Theng’a theng’a with theng’eta. That was the advertising slogan heard through the land. Those were the words that called the culled masses to the bars near and far, the song that culled the imagination and will to revolt of the people. Theng’a theng’a with thenget’a the radios blared and beautiful people in advertisements whispered while youth sung and the depressed muttered. In another version of Kenya that is really this version they sung theng’a theng’a with theng’eta.
Theng’eta is a mythical, though perhaps not, drink of kikuyu lore as captured in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood. About midway through the book after the first struggle has been introduced and overcome Wanja’s grandmother collects some seed and plants. She sits and brews it according to old codes that have since been lost. She lets it sit and become more potent over weeks and weeks so that it is ready for the harvest time. This Theng’eta is a drink that was outlawed by the colonial imperialists who only allowed the brewing of Muratina after they came and took away our lands all those years ago. It is the real drink, the big brother to the small thing that murats is, and murats ask anyone is not a small thing.
You see, theng’eta does not dull, it awakens. It does not make emotions recede but brings them to the fore. It forces you to think, and to remember. It is less an alcoholic drink than it is a hallucinogen. One that forces open third eyes and makes secrets come spilling out, a drink that insists that the truth must be spoken, that it must be seen, that it must be felt. That that is the only way we can ever come to terms with what we have lost and how we rebuild it. This is theng’eta as it is introduced a throwback to a time when the African man and woman knew themselves. Way back when we knew our gods and prayed to them. When the kikuyus faced mount Kenya and prayed to Ngai. When the luo surely face the Lake and prayed to Obongo Nyar Kalaga for more fish to come their shores. A time when we knew who we were dating back centuries and our own tongues did not trip us and we had our stories and our songs and our gods and our beauty so sure about whom we were that we did not begrudge a little hallucinogenic trip to celebrate a good harvest.
And yet even this hallucination is not without its fault lines as human beings are drawn to conflict when truth is revealed about themselves or other people. Hallucinations are not always rainbows and unicorns sometimes it’s the goat-monster under the bed. As the story goes on Theng’eta’s name is appropriated and used to market a brew so dissimilar that it is an insult to what was drunk before. This kill-me-quick, as it was anointed, is a liquor used for nothing more than to drown the pain of the world, to stop us facing it. A contender for the title of opium of the masses. This is the arc described in this drink and in this book. The amazing possibility of what we could have become and the horrid reality of what we are: people who are satisfied to theng’a theng’a with thenget’a.
The book is about the town of Ilmorog, a fictional town that is nothing but dust and one shop. A shop run by a man named Abdullah who took up this name believing that it was a Christian one. The shop in turn left to him by an Indian who lived there before. It has a bar and to this bar comes Munira the sometimes narrator of our tale. A man who we are introduced to as godly with a bible in his hand even as he is arrested on suspicion of murder. The story goes in flashback with Munira telling us about how things came to pass in Ilmorog. He writes prison notes, a sort of memoir for the inspector who has come to see him. The inspector is a man who believes in the law the way a maths professor believes in equations. He sees his work as reduced to numbers. As necessary for order, as neither evil nor good but just necessary. We also meet Karega a former student of Munira’s who joins him on the teaching staff of the small school in Ilmorog. Karega is a passionate idealist at heart, a man grappling with the questions that post-independence gave us. He tries his best to impart to the students in his care the knowledge he believes they need as much a journey of self-discovery as it is an imparting of knowledge:
“He made them sing: I live in Ilmorog Division which is in Chiri District; Chiri District which is in the Republic of Kenya; Kenya which is part of East Africa; East Africa which is part of Africa; Africa which is the land of the African peoples; Africa from where other African people were scattered to other corners of the world.”
Through their lives and ours wanders Wanja. A beautiful woman who is the only one who comes home to Ilmorog after a fashion. She becomes a bartender in Abdulla’s bar even though there is not enough business but she flashes her smile and says that this is the work of a barmaid to bring more people in or make the people who are inside drink more. The story of Wanja is a pain we behold her ups and downs, her tragedies and comebacks, her histories, secrets, peaks and valleys which are enough to leave you shredded, to leave anyone shredded.
This is a book that struggles with the idea of self-hood and of who we are. Of who we were, all of us as Africans before the four hundred years of contact with the west left us bereft and them rich. Before it destroyed our cultures and enriched theirs. Before they left and we began to forget who we could have become.
All the characters in the book have their secrets and they tell them as time passes by. I remember falling through the trap door in the second chapter or thereabouts. It is my hope that you know about the trapdoor because the trapdoor is something everybody should feel in their lives multiple times. It is that point in the book where it becomes real. A black hole from which you emerge breathless and disoriented looking around the world as if it’s not real. It happened as soon as Munira told us why he came to Ilmorog. Each of the main characters has a story of a journey to this place that they begin to call home and the trip for each of them is heartrending. It is sad when told once and it only becomes sadder as the book moves on as we learn more about them and who they are.
