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Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s stance against cultural imperialism and alienation stood out in two of his essays, “A Meeting in the Dark” and “Minutes of Glory”, writes Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy
The theme of cultural Imperialism and alienation dominated early African literature as it bothers on the question of identity which the African man was troubled with. It is perhaps this question of identity which led to the birth of the Negritude movement pioneered by Leopold Sedar Senghor, Leon Damas and Aime Cesare. These themes reflect in Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, Anthills of the Savannah, Soyinka’s Interpreters, Mungo Beti’s Mission to Kala, Ferdinand Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal; not forgetting poems as Sly Cheney Cooker’s “Freetown”, Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol, Birago Diop’s “Vanity”, John Pepper Clark’s “Agbo Dancer”, and Christopher Okigbo’s “Mother Idoto”; to mention but a few. Sadly, these thematic tropes have not ceased appearing in our modern literature as they have become our reality; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s explores these themes in her Purple Hibiscus, and it can also be witnessed in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.
Ah yes, speaking of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, it is remarkable to point out that Ngugi wa Thiong’o has stood at the forefront of the battle against cultural imperialism and has been relentless in denouncing it in his novels and essays. In fact, his novel; Devil on the Cross; was dedicated to “all Kenyans struggling against the neo-colonial stage of Imperialism” (ii). Today, we shall examine Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s presentation of these thematic concepts using two of his short stories; “A Meeting in the Dark” and “Minutes of Glory”.
Both stories are set in early post-colonial era of Kenyan history, but while “A Meeting in the Dark” has its settings in a small Kenyan village (Makaeno Village–a mushroom ‘town’ which sprang up during the Mau Mau war), “Minutes of Glory” is set in the urban cities of Kenya.
John, the bright son of the village priest, finds himself between Scylla and Charybdis. He has been offered scholarship to further his education at Makerere (a prestigious university in East Africa—specifically located in Uganda) and he prepares himself for the trip to Uganda. However, something seems to threaten this golden opportunity and he is afraid the cat may soon be let out of the bag. Wamuhu, his village heartthrob, is pregnant and neither his fanatical Christian father nor the village must hear of it. Consumed by fear, he inadvertently murders Wamuhu. This is the story in “A Meeting in the Dark”.
“Minutes of Glory”, on the other hand, chronicles the life and experiences of Beatrice (a lady of the night) battling with inferiority complex cum self hatred as she migrates from one bar to the other in search of work and willing customers. However, Beatrice was never to find satiation as men shunned her and priced other ladies above her. Finally, she meets a dejected fellow who she presumes their sufferings should make them both sympathise with each other. After nights of listening to the man telling stories of his grim struggle with life, she decides to tell him about herself. Not interested in her tale, he snores away and this angers Beatrice. She steals his money, travels to Nairobi, and gets herself primped up. In her new state, she returns to her former bar a celebrity as men buy her drinks and call her to their tables (all who have shunned her before). It is her minutes of glory and she refuses them all even after accepting their offer of drinks. Her reign is however short lived for the man whose money she had stolen returns with a policeman to arrest her. She is unperturbed even as the men pour scorn on her; she has lived her minutes of glory and that is perhaps what matters. The man who arrests her becomes a hero as everyone now celebrate him and want to hear of his experience with Beatrice.
Looking at both stories, we come to see that the challenges experienced by the major characters (and even other minor characters) are due to cultural imperialism and alienation.
Cultural imperialism here refers to the dominance of western thoughts and culture over our African ones. This came with the advent of colonialism and it has sadly persisted even in modern day African society while alienation refers to the lack of belonging which dominates the minds of the younger generation of Africans, making us all a confused people.
Cultural imperialism in the short stories
On cultural imperialism, Stanley (John’s father and the village priest) in “A Meeting in the Dark” is a victim here. He has totally denounced his Africanness and has clutched tightly to his Christian faith (going about with a bag containing his Bible and hymn book) so that everyone now dreads him. He has metamorphosed from being a loving and dotting paterfamilias to a strict and unloving one. The tribal ways are now but a sin to him and he goes as far as banning his wife from telling John traditional stories, he now calls his wife “Sister in the Lord,” and even considers his son a sin because he had been conceived before his marriage and before he became a convert.
