A Funeral in Kenya

Reading Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s, “Petals of Blood” Now

Tom Nickel
4 min readMay 15


I can’t think of anything like, “Petals of Blood” in American literature.

It shows people shaped by inhuman forces, everyone, every day. Not just people on the edges of society described by James Baldwin or Dee Brown in the US — every single citizen was an expendable piece in a ruthless colonial system.

The UK decided to ‘protect’ Kenya in 1895 and then claimed to own it in 1920, after World War I. The main resistance came from the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), organized during World War II and operating more or less successfully through the early 1960s.

The KLFA leader, their Field Marshall and driving revolutionary force. was a Kikuyu man named Dedan Kimathi. He was captured by the British in 1956 and executed in prison in 1957.

The large funeral in Kenya this week was for his widow, Mukami Kimathi. She outlived him by 66 years.

Petals of Blood’ is set in the 1970s but events of the 1950s and 60s and earlier have made everyone who they are.

It’s a novel, not a history book. I came away remembering people more than ideas about freedom and nationalism. There isn’t any freedom and instead of nationalism I found village-ism. Kenya is a construction Europeans made up.

At first I thought I would never keep the characters straight because the names are unfamiliar to me and the author drops us right into the middle of a murder mystery on page one with no background.

Solving the crime drives the narrative and when the facts become clear, so does our understanding of all the main characters. We get to know cowardly educators, courageous labor organizers, and corrupt politicians who started as genuine populists. There are prostitutes and disabled vets. Greedy Christian Ministers and tourist industry magnates selling girls.

A young woman looking for love in all the wrong places still holds our hopes when she falls for an idealistic young man. He leaves. An especially corrupt form of commercialism emerges all over the country and she gives up. “It is either eat or be eaten,” she says.

Independence did not bring about equally distributed opportunity.

The people who actually did the fighting are rewarded the least. Dedan Kimathi is mentioned frequently as a sacrifice whose outcome is still unknown. His widow is a powerful force the new leaders are afraid to touch.

I finished reading, “Petals of Blood” just before her funeral.

Mukami Kimithi could have been a character. Her generation is well-represented by Nyakinyua, the most respected woman in the fictional village of Ilmorog. The one who remembers the old ways, the old cures — who lost her freedom-fighting husband years ago.

Like Nyakinyua, Mukami Kimathi, was much more than some man’s widow. She was a freedom fighter. She was actively involved in delivering food and supplies to rebel forces, in running spy networks, and in organizing the KLFA into an integrated unit.

The remains of her husband were never returned for a proper burial and the real life character Mukami Kimathi has never stopped agitating powerful people about it. She asked for respect, that’s all.

Mukami Kimathi is gone now. She was 96.

It is the grandchildren of KLFA fighters who still burn with a passion to see the British acknowledge their actions and show where family members’ remains can be found.

I know this is a live issue in 2023 because a close friend of mine is one of those grandchildren.

He is why I read “Petals of Blood.” He is why I now follow events in Kenya closely. He is why I know that William Ruto’s victory in 2022 could mean change.

My friend and I both see that the legacy of colonization has been distrust and division, that most people have never experienced anything close to freedom.

And we both see that powerful forces based outside of Africa are lining up a new wave of colonization. Their weapons are algorithms and dark design. They plan to sell people, especially young people, to big brands, which will then induce them to consume.

Africans consistently betrayed freedom-fighting Africans to the British. Then some of them kept betraying out of habit and greed.

The algorithm people have new betrayers lined up for the next invasion. The betrayers are called ‘Influencers;’ that is, they influence Africans to desire what is not-African.

You don’t need to have a close African friend to care about Kenya.

Africa is young, other continents are aging. The new colonizers want those kids.

We protect the children by letting them dream and create, imagine and build. Show them they are more than compliant consumers.

Let them be inspired by Dedan or Mukami Kimathi.

Image by David Denton

Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as Abdulrazak Gurnah and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and anything having to do with Africa.

Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos