Books · Colonisation · Political

Wizard of the Word

Wizard of the CrowWizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o complained that African neo-colonial leaders behave so ridiculously that it’s hard to satirise them (similarly, my Dad recently quoted to me from an interview about Bremner Bird & Fortune ‘it’s getting easier to make fun of politicians. Lots of our later sketches mainly consisted of reading out government policy’) but he manages to do it here to painfully funny effect. At the same time he completely demystifies power by revealing the thought processes of the Ruler and his scheming ministers.

I remember reading in Decolonising the Mind about how his books were read by the Kenyan people he wanted to reach once he started writing in Gikuyu. Since in many villages literacy was not widespread, literate folks would read aloud in public places like bars. The whole time I was reading, I was imagining that space, where newcomers would need to ask questions and be appraised of background detail; where someone would forget an earlier plot point and explanations would be necessary, where jokes were repeated and howled over, and where politics expanded into discussion.

Of course, Ngugi wa Thiong’o has translated his own book (affirming his expression of hope in Decolonising the Mind that the art of translation would help him continue dialogue with people everywhere), so it’s perfectly expressive, but the translated-ness has its own interesting consequences for how the book’s humour works. More than that, it provokes me to mindfulness of the Kenyan village & the knowledge that he wrote this book for the people there first, and for me last. And I love this, that my gaze is the least relevant, the humblest. In reading The Famished Road, I felt Ben Okri created an inhospitable surface to break the colonising gaze of Whiteness (of course, that probably wasn’t his intent at all!), but in Wizard of the Crow there is no such disruptive confrontation – I simply feel myself a benign eavesdropper listening at the back, hearing imperfectly, missing some references.

On references though, Ngugi wa Thiong’o doesn’t assume much prior knowledge; he takes care to contextualise and inform about things he wants to bring into the tale, like the Ramayana. The experience he assumes familiarity with to play on is of living in a neo-colonial state under the gaze of a one-track international media. He shows a lot of love to fellow writers, placing literature as a source of knowledge and wisdom among folktales, songs, proverbs and political analyses. It’s extra nice that African and Indian women novelists are mentioned; in such a strongly feminist book, it’s super of Ngugi to send the reader to hear from the horse’s mouth.

The role of White Euro-American influence, gaze and individuals is sent up exquisitely. I particularly love this quote about an organized political process made by a group of women:

Some foreign diplomats laughed out loud, thinking that this was a humorous native dance, but when they saw that state officials and ministers were not laughing, they restrained themselves and assumed that, pornographic as the act might have seemed, it was actually a solemn native dance.

Some of the White people have ridiculous names; (sweet revenge?) Gabriel Gemstone is my favourite. For all the broad strokes though it’s full of subtlety. The Ruler calls the Global Bank officials racists because they deny a loan request, but himself articulates all manner of vile anti-Blackness.

One of my students asked me what this book was about and I said ‘it’s about a very clever, brave woman and a very kind, spiritual man’. It’s about so much more than the central couple, but I love how they complement, balance and complete each other. I also loved the ideas about renewal and healing in nature, self-awareness, contemplation and visionary exploration. I can honestly say that every time I opened this epic I entered book heaven. It was never hard going, never dull, always delightful and enthralling.


If there were no beggars in the streets, tourists might start doubting that Aburiria was an authentic African country

[the Ruler] was baffled by anyone not motivated by greed. he could never understand the type who talked of collective salvation instead of personal survival. how was one supposed to deal with these recalcitrants? a fisherman puts a work at the end of the line, but if the fish ignores it, how is the fisherman to catch the fish?

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