She looked at her tough old preacher who had been a companion for life. She had married him a long time ago. She could not tell the number of years. They had been happy. Then the man became a convert. And everything in the home put on a religious tone. He even made her stop telling stories to the child. ‘Tell him of Jesus. Jesus died for you. Jesus died for the child. He must know the Lord.’ She, too had been converted. But she was never blind to the moral torture he inflicted on the boy (that was how she always referred to John), so that the boy had grown up mortally afraid of his father. She always wondered if it was love for the son. Or could it be resentment because, well, they two had ‘sinned’ before marriage? John had been the result of that sin. But that had not been John’s fault. It was the boy who ought to complain. (56-7)
Indeed, it was not John’s fault that he had been conceived out of wedlock and he was the one who ought to complain but his father made it appear as if it was all his fault and he wanted to ensure John never repeated his mistakes by disallowing him from entertaining any female friend, even to stand talking with one would draw a scowl from the preacher. This would lead to John’s doom as we come to see in the story.
Many of those who still cherished the tribal ways are not happy with the new way of life being practiced by John’s father and others like him for this cultural imperialism does not manifest in religion only, it created a deep seated hatred which ignited the hunger for foreign things in younger Africans. These young Africans, educated ones especially, “came back from the other side of the waters with white or negro wives who spoke English” (57). This rapid decline in the old tribal ways is more succinctly expressed in Wahumu’s father reminiscence of the old ways. Permit me to crave your indulgence and quote this long extract:
The old man was remembering his own day (sic). He had found for himself a good virtuous woman, initiated in all the tribe ways. And she had known no other man. He had married her. They were happy. Other men of his Rika had done the same. All the girls had been virgins, it being a taboo to touch a girl in that way, even if you slept on the same bed, as indeed so many young men and girls did. Then the white man had come, preaching a strange religion, strange ways, which all men followed. The tribe’s code of behaviour was broken. The new faith could not keep the tribe together. How could it. The men who followed the new faith would not let the girls be circumcised. And they would not let their sons marry uncircumcised girls. Puu! Look at what is happening. Their young men went away to the land of the whitemen. What did they bring? White women. Black women who spoke English. Aa — bad. And the young men who were left just did not mind. They made unmarried girls their wives and then left them with fatherless children.
… He took a piece of wood and nervously poked the dying fire. A strange numbness came over him. He trembled. And he feared; he feared for the tribe. For now he saw it was not only the educated men who were coated with the strange ways but the whole tribe. The old man trembled and cried inside mourning for a tribe that had crumbled. The tribe had nowhere to go. And it could not be what it was before. He stopped poking and looked hard at the ground. (62)
This reminds me of the sad tale of the Umuofia people in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Cultural imperialism was not just causing change in the society, it was also tampering with the sacred values of the society and causing stagnancy, it poked into societal bonds and created a disharmony in an otherwise ordered society. It has created a feeling of self-loathsomeness and a hankering after Western things.
We also see this adverse effect of cultural imperialism in the second story; “Minutes of Glory”; it is manifested in the major character (Beatrice). Beatrice lacks belief in herself and her African beauty, and thinks she needs a European name to be noticed. The author says of her: “Her name was Wanjiru. But she liked her Christian one, Beatrice. It sounded more pure and more beautiful” (82). Her inferiority complex and self hatred would lead her to tone her skin in order to gain attention.
By that time, Ambi had reached Ilomorog and Beatrice thought that this would be the answer. Had she not, in Limuru, seen girls who were blacker than herself transformed overnight from ugly sins into white stars by a touch of skin lightening creams? And men would ogle them, would even talk with exaggerated pride of their newborn girl friends. (84)
She would later regret this move for it turned out a terrible experience for her since (in Ngugi’s parlance) that which is made black can never be white:
Beatrice never tried to find the root cause of this black self-hatred, she simply accepted the contradiction and applied herself to Ambi with a vengeance. She had to rub out her black shame. But even Ambi, she could not afford in abundance; she could only apply it to her face and to her arms so that her legs and neck retained their blackness. Besides, they were parts of her face she could not readily reach — behind her ears and above the eye lashes, for instance — and these were a constant source of shame and irritation for her Ambi-self.
