Petals of Blood is a novel written by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and first published in 1977. Set in Kenya just after independence, the story follows four characters – Munira, Abdulla, Wanja, and Karega – whose lives are intertwined due to the Mau Mau rebellion. In order to escape city life, each retreats to the small, pastoral village of Ilmorog. As the novel progresses, the characters deal with the repercussions of the Mau Mau rebellion as well as with a new, rapidly westernizing Kenya.
The novel largely deals with the scepticism of change after Kenya's liberation from the British Empire, questioning to what extent free Kenya merely emulates, and subsequently perpetuates, the oppression found during its time as a colony. Other themes include the challenges of capitalism, politics, and the effects of westernization. Education, schools, and the Mau Mau rebellion are also used to unite the characters, who share a common history with one another.
Petals of Blood was Ngugi's first novel written whilst not in full-time education, instead written over a five-year period. Initially begun whilst teaching at Northwestern University in 1970, the writer continued to work on the novel after his return to Kenya, finally finishing the novel in Yalta as a guest of the Soviet Writers' Union. Ngugi was inspired to write the novel as a way of synthesizing the notion of a postcolonial nation, and a willingness to portray the agents of social change present in Kenya's change from British East Africa.Petals of Blood was the last of Ngugi's novels to be written first in English.
On 30 December 1977, shortly after the release of his play “I Will Marry When I Want,” Ngugi was taken into custody by law enforcement officials and held without charges for questioning. According to Patrick Williams, Ngugi was often criticized by detractors for “dragging politics into art.”
Despite the political tone to his novels, including Petals of Blood, Ngugi had avoided government interference until deciding to write in his native Gikuyu. After the release of Petals of Blood, Ngugi wrote and began work on a Gikuyu language play called 'Ngaahika Ndeenda' (I Will Marry When I Want). He was then arrested and detained on 30 December 1977, for crimes relating to his "literary-political" background. After this period, all of his novels would be written first in Gikuyu and later translated into English, a move understood to be a conscious decision to focus more strongly on the peasant workers of Kenya as inspiration for his novels.
The book begins by describing the four main characters – Munira, Karega, Wanja, and Abdulla – just after the revelation that three prominent Kenyans, two businessmen and one educator, have been killed in a fire. The next chapter moves back in the novel's timeline, focusing on Munira's move to Ilmorog, to begin work as a teacher. He is initially met with suspicion and poor classroom attendance, as the villagers think he will give up on the village soon, in much the same way previous teachers have done. However, Munira stays and, with the friendship of Abdulla, another immigrant to Ilmorog who owns a small shop and bar, carves out a life as a teacher.
Soon Wanja arrives, the granddaughter of the town's oldest and most revered lady. She is an attractive, experienced barmaid who Munira begins to fall in love with, despite the fact he is already married. She too is escaping the city, and begins to work for Abdullah, quickly reshaping his shop, and expanding its bar. Karega arrives in Ilmorog to seek Munira to question him about their old school Siriana. After a brief relationship with Munira, Wanja once again grows disillusioned and leaves Ilmorog. The year of her departure is not good for the village as the weather is harsh and no rain come, making for a poor harvest. In an attempt to enact changes, the villagers are inspired by Karega to journey to Nairobi in order to talk to their Member of Parliament.
The journey is very arduous and Joseph, a boy that Abdullah had taken in as his brother and who had worked in his shop, becomes ill. When they arrive in Nairobi, the villagers seek help from every quarter. They are turned away by a reverend who thinks they are merely beggars, despite their pleas of help for the sick child. Trying at another house, some of the villagers are rounded up and forced into the building where they are questioned by Kimeria, a ruthless businessman who reveals that he and their MP are in league with one another. He blackmails Wanja, and subsequently rapes her. Upon arriving in Nairobi and speaking to their MP, the villagers realise that nothing will change, as he is little more than a demagogue. However, they do meet a lawyer who wishes to help them and others in the same predicament and through a court case highlights Ilmorog's plight. This draws attention from national press and donations and charities pour into Ilmorog.
