Next year it will be 50 years since the publication of River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and I think one of the reasons the art of fiction is so beautiful is because stories can always teach us something or make us feel empathy for others. I LOVE that we can simply open a book and be deep in the heart of Kenya, identifying with a boy who is born into a tribe of rich culture and traditions. Through Waiyaki’s story, and the stories of the other children in the book, we can see the effects of oppression and colonization on kids. There are consequences for children when they grow up in a world of separation and divided morality, and those effects transcend national boundaries, and can certainly span generations.
Waiyaki is sent away at a young age to receive an education from missionaries that bring Christianity and “civilization” to the people of the ridges. The missionaries hoped to change the little Gikuyu children by bringing them education and rules to live by. When Waiyaki comes back to his tribe after his time away at school, he feels estranged. He doesn’t feel like he fully belongs in his own culture, but he also knows how different he is from the white missionaries. His dream is to bring the “white man’s education” to the tribes so they could have better lives. Ngugi portrays a boy who is caught in the middle of change. Waiyaki struggles with the fact that he may not seem loyal to the people in his tribe when he becomes like the missionaries with his educational pursuits. But the Christian missionaries still see him as a heathen because he condones the rituals of the tribe.
As Waiyaki grows into a young man, the narrative reflects on the work he has already done and his hopes for the future: “With the little knowledge that he had he would uplift the tribe, yes, give it the white man’s learning and his tools, so that in the end the tribe would be strong enough, wise enough, to chase away the settlers and the missionaries” (87). Ngugi reveals Waiyaki as a hero in this way. He doesn’t fall prey to the occupying religion or ways of life, but he adopts their best aspects and tries fervently to share what he has learned with his people. Waiyaki’s desire to remain a part of the tribe is at the heart of what Ngugi was doing when he wrote this novel in his native tongue, Gikuyu. Ngugi shares his character’s desire to spread education and also to remain loyal to his people. In a way, this story he tells is his own.
Another child in the story, Muthoni, grows up on the Christianized ridge, and when she decides she wants to get circumcised, her father is horrified. Even though she knows that her family will disown her, she chooses to “be made beautiful in the eyes of the tribe” (44). Ngugi depicts Muthoni as a brave child, and she foreshadows the attempt that Waiyaki makes later in the novel to bring the two sides together. Her death is a dark reminder that it is often the weak and the powerless that take the brunt of these kinds of cultural conflicts.
Muthoni’s sister, Nyambura, also tries to bridge the gap. She attempts to stay loyal to her family, not wanting to cause division, but eventually goes back to her tribal roots and leaves the umbrella of the colonial occupation. Her desire for Waiyaki shows her belief in the power of agreement between sides. Nyambura goes through the most struggles deciding what side to end up on, and she eventually chooses the middle ground. Her and Waiyaki both are too lukewarm to be accepted by either side. As the novel comes to a close, the two characters that have done the most internal soul searching, and experienced the most personal growth, are ridiculed. Their situation pays tribute to the difficulties children go through coming of age in a country that is being colonized. They not only have to find their own moral boundaries, but they must decide whose morality – their ancestors’ or the occupying country’s – they are going to accept as their own.
In the River Between it is the children who are most affected by the occupying country, and it is they who will live in the world that is created by the mess. Ngugi seems to suggest that a story of the next generation, after Waiyaki, might bring even more separation, rather than a coming together of the opposing sides. In the setting of the African jungles of Kenya, it is the children who feel the full force of colonization and oppression – both the struggles and triumphs in adapting to the precarious cultural position into which they were born.
In his research abstract on the faculty page at U.C. Irvine, Ngugi says of fiction: “I use the novel form to explore issues of wealth, power and values in society and how their production and organization in society impinge on the quality of a people’s spiritual life.”
You can read more about his life and works at his website –> Ngugi wa Thiong’o | Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine
What do you think is the biggest effect that civil wars, colonization, and/or poverty have on the current generation of kids experiencing these things around the world today? Or do you think that these issues aren’t relevant anymore?