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Elements of Orality in Ngugi Wa Thiong ’o ’s Wizard of the Crow

Eléments d’oralité dans le roman de Ngugi wa Thiong’o “Wizard of the Crow”
Mumia Geoffrey Osaaji
p. 107-116


Many African writers have turned to oral literature for inspiration. In this paper, I examine Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Wizard of the Crow and explain the stylistic (aesthetic) and didactic significance of its oral features. Some of the features of orality that I have identified include oral dialogue between characters, stylistic allusions and digressions, embedded oral narratives, proverbs, riddles, magic realism and the polyphony of narrative voices. Orality adds local flavour and realism to the story in keeping with the post-colonial celebration of cultural, social, regional, and national differences. As a renown post-colonial writer, Ngugi is a reputed advocate for indigenous languages and he has lived up to this challenge by writing in Gikuyu. By adapting English and remaking it to suit his own aesthetic specifications (through the infusion of oral features), Ngugi performs cross-cultural interaction, which echoes the hybrid identity that characterizes the post(-)colonial reality.

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1Wizard of the Crow (WoC), set in an imaginary country Aburiria, is a light-hearted dramatization of the malady of post-independence Africa’s history, which has been characterized by the concentration of powers in the hands of dictators, who are elevated to god-like heights. We are allowed to pry into this reality by the chorus led by cabinet ministers to the effect that “His Mighty Ruler is the Country and the Mighty Country is the Ruler’’ (Ngugi, 2007 : 161). It emerges that the actual motivation for leadership in Africa is greed and this may explain why the Ruler of Aburiria was always baffled by anyone not motivated by greed. He would never understand the type who talked of collective salvation instead of personal survival (WoC : 235).

2Even when the entire country, both the jobless and the rich businessmen, line up outside the Eldares Modern Construction and Real Estate, owned by Tajirika, to seek jobs and contracts in the Marching to Heaven project, the leadership sees this an opportunity to exploit their plight by (mis-re) presenting them as satisfied and happy citizens queuing to pledge loyalty to the Ruler.

3It may appear as if the concern for political survival numbs the Ruler, making him impervious to pain. He does not give up leadership even after mysteriously expanding and exploding: thanks to his wily advisors and cunning personal intuition, he manages to cling on through a raft of cosmetic changes on the political landscape, which nevertheless, scarcely affect the core of the Ruler’s power. As normally happens in such cases, a palace coup by one of the Ruler’s ministers, finally discharges him. The novel ends with no substantive change, but flickers of hope abound in an emboldened population which may one day rise up to claim their right to good democratic governance.

4But this bigger narrative of Aburiria’s decadence comes to the reader through the eyes, ears and thoughts of Kamiti (the Wizard of the Crow), Nyawira (the Limping Witch) and constable Arigaigai Gathere (A.G). Their lives get intertwined with the main players on the political scene with bad consequences.


5In the words of Walter Ong, language, as articulated sound, is paramount. Writing commits the articulated words into grapholects and in doing so, enlarges its potentiality. Writing can never exist without orality.

6Writing enhances orality by organising it into a sequentially ordered body (Orality and Literacy, 9).

7Wizard of the Crow can be read as a polyphonous novel, in which Ngugi deliberately puts out certain problems for discussion before the distinct voices, while he himself remains a mere spectator, a curious onlooker. This is polyphony. Mikhail Bakhtin used polyphony to refer to the plurality of voices, multiplicity of independent, unblended, voices and minds in literature (Lunacharvsky, On Literature and Art, 79).

8The novel starts with Free Direct Speech, a freer form, which dispenses with quotation marks and reporting clauses allowing the speakers to address us more directly without the narrator’s intermediary:

There were many theories about the strange illness of the second Ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria, but the most frequent on people’s lips were five. The illness, so claimed the first, was born of anger that once welled inside him...
(WoC : 3)

9This raises the possibility of polyphony by recognizing that there are many voices contributing towards the story. Ong reckons that verbal memory is still understandably a valued asset in oral cultures (WoC : 73).

10While Book One is largely rendered in the omniscient Free Direct Speech, section nine of Book Two employs the first person narrative voice of Kamiti as he recalls his background and confesses it to Nyawira, his ever-resourceful companion. The choice of the T narrator produces a personal relationship or believability between the narrator and the implied reader, which may explain the reader’s bias towards Kamiti. In performance of an oral narrative, a skillful narrator achieves maximum aesthetic effect by impersonating different voices or unique speech acts of the various characters involved. This in a way, echoes Bakhtinian polyphony.

11Similarly, one can’t help but notice the omniscient narrator’s commentary on Kamiti’s mind through a combination of narrative report on Kamiti’s thought acts and through indirect rendition of his thought as he struggles to evaluate Nyawira’s closeness to him. This omniscient commentary on the thoughts of characters is a common strategy in oral narrative performance.

12It is instructive that as Kamiti narrates his story, Nyawira keeps interrupting him for clarification, or to introduce a song, which is a skillful commentary on the story. This gives us a peep into the real experience of an oral performance.

13But Ngugi is not content with using Kamiti to talk about himself and his exploits: He also provides another view of the Wizard of the Crow through police officer, Constable Arigaigai Gathere, who has nothing but stupefied awe of Kamiti, whom he only understands to be the Wizard of the Crow. Constable A.G repeats the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow to numerous audiences and always with the trademark emphatic swearing using the Swahili refrain LHah ya Mungu ’ which translates into ’Real Truth, God’s Truth’. His narrative is informed by the unprecedented promotion he goes through in the ranks of the police force in line with the ’prophecy’ of the Wizard of the Crow:

But A. G was not to be hurried: it was his narrative and he would tell it his own way, letting events unfold instead of abridging them... Stories, like food, lose their flavour if cooked in a hurry
(WoC : 126).

14Another powerful voice the author deploys in the novel is Nyawira’s. Her focalisation and voice captures and relays to the reader, the women’s rebellion against the Ruler during the unveiling of the Marching to Heaven Grand Project. This is done in the first person T narrative point of view, which is, however, moderated by the omniscient narrator’s Free Direct Speech.

15One is forced to conclude that the numerous problems facing Africa do in some way inspire the author to employ the polyphonous approach in order to spread the observation prism as wide as possible while also having a keen eye on retaining the confidence of the reader. We also note that the author succeeds in combining and welding these characters and voices, which have a distinct way of looking at the world, into an intrinsic whole -the Wizard of the Crow. The novel’s four books, divided into 263 subsections, retain an episodic feeling. It can then be seen as the gathering into one context of moments hitherto existing separately. To attempt to synthesize so much experience into a single novel, is clearly an ambitious project, a grand synthesis.

Conversational implicature

16When people utter sentences, they also perform acts of various kinds such as declaring, asking, requesting, commanding, and promising. The narrator in the novel regularly implicates the implied audience in the narration. Take into consideration, ”... the idea of a building that reached ... but we shall talk about that later...“ (WoC : 7). In her study of Ngugi’s point of view in Weep, Not Child (1964), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), and Petals of Blood (1977), Florence Stratton notes that, ”... there is another voice, the lyrical centre or the collective consciousness. This ’other’ voice is marked by the presence of the pronoun ’you’ or the collective marker ’we’. These conventions have the effect of underscoring the communal nature of the experience and injecting the reader into the heart of the matter. ’You’ and ’we’ are personal pronouns referring to participants in a speech event (WoC : 122).

17In Wizard of the Crow, the author opens the novel to involve and include the reader. Not once do we come across the intrusion of the implied author through the narrator into the story: “Let me say as the narrator that I cannot confirm the truth or the falsity of the existence of the chamber [of secret daemons at state house]” (WoC : 11). This is a confessional mode that seeks to endear itself to the implied reader.

18When people communicate with one another, according to philosopher H.P Grice, they acknowledge a kind of tacit agreement to cooperate conversationally towards mutual ends - the cooperative principle. The employment of sentences in the generic present is a clear example of author -reader implicature {Leech and Short, Style in Fiction, 303). This implicit recognition of the implied audience and the care the narrator takes in an effort to engage this implied narrator, are noticeably oral.

Magic realism

19In his examination of magic realism in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gordon Brotherston notes that the text is replete with events whose setting is the fairy-tale world of Macondo. Here, actions seem to repeat themselves in apparent defiance of historical time (The Emergence of the Latin American Novel, 25). We notice similar events in Wizard of the Crow, where time ’freezes’ and becomes static right from the moment the Ruler separates from his first wife, Rachael. And this magic realism applies to the sycophantic zeal with which cabinet ministers compete to enlarge their body organs to grotesque proportions just to ingratiate themselves with the Ruler.

