Written in 1968, Grace Ogot’s short story “The Green Leaves” takes place over the course of one night and the following morning. Yet within this short time frame, Ogot effectively illustrates the negative effects of colonialism on indigenous people in East Africa. She does this by developing a number of different conflicts that are both internal, as seen in Nyagar’s conflicted emotions, and external, as rendered in the verbal exchanges between the European police officer, the clan leader, Olielo, and Nyamundhe, Nyagar’ s wife. Ogot uses third-person omniscient point of view as a method of revealing the clan’s vulnerability to colonization due to deteriorating communal values. What were once beliefs and values that they assumed to share are now in flux. These changes disrupt the clan and create conflicts among them. Ultimately, “The Green Leaves” is an indictment of the British colonial period in Kenya that divided communities and introduced values and customs that conflicted with indigenous ones.
Ogot very cleverly uses third-person omniscient point of view to illustrate the changing attitudes that the clan is undergoing due to the introduction of Western values by colonial powers such as Great Britain. Often these values were imposed on indigenous groups by prohibiting the practice of local customs, including using vernacular languages, legal systems, and non-Christian religious beliefs. In this way, indigenous people were forced to learn colonial customs and habits even though this often generated divisions among them. However, the intentional weakening of traditional communities served to strengthen the colonizing presence, making them less threatening and more easily assimilated into the colonial system. This strategy is acknowledged by the clan leader, Olielo, when he tells the clan members of his plan for all of them to take responsibility for the thief s death because, as he puts it, “If we stand united, none of us will be killed.” Throughout the story, Olielo represents the traditional values that the clan has historically organized itself around, such as the primary importance of family relations, clearly demarcated gender roles, and the strong relationship between the individual and the community.
However, the influence of modernization has already begun to affect the clan as can be seen in the actions of Nyagar, who puts his own well-being and that of the clan’s in jeopardy to satisfy his desire for money. Although he has some hesitation about whether or not to go after the thief s money, in the end he decides to go ahead and do it. The conflict between traditional and modern values is represented through the inner dialogue he has when he is about to take the supposedly dead thief s money: “He now felt nervous. ‘Why should you disturb a dead body?’ his inner voice asked him. ‘What more do you want?'” Yet the need to have more than anyone in the clan wins out as Nyagar tries to steal the money and consequently ends up dying at the hands of the thief. The emphasis on the accumulation of personal wealth rather than on personal safety and communal knowledge leads to his downfall. In his article, “The True Fantasies of Grace Ogot, Storyteller,” Peter Nazareth claims that the vision emerging from Ogot’s work is that “Modern society in Kenya she sees as sick, a world in which people chase after false materialist values instead of pursuing the truth.” Therefore, in defying the plans that were made to take care of the thief s body when morning arrived, Nyagar places himself in a position of vulnerability. No one knows where he is or what he is doing. Rather than acting in concert with the clan’s values, he is transgressing them.
In the beginning of the story, Ogot provides some interesting details that hint at the changes occurring in the clan. What first comes to the attention of Nyagar at the beginning of the story is not only the shouting outside his hut but also the fact that his wife, Nyamundhe, is not next to him. Her absence and lack of telling him where she is reveals a certain breakdown of gender roles that demand that the wife be submissive to her husband. Also Nyagar is very attentive to locking doors and gates and is dismayed when they are not bolted. This anxiety reveals the clan’s vulnerability to external forces such as intruders like the thieves as well as colonial forces that disrupt indigenous cultures. However, despite his anxieties about gates being locked, Nyagar is still impelled to leave the hut and steal the thief s money. So strong is Nyagar’s lust for money that it overrides his fears of being intruded upon. His obsession illustrates the powerful influence of Western values that infiltrated colonized populations and corrupted traditional markers of success.
The conflict between modern and traditional ways of life is most vividly seen in the discussion that the clan leader, Olielo, has with clan members the morning after the thief has been killed. Of course, no one yet knows what has happened to Nyagar, but the point of view has shifted from Nyagar to that of the clan members’ meeting. Most of this scene is relayed in dialogue between Olielo and the clan members and through significant side comments made by Nyamundhe to the nameless co-wife of Nyagar. In his speech to the clan, Olielo strategizes a way to deal with the European authorities who will want an explanation for what happened the night before. His understanding that the clan and the European colonialists have different ways of dealing with justice allows him to figure out a way to protect the clan members from being victimized by the colonialists. In his speech, Olielo makes it clear that the white man will think his own method of justice is superior: “Because he thinks his laws are superior to ours, we should handle him carefully.” Later in the story, his insight proves true as the clan interacts with a European police officer who clearly expresses his abhorrence of the way that the clan deals with justice. However, just as tension mounts between the police and the clan members, it is deflected by the discovery of Nyagar under the green leaves.
The revelation that Nyagar is beneath the green leaves throws the clan into turmoil. His death proves to Nyamundhe that the black cat that crossed her path was an accurate prophecy. At the same time, the European police officer is able to manipulate the clan members because of the confusion that arises. Surprisingly, Nyamundhe becomes a powerful figure as she challenges both the clan members who she thinks are responsible for Nyagar’s death and the European system of justice that intends to take her husband’s body to determine the cause of death. Ogot’s decision to end the story with Nyamundhe’s challenge and her song of mourning shifts the point of view to that of a woman’s perspective. Her vocality gives her power in a situation in which many of the clan members are powerless. At the same time, it also reveals Nyamundhe as being caught between the world of tradition and that of modernization.
By shifting the end of the story to Nyamundhe’s point of view, Ogot very subtly reveals how Nyagar’s actions have affected Nyamundhe’s life as well as the clan’s. By acting on his own, he puts her safety and that of the clan in jeopardy. The lack of cohesion among the clan members can be seen in her suspicious reaction to the clan members after Nyagar’s body is revealed. In part, her suspicion is due to being left out of the decision-making process the night before, in which only the men participated. All of the women of the clan had known something was going on, but they had not been informed of the details. Thus, although Nyamundhe aligns herself with traditional ways as is seen in the way she challenges the European police officer, she is also in conflict with them. Thus, the intersection of colonialism and traditional patriarchy becomes a site of unresolved conflict for African women writers like Ogot and Nwapa.
In Contemporary African Literature and the Politics of Gender, feminist critic Florence Stratton recognizes this conflict by claiming that “the colonized woman is doubly oppressed, enmeshed in the structures of an indigenous patriarchy and of a foreign masculinist-colonialism.” However, Nyamundhe challenges both of these systems by refusing to accept the clan’s and the European police officer’s methods of dealing with justice. This is seen in her ability to disregard both the clan members’ and the European police officer’s attempts to appease her by relying on her own ability to comfort herself through singing a traditional mourning song. The story’s ending casts doubt on both traditional and modern ways of life in East Africa.
African literary critic Taiwo Oladele perceptively says this of Grace Ogot’s short stories: “Her practice is to hit direct on the subject-matter without allowing the beginning of the story to drag, and leave something for the imagination of the reader at the end.” In “The Green Leaves,” Ogot succeeds in writing a riveting story that is suspenseful and economically worded. Yet, at the same time, she also contends with gender and race issues in the context of the British colonial era in Kenya. Because these social and political issues are ongoing, her stories tend to raise questions rather than answer them. “The Green Leaves” gives the reader feeling of irresolution at the end. Although it ends with the strong image of a woman mourning her dead husband, it also reveals the tragic dimensions that befell indigenous cultures due to the legacy of colonialism.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Grace Ogot, Published by Gale, 2002.
Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on “The Green Leaves,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002