Finally, the rains comes, and the villagers celebrate with ancient rituals and dances. During this time, Karega starts a correspondence with the lawyer that he met in Nairobi, wishing to educate himself further. To celebrate the rain's coming, Nyakinyua brews a drink from the Thang'eta plant, which all of the villagers drink. Karega tells the story the love between him and Mukami, the older sister of Munira. Mukami's father looked down on Karega because of his brother's involvement with the Mau Mau. Forced to separate, Mariamu and Karega do not see each other again, and Mukami later commits suicide by jumping into a quarry. This is the first time Munira hears the story. Later, an unknown plane crashes in the village; the only victim is Abdulla's donkey. Wanja notices that there are several large groups of people who come to survey the wreckage, and suggests to Abdulla that they begin to sell the Thang'eta drink in Abdulla's bar. The drink attracts notoriety, and many people come to the bar in order to sample it. Out of fury for Karega's connection to his family and jealousy of his relationship with Wanja, Munira schemes to have Karega fired from his teaching post with the school. Karega then leaves Ilmorog.
Development arrives in Ilmorog as the government begin to build the Trans-Africa road through the village, which brings an increase in trade. Karega returns to Ilmorog, telling of his slow spiral into alcoholism before finally securing work in a factory. After getting fired from the factory, he returns to Ilmorog. The change in Ilmorog is rapid, and the villages changes into the town of New Ilmorog. The farmers are told that they should fence off their land and mortgage parts of it to ensure that they own a finite area. They are offered loans which are linked to their harvest turnout to pay for this expense. Nyakinyua dies and the banks move to take her land. To prevent this Wanja sells her business and buys Nyakinyua's land. She opens up a successful brothel in the town, and is herself one of the prostitutes. Munira goes to see her to attempt to rekindle their romance, but is met with only a demand for money. He pays, and the couple have sex. Karega goes to see Wanja who both still have strong feelings for each other, but after disagreeing about how to live he leaves. Wanja plans to separate herself finally from the men who have exploited her during her life, wanting to bring them to her brothel with all of her prostitutes sent away so that she could present the downtrodden but noble Abdulla as her chosen partner. Meanwhile, Munira is watching the brothel, and sees Karega arrive, and then leave. In a religious fervour, he pours petrol on the brothel, sets it alight, and retreats to a hill to watch it burn. Wanja escapes but is hospitalized due to smoke inhalation; the other men Wanja had invited died in the fire. Munira is sentenced with arson; later, Karega learns that the corrupt local MP was gunned down in his car whilst waiting for his chauffeur in Nairobi.
Explanation of the novel's title
The title Petals of Blood is derived from a line of Derek Walcott's poem 'The Swamp'. The poem suggests that there is a deadly power within nature that must be respected despite attempts to suggest by humans that they live harmoniously with it.
|“||Fearful, original sinuosities! Each mangrove sapling|
Serpent like, its roots obscene
|— Derek Walcott, The Swamp|
Originally called 'Ballad of a Barmaid', it is unclear why Ngugi changed the title before release. The phrase "petals of blood" appears several times throughout the novel, with varying associations and meanings. Initially, "petals of blood" is first used by a pupil in Munira's class to describe a flower. Munira quickly chastises the boy, saying that 'there is no colour called blood'. Later, the phrase is used to describe flames, as well relating to virginity during one of Munira's sexual fantasies.
- Munira – schoolteacher who goes to Ilmorog in order to teach in its dilapidated school. He falls in love with Wanja and is the arsonist the police seek.
- Wanja – Granddaughter of Nyakinyua. As experienced barmaid who flees her past in the city. She falls in love with Karega, although she is still coveted by Munira. She also sleeps with Abdulla because of her reverence for his actions in the Mau Mau rebellion. An industrious barmaid, she helps Abdulla's shop to become successful, and also sells Theng'eta. She later becomes a prostitute and runs her own brothel before being injured in Munira's arson attack.
- Abdulla – A shopkeeper who lost his leg in the Mau Mau rebellion. His main assets in life are his shop and his donkey, as well as a boy Joseph, who he had taken in and cares for as a brother. He is the only major character to have worked with the Mau Mau during the rebellion.
- Karega – Young man who works as a teaching assistant at Munira's school before becoming disillusioned and heading for the city. After the trip to Nairobi, he becomes enamoured with socialism, and starts to educate himself on its principles and on the law. However, he later becomes disillusioned with the effects of education, and how apt it is in the struggle for liberation. As a youth, he dated Munira's sister who subsequently committed suicide; this was unknown to Munira until Karega reveals it to him and to others after having drunk Theng'eta.
