Set against the backdrop of the post colonial era in Kenya, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Devil on the Cross depicts irony at its peak – with the devil on the cross instead of Jesus. Written entirely in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Gikuyu language after he declared he would no longer write in English, the book is a critical examination of Kenyan society. Deeply allegorical, it was written, allegedly on toilet paper, while the author was detained in prison.
Through the characters of Wangari, Wariinga, Gaturia, Mwaura and Muturi, Ngugi explores various themes including exploitation, independence (sham freedom), education, religious hypocrisy, and sexual harassment.
Devil on the Cross (African Writers Series) opens with a devastated and disillusioned Wariinga who is fleeing modern Kenya. Wariinga as a modern kareendi is chased from work after rejecting advances from her boss Kihara. Unfortunately, her kamoongonye (young man) John Kimwana also jilts her. She is then evicted from her shack because she cannot afford to pay the rent.
Faced with these problems, she heads back to Illmorog as thoughts stream through her mind. As a young girl she had always dreamed of being an engineer but her dreams were shattered by the old rich man from Ngorika, the hairy chested Waigoka.
More to that Wariinga does not like herself. She uses ambi cream to bleach herself. In her nightmares, while at school, she had always seen the devil like the European on the cross instead of Jesus.
She faints along the way and is helped by a young man who then invites her to the devil’s feast in Illmorog. On the way, they are joined aboard Robin Mwaura’s car (the matatu matata matamu model T. Ford) by Wangari, an old woman, who is a victim of modern Kenya’s problems. Despite her sacrifices, Wangari has reaped nothing from her fight for an independent Kenya. The poor woman does not have money to pay her fare. Robin Mwaura threatens to throw her out:
‘Elderly one, this car does not move on urine cough the money and let us hear the sweet sound of coins or I will through you out…’
Fortunately, other passengers collect money and pay for her.
As the passengers make their way to Illmorog, they converse about Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, the Mau Mau, and the modern harambee. Eventually, they make their way to the devils feast, where a competition is on to choose the best thief. The competitors talk about their wives, the cars they drive and those driven by their wives, and how they got their wealth.
Meanwhile, Wariinga and Gaturia fall in love after meeting aboard the car (matatu), and Gaturia plans on introducing Wariinga to his parents. However, Wariinga is shocked to find that the old rich man who impregnated her is Gaturia’s father. She takes her revenge and kills him.
Ngugi’s message to society especially about modern kareendis is to be hopeful. Just like Wariinga does not give in to life’s problems. Even after giving birth, she strives to get back to school takes up secretarial studies and later ends up as a mechanic.