding?

Petals of Blood is a very rich, multi-layered narrative that speaks as much to the hearts and minds of Kenyans as it is a tale that also carries appeal to non-Kenyan audiences.  It is on its topmost layer a murder-mystery, but as the tale progresses, Thiong'o explores so many dividing points (ethnic, religious, social) in Kenyan society in such a penetrating form that the central metaphor of the novel becomes those "petals of blood" that appear in various guises and meanings throughout the novel. 

Although the quote above may give the impression that the novel is primarily dialogue-driven,  this is not the case.  Although the conversations between Munira and others generate some interesting insights, several of the story's more powerful themes are introduced in reflective monologues, such as the one that opens Chapter 11:

The Trans-Africa road linking Nairobi and Ilmorog to the many cities of our continent is justly one of the most famous highways in all the African lands, past and present.  It is symbolic tribute, although an unintended one, to those who, witnessing the dread ravages of crime and treachery and greed which passed for civilization, witnessing too the resistance waged and carried out with cracked hands and broken nails and bleeding hearts, voiced visionary dreams amidst sneers and suspicions and accusations of madness or of seeking pathways to immortality and the eternal self-glory of tyrants.  They had seen that the weakness of the resistance lay not in the lack of will or determination or weapons but in the African people's toleration of being divided into regions and tongues and dialects according to the wishes of former masters, and they cried:  Africa must unite. (p. 311)
Although at first this may seem to be a paean to African nationalism, there is much more involved here in this book.  If anything, Petals of Blood also explores the limitations and corruption inherent in the post-colonial movements and governments that came to dominate Kenyan (and by extension, African) governments after the 1960s.  Yes, the peoples and lands are divided arbitrarily.  Yes, there is much suffering.  No, there is not sufficient unity.  But there also much that stands in the way of this occurring that gives the lie to those organizations proclaiming their goal is social justice.  Thiong'o's works, especially this one and the ones that followed after, go into great detail revealing the dark underbelly of these post-colonial organizations and how poorly the divided, confused peoples of his native Kenya, have suffered due to their corruption and greed.  At times, those "petals of blood" appear to represent the suffering that the villagers had to suffer at the hands of the government, a suffering that still continues in some form or another even today.

Thiong'o's work did not make him a friend of the Kenyan government.  He was forced into exile just as this book was being published in English and for most of the past 33 years, he has not set foot in Kenya, except for one memorable time a few years ago where he was harassed and his wife raped, all because of their opposition to the ruling regime.  These personal facts are mentioned only to underscore the powerful effect that this novel had on the Kenyan populace and how the stinging accusations embedded in its pages angered the government.  Although much of this doubtless is missed by Western readers such as myself, there is still much to be unpacked from this dense and yet evocative social narrative.  It is well-written and even better-presented, with memorable characters and a clear, multilevel plot that unfolds in a stately pace over the course of 400 pages.  The conclusion is not clear-cut, however, but that is in keeping with several developments within the novel.  Petals of Blood is a powerful work that ranks among Thiong'o's many great works.  Highly recommended.

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