- Nyakinyua – The village's most revered woman, and the grandmother of Wanja. She performs all of the traditional ceremonies in the village. At first she is highly sceptical of Munira's arrival, believing that he will flee the village like his predecessors. After her death, Wanja sells her business to save Nyakinyua's land from the banks and also uses the proceeds to start a brothel.
- Kimeria – Ruthless businessman who is part of the new Kenya elite. Has an interest in Ilmorog for business purposes, and had a previous relationship with Wanja. As the villagers travel to Nairobi to meet with their politician, Kimeria holds Wanja hostage and rapes her.
- Chui – a schoolboy at the prestigious, previously European Siriana school, he leads a student revolt. However, when he returns to lead the school, he enacts an oppression far greater than was present during colonial rule. He later become one of the new Kenya elite, and is involved in business dealings with both Kimeria and Nderi wa Riera.
- Nderi wa Riera – the local politician for Ilmorog's district, he lives and works in Nairobi. He is a demagogue who does not listen to the appeals of the villagers when they meet him. Rather, he is interested in Ilmorog merely for business, and is in league with Kimeria. With Kimeria and Chui, he is a director of the widely successful Theng'eta Breweries.
One primary underlining theme in Petals of Blood is the failure of the ruling Kenyan elite to adequately meet the needs of the people. After the new postcolonial governments come to power, the leaders maintain their connections with the outgoing colonizers, thus marginalizing the everyman. In the novel, the elite are portrayed as both government officials and businessmen who violate the villagers of Ilmorog in both passive and aggressive ways. The corrupt system acts like a chain—in the novel, when the government’s lawyers declare that they have solved the murder cases, the people of Ilmorog realize that as long as the corrupt system stays in place and continues churning out corrupt individuals, there will be no change.
Ngugi makes the dichotomy between the villagers (the honest working class) and the elite (corruption) most visible in the speech that Nyakinyua gives before the villagers, which motivates them to make the trip to Nairobi. She says, “I think we should go. It is our turn to make things happen. There was a time when things happened the way we in Ilmorog wanted them to happen. We had power over the movement of our limbs. We made up our own words and sang them and we danced to them. But there came a time when this power was taken from us.... We must surround the city and demand back our share” (pp. 115–116). However, along their way, they are unjustly detained by Kimeria the businessman, who reveals that he is colluding with the MP, and who afterwards rapes Wanja.
Capitalism is decried in Petals of Blood, with the new Kenyan elite portrayed as controlled by the 'faceless system of capitalism'. The everyman loses out to capitalist endeavours, and is essentially exploited by the new Kenyan elite. Farmers are forced to mark out their lands and mortgage them with loans linked to the success of their harvest; as the quality of the harvests waver, many are forced to sell their land, unable to match their loan repayments. Thang'eta is another symbol of capitalism. Taken from a drink that Nyakinyua brews in a traditional ceremony, it is soon marketed, and becomes extremely popular. Wanja, who introduces the drink to Abdulla's bar, is then exploited by big business who forces her to stop her Thang'eta operation. Neither she nor Munira, who creates the slogan, receive the fruits of their labour. Originally a drink used to help people relax and escape their current problems, it becomes 'a drink of strife'.
Cities are portrayed as places where capitalism flourishes and are contrasted strongly with the village of Ilmorog. In its pursuit for the modern, Kenya adopts capitalism at the expense of tradition as the city begins 'to encroach upon and finally swallow the traditional and the rural.' As time progresses, Ilmorog changes vastly, as do its inhabitants. With its modernization, influenced greatly by capitalism and the chance to increase trade, Munira reflects on these changes and how they link with capitalism, saying that 'it was New Kenya. It was New Ilmorog. Nothing was free.'
Agriculture is an important theme in Petals of Blood, most notably in the town of Ilmorog, an isolated, pastoral community. After modernization, the farmers lands are fenced off and ultimately seized when they cannot repay their loans. Although none of the main characters lose their land in this way (Wanja, however, sells her family's plot), it is significant in that Kenya recreates what happened during colonial rule: the loss of land and subsequent desire to reclaim it was "the central claim" for those who rebelled against the settlers.
