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Sunday, March 13, 2016

The River Between (1965) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the best known members of the Kikuyu ethnic group of Kenya

The River Between (1965)
 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

   Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one of those authors who is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature (which doesn't actually reveal their decision process, so it's just speculation), presumably on the strength of his overall output and lifetime of political activism in Kenya.  He did a year in prison!  Thiong'o is also an important figure in the movement to "decolonize" literature.  His early works, including this one, were written in English, but he deliberately abandoned the English language in favor of his native Gikuyu.  Ethnically, he is Kikuyu, the largest single ethnic group in Kenya, although they are only 20 percent of the total population.  The  Agĩkũyũ, as they were known, were a significant non-subjugated people, even though the coast of Kenya had long been a preferred port of Arab slave traders and merchants.

   The culture of Kikuyu independence provides the back drop to the events of The River Between, which show Kikuyu culture in the process of assimilation to Christian religion, but prior to any kind of interference from actual Western governments.  The River Between takes place in the early 20th century and the action is centered on two adjoining Kikuyu villages.  One becomes the center of pro-Christian Kikuyu, the other the center of anti-Western sentiment.   The focus of action is Waiyaki, who is actually the son of the last tribal leader to (unsuccessfully) call for armed resistance to white missionaries.  Waiyaki is sent to the mission school, but told to keep his heart with his people.  After finishing his education, he returns to the village to set up their first school.

  Meanwhile, tensions rise between the Christian and Animist villagers.  Thiong'o does an excellent job of demonstrating the conflicting loyalties that were a prominent feature of the African colonial experience.   Modern readers may be put off by the centrality of female circumcision, or "female genital mutilation" as it is called today, to the plot of The River Between.

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