The Flight To Freedom

The Flight to Freedom: A Review of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow, translated by the author from Gikuyu (Gikuyu title: Murogi wa Kagogo).

 Most of the reviewers of Ngugi’s latest novel, Wizard of the Crow, corral the book into two major themes they find in its 760 pages.   The first exposes corrupt dictators in postcolonial African states who govern through the skillful manipulation of the second — witchcraft and magic as part of a stubbornly “primordial,” “superstitious” Africa refusing to keep up with the pace of modernity.  But reviewers, hemmed in by centuries of the West’s misconstrued image of Africa as exotic and introverted, have missed the point Ngugi makes when he describes his book as a “global epic from Africa.”  Shift the focus from Africa, and the novel still has plenty to resonate with readers, ranging from the global politics of the Christian right to the extinction of multilingualism.  Other universal themes proliferate throughout the novel: women’s agency in political and social activism (present to a degree unprecedented in Ngugi’s fiction), quotidian humor as an act of political resistance, environmentalism, and questions of racial and cultural identity against the backdrop of globalization. 

 In Wizard of the Crow, the Ruler of the fictive African nation of Aburiria approaches the Global Bank – the god of multi-national corporate capitalism – to borrow funds for his efforts to reach God with a sky-scraper in an official, national project called Marching to Heaven.  When the Global Bank and Western leaders seem to balk at financing the Ruler’s grandiose project, the small-time dictator aspires to sell the nation and its people’s labor to global capitalism; he envisions Aburiria as the first corporony – the “corporate colony,” leading the way to the world as “one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated (746).” 

 In Aburiria, the peoples’ wills combine to eschew the Ruler’s Tower Project, which would have indebted generations of Aburirians to Western donors, ensuring the peoples’ subservience to the forces of globalization. It is no accident that Ngugi compares Marching to Heaven to the Tower of Babel, the Biblical origin of multilingualism.  In Aburiria, the variety of vernaculars – everyday spoken languages outside the Ruler’s reach – preserves the peoples’ autonomy even in the face of a totalitarian regime.  When the Ruler and his Ministers unveil the Project before an assembly of the entire capital’s population, state officials invite comments from the crowd.  Hobbling to the microphone, an old peasant, due to his unfamiliarity with the official language, calls the ruler an asshole by a slip of the tongue.  The old man’s mistake provokes the crowd to an outbreak of hilarious laughter (17-18).  Soon after the unsuccessful speech, plastic snakes appear throughout the stadium, causing the dispersal of the assembly to cries of “Snake! Snake!”  And so begins the Movement for the Voice of the People, a popular, underground movement that seeks to release Aburiria from the Ruler’s stranglehold. 

 Ngugi traces fissures in the facade of power, which are then widened by the absurdity of a totalitarian regime.  The people call attention to this farce through humor – jeering, mockery, narration of fantastic tales made all the more hilarious by their veracity.  Humor reveals what power conceals, and the joke is on the Ruler.  For the rest of the novel, Ngugi’s readers learn, piece by piece, about the persons behind the Movement, their strategies, and their gradual mobilization. Faced with the threat of the Ruler’s consignment of the nation to the “Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance,” the People’s Movement spreads like wildfire, finally erupting in the popular slogan, “Let them not kill our future!”

 Ngugi draws a boundary between two types of personages in the world: those who create, and those who parasitically consume without creating.  Unfortunately for Aburiria and perhaps for the world, the parasites hold all the cards.  In Aburiria, the parasitic figures are the Ruler – nameless and ageless because Ngugi makes him a prototype of every great dictator the world has ever known – and his entourage of sycophants, such as the Ministers, Machokali and Sikiokuu, and the savvy Tajirika, the Chairman of Marching to Heaven, who seeks to stay afloat in the currents of corruption and nepotism.  These characters, caught up in the forces of global capital and diplomacy, negotiate endless deals behind the scenes, obscuring their activities in the shadows of the occult. 

 In contrast, the creators navigate the pitfalls of the Rulers’ nonsensical world, by finding meaning in one another’s humanity.  Rooted in his ideas about the importance of language and conversation, Ngugi’s latest novel is a work of empowerment, calling people back to their senses, advocating connective linkages and dialogues. Outside the reaches of state power, the power of the people lies in the forces of nature, love, spirituality, creativity and communication.  These forces are cultivated by their committed curators – Kamiti and Nyawira, the young man and woman whose paths cross as their love for one another burgeons — and their elder guides, Maritha and Mariko, an aged couple still passionately in love.  The creators enable people to join together in order to oppose the odorous and destructive forces of globalization.  Like a pendulum, the narrative swings back and forth between these two worlds – one pernicious, paranoid and stagnant, the other dynamic, compassionate and hopeful.

 Deliberately, Ngugi excavates the foundations of the dictator’s power, like an archeologist, exposing layer after layer of history.  Apparently, the Ruler has been in power for as long as anyone can remember, perhaps, since the beginning of time.  The Ruler deliberately effaces his own history as a way of preserving his power, doing away with his biographer, Luminous, who faithfully records the Ruler’s every move – he knows too much to live (709).  The politically minded will not miss Ngugi’s reference to the longevity of Cold War presidencies in previously colonized nations that transitioned to formal independence in the 1950s and 1960s.  Most of these, like Aburiria, emerged as fledging nations which were not democracies at all, but client states built by Western powers to halt the progression of socialism. 