The notion of land and fertilisation is often linked to Wanja, who is seen as the embodiment of these concepts. As she is portrayed as "the symbol of the nation", the loss of her land to the new Kenyan elite is an important parallel with Ngugi's depiction of Kenya. Land is also linked to Kenya itself, with Ngugi suggesting that anyone who sells their land is a traitor.
Education is often depicted cynically in Petals of Blood. Munira is a teacher, but lacks strong abilities to guide his pupils, instead preferring to stand back and not to assert any of his own beliefs. He rejects the claims of others that the children should be taught more about being African, instead preferring that they be taught politics, and things which are "fact". Two of the three "betrayers of the people", those who are ultimately murdered, are also educators; they are untrustworthy, and depict the education system as a "problematic institution" in independent Kenya.
Although there is a brief suggestion that education does provide hope, as Joseph succeeds academically at Siriana, it the education system as a whole which is criticized. The notion of education as self-liberating is critiqued, as Joseph's success is still within the Siriana school, previously a bastion of "European" education. In a more political sense, Karega's self-education causes him to doubt his initial belief that education was a tool to gain liberation; originally taken in by the lawyer's socialistrhetoric, Karega's dealings with education ultimately leave him disillusioned.
Petals of Blood relies heavily on flashbacks, using the points of view of the four major characters to piece together previous events. As each character is questioned by the police, the novel takes on certain characteristics of the detective novel, with a police offer trying to ascertain details of their pasts in order to find the murderer of Chui, Kimeria, and Mzigo. The flashbacks also encompass several different timeframes. The present day action takes place over the course of 10 days; the past events take places over 12 years. Ngugi also discusses Kenya's past, going as far back as 1896, when Kenya was "annexed" by the British.
The narrative voice shifts between Munira and the other characters describing the events of their lives, and an omniscient narrator. There is also a suggestion of a communal narrative voice, as Ngugi draws on the mythic past of Kenya to place the novel in a wider context than simply the colonial. This communal voice is at work through the various Gikuyu songs with which Ngugi intersperses the novel; there is a great reliance placed on such songs, which help tell, through the oral tradition of linking of proverbs and fables, the history of Ilmorog and Kenya before colonial intervention.
Petals of Blood caused a stronger critical reaction than Ngugi's previous novels. The use of the past and historical memory is far more widespread in the novel due largely to the use of flashbacks, and questions relating to the past "from the central concerns" of the novel. The strong political motif that runs throughout the novel has also been discussed, focusing on the relation of political ideas to the Petals of Blood's wider framework: Ngugi was lauded for his "successful marriage" of political content and artistic form. During the 1980s the novel was adapted by Mary Benson into a two-hour-long radio play starring Joe Marcel by BBC Radio 3.
Ngugi was criticised however for his stylistic form in Petals of Blood. It was suggested that the social realism of the novel did not accurately represent or complement the socialist ideals put forth.John Updike suggested that Ngugi's desire to permeate the plot with political ideas detracts from his writing. The novel's plot was also deemed to be "rambling" as well as being too short, or too much curtailed.
- ^Gikandi 2000, p. xii
- ^Gugelberger 1986, p. 118
- ^Gikandi 2000, p. 130
- ^ abWilliams 1999, p. 78
- ^Ngugi 1995, p. 74
- ^Gikandi 2000, p. 37
- ^Walcott 1993, p. 18
- ^ abcKillam 2004, p. 90
- ^"René Richard (Université Paul Valéry, Monpellier)". Archived from the original on August 16, 2007. Retrieved 15 November 2008.
- ^Thiong'o 1986, p. 6
- ^Wamalma 1986, p. 14
- ^Williams 1999, p. 96
- ^Gikandi 2000, p. 141
- ^Ngugi 1986, p. 270
- ^Williams 1999, p. 82
- ^Ngugi 1986, p. 280
- ^ abStilz 2002, p. 138
- ^Mwangi 2004, p. 70
- ^Ngugi 1986, p. 344
- ^Williams 1999, p. 86
- ^Thiong'o 1995, p. 34
- ^Williams 1999, pp. 87–88
- ^Losambe 2004, p. 42
- ^Williams 1999, p. 80
- ^Gérard 1986, p. 919
- ^ abcThiong'o 1995, p. 75
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- Mwangi, Evan (Winter 2004), "The Gendered Politics of Untranslated Language and Aporia in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood", Research in African Literatures, 35 (4): 70, doi:10.1353/ral.2004.0099.
