Capitalism, the socio-ideological system that drives and organizes our global society, will never be too irrelevant or too hackneyed a topic to talk about as long as it is still in place.
Some of us love it and embrace it. Some are indifferently swept along with it. Others take an anarchic stance against it. Still others resist but must compromise more often than not.
It is a world of all of these people that inhabit Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1977 novel, Petals of Blood, set in postcolonial Kenya. The merits and demerits of capitalism aside (that is another debate), one thing is sure: everyone is implicated and act according to it, whether with or against it, for better or for worse.
To lower the term “capitalism” from its ideo-theoretical pedestal, where it sits amongst its brethren, the other equally abstract terms such as communism, marxism-leninism, etc., and put it in vulgar speech, it is for wa Thiong’o a drive towards money, wealth, profit, and therefore ostensibly, a better quality of life. In fact, the word itself does not appear more than once or twice if at all in the book (I’d have to reread it to make sure). wa Thiong’o codes capitalism as “it” or “the system,” rendering the term as intangible as the concept and power it holds.
A book, whether literary or not, is always remarkable for having characters that one finds both extremely sympathetic and extremely unlikable.
Wanja the prostitute, despite the wrongs she may have committed, embodies not only physical but spiritual beauty and warmth. But as yet another female character who is irresistible in body and spirit, she seems merely a type, the woman as muse, healer, giver, soother of men’s souls. That she is ultimately resigned to the fate of women, or even affirms there is such as thing, also disappoints.
Munira the apolitical teacher and man of god, committed to educating the children of Ilmorog, is most humble and down-to-earth. But he is also petty, and misogynistic in his conservatism.
Karega the young, passionate college-educated teacher and activist for labor and black nationalism, one perhaps I found myself identifying with most, is naive and idealistic, sometimes annoyingly self-righteous.
Wanja sees prostitution as labor, labor performed by women using their bodies, who have no claims to labor (performed by men’s bodies) in the fields or the factories – thereby linking her private struggle to the public one. In fact her prostitution is revealed to be the way of life that everyone leads, especially the exploitative men and the critical public at whose hands she suffers judgment and degradation. Co-option by the capitalist system for wa Thiong’o is prostitution. And it is necessary even, if one is to live, in the fundamental materialist sense of the word.
The book is also a murder mystery, and I won’t give away who did it. But when it is revealed, the other major theme of the novel comes to the forefront. And that is the desire for community, to not feel an outsider to one’s own people or native land. The negotiation between individual interests and the desire to belong to a greater community resides at the core of leftist ideological dilemma (the term “communism” also never appears, or at most once or twice).
I went into the book with no intimate knowledge of modern African history, certainly nothing on Kenyan independence and resistance efforts. The book is a challenging read, but it has so much to offer. wa Thiong’o’s insight on international populist resistance movements of the time gives a greater appreciation for global leftism, its import and export. It sheds some light on the current relationship of African countries to countries that share similar historical experiences of colonialism, real and attempted.
Coincidentally, there was a segment yesterday on current trade relations between Africa and China on PRI’s BBC Newshour (begins at 38:12), surprising for not vilifying Chinese involvement in the region as “neocolonialist,” a term that’s been thrown about in western media (despite the BBC host, embarrassingly, trying to steer the conversation that way). Turns out Dambisa Moyo also wrote a data-heavy Op-ed for the New York Times published today and worth a read.
Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Heineman. 1977, 1st ed. 345pgs