 Ngugi exposes the long-lasting effects of a residual imperial/colonial psychosis that permeates society, particularly the ranks of the African bureaucracy. The Aburirian political elite, entrepreneurs and bourgeois, succumb to a mysterious disease which prevents them from uttering any word other than “If.”  One by one, they consult the Wizard of the Crow who diagnoses them as sufferers of whiteache – a longing to be white.  Through the actions of Aburiria’s governmental leaders, Ngugi, echoing Frantz Fanon, reveals the psychological state of postcolonial nations as one of insecurity and empty mimicry born of a desire to overcompensate for the humiliation of a colonial past.  Forced by colonialism – a period of “frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity… to constantly ask the question: ‘Who am I in reality?’” (Fanon, 182), the Aburirian elite fall victim to whiteache. Those characters involved, even tangentially, with the Movement have other answers to the question ‘Who am I in reality?’  Nyawira finds the answer in her books and political writings, Mariko and Maritha in each other, and Kamiti in his out-of-body diasporic flights which reveal to him the historic locations of black power throughout the earth.

 Nyawira and Kamiti – female and male characters who, respectively, bring materiality and spirituality to the movement – take turns playing the Wizard of the Crow, who gains prominence in the popular imagination of Aburiria.  Elite and ordinary folk alike are drawn to the Wizard by quickly spreading rumors of his mystical abilities to heal and divine the future.  The Wizard becomes so popular, in fact, that once the Ruler hears of him, he sees the Wizard as his nemesis, whose powers the Ruler must absorb before feeding him to the crocodiles.  But under the care and mindfulness of Kamiti and Nyawira, even everyday life in Aburiria offers respite from the Ruler’s all-pervasive grip.  The Ruler cannot reach into the countryside, because he is out of touch with the forces of nature, and in the grottoes and prairies beyond the capital city, Kamiti and Nyawira are at home.  Try as he might, the Ruler cannot force Kamiti to betray Nyawira even when he imprisons and tortures him in the bowels of the presidential palace. 

 Much has been made of folklore, oral tradition, and the mystical forces of magic and witchcraft.  As John Updike notes: “The forces ensconced in Ngugi’s imaginary Free Republic of Aburiria, […] are demonically malign, and even the benign counterforces partake of magic and sorcery.”  But the careful reader, if she looks closely into Ngugi’s deftly painted images, will notice that there is no witchcraft in the novel.  Instead, drawing on the freedoms afforded by folkloric traditions which free his narrative from the confines of 19th social realism, Ngugi uses witchcraft – and the government forces’ obsession with mysticism and mystery – as a metaphor for state officials’ obfuscation of power.  Rumors of magic and mysticism provide the only explanation for an evil man’s exercise of total power. The Wizard, a sorcerer only in the minds of those who consult him for healing – relied on a mixture of common sense, intuition, spirituality steeped in the Eastern philosophies, and familiarity with the healing properties of plants and herbs.  The Wizard often asks patients to gaze at themselves in a mirror and conjure images of their enemies. Inevitably, they confront and express their own recessed thoughts and fears, all the while refusing to realize that they themselves are the source of society’s illness, deliberately forsaking the Wizard’s rational explanations for mystical ones.

 Although Ngugi’s narrative will seem surreal to those who have the luxury of being unfamiliar with the political realities it describes, it will read like a redemption song for the thousands of readers to whom Ngugi initially wrote the book in Kikuyu. Amidst memories of a dictatorial past and present day realities, Kikuyu readers undoubtedly read portions of the novel aloud, or recount orally the farcical tales from its pages.  In bars, at bus-stops and in shared taxis, Kenyans may often share a laugh over Ngugi’s latest work, making it into a veritable a performance piece. 

 The work will equally resonate with the economic, cultural, or political refugees and exiles who have had to leave a place like Aburiria.  Wizard of the Crow, like many of Ngugi’s works before it, exposes the irrationalities of power and government in a client nation under the dictatorship of an autocratic and absolute Ruler.  The conditions of prisons and methods of torture remain prevalent in prisons throughout Africa, Latin America, India, and recently, the US prisons of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.  The novel reveals the international betrayal of democracy, the realities of FTSE 100 index companies for whom corrupt states – available for sale to the highest corporate bidders- are highly profitable.  Ministers imprisoned or demoted by the President, high government officials accusing one another of corruption, police forces and presidential guardsmen torturing prisoners with impunity, new commissions of inquiry formed to satisfy the requirements of global investors and observers….  These are common occurrences ripped from the pages of US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, United Nations Reports on Human Rights, Amnesty International Reports, and the Transparency International 2006 Bribe Payer’s Index.   Ngugi brings these events into the consciousness of those not in the habit of reading such reports, and humanizes the accounts, making them more real than the impersonal pages that, lengthy and unremitting, chart the passage of time in many postcolonial nations and increasingly, in more than a few Western nations.


Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Richard Philcox, trans., New York: Grove Press, 2004 [1963].

Ngugi wa Thiongo, The Wizard of the Crow, New York: Pantheon, 2006.  Translated by the author from Gikuyu: Murogi wa Kagogo.

Interview with Ngugi wa Thiongo, Madison, WI., 15 October, 2006.

Jeff Turrentine, “The Strongman’s Weakness,” The New York Times, 10 September 2006.

John Updike, “Extended Performance. Saving the Republic of Aburiria,” The New Yorker, 31 July 2006.

Meredith Terretta is Assistant Professor of History, Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York.

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