The railway platform in Thabai is a place where the young people meet to talk, gossip, laugh, and flirt. On Sundays girls washed and went to the train, while men just showed up without rituals. All become obsessed with it and did not want to miss it. There is dancing and singing, sometimes fighting. Gikonyo tells Mugo he rarely missed it, and Mugo says the day he missed it was the best day of his life.
Gikonyo reflects on his past. His father, Waruhiu, was a squatter on European farms and was very attractive to women. He would get tired of them and send them along their way, which is what he did to Wangari and their son. Wangari tried to send Gikonyo to school but could not afford it, so he took up carpentry. He was very good at it and loved the wood he worked with. His mother enjoyed watching him work.
Gikonyo wanted to own a piece of land for his mother to settle on, but needed money. He was in love with the beautiful Mumbi but did not think she would ever choose him. Her father Mbugua was a warrior and farmer, and she had two brothers, Kihika and Kariuki; the latter looked up to the former. Gikonyo spent time with them but said little around Mumbi. The young Karanja was there as well, always telling stories to the women.
Mumbi often went to see the train, which thrilled her. She “yearned for a life in which love and heroism, suffering, and martyrdom were possible” (75). She knew men liked her, and she reveled in it.
Gikonyo worked hard but felt he was giving people too much grace and would never make money. One day he played guitar and Mumbi came by. She complimented him and sang along, singing with passion. The two felt a stirring between them. Wangari came out and was happy to see the girl. Mumbi asked Gikonyo if he might work on a panga that needed repairing and he agreed. Karanja came by and gallantly walked Mumbi home, which made Gikonyo jealous.
He began to work on the panga and felt Mumbi’s presence. Working on it brought him to a sense of exultation and joy in life. This mood faded, though, and he felt defiant and tried to tell himself he did not care if she liked it or not.
He went to give her the panga and she was very pleased. Karanja and Kihika arrived, and Gikonyo became jealous again.
Kihika had always been interested in politics since he listened to Warui tell stories of the war and the Movement. He envisioned himself a saint leading Kenyans to freedom and power. He went to school at the urging of a friend of his father’s, the Reverend Jackson Kigondu. The Reverend was a Christian and seen as an elder among elders. He was a leader in the revivalist movement, which was the only one allowed in Kenya during the Emergency. He was one of the first Christians killed by the Mau Mau.
Kihika was an arrogant young man, and once fell afoul of a teacher when he corrected him and said the Bible said nothing about circumcising women. Everyone knew Kihika was right but the teacher decided to give him a chance to save his soul and whip him ten times on his naked buttocks. In front of everyone the man called Kihika forward. Angry and trembling, Kihika burst out at the teacher, saying that he needed to tell him why he was wrong. He then ran away and told his father he did not want to be in school and would rather work the land. He taught himself to read and write and joined the Movement.
Kihika and Karanja discussed unity and the example of Gandhi. Mumbi thought that there was little heroism in men and women being run over by trains, and Christ at Gethsemane is more appealing. Karanja joked that women are cowards and Mumbi was annoyed. Kihika claimed Kenya was their mother.
Two other girls joined them. Kihika was happy to see Wambuku. All of them became excited when they heard the train, and began to run down to it. Gikonyo and Karanja began to race to impress Mumbi, but Gikonyo could not keep up. He was frustrated until he realized that Mumbi had waited for him and wanted to walk alone with him. She complimented him on the panga and he suggested exploring the wood. There he laid her down, removed her clothes, and touched her body. The two breathed as one and their bodies melded together as they made love.
Karanja did not see Mumbi and was angry that he seemed to have a rival. He wanted to humiliate and hurt her, and was surprised at the intensity of his thoughts. Suddenly, as the train pulled away, he had a strange vision. Everything was still until it exploded into everyone running away and trampling each other to save themselves. Someone asked him what was wrong, and startled, he said nothing. Shaken, he critiqued Kihika, who was talking about Christ and politics.
