“And she seemed to hold him still. Not with her hands. Not with anything visible. It was something inside her. What was it? He could not divine what it was. Perhaps her laughter. He thought there was magic in it because it rang into his heart, arousing things he had never felt before. And what was that shining in her eyes? Was there a streak of sadness in them? For a time Waiyaki was afraid and looked around. His mother was watching them. He turned to Muthoni. The magic was not there any more; it had gone. In the next moment Waiyaki found himself wandering alone, blindly away from the crowd, wrestling with a hollowness inside his stomach.”
Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart occupies pride of place as the post-colonial African novel dealing with the theme of the first contact between indigenous communities and colonial power, and the social disintegration that inevitably follows. But only seven years after Things Fall Apart, a young Ngugi wa Thiong’o published The River Between, his own novel dealing with similar themes. The River Between was Thiong’o’s first written novel (composed at university), and the second that he published. It is not as well-known as The Wizard of the Crow or Petals of Blood, and certainly not a novel that comes to mind when thinking of books that deal with the initial relationship between colonialism and community. This is a pity: in some ways, The River Between is an even more ambitious novel than Things Fall Apart, because it deals with an issue where the moral lines seem to be as clear as anything could be in our compromised world: female circumcision – or, as we know it, female genital mutilation.
The book begins like this:
“The two ridges lay side by side. One was Kameno, the other was Makuyu. Between them was a valley. It was called the valley of life. Behind Kameno and Makuyu were many more valleys and ridges, lying without any discernible plan. They were like many sleeping lions which never woke. They just slept, the big deep sleep of their creator.”
Between Kameno and Makuyu, both home to the Gikuyu people, there is an ancient rivalry, which is now exacerbated by the advent of colonialism, and the Christian religion that the colonisers bring with them. In Makuyu, Christianity has found a believer in Joshua, who has all the zeal of the convert. His proselytisation, however, creates as many enemies as it does followers; and rebellion, at last, reaches his own home. When female circumcision is banned as contrary to the Christian faith, Joshua’s daugther, Muthoni, refuses to abide by the decree, which goes to the heart of how the Gikuyu culture and way of life.
Into this milieu comes Waiyaki, the book’s ambiguous and conflicted protagonist. Waiyaki has been brought up to be the prophetic “saviour” of the people from the increasingly frequent depredations of the colonisers. Sent to be educated at the nearest missionary school – to learn the master’s tools to break down the master’s house – while retaining a firm foothold among his people, Waiyaki is the man marked to reconcile and unify the warring factions, and take on the colonisers. His chosen weapon is that of education.
However, Waiyaki will come to realise that reconciliation is not so easy. As Uzodinma Iweala remarks in his excellent introduction, while dealing with Muthoni’s own decision to undertake circumcision while remaining faithful to her father, “most utopias can accommodate only one grand vision.” Those who seek to expand them must either end in compromising, or in tragedy. And that is at the heart of The River Between.
The ambition of The River Between – as I mentioned above – is that Ngugi wa Thiong’o chooses as his site of conflict between colonial “modernity” and indigenous belief a practice that almost all of us would condemn unreservedly, both intuitively, and on careful reflection. What do the defenders of circumcision have to say for themselves? What can they possibly have to say for themselves? In Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (independent Kenya’s first President) might have written that “this operation is still regarded as the very essence of an institution which has enormous educational, social, moral and religious implications… for the present it is impossible for a member of the tribe to imagine an initiation without clitoridectomy” – but surely that is no justification for something that is so obviously oppressive.
In The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s answer is to remove the authorial voice almost entirely from the novel. Female circumcision relies entirely upon its novelistic advocates for its justification, and one of those advocates is Muthoni as well. Echoing Kenyatta, Thiong’o describes how, for Muthoni, circumcision is what gives her membership in the tribe any meaning at all; without it, she is bereft, like an atrophied limb, cut off from its body. Now, we may dismiss this as false consciousness, as internalised oppression; but Thiong’o’s Muthoni is too fiercely intelligent, too reflective, and too human for any such easy resolution. And this is the singular achievement of The River Between: Thiong’o gives us a character whom we must take seriously, whose choices we must evaluate as choices. This is particularly important because, as recent scholarship has shown, the conflict over the abolition of oppressive gender-practices between the colonisers and indigenous societies was conducted on a terrain in which any kind of agency or voice was entirely denied to those whom it was ostensibly for: women. As an Indian scholar writes, the conflict “was not so much about the specific condition of women within a definite set of social relations as it was about the political encounter between a colonial state and a supposed ‘tradition’ of a conquered people.” In this context, Muthoni’s is the absent voice, now foregrounded front and centre.
Muthoni’s certainty and strength of will is a stark contrast with the ambivalent and unsure Waiyaki. Primed to belong to both worlds, he too falls victim to the totalitarianism of utopias, and finds himself struggling to belong to either:
“Again he was restless and the yearning came back to him. It filled him and shook his whole being so that he felt something in him would burst. Yearning. Yearning. Was life all a yearning and no satisfaction? Was one to live, a strange hollowness pursuing one like a malignant beast that would not let one rest? Waiyaki could not know. Perhaps nobody could ever know. You had just to be…”
Waiyaki is a neat inversion of the familiar fictional trope, the “half-blood” who, straddling two worlds, emerges as an unlikely saviour. Through Waiyaki – who, again, like Muthoni, is too human to simply reduce to a type – Thiong’o demonstrates just how difficult a task that is in moments of extreme flux, where one order, backed by raw power, clashes with another, supported on nothing but memories and dreams. And it is only towards the end of the novel that we get a sense of where Thiong’o himself stands on the issue:
“A religion that took no count of people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognize spots of beauty and truths in their way of life, was useless. It would not satisfy. It would not be a living experience, a source of life and vitality. It would only maim a man’s soul, making him fanatically cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua. He had clothed himself with a religion decorated and smeared with everything white. He renounced his past and cut himself away from those life-giving traditions of the tribe. And because he had nothing to rest upon, something rich and firm on which to stand and grow, he had to cling with his hands to whatever the missionaries taught him promised future… if the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something of equal value, you became lost.”
Here we have that flash of insight, delivered in spare, clean prose, that is such a staple of the later Thiong’o. The River Between shows us a young Thiong’o, still honing and polishing his craft, the craft that would reach its peak in a novel like The Wizard of the Crow. But for a first novel, it is still an astonishingly accomplished work, subtle, complex, and above all, humane and empathetic.