There is a drought in Ilmorog. A massive drought. This is soon after independence and their MP Nderi wa Ireri has not been to their town for a long, long time. He sends them over an invitation for “chai” at Gatundu South which is more an invitation to fund his own affairs there. The people of Ilmorog wonder what they need to go talk to Kenyatta about and they are told that their tribe’s wealth is being threatened by the lake people and those aligned with the Indian Communist who was recently assassinated (there is a special pleasure for a Kenyan or a person with knowledge of Kenyan history to read this book, a jolt of recognition as Pio Gama Pinto and Tom Mboya and J.M Kariuki are assassinated, a pleasure and a pain, a deep pain.) The people of Ilmorog reply:
“You mean some of you have already made enough wealth while we scratch the earth?”
“Is that the wealth they want to steal from you?”
“Good for them if they are as poor as we are.”
In response to the drought they make an expedition to Nairobi to petition their leader. The journey to Nairobi itself is epic and then things sour as they are turned away by white men and black men by preachers and former revolutionaries, by all those who in the first years of independence stole afresh the capital of the new nation or held on to the capital stolen by their fathers and grandfathers. Eventually they run into a lawyer. A lawyer who has the gift of seeing what is wrong with the world. He sits down in his library with them to discuss what is going on
it is sad, it hurts, at times I am angry, looking at the black zombies, black animated cartoons dancing the master’s dance to perfection…The white ministers seeing defeat , now turned to sneering and jeering at the new priests. Look at these destroyers: we are going, yes, but these people will surely destroy all the canon laws…and we, who were educated in their schools, beat our breasts, we destroyers? We break the canon law? We are as civilised as you, we shall not be the ones to dismantle the monster god, and we shall prove it to you. You’ll be ashamed you once had these doubts about us….the education we got had not prepared me to understand those things: it is meant to obscure racism and other forms of oppression. It was meant to make us accept our inferiority so as to accept their superiority and their rule over us….while our people are dying of hunger, while our people cannot afford decent shelter and decent schools for their children. And we are happy, we are happy that we are called stable and civilised and intelligent.
I even remember that I was sitting in a courtroom as I read that particular passage. That I finished reading it and my breathing was heavy and my eyes were blurry. In its fullness it is a thing of glory, a flowering of wrongs not righted and paths trodden too hastily and wrongly. It is one of those centrepieces that a great book has. A passage that speaks a certain truth to you if only you would stop and listen to what is being said.
And…. there’s some sex in the book. There’s sex and there’s laughter. And there’s anticipation for sex, I find myself cheering for sex in fiction nowadays, hoping it happens because the world is not just revolution and the struggle to stay awake to the struggle. It is also beauty.
“then they started slowly, almost uncertainly, groping toward one another, gradually working together in rhythmic search for a lost kingdom, for a lost innocence and hope, exploring deeper and deeper, his whole body aflame and tight with painful desire or of belonging. And she clung to him, she too desiring the memories washed away in the deluge of a new beginning, and he now felt this power in him, power to heal, power over death, power, power…and suddenly she carried him high on ocean waves of new horizons and possibilities in a single moment of lightning illumination, oh the power of united flesh, before exploding and swooning into darkness and sleep without words.”
There’s also the words Kill-me-Quick which I thought my aunt had coined to described alcoholic drinks of dubious provenance but proven strength. Then there’s that passage where a woman leaves one man for another and they talk about “Coup d’état” “kugeuza serikali.” Yeah that was a Ngugi phrase.
And hidden in the folds I saw a character in the book from our history. His name is Chui. Chui was a student at Siriana Secondary School. He was a rebel and a revolutionary. He was the leader of the strikes and rebellions and revolts. He led a strike and was expelled, his strike coming to naught. He was left in the cold far away from all the people he had fought for. He went on exploring the world and his mind as he strayed in constructive exile. Then there was another strike and this time the white headmaster was sent away. The students of Siriana insisted that there was only one person they could unite behind. Only one name could lead them from then on and that name was Chui. Chui came back and the first thing he did was to cut off at the legs the ones who had led the strike. He told the white teachers who he found there that they had nothing to fear, that he would make sure that the black masses who stayed respected them and their powers. That the troubles that had come before would not be repeated, would not be respected, would instead be razed to the ground along with all those who were its leaders. This Chui promised. And this Chui did, rewarding some with prefectship and the rest with the ultimate punishment. This Chui did. Oppressing the people who called him back , forgetting the blood of those who fought for his rule, forgetting the whole purpose of his rule or his exile of the fight he fought.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o who wrote this book that I carried with me everywhere as I read it. Ngugi who is one of our greatest writers has been detained and exiled, he has been tortured and arrested by both Kenyatta and Moi. When Kibaki won the election he came home and we broke into his home, we beat him and we raped his wife Njeri several times, we Kenyans. This man who feels for this country with all his soul, to him we did this. I don’t know what we can do to make up for this perhaps the important thing is to always ask these foulmouthed, tribal-slogan spouting, ethnic-division creating, corruption-condoning, pieces of shit we have as politicians the important question:
You mean some of you have already made enough wealth while we scratch the earth?
And then go to the polls geuza serikali over and over until we have a country he would be proud of.