Ngugi wa Thiong'o wrote Matigari largely in exile in a one-bedroom flat in London in 1983. It is based on an oral story of a man looking to cure an illness. He is told of an old man called Ndiiro, who can cure it. Since he does not know where Ndiiro is or how to get to him, he goes on a journey to look for him. He asks a number of people by singing the same description of Ndiiro every time, before he finally finds him.
Just like the oral tale, Matigari does not have a fixed time or place, as it is an allegory of the struggle for freedom and prosperity that is taking place in all parts of the world. Interestingly, the novel includes allusions to the relationships between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which turned out to come true a few years after its publication. For example, the radio program "The Voice of Truth" reports talks between the two states about their nuclear weapons programs; in 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev met at the Reykjavik Summit in Iceland without reaching a conclusion.
While at the end of the story it is not clear whether Matigari survived the manhunt, the character resurrected as a rebellious political character in Kenya. A few months after the novel was published there in the Gikuyu language in October 1986, intelligence agencies reported people in Central Kenya talking about a mysterious man called Matigari, who roams the country demanding truth and justice. The authorities even issued warrants for his arrest, only to be humiliated when they later found out that they had been looking for a fictional character. In February 1987, every copy of the book was seized.
The only English translation of the book was published in 1989.