Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Kenya: The Perfect Nine, by Ngūgi wa Thiong'o

If I had a deadline for this project, then this would be a much better book to read for Kenya than the one I read previously. This is largely because it is short, being an adaptation as a verse epic of the story of Gīkūyū and Mūmbi, an origin tale of Kenya. It is also, however, a delight to read something that is entirely embedded in indigenous culture, and has nothing to do with later histories of colonization and exploitation by the west. As the author explains, the Gīkūyū people trace their origins to Gīkūyū (man) and Mūmbi (woman). They surveyed the lands around from the summit of the snow capped Mount Kenya. From there, they made their home in a place called Mukuruweini. Their ten daughters were called the Perfect Nine. Supposedly God provided ten suitors for the ten daughters,and the author's interpretation arises from his question: where did the Ten suitors come from? He imagines a larger number taking part in various tests, until only ten remained. The tests which the suitors had to undergo were not opportunities for them to show their manliness to passive and helpless women. The daughters had grown up having to fend for themselves and were capable and self-reliant. In this story, they take as large a part in the quest as do the suitors, and rescue the men just as often as the men rescue the women (perhaps more so). In particular, the disabled tenth daughter, whose legs have not grown with the rest of her body, is nevertheless a better marksman, more skilled with the bow and arrow, than any of the men or any of her sisters. The epic was written first in the author's native Gīkūyū language, and self-translated into English. Since the musicality of the language is vital to verse, I found myself wondering how it sounds in its original form. In English, I found the language a little pedestrian at times, but the story fascinating. Ngūgi wa Thiong'o was born in Limuru, Kenya in 1938. He has written many novels, plays, memoirs and essays and has received 13 honorary doctorates among other awards. He is currently distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. The Perfect Nine was published by The New Press, New York in 2020.

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