I first heard of Ngugi wa Thiong’o through social media and knew he was my kind of guy, I love any book about Africa, identity and colonisation. So, I picked up one of his smallest books I could find in my university library only 152 pages long. The river between is written in 1965, it is a fictional story based on real life events of the coming of Christianity and colonialism in rural Kenya in the 1920’s and 30’s. It follows the story of the coming of age and early adulthood of Waiyaki a young man destined to be a leader and a messiah to his people that would help to unite the tribe’s traditions with the new ways of Christianity. As the story evolves, we are taken through a journey of where we can see the people becoming more separated with one group being the followers of the new religion and the other group of the old traditions. This is symbolised through the use of nature and landscape. The book begins by setting the scene of two valleys with a river in between
“when you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life. They become antagonists. You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.”
I really like the way Thiong’o uses nature, it almost takes you to that place you can visualise the world the characters inhabit.
Waiyaki’s father prepares him for leadership by sending this son to the school of the white man, even though his father doesn’t necessarily trust the white man and predicts the gradual colonisation of their peaceful rural life. He wants his son to be prepared to attain the skills he will need to lead to tribe. However, this leaves Waiyaki with a sense of confusion, loneliness and loss of identity. He doesn’t fit into either faction he doesn’t consider himself to be a Christianity neither does he fully consider himself to be a traditionalist. You can sense his sense of despair …
“was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live , a strange hollowness pursing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest?…Waiyaki was made to serve the tribe, living day by day with no thoughts of self but always of others”.
It also made me think about how leadership can someone be a very lonely place to be as true leadership demands servitude to your people.
Another theme in this novel was about how women navigated the struggle between the ways of the old and new. The story follows two sisters who are the daughters of a zealous Christain preacher Joshua. He has completely left the ways of the tribe and is the leader of the community in Makuyu. His daughter Muthoni isn’t allowed to be circumcised because she is a Christian. But she escapes to her aunt in Kameno to undergo the ritual. This theme really surprised me, because we are living in a time where there is a lot of campaigns about stopping female genital mutilation (FGM) worldwide. So reading about a character that wanted it done so badly, that risks her life for it, challenged the narrative that I had that it’s always a forced practice. What I realised is that the symbolism of what circumcision meant in her own community and the sense of belonging and identity it gave her was extremely powerful and created a deep yearning. She says
“I want to become a woman. I want to be a real girl, a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges.”
“I want to be a woman made beautiful in the tribe”
It shows that it’s not about the actual circumcision, that in itself is painful but it’s the status she gained from it. Traditions no matter how vile, barbaric we may think they are give people a sense of meaning and purpose. Therefore, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge at least until we have given them alternative.
Thiong’o summarises this beautifully towards the end of the novel
“a people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight. That way lay disintegration, such a tribe would have no roots, for a people’s roots were in their traditions going back to the past….A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognise spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, as source of life and vitality”.
This point is very interesting for me, it’s considering how Christianity and Islam are the main religion of most Africans. I have observed how most Africans have adapted these religions with their traditions and formed their own middle ground blending the two. I mean if we look at the way African churches and European churches practice, there isn’t a difference necessarily in scripture or beliefs but in the way they choose to express their belief which is mediated by culture. But there is also the issue that somethings are completely incompatible for example in Islam the polytheist nature of most African religions is against the core belief of one god. So how do we take what we perceive as good and leave what bad is the question I’m left with. Yes I’m African but I’m my chosen way of life is Islam, so for me that’s my the filter I use to navigate the complex map between tradition and religion. But sometimes it’s not easy and it can leave one feeling lost just like Waiyaki searching through the skies to find a sense of belonging.