The polemics of class, nationalism and ethnicity in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood.

Author:Chakraborty, Amitayu
Position:Critical essay


In the novel Petals of Blood (1976), Ngugi uses a panorama of characters (Munira, Karega, Abdulla and Wanja) torn apart between tumultuous past and uncertain future. His disillusionment with the Uhuru (Independence) and the native (comprador) bourgeoisie is evident. The text emphasises the state of underdevelopment in the post-Independence Kenya. The nexus between the native (comprador) bourgeoisie and the international bourgeoisie underpinned by the power structure of capitalism is shown as the cause of the economic impoverishment of the non-elite in Kenya. The draught that impels the exodus of the villagers to the city is merely one of the several manifestations of the economic impoverishment that they undergo. For instance, Munira once wonders why there is the "preposterous" project of building an "international highway" through Ilmorog when the village needs "smaller serviceable roads" (Petals 48). At the very early stage, the novel thus doubts the post-Independence government policies for economic development of the nation: international highways are prioritised over smaller roads for the sake of leveraging the foreign capital to penetrate the potential markets available at the impoverished parts of Africa. It functions in a manner similar to that of the railroads in the colonial period.

Munira's reflection also points out the scenario of uneven development spawning the opposition between the country and the city. As he significantly laments, "Our erstwhile masters had left us a very unevenly cultivated land: the centre was swollen with fruit and water sucked from the rest, while the outer parts were progressively weaker and scraggier as one moved away from the centre" (49). A reference to the legend of the Gumbas is pertinent here (49). The post-Independence Kenyan nation-state is compared with the dwarfish Gumba having disproportionally large head that rests precariously on its small body. Consequently, if a Gumba falls down, it requires help from outside to stand again. Similarly, in the time of crisis, the Kenyan nation-state needs foreign aid. In this article, I explore the highly polemical aspects of class, ethnicity and nationalism related to the discourse of uneven economic development.

Exploring the Polemics of Class

In Petals of Blood, in the wake of the prominence of the Ilmorogians at the national political landscape, a group of university students named Jaribu Bahati calls for "the immediate abolition of capitalism" and writes a paper relating the uneven economic development to neocolonialism ](185). The term "neo-colonialism," as used by Kwame Nkrumah, denotes a socio-politico-economic scenario in which the nation-state has a semblance of "international sovereignty," but, in reality, "its economic system" and thus its political policy" are "directed from outside" (Nkrumah ix). Being a monumental book in the history of African socialism, Nkrumah's Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) markedly projects the international arena as the space of socio-politico-economic struggle. For him, the primary conflict between the rich and the poor has been transposed to the conflict between the developed countries and the underdeveloped countries: "the developed countries succeeded in exporting their internal problem and transferring the conflict between the rich and the poor from the national to the international stage" (Nkrumah 255). Neil Lazarus points out this tendency to displace the focus from class to nation, from capitalism/socialism to centre/margin, not only in Nkrumah's Neocolonialism but also in Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Chinweizu's The West and The Rest of Us: White Predators, Black Slavers and the African Elite (1975) (Lazarus 51-52). For Lazarus, this is a common fetish of the West which exists in those writers and is betrayed by their works. (1) However, Ngugi's idea of neocolonialism, as enunciated in Petals of Blood, emphasises the intranational exploitation engineered by the comprador bourgeoisie; the Gumba-like situation in which the rich and powerful thrive at the expense of the poor and disempowered. For Ngugi, "the neocolonial" refers to the exploitative bourgeoisie and the socio-politico-economic system adhered by them in the post-Independence Kenya. This is remarkable because the novel was produced in the time when Neo-colonialism, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and The West and The Rest of Us had already made themselves prominent in the postcolonial African intellectual climate.

