Before he dies, Chege informs his son, Waiyaki, the novel’s hero, of an ancient prophesy concerning a leader who will rise and liberate the people of the ridges. Such a leader will come from his line, which makes Waiyaki the obvious candidate as his only son. Only one other person, Kabonyi, knows about this prophesy. Meantime, Chege sends Waiyaki to Siriana Mission to learn the wisdom of the colonialist. Such wisdom will help him gain insight into the ways of the white man and thus equip him for the future struggle against the colonial inversion. However, Waiyaki must ensure that he does not ‘contaminate’ himself with the colonialist’s ‘vices’.
The division between Makuyu and Kameno is deepened by the hostilities caused by the fact that some people embrace Christianity while others remain true to their indigenous ways, with female circumcision constituting the focal point of the conflict. Tempers reach boiling point when Joshua’s younger daughter, Muthoni, rebels against her father and submits herself to circumcision so to attain full womanhood. Muthoni’s demise from her wound does not help matters. Siriana launches a frontal attack on this practice by expelling children whose parents still uphold it.
Being among those forced out of Siriana, Waiyaki takes up the challenge of building self-help schools for such children. His exact leadership role having never been fully explained by his father who is now dead, he sees it as that of ensuring that the ridges get an education (the white man’s wisdom). Too preoccupied with his mission to educate the ridges, he loses sight of the people’s other needs, such as fighting to regain their lost land and dignity. There is also the widening gap between the Christian converts (or Joshua’s followers) and the traditionalists. The latter have even formed a secret organization, the Kiama, whose goal is to ensure the purity of the tribe.
Kabonyi manipulates the division to destroy Waiyaki whom he passionately hates. His hatred is further fuelled by Waiyaki’s growing popularity. Having earlier (and rather thoughtlessly) taken the oath of purity and loyalty to the tribe administered by the Kiama, Waiyaki finds himself vulnerable to Kabonyi’s schemes. This is due to a number of reasons. The first is that Waiyaki does not really wish to see the division deepening; instead he wants to heal it. But the traditionalists want to have nothing to do with the traitorous Christians; the Christians also want nothing to do with the people of the “people of darkness”. Waiyaki blames himself for having failed to address the issue of unity in time. Secondly, Waiyaki falls in love with Joshua’s uncircumcised daughter, Nyambura. As someone who has taken the oath of purity, this is a violation of that oath. The novel ends ominously with both Waiyaki and Nyambura in the hands of the Kiama which is to decide their fate.
Waiyaki, the protagonist or main character; he is the main character because the novel’s major plot or events focus on him. He is viewed as the messiah for whom the tribe has been awaiting. He himself defines his messianic role as that of bringing enlightenment to the tribe through education. He works tirelessly to achieve this goal. He notices the growing division, is disturbed by it, but is too preoccupied with education such that by the time he calls for unity it is too late. Waiyaki is the novel’s protagonist or tragic hero in the classical Greek or Shakespearean sense: He is an admirable character as he is popular with many of the people. He shows exceptional dedication in helping his people. They consider him their leader, their Teacher, but as with all tragic heroes, he has a tragic flaw or weakness which will bring about his downfall. He fails to take note of his enemies and appreciate the depth of their hatred. His friend, Kinuthia, tries to warn him but he brushes his warnings aside, confident that his good works will prove too strong for his enemies and his people will always be on his side. He also fails to appreciate the gravity of the oath he takes, that it has the ominous potential of being used by his enemies to destroy him. For a tragic hero to fall there must be an antagonist: Kabonyi is that antagonist who brings about Waiyaki’s downfall. He is assisted by his son, Kamau who also hates Waiyaki and is his bitter rival for Nyambura’s love.
Other major characters include Joshua, the Christian convert of Makuyu and a fierce adherent to the Christian faith. He is Muthoni and Nyambura’s father. His wife is Miriamu, who is one of the minor characters. There is also Kabonyi and his son, Kamau, a minor character. Chege, Waiyaki’s aged father, is also a minor character as he dies very early in the novel. There are two major incidents in which he appears: he reveals the prophecy to Waiyaki before his death; the other incident is when he decides to take Waiyaki to Siriana Mission.
There are opposites or polarities in Ngugi’s portrayal of characters, achieved at a number of levels. First, at the community or tribal level, there are the traditionalists on one side and the Christian converts on the other side. The traditionalists are portrayed positively while the Christians are caricatured (made to appear ridiculous). At the level of individuals, there are the positively portrayed characters such as Waiyaki, Kinuthia, Chege, Muthoni, Nyambura and Miriamu; there are also the negatively portrayed characters such as Kabonyi, his son Kamau and Joshua. It is through this polarised revelation of character that the author’s standpoint in relation to the issues he raises, such as female circumcision, is discerned.
Change brought about by colonialism and the accompanying division and culture conflict
What to choose from what the colonialist offers
The destruction of a people’s way of life
Call for unity through healing the division and conflicts
Land alienation and the degradation of a people reduced to labourers on their stolen lands
How love transcends all barriers
Defence of a people’s culture or way of life, etc
Ngugi shows that colonialism brought about change in
(and Kenya Africa at large). Before the advent of colonialism the people were one, united by a common culture and its rites. But with the advent of colonialism, there was conflict: some people accepted the new religion, Christianity, which condemned the indigenous culture, especially female circumcision as barbaric. This caused a bitter strife among the people or ‘tribe’. On the whole, the people are shown accepting education as seen in their sending their children to Siriana mission to attain the ‘white man’s wisdom’. When Siriana decides to bar pupils from unchristian families, the tribe is delighted when Waiyaki begins establishing self-help schools.
How the themes unfold
Both the identified themes as well as a number of other minor themes are advanced through the interplay of event and character, the agents of the novel’s action. After introducing us to the setting (Chapter one), next the novel symbolically launches the theme of conflict through fighting scene (Chapter two). Kinuthia and Kamau are introduced in the novel engaged in a fierce fight and Waiyaki, the prospective leader, stops the fight, calling for unity: “Didn’t we swear that we of the hills were comrades?” (The River Between.1978: 5. Page references are from this edition.)
Story and myth intertwine in Ngugi’s narration. Some sections or even some whole chapters are devoted to tracing the origins of the Gikuyu tribe. It mentions its mythical forebears, Gikuyu and Mumbi, the father and mother of the Gikuyu tribe and their nine daughters. (Chapter one) There is also Mugo wa Kibiro, a seer or prophet; Kamiri, a powerful magician; Wachiori, a great warrior; Demi na Mathathi, giants of the tribe. These are invoked here to show that the ridges had a history and that their existence dated back to antiquity. They also had a religion as they worshiped Murungu, their god or ‘supreme being’ who dwelled at the unreachable snow-capped top of
Mount Kenya, Kerinyaga in Kikuyu). In this way, Ngugi advances a defence of the Gikuyu culture (Gikuyus being one of the dominant ethnic groups of Kenya; Ngugi himself was a Gikuyu and so was the first president of Kenya, Mze Jomo Kenyatha, and its present president, Mwai Kibaki). The initial chapters also touch on the tribe’s rituals such as the second birth which comes before the actual circumcision of males. The second birth constitutes the severing of the bond of babyhood linking the boy to his mother. This is done through the severing of the symbolic umbilical cord: he is no longer a baby but a big boy ready to be initiated into manhood during circumcision.
In Chapter four we see Chege taking Waiyaki on a journey to the hills to show him the sacred grove. Chege feels the time has come for Waiyaki to learn of the sacred secrets of the tribe and to be made aware of his role in them. As they trudge on, Waiyaki is receiving his education, such as on the medicinal qualities of some trees: “The bark of that tree is good for a fresh wound. The roots of this plant are good. When your stomach bites you, you boil them in water. Drink the liquid.” (p14) He also receives instruction on the mythological history of the ridges: “Long ago women used to rule this land and its men. They were harsh and men began to resent their hard hand. So when all the women were pregnant, men came together and overthrew them.” (p15)
In Chapter five, as they stand atop the hill, commanding the view of the whole land, dominated by its two principal ridges, Chege then discusses the significance of their pilgrimage, so to speak. He informs Waiyaki that Gikuyu land belongs to the people of the ridges, the Gikuyu. He, Waiyaki, is its destined messiah who should rescue the land and its people from the clutches of the colonialists. Waiyaki is its destined messiah because he belongs to the lineage of the great Gikuyu men, such as Mugo wa Kibiro, the great seer who foretold of the coming of the whites and of the messiah who will liberate the ridges:
“It was before Agu; in the beginning of things. Murungu brought the man and woman here and again showed them the whole vastness of the land. He gave the country to them and their children and the children of the children, tena na tene, world without end. …
“That is a blessed and sacred place. There, where Mumbi’s feet stood, grew up that tree. So you see, it is Kameno that supported the father and mother of the tribe. From here, Murungu took them and put them under Mukuruwe wa Gathanga in Muranga. There our father and mother [i.e. Gikuyu na Mumbi] had nine daughters who bore more children. The children spread all over the country. Some came to the ridges to keep and guard the ancient rites…”
“You have heard of Mugo wa Kibiro?”
