Reviews of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 2006 novel Wizard of the Crow
call it “baroque,” “wholly absurd,” and a “rollicking adventure.” Epic
in length, though not in scope, the narrative draws upon oral storytelling traditions to recount the venal exploits of “the Ruler” of a fictitious, postcolonial African country. Folded into this spoof on modern-day political corruption is the magical love story of Kamiti and Nyawira, who inadvertently become the oracle of hope amidst ongoing authoritarian oppression.
The second Ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria has reigned for so long that even he can’t remember when he ascended to the throne. But, as a thorough despot, he’s only interested in ruling to the extent that he can personally profit from his position, either by increasing his wealth or glory. His cabinet of obsequious ministers constantly struggle to out-do one another’s sycophancy, and to that end, have surgically altered their features. Machokali has had his eyes enlarged to better see regime traitors; Sikiokuu has had his ears stretched so as to better hear conspirators; and Big Ben Mambo has enhanced his tongue to better spread the word of the Ruler.
On the occasion of the Ruler’s birthday, Machokali flatters him with the proposal that, in his honor, the country construct the world’s tallest building, to be called “Marching to Heaven.” Although the people of Aburiria are impoverished, the Ruler considers this project an excellent use of resources. Machokali appoints as the project’s chairman his friend Tajirika, proprietor of the Eldares Modern Construction and Real Estate Company. Word gets out about Tajirika’s windfall, and long lines of job seekers form outside his company. Kamiti is among the hopeful. Despite an impressive education in India, he cannot find employment. Tajirika not only rejects Kamiti’s application, he humiliates him, to boot. Nyawira, Tajirika’s secretary, witnesses Kamiti’s embarrassment, and surreptitiously consoles him.
Kamiti decides on a career in begging, and gets to work outside the Paradise Hotel. However, Machokali, eager to secure investors for “Marching to Heaven,” has invited officials from the Global Bank to a reception at the hotel. Additionally, “The Movement for the Voice of the People,” a dissident group led by Nyawira, has assembled to protest the vainglorious project. The police run off the beggar and protesters, as they are a bad look for potential investors, and two tenacious officers chase Nyawira and Kamiti all the way to Nyawira’s house. To ward off the officers, Kamiti quickly cobbles together with some chicken bones a sign that reads, “Enter at Your Own Risk,” signed “Wizard of the Crow.” Spooked by the threat of witchcraft, the officers flee. Nyawira and Kamiti remain hiding in her house.
The next morning, one officer returns, hoping the Wizard can help him with career advancement. Kamiti practices some hocus-pocus with mirrors and, coincidentally, when the policeman goes back to work, he gets a promotion. Kamiti becomes an overnight sorcerer sensation. The next day, officers line up at Nyawira’s house to solicit auspicious spells from Kamiti. As luck would have it, those who seek out the Wizard actually do find fortune, and his fame grows. Indeed, even Tajirika consults the Wizard to cure his “White Ache” disease.
Kamiti and Nyawari prosper masquerading as the “Wizard of the Crow” and build a shrine where they provide occult services for anyone in need. Meanwhile, Nyawari continues to moonlight as a dissident, and on the day of celebration for “Marching to Heaven,” she directs a group of women protesters to flash their naked bottoms. The ruler is outraged, and Nyawari’s ex-husband, seeing an opportunity to score a government job, reveals her identity to Sikiokuu (of the big ears). Thus, Nyawari is named number one enemy of the state. Much ado is made trying to capture her, and when that fails, Sikiokuu arrests Tajirika’s wife as a proxy for Nyawari. The wife is released, but Tajirika is enraged by her alleged activities, fabricated though they are, and he beats her. She goes to the shrine for help, and when Nyawari, acting as the Wizard, hears her story, she rallies her group of rebel women to beat up Tajirika. Rumors then proliferate across the country of women assaulting men.
Preoccupied with building his tower, the Ruler goes to America to engage in talks with possible investors. He’s never encountered objections, so when the bankers express doubts about the proposal, the Ruler falls ill with “Self-Induced Expansion.” He swells like a balloon and chokes on his words. The Wizard of the Crow is called to America to heal the Ruler. Kamiti successfully restores the Ruler’s speech, and for seven days he speaks nonstop, during which time Kamiti sleeps and dreams of being a bird flying over Africa.
Still swollen, the Ruler returns to Aburiria, setting off speculations of pregnancy. Kamiti returns to find the shrine has been burned down. The Ruler orders the Wizard to publicly address the pregnancy rumors. Kamiti, disguised as the Wizard, takes the stage and describes his dream. As he flew over Africa, he explains, he saw evil. The country is pregnant with possibilities for change, and the people will determine whether they deliver evil or good. Kamiti then professes his love for Nyawira. Her ex-husband is in the audience and shoots Kamiti, but he recovers and joins Nyawira’s underground rebel movement. Political jockeying ensues, and after ousting the Ruler and announcing the death of Baby Democracy, Tajirika appoints himself Emperor of Aburiria.Wizard of the Crow
is not Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s first political satire. In 1977, he wrote a play lampooning Kenya’s dictator Daniel arap Moi, for which Ngugi was jailed and exiled. That personal history encourages reading Wizard
as a parody of Moi’s despotic regime, but Ngugi’s satire is more universal in its sweep. It skewers the greed of those in power, from self-serving postcolonial dictators to profiteering neocolonial multinationals. However, it does so with resilient humor, as well as the irrepressible belief that the people can work together to overcome tyranny.