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.

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