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Wizard of Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

November 26, 2014

Wizard of Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.  Nairobi : East African Educational Publishers, 2007.   A translation from Gĩkũyũ by the author.


A brilliant, wickedly-funny novel about a composite post-colonial African government, its greedy, inept politicians, and those who serve, or at least try to survive, its rule.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan, one of the leading authors to emerge in Africa after independence. Having liked his Grain of Wheat I wanted to explore more of his writing. He is a controversial figure, threatened and exiled by his own government. Reading Wizard of Crow, it is easy to see why.

The story is set in the “Free Republic of Aburiria,” a genre nation or allegory of the problematic governments that have risen in Africa since independence. Its “Mighty Ruler” is an absolute dictator who cherishes his god-like role. He is guided by ministers who are vicious rivals seeking to outsmart each other. Grasping for power, they propose “Marching to Heaven”, a massive tower high enough to reach space and provide access to God. When the Ruler goes to the United States to try to borrow money from the Global Bank headquartered there, he develops a strange illness. Even worse, western financiers, who supported his violence during the Cold War, want his country to become democratic.

Outside governmental circles, a man named Kamiti has earned a MBA at a university in India at great sacrifice by his parents, but he has been looking for a job for three years since returning to Aburiria. He meets Nyawira, a young woman working as a secretary. Together they get caught up in a wild police chase and hide in her small abode house. In order to mislead the police, Kamiti puts up a sign, “WARNING! THIS PROPERTY BELONGS TO A WIZARD WHOSE POWER BRINGS DOWN HAWKS AND CROWS FROM THE SKY. TOUCH THE HOUSE AT YOUR PERIL. SGD. WIZARD OF CROW.” A policeman, already believing the couple are magic returns to the house, anyway, and Kamiti helps him, more with gentle consulting rather than magic. His fame grows and both he and Nyawira are viewed as having magical powers. They come to the attention of the ruler, his ministers, and the police, all of whom want to capture them either to punish them or to force them to use their allegedly magic powers for their own personal ends. Even the ruler wants the Wizard to come and cure him and to help him eliminate his enemies.

This is a big sprawling book of over 700 pages, with multiple subplots woven into the actions of its main characters. Yet Ngũgĩ is such a fine writer that his book is accessible and enjoyable. He writes to make readers laugh rather than cry at the world he describes, but in the end he holds out hope people can create viable lives. While some incidents cannot be rationally explained, this book is not speculative fiction, but a hard-nosed account of the faults and foibles of political figures. Magic is a central concern, but generally all that is magical is the Wizard’s ability to help people make sense of their lives.   Always aware that events look different from different perspectives, Ngũgĩ  lays out alternative explanations of what is happening. For example, he opens the book with seven different reasons given for the Ruler’s illness and asks his readers to provide details of the trip to York City.  As he states, “Maybe knowledge was nothing more than the art of looking at what we know  with different eyes, and asking different questions.”

While Thiong’o is quick to reveal the failings of African governments, he is also full of blame for the treatment they receive at the hands of Americans and Europeans. Given the racism of westerners, the “white ache” suffered by some Africans is understandable. In addition, his African characters are so fully human that readers everywhere will recognize their behavior. I have also found Ngũgĩ  writing to offer the most sensitive and positive view of any of the male African writers towards women; he explicitly presents their problems and their strengths. Wife-beating is a proud right of every man in Aburiria, but Ngũgĩ the women in his book challenge the practice. Women characters play active roles in the book, often as leaders. Kamiti and Nyawira provide an example of a couple who are comfortably equal.

Wizard of Crow is a wonderful book. I hope many of you will read it to learn about Africa, but also because it is so superbly written.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2014 4:20 am

    Thank you so much for this wonderful review. I read everything, very well written, I felt you really enjoy the novel. Now more than ever, I am so eager to read this novel. Thanks once again.

    • December 1, 2014 9:46 am

      I did enjoy this one. With several plot lines, it gets complicated at times, but it is enough fun to keep up the momentum.

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