Having widely expanded my reading horizon in the past few years, I thought it might be fun to expand it even further by reading books from different countries. First on my list is The River Between by Kenyan author and social critic, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This book was featured in the Heinemman African Writers Series.
I found this story to be very reminiscent of one of my favourite books, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as both stories deal with the turmoil, changes and confusion that arose in Africa after Christianity was introduced. In The River Between, two communities of Kikuyu (a Kenyan ethnic group) , one Christian, the other traditional, struggle as the Christian group tries to outlaw female circumcision, which they believe to be a pagan practice, while the traditionals being distrustful of the “white man’s religion”, feel that circumcision is an important part of their culture and struggle to continue with their practice. The protagonist, Waiyaki, is caught between his destiny as the direct descendant of an African seer who supposedly foresaw the arrival of the white man, a “people with clothes like butterflies,” and who must therefore lead the village, as well as being a young man who obtained education from the missionaries, and is in love with Nyambura, the Christian daughter of Joshua, the Kikuyu pastor.
I liked the book a lot. Like African society in general, I found the story to have lots of patriarchal elements. First of all, there was the issue of the practice of female circumcision. Second, the female characters in the story barely had a voice, and were left out of political and economic matters, causing them to be the most vulnerable members in the society. What I also found interesting was the struggle between the traditional and the modern, something that is very difficult to be overcome.
One quote that I think is worth exploring is as follows :
” Livingstone was one of those missionaries who thought themselves enlightened. They were determined to learn the customs of the natives and not repeat the mistakes of missionaries of the earlier generation who had caused tribal warfare and civil strife because they could not appreciate the importance of tribal customs.”
I’m not sure if the Livingstone wa Thiong’o mentions in his story is supposed to be the famous Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, who I greatly admire for a number of reasons. This quote is important because respect for other people’s cultures, beliefs and traditions is crucial, and this hasn’t always been carried out in developing nations. However, it also raises a quandary; obviously the modern missionary realizes how rituals and tribal customs are important in order to promote social cohesion, and if they are disturbed, the social structure may collapse; however, in this case, can the missionaries (and us) really stand back and let the natives commit such a horrific act as female circumcision? If we do something, will we be accused of ethnocentrism? Where should we draw the line when questioning other’s beliefs?