She would always remember this Ambi period as one of her deepest humiliation before her minutes of glory. (84)
However, I had hoped that Ngugi would uplift Beatrice from her state of despondency by granting her an invigorated hope, pride, and conviction her “Africanness” as he did for Wariinga in his novel, Devil on the Cross. This did not turn out so since Beatrice “minutes of glory” came only when she stole money to become accoutred in western apparels; the only thing that made sense was perhaps her newly acquired sense of self confidence and even this is still because she was on new western clothes.
Alienation in the short stories
The character of John in “A Meeting in the Dark” is quite pivotal to our discussion on alienation. John’s alienation is the aftermath effect of the cultural imperialism bedevilling his father. Born into a Christian family but surrounded by those who still cherished the tribal ways; he reminds one of Obi Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease; John would find himself struggling to know where he truly belongs. John (in Igbo parlance) is like the proverbial dog who attempts to answer two masters at the same time and got its jaw broken; the first master being his Christian background represented by his father and his reverend head master while the second master is his cultural background represented by those who are still adherents of the old way of life in the village. He was respected for being the son of a priest who still had respect for the old tribal ways. However, John keeps oscillating between these two poles (he never could find where he really belongs to) and therein lays his tragedy. For example, while praying that Wahumu’s pregnancy remains a secret, John wonders what he fears the most:
Father will know. They will know. He did not know what he feared the most; the action his father would take when he found out, or the loss of the little faith the villagers had placed in him, when they knew. He feared to lose everything. (59)
And he would lose everything eventually. Even if John decides to marry Wahumu, his father would still be a stumbling block for what would he tell him to make the fanatic and overzealous priest accept a circumcised lady as the daughter-in-law of a Christian priest; it already looks like a forbidden thought.
He lay on the grass; he did not want to think. Oh, no! He could not possibly face his father. Or his mother. Or Reverend Carstone who had such faith in him. John realised that, though he was educated. He was no more secure than anybody else. He was no better than Wahumu. Then why don’t you marry her? He did not know. John had grown up under a Calvinistic father and learnt under a Calvinistic headmaster — a missionary! John tried to pray. But to whom was he praying? To Carstone’s God? It sounded false. It was as if he was blaspheming. Could he pray to the God of the tribe? His sense of guilt crushed him. (64)
John would himself see this cultural confusion manifested in his dream where his Christian background and tribe combat for his soul thereby leaving him in shreds:
He dreamt of circumcision; he had just been initiated in the tribe manner. Somebody — he could not tell his face, came and led him because he took pity on him. They went, went into a strange land. Somehow, he found himself alone. The somebody had vanished. A ghost came. He recognised it as the ghost of the home he had left. It pulled him back; then another ghost came. It was the ghost of the land he had come to. It pulled him forward. The two contested. Then came other ghosts from all sides and pulled him from all sides so that his body began to fall into pieces. And the ghosts were insubstantial. He could not cling to any. Only they were pulling him and he was becoming nothing, nothing… (66)
It is perhaps ironical that John’s parent had had him out of wedlock but he dreads telling his parents that he has put a girl in the family way. Cultural imperialism had flung his father far away from him emotionally and even he feels that his relationship with his father cannot be a natural one. He fears his father’s scorn and knows not where he really belonged in his society. However, John was not the only one who lived in dread of his father; most people in the village did; for they saw him as a physical manifestation of the Christian God who saw nothing but sin in them.
He preached with great vigour, defying the very gates of hell. Even during the emergency, he had gone on preaching, scolding, judging and condemning. All those who were not saved were destined for hell. Above all — Stanley was known for his strict moral observances — a bit too strict, rather pharisaical in nature. None noticed this; certainly not the sheep he shepherded. (67)
Stanley neither spared the rod in expelling or excommunicating old people who broke the rules of Christianity nor did he fail to do same with young men and women seen standing together. This would leave many young men attempting to serve two masters at the same time by going to the church by day and meeting their girlfriends at night–the alternative being to stop going to church totally. Hence, John is not the only one who feels alienated—many others (like him) are left stranded in this quagmire. Unfortunately, the convoluted situation of things only spells doom for the society and its younger generation. This explains why John’s misadventure ends tragically.
