Writers commonly create characters that are reminiscent of some of the acquaintances we have in our lives. A while back in 2017 while having a meeting over coffee with a group of friends, one was holding the book “The River Between” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and a discussion arose as to how one of our colleagues, possessed similar traits and gifts to Waiyaki, a key character in the book. It is from this conversation that I rummaged through the book with assumptions of how I may get to understand my colleague better through an almost investigative approach to the character.
The river between is a fictional story written in 1965. It is based on real life events of the coming of Christianity and colonialism in rural Kenya in the 1920’s and 30’s. In this book Waiyaki is a young man who was destined to be a leader and a messiah to his people that would help to unite the tribe’s traditions with the intrusion of Christianity. The story then goes on to demonstrate how conflicts emerged as people became more separated with one another when one group started following new religion and the other group stuck to their traditions. The book takes the reader through nature and landscape which forms the imagery and symbolism which ultimately gives title to the book in that it is set in the scene of two valleys with a river in between.
One of the things that resonates in the book is how Ngugi articulates nature in the book. It almost takes the reader to that place you can envision the world at that time with all its beauty as well as its imperfections where…..
“the pattern of seasons was broken. It no longer rained regularly. The sun seemed to shine for months and the grass dried.”
Waiyaki’s father Chege had always prepared him for a leadership role because he sent him to the school of the “white man”, even though his father did not necessarily trust the tutors of the school as they were white. This mistrust was based on the fear of a gradual colonization of their peaceful rural life. Never the less he wanted his son to be prepared to attain the skills he would need to lead the community. This left Waiyaki with a sense of confusion, loneliness and loss of identity. He ended up not fitting into either group as he didn’t consider himself to be a Christian and neither did he consider himself to be wholly a traditionalist. 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”.
Waiyaki’s predicament reminds us that leadership is a contextual, because for you to be that kind of leader that everyone expects you to be, you must go through trying situations and respond to an evolving context. In fact, true leadership demands servitude to your people and well as an ability to adapt to and navigate uncertainty and complexity.
…..“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.”
Ngugi then brings in another twist which captures how women navigated the struggle between the ways of the old and new. The story follows two sisters who are the daughters of an obsessive Christian missionary. The missionary couldn’t allow his daughter Muthoni to be circumcised because she was now Christian. But Muthoni then sneaks out to her aunt in Kameno to undergo the ritual.
This particular twist stunned me because I am among the people in Uganda who are against female circumcision in Karamoja commonly known as female genital mutilation (FGM). It used to be practiced on girls between 8 and 16 to observe a cultural ritual but was outlawed in Uganda in 2010 after Women activists described it as a violent and harmful practice to girls and women. So, when I read that Muthoni escaped from her father’s home to willingly get circumcised, I was in awe. Her urge to belong made her say;
“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”
Her words were very powerful and indicated that the status gained from this practice is way more important than the pain felt during the process. This may be a common challenge that needs to be addressed whenever we are navigating through cultural changes – that feeling of identity and belonging.
This book describes many scenarios and one of them reminded me of the Mau Mau rebellion that happened in Kameno and Makuyu which were two key African Villages in the book. These two villages are microcosms of some of the struggles we face today in the postmodern era.
The Settings in this book brings about authenticity in a work of art as I could identify with the story and its characters even though the book relates to a time 55 years ago. I was also able to concisely place the work historically, geographically and culturally, with the help of the details that Ngugi gives. Ngugi’s work simply highlights how literature can capture the struggles our people through a particular period and helps us to track those changes as well as identify lessons we can use in our current struggles.