Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Petal of Blood - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

"Today, children, I am going to tell you about about the history of Mr.Blackman in three sentences. In the beginning he had the land and the mind and the soul together. On the second day, they took the body away to barter it for silver coins. On the third day, seeing that he was still fighting back, they brought priests and educators to bind his mind and soul so that these foreigners could more easily take his land and its produce."
Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o , tells us the story of Kenya, on a larger scale the story of Africa , or the story of every country being ruled by colonial power for the major part of second half of last millennium.
Munira, arrives at the small village of Ilmorog far away from the cities, inhabited by elders and kids, to set up and run the primary school. All the previous teachers who arrived there did not last a week. He too was welcomed by the villagers with a "mountainous shit-dune" in the school compound. Slowly he gets the acceptance of the locals and starts his effort to teach the children. The other non-native of the place is the one-legged Abdulla, who runs the lone petty shop in the village, supported by Joseph, the orphan he rescued during his journey. All the men and women of the village are taken to the towns to work in the new enterprises, farms and factories run by wealthy individuals and foreign collaborators. To this set up, comes the beautiful Wanja, to stay with her grand mother, the powerful , old leader of the village, whose husband was hanged by the Colonist for opposing and fighting them. Soon, Karega joins Munira in the Village, who like Munira is from the Siriana school and have been expelled after a students strike, repeating the history of Munira. The foursome , now the integral part of the village become their voice, light and their hope.
Why are they here ? What brought these four to this place which receives no visitors. A place, where the inhabitants wants to escape and never returns. A place where the member of the constituent assembly comes with promises just before the election. Each of them are trying to escape from their past. To take refuge in a place far away from the world , away from those tormenting memories. Each of them have a past unknown to others. A past of resistance, rejection, failure, humiliation and torture. Of disappointment, a past of shattered dreams and hopes. Each of them had gone suffered the loss of people close to them, people who are interlinked, related to each other.
The fate and fortune of Ilmorog is all set for a change. The village has been stuck with drought and famine. Their farms are dry and have not yielded any crops this year, to feed them all. The reserves are depleting, the cattle are skinny and dying. It hasn't been rained for months. The offers to gods and the sacrifices of their beloved sheep have not satisfied the supreme. Does the bad omen come through the Donkey of Abdulla ? The village elders have decided to sacrifice the donkey, against Abdulla's pleas. This is when the intelligent among them ( of course , the Teachers an Wanja) suggest that they send a delegation to the City, and meet their MP and request help. They have been supporting and voting him to power every time, and it is time he reciprocate and help them. Thus starts the long journey. A journey that bond them, but help them to understand each other better. Abdulla , Karega, Wanja and Munira re-live their past life to each other during this journey.
The trip to Nairobi did not end all that well. MP while addressing sensed a rebellion of his people. Was it triggered by his opponents ? Who are these four outsiders ? Why are they so worried about the people of Ilmorog ? Why will some one go to such goddamned place ? Naturally, all the four leaders(?) end up in police station, only to be released with an intervention of a progressive lawyer.
The journey did not yield any results. There was no help from the government, but the rain gods were sympathetic. It rained , and rained so hard bringing a new life to the province. Crops were good, agriculture produce was the best in the recent years. Along with this came the progress of the village. Government set up a Police station and the Christian missionary set up the first of its prayer hall. Then came the Trans-Africa road construction along with workers. People started pouring in and soon Ilmorog has more outsiders than the native. Karega is expelled fro the job and leaves the town.The business ( making the local brand of alcohol Theng 'Eta ) of Abdulla prospered, now joined by Wanja. The all open fields were slowly being occupied and converted to individual properties. Slowly, people started loosing their own properties. Lured by the African Development Bank, to take loans for business and agriculture, the uneducated people were made to sign documents only to loose the property to the Bank on non-payment of dues. Abdulla and Wanja lost their business and the right to produce the Theng Eta , which are now being controlled by 3 directors Chui , Kimeria and Meizo ( same people who were once the reason or part of their destruction in their early life).
The novel starts with the interrogation of the four suspects in the murder of the directors. They were burnt alive in the house of Wanja, where she now run a profitable business of flesh trade. The story is being described as narrated and re-collected by Munira over the past 12 years.
This is the Kenya after the Independance ; the colonial power ( " Christianity, commerce, civilization.; the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy trinity " ) has been replaced by the indigenous 'colonist'( those who worked for the European Rulers and on their departure became the owners of the property). The strong sense of betrayal among the native Kenyans as the entire resources are controlled by few individuals. The leaders are engaging in pitting one tribe against other and celebrating the new found richness.
"Big shots from the different communities sat together and talked only in their own mother tongues... Every group talked about the danger of other groups. They were grabbing everything.. they have taken all the white highlands. Then about a month ago the groups from other communities suddenly stopped coming to the place. So the cars were fewer. Now the talk changed a little. We shall fight: we have fought before....the other communities want to reap where they never planted."

"Educators, men of letters, intellectuals; these are only voices - not neutral , disembodied voices - but belonging to bodies of persons, of groups, of interest. You, who will see the truth about words emitted by a voice, look first for the body behind the voice. The voice merely rationalizes the needs, whims, caprices, of its owner, the master. Better therefore to know the master in whose service the intellect is and you'll be able to properly evaluate the import and the imagery of utterances. .. If you would learn look about you: choose your side".
Very powerful and political story in the backdrop of a small time Kenyan Village Ilmorog, which transforms itself to a tourist town. Every inhabitants of the place have lost their land and people due to some manipulations of the few powerful individuals. Was it the new Kenya they all have fought for ?
Very deep , engaging and hard-hitting novel about Kenya ( and African continent in general) post independence and of its disappointments. Of the exploitation of the people by the rulers , the corruption and treachery. At first at the hands of the Europeans : "God save the queen, they sang after every massacre and then went to church for blessings and cleansing: it had always fallen to the priest to ordain human sacrifice to appease every dominant God in history". Then at the hands of the new rich and powerful political and business leaders.
Ilmorog represents the post independence transition of Kenya. it represents the ordeal of the common man. It give us a bleak view of the what the realities of the freedoms were, and how soon the hopes of the people were shattered. Ilmorog is a metaphor of modern Kenya, faced with harsh realities. But the author definitely displays his anger, however does not provide us with any positive of bright outlook of the future. He make some strong statements here (he was arrested and jailed in Kenya in 1978, post this novel - not sure if there are any connections with this book).
Beneath all these strong political views, lies a beautiful story supported with a sublime narrative.
Petal of Blood
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
408 Pages
Rs 435
Further read: Study , Biography ,
PS :
"Where have you been?" she asks him, trying to remove the KAR hat pin-folded on one side from his head.
"Burma....India....Japan... lands far away, soldier fighting for the king."
"Whom were you fighting?"
"Italians, Germans, Japanese."
"You had a quarrel with them ? Oh, you must have been angry."
"Why then were you fighting them?"
"A soldier does not ask questions... he obeys orders and dies, dies fighting for the king."
"Which king ? Does he also fight ?"
"Oh, stop it, little girl. You ask too many questions."

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