Perhaps Life was a Contradiction: Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongo’s “The River Between”

by Agatha Wanjiru

Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongo’s second novel, “The River Between,” published in 1965, depicts the traditional life of the Agĩkuyu community in Kenya while detailing the effects of the invasion of the white man through colonization.

As I read this book for the second time, I constantly felt like I had never read it before. I had read it for the first time between 2010 and 2011 as a literature set-book in high school. For two years, I had studied this book and had our English teacher interpret it for us in class, and still, it felt new.

This is probably because the teacher did most of the thinking and interpretation for us. We read it because it was mandatory and examinable. We were also quite young to understand the effects of colonization and the importance of culture.

This time round, I felt deeply attached to this book.

Not just because I am from the Agĩkuyu community, but because Ngũgĩ brings out manyScreen Shot 2018-09-26 at 8.06.23 AM lessons on colonization, on such retrogressive cultural practices as female genital mutilation, and the importance of education, religion, and conflict—which are all important aspects of life that matter to me now.

On matters of education, the idea of the teacher doing most of the thinking and interpretation for us is just one of the many shortcomings of the education system in Kenya.

The goal of education should be to enlighten its people to be thinkers and to be people who question oppressive regimes instead of trying to fit into the status quo. Instead, the system is highly focused on grades and physical punishment, which Ngũgĩ also details in the novel: “Parents would feel proud, very proud, when a son came in the evening with a tear-washed face. Beat them hard. We want them to learn.”

To date, violence is still part of our school system.

It’s a way of eliminating as many people as possible from the education system since the slots available in the system diminish as one advances.

It’s a system that leads a lot of people being without secondary and higher education.

It’s very common to hear people narrating how much beating they received from their teachers and how much they feared them.

A six year-old from Kamukunji Primary School was recently hospitalized after being beaten severely by three teachers.

The boy was found playing in class and received a beating that involved stepping on him and exposing his private parts; probably as a way to humiliate him among his peers.

Not only is this physically painful, this is also also mentally tragic.

A lot of kids who go through this associate education with suffering. They become adults who don’t enjoy learning which ultimately, is a dangerous thing for any community and the world as a whole.

This violent system leads to a hostile community as young people haven’t been brought up in a more accommodating environment.

But they aren’t allowed to protest their treatment.

Recently, due to the many cases of student unrest in schools, the Directorate of Criminal Investigation issued a warning to students that they would be profiled and criminalized for life if they are found participating in the unrests.

These are kids below the age of eighteen.

If you ask me, this will be one of the greatest contributing factors towards the emergence of violent and rebellious youth in future.

Isn’t it our responsibility as adults to come up with better ways of handling our children? Or providing options to seek change?

This issue on the education crisis ties to another major theme in the book: religion.

One of the characters, named Joshua, is a preacher who was among the first converts when the missionaries came to the ridges. “Joshua didn’t see anything wrong with taking a second bride. He’d been puzzled that men in the Old Testament had more than one. But since the old man at the Mission had said it was a sin, he took his word for it. After all, the old man had brought Christ to the country.”

This excerpt makes the reader cringe.

It strongly brings out the danger of believing in people or ideas, without taking time to question their origin or context—which is another failure of education.

In “The River Between,” this conflict is strongly depicted from the first page, where Ngũgĩ describes two ridges, Kameno and Makuyu.

The major source of conflict in the novel is leadership; both sides believe that God (Murungu) had declared each of them as the leader.

The conflict further widens when the white man, led by Livingstone, sets up camp at Siriana and starts his mission to convert the community to Christianity.

The people in Kameno stick to their traditions, while those in Makuyu adopt the ways of the white man by accepting religion.

This conversion to Christianity by those living in Makuyu enables Ngũgĩ to cleverly and accurately portray the conflict brought about by colonialism to this African society.

We also get to know that these changes took place over a long period of time as Livingstone had come to Siriana as a young man and grows old, throughout the novel, as represented through increased baldness.

This conflict between religion and culture is still evident today in Kenyan communities.

An example is female genital mutilation which is still conducted by some communities to date yet it contradicts religious teachings such as Christianity.

This is also evident in the book where Kabonyi, Waiyaki’s antagonist, breaks away from Joshua’s group to form a kiama, a council, as a way to amass leadership for himself and his son Kamau and to humiliate Waiyaki.

Livingstone, the white missionary, preaches against the traditional ways of the Agĩkuyu. He especially preaches against circumcision.

Before the circumcision of both boys and girls, there was a night of traditional dances for those who were to undergo the initiation.

Attending one of the dances as a way of integrating into the community, Livingstone describes the people as immoral through and through’ as the circumcision dances disgust him.

