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“Nature is the source of all cures”: Revolutionary Ecology in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow

About the Author: Asa Brunet-Jailly

Asa Brunet-Jailly is a Joint Honours English Literature and Jewish Studies student at McGill. She is currently completing her undergraduate honours thesis on the evolution of the Wandering Jew trope in British Romantic, Anglo-Jewish, and Yiddish literature. She is particularly interested in illuminating the obscure with the familiar and vice versa by examining minority reactions to and representation in the English "literary canon." After finishing her B.A., she intends to pursue graduate studies in comparative literature.

By Asa Brunet-Jailly | General Essays

In a chapter of Natures of Africa: Ecocriticism and Animal Studies in Contemporary Cultural Forms, Chengyi Coral Wu argues that focusing on aesthetics in African environmental literature enables the recognition of “the historicity and particularity of an indigenous African environmental consciousness” (162). In short, aesthetics can be used to assert an indigenous environmentalism particular to Africa. This focus on aesthetics not only distances African ecocriticism from Western strands by rejecting the universalization of ecocritical concerns but also underlines the power of the symbolic (143). Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Wizard of the Crow, which the author considers to be his “magnum opus,” is especially relevant to this conversation of a distinct form of African ecocriticism (Ngugi “Birth of a Literature” 8). In Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi focuses on the environment and its relationship with society and revolution through his representation of the satirized, fictional state, Aburiria. Founding my argument in ecocritical works by Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin, Chengyi Coral Wu, and Ogaga Okuyade, I will argue that Wizard of the Crow advocates for an African-centric, indigenous reclamation of nature as a revolutionary vehicle against neocolonialism. As Huggan and Tiffin contend, “socially transformative workings of the ‘environmental imagination’ (Buell 1995) can be mobilised and performed” through aesthetic works, Wizard of the Crow being a prime example (Huggan & Tiffin 13). This reality demonstrates the necessity of integrating ecocriticism into postcolonial readings of African literature and vice versa, as they are inherently connected and beneficial to each other.

Huggan and Tiffin define postcolonial ecocriticism as “involv[ing] an ‘aesthetics committed to politics’ (Cilano and DeLoughrey 2007: 84), with its historical understandings of the socio-political origins of environmental issues overriding the apolitical tendencies…[such as] an escapist pastoral impulse or to favour an aesthetic appreciation of nature for its own sake” (11). This definition contends that postcolonial ecocriticism combines both environmental and political issues. Wizard of the Crow could thus be identified as an African ecocritical work, as it promotes a collective, revolutionary version of ecology, and “assumes an alignment between the fight for environmental preservation and anti-colonial struggle” (Okuyade 17). Indeed, in the novel, the city is criticized as a neocolonial manifestation of “rottenness” and decay, both figuratively and materially.

Nature and wasteland are indistinguishable in Eldares, where human debris covers the cityscape; the only “natural” imagery described is the “mountains of garbage” that line the streets (Wizard 38). In nature’s place, a “corrupt” and apathetic world remains, in which “children and dogs [fight] over signs of meat on white bones [in the garbage]” (38). This description of Eldares depicts the disconnect between humans and animals, and the city’s squalor; Ngugi’s fictional Aburiria is plagued by inequality:
Shacks stood side by side with mansions of tile, stone, glass, and concrete…huge plantations of coffee, tea, cocoa, cotton, sisal, and rubber shared borders with exhausted strips of land cultivated by peasants. Cows with udders full with milk grazed on lush lands as scrawny others ambled on thorny and stony grounds. (Wizard 39)

The landscape itself is deeply polarized: not only are the people divided between rich and poor, shacks and mansions, but the fields and animals are also sequestered between fertile and lush, decaying and starving. Rather than existing as a holistic entity, both humans and the landscape are divided. The reflection of social inequality on the environment emphasizes the essential network between people and the physical world; they exist interdependently and cannot be separated.

