The oldest stories ever told are the myths about creation itself, and how the first humans came to be. For the past three years, the 82-year-old Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who is among the world’s greatest living storytellers, has been at work on one of the most beguiling of origin myths.
The story of Gikuyu and Mumbi is as famous in Kenya as the Epic of Gilgamesh is across the Middle East, or the Mahabharata in India. The Gikuyu, a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting south-central Kenya, have for centuries told the story of Ngai, the creator of the world, and how he gave the rich lands around Mount Kenya to the first man, Gikuyu, and the first woman, Mumbi. Gikuyu is also the first language of 20 per cent of Kenya’s population today.
Mumbi and Gikuyu have nine daughters: Wanjiru, Wambui, Wanjiku, Wangui, Waithira, Waceera, Mwithaga, Wairimu and Wangari. To that number, they add one more: Warigia, a child born with crippled legs who is an excellent hunter, “good with arrows”, whose teeth are so white that “they lit a path in the darkness”. The 10 clans of the Gikuyu people are named after the 10 daughters, or “the perfect nine”.
In this rousing new version, the story becomes a powerfully feminist tale: 99 suitors show up seeking the hand of these skilled and talented women, but as the hopeful men scale mountains and perform feats of strength and bravery, the women are right alongside them.
“The daughters, having grown up without brothers, had to depend on themselves. They had to acquire all the skills of survival,” Ngugi writes in his notes to the book. “The Perfect Nine would seem to be the original feminists.”
For many years, Ngugi’s legion of readers around the world have hoped for another great work from the author, and for the Swedish Academy to finally recognise his genius by awarding him the Nobel Prize for literature. His last published novel was 2004’s Wizard of the Crow, a mighty and bruising satire about an imaginary African dictatorship.
Ngugi’s body of work is formidable. His seven previous novels include Devil on the Cross (1980), the first major novel to be written in Gikuyu.
He has also published four memoirs — including Wrestling with the Devil (2018), about his time as a political prisoner in Kenya in 1978, and Birth of a Dream Weaver (2016), which charts his life as a writer — as well as plays and essay collections, such as the influential Decolonising the Mind (1986).
His work on language and colonialism is newly urgent in these times, but he is also one of the great literary explorers of the human condition.
In 2017, Ngugi said in an interview: “Every culture should be taught with a nod to other cultures . . . Greek mythology should be taught comparatively with African, Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic and Asian mythologies. They are all very exciting, and it is not necessary to put them in a hierarchical relationship to each other. Let them network.”
By choosing to rewrite the story of the Perfect Nine in Homeric verse and then retranslating his original Gikuyu version into English, Ngugi gently challenges the dominance of one kind of myth over another. Any reader who grew up in a former colony and learnt English understands this imbalance intimately. You know Shakespeare and Beowulf and the Odyssey, but the flow of curiosity is not equal, and the rest of the world is unlikely to know the Ramayana as well as they know Norse myths, or the story of Mumbi and Gikuyu as closely as they know Adam and Eve.
Every epic is an invitation to writers to take the core story and make it their own. Here, Ngugi creates a thoroughly modern version by introducing 99 suitors, a throng compared with the original 10 of the epic, who — unlike those who besieged Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey — must accept that the women they desire are warriors in their own right. While one by one the suitors are swallowed up by crocodiles or by darkness, are trapped in an ogre’s sack or fall prey to their own cowardice, the women resemble Indian and Asian goddesses in their martial abilities.
Ngugi adds layers to this ancient story. One part is told by the teller, another by the suitors, who swing between desire and suspicion. The most moving story is Warigia’s tale of finding and losing love, and Ngugi makes you feel both her courage and the depth of her loss. The Perfect Nine uses a deceptively simple language that lays bare deep truths. The suitors who survive the perils of their quest declare: “We faced many trials in our journey/Which turned out to be a test of heart and body./You cannot be without trying to be.”
Girish Karnad, another literary giant whose works, like Ngugi’s, return time and again to myth and folklore, died in 2019. In one of his lectures, he articulated the Indian folklore belief that a story lives inside the teller — literally, physically — and that it is their duty to pass it on; a story chooses its teller, not the other way around. Ngugi is most celebrated for his novels and plays, but perhaps this electric myth, with its free and fearless heroines and its vast narrative arc, chose the perfect teller.
The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Harvill Secker, RRP£17.99, 240 pages
Nilanjana Roy is an FT columnist
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