Reading Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow in Kisumu:
An INT/EXT Reflection of Tyranny, Chaos and Post-Colonialism in Kenya

About this time last year, while out in eastern Kenya, I read Matigari by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. (That's not totally how you write his name, but if I write his name, and some of the names of places and people in the book, properly, they likely won't come out right on your browser). Ngugi wrote Matigari in 1986 under Moi's oppressive rule, and the book was provocative and convincing enough that Moi set out to arrest this notorious Matigari fellow everybody was talking about—the fictional hero in the book who wanders Kenya demanding justice. They couldn't even arrest Ngugi because he was already in self-imposed exile in America, since 1982. This after already being arrested in the late 70s for writing I Will Marry You When I Want, and while in prison, he wrote another book, Devil on the Cross, on toilet paper! Talk about writing under the gun. When Moi was ousted in 2002 and replaced by Kibaki, Ngugi figured the waters were safe and returned to Kenya to promote his newest book, The Wizard of the Crow. Within weeks of his return, he was robbed and his wife was raped. Needless to say, he abandoned Kenya again. If this all sounds like a far-fetched plot, it's not. It's reality. These are the circumstances under which Ngugi wrote, making it hard to separate the art from the artist.

The Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

I finally finished The Wizard of the Crow here in Kisumu (the hotspot of the post-election violence earlier this year) and amidst visiting the Millennium Village of Sauri and meeting Obama's grandmother in Kogelo. It's a rather ambitious and sprawling epic novel about the fictitious country of Aburiria. There's no hiding that Aburiria is probably a parody of sorts of Kenya, and "The Ruler" of Aburiria is Moi, with some Mugabe and Idi Amin thrown in for good measure. Aburiria an absurdly bureaucratic and oppressive post-colonial state, one that you can't help but wonder how autobiographical (or autogeographical) it is. Especially When Ngugi (through one of his characters) says things like "sometimes we do actually imprison people for asking questions, but only those that question established truths or that undermine the rule of law or how this country is governed."

The central figure of The Wizard of the Crow is Kamiti, who ostensibly is the Wizard of the Crow. Though his lover Nyawira fills in as the Wizard on occasion, when she is not busy being the Limping Witch or a beggar (a role that Kamiti also plays early on, as well as that of a garbage collector). In general, though, they are both rebels, enemies of the state, a sort of Kenyan (and pacifist) Bonnie and Clyde. The Wizard of the Crow is a healer, a diviner, a witch doctor, though a rather secular and humble one, claiming that he did not choose divination, but that it chose him. He is a sorcerer that sees things hidden to the common folk and gives oracular advice. He never charges for his services, and he punishes evil itself, not the evil ones. He occasionally dispenses herbs or medicine, but most often delivers words, as "actions are born of words." An example of one such nebulous incantation or spell he dispenses is: "And if I say what I should not say, may the words tell on me." And the Wizard of the Crow's weapon of choice is the mirror. "The mirror captures shadows of ourselves."

One of the problems (as a mzungu literary snob) I have with the Wizard of the Crow (the character) is that he is too ideal and flat. He is always right, against all odds. He has no contradictions, let alone interesting ones. The same is true of most all the characters actually. All the politicians and police are corrupt. All poor people are inherently good and striving for better. All the rich are not deserving and don't appreciate being rich, and abuse their power, etc. I'd have to agree with Kwani editor Wambui Mwangi, when she says (in regards to Ngugi in Farafina), "it is a tad wearisome to have to keep contemplating the evil capitalist wabenzi and the endearingly outmatched but heroic Kenyan peasant, constantly, page after dutiful page." Thing is though, being here, for a few months anyway, I'm discovering that it is the exception when real people fall outside of these flat stereotypes. Today even, I have seen with my eyes the wads of bribe money exchanging hands. I just got back from a ride on a boda-boda (suped out bicycle taxis they use here) where the driver was an educated doctor that can't make ends met so he took to driving a boda-boda (making about a quarter a ride), with aspirations to one day save the world. You meet plenty of fat and boisterous Kenyans in positions of power. You meet these characters from The Wizard of the Crow on a daily basis.

boda-boda in front of burned out building (leftover from post-election violence) in Kisumu

boda-boda in Kisumu

Everyone we talk to tells us stories of the corruption, the bureaucracy, and the chaos, all of which seems to be met with general apathy. We've been stuck in the traffic jams, and the insane queues. We've met the heroes doing incredible things against all odds (see the video of Paul Okong'o). But still, nothing changes and it seems most people have given up caring. Maybe Ngugi is accurate and Kenya, er, I mean Aburiria, is populated with flat characters, a place where all poor people are righteous but oppressed and all politicians are inherently evil and bureaucratic, and nobody is trying to break out of these molds? Maybe this is it's destiny, and therefore Ngugi is spot on, instead of being a parody?