Kabonyi, an early convert to Christianity, condemns this act so much that he often prays for forgiveness for marrying Mariamu, a circumcised woman. We also experience the death of Muthoni, Kabonyi’s daughter who dies due to undergoing circumcision.

Muthoni was in conflict with her father as she ran away to get circumcised, yet she still embraced Christianity.

She runs away from home because she often felt that a ‘Christ who died wasn’t enough for her.’

In the novel, before she dies, she sends a message to her sister Nyambura: “Tell Nyambura I see Jesus.”

I believe she is a symbol of collaboration between the Agĩkuyu traditions and the white man’s ways.

However, Livingstone was condemning a tribe and ways he did not know and understand.

We also experience a lot of conflict between the characters in the book, the major one being between Waiyaki and Kamau’s father Kabonyi.

Kabonyi’s hatred for Waiyaki is strong and he is determined to oppose Waiyaki’s leadership as he believes his son, Kamau, should be the leader.

Kamau also strongly hates Waiyaki because Nyambura chose Waiyaki as her lover instead of Kamau.

The conflict between Waiyaki and Kabonyi represents the conflict between Agĩkuyu customs and culture (represented by Wayaki) and colonial customs and culture (represented by Kabonyi.)

However, when Waiyaki’s father sends him to Siriana to acquire the white man’s education, we see Waiyaki’s slow journey towards embracing the white man’s ways and defying the land yet he was supposed to be the savior.

This is seen when during the night of the traditional dances, he is unable to dance as well as the other initiates. At some point, he also thinks that Muthoni shouldn’t have run away from her father to get circumcised.

With time, he starts forgetting the main reason why his father sent him to Siriana. He decides that Christianity is not all bad as it preaches love and unity in the community which goes to show that perhaps the two worlds, Christianity and traditional Kikuyu culture, could co-exist.

Colonization is the major theme in this book and we see it in various aspects such as the white man grabbing the land from the people and imposing hut-tax on them. From the book, a majority of the people did not understand why they were being taxed.

This is a relevant topic to date. Recently, a 16% V.A.T on fuel was imposed in Kenya. It was reduced to 8% after citizens highly criticized the government. Notably, the government did not explain why they imposed this tax which means a lot of citizens do not understand why they have to pay for it. In a country that describes itself as democratic, this is a huge failure as democracy cannot exist without proper education and updated, timely information.

But this lack of timely and proper information is a major characteristic of colonization. You want the victim to remain ignorant which makes it easier to control the person.

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Uhuru Kenyatta and Xi Jinping

The current influx of Chinese nationals, goods and projects in Kenya almost feels like a second wave of colonization.

The Kenyan government has contracted the Republic of China to build major roads and the Standard Gauge Railway through debt.

We owe so much to China that we are currently being taxed more in order to pay the debt, yet we as citizens were not consulted when the government was getting into debt.

The worst bit about these projects is that the Chinese prefer to employ fellow Chinese to work on the projects yet we have a high number of qualified graduates who can do the same.

They even import the materials used from China and even make the payments to their workers from China.

Judging from the high interest rates incurred from these loans, it’s almost as if we are gaining nothing.

It’s even scarier when we see on the news of countries whose projects that have been funded by China being taken over by the Chinese government when they’re unable to pay debt. A lot of people predict that this will soon happen to Kenya which will take this modern day colonization a notch higher, with citizens feeling helpless as the cost of living gets worse with each passing day.

Ngũgĩ Wa Thiongo is an educationist who is also an active campaigner of Gikuyu and other African languages. In this book, he uses many Gikuyu words, expressions, songs and phrases. He is also seen to highly advocate for the importance of acquiring education through the character, Waiyaki.

Waiyaki strongly advocated for education in the ridges by setting up schools. The Teacher, as he is known in the end discovered that advocating for education wasn’t enough to save the people. This aspect is also a modern day dilemma especially in Africa where statistics show that it takes an African graduate an average of five years to secure a job. Waiyaki learnt that more, not just education, needed to be done to save his people.

From all this conflict, I strongly feel that Ngũgĩ’s point of view is that a people’s traditions are important as they act as their anchor.

Retrogressive cultures such as female genital mutilation should however be abandoned, and new progressive ways such as the white man’s education system be embraced. As Chege instructed his son,

“Learn all the wisdom and secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices.”


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Agatha Wanjiru seeks to impact people’s lives through making quality education accessible. She is actively engaged in civic leadership and believes in giving back to the community through Fly Sister Fly Foundation-a community based organization that works with girls in Samburu Kenya to improve the literacy levels of girls and discourage female genital mutilation and child marriage.