- Ngugi, wa Thiong'o (1986), Petals of Blood, Oxford: Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-90834-0 .
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- Parekh, Pushpa Naidu; Jagne, Siga Fatima (1998), Postcolonial African Writers: A Bio-Biographical Critical Sourcebook, Westport, CT: Greenwood, ISBN 978-0-313-29056-5 .
- Stilz, Gerhard (2002), Missions of Interdependence: A Literary Directory, Kenilworth, NJ: Rodopi, ISBN 978-90-420-1429-9 .
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In 1977, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s last artistic work written in English, the novel Petals of Blood was published. A few months after its publication, Ngugi was arrested and detained, without charge, by the then authoritarian Kenyan government for a year in a maximum security prison. This was because this epic novel, in addition to his community-driven plays with the Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center which were written in Gikuyu such as Ngaahika Ndeenda, criticized the manner in which the political ruling elite hoodwinked the peasant class into a position of socio-economic privilege while leaving the latter in a state of deprivation. Petals, which is based on an investigation into the puzzling murder case of three capitalists: Chui, Kimeria and Mzigo, is written such that it represents different types and classes of people in the Kenyan society during changing historical times: the pre-colonial, the colonial and the post-colonial eras. It reveals a society full of betrayals of the peasant class by the powerful ruling elite. Through this novel, which can be seen as a product of the then ongoing, albeit incomplete, transition from an Afro-European to an African novelistic style, Ngugi aims at awakening the revolutionary spirit among Kenyans similar to that of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) freedom fighters during the battle against the European settlers for independence. This national consciousness is modelled on Frantz Fanon’s conception of the writer as a native intellectual who is in one of the three phases: the first phase which is characterized by the writer’s unqualified assimilation, the second phase where the writer is ‘disturbed but decides to remember who he is’ by just recalling the past life of his people and the third phase which is the fighting phase where the writer becomes an ‘awakener of the people’ (Fanon 40–41). In this essay, I aim at analyzing how Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as an ‘awakener of the people,’ uses the novel Petals to inspire national consciousness especially among the peasants in the neo-colonial Kenyan society.
The first, and arguably most important, factor to consider when determining Ngugi’s aspirations in Petals is the people he wrote the book for, his target audience. In his essay from Decolonizing the Mind, titled The Language of African Fiction, while commenting on the language crisis he found himself in, Ngugi posed, “I knew whom I was writing about but whom was I writing for?” (Decolonizing the Mind 72) He termed Petals as ‘the climax’ of his Afro-European writing but it is quite clear that despite writing it in English, Ngugi had the Kenyan working class in mind as the novel’s primary audience. The novel is set in a remote, but changing, village of Ilmorog and the heroic characters such as Abdulla, Karega, Munira, Wanja and Nyakinyua are people that the Kenyan peasant population can identify with. In addition, Ngugi seems to be more accepting towards the peasant class and critical of those who do not conform to the ideals of this class. For instance, when Munira goes to Ilmorog at the beginning, he tries to settle in as an intellectual who does not seem, and is afraid, to understand the dynamics of the peasant class such as the rain patterns or the indo cia thakame, things of blood. Due to this tendency, he faces resistance from the local people such as Nyakinyua, who sees him as having come to fetch the remaining children to take them to the city (Petals 9) and Njuguna, Ruoro and Muturi who see him as a ‘msomi’ whose ‘hands are untouched by soil, as if they wear a ngome.’ (11) Ngugi’s portrayal of Munira here shows a rejection of the middle class intellectuals who refuse to be part of the people. The novel also chastises the capitalist and political classes through characters such as Mzigo, Chui and Kimeria, who end up being murdered at the end of the novel, and the sloganeering politician Nderi wa Riiera as well as Munira’s father Ezekieli. On the other hand, peasant characters such as Nyakinyua and Muturi are praised as the guardians of the people’s history but who are oppressed by the ruling class and who should therefore act together to change their situation. Karega, the son of a peasant Mariamu, is shown as the force behind the resistance of the Ilmorog people and workers against an oppressive regime and a profiteering capitalist class. This leaves no doubt that Ngugi seeks to provoke the have-nots in Kenya to see themselves in the characters and their struggles and realize their power to rise against the tyranny of the haves.