Another beef, or rather prejudice, is that I'm partial to first-person narratives. They are just easier to follow, more believable. There are sections of The Wizard of the Crow that are in first person, but for the most part Ngugi is in everyone's head. On the other hand, you could say it's a narrative told by the entire country of Aburiria. It's quite extraordinary and ambitious actually. Ngugi creates and populates an entire government and cabinet of ministers, police, businessman, foreign diplomats, down to beggars and of course wizards. Is this, The Wizard of the Crow, the voice of Kenya? Or for that matter is Ngugi, being Kenya's most infamous author, the voice of Kenya? Is Ngugi the Wizard of the Crow?

The final lit-snobby prejudicial disclaimer I have that made it hard to totally get absorbed into The Wizard of the Crow is that I read more for language than I do for story. His prose is far from eloquent. There's nothing brilliant about the way he strings words and sentences together, but the complex plots he weaves is nothing short of brilliant. There's no doubt Ngugi is a master storyteller. He is a teller though, not a shower, and explains away far more than I'd like, in at times awkward and wordy prose. No stone is left unturned. Nothing is left for the imagination. It's like watching a movie with voice-over the entire time telling you what to think. I guess you could say this sort of mind control is the root of tyranny, so in this context it works. Besides being expository, he also periodically reiterates/summarizes the plot-to-date: "The Global Bank denies a loan for Marching to Heaven. The Ruler's body begins to swell. He loses power of speech." The book probably could've been written in half as many pages (as it is, it clocks in at 768).

But who am I to judge? Ngugi doesn't write for me. Rightfully so, he has renounced English as a colonial language and writes in Gikuyu or Swahili, and encourages other African writers to write in their native tongues. So to criticize the language (writing), or the translation of, is meaningless. It is what it is, and the story is no doubt reflective of the language in which it is told, and the place from which it is told. It's like a punk-rocker reviewing traditional Kenyan folk music. It reminds me of when I worked at Napster and had to review country and pop albums and had to find something nice to say in the name of being open-minded. The other thing is, if the book is indeed an accurate portrayal of Kenya, these are more my frustrated criticisms of being here, given my spoiled expectations from living a privileged existence before this in America. So many of the customs here are absurdly illogical and dysfunctional to me, which makes for fine reading, but when you live here, it is all too close to home.

Not that the end expressions of the writing are deadpan or boring. There's marvelous moments of magical realism. There's the queues extending to infinity, and the "motorized madmen" that vainly search for the end of the line for days and days only to find it ends where it begins. Or when the Wizard of the Crow grows money on trees, literally. Or when The Ruler speaks non-stop for seven nights, seven hours, seven minutes and seven seconds (after being rendered mute by a desire to be white). One of my favorite parts is when Tajirika and Vinjinia rekindle their bruised and battered love down by some lake where a flock of birds, and all animals, are frozen in motion above or around the lake. This "Museum of Arrested Motion," as they call their surreal lovenest, turns any living thing that touches the lake or flies over it's surface to stone. And this "white-ache," is a legitimate ailment that ails more than a few characters in the book. It stems from a condition where they are rendered mute, like a skipping record, on vocalization of the word "IF" (i.e., "if only I were white"). The Wizard of the Crow himself gets the "IF" disease, though not out of desire to be white. The healer was the only one that could heal him, but he was the healer and his words were stuck in a recursive bout of logic—not the only such wonderful self-referential epiphany in the book. Eventually it takes a consortium of "afrochiatrists" to heal him. And what he lacks in metaphor and subtext, Ngugi makes up for by speaking in proverbs. He has a proverb for every occasion, many from Kenyan or Kikuyu folklore:

  • "Pig is fried in its own fat."
  • "Out of the same womb comes a thief and a sorcerer."
  • "He who eats alone, dies alone."
  • "What poisons a person goes through his mouth."
  • "The eyes of a frog in a brook do not prevent cows from drinking water."
  • "If you throw peanuts to a monkey you will distract it long enough to be able to snatch its baby."
  • "The bug that bites one's back is carried in what one wears."
  • "Let's not have too many cooks dipping their spoons in the broth. Let's hear the stories, one after the other, but we urge the tellers to know that too much salt makes food difficult to swallow."

