The imperfect girl behind the story of ‘Perfect Nine’

Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who turns 81 this month, returns to fiction field with a ground-breaking epic that subverts patriarchy and roots for social equity.

The New Year heralds a remarkable gift for Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s legion fans. Kenya and Africa’s esteemed author has a new work of fiction—his first in over a decade.

The Gikuyu epic, Kenda Muiyuru: Rugano Rwa Gikuyu na Mumbi, is published by East African Educational Publishers, and will soon be translated into English by the author as The Perfect Nine: The Story of Gikuyu and Mumbi.

This comes 13 years since Ngugi released his international bestseller, Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow), which has since been translated into more than 30 languages.

In the intervening years, Ngugi produced works of non-fiction and essay collections, including, Re-membering AfricaSecure the Base, and Globalectics, which restate the author’s enduring vision of an African renaissance rooted in the reclamation of the continent’s cultural heritage.

He also produced a trilogy of memoirs: Dreams in a Time of War, which recalls his schooling in colonial Kenya, and a land roiled by the state of Emergency (and the inspiration for his seminal novel, Weep Not, Child); In the House of the Interpreter, which chronicles his life at Alliance High School, and Birth of a Dreamweaver: A Writer’s Awakening, which documents his student days at Makerere University, where he cut his teeth as a writer.

After a trailblazing career, Ngugi’s detention without trial in 1977 precipitated his exile in 1982. Four years later, he published Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, which he declared his farewell to English language.

Farewell to English

“This book, Decolonising the Mind,” Ngugi wrote, “is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way.” He has since modified his position to exclude his academic work and non-fiction, so Kenda Muiyuru is an affirmation of his decades-long commitment of writing in an African language.

The new novel is ground-breaking on several fronts. As an epic, Ngugi takes on a genre that he is least known for. “I’m not really a poetry guy,” he concedes, “But I didn’t struggle with it…” he told the Saturday Standard from California, adding that the book took him three years to write.

At 136 pages, Kenda Muiyuru is possibly Ngugi’s shortest novel; aesthetically, it is possibly his most sophisticated. Every line encapsulates sage philosophy, rendered with lyrical tenderness.

The old Gikuyu fable posits that a man named Gikuyu and his wife Mumbi had nine daughters. They lived on the slopes of Kirinyaga, the abode of their God. Through earnest prayer, nine young men miraculously appeared to take ninedaughters for their wives and subsequently founded the community.

This was the epic that the playwright Oby Obyerodhiambo tapped to produce the musical, Drumbeats on Kirinyaga, in early 1990s, around the same time that Okoiti Omtatah penned Lwanda Magere, an epic on the Luo warrior whose supernatural powers lay in his shadow, evocative of the Biblical Samson and his mystic powers that lay in the tangle of his hair.

Predictably, Ngugi’s re-enactment, however, goes beyond the divine realm: he excavates the past to provide a complex vision of a future unencumbered by divisions along the lines of gender, ethnicity, and physical handicap, among others, in narrating the Gikuyu nation.

The centrepiece of the story is neither Gikuyu nor Mumbi, but their last-born daughter, Warigia, who is fabled to have borne a child out of wedlock—an abomination in the traditional society—and so fated to live in her father’s house.

Things are further compounded by Warigia’s physical disability, an imperfection that sits at odds with the idea of her siblings’ perfect beauty. By picking an unwed mother with a physical handicap for a heroine, Ngugi is making a pushing for a more inclusive society.

As the story develops, Warigia gains more importance in the narrative as the young suitors who are besotted with her pretty sisters are assigned a task that’s intricately woven with her future.

Ngugi’s fable provides a multicultural, multi-ethnic, even pan-African outlook: the 99 young men (one drifter, who is soft on Warigia, is not counted), are drawn from different parts of Kenya and the continent: Nyanza, Tana River, Niger, Senegal, Congo, all coursing down the major rivers towards their source in the highlands of Kirinyaga, and drawn to the fame of the nine beautiful sisters.

In this universe, the nine beauties reject objectification of their physical beauty, “the beautiful ones will always be born,” Ngugi writes, teasing out Ayi Kweyi Armah’s dystopian novel, “The Beautiful ones Are Not Yet Born.”

Even as the young men embark on their perilous assignment, they are warned that none of the young women will settle outside their parents’ land—but for Warigia, who elopes with the lone drifter—a bold gesture that this could be Ngugi’s most “feminist” novel.

In this book, work is not divided along gender lines; one undertakes tasks that they can handle.

“By necessity, they had to do everything,” he says of the ninedaughters. “They did not have brothers, so they had to go hunting to find something to eat, building huts, among other chores.”

The novel is also interested in ecological justice, as nature is presented as an entity that deserves human care, which cues in the American author Henry David Thoreau teachings on environmentalism.

While in the arduous journey to the top of the mountain, where Gikuyu the patriarch has instructed that all potential suitors to venture and bring a secret cure to treat Warigia’s handicap, only the most perseverant will survive and return to claim the nine fair ladies.

Ngugi’s Kenda Muiyuru proudly joins the hallowed space of world epics, such as Sundiata, An Epic of Old Mali and epics of ancient India such as Ramayana and Mahabharata.

“I would like to encourage Kenyan writers to create epics based on the stories of their communal origins, like Homer did for the Greeks and Virgil for the Romans,” Ngugi said in a recent interview with The East African.

Yet again, this pioneering writer is paving the way, as he has since 1962, when he published his seminal novel, while still an undergraduate. He’s presently a distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine, in the United States.

This literary milestone coincides with the release of yet another major text, Ngugi: Reflections on His Life of Writing, edited by Kenyan academics Simon Gikandi and Ndirangu Wachanga. This is published by the British imprint, Boydell & Brewer, last month.

- The writer Dr Peter Kimani is the author of the novel ‘Dance of the Jakaranda’, and is chairing this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing panel of judges