“The Perfect Nine”, when Ngugi Wa Thiong’o reinterprets the epic of the Kikuyu people

Who are we ? Where do we come from ? To whom do we owe our lives, at the very beginning of time? To these ontological questions, as human as they are universal, the famous Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o provides an answer inherited from his original culture: The Perfect Nine, his version of the founding epic of his people, the Kikuyu

“The Perfect Nine”, when Ngugi Wa Thiong’o reinterprets the epic of the Kikuyu people

Who are we ? Where do we come from ? To whom do we owe our lives, at the very beginning of time? To these ontological questions, as human as they are universal, the famous Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o provides an answer inherited from his original culture: The Perfect Nine, his version of the founding epic of his people, the Kikuyu. Translated into French with great subtlety by Laurent Vannini in a presentation as close as possible to the poetic and graphic form desired by the author, Les Neuf parfaits can be read as a great declamatory text, to be listened to like the words of the bard at vigil time:

“I will tell the story of Gikuyu and MumbiAnd their daughters, the Nine Perfects, Matriarchs of the Mumbi dynasty, Founders of their nine clans, Progenitors of a nation. »

Originally, legend says, the “Supreme Benefactor” placed Gikuyu (the man) and Mumbi (the woman) on the snow-capped peak of Mount Kenya, from where they could observe the surrounding lands. From this initial couple were born nine “perfect” girls, endowed with prodigious intelligence, breathtaking beauty, incredible physical abilities, as well as countless moral qualities. These girls founded, with their husbands, the ten clans of the Kikuyu people, which we understand to be the starting point by extension of all of humanity. The text narrates the meeting of young women and their suitors – a cohort of ninety-nine men from far away, attracted by their beauty – then the way in which each starts a family with the husband of her choice, at end of several eliminatory competitions and a long journey peppered with challenges. Along the way, we come across fantastical creatures and frightening situations: man-eating ogres, cyclops, whirring insects, darkness darker than darkness... The adventures pile up and plunge the reader into the richness of a culture that values quest for beauty (through musical expression, dance or even the art of clothing), as much as the handling of arrows or skill in combat. Thus the suitors are questioned:

"How do the peoples you come from dance? The men took up the challenge. Each man had the dance from his region of origin, Or a dance and a song he had collected along the way. Others grabbed drums makeshift flutes, Or simply clapped their hands while whistling. Each man revealed astonishing choreographies. Some jumped into the air and twisted their bodies As if they didn't have to worry about their bones, Each trying to surpass the others.And the women clapped their hands and ululated for joy. »

Throughout the chapters, the scenes follow one another like so many paintings of a total spectacle, evoking an ancestral world where words, rhythms, instrumental sounds, images and choreographic movements participate in a true vital force.

Mistresses of their destiny

This strong cultural anchoring of which the text allows the discovery is also combined with a great modernity desired by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, for whom the writing of the Nine Perfects is not a simple transcription but a true reinterpretation of the original story. Thus, under his pen, the text particularly values ​​women. Not only do they play the central role of matriarchs, but the writer goes further and makes them conquerors, in every way equal to men, capable of electing their own life companion and remaining masters of their destiny. . We are far from the initial legend where young girls were passively content to discover the arrival of their fiancé.

Finally, the entire text must be placed in the context of the overall approach of the Kenyan writer who, since the mid-1980s, considers his writings as overcoming colonial trauma. Ngugi was born in 1938 in a country under British domination, whose presence had begun in Kenya with a colonization in 1884, expropriating the indigenous people and imposing on them the English language to the exclusion of vernacular languages, perceived de facto as powerless to convey knowledge and creation.

In 1986, the writer published a landmark essay: Decolonizing the Mind (La Fabrique Editions), which marks his emancipation with regard to the English language. Since then, he has written all his books primarily in Kikuyu (also called Gikuyu), thus rehabilitating his language and the culture to which it attests. By publishing The Nine Perfects, he contributes not only to highlighting the great African epic stories – we think of the Mandinka epic of Sundiata in West Africa or that of the mvet in Cameroon – but even more to broadening the global repertoire of great founding stories such as the Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana or the Greek Iliad. A poetic gesture as much as a political one, The Nine Perfects thus offers each reader the opportunity to grow in humanity.