Perhaps Ngugi is being autobiographical in the latter proverbial combination, in over-peppering his prose with proverbs, or when he has one of his characters say: "Just answer my questions plainly. Riddles and proverbs are for evening entertainment at one's own home." And then elsewhere in the book, he has The Ruler decree that: "The democracy suitable for America and Europe is not necessarily suitable for Africa. In our country we have a saying that one does not build his home according to the needs of his neighbor." And when he's not speaking in proverbs, he speaks in fables, like the one about the elephant with the thorn in his foot, that stubbornly refuses to remove it since he is incredulous that such a big animal should be bothered by such a measly thorn. The thorn gets infected and the infection kills the elephant. (I wonder if Hemingway's Snows of Kilimanjaro is based on this same fable?)

Besides Aburiria, the rest of the world in the book is geographically accurate. The story leaves east Africa when the Wizard of the Crow is summonsed to America to heal The Ruler, who suffers from SIE (self-induced expansion). A condition, that if you didn't figure out on your own, we are told is a metaphor for the country's pregnancy. Later in the book, an American envoy is sent to Aburiria. The envoy says the capitalistic times we live in can be summed up in one phrase: in search of freedom. "It needs a democratic space to move as its own logic demands." To America, Aburiria is upside-down and lawless. "If the masses take the law into their own hands, you will have nothing but chaos on your hands. Extreme democracy." The democracy that brought down the Roman civilization.

Besides the overarching themes of tyranny and chaos, another common theme throughout is that of disinformation. The fine line between fact and fiction and source-dependent reliability. Whether the information is gathered through torture, or by people with ulterior motives, it is hardly ever reliable or truthful. As sides of the story are recounted and then told again, they get more and more convoluted and further from the truth. At times, The Wizard of the Crow reminded me of The Revisionist in it's distortion and surreal unreliability. "All over the country, people were buffeted by the winds of rumor, disinformation, and even some facts as they tried to make sense of what happened." The absurdity of deception and censorship displays itself a few times in recursive bouts of paranoid thinking—in one part someone says, "if the ruler died," which is a highly illegal think to even think in Aburiria, let alone say, but he wasn't sure if Tarjika heard him. If he asks if he heard him, he'd have to say it again, and would also plant the idea in his head that he said it the first time, etc. At another point, The Ruler himself (bloated to ridiculous proportions) asks an officer, "did you dare say 'the ruler is pregnant'?" and after realized his mistake and passes it off as a joke, but insists the man must never say it, and the man sincerely says, "what are you talking about? I don't remember a thing." Which only serves to make The Ruler even more paranoid and in need of displaying his tyrannical prowess.

When I was done with it, I left The The Wizard of the Crow at Chedro's house in Kisumu for anyone else that passes through there to read. In it's place I took Forest of the Pygmies by Isabel Allende (thanks to whoever left it there).

Kisumu Post-Post-Election Violence

This portrayal of tyranny and chaos, in all its absurdity, in the fictitious African country of Aburiria, was etched in my mind during this visit to western Kenya. The purpose of our trip? Jess was paying a site visit to the Millennium Village of Sauri, and when I heard that mama Obama's village of Kogelo was only 10 clicks from Sauri, I of course wanted to come along for the ride. We left for Kisumu on an early flight. Jess and I were assigned seats in the 13th row, though when we got on the plane it went 10, 11, 12, 14, 15. Kenyans are still superstitious enough to not have a 13th row, though apparently their computer systems don't jive. Luckily the flight was short and we didn't die or anything. Here's what it looked like coming into Kisumu.

Kisumu from the air

Now I'm writing this on the gecko-pooped stained porch of Chedro's guesthouse, with my laundry hanging in front of me, looking out at the sun setting over Lake Victoria. Listening to Oliver Mtukudzi. Dark gray clouds are brewing, but for the most part the hotter weather here is a relief from the relentless rain of Nairobi. There's definitely malaria here though, and we are not bothering with prophylactics. Here's what it looks like from this porch.

sunset over Lake Victoria and squatter neighbors in roofless house

Sunset over lake victoria

We met Ro and G, two of Jess' colleagues, at Nairobi airport. They brought us some black beans and chocolate from the U.S., bless their souls. As well as the latest Bookforum so I could make an attempt to sync myself with the rest of the literary world. Besides some good reviews of Ohle's Pisstown Chaos (which I have with me but haven't read) and Unferth's Vacationland (which I sort of reviewed here), there was reviews of Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya and A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Munoz Molina that made me want to read them (note to self, or if you're looking for something to send me for my birthday in a few days...). Coincidentally there was also some articles about Peter Beard's The End of the Game, about the heyday of the African safari, and Tim Butcher's, Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, that retraces Henry Morton Stanley's 1874-77 expedition charting course of the Congo river from Lake Tanganyika westward to the Atlantic. Two more to put on my list to get. Too many books and not enough time.

