This epic poem (240 pages) was published in October of 2020 by The New Press. The book takes you to ancient Kenya. Melissa read The Perfect Nine and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o — author, teacher, novelist, essayist, and playwright — is a Kenyan treasure. He was shortlisted for The Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for his body of work and longlisted in 2021 for this title. According to the internet, Barack Obama is among his fans. In this remarkable work, he recasts the creation myth of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya as an epic poem.
The story of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi is known by every Gĩkũyũ child and adult. According to mythology, God put Gĩkũyũ (man) and Mũmbi (woman) on the snowcapped peak of Mt. Kenya. The pair looked down on the beautiful land at their feet, then descended the mountain, made a home, and had ten daughters known as the Perfect Nine. When the girls were of marrying age, Gĩkũyũ asked God to provide for his girls. One morning, the family found 99 handsome suitors outside their home, all eager to partner with their daughters. An epic adventure followed to find the right match for each girl.
After immersing himself in epics from other cultures — the Odyssey, the Iliad, Indian epic poems, and another from Catalan in Spain — Thiong’o was inspired to transform his own tradition into an epic.
Like those other examples, his story is filled with larger-than-life adventures. The Perfect Nine and their suitors face mortal danger and experience magical and inexplicable things. The story is told with hyperbole and humor while our heroes run afoul of deadly crocodiles, relentless mosquitos, and a giant looming forest that suddenly disappears. The man-eating ogres are a particular delight. There’s the squint-eyed ogre, the ogre who makes men swallow dirt whether they like it or not. There’s the Ogre of Endless Darkness who declares, ‘I am TheDarknessDarkerThanDarkness! I make clean hearts darker than darkness by Leading them into paths of darkness and leaving them there. My darkness can never be undarkened.’
A significant difference between this epic poem and, say, Greek mythology is its feminist perspective. In his introduction, Thiong’o explains that the Perfect Nine grew up without brothers. They had to depend on themselves, acquiring survival skills and working the land. The Perfect Nine, he says, were the original feminists. Keep your eyes open while reading for how he places men and women on equal footing. (‘There was no saying this is men’s or women’s work. We did tasks according to ability and necessity and inclination.’)
Accessible and profound — and a quick read at just 240 pages — this epic begs to be read aloud and shared. You might read it to someone you love or follow along with the excellent audiobook narrated by Kenyan-American actor Benjamin Onyango. His rich, velvety voice brings just the right touch of musicality to Thiong’o’s lyrical phrases.
I will tell the tale of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi
And their daughters, the Perfect Nine,
Matriarchs of the House of Mũmbi,
Founders of their nine clans,
Progenitors of a nation.
I will tell of their travels, and
The countless hardships they met on the way…
They faced hazards big enough to shatter the hearts of many.
Their bodies trembled, but their hearts remained unshaken. — Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
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