20I would like to stress how, for instance, Markus Machokali, [clever pun on Machiavelli], minister for foreign affairs, “entered a major London hospital, not because he was ill, but to have his eyes enlarged [to the size of electric bulbs] to make them ferociously sharp so that he would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places” (WoC : 13).

21To this, it might be added that Silver Sikiokuu, minister in charge of spying, lodged himself in a “hospital bed in Paris where he had his ears enlarged so that he would be able to hear all secret conversations - all in the service of the ruler” (WoC : 14). And with similar conviction, the Big Ben Mambo, minister for Defence, went to a clinic in Berlin “to have his tongue elongated so that in echoing the Ruler’s command, his words would reach every soldier in the country and his threats to his enemies before they could reach the Aburirian borders” (WoC : 15).

22I concede here that the concept to raise the Heavenscrape or Marching to Heavens tower, [complete with a Space Luxury Liner], “to the very gates of Heaven so that the Ruler could call on God daily to say good morning or good evening... God” (WoC : 17), is clear evidence of grotesque imagination.

23Other events with strange underpinnings abound in the novel. For example, when we first encounter Kamiti, he appears to have the magic ability to fly like a bird and to disappear from view, which captivates the imagination of some of his key clients such as constable A.G An unrelated but strange self-identity crisis (whiteache) afflicts Tajirika, who has bandaged his arm so as not to wash away the ’handshake’ he received from the Ruler. Tajirika agonises over his black skin: “If ... my ... skin... were ... not ... black! Oh, if only my skin were white” (WoC : 179), and seeks transformation to ’whiteness’. But he succeeds in having only one arm and one leg converted to white, before the clinic closes down leaving him a man in a permanent state of transition. According to his daughter, Gaciru, ogres had taken over the body of her father (WoC : 743).

24This direct allusion to ogres couldn’t have been more apt. Ogres, in oral narratives, are powerful, scary, avaricious half-human and half-supernatural creatures, with an extra mouth concealed by hair on the nape. In a sense, Tajirika, the Ruler, Machokali, Sikiokuu and the entire regime have ogre-like traits. And since ogres too can achieve feats beyond human ability — such as transforming themselves into other shapes — the picture of the Ruler as an ogre-in-chief becomes even clearer. According to Walter Ong, oral memory works well with heavy characters, outsize heroic figures, and persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Colourless persons cannot survive oral mnemonics (WoC : 73).

25The Ruler’s strange suspension in the air, to use his personal doctor’s words, by having “conquered gravity” (650); the mysterious expansion of his body like a balloon, a unique pregnancy which was later explained away as harbouring democracy [Baby D]; his explosion without dying; his acquisition of a new outlook after the auto-explosion where he fuses various occult powers to become the supreme sorcerer with powers to manipulate Aburiria, the West, the global Bank, democracy, the whole lot (WoC : 707) - all these go a long way towards illuminating his ogre-like qualities. Interestingly, these ogre-features somehow ensure his survival for a while.

26Freakish things do happen in the novel: the abrupt appearance of snakes during the Ruler’s grand birthday celebration (WoC : 22); the unexplained shaking of walls and breaking of windows in many places of worship upon the arrival of the Ruler (WoC : 27-28); the reported struggle by Maritha and Mariko to expel the devil in their lives (WoC : 32); and the comical hunt for the devil by the Soldiers of Christ (WoC : 34). It may be added that during the unveiling of the Marching to Heaven project, the platform on which the Ruler and guests were sitting, caves in as if some power was pulling it and a strange liquid oozed into a muddy pool on it. After this debacle and public humiliation, the Ruler hides from public view for seven days, seven hours, seven minutes and seven seconds (WoC : 253). These numbers are rather strange! Such happenings are legion in oral narratives, which allow for the play of magic in human life. Through this magic realism, Ngugi makes life in Aburiria elastic, through combining two worlds - the natural and the supernatural.

