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Ngugi wa Thiong'o

In his reflection on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o's Wizard of the Crow ,Yash Tandon argues that like all social studies, there is no neutral literature. Observers and writers on society are part of society, and whether they are conscious of it or not, they are inevitably taking sides in the drama around them. They are a part of the superstructure and the prevailing norms and values of the society around them – adopting them, rejecting them, reforming them or revolting against them. 

In this essay I reflect on Ngũgĩ’s Wizard of the Crow in the context of larger issues that bridge literature and politics.  I argue that like all social studies, there is no neutral literature. Observers and writers on society – economists, journalists, novelists, etc. – are part of society, and whether they are conscious of it or not, they are inevitably taking sides in the drama around them.  They are a part of the “superstructure” –the intellectual milieu and the prevailing norms and values of the society around them – adopting them, rejecting them, reforming them or revolting against them.  There is no escape. I end the essay by explaining why Ngũgĩ was not given a Nobel Laureate in 2017.


I have known Ngũgĩ since 1964 when we were both teaching at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.  He was in the Department of Literature, and I in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. The Mau Mau insurrection (1952–60) had just ended officially; but the name and heroism of Dedan Kimathi still echoed beyond the walls of the Department of Political Science because of Ali Mazrui, and the Department of Literature because of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o – both from Kenya, the first generation of Africans at Makerere, which until then was a citadel of white supremacy1.

I read Ngũgĩ’s Weep Not, Child (1964), and The River Between, (1965) much later – when for a year I was in exile in England after Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1971. My exile also gave me an opportunity to read – besides literary giants like Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace), and Dostoyevsky (The Idiot) – Ngũgĩ’s Petals of Blood (1977), and The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976). Until then, my knowledge of literature was confined to Shakespeare and Charles Dickens whose writings we studied for our “Cambridge School Certificate” examinations.  During my second (or rather third) exile in Zimbabwe, I was too preoccupied with self-employment as a “consultant on Rural Development” to find time beyond the demands of survival, and our continued struggle (along with comrades like Dani Nabudere, Edward Rugumayo and Omwony Ojwok) in Uganda.

It was in Geneva, Switzerland (where I headed the South Centre – 2004-2009) that my daughter presented me a copy of Wizard of the Crow (2006). It had just come out in English (the original is in Kikuyu).  It was a hectic period for me in Geneva, and I had to put aside the book. It was on my shelf until last August 2017 when I dusted it, and started reading it.  I could not put it down.  It was almost like reading a detective story, not knowing how things will end up.  The book was initially written as a play, and so it is full of excellent verbal dialogue, with much emotion and drama.

Why do I go into this personal history? I do this for three reasons, and I make no apologies for this.

I share something in common with Ngũgĩ, beside memories of Makerere. This is the imperative to decolonise the minds of our younger generations schooled in an imperial (neocolonial) historiography and epistemology. These are big words, forgive me, but they express in two words the present day reality of our young minds in Africa – the belief that knowledge, especially that of our history, comes from the authorship of our erstwhile European colonisers.  I am afraid this is largely still the case at most of our universities in Africa.

Ngũgĩ is a revolutionary thinker and writer. Judging by my personal knowledge of him and his writings, he is – like me – in the Marxist-Leninist- Maoist tradition.  I do not defend Marx, Lenin and Mao for their faultlines and oversights, for in spite their shortcomings they laid down the main principles and strategies for a revolutionary transformation of the socio-political-economic reality of the peasants and workers the world over. This revolution with all its successes and failures in Russia, China and Cuba is a historical undertaking that is still “work in progress”.

I am no writer of novels. But Ngũgĩ (among others, including Frantz Fanon) taught me that literature is part of reproduction of material conditions and values of society at a superstructural level, that unless that material reality changes, the minds of our young (barring some) will be moulded by the values and culture of the Empire. So Ngũgĩ’s novels will stay alive for a long long time.

And this is what the Wizard of the Crow is all about.

Wizard of the Crow

This novel, in my judgement, is Ngũgĩ’s best. To understand its significance it is necessary first to understand its geopolitical context in which it is rooted. His Weep Not Child and the Trial of Dedan Kimathi were rooted in the context of the Mau Mau insurrection against colonialism and loss of land. Wizard of the Crow comes of age in the present neocolonial context. It is an environment about which most of us are familiar – continuing landlessness, control of the economy by global corporations, the ideology of free market dictated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the “donors”, corruption at the highest levels, and aborted democracy in stage-managed electoral frauds2.

