The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi 
by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Harvill Secker, 227 pp., £12, October 2020, 978 1 911215 99 8
Show More
Show More

ThePerfect Nine takes as its source material the creation myth of the Agĩkũyũ peoples of Kenya. At the top of Kirima Kĩrĩ Nyaga – known in English as Mount Kenya – Gĩkũyũ, the first man, meets Ngai, God, who instructs him to make his home under the fig trees to the south of the mountain. When he gets there, Gĩkũyũ finds a woman waiting for him, and names her Mũmbi (Creator). They have nine daughters (ten in some versions) but no sons. Praying to Ngai for help as his daughters come of age, Gĩkũyũ is told to sacrifice a ram under a fig tree; the following day, nine young men appear at the spot. With Gĩkũyũ’s consent, they marry his daughters, founding the clans of the Agĩkũyũ.

The story shares many features of origin myths the world over: a first man and, at his side, a first woman; faith in a higher power and in the fecundity of the land; the birth of children and their development into tribes or peoples. It is also a resolutely masculinist tale. Despite Gĩkũyũ’s insistence that his daughters’ suitors must agree to live in a matriarchy, it is the first man who drives the action and settles the fate of his people. The Perfect Nine takes this myth and turns it on its head. Ngũgĩ makes the daughters of Mũmbi and Gĩkũyũ agents of their own destinies, and fleshes out the story, offering a prelude to the arrival at Mount Kenya and more realised landscapes and pastoral scenes. But the book’s most interesting feature is its rejection of the male progenitor as the sole locus of creation and of the static hierarchies and categories of being on which such figures depend.

Ngũgĩ instead emphasises co-operation and community. His version of the myth starts by following Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi (no longer a passive woman waiting to be claimed and named) as they flee from fires and landslides:

They faced hazards big enough to shatter the hearts of many.
Their bodies trembled, but their hearts remained unshaken,
For Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi had robed themselves with hope
And fastened themselves with courage and moved on.

They did not let hope die.
They did not ask, ‘Why us?’
Or indulge in blaming each other.
They held firm, and
Cast their eyes ahead to find the way.

They arrive at Kirima Kĩrĩ Nyaga and find a paradise below the mountain, where they eventually settle. Here their daughters are born, becoming known, with the birth of the tenth daughter, Warigia, as the ‘Perfect Nine’. As they grow up, tales of the Perfect Nine’s uncommon beauty and bravery spread, eventually attracting 99 would-be suitors from all over the world. Mũmbi and Gĩkũyũ send their nine older daughters and the suitors on a quest to find a cure for Warigia, who is unable to walk. The group travels to the top of the mountain, enduring dangerous river crossings and wild terrain. Along the way, many of the suitors perish; others decide to return home and marry among their own people. Eventually, the nine daughters, accompanied now by just ten men, return home, where they find that Warigia has been miraculously cured. With their parents’ blessing, the Perfect Nine marry, founding the ten clans of the Agĩkũyũ.

If the creation myth in its original form is the story of the first man, Ngũgĩ’s version is the story of the first collective. In his introduction, he writes that he used ‘the quest for the beautiful, as an ideal of living, as the motive force behind migrations of African peoples. The epic came to me one night as a revelation of ideals of quest, courage, perseverance, unity, family and the sense of the divine, in human struggles.’ There is a moment towards the end of his novel Caitaani Mũtharaba-Inĩ (published in English as Devil on the Cross) that articulates something like Ngũgĩ’s vision for African liberation. The book’s protagonist, Warĩĩnga, is on the brink of suicide after being fired for refusing to sleep with her boss, abandoned by her boyfriend and evicted from her flat. Two years later, having survived these things, she is a changed person:

Today Warĩĩnga strides along with energy and purpose, her dark eyes radiating the light of an inner courage, the courage and light of someone with firm aims in life – yes, the firmness and the courage and the faith of someone who has achieved something through self-reliance. What’s the use of shuffling along timidly in one’s own country? Warĩĩnga, the black beauty! Warĩĩnga of the mind and hands and body and heart, walking in rhythmic harmony on life’s journey! Warĩĩnga, the worker!

Now a mechanical engineer, a key member of a workers’ collective, able to defend herself from lecherous customers, Warĩĩnga’s transformation is founded on her liberation from coloniality. She is not merely a symbol of a new Kenya, but the means through which its aspirations might be imagined, or even attained.

In his memoir, Wrestling with the Devil, Ngũgĩ describes how he wrote Devil on the Cross, hoarding scraps of toilet roll and writing late into the night while an inmate in Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison. He was detained in 1977 without charge or trial for his work with the Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre and spent nearly a year in prison. It might be tempting to read Devil on the Cross simply as a response to his own experience of postcolonial state repression; but, as Warĩĩnga’s progress suggests, the novel is more deeply concerned with the systems of oppression through which capitalist coloniality continues to enact violence on the African continent – and especially its women.

Warĩĩnga isn’t the first significant female character in Ngũgĩ’s work. Mumbi in A Grain of Wheat, Wanja in Petals of Blood and Nyawĩra in Wizard of the Crow all hold the ethical centre, as well as the narrative centre, of the novels in which they appear. Facing a double oppression – or, more accurately, an intersectional oppression – the women in Ngũgĩ’s work are intrepid, clever, resilient, resolute. Male characters in novels such as A Grain of Wheat are more obviously heroic or tormented, but it is women who form the core of the societies and the plots, and who determine the arc of resolution. This shouldn’t surprise us: Ngũgĩ has long argued that the liberation of the Black woman worker stands for the liberation of the continent. And yet, the centrality of women to his work tends to get less attention than its more overt politico-nationalist and pan- African Marxist themes.

Scholarship relating to the African continent has in recent years moved away from postcolonialism as an analytic category in favour of the concept of decoloniality. Often associated with Latin American scholars such as Walter Mignolo and Aníbal Quijano, decolonial thought recognises the many systems of knowledge that exist beyond the intellectual traditions of the European Enlightenment and seeks a radical decentring of Eurocentric thought. Unlike the idea of postcolonialism, which suggests a historical break with colonialism, decoloniality is concerned with the persistence of colonial power and the use of Western notions of reason as a means of violence and exploitation in the modern world. In the African context, this mode of analysis involves recasting traditions often dismissed as ‘cultural’, ‘traditional’ or ‘precolonial’ as legitimate sources of philosophical and scientific understanding.

The Perfect Nine isn’t a didactic or polemical intervention in these debates, but Ngũgĩ indicates his position by weaving together references from diverse traditions. He has spoken in interviews of his admiration for the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Mahābhārata and the Catalan Canigó, each of which offers a way of reading The Perfect Nine, as does the rich storytelling tradition of his childhood. The idea that structures of knowledge are multiple and simultaneous is repeated across the book:

Peace! May all glory be to thee, Giver Supreme.
Peace! May all glory be to thee, Giver Supreme.
In some parts of Africa, they call it Mulungu, but it is the same Giver.
The Zulu call him Unkulunkulu, but he is the same Giver.
Others call it Nyasai, Jok, Oldumare, Chukw or Ngai, but each is the same Giver.
The Hebrews call upon Yahweh or Jehovah, and he is the same Giver.
Mohammedans call Him Allah, and he is the same Giver.

By writing in the Gĩkũyũ epic verse form, Ngũgĩ is also joining a debate about African literature as a category. The predominance of the novel in African writing has long been a source of tension for critics and readers. Eileen Julien, for instance, has written about what she terms ‘the extroverted African novel’ and the texts written in European languages, marketed and oriented to a Euro-American readership, which dominate the field. Since its consecration as a category of world literature in the 1950s and 1960s, there has been growing anxiety that the novel is a European imposition, unable to capture a more ‘authentic’ African culture. The African novel, according to this argument, has exhausted its possibilities. Ngũgĩ sidesteps these issues; his allegiance is to an idiom that transcends cultural and temporal divides.