Someone gave Karanja a guitar and he played, precise and sadly exultant. People danced, and Kihika and Wambuku walked away. Kihika looked at the Mahee Police Station and thought if that was destroyed then the whiteman would be gone. Wambuku was impatient because she did not want to talk about politics. She was not beautiful unless she laughed or was filled with passion; she had a “tremendous capacity for life” (95) but could not compete with the demon of politics for Kihika.
Kihika spoke of land and the soil for Kenyans. Wambuku was desperate and said he would leave her, but he burst out that he must have her by his side. They were happy for a time in their “separate delusions” (97).
Gikonyo speaks to Mugo of how being with Mumbi was like being born again. Their early marriage was happy, he says, and he kept discovering new things about her. Over time, though, he says he began to meet with people about politics, and it was not long after that Kenyatta was arrested and the Emergency declared.
Mumbi saw her brother Kariuki, whom she loved and enjoyed taking care of, walk towards her. She saw that he looked distressed, and he burst out that Kihika had gone to the forest to fight. At their father’s hut Mbugua seemed frustrated, wondering what got into his son’s head and wanting to consign him to his fate.
Wambuku and Njeri also talked about it, the former crying in despair. Njeri criticized her friend and felt stronger and superior. She decided she would go to Kihika to be by his side.
Gikonyo was taken to the concentration camp and Mumbi could do nothing to stop it. When he first went, he was confident and happy, thinking it would not be long. Indeed, it was not too hard at first. The detainees vowed to never speak of the oath. They were all horrified, though, when they learned Jomo had lost his case at Kapenguria even though he had good lawyers. They did not want to believe it.
Gikonyo marveled how one man, Gatu, always stayed positive and joyful. He inspired them with his stories of his travels and knowledge of other freedom struggles. He was tortured and beaten but his spirit did not flag.
Gikonyo thought about Mumbi and how he had wanted to build her a stool with his own hands. He sat near Gatu and saw that the man was quiet and depressed. Gikonyo felt the urge to speak to him of Mumbi. In return, Gatu insinuated he once had a woman but did not anymore. Gikonyo felt pity at first but then hatred, since obviously Gatu was only strong because he did not have a woman like Mumbi.
Not long after, Gatu was murdered.
Gikonyo’s life was one of barbed wire and monotony. He pricked his hand on the fence just to feel something. His memory failed him and he felt like he was in a trance. He finally decided to tell his captors about the oath and was released. He had to see Mumbi.
When he finally arrived at his hut Mumbi was shocked to see him. Immediately he noticed she had a young child with her who clearly was not his, as it had been six years. All of his hopes evaporated and he felt heavy and dull. He learned it was the child of Karanja, his old peer. All he could feel was exhaustion.
He lay in bed thinking about what had sustained him for six years; now it was all a joke. The “valley of silence between him and his woman” (114) could not be crossed. When he looked at the child he imagined Mumbi having sex with another man, and concluded everyone simply lives and dies alone. He felt like Thabai was just another detention camp.
He went for a walk one day and realized he needed to report his return to the Chief. He was stunned when he saw that it was Karanja, who treated him maliciously and told him he needed to learn his lesson. He could not believe this man was now telling him to realize the power of the white man. On his way home he decided to kill Mumbi for sleeping with Karanja, but thankfully the hut was locked. He swooned and fell.
Gikonyo speaks of his illness to Mugo, explaining that he decided never to talk about the child or enter Mumbi’s bed again; he gave all of himself to work. He becomes nervous of Mugo and how he opened up, and hurriedly leaves.
Mugo wonders why he said nothing, even though he tried to. He feels repulsed by Gikonyo’s anger at Karanja and Mumbi and questions why the man came. He decides to go for a cup of tea at the Kabui shops.
On his way he has a memory of working in his shamba in 1955, two years after the Emergency had started. He felt energized and happy in the sunshine and soil, but heard a voice tell him something was going to happen to him. A week later DO Robson was killed and Kihika entered his life.
At the shop Githua, drunk and hobbling on crutches, salutes Mugo for his contribution to the Movement. Everyone joins in and talks about Kenya and their own exploits. Mugo is embarrassed since he thinks Githua was more heroic than him. When he leaves, General R. comes up to him and tells him he will talk to him tomorrow. Mugo resolves to speak at Uhuru and forget about Kihika and what happened.