The novel is set in the Free Republic of Aburiria, a fictitious state (which, it is not difficult to guess, must be Kenya). It is ruled by the “Ruler” – who he is this might be also not difficult to guess for he carries a “fly whisk” (p.250, also see pages 231-6). The main adversaries are Kamiti –the Wizard of Crow, and his associate Nyawira – who is a shadow Wizard of Crow. It is the latter that the author presents as the true revolutionary. She is the leader of the “Movement for the Voice of the People”. But she is inspired and guided by Kamiti who whilst not a member of the Movement appears in various disguises, and is a brilliant strategist and tactician – with wizardly skills of getting out of difficult situations, turning each to his advantage and that of the Movement.  Kamiti is inspired not only by African spirits and “Daemons”, but also Indian philosophy and the writings of Tao and Lao Tzu. (I might add that the Kamiti’s knowledge of Indian ancient religions and mythologies is truly amazing).

There are a score of other characters with very imaginatively-crafted names - Taitus Tajitika – the Chairman of the “Marching to Heaven”; Machokali – the Foreign Minister; Kamiuru –a counter-revolutionary university graduate who wants to marry Nyawira but is rebuffed;  Amigaigai Galihara, a police officer who punctuates his interventions with the certainty of “Haki ya Mungu”; Yunity Mgeuzi and Bila Shaka – working for the state; Njoya and Kahiga (playing good cop, bad cop game); Maritha and Marika – Christian revolutionaries; Magnus Africanus –traditional healer; Luminous Pen – an ex-Communist as the Ruler’s biographer; and various other male, female, rebel and bearded “Daemons”. 

The story unwinds itself through 768 pages, as it slowly unfolds the revolutionary underground “Movement for the Voice of the People”. The Movement mobilises the masses against the Ruler’s “Marching to Heaven” – the state’s “Vision 2020”. This vision is crafted by the IMF and the World Bank – which Ngũgĩ presents as “the Global Ministry of Finance” and the “Global Bank” (p.704). It is important to understand the significance of this, for behind the class struggle between the Ruler as the stooge of the Empire (chapter one: “Power Daemons”) and the masses (chapter two: “Queuing Demons”) lies the “national question”3. But its significance as the key to understanding the dialectics of the revolutionary movement does not become clear until much later in chapters four, five and six.  It is then that you understand the ideological underpinnings of the novel.

The struggle between the Ruler (“Power Daemons”) and the people (“Queuing Demons”) reaches a climax when the Ruler orders the building of a tower that will go straight to heaven – symbolising the “Marching to Heaven”.  It would be built from the blood, sweat, toil and wealth of the people.  Aburiria would do what the Israelites could not – i.e. build the Tower of Babel. The Ruler launches his vision just as the “Movement of the People” is having its assembly.  The Ruler and his idolising ministers are concerned that the people are encouraged to resist by Nyawira, and so it was decided to apprehend her.  It is then that the Ruler demands of Kamiti (then a virtual prisoner of the Ruler) to address the crowd and identify Nyawira.  Kamiti addresses the crowd: “If you know that you are Nyawira, please rise so that those who have been looking for you, calling you an enemy of the state, may see you. Nyawira show us the way.”  Nyawira identifies herself, but soon “every other woman and man stand up until the entire assembly proclaimed itself Nyawira.”  The Ruler’s officials did not know what to do … “Nyawira was everywhere.”  (p.688)

In the final “Book Six: Bearded Daemons”, the author engages in an ideological discourse. It starts with a dispute between the Bearded Daemons about the nature of Satan. One group said that Satan was a seven-bodied white American. The second group said that Satan was definitely black. The third said that the Satan is a cat; it has catlike quality. This became a prelude to an ideological debate between Kamiti and Nyawira – which is worth reproducing.

Kamiti briefly narrated to Nyawira his flight over Africa, the Caribbean, and South America and back to Manhattan, New York. “Most of what I was trying to tell the People’s Assembly was a slice of what formed within me during my global journey in search of the source of black power.”  To this, Nyawira posed a sharp question.