Above all, The Perfect Nine is a story:

Gĩkũyũ said:
‘A new beginning comes from the old one,
Which began from an older beginning,
And between the beginning and the end,
There are small beginnings and ends like th divisions on a sugarcane,
The end and the beginning giving birth to each other.’

Its sophistication comes from the use of the narrative voice, which positions the reader as part of a common humanity. As Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi’s universe develops, the text slips into the third person; later, as the Perfect Nine and their suitors depart on their quest, it shifts again to become a collective ‘we’, who suffer – and, ultimately, triumph – together.

Early in the book, Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi, having arrived at Mũkũrũweinĩ, their home at the foot of Mount Kenya, celebrate their survival by listing all they can see: rolling plains, lush valleys, rivers and fields populated by every kind of animal life. Overwhelmed, they decide to bestow new names on each other: Mũmbi baptises Gĩkũyũ ‘Mũgĩkũkũ’; Gĩkũyũ transforms Mũmbi into ‘Mũtamaiyũ’. These names aren’t supposed to replace the ones they already have; they are additions, extensions, complications. The Perfect Nine, too, and their suitors become known by various names across the story. Time and distance compress and recede. In a world based on cycles and flows (‘the intertwinement of Time’)

Now is Now and it is not Now because Time does not stop.
Yesterday is Yesterday and it is not Yesterday because Time did not stop.
Tomorrow is Tomorrow and it is not
Tomorrow because Time will not stop.

Ngũgĩ translated his own text into English, and it retains some of the rhythms and assonance of the Gĩkũyũ original. The suggestion of a vastness that no single perspective could encompass echoes in stanzas whose untranslatability is maintained:

Chirping nyagathanga birds woke them.
In the mũkũrwe and mũkũyũ trees,
The birds hopped up and down in their nests, letting forth their rapturous song,
As if whistling advice to the man and woman that
They too should set up their own nest there, under the trees.

This is literary world-making. The natural world, particularly rivers, forests and mountains, figure prominently. There are frequent invocations of life systems that operate through deep time. Together, they emphasise a oneness that expands beyond scientific reason and human scales of understanding.

A career as long and storied as Ngũgĩ’s seems to require an explanatory narrative. For Ngũgĩ, this has often meant the story of his colonial education, his time in the UK, his socialist awakening and commitment to decolonisation, before his arrival at a mode of internationalist thinking that he refers to as ‘globalism’. The Perfect Nine brings these phases into a whole, but it’s a whole forged through difference, gesturing towards the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant’s concept of ‘tout-monde’. Glissant’s ‘poetics of relation’ began as an attempt to introduce ‘nature’ and ‘naturalness’ to the decolonial project, after the stigmatisation of such terms in contrast to supposedly ‘rational’ and ‘cultural’ frames of reference. Tout-monde relations – between characters, between character and world, between writer and reader – are forged through the productive chaos of unpredictable interconnections and encounters. It runs through The Perfect Nine as a motif, ‘the thing in all things’. The Bantu philosophy of interconnected humanity, known as ubuntu in isiZulu and umundu in Gĩkũyũ, is expressed by Ngũgĩ in key phrases: ‘the human is driven by the quest for love or knowledge’; ‘a human is human because of other humans’; ‘time and deeds alone make people know one another.’

Long before ecocriticism or the notion of the ‘anthropocene’ or the ‘posthuman’, African indigenous cosmologies offered ways of seeing and interpreting that emphasise the continuity of human and all other life. These traditions configure a world that isn’t based on binary categories but on interdependence, and not just between humans: the human is the environment and the environment is the human. Even as the seeming dualities of man/woman, parent/child, human/non-human play out across its pages, The Perfect Nine performs a continual deconstruction, restoring them to a series of originary triads through the introduction of third terms which interlock to create a sense of stability (‘Father,/Mother,/Child./The trinity of birth’). The departure of Warigia, the tenth daughter, at the end of the book – which shows that no law, however just, can have jurisdiction over the heart – and her bittersweet return, don’t suggest a resolution, only flux and multiplicity; continual change and simultaneous difference.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences