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The politics of the post-colony
Percy Zvomuya, Mail & Guardian (SA)
November 17, 2006

Percy Zvomuya reviews Ngugi wa Thiong’o's latest offering Wizard of the Crow

Ngugi wa Thiong’o says his aim in Wizard of the Crow is "to sum up Africa of the 20th century in the context of global forces of world history". Set in the Free Republic of Aburiria, this is an often dark, enigmatic and humorous story that spans 760 pages and is a refined culmination of the socialist vision of Petals of Blood, Devil on the Cross and Matigari.

Ngugi himself translated the novel from his mother tongue, Kikuyu, in which it was written and first published. The action is set at the point when Kamiti, the Wizard of the Crow, crosses paths with the Ruler, as the life president of Aburiria is known. In an egotistic moment, the Ruler decides to build a modern-day version of the biblical Tower of Babel, to be known as Marching to Heaven -- "a building to the very gates of Heaven so that the Ruler could call on God daily to say good morning or good evening or simply how was your day today, God?"

As usually happens with these sorts of projects, there is no money for the exercise, so funding must come from the Global Bank, a pervasive institution in the affairs of the country. The bank is non-committal about finance but before project financing has even been secured, Tajirika, the chairman of the project and a real estate and construction industry magnate, begins receiving visitors (in the parlance) bearing gifts, who want to get tenders.

Ngugi provides frequently hilarious caricatures of the politics of the post-colony. This is a world, for instance, where foreign affairs minister Markus Machokali enlarges his eyes to the size of light bulbs "so that he would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places". Not to be outdone, security minister Silver Sikiokuu enlarges his ears so that he can "detect danger at any time and from any direction".

This is also often a burlesque world with no rules, except for the sometimes frightening and warped ones of the improbable. Take the episode when the Ruler acquires a strange illness that baffles the best medical opinion and makes him puff up "like a balloon, his whole body becoming more and more inflated, without losing the proportion of parts". This is just like the Aburirian currency that "changed its value every other day the way chameleons change colour" -- a barbed remark directed perhaps at Zimbabwe, whose flag and national symbols are on the front cover.

It is also a world where the ruling elite are afflicted by a strange illness called white-ache, in which words get stuck in the throat and the only thing that sufferers can say is "if only". When Tajirika suffers from this ailment, he goes to the wizard, who unlocks the subsumed wish: "If only my skin were white like a white man’s skin."

In a book this long, of course, one expects many themes to be woven in. There are attempts to champion the feminist cause and find more meaningful and realistic roles for female characters. By the time the book ends, even Kamiti, who "had no set views of a woman’s place in the world", has been won over to the cause.

Kamiti and Nyawira both play the Wizard of the Crow. The ease with which they assume the role recalls an argument in Salman Rushdie’s The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey that a culture of masks is one that understands a lot about change. The wizard figure, though, is a curious one. Perhaps it is Ngugi’s admission of the inadequacy of the socialist vision that he championed zealously in Devil on the Cross, Petals of Blood and other books, and which must now be shored up by the spirituality and healing powers of the Indian-educated Kamiti.

This book strengthens Ngugi’s commitment to the orality repertoire, which he effected so expertly in Matigari. It also marks his first foray into the world of magical realism, and in that it has the oversights one expects of experimental works.

Ngugi’s book ends with Kamiti and Nyawira going home while holding hands, "a mixture of teardrops and raindrops running down Nyawira’s face". Up to the point when the Ruler is deposed, the book carries the weight of its tale quite well. But with the Ruler gone, the suspense and the fascination it generates over several hundred pages dissipates as we are given yet another ample dosage of life under Tajirika, the ruler’s successor. Perhaps, though, Ngugi is trying to underscore the dreary, cyclical and pessimistic vision and life in a "free" post-colony -- and that might well "sum up Africa of the 20th century in the context of global forces of world history".

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