If you want to know Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and his politics, this novel will tell. The ‘Devil on the Cross’ is dense, multi-themed, and educative in a way that challenges ignorance and apathy both for the oppressor and the oppressed.
His manner of telling is natural, like a Sage reminding his children and their generations to come the things they must not forget, the wisdom and knowledge of their fathers.
Written in Gikuyu and translated into English, the Devil on the Cross embraces readers with characters in natural states we can relate to. A Matatu ride across the Rift valley to IIlmorog creates a space for passengers to explore inhibiting conflicts that deters them from living happy lives, their discussions were insightful to understanding the problems of the Kenyan Nation.With an exciting point of view, its narratives represent multiple issues that are of concern to international development.
It makes a case for the value of Literature:
‘Did they ever teach you that literature is a nation’s treasure? Literature is the honey of a nation’s soul, preserved for her children to taste forever, a little at a time. A nation that has cast away its literature is a nation that has sold its soul and has been left a mere shell.’
Through the character of Gatuiria a junior research fellow in African Culture, he made a case for Language Equity:
‘Gatuiria spoke Gikuyu like many educated Kenya-people who stutter like babies when speaking their national languages but conduct fluent conversations in foreign languages…The slavery of language is the slavery of the mind and nothing to be proud of.
Let us now look about us. Where are our national languages now? Where are the books written in the alphabets of our national languages? Where is our own literature now? Where is the wisdom and knowledge of our fathers now? Where is the philosophy of our fathers now?’
And likewise a case for Cultural equity:
‘Our culture has been dominated by the Western imperialist cultures. That is what we call in English cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is the mother to the slavery of the mind and body. It is cultural imperialism that gives birth to the mental blindness and deafness that persuades people to allow foreigners to tell them what to do in their own country.
It is a tragedy that there is no where we can go to learn the history of our country… our stories, our riddles, our songs, our customs, our traditions; everything about our national heritage has been lost to us.
Who can play the gicaandi for us today and read and interpret the verses written on the gourd? Today who can play the wandindi, the one-stringed violin… Today who can play the bamboo flute, whose sound makes the hearts of a young man and a maiden beat in unison as they go to the fields to scare birds from millet fingers while the moon casts its light over the land?’
Mwaura the Matatu Driver’s character raises critical questions that are akin to challenging theories of religious absolutism/relativism:
‘Let’s go back to the question of God and Satan. I have never set eyes on either of them. But let’s agree they both exist. Each has his own powers. And it is true that both have always sought votes on this earth, the vote are cast in the heart of men. Can’t you see then that each is capable of improving or ruining your fortunes on this earth?…So we businessmen pay off God and the Devil against each other. We don’t like to anger either of them. We pray to both.
Business is my temple, and money is my God. But if some other God exists, that’s all right. Sometimes I pour out a little liquor for him so that he won’t be tempted to do to me what he once did to Job. I don’t examine the world too minutely. If it leans this way, I lean with it. The earth is round, and it changes.
Beyond his highlights of corruption being the cancer in Kenya, what I loved most in this novel is its very apt narrative of the inequality between the man and the woman. Waringa’s character tells a story of Mahua Kareendi, a girl whose realities represents the struggle of many teenage mothers and broadly, women in general:
…she was born in the village, her education is limited. Before she reaches Form Two, Kareendi has had it.
She is pregnant.
Who is responsible?
A student, say. The student doesn’t have a cent to his name… Kareendi where can you turn now?
On the other hand, we could imagine that the man responsible for the pregnancy is a Loafer from the village. The loafer is jobless. He hasn’t even a place to lay his head…Little Kareendi where will you turn? Perhaps the loafer has a job in the city, but his salary is five shillings a month…who will wipe away Kareendi’s tears now?
Or let’s say that a rich man is the father of the child. Isn’t that kind of affair the fashion these days? The rich man has a wife…
Student, Loafer, Rich man- their response is the same when Kareendi tells them about her condition. “What! Kareendi, who are you claiming is responsible for the pregnancy? Me? How have you worked that out? Go on and pester someone else with your delusions, Kareendi of the easy thighs, ten-cent Kareendi. You can cry until your tears have filled oil drums- it will make no difference. Kareendi, you can’t collect pregnancies wherever you may and then lay them at my door just because one day I happened to tease you…’
It is appalling that babies should emerge from the mother’s womb as corpses. Kareendi has the baby. And she doesn’t throw it into a latrine pit, nor does she abandon it at the road side or in a bus. Kareendi places on the shoulder of her mother or the grandmother the burden of bringing up this baby. Bur Kareendi’s mother and grandmother warn (her) not to make a habit of this:
“Be on guard from now on, Kareendi. Do not forget that men have stings, vicious and corrosive, the poison of which never leaves the flesh of their victims.”
At the time of reading Kareendi’s story, I was reflecting on the destructive words of Tanzanian President John Magufuli:
‘As Long as I am President… no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…after getting pregnant, you are done.
Justifying his position, he further says: ‘After calculating some few mathematics, she’d be asking the teacher in the classroom, ‘Let me go out and breastfeed my crying baby.’
Juxtaposing Magufuli’s narratives with the narratives of Ngugi, one can’t help noting that the former (Ngugi Wathiong’O) is empathetic and progressive, while the later (John Magufuli) is judgemental and retrogressive. I couldn’t help thinking I will recommend this novel to President John Magufuli as it may offer him a mind-shift. Perhaps if he knows better, he will do better.
Unlike him, Ngugi is that father that knows the pain that his daughters are not telling, what the four walls of the Boss’s office sees and hears. He knows that even when a girl survives the crookedness of her young lovers, she will still have Boss Kihara-whose hairy chest has been shaved with money-to contend with. He knows how though tempted, she is forced to turn down Kihara‘s shopping baskets from haute culture houses of Paris in rejection wrapped with civility. He knows that in soulless cities like Nairobi, the Modern Love Bar and Lodging has become the main employment bureau for girls, and women’s thighs are the tables on which contracts are signed. He knows that amongst all other common struggle, the modern African woman still has to make peace with the fact that the world wants to eat from her thighs.
The Devil on the Cross is a novel that parades too many devils. Ngugi does a good job of nailing them all on the cross of Inequality. Generally, this novel addresses the different shades of inequalities and how it undignifies and divides people; it projects the urban/rural dichotomies, the pain of the rural people whose sweats are used to fatten urban cities that don’t welcome them. It exposes the political, economic and socio-cultural systems that create these gaps. Global inequality projects like the Guardian, Ford foundation #InequalityIs among others will find this great novel a complement to their course. The message is clear; addressing inequality should be at the centre of all development endeavours.