Devil on the Cross

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.

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    Ngugi Wathiong’O                                                                                                                                             ©2017 University of Massachusetts Amherst                                                                                          

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 ngugi twonovel 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.

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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.

Fiction and Development

 -Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye

Remember reading about  Erin Gruwell and the 150 students who used writing to change their life in ‘The Freedom Writer’s Diary’, it demonstrates the power of writing as a tool for social change. Similarly, I could understand why writers are often the enemies of tyrant governments around the world. The unrest created by their work is a proof that the act of  writing can be an emancipatory force for change. Like painters, writers weave words together to create colours, lines and stories that are undoing silences in many societies.

All I learnt about the Nigerian Civil came from stories, novels, poems, dramas amongst others. ‘The Casualties’ by John Clark2Pepper Clark brought the realization that I too was a casualty of a war that hit the dust long before my birth. My knowledge on different cultural practices have been highly influenced by writing of people from different landscapes. Most of these works have been fictional, making secret the names of people and places they wrote about but yet one can understand their message, as though belonging with them.That is the strength of literary fiction in passing knowledge.

In the wake of many development issues which has become a global challenge, I have begun to ponder on the power  different works of fiction have in dispersing knowledge on international development issues. How have they presented the alterations in social structures in our society in the past and present?  How are they forecasting the changes in nature, in the future of our social institutions, and life in general?

The need to explore these questions further gave birth to a column on Compass Newspaper (a Nigerian national newspaper) of which this blog springboards. In the first edition, we considered how “Fiction writer Peter Abraham envisioned a new country, through his work ‘Tell Freedom’

6568430-MHe landscaped an egalitarian society that will break out of a womb infested with racism.  His work gave insight into the social structure at the time of writing, depicting strongly in his narratives what it was like to be caught in the skin shades of white, black and in between”.

 The works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o  was mentioned exploring  the impacts of an imperialist type of governance in his historical fiction ‘Weep not Child’. It has been stated that Mau Mau uprising arguably set the stage for the Independence of Kenya. ngugi1The intricacies that played out and the different masks the organisation had worn over the years in the anti-colonist turmoil were represented in the intrigues of ‘Weep not Child’. Capturing the hopes of a character Ngotho, he characterizes the saviour of the Kenyan people as the son of their soil and no longer the British Colonist. In this way, one will arguably say that ‘weep not child’ held within a prophecy of the future governance of Kenya. The emergence of Jomo Kenyatta as the first president of the Kenyan republic is arguably a testimony to this.”

Not forgetting to mention Chinua Achebe’s ‘Man of the People’, it represents a post colonial Africa and principally Nigeria, where corruption and conflict of interest had become the order of the day amongst leaders. Most striking of this work of fiction is its climax in a coup d’état which arguably gave it relevance as a prophetic piece predicting the near future of many African countries. Shortly after the publication of this piece in 1966, Nigeria survived series of violent transitions very similar to the one that our dear Chinua Achebe had written about.

Away from the African landscape, consideration is given to the renowned work of George Orwell in Animal Farm. Animal farm was an anti-soviet work of fiction personifying different leaders of the Soviet Union revolution at that time through animal characters like ‘Old Major, Napoleon, Snowball and others.

animal-farmThe deliberate use of  pigs to characterize the ruling class is indeed offensive to the dictatorial government of the Soviet Union in that era. In retrospect, the use of animal characters by George Orwell at that time goes to tell of poor human right practices restricting freedom of speech as is today against the International human rights law. This in all speaks of the impacts of totalitarian indoctrinations as even educated people are unable to express their true opinions in this landscape and others where democracies are weak.

These examples show that fictional works are not just a figment of a writer’s imagination created to amuse and entertain readers. Literary fictions have catalysed changes in development and are continuously acting indirectly as custodians of history. A line up of different historical period in the life of a society captured through their fictional works can contribute hugely in deciphering a pattern in their development or under-development, it will also portray their responses to social challenges at different times.

International development issues are seen from multidisciplinary binoculars as they cover huge areas like governance, environment, human right, poverty, amongst others. All of this have been presented in different platforms, most especially in academic and policy papers.  Perhaps for its lack of quantitative data, literary fiction remains questionable as an authoritative source of knowledge in the field of development.

However, I imagine that how  literary fiction has contributed in giving context to social concepts, explaining patterns of qualitative changes in different social frameworks, can be explored using relevant works of fiction. In subsequent posts and editions of the fiction and development column, I intend to make inferences on modern day development issues, linking them to the themes, characters, scenes amongst other things in existing works of literature. I hope this helps the understanding of how fiction writers are using characters and themes to identify, critic, advocate and also compare local, national and global issues that are significant to international development.

Suggestions are highly welcomed!