Not often do I have to read a book twice in order to attempt to formulate an idea of what I want to talk about. Usually, as I read I think of the topics or themes in the novel that most interest me, and by the time I get around to writing this blog, I have a fairly coherent outline of what I want to explore. But I found a new kind of obstacle in Africa, specifically Kenya, and its literature. It’s nothing more than the fact that Kenya baffled me, both in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood and in my actual brief and highly touristic sojourn there in July.
Now, for a woman my age, I’m fairly well-traveled. I’ve lived in Mexico and Paris, spent some time in places like Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ireland, and made a considerable dent in exploring my own country. But everywhere I’ve traveled has been indoctrinated in Western culture for decades if not centuries, so although there are differences in language and cuisine and landscape, etc., I’ve never found myself confronted with the stark contrasts of a non-Westernized culture. Things that I’d always heard of and considered myself familiar with, at least theoretically, like post-colonialism, the unequal distribution of wealth, the blatant corruption of political officials, the continuing Western exploitation of African resources, or the inequality of gender roles in society, hit me with all the force of a paradigm shift because here was a place where these things were glaringly apparent. Slums with millions of people living in tin and cardboard houses backed up against mansions with tennis courts and pools. Men bought wives with goats and those wives spent the rest of their lives raising as many children as they could produce. In the less urbanized, smaller villages, female circumcision is still practiced. Well-fed watalii, or tourists, traversed the country, keeping to the game reserves unless absolutely necessary, letting their eyes slide over the squalor and poverty that surrounded them, instead gushing over the lions and elephants and zebras, which are, to give credit where credit is due, truly breathtaking. I was one of those watalii, but I’m infinitely glad that I decided to read Petals of Blood before I went (and then again after), because it gave me an insight into a place that I was not previously prepared to understand, and of which I have only barely scratched the surface.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to write a 10-page entry going into detail on each of the problems I encountered in Kenya, so please, keep reading. I’m just going to talk some about a couple of the themes that most interested me and that are essential components to understanding the conflict in Petals of Blood. It’s also one that is always closest to my heart: the state of women in Kenya. I don’t consider myself a feminist generally. Of course I believe that women should be treated the same as men, that preconceived notions of gender roles hurt rather than help society, and that women’s issues are something that somehow are still under attack after however many centuries humans have walked this earth, contrary to what I see as all common sense and all our faculties for reason. I consider myself a humanist. We are all equal. There should be no sides. Oops, I ranted.
Wanja, who is, in my opinion, the heart of the story, struggles with her womanhood throughout, fighting against the juxtaposition between what she wants to do with her life and what reality more or less forces her to do. A bar wench turned shop assistant turned madame, Wanja often remarks on the perceived inescapability of her domination by men in connection with the transient power of her body over them. When speaking of her relationship with Karega, the young revolutionary, as compared to her past relations with other men she says: “With him it has been different…. For the first time, I feel wanted…a human being…no longer humiliated… degraded… foot-trodden” (251). For this reason, Wanja clings to her relationship with Karega, and when it fails, she makes her final descent into whoredom. “Eat or you are eaten. If you have a cunt…if you are born with this hole, instead of it being a source of pride, you are doomed to either marrying someone or else being a whore. You eat or you are eaten…. what’s the difference whether you are sweating it out on a plantation, in a factory or lying on your back, anyway?” (293). As you can probably see, Wanja is one of the more intriguing characters in the novel for her ability to see the world as it is, in all its hard truths and cruelty. She is even able to use her knowledge to her advantage, though at the cost of her body.
The idea of prostitution, however, extends far beyond Wanja and the feminine condition. It is, in fact, a key component to contemporary Kenya and indeed, modern civilization, as described here:
We are all prostitutes, for in a world of grab and take, in a world built on a structure of inequality and injustice, in a world where some can eat while others can only toil, some can send their children to schools and others cannot, in a world where a prince, a monarch, a businessman can sit on billions while people starve or hit their heads against church walls for divine deliverance from hunger, yes, in a world where a man who has never set foot on this land can sit in a New York or London office and determine what I shall eat, read, think, do, only because he sits on a heap of billions taken from the world’s poor, in such a world, we are all prostituted (240).
It is in part this idea that is symbolized by the images of a flower with petals of blood, of flowering, and of blooming , that are used consistently throughout the book, and give the book its title. Our first encounter with it is innocent enough. Munira, the teacher, takes his pupils into the fields around Ilmorog, a forgotten rural village which contains most of the action in this novel, and one of his students discovers a flower with petals of blood. “No, you are wrong,” said Munira, “this color is not even red…. This is a worm-eaten flower…It cannot bear fruit…A flower can also become this color if it’s prevented from reaching the light” (22). This description in many ways describes Wanja and her fruitless desire to have a child, but as wa Thiong’o further develops his story and strives to encapsulate contemporary Kenya, the reader also sees the similarities between the struggling post-Independence nation and the infertile worm-eaten flower.
On a smaller scale, the “civilization” and “modernization” of Ilmorog can also be seen as a parallel to larger Kenya. “But how can I, a mortal, help my heart’s fluttering, I who was a privileged witness of the growth of Ilmorog from its beginnings in rain and drought to the present flowering in petals of blood?” (45). Contrary to what one might assume, Ilmorog, the drought- and famine-plagued dusty village from whence all the young people flee to the city, is vastly superior to New Ilmorog, in which there is plumbing, industrialization, an economy, and roads. As with Wanja, development and growth in this story is akin to moral decay, as is, once again, personified by the petals of blood. What had the potential for beauty is rotten at the core. But this is the point that wa Thiong’o is making, in my opinion. There is no model, at least as of today, of civil/modernization that does not include its accessories: corruption among officials and positions of authority, exploitation of the poor and working classes, and an ever-widening poverty gap.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, you might say. Tell me something new. Well, think of it like this (and it’s this connection that really drove this book into my consciousness): what is so different between Kenya and the U.S.? Kenya is in the process of modernization and we in many ways are modernization, but is not the majority of our wealth held by a few? Do not some of the people who supposedly have the responsibility for and the authority over us blatantly flout said responsibility? Do we not, as a people, continually attempt to bury our heads in the sand, to say “I am not responsible for other people’s actions and lives”, to blindly follow where we, as part of a democracy, should be leading? So here I am, back from Kenya to the present, and in the days before the election, this book has unexpectedly reminded me to keep my eyes open and forget about the differences between me and everyone else. The differences matter little, if at all. It’s in thinking of the similarities between us that we remember what is really important, and are thus able to envision, and work towards, a better future.