Review- Ngugi, “Devil On The Cross”

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, “Devil On The Cross” (1980) (translated from the Gikuyu by the author) – Neither my phone nor google docs allows me to make the diacritical marks above the vowels in Ngugi’s name, or in the name of the Gikuyu language (moreover, wikipedia only refers to “Gikuyu” as “Kikuyu” with no diacritical marks, whereas the copy of the book I have does not)… a point Ngugi, largely responsible for the movement of African literature into native African vernacular languages, would surely appreciate ruefully. And these were no minor linguistic points for Ngugi- he wrote “Devil On The Cross” on toilet paper in his jail cell, where he landed sans trial for plays criticizing the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi over Kenya. Part of his criticism was that Kenya and other postcolonial African countries sold themselves to the West, including using the erstwhile colonizers’ languages as marks of status (though he was also critical of hypocritical deployment of African-ness by dictators and their lackeys).

“Devil On The Cross” is largely an allegory for the corruption of post-independence Kenya and what Ngugi thought could help. Kenya became independent after a long counterinsurgency war pitting the British Empire against a rag-tag group of rebels, the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau were closer to a religious movement than the sort of Marxist-derived insurgencies we associate with decolonization. They slaughtered a handful of British settlers (who squatted on the best lands, once held by the Kikuyu people) in bloody (and feverishly publicized by the British) ways. The British and their native allies came down hard, killing tens of thousands and routing the whole Kikuyu population and millions of others through a system of concentration camps (less than twenty years after a British judge sat in judgment at Nuremberg, “he repeated tiredly”). Even still, the British knew they couldn’t hold on forever: the point of their counterinsurgency, not unlike the similarly bloody, protracted, and forced-resettlement-based war in Malaya, was to force the process of independence into a mold that suited British interests. The British found conservative Kenyan partners with whom to do business, post-independence, rather than handing the country over to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. Kenya continued to be an outpost of European-friendly capitalism into the late seventies and beyond, when Ngugi was writing.

We encounter the allegory for this situation largely through the person of Jacinta Wariinga, a young woman who’s forced out of her secretarial job because she won’t sleep with her boss, and so takes a matatu bus away from Nairobi to her village. On this bus ride, she meets a variety of allegorical figures representing various social types: the worker, the peasant, the student, the nascent capitalist. Over the course of the ride, they all find out that they have been invited, by various parties, to attend a festival celebrating Modern Theft and Robbery in Kenya, where a King of Thieves and Robbers for the country is to be crowned by an international committee.

Much of the middle portion of the book is taken up by a description of this robber’s feast. Various Kenyan capitalists get up on the stage to describe the various ways they rook their countrymen — land schemes, schooling scams, etc. — brag about their cars and women, detail their collaborations running from working for foreign corporations to exploit the country to previously working for the British during the counterinsurgency, talking shit about each other, etc. Wariinga finds out that she’s connected to several of the passengers on the matatu in ways she couldn’t have predicted. The passengers react to the feast in several ways. Some try to join, and find they are too small-time or possessed of patriotic notions of only allowing Kenyans to rob Kenyans (allegorical representation of African capitalism). The peasant lady tries to get the police to come, but of course the police side with the ruling class.

Finally, the worker leads an uprising to chase the thieves and robbers out. It’s a sort of false climax to the book. Ngugi, influenced by Marx and Fanon, believes that only the African working class can overthrow the neocolonial regimes imposed on places like Kenya, preferably with help from peasants, students, etc., all of whom are in the allegorical mob. But in the end, they only can do so much. They chase the thieves and robbers out, but they all get away. Wariinga winds up in a couple with the allegorical student, which goes well for a while… but love can only do so much in the face of necolonial capitalism, and she winds up having to break free to an uncertain future in the actual climax.

“Devil On The Cross” fairly hits you on the head with its symbolism, but subtlety isn’t always strength, especially when dealing with an anguishing situation like that of post-independence Kenya. The language is interesting, interspersed with songs, bits of fable, and the occasional speech on the destiny of the African working class. Ngugi’s despair and wild hope for his country and the world comes through loud and clear. ****’

Review- Ngugi, “Devil On The Cross”

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