The nature of the language in the novel also tells of a man clear in his address to the working class, albeit in transition in terms of the language of his writing. Ngugi uses cultural and local references without providing a clear background for the reader to contextualize the experience in the book. For instance, when the elderly men discus the weather patterns, not much detail is given and a reader unaccustomed to the knowledge of the place would find it difficult to make sense of their discussions. Also Ngugi sprinkles the novel with Gikuyu and Swahili terms without providing a glossary or translation for most of them. This is evidence of Ngugi’s increasing urge to write to his people rather than just writing about them only for another group of people to read about. From my own experience as a Gikuyu speaker and someone able to easily contextualize the condition of life as written in Petals, I found it much easier to access the meaning compared to my peers who were limited by the Gikuyu and Swahili in the text and lack of a complete description of the nature of the human condition in the novel.
It is however important to note that while writing Petals, Ngugi still maintained a certain level of doubt about the ability of the novel written in English to reach this targeted audience since most of them could not either speak English or had a non-English epistemic interpretation of things unlike the Kenyan upper class. As he wrote Petals, wa Thiong’o was simultaneously working with Ngugi wa Mirii and The Kamirithu Community and Cultural Center to write Gikuyu plays like Ngaahika Ndeenda which were more easily accessible to his primary audience. This must have been a product of his concerns over his confusion over who his primary audience was in a 1967 interview cited in TheLanguage of African Fiction and would also explain his insistence that intellectuals from marginalized languages-languages that have been mainly ignored in literature-realize that their primary audience is the community that gave them their language (Pozo 2). This in turn explains his irrevocable decision to change the language of his creative works from English to Gikuyu, starting with his next novel Devil on The Cross published in 1981.
Additionally, some of the literary techniques that Ngugi wa Thiong’o employs in Petals show us a man implementing his own recommendations in The Language of African Fiction and whose product is likely to be that which he recommends in the essay. Examples of these include departure from a linear plot, stories within stories and a constant shift in the narrative voice. Ngugi employs these techniques both as a means of achieving a narrative of collective consciousness and a move towards a more African novel inspired by techniques from other experienced writers who influenced him. The shift in the narrative voice is particularly important for creating collective consciousness. While parts of the novel have an omniscient narrator or the diary form as Munira recalls memories of his twelve years in Ilmorog, the third person plural perspective, such as at the beginning of part three, depicts a community galvanized by their collective struggle against oppression.
The allegorical nature of Petals is another factor that can be seen as Ngugi’s effort to recreate revolutionary consciousness. As an allegory, Petals is aimed at recreating a representation of a neo-colonial Kenyan state through characters, places and events that mirror the reality of the actual post-independence Kenyan state. The class differences are created through the peasant class in the form of the Ilmorog farmers and herders such as Muturi, Nyakinyua, Njuguna and Ruoro vis-a-vis the capitalist and the political class represented by characters such as Nderi wa Riera, Mzigo, Chui and Kimeria. There is also a class trapped in the middle which is represented by the immigrants to Ilmorog, particularly through the character of Munira. In addition, each character in the novel seems to play a specific role which is typical of a certain group of people in the real Kenyan society. Munira, for instance, represents the middle class that ‘stood outside’ during the struggle for independence and is struggling to fit into the rest of society by attempting to ‘pay back’ through service but who still fear to explore the tough questions of the rampant inequality as depicted by his anxiety in refusing to answer the children’s questions about the ‘flower with petals of blood.’ (Petals 12, 26) Munira aptly represents the second phase of the native intellectual as conceptualized by Fanon. The more aggressive Karega, whose name coincidentally means ‘the one who resists’ in Gikuyu, is a representation of the third phase of the native intellectual who is willing to confront the history and material reality of his people and with his people. As a teacher, he teaches the children about the world outside Ilmorog and he actively seeks a deeper understanding of the historical and political nuances of his people especially after meeting the lawyer who represents a political class of revolutionaries but whose fixation on property is faulted. Wanja on her part represents the struggles of a Kenyan woman who is forced by the circumstances to use her sexual power to gain favours but who nevertheless resists the capitalistic class oppression. Abdulla represents the revolutionaries who have been part of historical struggles but who have been betrayed and continue to languish in abjection. Joseph and Wanja’s unborn baby seem to represent an upcoming generation of revolutionaries who shall fight for a more just Kenya. On the other hand, the capitalists (Kimeria, Chui and Mzigo) seem to represent ‘slaves of the monster god’ that is money while Nderi wa Riiera represents the deceitful neo-colonial politicians whose efforts to terrorize and divide the people through the Kamwene Cultural Organization (KCO) are purely for his selfish gain.
