- Digesting Crow:Reading and Teaching Ngugi's Wizard of the Crow
Ngugi's narrative magnum opus, Wizard of the Crow (2006), is pedagogically difficult to manage in an undergraduate African literature survey or "Third World" novel survey course, or a class that focuses on the postcolonial narrative. Tipping the scales at 2.35 pounds (1068 grams), and running to 766 pages, the best way to introduce Ngugi's heavy-weight picaresque Rabelaisian novel to undergraduates is through judicious reductions and editorial emendations. To digest Crow requires tolerance for high-calorie narrative. Especially this is true for undergraduate readers who are not familiar with Ngugi's menu of political corruption and turmoil agitated by African tyrants who are comically grotesque. To make the Wizard work its narrative magic, an anthology approach is needed to serve up selections from the novel that are palpably Ngugi (his themes and style) and palatable for narrative novices. While Wizard of the Crow is about corruption and tyranny in Kenya, the novel's lessons and satire apply to many African countries. Because the majority of the students in my classes confess they have watched movies such as Blood Diamond and Hotel Rwanda, they have had a visual and visceral introduction to human tragedy in various African countries about which they know little. Thus it is important that the instructor make judicious editorial cuts in order to make Ngugi's novel interesting and instructive.
My pedagogical intent was to invigorate Ngugi's Wizard by excerpting it without completely eviscerating the themes of political corruption and dictatorial high handedness. I aimed at an excision that would not remove Ngugi's narrative intent to satirize the African politics and the tyrants who propel the tragic comedies of ineptitude that play out in many countries on the African continent. This sort of careful reduction of the novel is necessary even though American undergraduate readers really need full exposure to the historical and cultural complexities that Ngugi portrays in Wizard. The average undergraduate junior or senior I encounter in a world literature survey class will have little knowledge of African political cultures other than what they might learn from extremely violent films about Africa, or from following various Hollywood and other popular culture celebrities who have adopted African children, established African schools, contributed to AIDS relief, and reveled in their global goodness on various talk shows. Most of my students are middle-class American Midwesterners who have regional [End Page 8] perspectives and, unless they have served in the National Guard and have been sent to distant training camps or for duty in the Middle East, they have limited experience of different cultures. These students come from small towns, farms, and ranches, but also from metropolitan areas like Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, or Sioux City, Iowa, where they encounter significant immigrant populations from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Central America, and the Sudan or Somalia.
Ngugi's earlier novels are much shorter and more manageable for the classroom, ranging from 150 pages (Weep not, Child) to 350 pages (Petals of Blood). Many of the themes, topics, and characters served up in Wizard of the Crow may be found in the earlier novels. So why not teach one of the shorter novels in a survey course? But then Wizard is Ngugi's most recent novel, it is a compilation of his previous work and ideas, and it took about fifteen years to produce. His critique of the British colonial enterprise; his trenchant skewering of American imperialist neocolonialism; his admiration for Kenyans who successfully rebel against whichever empire or dictator happens to be in power; his nostalgia for Gikuyu pastoralism; and his support and admiration for women in hopeful or hopeless love relationships with Kenyan men caught in radical historical transformations and political intrigue: these are the narrative threads that bind the early novels, from Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967) to Wizard of the Crow (2006). Stylistically, Wizard of the Crow replicates at greater length the oral storytelling techniques found in Devil on the Cross (1982) and Matigari (1987). These techniques explore the narrative strategies of fantastic retellings of exaggerated events from multiple points...