Much as poverty is depicted in the landscape’s decay and division, Ngugi links Aburiria’s wasteland with the neglect of human dignity. The association between environmental and social decay      recalls Césaire’s “thingification”: the notion that the colonial “relations of domination and submission” turn the “indigenous man into an instrument of production” (Césaire 316). When the protagonist, Kamiti, is introduced, he has collapsed at the foot of a mountain of garbage. In this early instance, magical realism identifies the plight of the human with that of the animal in Eldares’ decay. Kamiti seeks to retreat from his impoverished life and “float effortlessly” in the sky as a bird, abandoning his human form to the garbage pile. However, he soon realizes that “there is no place on earth or in the sky where a person may escape [the] poison” (Wizard 39). This environmental destruction has immediate effects on the landscape, as shown by the growing mountains of garbage in Eldares, and a less visible impact on human dignity. The garbage men are apathetic when they find Kamiti’s body and “throw it onto the pile of rubbish…headed for the dump,” which illustrates human life’s devaluation in Aburiria (Wizard 40). Kamiti rebels against the garbage men’s “thingification” of his body: “I am human, I am a human being, a soul, and not a piece of garbage, no matter how poor and ragged I look, and I deserve respect” (40). The garbage men’s likening of Kamiti’s body to garbage – an instrument of production that is no longer useful – shows not only the “thingification” of the human body in neocolonial Aburiria, but parallels the deterioration of the environment with the dehumanization of the poor.

Through the use of magical realist elements – such as Kamiti’s ability to smell corruption – Ngugi emphasizes the mirroring of the human body and the environment’s decay. According to Kamiti, corruption has the odour of “rotting garbage, a rancid belch, or a ripe fart” (122). The deterioration of nature is innately human; after all, it is human waste that pollutes Aburiria. The pervasive environmental decay is not simply linked to human activity, but to neocolonialism’s lasting impact on every aspect of life in Aburiria. Thus, Ngugi connects human corruption and the physical landscape to the neocolonial legacy. In one particularly satirical moment, the platform Aburiria’s Ruler is speaking from begins to sink into a “mysterious foul-smelling pool” (252); Nyawira explains that the “sewage system installed by the colonial administration and never since maintained or repaired had run amok” (252). This image becomes a symbol of colonialism’s legacy. In Césaire’s words: “They talk to me about progress, about ‘achievements’…improved standards of living. I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined” (316). This event presents the larger legacy of colonialism on nature. Public facilities such as sewage systems were built in Aburiria by a colonial power; yet these facilities, unmaintained, serve only to pollute the environment. The colonial decay of Santalucia      is omnipresent as seen by “the sewage pipes [that are] always clogged and [the] permanent stench in the air” (Wizard 75). This parallel once again links corruption’s “scent” with the colonial legacy and neocolonialism’s ongoing destruction of the land.

The decay and poverty of Aburiria’s villages are mirrored in “the vast prairie surrounding Eldares,” where nature, too, is slowly deteriorating (201). Though the prairie was once “the domain of wild animals,” it is no longer so. The narrator remarks that the animals “[have] abandoned the prairie, leaving it to the emaciated cows and goats whose ribs protruded in times of drought when the grass completely dried up” (201). This deterioration is the direct impact of neocolonialism, which is presented in sharp contrast to the striking beauty of what remains of Aburirian nature:
But there were a few times when the wind swept the mist away and the ridges, hills, and mountains would reveal their breathtaking beauty…This forest was now threatened by charcoal, paper, and timber merchants who cut down trees hundreds of years old. When it came to forests, indeed to any natural resource, the Aburirian State and big American, European, and Japanese companies, in alliance with the local African, Indian, and European rich were all united by one slogan: A loot-a continua. (Wizard 201) Neocolonialism’s control, both enacted by Aburiria’s dictatorship and by foreign corporations, is invasive and dangerous to what remains of the natural world. Contrasting the mountains of garbage in the city, Aburirian nature is made up of “ridges, hills, and mountains,” neighbouring a forest where “any natural resource” is “threatened” by encroaching powers (201). This passage is critical not only of foreign exploitation but also of the government’s complicity with the exploitation of its country’s resources. This self-exploitation is ridiculed by the slogan “A loot-a continua,” a wordplay on the famous pro-independence cry “A luta continua” (201). Aburiria’s supposed independence has simply transitioned into self-looting and continued foreign exploitation. Furthermore, the distinct contrast between the corrupt city and the ancient, endangered forest engages with ecopolitics: the “hundreds of years old” trees become a symbol of indigenous culture being trampled by neocolonial dictatorship and corporate exploitation (201). By opposing the endangered natural world and Aburiria’s stratified, neocolonial cityscape, Ngugi underlines ecology’s place within the revolutionary fight and connection to African self-determination.

