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Theme and Analysis of  Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o


Petals of Blood, Ngugi’s fourth novel is seen by many critics as the most ambitious and
important of his works. According to Palmer “... of all African novels…Petals of Blood
probably presents the most comprehensive analysis to date of the evils perpetrated in
independent African society by Black imperialists and capitalists.” Also, Ngara19 and Anyidoho20 among others see Petals of Blood as not only breaking new grounds for the African novel in literary creation, but also as representing the height of Ngugi’s achievement. This is because Petals is seen as having subsumed the themes and
concerns of all of Ngugi’s other works, including those written after it, into one volume.
During the launching of the book, Ngugi hinted that … imperialism…can never develop a

country or a people. This was what I was trying to show in Petals of Blood: that
imperialism can never develop us, Kenyans. In doing so, I was only trying to be faithful
to what Kenyan workers and peasants have always realized as shown by their historical
struggles since 1895.

In both theme and ideological perspective, Petals begins where A Grain of Wheat stops.
It deals in the main with neo-colonialism in all its manifestations: oppression,
exploitation, social abuse and injustice, and thus “… it probes the history of the heroic
struggles of the people of Kenya, from pre-colonial times to the present day, within a
comprehensive cultural perspective which embraces the political, religious, economic
and social life of Kenya”. In A Grain of Wheat, the struggle between the bourgeoisie
and the peasants is still in its embryonic stages and therefore is not expressed in explicit
ideological terms, whereas Petals, takes us to a later period in the history of Kenya and
the development of Ngugi’s socialist vision.

 The novel begins in the present with four main characters – Wanja, Abdulla, Munira and
Karega – in jail on suspicion of being implicated in the murder of three African directors
of the Theng’eta Brewery – Mzigo, Chui and Kimeria. This revelation comes to the fore
through Munira in the cell while writing notes to satisfy the demands of the probing
police inspector. Thus, from the present the story moves twelve years back to when
Munira came to Ilmorog as a teacher in the village, and periodically it returns to the
present and shows Munira in the cell, and on one or two occasions goes further into the
experiences of Munira in Siriana where he was a student in the 1940s and during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s.

The scene of most of the events of the novel is the community of Ilmorog which grew
from a traditional African village into a modern industrial complex. Through the
historical presentation given to us by Ngugi, we are able to have glimpses of the glory of
Ilmorog’s past as a truly peasant community untouched by Western values that moved
gradually from “a nomadic one to an agrarian civilization.”

 There was prosperity, contentment and a sense of belonging before the penetration of
imperialism with its distorting influence, and the intrusion of imperialist values which
brought Ilmorog into its decline, hence the author informs the reader that “… Ilmorog…
had not always been a small cluster of mud huts lived in only by old men and women and children with occasional visits from wandering herds men. It had its days of glory:
thriving villages with a huge population of sturdy peasants who had tamed nature’s
forests and, breaking the soil between their fingers, had brought forth every type of crop
to nourish the sons and daughters of men.… In those days there were no vultures in the
sky waiting for the carcasses of dead workers and no insect-flies feeding on the fat and
blood of un-suspecting toilers (Petals of Blood,120).

For the first time in the novel, we discover that drought has started ravaging Ilmorog with
consequential damage to the otherwise thriving community. The criminal neglect by the
political authorities, in particular, Nderi the member representing Ilmorog in the
Parliament, worsens matters. Nderi, like other political officials, is only interested in
acquiring wealth at the expense of his constituency. Eventually, Karega, the bright,
idealistic young teacher in the community puts forward the proposal that the people
should march to the capital where their MP stays to confront him with their problems.
Like the revolutionary-minded masses in Ousmane’s Gods Bits of Wood, they march to
the city in search of their representative. This march and its accompanying achievement
mark a turning point in the lives of the exploited segment of Kenyan society in general.
 Arising from the visit to the city and the plane crash in Ilmorog, the attention of the
government is attracted to Ilmorog, as the people’s doubts are fully justified. The
capitalists and their agents-Chui, Mzigo and Nderi-move in their development projects:
roads, banks, factories, distilleries and housing estates. These developments quickly
destroy the fabric of traditional Ilmorog. The destruction of the mysterious spirit Mwathi
by a giant bulldozer is the concrete symbol of the annihilation of a once proud society by
the ravaging forces of modernization, and notwithstanding, the deceived peasants lose
their lands and all their possessions to the local profiteers and their international
principals.
Ilmorog is transformed into a proto-capitalist society with all the attendant problems of
prostitution, social inequalities, misery, uncertainty, and inadequate housing. The new
Ilmorog is now divided along class lines. There is the residential area “of the farm
managers, country council officials, the managers of Barclays, and African Economic
Banks, and other servants of state and money power” (p.280). This area is called CapeTown , while New Jerusalem is reserved for the downtrodden in the society.

 At this stage in the development of Ilmorog, Karega who had left Illmorog following his
dismissal from the teaching service five-years before reappears. To his chagrin, Wanja
whom he was in love with has become one of the “powerful” people in the society. He
informs Wanja, Munira and Abdulla of his activities during the last five years, doing one
menial job or the other. Karega’s return to Illmorog helps in arousing the consciousness
of the people (especially, workers in the Theng’eta Brewery where he does his last job).
The novel ends with a strong hope of a proletarian revolution, as there is the realization
on the part of the Kenyan workers and peasants of the possibilities of overthrowing
international capitalism and its neo-colonial agents.
In this novel, there is a clear demonstration that imperialism can never develop Kenya in
particular and Africa in general. According to Ngugi: “In writing this book I was only
trying to be faithful to what Kenyan workers and peasants have always realized as shown
by their historical struggles since 1895.”

 The spokespersons for Ngugi’s socialist solution are Karega, the lawyer, Abdulla and
Munira. Ngugi through Karega shows concretely that socialism was a natural way of life
in traditional African society and calls on the African society to go back to its former way
of life. Ngugi is deeply conscious that imperialist capital is the real enemy in Africa
today. To change the status quo, Karega becomes a trade union agitator who mobilizes
the workers and the peasants to rid the society of exploitation. Karega’s union activities
have politicized the workers and they are ready to haul defiance at their greedy employers as can be seen in the last part of the novel, “the last duty” indicating that the struggle continues  – La Luta Continua. Ngugi hopes that out of Petals of Blood, Kenyans(Africans) might gather “petals of revolutionary love.”

In Petals, Ngugi uses his art to challenge the status quo. The Chuis, the Kimerias and the Nzigos who are agents of imperialism control the important spheres of life in Ilmorog.
This can be seen in their directorship of Theng’eta Breweries and Enterprises Ltd. It is
important to remember that this enterprise belonged to Wanja and Abdulla but the
government through its agents handed it over to a multinational corporation. The
economic deprivation and ruthless dispossession of the peasants finds its most effective
symbol in the degradation of Wanja, the barmaid, who rises from prostitution to
economic independence and womanhood but is forced back to the humiliating status of a
prostitute who sells her body because nothing is obtained free, and the slogan becomes
“eat or be eaten”.

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