You see, I built the house with my own hands. But Settler Williams slept in it and I would sleep outside on the veranda. I tended the estates that spread around the house for miles, But it was Settler Williams who took home the harvest. I was left to pick anything he might have left behind, I worked all the time machine and in all the industries, but it was Settler Williams who would take the profits to the bank and I would end up with the sent that he flung my way. I was sure that you already know all this. I produced everything on that farm with my own labour. But al the gains went to Settler Williams. What a world! A world in which the tailor wears rags, the tiller eats wild berries, the build begs for shelter. One morning I woke up from the deep sleep of man years, and I said to him: Settler Williams, you who eat what another has sown, hear now the sound of the trumpet and the sound of the horn of justice. The tailor demands his clothes, the tiller his land, the worker the produce of his sweat. The builder wants his house back. Get out of my house. You have hands of your own, you cruel and greedy one. Go build your own! Who deceived you into thinking that the builder has no eyes, no head and no tongue?
Wow. These are the words of Matigari, the protagonist of this novella by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Matigari has just returned home after defeating Settler Williams, and he’s seeking his people, with the intent of helping them peacefully live into their freedom.
Sadly, however, he finds that his freedom struggle for decades hasn’t led to much. Children are in poverty, women are sexually harassed, police are brutal, and workers are exploited. Matigari goes from one place to another, seeking both to gather his people and to find answers as to why the world remains as it is. As he continues on his way, a mythology develops around him, and he becomes perceived as a saint who can liberate his people. Of course, this also makes him a target.
The book is confrontational, as you can see from the speech above. It is clear about the injustice of colonialism — and, indeed, of any system that relies on oppression to function. As the world of the novel expands, the number of people implicated grows as well. There’s an all-too-resonant scene at the Ministry of Truth and Justice (which is, of course, neither truthful nor just), where the court turns to scholars in the field of “Parrotology” to show that the teachers of Marxism are ruining students and workers and thus should be detained without trial. Meanwhile, the people are hearing more stories of Matigari and rising up to claim their freedom. But will it be possible to do so peacefully.
There are a lot of resonant moments in this book. I’m sure there are nuances that I missed, not being familiar with Kenyan history. But the book functions as a fable about oppression, and, as such, it works without a full understanding of the historical details. Oppression often follows particular patterns, and those patterns that are evident in this book appear not just in Kenya but all over the world, including in the United States.