Kamiti and Nyawira’s reconnection with the land around them exemplifies African self-determination, which advances the revolutionary movement against the Ruler. At first, Kamiti and Nyawira view nature as monstrous rather than mystical. The association of nature as supernatural, and consequently, evil, bleeds into Kamiti and Nyawira’s relationship, and their early mistrust of each other is imbued with (un)natural imagery. Kamiti fears that Nyawira will “change into an antelope, a gazelle of the prairie, or a cat...Or the mermaid she was” (90). Meanwhile, when Nyawira goes to meet Kamiti in the prairie, she worries she is like the “girl in the story” who followed a “handsome man…to his dwelling in the forest, only to find out that he was a man-eating ogre” (202). However, these impressions that first tie nature with the monstrous unknown are subverted: when Kamiti is asked if he is a sorcerer, he responds, “I am a healer. An African healer,” connecting his revolutionary role to indigenous healing (482).

Contrary to Kamiti’s natural magic, it is the greedy and corrupt Tajirika, “a black man celebrating the negation of himself,” who becomes monstrous (208). Ngugi’s satirical “white-ache” that affects Aburiria’s government officials is the disease that one gets when one wishes to be white, which gestures to Fanon’s concept of the colonial “Other.” In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argues that under colonial rule, the white man is seen as the true, original man, resulting in the Black man’s othering to a “zone of non-being” (Fanon 2). Fanon stresses the necessity of unlearning this inferiority complex, proposing the “liberation of the man of color from himself” (2). Tajirika instead tries to become a white man through plastic surgery, adding “a white left leg to his one-white-armed body” (Wizard 742). When his daughter sees him, she believes him to be an “ogre” (742). Thus, by giving in to his white envy, Tajirika others himself to the extent of monstrosity. Ngugi’s representation of Tajirika’s “white-ache” as an absurdist disease of colonial monstrousness contrasts with the protagonists’ healing reconnection with nature and indigenous culture.

Indeed, opposite to Tajirika’s sickness, nature is depicted to be the only place Kamiti and Nyawira can find restorative peace and grow into their true selves. Kamiti’s escape to the forest is both self-exploratory and healing: “I still want to hear what the animals, plants, and hills have to tell me. I need to find myself” (212). However, this self-exploration is not simply an individualist act of soul-searching, but it is also tied to community healing through nature. Kamiti finds himself “searching out [the plants] he thought had medicinal properties” (131), later calling nature “the source of all cures” (267). As “African healer[s]” (482), Kamiti and Nyawira’s goal is to “guide and lead the masses to take their lands back from the corrupt leaders” (Okuyade 26). Their goal evokes Wu’s assertion that African environmentalism is “kincentric,” or based on the ancestors’ attachment and “relationships with, and understanding of, the land and environment” (157). Okuyade similarly claims that in African literature, “land is held on to as a sign of belonging to a particular community, a link to one’s roots and source” (23). In this way, Nature is a healing space that brings Kamiti and Nyawira closer to themselves, each other, and their heritage and community as a whole.
The notion of “kincentric,” rooted environmentalism can easily be applied to Wizard of the Crow, and the Movement for the Voice for the People portrays an ideal version of this “kincentric,” holistic relationship with nature. The revolutionaries in Eldares’ mountains, recalling the Mau Mau freedom fighters’ strongholds in Kenya’s forests and mountains, tell Kamiti that they seek to “learn [their] history [and] to locate [their] origins and know all the places to which black people have been scattered” (Wizard 757). By creating maps of Black populations around the world, the revolutionaries establish a “kincentric” worldview, connecting the landscape with their ancestors. This holistic viewpoint is paralleled in their agricultural practices:

Elsewhere Aburirian soil was dying from being doused with pollutants, imported fertilizer. Here they were working with nature, not against it. The forest was a school to which they often came to hear what it had to tell them: You take, you give, for if you only take without giving back, you will leave the giver exhausted unto death. The gardens were nurseries for healing plants with seeds that could be planted on farms elsewhere; the healing of the land had to start somewhere. (Wizard 758)

Unlike Aburiria’s depleted, divided landscape, “doused” with imported fertilizer – another example of neocolonial destruction – the “comrades’” relationship with nature is one of equality and reciprocity (758). Just as Kamiti listens to nature (212), the Movement learns from the “forest” and their gardens are “nurseries for healing plants with seeds that could be planted…elsewhere” (758), gesturing to their community-centric vision. By presenting the Movement’s gardens as the door to the “healing of the land” and, thus, the end of neocolonial corruption, Ngugi explicitly links the anti-colonial revolution with an understanding of humanity’s interdependent relationship with the natural world (758).

This interdependent, communal relationship with nature returns throughout the novel, a major example being when Kamiti and Nyawira realize the deep love relationship that encompasses them and the environment. As Okuyade puts it “the wilderness becomes a place of retreat where reconnection with goodness and life’s essence is made” (22). Their retreat into nature illustrates their belonging, or “communion with each other and nature” (Wizard 205), allowing them to become closer to themselves, to each other, and the natural world during their escape into the forests outside Eldares:

Love was everywhere: in the tree branches where the nests of weaverbirds hung…Love was there among the creeping plants that twined around the tree trunks; yes, in the blackberries, some of which they plucked and fed to each other…Love was everywhere in this forest, but neither Nyawira nor Kamiti mentioned a word. (206)
In this passage, Nyawira and Kamiti become part of the natural world, and their love is reflected back to them by their surroundings. Indeed, the love between Nyawira and Kamiti extends to the entirety of the natural world. Unlike the city’s reflection of Eldares’ social inequality, the mirroring in the forest unites humans, plants, and animals into a trinity centred on love and beauty. More so than simply being at “peace amid nature’s bounty” (205), Kamiti and Nyawira’s love echoes the “plants that twined around the tree trunks” and their eating of blackberries takes on a sense of religious communion when Nyawira’s nipples are said to also be the “color of blackberries” (206). This wholeness deconstructs the boundary between human and nature, which allows Nyawira and Kamiti to reclaim the land around them rather than exploiting or polluting it.

The protagonists’ communion with nature serves as a reclamation of Aburirian land from neocolonialism: it not only binds Kamiti and Nyawira, but also becomes a pathway to reclaiming their roots and accessing the pre-colonial otherworldly. Contrasting the Ruler’s absurd “Marching to Heaven” project and superficial donkey ride “in imitation of Christ” (27), the natural world enables Kamiti to reconnect with indigenous spirituality: “My thoughts were mostly on African deities. [I thought]: Why don’t I carve a Pan-African pantheon of the sacred…when I set out to work it was as if an invisible hand were guiding my hands” (268). Kamiti’s mystical experience results in an act of creation that ties him to the land around him; his carvings are eventually exhibited in the Movement for the Voice of the People’s headquarters, a symbol of the “dream” of solidarity between oppressed peoples around the world (760). Kamiti associates nature with the sacred, and in turn, with Nyawira herself: “Sometimes smoke rises from the ground…as if sending out an offering to a deity[.] Watching it…hints of imminent birth. Nyawira, when you are around I feel immersed in the freshness of the fields” (123). Not only is Kamiti and Nyawira’s communion with nature emphasized yet again in these passages, but creation, whether it be through art or “imminent birth,” is also underscored (123). The holiness of the natural world, and in turn, the holiness of creative actions, allow Kamiti to access a pre-colonial, indigenous spirituality separate from the superficial, colonial emblem of Christianity embodied by the Ruler. This elevation of nature as simultaneously godly and human posits the protagonists’ “kincentric” reconnection with the natural world as a vehicle of mystic revolution.

Contrary to certain Western branches of ecocriticism, such as pastoralism, Ngugi engages in specifically postcolonial ecocriticism. Despite their communion with nature, Kamiti and Nyawira’s retreat into nature is not an eternal escape from the corrupt city, but a channel to communal healing and revolution. Wu delineates the differences between Western and African environmentalism in great detail, arguing that “approaches to environmental writing in American and British literature rely on a definition of nature as pristine and untouched, in contrast with the idea of nature as interdependent with human culture” (153). African environmentalism, then, complements the definition of “kincentric environmentalism.” Though Kamiti asks Nyawira not to return “to Eldares, back to the corruption” (Wizard 211), Nyawira rejects the possibility for an apolitical, pastoral retreat into nature: “We cannot run away and leave the affairs of the land to ogres and scorpions. This land is mine. This land is yours. This land is ours” (208). Not only does Nyawira identify monstrousness in the city’s neocolonial corruption, but she also calls for indigenous repossession of Aburirian land.

Ngugi’s ecocriticism is rooted in both the political and ecological landscape of Africa. Rather than promoting an escape from the city, the natural world is depicted as a pathway to radical action that leads to reclaiming of all land –city and forest– from neocolonial powers, be they domestic or foreign. Wizard of the Crow’s ending is bittersweet, but culminates with Nyawira’s simple, yet hopeful words: “Thank you for the gift of life,” gesturing to the unfinished revolutionary work to come (766). Kamiti and Nyawira’s determination is a call to action to the reader; the hopeful ending exemplifies the transformative power of aesthetics on the social and environmental world. The “teardrops and raindrops” on Nyawira’s face are a final reminder of the tie between humanity and nature, and, consequently, of the inherent connection between ecocriticism and postcolonial thought (766).



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