“And the source? Did you find it?”

“Yes, in the unity of all blackness”

“Unity between us, the Ruler, and Tajirika?  They are black; we are all black.”

“Stop this sarcasm. You cannot keep on detecting classes and class struggles in everything. Race also matters.”

“I don’t mean to be sarcastic… I don’t discount the fact of blackness when used to forge a sense of community across nations, territories and continents in the quest for equality, social justice, and fullness of life for all. But too often the appeal to blackness glosses over the valley between opposing positions… It is from our midst that there arise those who sow discord, the seeds of our defeat. (pp. 731-2)

I need not explain the political and ideological significance of this debate – is it race or class? Is it different when you struggle at the national level as opposed to the global?

Further Reflection

In his excellent book, The Theory of African Literature (1989), Chidi Amuta has a chapter on “A dialectical theory of African literature: categories and springboards”.  He writes: ‘The greatest attraction of a dialectical alternative is that it dissolves the apparent dissonance between literature and society, between literary theory and creative practice re-establishing the indissoluble linkage between the two realms. …Thus conceived, literary theory becomes not an estranged body of abstractions about an equally abstract “enclave”, but an aspect of the all-embracing area of social discourse.’4

I agree with Amuta, and go further to raise specific themes that radical literature might try and address:

- Show that literature is part of the superstructure;

- Provide an account of the times we live in;

- Expose deception of our leaders – in politics, in the universities, in the media, and in other spheres;

- Throw new light on stubborn problems  -- such as race, gender, class, the environment, etc. – these depend on the context and the situation; and

- Inspire the younger generation with an alternative vision and hope for the future.

I am a student of political economy and international relations. Over my life time (including as a student in the United Kingdom in late 1950s), I have challenged those who proclaimed that they were neutral bystanders to whatever was happening around them.  I learnt economics at the London School of Economics, where the economics professors lectured to us that economics is a neutral “science”, and that there was something called “free market”.  I didn’t believe a word of it5. I had come from Uganda, and I knew that prices of our cotton and coffee exported to Britain and of clothing we imported from Britain were determined by a colonial authority6

I maintain that there is no neutral social science, and there is no neutral literature. Observers and writers on society – economists, journalists, novelists, etc. – are part of society, and whether they are conscious of it or not, they are inevitably taking sides in the drama around them.  They are part of the “superstructure” that arises from the economic “base”, part of the intellectual milieu and the prevailing norms and values of the society around them – adopting them, rejecting them, reforming them or revolting against them.  There is no escape. So when you read Karen Blixsen’s Out of Africa (1937) – a memoir on her life on a coffee plantation in Kenya, or Elspeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika (1959) – also a memoire on her life in Kenya, then you would know to what genre of writings these books belonged. Or consider Joseph Conrad, one of the best writers in English and one of his best known novels – Heart of Darkness (1899). This is about the author’s voyage up the Congo River. Although the book raises important issues about imperialism and racism, he himself is not able to rise above a sense of racial superiority.  Let me repeat: there is no politically or ideologically neutral literature.

In general, I would classify literature on Africa (black, brown, or white) into roughly three categories – conservative, reformist and revolutionary:

Conservative literature seeks to support, protect, and project the prevailing orthodoxy with regards to politics, social norms and values, and the existing power structures.  It is structurally, systemically, conservative, and pro the status quo.

Reformist literature is aware of the faultlines and deficiencies of the status quo. It seeks to present ideas on how the situation might be changed to reflect a more benign, human rights and justice-oriented world. But it is still rooted in the existing system. It is –structurally-systemically—reformist, and in favour of change as long as the system of production – capitalism—continues.  Social democracy by the Scandinavians, for example, promotes social justice, but within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Revolutionary literature is just what the word says. It is opposed to the system that is structurally embedded in the existing mode of production – i.e. capitalism in our times. It seeks to offer an alternative paradigm, which has been tried out (as socialism in the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba), but which is still in its infancy, and has a long way to go before it can break down the walls of global capitalism.

The above are slightly different but close to Amuta’s animistic realists, critical realists, and socialist realists.

Using the above categories, I would say that most black African writers (and these would include Africans in diaspora) have written to draw attention to the dehumanising aspects of slave trade and colonialism.  These include, for example, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). I would add that Morrison and Angelou were revolutionary writers.