Biblical allusions

27Situations in the novel are leavened with more or less direct allusions to Biblical myths. An example is drawn from the memorable scene depicting the ’frozen’ time marking the break-up between the Ruler and his first wife, Rachael. It is recalled that “the food provided was the same as the last supper” (WoC : 8). The Ruler, in anticipation that Rachael will come to him contrite and lachrymal, assumes a Godly status over her: “I am your beginning and your end” (WoC : 8). These stylistic features intensify the orality of the novel because, as Walter Ong notes, “the orality of the mindset in the Bible, even in its epistolary sections, is overwhelming. For God is thought of as ’speaking’ to human beings, not writing to them. The spoken word is always an event, a movement in time” (WoC : 31).

28Another allusion to the Bible is seen in the attempt by the Ruler to feed multitudes on a cake during his annual birthday festivities in much the same way “Jesus Christ once did with just five loaves and two fishes” (WoC : 12). The comparison of the envisaged Marching to Heaven or Heavenscrape tower to the House of Babel in the Bible, does appear to admit orality.

29In apparent ridicule of Biblical wisdom, the Ruler announces that while Mosaic snakes swallowed Pharaonic snakes in the Bible, in Aburiria, the tables are turned and it is the time for Pharaonic snakes to swallow the snakes of the new Moses. This insularity to the reality of personal action, is accentuated by the Ruler’s elevation to a symbol of worship complete with a motto ’On His Mighty Service (OHMS)’.

30Another allusion to the Bible is the Ruler’s arrival at the All Saints Cathedral on a donkey complete with a carpet of reeds and cheering multitudes in imitation of Christ. But Ngugi does not confine himself to the Bible alone. He also allows Kamiti to see the wisdom in Hanuman’s parting words to Rama in Ramayana.  In the performance  of oral narratives, narrators are wont to make allusions to real life events, including the names and actions of members of the audience. This digression from the mainstream text to other (sub)texts outside the narrative is noticeable in the widespread use of Biblical allusions by Ngugi.


31Proverbs are pithy crystallisations of wisdom. For instance, there is a popular Aburirian saying, “ire is more corrosive than fire, for it once eroded the soul of a Ruler” (WoC : 3). Another saying has it that the Ruler “ . . . like the aging white man of the popular saying, fed on spring chicken” (WoC : 4), where ’spring chicken’ is a euphemism for young school girls, and ’fed’ is an apt polite form for ’sexual indulgence’. In an attempt to find a solution to the growing rebellion by the people’s assembly, the ministers use a proverb: “Don’t you have a proverb that says that if you throw peanuts to a monkey, you will distract it long enough to be able to snatch its baby?” (WoC: 641).

32By spicing the text with proverbs, Ngugi, like Chinua Achebe, blends local African flavour with the borrowed English language, thus, succeeding in embellishing a foreign language with local idiom. This, as it were, sits well with Ngugi’s commitment to the post(-)colonial struggle over the appropriateness of European languages in defining and voicing non-European identities.

Oral narratives

33The choice of oral narratives is an embedded style, which mirrors the story-within-a story stylistic choice in literature. This device is not only digressive from the mainstream plot, but also illuminates and comments on the larger story. In the novel, we have a number of oral narratives that blend into the main plot. During one of his exploits, a businessman exhorts the Wizard of the Crow through a story of the great battle between the sun and the wind. The story is used by the businessman to illustrate why the Wizard should make him win over his enemies.

34Another narrative is given by Kamiti and it concerns wily water creatures, who could transform themselves into beautiful women, to lure unsuspecting men into the deep sea with disastrous consequences. There is also the parable of the curse from a wronged he-goat, [according to the novel’s second theory about the Ruler’s illness], which seeks to explain the Ruler’s illness (WoC : 4). This parable is given by the omniscient narrator at the beginning of the novel.

35But the story that illustrates Ngugi’s prowess in exploiting orality is Nyawira’s. It is a Narrative of the blacksmith, an ogre, and a pregnant woman, which Nyawira performs to Vinjinia’s children - Gacigua and Gaciru. The rendition gives one the feel of real oral performance: the participation of the children in the narrative by way of their curiosity and questions, the song that is sang by the bird, allusions to real people and the impersonation of the narrative’s characters - the ogre, the bird, the blacksmith and women. Though it covers only four pages in the novel (WoC : 154-157), this oral narrative can be interpreted as an expanding symbol over the entire text.

36The narrative is a critique of the Aburiria regime, which has failed the test of leadership. The woman’s pregnancy symbolically represents the hope for the much awaited new constitutional dispensation in Aburiria. In the novel, this hope is threatened by the Ruler whose counterpart, the ogre, is a threat to the newborn baby in Nyawira’s narrative. Whereas the blacksmith rises to the occasion and moves with speed to destroy the ogre, Aburiria is crying for a saviour or saviours to get rid of the Ruler and restore the country.

37Apart from oral narratives, the riddle is another oral feature in the novel. The Wizard of the Crow cleverly solves the question of what defines one’s identity through this riddle: “First, help me solve a riddle ... What is the first thing that tells who a person is?” to which Vinjinia replies “The colour of one’s skin” (WoC : 181). This is an indictment of the obsession of Vinjinia’s husband, Tajirika, with changing his skin colour from black to white. The experiment later flops and he is left with weird half-white and half-black complexion.

38Songs are equally relevant oral features in the novel. Songs are used to comment on, elaborate, or illustrate events and to provide relief. This is the sense in which we read the satire in the ’Happy birthday’ nursery rhyme, played to a brutal dictator (WoC : 19). A similar effect is achieved by the children’s song, which ironically equates the Ruler to fierce wild animals -leopard, lion and tiger (WoC : 20). An even more satirical song accompanies the new snake dance lamenting the pain of political independence by comparing it to a broken pot that has brought forth a viper and devil (WoC : 25).

39On a religious note, it is only after the Imam chants a liturgy from the Holy Quran that the creaking of windows and strange swirling of wind in the mosque stops (WoC : 29). The songs and chants are graphologically set apart from the main narration by indentation and italics. This provides relief from the story and allows for an alternative viewpoint, which is much the same role they play in oral narratives. As the novel ends, A.G is seen performing the ballad of the Wizard of the Crow amidst the falling rain.


40It appears that the accidental manner in which Kamiti grows into the all-powerful Wizard of the Crow, raises the question of Africa’s easy susceptibility to deceit. This unique imagination is in keeping with orality, which predisposes us to accept the unexpected.

41Oral features allow for indirect reference to actual people, events and places. The aesthetic value in this oblique style cannot be gainsaid. And through the beauty of the oral devices, didactic messages are passed on to the audience without unsettling tender sensibilities. In blending formal English with Gikuyu orality, Ngugi achieves local flavour and realism to the story in keeping with his post(-)colonial appreciation of cultural, social, regional, and national differences. Ngugi’s orality in the novel appears to retain aspects of his indigenous language, a strategy that helps to reclaim the beauty of his past. By adapting English and remaking it to suit his own aesthetic specifications (through the infusion of oral features), Ngugi performs cross-cultural interaction, which echoes the hybrid identity that characterizes the post(-) colonial reality.

42But the novel still remains a form of written discourse, with an implied reader as audience. We are not afforded an intimate face-to-face scenario of a real oral performance. Because of the many features of orality in Wizard of the Crow, we get the feeling that it is a kind of intersection between the oral and the written.

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Brotherson, G., 1979, The Emergence of the Latin American Novel, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Leech, N. G. and Short, H. M, 1981, Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. London, Longman.

Lunacharvsky, A., 1973, On Literature and Art. Moscow, Progress Publishers.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2007, Wizard of the Crow, Nairobi, EAEP.

Ong, W., 1982, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London. Methuen.

Stratton, F., 1983, Narrative Method in the Novels of Ngugi, in Jones, D. E., and E. Palmer, (eds), African Literature  Today: Recent Trends in the Novel. Nairobi, Heinemann, pp. 122-135.

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Bibliographical reference

Mumia Geoffrey Osaaji, « Elements of Orality in Ngugi Wa Thiong ’o ’s Wizard of the Crow », Journal des africanistes, 80-1/2 | 2010, 107-116.

Electronic reference

Mumia Geoffrey Osaaji, « Elements of Orality in Ngugi Wa Thiong ’o ’s Wizard of the Crow », Journal des africanistes [Online], 80-1/2 | 2010, Online since 01 June 2013, connection on 24 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Mumia Geoffrey Osaaji

Lecturer, Department of Literature, University of Nairobi, Kenya (;

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