Some Annotations for Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood


This past semester I spent a good chunk of my Introduction to Crime Fiction course on Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s 1977 novel Petals of Blood. I wanted my students to spend time with a text where the guilty culprit really was capitalism. By happy coincidence we reached the end of the novel, with its heroic but tantalizingly inconclusive brewery strike, just as the Rutgers faculty/grad unions went on strike. That helped add an experiential dimension to my students’ encounter with a 46-year-old text. Neocolonialism hasn’t exactly gone away either.

It’s a fun and very compelling novel, but it did seem to me to ask for some contextualization. So, as I did when I was preparing Shahid’s ghazals for my other course, I ended up compiling quite a few annotations on Ngũgĩ’s references and non-English words. They’re below, after the jump.

Quite strangely the most recent Penguin Classics paperback edition (2005, allegedly) removes the few footnotes which Ngũgĩ put in the first edition glossing some of the Gĩkũyũ words the characters use. Could this have been the author’s revision? If so, appending a lot of glosses may be smoothing out an encounter with linguistic and cultural difference more than he would want. But I don’t think so: even in the “Statement” recanting from English at the start of Decolonising the Mind, Ngũgĩ said: “I hope that through the age old medium of translation I shall be able to continue dialogue with all” (xiv). And I am far readier to suspect carelessness with the text on the part of the publisher.

Anyway, the experience of glossing helped me get more of a handle on the immediate political context for the novel. It also furnished an excuse to learn a bit more about the Gĩkũyũ language. I always like a chance to introduce students to the idea that a language could have a lot more than a couple of grammatical “genders.”

I’m no authority on Ngũgĩ or Kenyan literature, so these notes shouldn’t be anybody’s last word. These are incomplete and not warranted to be correct. But it’s not as easy as it should be to find help for studying this great novelist. So here goes.

Numbers refer to pages in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood (New York: Penguin/Penguin Classics, 2005).

1 Ilmorog

is this a quasi-anagram of Ngũgĩ’s hometown Limuru? That town is also named in the novel, however, and Ngũgĩ says elsewhere another (anonymous) “New Town” serves as Ilmorog’s model: “One day I came across such a town that would later grow into the Ilmorog of my Petals of Blood and other writings. When I first visited the place, it was simply a single building, a stone building, a bar really, all alone on the side of a road, a track, from Nairobi to Namanga, the border town between Kenya and Tanzania” (“A Novel in Politics: The Launching of Petals of Blood,” in Writers in Politics, rev. ed., 86).

3 Munira

according to Simon Gikandi, the name means “a stump” (Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 155).

3 irio or ugali

two kinds of food (bean/grain porridges).

4 Wanja

the name means “outsider” (Gikandi, Ngugi, 155).

5 Karega

“Karega connotes a rebel, but a rebel in Gikuyu society is also one confined to the margins of his community” (ibid.).

6 Krapf and Rebman…Gagarin and Armstrong

the first two were 19th-century German missionaries in East Africa, the first Europeans to visit Mt. Kenya; the latter two were pioneering astronauts from the USSR and USA.


a fictional organization; explained a few chapters later.

8 Ndemi

later (145–46) identified as a culture-hero, a legendary founder of Ilmorog. Ndemi is the name of a Gĩkũyũ “age set” or initiation cohort dated to around 1800 (Muriuki, History of the Kikuyu, 21).

9 Uhere or Mutung’u

ũhere, scabies; mũtũng’ũ, smallpox.

9 Mzungu

Swahili for a white person; the plural is wazungu. (Swahili figures here as an East African lingua franca; Swahili and English are the official languages of Kenya.)

10 Nduri ici mutiuke muone

in an earlier edition, Ngũgĩ had a note to this phrase: “a curse expressing shock” (Petals of Blood [New York: Dutton, 1977], 7n).

11 mbari lords…the ahois and the ndungatas

a mbari is a sub-clan (Muriuki, 8); an ahoi is a tenant; a ndungata is a servant.

12 Uhuru

Swahili for “freedom,” used by Jomo Kenyatta to refer to independence.

12 Kamuingi koyaga ndiri, he said

an earlier edition provides a gloss: “Unity is strength” (Petals [1977], 10).

14 Mwalimu

Swahili term for “teacher.”

16 Makerere

Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda: leading British colonial university in East Africa, where Ngũgĩ himself was an undergraduate.

17 nginyira

an earlier edition provides a gloss: “sandals” (Petals [1977], 14).

19 Concentration village

as a counter-insurgency tactic during the Mau Mau war, the British colonial government forcibly relocated around 1 million Gĩkũyũ into new “villages” or settlements.

22 MP

Member of Parliament, Kenya’s legislature.

22 Harambee water project

Harambee, Swahili for “all pull together!,” is the Kenyan national motto. Here it refers to a practice of community self-help, encouraged by Jomo Kenyatta as a form of social and economic development for independent Kenya.

24 Mburi ni indo; ngombe ni indo, mbeca ni indo; ngai muheani

(mbũri nĩ indo; ng’ombe nĩ indo; mbeca nĩ indo; Ngai mũheani) goats are wealth, cows are wealth; money is wealth; God the giver; comparing the apparent translation on p. 25, this seems to be punning on indo meaning “things” or “property” or “livestock.”

33 Joe Louis

(1914–1981), the great African-American boxer.

37 matatu

informal taxi or bus for hire.

38 Gitiro

some recordings of contemporary gitiro performers can be viewed here.

42 Hodi

Swahili: “may I come in?”

44 We called them KADU and we called ourselves KANU

the names of Kenya’s two major political parties at the time. The Kenyan African National Union party was the party of Jomo Kenyatta, a central anti-colonial organization and the dominant party in the period after independence. The Kenyan African Democratic Union, founded 1960, was the opposition party until 1964, when it was dissolved and some of its leaders were absorbed into the KANU.

51 njohi

an alcoholic beverage, says Wiktionary.

51 Peter and Paul

the Apostles, from the New Testament.

56 Flamingo, Drum, African FilmThings Fall Apart and Song of Lawino

real publications, signs of Munira’s interest in the pan-African cultural cutting edge of the 1950s—a little behind the times by the date of the novel. The first three are magazines; the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958) was and is the most celebrated of all African English-language novels; Song of Lawino (1966 in English translation) is an iconic long poem by Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek.

57 muhoi

mũhoi, singular of ahoi (tenant; Petals [1977], 47, says “beggar”). In Gĩkũyũ as in other Bantu languages, nouns bear prefixes indicating singular/plural as well as what is called the noun class. Just as Spanish has masculine and feminine nouns, Gĩkũyũ has 10 “genders” of noun and 17 classes altogether (see “A Basic Sketch Grammar of Gĩkũyũ”).

57 ‘Kamiritho. You know, Kwa-mbira. Limuru.’

Karega shares Ngũgĩ’s place of origin. Kamĩrĩĩthũ is also the place where Ngũgĩ staged Ngaahika Ndeenda, the Gĩkũyũ play that occasioned his imprisonment in 1977, a few months after the publication of Petals.

58 the Manjiri generation

mythical ancestors belonging to the “era of creation” (Muriuki, 23).

59 mbirika

“kettle,” according to the gloss in Petals (1977), 49.

65 shamba

Swahili: a small cultivated plot of land.

69 Nandi

a people of Kenya.

71 Karibu

Swahili: “come in.”

73 Ritwa ni mbukio

this Gĩkũyũ proverb is glossed as “The name is a useless thing” on a web page I found, Gikuyu proverbs: 1000 in total, which seems to draw on colonial-era sources.

73 Dedan Kimathi

(1920–1957), the leader of the Mau Mau or Kenya Land and Freedom Army, executed by the British.

80 Ogot, Muriuki, Were and Ochieng

real historians of Kenya: I have been referring to Muriuki’s History of the Kikuyu, published 1974, so Ngũgĩ may well have read it while writing the novel.

82 the Masai people of the Laikipia plains

the Maasai are a people of Kenya and Tanzania. Laikipia is a region in Central Kenya. As for “what happened,” I am not sure if there is a particular historical referent or it is a more general allusion to colonial depredations.

82 kipande-carrying labourers

kipande: the colonial registration certificate for native adult African men, required by law in 1920.

83 Ramjeeh Ramlagoon Dharamashah

Indian traders had been settling in East Africa since the nineteenth century; Zanzibar, off the coast of neighboring Tanzania, was a major port of Indian Ocean trade for centuries before that. In the early twentieth century Indians continued to be economically influential in colonial Kenya, though they too were victims of discrimination.

85 pangas

“Esp. in East Africa and South Africa: a large, heavy knife with a long, broad blade, used for cutting undergrowth and firewood or as a weapon” (OED s.v. “panga, n.3”). One of the dictionary’s example sentences is from Time magazine, November 3, 1952: “Once pooh-poohed as mere ‘press exaggeration’, the Mau Mau have already mutilated scores of whites and ‘loyal’ blacks, with their favorite weapon, the panga —a long, machete-like knife.”

94 a mysterious political murder

in 1965, the Kenyan politician Pio Gama Pinto (whose family was from Goa, India), a leftist and former independence fighter, was assassinated in Nairobi. On Pinto, see Lena Grace Anyuolo and Nicholas Mwangi, The Ideological Vacuum in Kenyan Politics, Africa Is a Country, Feburary 15, 2022.

105 Gatundu

Jomo Kenyatta had a residence at Gatundu, north of Nairobi. The KCO is fictional, but the oath Munira is forced to swear alludes to a real episode in 1969 when, in response to unrest and dissent, oaths of loyalty to Kenyatta were extorted from many people.

117 Kenatco

the Kenya National Transport Co-operative Society, a transportation business taken over by the Kenyan government in 1966 (John Kamau, How Kenatco Was Driven into Receivership, Nation.Africa, 2016).

121 DK

Daniel Kamau Mwai (1949–), called DK, Kenyan musician: Ngũgĩ credits him in the Acknowledgments for the song on 122 (“Watumaniirwo, Nyukwa ni murwaru”). Some more information, and links to a few music videos, on

124 watalii

Swahili: tourists.

139 Aca!

Gĩkũyũ: “No!”

158 Mtalii

Swahili: the singular of watalii.

175 Bwana

Swahili: master, boss.

183 Masai Moran

a warrior of the Maasai people, famous for the skill of their fighters (Britannica s.v. Maasai).

197 The quality of mercy is not strain’d

from Portia’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.190–93, which in context is nearly as ironic as it is here.

198 a blues song by Josh White

Joshua White (1914–69), folk singer and civil rights activist. The lyrics are from his 1949 version of Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.”

205 The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre

Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, 1.3.89–114. This notoriously politically conservative speech is given by Ulysses (the Greek hero we usually call Odysseus).

206 Maillu and Hadley Chase

David G. Maillu (1939–), Kenyan popular novelist; James Hadley Chase, British thriller writer. Chui is being sarcastic about the schoolboys’ taste.

210 nyeni cia terere sukuma wiki

sukuma wiki made with nyeni cia terere: braised amaranth leaves (I think). Judging by the context, I suppose the meaning is that Nderi thinks he is not an easily fooled country bumpkin.

217 Lancaster House Conference

1960 conference in London at which the constitution of independent Kenya under the principle of majority rule was negotiated.

267 Wakarwigi

karwigi, a hawk: possibly a reference to a British colonial spymaster.

275 KAR

the King’s African Rifles, the British colonial regiment made up largely of East Africans (commanded by British officers) from the start of the 20th century until decolonization.

277 ‘the princess of England. The one who recently came here.’

then-Princess Elizabeth was visiting Kenya in 1952 when her father, King George VI, died. She was crowned Queen Elizabeth II the next year. The dog-loving monarch was on the scene for the brutal “Emergency” regime instituted to suppress the Mau Mau.

284 Facing Mount KenyaNot Yet Uhuru

Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya (London: Secker & Warburg, 1938), a study of the Gĩkũyũ written before Kenyatta’s emergence as the leader of the independence movement; Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru (London: Heinemann, 1967), autobiography of Kenya’s first vice president and a principal rival of Kenyatta.

303 ‘Mkono mtupu haulambwi!’

Swahili proverb: “An empty hand is not licked” (Scheven, Swahili Proverbs, no. 2296).


“(derogatory and offensive) a person regarded as barbarous, primitive, or uncivilized. Now rare and historical” (OED. From the Swahili for “barbarian.”

358 a Kaggia

Bildad Kaggia (1922–2005), Mau Mau leader and leftist politician who was hounded out of KANU in 1964 for his anti-corruption efforts (obituary in London Guardian).

364 Tortured by Christ by Wurmbrand; World Aflame by Billy Graham

the Romanian anti-Communist priest Richard Wurmbrand (1909–2001) published his memoir Tortured for Christ in the United States in 1967; the American fundamentalist preacher Billy Graham (1918–2018) published World Aflame in 1965: the book denounced Communism “as a Judgment upon the West.”

375 He was Mobutu being embraced by Nixon

Mobutu Sese Seko, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire, 1965–1997, notorious autocrat who was supported by anti-Communist Western politicians including Richard Nixon.

375 He was Amin being received by the Queen

Idi Amin, dictatorial president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979, who took power through a coup that deposed his predecessor, Milton Obote; Queen Elizabeth did indeed receive Amin at Buckingham Palace in 1971 (Google finds video footage).

387 utamaduni wa zamani

Swahili for “ancient culture.”

388 Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe

Mozambique and Angola both became independent from Portuguese rule in 1975. Zimbabwe’s white settlers declared independence from Great Britain in 1965 (as “Rhodesia”) rather than accept decolonization with rule by the African majority, leading to a long guerrilla war and the end of white rule in Zimbabwe in 1979. This line in the novel expresses leftists’ optimism about the anticolonial movement in these three countries at the moment when Ngũgĩ was writing.

392 Magendo

Swahili: “contraband.”

402 Sembene Ousmane’s novel, God’s Bits of Wood

Les bouts de bois de Dieu, 1960 strike novel by Segenalese author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembène; an English translation was published in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1962.

408 Stanley Mathenge

a leader of the Mau Mau who disappeared in 1956 and was rumored to be hiding in Ethiopia.

409 Koitalel through Kang’ethe to Kimathi

Koitaleel Arap Samoei, leader of an anticolonial resistance movement among the Nandi people of Kenya, assassinated by the colonial regime in 1905; Joseph Kang’ethe, leader of the Kikuyu Central Association before Jomo Kenyatta.