"Perhaps life was a contradiction": Messianism and Religion in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

In Resistance in Postcolonial African fiction, Neil Lazarus examines the first three of Ayi Kwei Armah's novels in order to explain Armah's portrayal of a momentous change in the aspirations of radical African writers and activists in the 60's and 70's. According to Lazarus, Armah's novels depict a progression from the messianic, "utopic rhetoric" that characterized most early celebrations of independence (a rhetoric, unfortunately, that grossly overestimated and idealized the emancipatory potential of decolonization), to the "rhetoric of disillusion" that resulted from the harsh realities of post-independence class antagonism, foreign dependence, and economic disrepair. Independence, in other words, rarely (perhaps never) ensures the material, economic, and political amelioration of postcolonial nations.

Although in a later discussion of other African writers and intellectuals Lazarus foregrounds Ngugi wa Thiong'o as one of the "major strategists of the 'new' writing that has come to the fore in Africa since 1970" (212), Ngugi's first novel, The River Between, (1965) nonetheless portrays a curious combination of Christian and indigenous "messiah" narratives that bear a strong resemblance to Lazarus' suggestion of a "utopian messianism" in Armah's earlier novels. Set in rural Kenya both before the gaining of independence and before the Kenyan "emergency" of the early 1950's (an emergency that Ngugi was to portray later in his A Grain of Wheat), The River Between has as its central character a figure named Waiyaki--a native of the Kameno mountain ridge who, despite his beliefs in the value of British education, has been prophesied as the "saviour" of Kameno traditions. In the following passage, Waiyaki's father Chege discloses to Waiyaki his foreseen responsibility:

Now, listen my son. Listen carefully, for this is the ancient prophecy....I could not do more. When the white man came and fixed himself in Siriana, I warned all the people. But they laughed at me. Maybe I was hasty. Perhaps I was not the one. Mugo often said you could not cut the butterflies with a panga. You could not spear them until you learnt and knew their ways and movement. Then you could trap, you could fight back. Before he died, he whispered to his son the prophecy, the ancient prophecy: "Salvation shall come from the hills. From the blood that flows in me, I say from the same tree, a son shall rise. And his duty shall be to lead and save the people!" He said no more. Few knew the prophecy. Perhaps Kabonyi, who has betrayed the tribe, knows about it. I am old, my time is gone. remember that you are the last in this line. (24)

Later on, of course, Kabonyi (the only other person, aside from Chege, aware of the prophecy) competes with Waiyaki for Kameno leadership, criticizing Waiyaki severely for his romance with Nyambura and his alleged betrayal of Kameno values in favor of the white, Christian principles of the adjacent Makuyu mountain ridge. What's most compelling about Ngugi's "saviour" narratives is his clever juxtaposition of Christian and indigenous promises of salvation. Joshua's promise of a white saviour, presumably Christ, mirrors in many ways Chege's prescient foretelling of an African saviour:

Isaiah, the white man's seer, had prophesied of Jesus. He had told of the coming of a messiah. Had Mugo wa Kibiro, the Gikuyu seer, ever foretold of such a saviour? No Isaiah was great. He had told of Jesus, the saviour of the world. (33)

Waiyaki, regardless of his resemblance to Christ, ultimately adopts a doctrine of reconciliation, tolerance, and unity that he feels will resolve all conflicts between the two contending mountain ridges. "Unity was the answer," he says. In the passage below, Ngugi describes Waiyaki's perhaps naive aspirations towards national unity:

For a moment he dreamt the dream. It was a momentary vision that flashed across his mind and seemed to light the dark corners of his soul. It was the vision of a people who could trust one another, who would sit side by side, singing the song of love which harmonized with music from the birds, and all their hearts would beat to the rhythm of the throbbing river. (137)

Lazarus, basing much of his work on Frantz Fanon's essay "The Pitfalls of National Consciousness" from The Wretched of the Earth, criticizes the messianic, perhaps overly sanguine ambitions of African leaders shortly after the gaining of independence. Either misrepresenting or ventriloquizing the aspirations of the masses, African writers and intellectuals in one sense falsified attempts for political amelioration in postcolonial African countries because they spoke from the privileged and overgeneral perspective of the bourgeoisie. How might Waiyaki's perhaps naive gestures towards universality and unity anticipate Lazarus' and Fanon's concerns for such an occurrence?

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