Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a historical fiction novel that was first published in 1977. Ngũgĩ is a Kenyan author who has written novels, plays, short stories, and essays that typically center on Kenyan and African politics and the effects of colonialism and neocolonialism on the region. Petals of Blood explores the lives of Kenyans after the Mau Mau Rebellion and subsequent independence in the small village of Ilmorog, as well as its development into a trading center due to industrialization and Westernization. Ngũgĩ’s novel criticizes neocolonial systems and structures that still control the lives of Kenyans and Africans and highlights their struggle to unite in resistance against wealth and foreign influence.
This guide uses the Penguin Classics edition of the text, published in 2005 in the United States.
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Content Warning: The source material includes discussions of sexual abuse and exploitation.
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The text opens with the arrest of Munira, Abdulla, and Karega, and the police attempting to question Wanja, who is in the hospital with injuries, over the burning of a brothel in Ilmorog and the subsequent death of three prominent businessmen: Mzigo, Kimeria, and Chui. The plot then unfolds in a series of flashbacks as Munira recounts the events of the last 12 years to Investigator Godfrey, beginning with his arrival in Ilmorog.
When Munira arrives as a schoolteacher in Ilmorog, it is a small farming village dealing with several issues. All previous teachers left the village after a short time due to a disinterest in education and a focus on farming, even in the young children. The younger generation is leaving the village to escape generational poverty and pursue better opportunities in the city, leaving fewer and fewer people to work the land. Families rely on the younger children, who should be in school. Most urgently, a prolonged drought has led to poor growing seasons and increased poverty and hunger. Initially, Munira struggles to fit in and understand the community, and he is unable to collect students to come to school. He returns to his home and contemplates leaving Ilmorog for another assignment before beginning to understand the village and its struggles. Ultimately, he ends up remaining in Ilmorog, gathering a following of children to come to his school. He grows and expands the school to include several grade levels and more teachers.
As Munira struggles to fit in, he meets Abdulla, who is also considered an outsider in the village. Abdulla fought in the Mau Mau Rebellion and lost a leg before finding an abandoned child, Joseph, and moving with him to Ilmorog to open a store. As Munira and Abdulla meet in his shop for drinks, they eventually meet Wanja and Karega. Wanja is a woman whose grandmother is a village elder and who left Ilmorog for the city before choosing to return. Karega is a younger man who was expelled from school and has worked in factories throughout the country. He wants to change working conditions and help the people of Kenya get out from under neocolonial corruption. The four meet regularly for drinks and “gossip” about the village, eventually forming bonds of love and friendship.
Each main character has a troubled past that is, in many ways, intertwined with the others’. Munira comes from a wealthy family but has failed to meet his father’s expectations, leading to feeling outcast and ashamed. His father, Ezekieli, employed Karega’s mother and tried to initiate a sexual relationship with her. Karega’s first love, Mukami, was Munira’s sister. She died by suicide when her relationship with Karega was forbidden due to his brother’s involvement in the Mau Mau Rebellion. Abdulla carries guilt over his survival in the Mau Mau Rebellion; he lost his commander and friend, Nding’uri, who is Karega’s brother. Although Wanja’s past does not intertwine with the other three, she carries guilt over beginning a relationship with a married man, who rejected her when she became pregnant. She chose to abandon her newborn child in a latrine. Wanja connects Munira, Abdulla, and Karega in new ways; she has a sexual relationship with Munira, then falls in love with Karega and begins a relationship with him, ultimately becoming pregnant with Abdulla’s child at the conclusion of the text.
The drought in Ilmorog becomes too much for its people, and they threaten to release Abdulla’s donkey and sacrifice a goat to God to end the drought. Instead, Karega proposes that a delegation travel to the city and speak with their representative in Parliament, Nderi wa Riera. On their journey, the villagers begin to respect and appreciate Abdulla—and his donkey—as he provides for them and tells them stories about the Rebellion. Karega and Munira begin to understand Abdulla and his struggles better, as well as Ilmorog’s history and people. Joseph falls ill, and they seek help for their delegation but are turned away by Europeans and Reverend Jerrod Brown. They enter the home of Kimeria—the man who previously impregnated Wanja—and he and his men kidnap them. To escape, she decides to have sex with him despite her enduring trauma from the sexual abuse and exploitation she experienced in the city. Eventually, the characters arrive in the city.
When Nderi wa Riera meets with them, he is unhelpful and convinced that they have been sent by a political rival to cause chaos and harm his political campaign. As he tries to encourage the group to form a new delegation to Gatundu, they throw mud and objects at him, and Munira, Karega, and Abdulla are arrested. They seek help from a lawyer who has dedicated his life to helping impoverished and mistreated Black people in Kenya. He wins their release, and the delegation attracts attention for humiliating Riera at the trial, which leads to a flood of donations and visitors willing to help with their drought.
It finally rains in Ilmorog, and their condition improves due to the outside help. A ceremony is held to celebrate the harvest. Wanja attains Theng’eta, a flower that induces visions, and she gathers with Munira, Karega, and Abdulla to consume it in a ritual circle. Throughout the night, Karega has visions of his brother, which encourages him to tell the story of Mukami and her death. This, coupled with Wanja’s continued dismissal of Munira’s feelings, leads Munira to feel angry toward Karega and Wanja. In later scenes, his bitterness grows as he becomes convinced that Wanja is dangerous and manipulating everyone.
Years later, the Pan-African highway is constructed through Ilmorog, and the village grows into a massive trading hub. As a result, the original villagers lose their farmland and homes and become impoverished as corruption becomes more prevalent. Abdulla and Wanja hold onto their business longer, selling Theng’eta builders, visitors, and wealthy citizens. When Wanja’s grandmother passes away, they lose their land and, subsequently, the right to produce Theng’eta, which becomes mass-produced by a large corporation. Meanwhile, Karega leaves Ilmorog and travels across the country, working in factories and encouraging the working class to unionize and fight for more rights. Munira continues to teach but becomes overwhelmed by his obsession with Wanja, eventually turning toward a group of religious fanatics and devoting his life to Christianity. To survive, Wanja decides to open a brothel to strike back at the wealthiest members of the city. She uses her body and sex to achieve status and control over the businessmen. Karega eventually returns and attempts to unionize the workers at the brewery and unite the working class and unemployed in resistance.
At the conclusion of the text, it is revealed that Munira started the fire at the brothel to stop Wanja, in an effort to “save” Karega from her. This act allows him to feel as though he has finally made a decision of his own, and he feels as though he finally “belongs.”
By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o