Coming to the African continent, most white “radical” writers in the period leading to Africa’s independence – for example, Nadine Gordimer (Burger’s Daughter) and Doris Lessing (The Grass is Singing) were thought of as revolutionaries in their ultra-conservative world – understandably so. Indeed, Gordimer was active in the anti-apartheid movement. But they were really reformists; in the sense that even their conception of socialism was, at best, social-democratic.  This applies equally to some black African writers too. I would say that Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), Cyprian Ekwensi (People of the City), and Wole Soyinka (Kongi’s Harvest; Death and the King’s Horseman), fall into the “reformist” category.

Where would Ngũgĩ fit into the above categorisation?  I would say that well before Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ’s plays and novels were revolutionary.  I have already mentioned his Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976), and Petals of Blood (1977). In Petals of Blood Ngũgĩ shows scepticism about Uhuru (independence of Kenya) expressed through one of the principal characters – Munira, the (idealist) schoolteacher, who goes to the village of Ilmorog in order to teach in its ramshackle school.  Education is one of Ngũgĩ’s passions. One of its manifestations has been his pedagogical quest to revolutionise literature through the use of local languages. The Wizard of the Crow was first written in Kikuyu, and in the novel the wizard says: “A slave first loses his name, then his language”. However, I am sure Ngũgĩ is aware of the limitations of his linguistic vision.

In Wizard of the Crow, Ngũgĩ goes beyond his earlier novels and plays.  Here the novel comes out of the contemporary milieu. It provides not only an account of the times we live in, but the spirit of true revolutionaries in the characters of Kamiti – the Wizard of Crow – and his associate Nyawira.  When Kamiti sighs, “The world has no soul,” Nyawira responds: “Then change the world. Give it a soul.”  Earlier, we saw that the novel’s climax reaches when the Ruler (representing the “Power Daemons”) orders the building of a tower that will go straight to heaven – symbolising the “Marching to Heaven”, but to his consternation, he is confronted by the people (“Queuing Demons”). What follows is remarkable: when the Ruler tries to capture Nyawira, every man and woman came forward to say that he or she was Nyawira. Nyawira was everywhere!  I must admit that when I came to this part of the novel, I celebrated with an extra pint of beer. It was because I have always believed that although a socialist revolution needs a vanguard party, cadres and leaders, they must be one with the rest of the masses. The ordinary people and the leaders must swim in the same current. The leader cannot isolate herself or himself from the masses.

Allow me to conclude this rather longish essay with a word about the Nobel Prize for literature.  Ngũgĩ has been considered for this prize since 2010. Last year (2017) he came close to it but the Nobel Foundation voted in favour of British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.  Speaking for myself I was not surprised that Ngũgĩ did not get a Nobel. It says more about the Nobel Foundation than about Ngũgĩ. In terms of my above categories, the Foundation is conservative – or at best, reformist.  In economics, it is safer for the Foundation to give the Nobel to reformists like A.K. Sen and Joseph Stiglitz than to African revolutionaries like the late Dani Nabudere and Samir Amin. It is the same in Literature.  Kazuo Ishiguro is safer than Ngũgĩ. Why should the Foundation give the laureate to a writer who will bring a million Nyawiras on the streets of global cities to show the power of the people against the power of the state-sponsored corporations?  The Nobel Foundation is not that stupid!

* Professor Yash Tandon is Ugandan academic, teacher, political thinker, rural development worker, civil society activist, and an institution builder. He was involved in the democratic struggles in Uganda and was member of the interim Uganda Parliament.


1 In the 1950s, his older brother, had joined the Mau Mau. Ngũgĩ’s half-brother was shot in the back and killed for refusing to obey a British soldier’s command.

2 For an analysis of the control of Kenya’s economy by global corporations, see my “Reflections on Kenya: Whose capital, Whose State?”

3 See V. I.   Lenin “Theses on the National Question”

4 Amuta, Chidi. 1989. The Theory of African Literature, Zed, p.77

5 Later I worked on issues of trade and investment, and wrote a critique of the prevailing economic orthodoxy. See my Trade is War (2015)

6 See my forthcoming Ordinary People’s Uganda, 2018