The River Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o


The River in Between by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, set in Kenya, tells the story of the Gikuyu people who live alongin two ridges, Kameno and Makuyu with the Honia River in between. The story is set in the early days on white settlement. The book explores how the people are torn between following Christianity which is brought by the new white settlers or continuing with their traditional rituals and beliefs that the Christian missionaries forbid and deem “sinful”.

This sensitive story raises a questions on whether it is possible in post-colonial Africa to integrate traditional rituals and rites with Christian beliefs and whether education can be a unifying link.

As opposed to being written anywhere, most African tradition and spirituality is oral and therefore passed on from generation to generation orally.  In this book for instance, where the people from Kameno and Makuyu fought for leadership, the story differed on both sides.  Long ago a man from Makuyu claimed their ancestors, Mumbi and Gikuyu once came to Makuyu with the all-powerful, Murungu. Because of their stay, leadership has been left to Makuyu. In Kameno the story was that Murungu, the all-powerful had told the people “this land I give to you , O man and woman. It is yours to rule...” So the story in Kameno was that spiritual superiority and leadership had been left there. And with the case of Waiyaki the main character, through words passed on, it was known that his family were prophets and it was their duty to get rid of intruders.

Beyond this story, real examples of traditional spirituality include the Igbo people of Nigeria for whom Chukwu is the supreme being. It is believed that Chukwu brings all things such as the rain that allows plants to grow and is in control of earth and the spiritual realm. Nyame is the god of the Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast. Nyame is androgynous and is the energy that creates the universe.

Attached to spiritualism and tradition are various ceremonies. Such as initiation ceremonies and ceremonies to celebrate new harvest.

The worship of idols and carrying out rituals in Christianity translates to one sinning.  This then creates a clash between Christianity and traditional African beliefs. In The River in Between, the staunch man of God, Joshua, is opposed to circumcision as it is sinful and praying to other gods beyond Christian figures wasthe father, Jesus, his son, and the holy spirt is forbidden.

The saying goes “knowledge is power”. When people learn things they are more educated and better equipped to make rational decisions. In some Zambian cultures when one gets their first period, you are spoken  to by an older female relative  on how  it is custom to avoid salting your  food. Now, having looked into it one learns that people are generally advised to avoid food with high salt content during their period because the hormones that are responsible for menstruation already cause water retention and therefore too much salt in your diet increasescauses bloating. While tThis is a basic example and does not equal circumcision, and it has been proven in the case Female Genital Mutilation that some practices are harmful. But perhaps when we look at certain rites, rituals and traditions from a religious lens it may be helpful to educate oneself before simply dismissing something as wrong or evil. Education perhaps may aid in breeding some level of tolerance.

This short, sensitive, and informative book that stays true to Kenyan culture is a wonderful eye opener into religion and, indigenous tradition, how the two clash and whether they can be integrated without people having to pick a side. 

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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