The Perfect Nine
by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
The Perfect Nine is a glorious retelling of the story of the birth of the Gĩkũyũ
people, featuring Gĩkũyũ and Mumbi, the parents / founders, and their daughters who will become the matriarchs of the emerging clans. Gĩkũyũ is a Swahili variant of Kikuyu, and relates to mũkũyũ, translatable in English as ‘large sycamore tree’. The story is set in and around the mountains close to Nyeri and Nairobi, in central Kenya.
In a classic, mythological romp, we see humans bestriding the natural world, harnessing the elements, but also being challenged by monstrous creatures determined not to let them pass. 90 male suitors are invited to try and win the hands of the 10 daughters in marriage. They must do this by demonstrating their prowess and strength of character on a journey into the mountains. The women are all physically beautiful. Some of the men at least must be handsome. But this is far from a ten brides for ten brothers scenario.
Much has been said of how Ngũgĩ has taken a feminist perspective. I would suggest this only goes so far. For starters, the people, the language and the culture are named after Gĩkũyũ, the husband and father. A patriarch, then, yet one who has an equally important matriarch alongside him. In a biblical comparison, Gĩkũyũ is the Adam to Mumbi’s Eve. Except they have ten daughters rather than three sons. And these daughters are the stars. They lead the way, excel in the challenge and complete a successful journey. They are frequently superior in skill and judgement. Alas some of the men let the side down by throwing their spears blindly into the dark. The women tend to be wiser, when they are not getting carried away too. They are accomplished in archery, but then, so are their male suitors, equally so. Only Warigia, the 10th, physical imperfect daughter is superior in this activity.
This brings us to the title. There are nine physically perfect daughters, but they only become the ‘perfect nine’ when they are joined by the tenth sister, who has a physical deformity. So numerically, at least, the title is baffling. Ngũgĩ tried to explain this in a Zoom interview with his son, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, but I was none the wiser. It only makes sense if seen from an inclusivity standpoint; i.e. perfection is only attainable through the inclusion of everyone regardless of their physical appearance and abilities.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
The suitors are a mixed bunch. Many turn back before they even start the quest, not prepared to stay with the family if successful in their quest, or just not up to the challenge. Many get swallowed up in the ground or eaten by ogres. Will the required number of men survive in the end?
The battle for supremacy really comes alive when three of the daughters compete against each other, choosing a giraffe, a zebra and a leopard in a race across the dusty terrain. Wanjiku, Wambui and Wangari have fun on their respective steeds for a while, then fall off. Two males, Kihara and an unnamed companion then disappear, only to re-emerge in the distance, storming back on a lion and a rhinoceros. And then they fall off too. So much for the difference between the sexes.
The ogres are problematic, for the characters and for at least one reader. In contrast with the splendour of the natural world and the human endeavours, the ogres rather spoil the story for me. They just don’t belong. Fantastic, but not in a good way. But then, I am never impressed by magical realism. Distorted, unrealistic and impossible. I can’t engage with that world at all. So, I’m rather glad once the nineteen survivors return, joined by the one who remained behind and the parents of the ten. The human story can move forward to completion. Ten weddings. Ten pregnancies. All going well. Then, finally, one tragedy. Which, like everything else, is not a complete disaster in terms of establishing the tribe. Life will go on. With the ten new clans.
A note, finally, on the literary experience. The story was first written in Gĩkũyũ, and then translated into English by the author. Presented in Gĩkũyũ style Homeric verse, which in this book seems to mean text that bounces along in short bursts of prose. To my unmusical ear, there is very little rhythm and consistency. The number of syllables per line for example is erratic. But I’m being harsh. The structure of the verse makes for a captivating story which is easy to absorb and hugely enjoyable. The one drawback is that it flies by so quickly.
The Perfect Nine is a wonderful tale. The triumphant start of a nation; a people, with a world to explore and enjoy, in harmony with water, the air and the mountains. A people committed to humanity, warmth and shared values, destined to overcome all challenges. Ngũgĩ has fun with his cast of characters and his magical beings. Earthly reality and mythology combine in a playful, rambling way. All told, the story is full of reverence for Gĩkũyũ history and culture, increasing our awareness and appreciation today.
© Eddie Hewitt 2021