Imprisoned Within a Lifestyle: Oppression in Matigari

Matigari, a novel by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, alludes to the effects of post-colonialism in an African society. In the novel, the main character, Matigari, in a search for truth and justice, stumbles upon several instances of these effects. In many ways post-colonialism left people imprisoned within demeaning and sinful lifestyles. It left the native people depleted of resources, forcing them to steal, fight, or sell their bodies in order to survive. Thiong’o uses the dynamic minor characters Muriuki and Guthera to illustrate the oppressive effects post-colonialism had on the culture of the people, imprisoning them within a degrading lifestyle.

The character Muriuki showcases the violent behavior that post-colonialism forced people to commit in order to survive. Matigari first stumbles upon the boy, Muriuki, in a garbage yard as he is being “held by the throat and strangled while fighting over a bundle of shoelaces” (Ngugi 10). Some children “stuffed their mouths with rotten tomatoes, while others were busy cleaning bones with their teeth, hoping to find a scrap of meat still stuck to them” (Ngugi 10). Muriuki, a small boy, clings to the seemingly worthless piece of string as he is nearly killed by another boy that also wants it. It was evident that these children had very little because they ravenously filled their mouths with rotten food and violently fought each other for pieces of garbage. In much desperation for basic resources, they were forced to resort to violence to gain these small things. Similarly, European colonizers left the society as a whole oppressed, with a depletion of wealth and resources. Like most of the children, Muriuiki’s clothes “had patches all over them, and his toes could be seen peeping out of the holes in his shoes” (Ngugi 11), illustrating Muriuki’s inability to scavenge enough resources to clothe himself. Colonizers had come, taken the communities resources, and then left, leaving them in a chaos. Because of this lack of resources, people felt they had to fight in order to survive. When Matigari first travels through the junkyard, children “pelt him with stones” (Ngugi 12). The children, robbed so many times by adults, felt it was essential to use force in order to keep them away. Colonizers had deprived the Kenyan people of resources, forcing them to protect their belongings even if it meant resorting to violence. In addition, the junkyard was a “huge hole fenced around with barbwire” (Ngugi 9). Barbed wire fences, usually intended to for animals, aim to keep them trapped inside. In this case, the children are surrounded by the fence while in the junkyard, further illustrating how the children were trapped in this demeaning lifestyle. The children had unknowingly been imprisoned within a lifestyle in which they had to commit violence in order to maintain the basic necessities of survival.

In addition, Muriuki displayed a change in societal structure through his imprisonment in a life of violence. As Matigari plans to revolt against the government, Muriuki begs to come along, “already imagining himself wearing a gun” (Ngugi 12). Muriuki, tired of the oppressive nature of colonialism, anxiously seeks to fight against the government, a government established by colonizers. A young boy, would normally hold a sense of innocence, however, he acts quite the opposite, displaying a violent and aggressive behavior. This is not something typically seen within a society. Children do not often picture themselves with deadly weapons, ready to fight the government, but, because of the jarring oppression, the children more than willingly sought to fight their oppressors. This signified a change in societal structure, one that involved children violently fighting. Kenyan culture typically involved a non-violent and peaceful lifestyle; however, it was clear that this cultural norm had been lost. Later on in the novel, after Matigari disappears in the river and is presumed dead, Muriuki digs Matigari’s weapons from under the mugumo tree. Muriuki “put on the cartridge belt across his chest. He passed the strap of the sword over his right shoulder and across his chest so that the sword lay on his left side…and finally he picked up the AK47” (Ngugi 148). Muriuki comes to realize that the only way to fight the oppression is through violence, so he picks up Matigari’s deadly weapons and prepares to fight. Normally an adult would fill this soldier-like role. However, colonialism had shifted social structure within the African community. Children, like Muriuki, were forced to fill these violent positions in society because no one else would. The children were the only ones that could see the possibility of a better life and the only way they could achieve this was through violence. Because of this, they felt they had to step up and fill the adult roles that brought change within the society.

Thiong’o futher condemns post-colonialsim through the imprisonment of Guthera within a demeaning lifestyle, forced by capitalism. Guthera, initially, “aimed to do no ill” (Ngugi 28). This meant that Guthera strived never to commit a sin, however, at a young age she is given a severe ultimatum: Sleep with a police officer or watch her father die. Intent on preserving her innocence, she refuses and her father is killed. After this, in much torment, she decided “to walk the streets” (Ngugi 28). Although she had broken her commandment of immorality, it was the first time “she was able to feed and clothe her children” (Ngugi 36). Upon realizing this satisfaction, Guthera decided to become a “hunter of men” (Ngugi 31). With the installment of a capitalist economic system by the Europeans, people relied on a new currency and became dependent on this new form of money which caused them to do terrible things for it. Guthera sold her body to men for money, a highly sinful and unrespectable act. She did not enjoy this lifestyle, but it was her last and only resort because she had no other means of making money. Her and her family could not survive if she made no money, thus she resorted to prostitution. Guthera was not physically imprisoned within a cell, but metaphorically trapped within a lifestyle of sexual exploitation. Later in the novel, as she discusses her troubles with Matigari, Guthera states that “her troubles have led her from the path of righteousness” (Ngugi 30). Guthera, a once very religious girl, is well aware of the sins she commits. She once vowed never to break her heavenly commandments; however, she is forced to break them anyway to survive and evade post-colonial rule. She comes to realize that the life she has been “leading is not that of a human being. It has been more like that of an animal” (Ngugi 118). She compares her life to that of an animal, illustrating the demeaning nature of her profession. Post-colonialism had imprisoned her within this degrading lifestyle that solely focused around survival. Rather than enjoying life through family, holidays, and traditions, Guthera was forced to spend her time pursuing money in order to survive. Similarly Therefore, Muriuki and Guthera lacked cultural identity because of their demeaning lifestyles. Kenyan culture, prior to colonization, likely focused more on traditions and family rather than money. This can be inferred based one of the Kenyan’s native songs that discussed “sharing the last bean” (Ngugi 6). This song highlighted the moral values of the Kenyans before colonialism placing an emphasis on their kindness and willingness to share with all.

However, Muriuki and Guthera were forced to disband from their native culture in order to survive under post-colonial rule. This can be inferred based on the fact that their lifestyles were solely focused around survival. Matigari, upon realizing the violent and aggressive behavior that Muriuki possesses, discusses a vision of his in which “the children come out of this graveyard into which their lives had been condemned” (Ngugi 14). Graveyards arouse the connotation of death, illustrating how the children’s lives were not about living but surviving. Because all time and energy was put into this battle of survival, it was not physically possible for the children to maintain their cultural identity under the influence of European powers. Survival took precedence over maintaining cultural norms and traditions. Later in the novel, Matigari describes how the “children look as if they all came from the same womb” (Ngugi 13). In doing so, he signified that the children lacked their cultural identities, for they all looked and acted the same. Similarly, Guthera disbanded from her cultural norms by violating her most important religious commandment of adultery. Post-colonialism had driven away Guthera’s cultural identity because she was forced to let go of her beliefs in a fight for survival.

How Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Uses Animal Imagery in Matigari to Represent the Freedom Movement

Matigari by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o follows the eponymous hero in his search for truth and justice for his oppressed kinsmen, from the moment he puts down his arms to when another freedom fighter takes them up. The narrative is almost cyclical, and this is reflected in the appearance of a riderless horse at both the start and end of the novel. Other animals also appear throughout, representing different aspects of, and obstacles to, the freedom movement. These animals have been chosen since the book is symbolic of a greater fight for freedom, and so the action could be set at any time or place. Even though the setting is evidently African, the animals Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o depicts could be found anywhere across the globe. Thus, as symbols of freedom, they can convey this idea of a global struggle for emancipation. Wildlife is as enduring within this novel as the quest for freedom, and the two are intrinsically linked; those that live in the wild know freedom the best and thus can comment on it most effectively.

Dogs have a divided representation; they can reflect either companionship or aggression. This twofold meaning is shown through the police dogs – rather than being upholders of security, they are instead tools of barbarity. Dogs come to represent a society that endangers its people rather than protecting them as it should; they represent an order that takes all and gives nothing. The two policemen holding this dog harass Gũthera, and only stop when they suspect that Matigari, who stands up to them, is secretly wealthy and powerful – just like dogs themselves, the policemen are obedient to authority. Yet the threat that the dogs pose is somehow distant, as ‘the dog would leap towards her; but each time its muzzle came close… the policeman who held the lead restrained it’[1]. This wavering danger shows that the threat of the government is not recognised, since it does not directly attack its people, but instead intimidates them into submission. Moreover, it does not allow room for true autonomous action; ‘each time she stood up to retreat, the dog jumped at her’[2]. In Part Three of the novel, when Matigari and his followers are wandering through the wilderness, they see homes with ‘enough water for their lawns and shrubs and swimming pools’[3] despite the drought. These are the rich, and at each gate there is ‘an Alsatian dog and a sign: ‘Mbwa Kali’ [dangerous dogs]’[4]. The upper classes are thus protected by the regime, as they have the direct protection of a dog. It is thanks to this imbalance of power that they can have a surplus of water while others are in deficit. At the book’s close, the police set their dogs on Matigari and Gũthera with the intention of drawing blood. As they try to escape, the dogs ‘hesitated at the river banks’[5] –suggesting that the freedom fighters have won, as before the dogs would jump at retreat. However, even though a few have unshackled themselves from governmental control, the dogs still exert a form of authority. ‘As if announcing to the world: sisi mbwa kali [we are dangerous dogs]’[6], they watch Matigari and Gũthera as they are carried along the river, showing that their dominance over others remains, and that the government will always be a dangerous institution.

Birds are emblems of peace, but this ideal is perverted in the novel. The first birds that are mentioned are vultures and hawks, which are scavengers and hunters – certainly not peaceful. A sense of menace ever looms over the land, just as the ‘hawks hovered dangerously in the sky’[7]. In the scrapyard, ‘some vultures perched on the barbed wire, while others sat on branches of trees nearby’[8], their placement showing that the threat is omnipresent; both in urban and rural areas, there is no escape from the oppressive order. As well as physical threats, birds also represent an intellectual threat in the way that the government tries to alter its people’s thoughts. This is the doctrine of ‘parrotology’, which teaches citizens to mindlessly follow the government’s teachings. This indoctrination manifests itself in all walks of life; some have ‘Ph.Ds in Parrotology’, some write for the ‘Daily Parrotry’ and others study the ‘Songs of a Parrot’[9]. This shows control over knowledge, the press, and even morality. Regardless, Matigari still perceives the bird as genuine pure emblem of peace. In his hat, he wears an ostrich feather; this is the symbol of the Egyptian goddess Maat, who represents truth and justice, the very thing that Matigari fights for. This gives his cause strength, as he indirectly has divine support; however, to a western reader, the ostrich symbolises denial, and so his cause may in fact be doomed from the outset. Yet Matigari surrounds himself with birds, and still believes freedom is possible through them. As he roams, he seeks truth and justice ‘in bird’s nests’[10], showing that he believes peace to be the only means of attaining these things. At the start of the novel, he remembers a song they used to sing; ‘if only it were dawn, so that I can share the cold waters with the early bird’[11]. The dawn is a new beginning, and water is necessary for life; these can only be enjoyed alongside peace. However, others exaggerate Matigari’s capability for peace, as they spread a false rumour that ‘when the stones reached him, they changed into doves’[12]. Overall, birds in this novel are distant; they are looked for, and they look down, but are never interacted with. This demonstrates that, in this society, peace is an illusion.

Horses are the first animal to appear in the novel, and the most interesting. As Matigari puts down his arms at the start of the novel, ‘a riderless horse galloped past him’[13]. Able to roam without a rider to control it, the horse is thus introduced as a symbol of freedom. It reminds Matigari of the horses that ‘Settler Williams and his friends had often ridden[14]’, showing that with freedom comes prosperity. Mũriũki conveys a similar opinion; ‘oh how I would love to fly above this tea estate in a Mercedes-Benz or, better still, on a winged horse’[15]. Though originally his dream is to attain wealth, he moves to thoughts of liberty and peace – the winged aspect recalling a combination of horse and bird. Matigari, following in pursuit of freedom, also literally ‘followed in the trails of the horses’[16]. However, ‘they could not see them very clearly’[17], as freedom is such a tenuous ideal for these people, and they are mistaken about its possible immensity; ‘it turned out what had seemed like a group was in fact two horses’[18]. Deceived by the way the horses’ trail turns ‘golden by the rays of the setting sun’[19], they fail to recognise the horses only kick up dust, reflecting the shallow façade of freedom. Horses in Matigari are not always free. The next set of horses that Matigari finds have riders, who hold ‘their whips and the reins’[20]. This highlights how the wealthy elite will always find a way to tread down freedom – and later, horses are commercialised for entertainment. People were going ‘to see the races… to see the horses which this woman bought’[21], and though there is a sense of surprise that ‘African people do own racing horses’[22] – that the most oppressed groups can still taste freedom – there is also a contradiction. Freedom is a commodity one must buy to deserve, and the very idea of buying this concept seems paradoxical. As the riderless horse reappears at the novel’s close, it becomes clear that freedom is not in the grasp of these freedom fighters; it remains distant and tantalisingly out of reach, disappearing into the forest again. This appearance is also combined with fear; Mũriũki’s ‘heart skipped a beat’[23], perhaps thinking of the police horses. Political freedom, having been weaponised by some, proves to be void of meaning. The horse that appears both in the start and the finish is characterised as ‘riderless’; it is not free unto itself, but in fact missing something. Thus Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o raises the question; can freedom exist without something to be free against?

One of the most important animal motifs is the mural in the café in Part One of a group of animals drinking together. What links them together is their drink, the symbol of commercialism. It can thus be seen that the other animals in the book are equally dependent on society as they are exploited by it. While true companionship, peace and freedom can be striven towards, there are obstacles to achieving these aims; indeed, these aims may crumble without that which stops them. These animals demonstrate how a movement can falter or lose direction without a common purpose; and one could argue that, following Matigari’s disappearance at the end of the book, this movement does exactly that with the taking up of the arms – and the permanent loss of the horse to the forest.

[1] Wa Thiongo, N. 1987. Matigari. Translated from Gĩkũyũ by W. wa Goro. Oxford: Heinemann. pp.30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. pp.149.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. pp.174

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. pp.11.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. pp.107.

[10] Ibid. pp.86.

[11] Ibid. pp.4.

[12] Ibid. pp.72

[13] Ibid. pp.3.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. pp.42.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. pp.43.

[21] Ibid. pp.153.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid. pp.175.