These two chapters exemplify Ngugi’s use of multiple voices. Here Gikonyo tells his own story, but even within that story there is a third-person narrator speaking about Mumbi and their thoughts. The narrator relates Mugo’s, Kihika, and Karanja’s thoughts as well. All of these characters form the core of the novel, which is not so much plot-based as character-based. They may have different concerns, motivations, passions, and shortcomings, but they are all affected in the same way by their status as colonial subjects. They are all conquered, all “apparently victims of something larger than an unfortunate immediate circumstance, something closer to being a malevolent condition that engulfs all aspects of life,” as critic Kenneth Harrow writes.
Harrow is also concerned with the novel’s themes of nature and time. His imagery is strongly naturalistic, depicting the shift between rain and sunshine, light and dark, and season to season. Land is of paramount importance to the Kikuyu, who were turned into squatters by the British. Characters like Gikonyo and Mugo dream of land and work to own it and/or cultivate it. Land that is verdant and fertile is desirable, while land that is dry, hot, and sandy (like the land where the detention camps are located) is scorned. Harrow notes that for Gikonyo “dreams of salvation, as it were, are shaped by the Kikuyu attachment to their land,” and that “exile and concentration camp are consistently marked by extreme heat, sun, a desert landscape, sand, and dust, presaging the elements of Gikonyo’s unhappy return.”
Ngugi describes the sun and the rain frequently, but they do not adhere to simple attributes, possessing both good and bad ones. The sun can be benevolent and sustaining, as it is described when Mugo works in his shamba and Gikonyo and Mumbi make love for the first time, but it also burns hot like fire and is associated with destruction and drought. Rain has some life-giving associations such as the metaphorical tears that rain down from the Lord as evoked in Kingori’s prayer at Uhuru, the fertility and fructification of the earth and women, and the sustainability of community through the sustenance provided by the land. However, rain is also depicted at moments of crisis or drama in the novel. The sooty drop that almost falls in Mugo’s eye is terrifying and prescient, “[recurring] in other forms later as dirt and water [mixed] to form mud and filth, another facet of Ngugi’s hell.” Overall, then, “mood of joy or elation momentarily illuminate and lighten the heavy burdens of existence borne by most of the characters, but pain and despair follow quickly, as rain, cold, and darkness follow intimations of release from oppression.” The seasons and the weather are characterized by violence, rapid vacillation, and tempestuousness. While rain and sun are the “necessary ingredients for life…they are also harbingers and carriers of death.”
As for time, Ngugi indicates how totalitarian oppression works to deny time. Mugo thinks of how every day is the same as every other, and the experiences of all those in the concentration camps bear that assertion out. Many of the characters try to deny time “by either refusing responsibility for the past, refusing to accept the responsibility for present actions, or refusing responsibility toward others.” Past and present in this novel are inextricably entwined, with elements from the past coming back to haunt characters. Koina calls Dr. Lynd a ghost from his past, while the dead Gitogo is actually said to come back. Mugo’s guilt weighs on him, while Mumbi’s choices do on her as well. Ngugi’s message seems to be, then, that one cannot ignore the past or the present but seek to acknowledge them as equally important and worth consideration.
This section provides more information about Gikonyo and Mumbi and their relationship. Gikonyo and Mumbi’s courtship and early marriage is certainly lovely and romantic, but both of them have very clear flaws. Gikonyo is prone to bitterness, jealousy, and resentment early on. Mumbi is depicted as a little superficial and caught up in unrealistic dreams of heroism and noble deeds. Later, her choice to have sex with Karanja after she learns her husband is coming home rings false, almost offensive in its depiction of her feminine “weakness.” Of course, Gikonyo’s treatment of Mumbi is complicated, for while we understand how he could feel betrayed that his wife slept with someone else while he was away dreaming of her, his inability to understand why she might do that and his subsequent harsh treatment of her and the child are easily condemned. None of Ngugi’s African characters are wholly good or wholly bad, just as the nature symbolism does not adhere to clear binaries.