Alienation is not pervasive in the second story; “Minutes of Glory”. However, Nyaguthii’s story is quite instructive. Nyaguthii, like Beatrice, is also a drab. But unlike Beatrice, she excels in her profession since men swarm towards her and curry her disinterested attention. Nyaguthii’s alienation, as that of John, came as a result of her parents being victims of cultural imperialism. Although from a wealthy family, she was left disorganised by the strict Christian upbringing in her family and had to abscond from home thereby opting for a life as a lady of the streets.
… My father and mother were fairly wealthy. They were good Christians. We lived under regulations. You must never walk with heathen. You must not attend their pagan customs–dances and circumcision rites, for instance. They were rules about what, how and when to eat. You must even walk like a Christian lady. You must never be seen with boys. Rules, rules all the way. One day, instead of returning home from school, I and another girl from a similar home ran away to Eastleigh. (93)
Finally, having been used and exploited by colonialism, the African is left confounded as he suffers from cultural imperialism and alienation. The African man is left with question of identity, he is left asking himself a question which every self-conscious mind would ask, the question of “Who or what am I?”. The answer(s) to this question tarries in coming for it is a question that does not easily submits itself to answers.
Observations on the short stories
Ngugi wa Thiong’o also shows us the African man’s pretensions and hypocrisy in both stories. This is reflected in the character of Stanley (“A Meeting in the Dark”) who condemns sins and thinks himself better than all others in the society because he is an adherent of the Bible. Stanley is a strong man in outward mien, but living in psychological dread of his wife. Also, in “Minutes of Glory”, we see men who claim to detest women who bleach yet hunger to have these women beside them.
While I may not agree with returning to the old tribal ways (since African cultures are not without their imperfections), you will agree with me that Ngugi is right in advocating for the pride and belief in Africanness in a world that has come to see the black skin as another name for inferiority.
Aside from this, we see in the second story (“Minutes of Glory”) what our highly capitalised society is rapidly turning out to be with increased rate of poverty and prostitution as is the case with Beatrice. Let me point out here that I do not like the idea of Beatrice stealing to get her “glory” but then the story needs an end and may not have had the needed dramatic end had things happened otherwise. More so, Beatrice does not see her act as stealing; to her, it was reclaiming that which life had denied her for she saw in the young fellow the image of her frustrations and failures in life.
As always with Ngugi, his idea of a dichotomised society is never absent in his stories; in “A Meeting in the Dark”, this dichotomy is represented by the Christian faith as against tribal ways with John floating between while in “Minutes of Glory”, the divide is between the oppressors and the oppressed. Ngugi seems to be telling us in the latter story that what unites the oppressors is common oppression of the oppressed; this is given credence by the admittance of the young man into their group only after he gets Gloria arrested. In this aspect, I may like to disagree with Ngugi for the young fellow is also part of those oppressed and had really not done much harm to Beatrice; except by not listening to her story. Like Beatrice, he is in desperate need of validation from the upper class. I think the story would have sailed nicely had Ngugi used one of the rich politicians, businessmen or highly placed government workers who constantly floated in and out of the bar instead of the truck driver. This dichotomy can also be seen in accoutrement and the choice of names as Stanley family all have Christian names and Stanley went about with a bag containing his Bible and hymn book in “A Meeting in the Dark” while Beatrice uses a Western name to get validation even though men still flocked to Nyaguthii much more than Beatrice. I also noticed that Ngugi put the young fellow on full military regalia when he came for the arrest to make him out as the oppressor.
Typical of most Marxist stories, the stories end inconclusively; “A Meeting in the Dark” ends with the tragic death of Wamuhu while “Minutes of Glory” ends with the arrest of Beatrice after a supposed triumphant victory.
Ngugi’s use of a combination of simple and fragmented sentences to capture the stream of consciousness of his characters is quite superb and gives the story a touch of the dramatic.
Lastly, I noted Chinua Achebe’s and a bit of Okot P’Bitek’s influence on the prominent Kenyan writer (especially at this early stage of his writing as reflected in “A Meeting in the Dark”). And I think I like “A Meeting in the Dark” much more than the “Minutes of Glory”.
© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2019