Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 18, 2023

Seasons in Hippoland (2021), by Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ

Seasons in Hippoland was a serendipitous loan from a Bayside Library display.  It has an arresting title, a moody cover image and an author name that I (sort of) recognised…

Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ is the daughter of Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (whose books I have reviewed here).  She was born in Kenya, educated in the US and has lived and worked in Eritrea, Zimbabwe and Finland.  Wikipedia tells me that her CV includes journalism and editorial work as well as founding and directing the Helsinki African Film Festival.  Her writing includes her debut novel The Fall of Saints (2014) and contributing to anthologies such as New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent (2019); and short stories in Akashic Books’ Noir Series: Houston Noir (2019) and Nairobi Noir (2020). If her second novel Seasons in Hippoland (2021) is anything to go by, literary talent runs in families. (Her brother Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ is also a writer.)

#Digression: Whispering Gums... have you ever done a Monday Musings on Literary Offspring in Australia?

This is the blurb for Seasons in Hippoland, along with the Seagull edition cover.  I like the hippos, but I think the undercurrents of the gazebo edition cover fit the story better and since ‘Dark Billabong’ is an Australian image, it adds to the universality of the novel’s concerns:

Victoriana is a country ruled by an Emperor-for-Life who is dying from an illness not officially acknowledged in a land where truth and facts are decided by the Emperor. The elite goes along with the charade. Their children are conditioned to conform. It is a land of truthful lies, where reality has uncertain meaning.

Mumbi, a rebellious child from the capital of Westville, and her brother are sent to live in rural Hippoland. But what was meant to be a punishment turns out to be a glorious discovery of the magic of the land, best captured in the stories their eccentric aunt Sara tells them. Most captivating to the children is the tale of a porcelain bowl supposed to possess healing powers. Returning to Westville as an adult, Mumbi spreads the story throughout the city and to the entire country. Exhausted by years of endless bleak lies, the people are fascinated by the mystery of the porcelain bowl. When word of its healing powers reaches the Emperor himself, he commands Mumbi to find it for him—with dramatic consequences for everyone in Victoriana.

The story begins with Mumbi as a sulky adolescent, sent to stay with her Aunt Sara because her parents are anxious about her rebellious behaviour.  The irony is that both her parents and Aunt Sara were rebels themselves, but they were fighting for a political cause not for the right to party and smoke dope.  Mumbi is furious about being banished to the countryside:

I thought of the friends I was leaving behind and my heart plummeted again.  I wanted to be in their shoes, chasing each other on the streets or fighting over popcorn while they waited in line to watch the American super-stars whose names and life events bounced off our mouths like poetry.  There was also the possibility of meeting Soul Dreamers, a Westville a cappella group we’d only so far seen on TV.  My friends and I had divided up the members among ourselves.  For marriage that is.  We so desperately hoped to bump into them somewhere, and constantly wagered with each other as to who would be the lucky first to do so.  My rural banishment would no doubt give them a huge advantage in this matter. (p.11)

She tries sulking in silence but doesn’t last long because she is captivated by Aunt Sara’s stories (and her wonderful cooking).  Her parents are good people but they are busy lawyers.  Family life is constantly disrupted by the need to help clients deal with the depredations of a government indifferent to the poor and vulnerable.  They haven’t told their children anything about the struggle for independence or the risks they took.  Aunt Sara’s stories are a revelation.

Seasons in Hippoland is a coming-of-age story that portrays the complexity of entering an adult world of where the dreams of postcolonial independence have been corrupted by greed, violence and corruption.  The country isn’t named as a setting, but it isn’t hard to work out that it could be any number of countries in Africa.

Magic realism is used, economically, to assert the importance of oral history, listening to elders, and resistance to dictatorship and oppression. One of the most vivid scenes concerns Mumbi reliving a frightening incident in Aunt Sara’s life.  For a moment, the reader is puzzled by the ‘magic’, and then the realism takes over.  It makes it possible to show how the reality of Aunt Sara’s experiences affect the next generation too.

Perhaps there are autobiographical elements in the portrayal of the next generation’s reluctance to follow in parental footsteps.  (Wikipedia tells us that The Ngũgĩ  family was deeply impacted by the repression of the Mau Mau revolution.) Mumbi does not want to be a lawyer, and by her own account she slacks off at school so it’s a bit surprising that she gets into law school.  But Seasons in Hippoland shows that there’s an imperative to do what you can for your country, even when it’s risky.

Author: Wanjikũ Wa Ngũgĩ
Title: Seasons in Hippoland
Cover and frontispiece image: ‘Dark Billabong’ 2021 by Alexander McKenzie
Publisher: Gazebo Books, Summer Hill NSW 2022, first published by Seagull Books 2021
ISBN: 978064510309
Source: Bayside Library



  1. I have this book and, although I imagine there is a political wisdom in writing about post-colonial Africa in less clearly defined terms, it does make me wonder if the work will slide too far into the speculative/magical realm than I might be in the mood for (at the time anyhow). The Seagull cover was irresistible to me. :)


    • Well, that’s why I slid in the word ‘economically’. Apart from the fact that it’s set in a fictional country, segments that are noticeably magical realism are few.

      I thought at first that the fictional country was based on Kenya, but then when I read that she’d worked in Zimbabwe, it seemed authentic for that country too. Maybe even more so… but that may just be because I know more about Zimbabwe under Mugabe than I do about Kenya because Mugabe was in power for so long whereas Kenya has had five presidents, equally corrupt by the look of their place in the Corruption Index.


  2. I really liked the one Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o I read (in the first month of Covid), Wizard of the Crow, also set in a fictional dictatorship. So I’m happy to put this one on my list of buy it if you see its.


    • Did you review Wizard? As you can see from my reviews, I had issues with the two (famous) ones that I’ve read, but Joe from Rough Ghosts says his later fiction is different. I’m willing to try it, but only if I’ve read a review from someone I know.


    • Ooh, I loved Wizard of the Crow, too. Which was weird, because ordinarily magical realism leaves me cold. I think wa Thiong’o’s humour helped a lot.


      • I don’t usually like it either. But when it’s well done, it’s brilliant.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. No, I don’t think I have – couples yes, and I have mentioned the Niland-Park family, but this is a good idea! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: