Matigari – Ngugi wa Thiong’o

“Where can a person girded with a belt of peace find truth and justice in this world?”- Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Matigari

The story takes place in a newly-independent Kenya. Like in other recently independent countries, their former masters still have a very strong presence and much control. Matigari ma Nijiruungi, whose name means “the patriots who survived the bullets” in Swahili,  is a messiah-like figure who has returned from fighting for independence and finds that his country has become corrupt and depraved. Matigari travels with a young Kenyan boy and a Kenyan prostitute while trying to find truth and justice, and take back what he believes is rightfully his. Due to several near escapes, Matigari’s image becomes more and more mythologized as the story goes on:

“Who is Matigari? they asked one another. How on earth are we going to recognise him? What does he look like? What nationality is he? Is Matigari a man or woman anyway? Is he young or old? Is he fat or thin? Is he real or just a figment of people’s imagination? Who or what really is Matigari ma Nijiruungi? Is he a person, or is it a spirit?”

I’m fascinated by post-colonial Africa and all the political intrigue that happened afterwards. It’s quite disappointing that so much corruption happened, dictators were born and so on even though the people had so much hope for the future. Despite wanting the colonialists out of their countries, many decided that the colonialists’ ways were far superior to their own culture. wa Thiong’o calls them “sell-outs.”

The sociologist in me couldn’t help but be intrigued by the discussion about the differences between the collectivist (African) and the individualist (Western) cultures:

“White people are advanced because they respect that word (“individual”), and therefore honour the freedom of the individual…But you black people? You walk about fettered to your clans, nationalities, people, masses. If the individual decides to move ahead, he is pulled back by the others.”

In an undergrad sociology class I learned that the British colonizers introduced a hut and poll tax to Kenya. Most Kenyans didn’t use money back then, so how were they ever meant to pay their taxes? By working for their masters almost as slaves. The British now had lots of cheap labour with which to produce cash crops. Despite all the hard work the Kenyans put in, they had nothing to show for it and still lived in poverty. As wa Thiong’o laments:

“The house is mine because I built it. The land is mine too because I tilled it with these hands. The industries are mine because my labour built and worked them. I shall never stop struggling for all the products of my sweat.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, or perhaps because of it, the tone of this book was quite satirical. Throughout the book it’s hard to miss the Christianity allegory. It is done quite cleverly, reminded me a bit of The Master and the Margarita.

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Sidenotes:

I think knowing more about Kenyan history before reading this book would be a bonus. I know that the author is a Kikuyu and his ethnic tribe was responsible for the Mau Mau uprising against the British in the 1950s, so I feel Matigari was supposed to represent the revolutionaries who fought in the revolt.  I came across this link on the BBC website: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-12997138

In the book, Matigari initially wore the belt of peace. When he found out this wasn’t working he decided to try violence. I couldn’t help but think of the differing doctrines of Dr. King and Malcolm X in this case. In the end, Matigari sides more with Malcom X when he says, “Justice for the oppressed comes from a sharpened spear”

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8 thoughts on “Matigari – Ngugi wa Thiong’o

  1. “White people are advanced because they respect that word (“individual”), and therefore honour the freedom of the individual…But you black people? You walk about fettered to your clans, nationalities, people, masses. If the individual decides to move ahead, he is pulled back by the others.” – Was having a conversation with someone about this very subject last week. She is a muslim from Trinidad & Tobago who’s had to flee the conflicts there. She and her family were targeted, she says, in large part because of this tendency (they owned several businesses), ‘A relic of our ancestry,’ she called it. It’s such an interesting thing. There are so many beautiful things about the communal, family/clan oriented approach to life that’s written into so many rural African cultures, it’s one of the things I love most about when I have the opportunity to return to Nigeria and visit family. Yet this very quality can be so destructive and retrograde too. I wonder if there are places in the world where the culture has found a happy medium.

    Thanks for the review. It sounds like a book that throws up a number of important themes.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Micah. I didn’t know you were Nigerian! I was actually just reading an awesome Nigerian book the other day (Male daughters, female husbands by Ifi Imadiume) and it goes into the Igbo societal structure. Very interesting. I agree, the way traditional African society is structured is awesome, it’s obvious it needed to be that way especially at a time when there wasn’t any other social net. I love going home and knowing I have several places to stay due to family ties. I think ideally a mix of collectivism and individualism would work best but that might be hard to achieve in traditional African society.

      And thanks for your kind comment on Twitter, by the way! I got the notification but I didn’t respond on there because I’m taking a short break from there to get stuck into my new course:)

  2. point of correction. ‘Matigari ma Nijiruungi, whose name means “the patriots who survived the bullets” in Swahili, ‘ ‘matigari’ as you have rightly mentioned means ‘remnants’ ‘Njirungi’ means bullets, however the name is not a swahili name rather a Kikuyu (Gikuyu) name. ‘remnant’ in swahili is literally means ‘ mabakisho’ and bullets in swahili are called ‘risasi’ ,Be careful not to mix up these two Bantu languages next time. Thank you very much

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