On African literature

1 Apr

Many of my non-African friends have never read any book written by an African. Many of my African friends consider African literature as something outdated; only to be studied in high school, and that’s that. What a pity. I was left pondering. I felt that I ought to so something about it. That’s why I am sharing this.

The river between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

This is what amazon says about the book:

Christian missionaries attempt to outlaw the female circumcision ritual and in the process create a terrible rift between the two Kikuyu communities on either side of the river. The people are torn between those who believe in Western/Christian education and the opportunities it will offer, and those who feel that only unquestioned loyalty to past traditions will save them. The growing conflict brings tragedy to a pair of young lovers who attempted to bridge the deepening chasm.

Now, I am Kikuyu, and I thought that my point of view is interesting.

The book is set in two ridges, between which flows the river, Honia river. Honia in Kikuyu means to heal.The two Kikuyu ridges are called Makuyu and Kameno. It is there that the girls go to fetch water for their livelihood, it is there that Nyambura takes refuge in prayer when she is lonely and lacks the strength to go on, it is there that Waiyaki at the end of the book, calls the people in his attempt to unite them, although his efforts will be tested by the decision of the Kiama, which will decide his fate and Nyambura’s. The reader is left in suspense as to the outcome.

The river can be said to be between the two factions of those who embrace Christianity and those who wish to conserve the purity of the tribe. Materially, it is the source of life for the people who live on either side: they get their livelihood from it. Joshua and a few others embrace Christianity full swing, throwing overboard all their customs as they consider them sinful. Kabonyi, after breaking away from the Christians, is one of the most vehement supporters towards the conservation of tribal customs. Chege and his son Waiyaki stand in the middle: in the river itself. They descend from the great prophet: Mugo wa Kibiro. Chege sends his son to the Siriani mission to learn the white man’s education, and Waiyaki once enters Joshua’s church to hear his sermon. Yet they are the two people who understand the fact that since the coming of the white man, the people of the ridges cannot continue to live the way they did before. They must endeavour to learn what he knows in their effort to survive. Yet, they cannot throw away all that is their cultural heritage because then, they will be like a tree without roots, which is destined to destruction.

The author presents many themes, among them is the strife caused by the coming of the white man: the missionaries make converts and hence the new Christians abandon their customs and rituals. Then the Government imposes on the people taxes, takes their land, forces them to work etc.

Nevertheless, through the vision of the young man Waiyaki, he presents the idea of education as what will be useful for the people, after they unite and tell the white man “Go!” Waiyaki, at the end of the book, realizes that the people do not merely need education, but political freedom first. In order to get their leader, the Kiama must decide his fate. Will Kabonyi and Kamau overcome such strong passions as envy or their overly concern about the purity of the tribe? Will they demand the circumcision of Nyambura? What is the fate of Christianity in the land: do the people become like Joshua and his fiery band or are the attempts of Muthoni to be a Christian and still live according to the customs of the tribe successful? Such and many similar questions pass through the reader’s mind after reading the book. But perhaps the answer lies in the conduct of each one of the readers (especially African readers) and not the characters in the book.


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