Matigari: A Novel
(1986), written by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, centers on Matigari, a mysterious figure who survives his country’s war for independence and emerges from the mountains making strange claims and demands. While searching for his family, he begins a quest for peace and justice and battles the forces of corruption, fear, and misery that have taken over his country. As rumors spread that he has unique, supernatural abilities, people start to debate whether he could be the resurrection of Jesus in Africa. Exploring religious faith, decolonization, betrayal, and the struggles of a newly independent nation, Matigari
achieved widespread critical acclaim both in the author’s native Kenya and abroad. It is still read widely today as an example of African postcolonial literature.
The novel opens to Matigari burying his weapons under a fig tree. He has just killed Howard Williams, the colonial leader who had oppressed his country, and has committed to pacifism and to finding his people. He has been away for a while and is amazed at the changes he sees. People are driving their own cars, and the city has grown massively. Matigari looks for his people at a factory but is appalled when he sees the city’s poverty.
He helps a boy named Muriuki chase away a bully, and the boy leads him to a scrapyard where children hide in old cars. As Matigari approaches, the children stone him until he falls unconscious. He is helped by a factory worker named Ngaruro, who brings him to a safe place. While they walk, Matigari tells the story of how he killed Mr. Williams. He tried to kill the old man at his house, but was stopped by his servant, Mr. Boy. He ran, and Williams chased him into the mountains, where Matigari eventually killed him. Ngaruro mentions that the factory owner is named Williams and his deputy is Mr. Boy, but Matigari thinks it must be a coincidence.
Ngaruro takes Matigari to a nearby bar, then leaves him there to take part in a strike at the factory. Matigari is approached by a prostitute named Guthera, who is hiding from the police. She harasses him, but he helps her when she’s attacked by police dogs. He stands up to them with no fear, and the stunned police let her go. Guthera tells Matigari that she hates the police for killing her freedom-fighter father. She decides to stay with Matigari and help him get home.
They arrive at a mansion that Matigari says is his, but it’s occupied by Robert Williams and John Boy Junior, the sons of Williams and Boy. They won’t let Matigari into his mansion without a deed; he refuses to cooperate and is arrested.
He finds himself in a cell with other inmates, all of whom are there for crimes they committed out of desperation or passionate belief. Matigari shares his food with them, which reminds an inmate of the Last Supper. He explains the circumstances of his arrest, which impresses the other inmates. They want to support this mysterious freedom fighter. When they’re released from prison under mysterious circumstances, Matigari’s legend grows stronger.
Around the country, people add increasing embellishments to Matigari’s story, turning him into a mythical figure. This leads to people turning him away because they don’t recognize him. He approaches ordinary people, meeting with students and religious figures. When he goes to a church to talk to the priest, he finds that the priest is a government puppet. The priest suggests Matigari meet with the Minister of Truth and Justice. This meeting is observed by representatives from a number of Western countries. It turns out to be a trap, as the other inmates who escaped prison with Matigari are held there and convicted at show trials. The only one not convicted turns out have been working with the government.
The Minister announces that Williams’s company has partnered with the government, which now owns a share and gives the company favored status. Matigari confronts the Minister directly, accusing the government of corruption and perpetuating oppression. The Minister argues that Matigari is a madman, and he and Ngaruro are sent to a mental asylum. The people at the meeting sing protest songs, which are then outlawed by the Minister. The government passes harsher laws to suppress dissent. While at the mental hospital, Matigari decides the time for pacifism is over. He must fight.
With the help of his allies Guthera and Muriuki, Matigari escapes from the mental asylum, heads to where his guns are buried, and plans to attack Mr. Williams’s house. They steal a car that they later learn belongs to the Minister’s wife. On the radio, they hear that Ngaruro has been killed. The police stop Matigari before he gets to his weapons; he leads them on a chase to Mr. Williams’s house.
There, Matigari sees countless people awaiting his return. In a shootout, the house is destroyed, but Matigari is able to escape. The three freedom fighters attempt to escape the police and reach a river. As Matigari explains how they’ll use it to escape, he and Guthera are gunned down by police. Their bodies fall into the river and are never recovered, leading to many rumors that they somehow survived. The sole survivor, Muriuki, reaches the fig tree and digs up Matigari’s guns, singing the song of victory.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan writer and political activist. He has written seven novels, two short story collections, four plays, and an extensive selection of essays, memoirs, and political writings over his more than fifty-year career. He has won the Lotus Prize for Literature and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was also shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.