The first day we went to Sauri, but I'll write about that in the next post. As well as visiting Kogelo and mama Obama. Other days, I hung around Kisumu while they were at work. There's not much to do much to do here. One day we went out for a boat ride on Lake Victoria and saw some hippos. Here's what that was like...

I went running along the lake every evening, down to hippo point. I walked or took a boda-boda into town a few times, but there wasn't much to see except the remnants of the post-election violence. Talking to people here, you still get the sense of the instability. Come 2012 it will happen all over again if Kibaki doesn't step down. The persistent tribalism is troubling. Kisumu and this region is predominantly Luo. We didn't meet any Kikuyus here, though we did meet a few Kambas, which are closer to Kikuyus than Luos. Needless to say, they were forced to evacuate and were reluctant to come back. People talk quite openly about it, I was told more than once by Luos how Kikuyus are thieves or lazy, etc. It's really not that different than the racist redneck mentality in the south of the U.S., only it's in the open and acceptable. Most people acknowledge that it exists and know that it will be problem again if people continue to think along these lines. If you are Kikuyu or even Indian or white and had your business or house burned post-elections, why would you return or rebuild? If it all could be taken away again so easily? A lot of people got rich over night acquiring land illegally and then reselling it, becoming instant millionaires. And then they don't know what to do with the money, so it is just all needlessly lost in a quagmire of corruption. More fuel for the fire. A good percentage of the shops were destroyed and many remain vacant, with street peddlers taking roost in front. You can't help but feel that Kisumu is still living on the verge of erupting again.

tuk-tuk and gutted bookshop and pharmacy



remains of the supermarket

kisumu nakumatt


burned out shop

kisumu shop


gutted trading store

kisumu store

There are signs of rebirth. Especially with Obama being from nearby Kogelo. Imagine that. That has to be empowering, to give people hope, knowing their kids could one day be The President of the United States of America. But is that hope good? Or will it only fuel the fire for future disappointment when they realize that nothing in their day-to-day-lives changes? That Obama isn't the wizard with the cure for everything. Or that Kenya continues to live up to the parody of Aburiria. Are Obama's father and Ngugi wa Thiong'o great Kenyans because they left Kenya? Are there any role-models that will remain to instigate change from the inside? It's tiring to think about and everything is riddled with hypocrisy and conflicting emotions. The talk here, whether you are riding on the back of a boda-boda or at a backyard barbecue with bottles of imported wine, always seems to lead to development, and what/who is the answer for Kenya's problems. Sometimes you just wish somebody would kick the dirt and say, "have you seen any good movies lately?" Besides the corruption and dysfunctional inefficiencies, people are also tired of all the NGOs and do-gooders trying to save Africa. Fatigue is the dominant sentiment. It is hard to be positive and hopeful here. The positive people are living in la-la land. The problem is most African's have been enabled and fatigued by generations of colonialism, then tyranny, and now aid and development, with everybody saying they want to help them. That has to be tiring. Imagining how Kenya must feel (if you could personify him/her) under all this analysis and self-analysis reminds me of my mindset as a depressed teenager. Though I wasn't depressed/repressed from living under tyranny—to the contrary, having lost my father at 14, I lived under the absence of tyranny. And I'm not sure what caused my depression, it doesn't matter really, what I'm getting at is how to snap out of it. I didn't see shrinks or wizards or anything, besides a hack community college psychologist, but I only snapped out once I just stopped thinking about it. When people stopped thinking about me and telling me what to do, what drug to take, how I should think, how to cure my depression. The only "intervention" Kenya needs is severance from colonialism, tyranny and development aid. And then they need tough love. Just to be ignored, left alone while they go through the withdrawal effects of no aid or tyrannical rule, to just stop thinking about how to get back up on their feet and what direction to go when they do, but to just stand up and start walking. To surprise itself. This is my challenge especially to writers and artists in Kenya.

railway Xing


boats on Lake Victoria


hotel in Kisumu


Kisumu restaurant


roadside cow







(c) 2008 Derek White