The uneven economic growth in and the consequent dependency (on foreign capital) of the post-Independence state are considered by many researchers of political history of Africa/ Kenya to be results of colonialism (Zeleza 8). After Independence, the new state implemented authoritarian, repressive but flawed economic policies to recuperate the shortfall of economic development caused by the colonial state (9). The coveted bourgeois (the ruling elite) hegemony could not be established in Kenya at the time of gaining Independence. The new rulers were economically and politically backward in comparison with the ruling class of the so-called "First-World" states. Hence the state became the means of self-aggrandisement for the native rulers who perpetuated the pre-existing exploitative power structures. The post-Independence state was therefore shaped by "the capacity and knowledge structures of government developed during colonial rule" (Branch and Cheeseman 14; Berman 189). The developmental discourse of modernity which had been guiding the British colonial administration, especially during the period between 1945 and 1963, continued to predominate governmental policy-making in the post-Independence Kenya (Burton and Jennings 6, 8-10; Berman 189). After Independence, the urban elite started securing their grounds in economy at the expense of the rural populace. Thus arose the Gumba-like situation. The state continued to abuse its power to exploit its nation. The overburdened citizens continued to suffer from economic underdevelopment and/or uneven development. In fact, in the 1970s, "Kenya was found to be among the highest in terms of the degree of inequality" of income (Burton and Jennings 13). Moments of crises did necessitate the advent of "foreign aid." By providing monetary aid, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) exacerbated the economic condition of the African nation-state. These two bodies ensured an inflow of the international capital into Kenya "with no capital in the hands of Africans" (Mwaura 8). From pressing "for the implementation of trade liberalization," to enforcing the "foreign direct investment," to effecting "the privatization of all parastatals" (such as banking, healthcare, transport and so on), the IMF and WB have been instrumental in the underdevelopment of many African countries like Kenya (Mwaura 17, 21-22). On the one hand, the IMF and WB urge the state to compromise with the foreign investors regarding the import taxes and their margin of profit in the business of products consumed in Kenya but manufactured in, for instance, USA, a country that finances and provides base to the IMF and WB. On the other hand, the state's debt to the WB & IMF increases as it loses its capability of self-sustenance due to the unbridled business made by the foreign investors (35). The anonymous Lawyer and rescuer of Wanja--who finds herself trapped in a sex racket--remarks, "This [sexual exploitation of women] ... happens when you turn tourism into a national religion and build its shrines of worship all over the country" (Thiong'o, Petals 134). In another occasion, tourist resorts in Mombasa are deemed by a foreign newspaper to be "special places where even an ageing European could buy an authentic African virgin girl of fourteen to fifteen for the price of a ticket to a cheap cinema show" (175). These passing remarks are a dig at the tourism industry which flourishes in the impoverished nation-states of Africa where other industries cannot develop. The development of tourism in Kenya is actually an indicator of economic underdevelopment. It does not ameliorate the state of the peripheral areas as foreign companies receive "80% of all profits earned from tourism" (Mwaura 11).

That the international capitalist power structure never lets the disenfranchised population come out of their state of crises, and impoverishes the underdeveloped nations is explored at length in the novel. Karega's observations of the city gain pertinence when he wonders "who was better off, the peasant in a forgotten village of the city dweller thrown into these rubbish heaps they called locations? (Petals 159). No difference is there between the economic exploitation undergone by a poor man in a city and that endured by a peasant in a village of post-Independence Kenya. Moreover, the learned and benevolent Lawyer who helps the delegation of Ilmorogians in the city shares with Karega and others his discovery of capitalism as the main reason behind the economic divide in the world: "And suddenly as in a flash of lightning I saw that we were serving the same monster-god as they were in America" (165-166). Unlike Weep Not, Child (1964) or The River Between (1965), Petals of Blood indicates the class-laden functioning of Christianity: its critique of capitalism has Christian rhetoric. Capitalism is represented as a blend of suprahuman (god) and subhuman (monster) entities (163). It is extremely powerful and widespread. At the same time, it is unfair and ruthless. The fable of Abdulla, in which a hare exploits an antelope, points out the unethical structure of capitalism as well (179). In the Lawyer's censure of the post-Independence nation-state, the comprador bourgeoisie become the "priests" and the bank or banking industry is said to be the "shrine" (163). Thus Ngugi's disillusionment with Independence surfaces here: "They...

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