Petals can also be seen as an African adaptation of the modernist form of artistic expression. Modernism is an artistic movement that started in the 19th Century and became more popular in the early 20th century through artists such as Pablo Picasso, Bertolt Brecht and Igor Stravinsky. It was characterized by a rejection of the norms set by prior forms such as realism and romanticism, criticism of the modern form of life dominated by capitalism and a higher level of alienation of the audience so as to stir deeper thinking and understanding. Edna Aizenberg argues that as African states found themselves in a post-independence era crisis, as the ruling class usurped the socio-economic power leaving the economies on the decline, the African intelligentsia felt the need to develop a ‘literary language to symbolically enact the disillusionment…a style in which the complex form, strained language and uncertain ground of the modernist aesthetic were melded with indigenous linguistic and narrative traditions to transmit the new instability and bitterness of African society” (Aizenberg 89). She correctly cites Ngugi wa Thiong’o, alongside Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Yambo Ouologuem and Kofi Awoonor, as part of this new movement of African writers. Petals, in many ways shows a novel fitting modernist ideals and aspirations, for instance through alienation by using Gikuyu words and phrases without translation, and espousing Marxist ideology to unsettle capitalistic inequality.
The didactic nature of Petals, which can also be viewed as a modernist resistance to the classical novelistic norms and a function of Ngugi’s address to Kenyan working class, also tells of a novel bent on teaching as a way of raising a national revolutionary consciousness. While a classical western novel would aim at entertaining its readers through its fiction in their leisure time, Petals takes a different path. While it certainly entertains as an investigative thriller, it also teaches Kenyan history and the present socio-economic and political condition. At some points, it takes on a completely didactic form to the extent that it looks like a textbook with elements of a novel. For instance, at the beginning of part two, Nyakinyua tells the Ilmorog people a story about the history of Ilmorog. Despite the fact that it takes on a narrative form, this part of the novel clearly teaches the pre-colonial history since the time of the founder of the community, Ndemi, to the coming of the colonialists when people like Munoru betrayed the community by collaborating and getting assimilated by the Europeans while Nyakinyua’s husband resisted (Petals 145–149). By doing this Ngugi wants the Kenyan people to understand their past, and while not romanticising it, learn lessons from it in order to change their current condition.
Also important in considering Petals as a tool for inspiring a revolutionary consciousness is the way in which Ngugi views Kenyan history as seen by different types of people. In the interview with Michael Pozo, Ngugi maintains that aesthetics do not occur in a social vacuum and as such art must reflect the conception of life which it represents (Pozo 2). For this reason, Ngugi looks into different versions of history ranging from the tautological “history is history” (Petals 206) by Chui at Siriana meant at institutionally assimilating Kenyan students to the black professors who viewed African history as “one of wanderlust and pointless warfare between peoples” (237). This is in sharp contrast to history that Nyakinyua made the Ilmorog people relive through her songs in the Theng’eta drinking session. The Theng’eta-inspired history is one that is in touch with the people’s present reality and the one that leads to the revelation of truth. This version of history, also praised by Fanon “the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities” (Fanon 42), is the one that Ngugi believes will awaken the people into national consciousness.
It is therefore clear that Ngugi used his last English literary work, Petals of Blood, to present the history and present reality of the Kenyan people in the form of an allegory that was constructed based on the collective struggle of the Ilmorog people to inspire consciousness among the Kenyan peasant and working class.