“He was a seer…he saw things…the future unfolded before his eyes…
“Mugo was born and grew un in Kameno before he went to tell the people what he saw. For he saw many butterflies, of many colours, flying about over the land, disrupting the peace and the ordered life of the country. Then he cried aloud and said: “There shall come a people with clothes like butterflies….”
“We are his offspring. His blood flows in your veins.”…
“You are the last in our line.” (pp18-19)
When sending Waiyaki to Siriana, Chege utters these words: “Arise. Heed the prophecy. Go to the
Mission place. Learn all the wisdom and all the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices. Be true to your people and the ancient rites.” (p20)
His words show his appreciation of the importance of the “white man’s education”.
Chapter six introduces us to new characters and a new scenario. We move over from Kameno to Makuyu, to Joshua’s household. We first meet Joshua’s two daughters, Nyambura and Muthoni. They have been strictly raised as Christians by their zealous father. However, while Nyambura has accepted her father’s teachings, not so Muthoni who wants to be circumcised:
“I have thought and thought again about it. I have not been able to eat or sleep properly. My thoughts terrify me. But I think now I have come to a decision… Nyambura, I want to be circumcised.” (p24)
Muthoni’s reasons are that she wants to be initiated into womanhood through the ways of the tribe. Muthoni thus wants to bring together (or integrate/ marry) in her person the two clashing cultures: indigenous and acquired. Nyambura who has admitted to some inner guilt over the issue of circumcision (p23) tries to dissuade her sister to no avail:
“But Father will not allow it. He will be very cross with you. And how can you think of it …Besides…you are a Christian. You and I are now wise in the ways of the white people…
“Why do you want this? You know this is the devil’s work. You know how he tempts people. You and I are Christians. Were we not baptised long ago? Are you not now saved from sin?”
“…Look, please, I – I want to be a woman. I want to be a real girl, a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges…
“…it is beautiful, oh so beautiful to be initiated into womanhood. You learn the ways of the tribe…” (pp25-6)
Further on in Chapter nine Muthoni will echo the same words and sentiments to Waiyaki. In his portrayal of Muthoni, we see Ngugi showing the culture conflict at the individual level. He uses the two girls’ conversation or dialogue to dramatise it and show how it is product of the co-existence of two cultures. Where Nyambura is inwardly guilty for not participating in this yearly ritual and is remorseful over her “wicked reverie” Muthoni openly expresses her dilemma, “…the white man’s God’s does not quite satisfy me. I want, I need something more.” (p26)
In Chapter Seven we meet Joshua himself who represents those who have turned their backs on the ways of the hills and ridges and embraced the new religion and its values. Ngugi uses a number of devices to indicate the contrast between Joshua and the rest of the people: First he describes Joshua’s house which is different from the rest: “Joshua’s house was different. His was a tin-roofed rectangular building standing quite distinctly by itself on the ridge.” (p28)
Ngugi also uses the description of Joshua’s house to symbolically capture the strife that is about to engulf it because of Muthoni’s rebellion: “The tin roof was already decaying and let in rain freely, so on top of the roof could be seen little scraps of sacking that covered the very bad parts.” (p28)
Through this description of rotting and porous roofing Ngugi indicates that all is not well in Joshua’s house and that something is threatening to explode. He also indicates that the conversion to Christianity was based on patchy knowledge “scraps of sacking that covered the very bad parts”. In his portrayal of Joshua’s zeal for Christianity, Ngugi uses irony or its extreme form, sarcasm, as an effective tool. In this way, Joshua emerges as a caricature, a character who is mocked to invoke laughter from the reader. The chapter also prepares the ground for the shock waves that Muthoni’s rebellion will send, a rebellion against such a staunch adherent (Joshua) to the new faith.
Chapter Eight describes Muthoni’s disappearance from home and Joshua’s reaction to it: “All right. Let her go back to
. Yes. Let her go back. He, Joshua, would travel on, on to the new Jerusalem.” (p36) Egypt
Chapter Nine shifts to Waiyaki who, soon after the visit to the sacred grove and his second birth, leaves Kameno for Siriana where he is “equipping himself to come and fight for the tribe”. (p 38) The chapter focuses on the time when Waiyaki’s return to Kameno coincides with his participation in the circumcision rites. Muthoni also takes part in this particular circumcision and is seen defending her rebellion to Waiyaki:
“No one will understand. I say I am a Christian and my father and mother have followed the new faith. I have not run away from that. But I also want to be initiated into the ways of the tribe…I want to be a woman. Father and Mother are circumcised. But why are they stopping me, why do they deny me this? How could I be outside the tribe, when all the girls born with me at the same time have left me?
“…I want to be a woman made beautiful in the tribe.”
The chapter also describes the week-long activities which culminate with the actual circumcision rite - the dances and the suggestively erotic songs – “this talk of forbidden things”; “this mad intoxication of ecstasy and pleasure” - which are part of the initiation into womanhood and manhood. While Muthoni, despite her isolation from the life of the ridges, exuberantly participates in all these activities; Waiyaki experiences a degree of estrangement. He doesn’t like the provocatively erotic songs and dances, the result of the alienating influence of Siriana. But he has no problem with the actual circumcision as the narrator points out: “…he looked forward to it. It was his boy’s ambition to test his courage at the ceremony”. (p 39) Waiyaki appreciates the symbolic aspect of circumcision as a passage from boyhood to manhood, achieved through a display of manly courage.
Chapter Ten focuses on the actual initiation and the pain the initiates endure. But Muthoni develops complications. Her illness sharpens the division of the ridges. In order to undergo the ceremony, she has crossed over to Kameno to live with her estranged aunt. The people of Kameno see her illness from the wound which has refused to heal as a “father’s curse”. (p 46) Initially, Muthoni endures her excruciating pain away from the consoling and comforting presence of her mother and sister as Joshua would not permit them to come and see her. Later Nyambura secretly visits her after Waiyaki has intervened.
Chapter Eleven describes Muthoni’s death and the different reactions it elicits. First there is Joshua. Having disowned her when she rebelled – “Tell Muthoni to come back. If she agrees we shall forget everything. If she does not, then tell her that she ceases to be my daughter.” (p36) – Joshua receives the news of his daughter’s death “without a sign of emotion on the face.” The narrator continues to observe:
A slight tremor in the voice when he spoke was the only thing that betrayed him. He did not ask Miriamu when she died or how Miriamu had learnt of the facts… To him, Muthoni had ceased to exist on the very day that she had sold herself to the devil. Muthoni had turned her head and longed for the cursed land. Lot’s wife had done the same thing and she had been turned to stone, a rock of salt, to be forever a stern warning to others…Anything cursed here on earth would also be cursed in heaven. Let that be a warning to those who rebelled against their parents and the laws of God. (p 53)
This lack of emotion together with the condemnatory tone is a contradiction to the true Christianity of Jesus which taught a doctrine of compassion and restraint from judging others.
Chapter twelve continues to show the different reactions to Muthoni’s death and to highlight the resultant deepening division:
Like their leader, Joshua’s followers are equally relentless in their condemnation of Muthoni: “Muthoni was an evil spirit sent to try the faithful. It was now clear to all that nothing but evil would come out of adherence to tribal customs.” (p 58)
On the other hand, the traditionalists see Muthoni’s death as a curse and a warning to Joshua along with all those who have deserted their ancestral ways for the new faith :“The death of Muthoni had clearly shown that nothing but evil would come out of any association with the new faith”. (p 58)
We are also shown Chege in thought:
Had he not foreseen this drama? Had he not seen the estrangement between father and daughter, son and father, because of the new faith? This was a punishment to Joshua. It was also a punishment to the hills. It was a warning to all, to stick to the ways of the ridges, to the ancient wisdom of the land, to its ritual and song.
Would Joshua listen? Would Kabonyi hearken to the voice of angry Murungu? Chege feared for them. He feared for those who had embraced strange gods. (54)
These unsympathetic reactions show the deep division in the society. People are no longer brought close together by tragedy; instead, it pushes them further apart.
There is also the white Siriana missionary and educator, Livingstone, who for him the “death of Muthoni for ever confirmed the barbarity of Gikuyu customs”. The reason for this is that “these people seemed only interested in education, while they paid lip service to salvation” (p 55)
Muthoni’s death therefore brings to the fore the simmering tension. It is followed by further fragmentation:
First, there is a defection among Joshua’s followers when Kabonyi and “many others” break away amid high-pitched hostilities. Secondly, Siriana Mission expels the “children of those who defied the laws of the Church and continued with their tribal customs,” and passes the ruling that “no child of a pagan would again be allowed into school unless the child was a refugee. Even then the child would have to renounce circumcision”. (p60)
That is when Waiyaki is also forced to leave Siriana.
In Chapter thirteen we see Waiyaki already embarked on the project of self-help schools. The buildings are simple grass-thatched structures which offer little or short-term protection against inclement weather. The chapter also depicts the growing tension due to the people’s resentment against colonial imposition and injustice, felt more keenly in the loss of their ancestral land to the colonialists. Kinuthia, one of Waiyaki’s two fellow-teachers (the other being Kamau, Kabonyi’s son) outlines the colonial issue in allegorical or symbolic terms:
Suppose another man …comes in and we offer him hospitality. Suppose after a time he deposes my father and makes himself the head of the family with a right to control our property. Do you think he has any right to it …And do you think I am bound by any consideration to obey him? And if conditions become intolerable, it lies with me to rebel, not only against him but also against all that is harsh, unfair and unjust. (p64)
It is around this time that the traditionalists form a secret organization, the Kiama, whose mandate is “to preserve the purity of [our] tribal customs and [our] way of life”. (p65) The action in this chapter is described against the backdrop of heavy rain, a real downpour or deluge, which to Waiyaki may assume contradictory roles, for it “could be a blessing or a curse”. (p66) In its negative aspect, the rain symbolises the loss of the ancestral land to the colonial invaders. The meaning is conveyed through the rain’s erosive action of washing away the soil.
Chapter fourteen briefly comments on Waiyaki’s growing popularity as a teacher and also the people’s desire for their children to learn. The events are filtered through Waiyaki’s consciousness or thoughts. His thoughts touch on such subjects as his reaction to his father Chege’s death, the role of circumcision in uniting the tribe and defining manhood, “It …was a something that gave meaning to a man’s life. End the custom and the spiritual basis of the tribe’s cohesion and integration would be no more”. (p68) Waiyaki also ponders over the pervasive division in the ridges and of where he himself fits in. The narrator observes that he “felt himself standing outside all this”. (p69).
The chapter moves on to introduce the love theme wherein Waiyaki is, despite his achievements as a teacher, shown dissatisfied somehow and restlessness: “He still felt hungry and yearned for something that would fill him whole, a thing that would take possession of the whole of himself.” (69)
There is a gaping void which needs to be filled.
The next chapter, Chapter fifteen, pursues the same subject of Waiyaki’s vague longing. For example, he reflects: “Was life all yearning and no satisfaction?” (p73) He is still in thought, thinking about a number of subjects such as Muthoni’s death, dying while trying to resolve her conflicting needs brought about by the co-existence of two cultures. It is now during night and he is unable to sleep until he decides to take a walk in the moonlit night. His undefined longing or yearning makes him restless. It is during this moonlit walk towards
that he meets with Nyambura who is also out walking as she too tries to deal with her own disquieting thoughts and vague longing. The chapter ends with the two of them making an appointment for Nyambura to visit Waiyaki’s school. Honia River
The reader is left with the feeling that a great romance is about to unfold. At the same time, though, there is a tragic note struck by the fact that they belong to two sworn enemy camps and their love may be doomed.
The tragic note is underscored in Chapter sixteen when Kinuthia warns Waiyaki to be careful of Kabonyi who seems to hate and resent him. Meantime, Kabonyi’s son, Kamau, seems to be spying on him. These two, father and son, will combine forces to bring Waiyaki down.
Chapter seventeen takes us back to Joshua and his church. Waiyaki is at Joshua’s church and is listening to the latter’s passionate sermon. Joshua is preaching a powerful and condemnatory sermon in keeping with his portrayal as a zealous Christian, but without the tender mercies which should mark out a mature Christian. For example, earlier on in the story when he hears of Muthoni’s death, he shows very little emotion. In its aftermath, he shows no sign of pain at her loss; if anything, the narrator comments: “To him she never existed. What had a man of God to do with the children of the evil one?” (p84)
As Waiyaki listens to Joshua’s preaching, especially its condemnatory aspects –“He talked of those who had found the light yet now walked not in the light…of those who wanted to walk their feet on two roads at the same time…[mixing] the two ways” (p86) – Wiayaki wonders about his own position. His wish is to unite the warring ridges but seemingly, “there was no half-way house between Makuyu and Kameno”. (p86) At the same time, Waiyaki’s presence in Joshua’s church stands in contradiction to his father Chege’s injunction that he should “be true to the tribe and the ancient rites”. (p86) Waiyaki has also been made a member of the Kiama as its clerk. Its goal is to fight for the preservation of the same “ancient rites” by upholding the “purity of the tribe and the ridges”. (p87) All these considerations make Waiyaki feel constrained, as if he is not in control of his own life. What he needs most is freedom to act the way he feels. Most importantly he needs freedom to pursue his vision of education and unity:
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. And Waiyaki saw a tribe great with many educated sons and daughters, all living together, tilling the land of their ancestors in perpetual serenity, pursuing their rituals and beautiful customs…(p87)
The mention of Kamau shows that Waiyaki’s enemy is following him, noting his every movement and action which he and his father Kabonyi will use to bring him (Waiyaki) down. Love for Nyambura will be Waiyaki’s Achilles heels, his weakness or vulnerability, which the enemy will exploit to full advantage.
In the next chapter, Chapter eighteen, Waiyaki’s vision for unity is outlined:
Every day he was becoming convinced of the need for unity between Kameno and Makuyu. The ancient rivalry would cripple his efforts in education. He also wanted a reconciliation between Joshua’s followers and the others. The gulf between them was widening and Waiyaki wanted to be the instrument of their coming together. (p91)
The chapter also brings together the people of the ridges who converge to
during parents’ day. It is a day of triumph for Waiyaki who has come to assume the title of Teacher. But this is also the day when his enemy Kabonyi unmasks himself. Waiyaki addresses the parents and stresses the importance of education and the need for more schools. But Kabonyi, incensed by Waiyaki’s growing popularity, stands up to offer a different vision: Marioshoni School
A moment too soon Kabonyi was on his feet. He did not smile but looked defiantly around him. The battle was on…
He reminded them of the poverty of the land. The dry months had left the people with nothing to eat…He touched on the land taken by the white man. He talked of the new taxes being imposed on the people by the Government Post now in their midst. And instead of Waiyaki leading people against these more immediate ills, he was talking of more buildings. Were people going to be burdened with more buildings? With more teachers? And was the white man’s education really necessary? Surely there was another way out. It was better to drive away the white man from the hills altogether…
“Or do you think the education of our tribe, the education and wisdom which you all received, is in any way below that of the white man?” (95)
“Do not be led by a youth. Did the tail ever lead the head, the child the father or the cubs the lion?” (p96)
Kabonyi touches a sore point, the people’s land which has been stolen by the colonial invaders. In a subtle way he invites the people choose between Waiyaki and himself. However, the people embrace Waiyaki’s vision and express their absolute trust in him “The Teacher! The Teacher! We want the Teacher! … Our children must learn. Show us the way. We will follow.” (p96-7) Kabonyi is of course incensed. That is why he confides in his son, “I could kill him.” (p 97)
Towards the end of the chapter, there is an ominous note, warning of troubles ahead for the now popular Waiyaki:
If Waiyaki had been fully aware of this faith in him, he might have feared. But he was not. The idea of education had now come to him like a demon, urging him to go on, do more. Even when later he was forced by the Kiama in their extravagant enthusiasm to take an oath of allegiance to the Purity and Togetherness of the tribe, he did not stop to analyse if any danger lurked in such a commitment. (p 98)
Ultimately, the oath will be invoked against him, to condemn him and bring him down.
In Chapter nineteen we are shown Joshua’s reaction to Waiyaki’s popularity. Since Waiyaki has become popular through his education drive, Joshua fears that some of his followers might, in their desire to educate their children, backtrack to the old ways, “the cursed things of the tribe like circumcision”. To counter such a danger he also builds two schools, one in Makuyu and the other in Ngenia, for the children of the Christian converts. Joshua also resolves to extend his preaching and conversion drive to Kameno, “the stronghold of the devil”. (p100) With this open challenge from Joshua and his followers, hostilities between the two ridges are bound to escalate. Caught in-between are the lovers, Waiyaki and Nyambura. It is obvious they’re in love and yearn for each other, but they can only meet secretly. Yet their secret rendezvous are always disturbed by the secretive and ominous hovering presence of Kamau, Waiyaki’s rival in his love for Nyambura. It is in this chapter that Waiyaki declares his love to Nyambura and proposes marriage. But both are conscious of the impossibility of their ever openly coming together, which leads to Nyambura rejecting Waiyaki’s marriage proposal but reciprocating his love. Somehow, Waiyaki’s desire for the unity of the ridges, between Joshua’s followers and the traditionalists, is partly inspired by his wish to have Nyambura.
In Chapter twenty we see the Kiama under Kabonyi’s leadership, assisted by his son Kamau who has replaced Waiyaki as its clerk, becoming stronger and stronger. It is a movement which runs parallel to Wiayaki’s call for education. The Kiama calls the people to fight for their land and the purity of the tribe. It also insists on administering to its members the oath of “allegiance to the purity of the tribe”. (p 109) To the people’s understanding, “Nobody could break this oath. Nobody who had taken it would ever betray the tribe.” (pp 109-10) At this point Waiyaki’s desire for unity, for reconciliation is at odds with the Kiama’s drive. Joshua is regarded as the enemy because of his Christianity and his siding with the enemy white settler and the missionary. Furthermore, Waiyaki’s being seen in Joshua’s church and with Joshua’s daughter is fully exploited by his two sworn enemies to discredit him. At the same time, since the rest of the people love their Teacher and know that he has taken the oath, they now make him the symbol of the tribe’s purity. This can only spell disaster for Waiyaki as Kinuthia points out:
“Be careful, Waiyaki. You know the people look up to you. You are the symbol of the tribe, born again with all its purity. They adore you. They worship you. You do not know about the new oath. You have been too busy. But they are taking the new oath in your name. In the name of the Teacher and the purity of the tribe…Your name will be your ruin.” (p 112)
The last statement is prophetic as it ultimately proves true.
In Chapter twenty-one the tension rises to dangerous levels when Joshua confronts Nyambura about Waiyaki, calling him a “young devil” and threatening her with expulsion from his house. In response, Nyambura is resentful and angry, for right now there’s a gaping void in her life which only Waiyaki can fill.
In Chapter twenty-two we are shown the political tension that is building up in the ridges in reaction to the various manifestations of colonial injustice. The tension is outlined through Kinuthia’s thoughts:
Yet he wondered if Waiyaki knew that people wanted action now, that the new enthusiasm and awareness embraced more than the mere desire for learning. People wanted to move forward. They could not do so as long as their lands were taken, as long as their children were forced to work in the settled ridges, as long as their women and men were forced to pay hut-tax. (p 118)
According to Kinuthia people are ready to fight for their independence from colonial rule. But Waiyaki, too preoccupied with his education drive –“We must build schools … and a college, a great big college…” –misses the people’s mood and this too is a dangerous omission for any leader. But what really brings Waiyaki down is his love for Nyambura because by pursuing this love, he unwittingly shows his disregard for the oath of purity which he took so casually without weighing its dangers, as his mother warns just before being dragged before the Kiama: “Fear the voice of the Kiama. It is the voice of the people. When the breath of the people turns against you, it is the greatest curse you can ever get.” (p 123)
In Chapter twenty-three we see Waiyaki before the Kiama. Because his two powerful enemies are there, we don’t expect him to emerge victorious. Waiyaki is accused of having compromised the purity of the tribe by touching Muthoni, first a sick and then a dead person; he is also accused of being a regular in Joshua’s church. His noble trip to Siriana in quest of teachers is also twisted to be that of a traitor who is in league with the missionaries; his love for Nyambura, which he considers a strictly private and personal matter is shown as one of the indicators of his being a traitor, and so on. The chapter shows Waiyaki on the verge of his downfall. It ends with Waiyaki futilely reiterating his vision:
“I too am concerned about the purity of the tribe. I am also concerned with the growth and development of the ridges. We cannot do this through hatred. We must be united, Christians and non-Christians, Makuyu or Kameno. For salvation of the hills lies in our hands.” (p127-8)
It is this vision of a united people, Christian and traditionalist, which propels him to go to Makuyu to warn Joshua of an impending attack. But his warning falls on deaf ears as Joshua regards Waiyaki as an enemy who must be resisted with force if necessary: “Go! Go! Out of my house! So you would come back to entice the only daughter that is left to me. I have never forgotten what you did to Muthoni.” (p133) Later he evicts Waiyaki with the words, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” (p136)
Waiyaki is thus rejected by both camps as none wish for reconciliation. He finds the rejection humiliating and he experiences extreme loneliness, the loneliness of a misunderstood visionary. In this way he is like his seer ancestor, Mugo wa Kibiro, who too was rejected by his people. To some extent his father Chege was also rejected. Joshua’s cruel rejection of Waiyaki, the man Nyambura loves and longs for in the privacy of her inner life – “Joshua could control her body, but he could not control her heart” – rouses Nyambura to rebellion. She departs with her “black Messiah”. (p134)
Espied once again by Kamau, Waiyaki’s final destruction is imminent. Faced with his imminent downfall and finding flight to
repugnant, Waiyaki tries to fight for his salvation. He calls for an emergency meeting of the ridges in which he wants to defend his vision. He is thus shown in Chapter twenty-five in deep reflection. He reflects on Kinuthia’s prophetic words, “Your name will be your ruin”. (p140) He also reflects about the two contending religions and mentally outlines his own stand. The narrator comments: Nairobi
For Waiyaki knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad. Even his religion was not essentially bad. Some good, some truth shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal that was the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people. A people’s traditions could not be swept away overnight. That way lay disintegration. Such a tribe would have no roots, for a people’s roots were in their traditions going back to the past, the very beginning, Gikuyu and Mumbi. A religion that took no account of a people’s way of life, a religion that did not recognise 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 main a man’s soul… (p141)
On Joshua’s brand of Christianity, Waiyaki continues to reflect:
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. (p141)
On Muthoni’s attempt to reconcile the two ways of life, Christian and tribal, and its tragic outcome Waiyaki further reflects:
Circumcision of women was not important as a physical operation. It was what it did inside a person. It could not be stopped overnight. Patience, and, above all, education, were needed. If the white man’s religion made you abandon a custom and then did not give you something else of equal value, you became lost. An attempt at a resolution would only kill you as it did Muthoni. (p142)
The final chapter, Chapter twenty-six, shows Waiyaki fighting a futile war to save himself, his vision and Nyambura. Although he gets a rousing welcome from the people; although his speech is enthusiastically applauded, his enemies hold the trump card: they have Nyambura as their prisoner whom they will produce as evidence of Waiyaki’s betrayal of the tribe. The novel ends with Waiyaki’s downfall. He and Nyambura are the Kiama’s prisoners, awaiting their sentence.
Note on characterization
As is apparent, this novel has two sets of characters –those that are positively portrayed and those that are negatively portrayed, as earlier pointed out. Together with the protagonist Waiyaki, the positively portrayed characters are used by the author as his mouthpiece. In other words it is through such characters that Ngugi advances his outlook on the issues he raises in this novel. That is why we need to pay close attention to Waiyaki’s pronouncements on education, circumcision, Christianity, and so on. Ngugi comes out more clearly in chapter twenty-five where he defends female circumcision by emphasizing its spiritual value, how it is the girl’s gateway to womanhood. So that even if it is deemed wrong by others, it should not be changed overnight. Ngugi is also not wholly against Christianity. Instead, he calls for selective adoption from both the local culture and the adopted one, introduced through Christianity; he calls for the recognition of ‘spots of beauty and truth’ in each culture. All this is filtered through Waiyaki’s thoughts.
Through his portrayal of Joshua, he warns against what he terms the “maiming of a man’s soul” (p141) as observed in Joshua’s reaction to his daughter’s rebellions. Instead of enriching his soul, Joshua’s brand of Christianity, based on a superficial and rather crude understanding of the Bible, has rendered him soul-less, so to speak. He opens his mouth only to condemn; instead of seeking understanding. His wife Miriamu has managed to put up with him by hiding her true feelings; instead she shows a superficial or outward conformity.
Some other aspects to note
The portrayal of River Honia: We see both Waiyaki and Nyambura going to this river each time they experience restlessness. The river is shown to have a calming effect. The river is also portrayed to emphasise the continuity of life, despite human squabbles, obstacles and so on, the river goes on with its business of flowing -in the same pace. Life continues, no matter what.
The theme of change: brought about by the advent of colonialism. The change from traditional to modernity was not smooth. It went through tragic moments, characterised by resistance by some, acceptance by others, a desire for reconciling the two cultures by yet others, etc.
Use of oral folklore, such as myths, legends, idioms, songs, proverbs and depiction of customs and rites –both enriches the narrative and legitimises the events-
Use of Biblical allusions –showing Ngugi’s familiarity with the Bible, especially the Old Testament -