Circumcision in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between

Benjamin Graves '98, UTRA Fellow 1997

The narrative thrust of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between (1965) derives largely from an anxiety surrounding circumcision--an indigenous Kenyan rite practiced upon both boys and girls that ensures their successful passage into adulthood. Coupled with the novel's setting between two mountain ridges, Ngugi's portrayal of circumcision (particularly female circumcision) enacts a sustained sexual metaphor that crudely genders these mountain ridges as a female-coded liminal zone and, in addition, portrays the contending Kameno and Makuyu claims for these ridges as figurative "circumcision" narratives themselves. As perhaps Ann McClintock might argue, Ngugi genders the novel's Kenyan landscape as female in an attempt to portray Kameno and Makuyu antagonism as a fundamentally masculinist competition for patriarchal dominance.

Waiyaki, towards the novel's opening, looks forward to his circumcision with a combination of excitement and trepidation: "This would mark his final initiation into manhood. Then he would prove his courage, his manly spirit" (14). Ngugi connects circumcision to the notions of "place" and religion in order to locate Waiyaki's circumcision ritual in the precarious landscape of Kenyan mountain ranges that are soon to meet colonial exploitation. "The knife produced a thin sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The surgeon had done his work. Blood trickled freely onto the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Waiyaki to the earth, as if his blood was an offering" (52). But whereas Waiyaki's circumcision proceeds without incident, the debacle surrounding Muthoni's circumcision and subsequent death emphasizes above all the metaphorical relevance of female circumcision and its ramifications upon the gender dynamics of both Kameno and Makuyu social formations and families.

How might Ngugi's attention to female circumcision bear upon the novel's rather unsubtle (if not to say Manichean) gendering of the Kenyan mountain setting? What I'm suggesting is that the Kameno and Makuyu mountain ridges dramatize a cumbersome psycho-sexual allegory that points towards the anxiety surrounding female circumcision; the mountain ridges, that is, are crude signifiers of the "ridges" of Muthoni's labia that are excised much in the same manner that Kameno purists would excise the presence of Christianity that had corrupted their social landscape.

In The River Between circumcision assumes a paradoxical double-function. On one hand circumcision is an indigenous, traditional, and therefore perhaps anti-colonial rite that operates as a form of resistance against impending British imperialism. In the following passage, for example, Ngugi juxtaposes circumcision and Christianity in order to suggest how circumcision became a "pagan" rite transgressive of Christian principles:

For Nyambura had learnt and knew that circumcision was sinful. It was a pagan rite from which she and her sister had been saved. A daughter of God should never let even a thought of circumcision come to her mind. (27)

Nyambura's reticence towards circumcision results from her internalization of Christian beliefs and her subsequent disavowal of indiginous cultural practices. And yet female circumcision is also a fundamentally masculinist system of oppression that maintains and legitimates the subjugation of women. Clearly the violence of circumcision forecasts somewhat the violence of decolonization; Alice Walker and others have elsewhere deftly portrayed the violence and humiliation of female circumcision. Is circumcision an anticolonial exercise or an oppressive patriarchal measure done upon women to ensure their willing submission to masculine dominance? Nyambura herself questions the legitimacy of the Christian censure of circumcision--suggesting not only that her Christian parents had themselves been circumcised but that the Old Testament itself betrays some ambivalence over the value of circumcision:

Father and mother are circumcised. Are they not Christians? Circumcision did not prevent them from being Christians. I too have embraced the white man's faith. However, I know it is beautiful, oh so beautiful to be initiated into womanhood...Sureley there is no tribe that does not circumcise. Or how does a girl grow into a woman?" (30)

Clearly circumcision carries multiple, shifting meanings that are continually brought into crisis against each other. Arguably anti-colonial, masculinist, secular, and spiritual, circumcision in one sense assumes a foremost position in the conflicts symbolized by the novel's setting. How, for instance, might we conceptualize such conflicts, tensions, and frictions (including the sexual friction of Nyambura and Waiyaki) as a demonstration of Roland Barthes' model of "jouissance," in which the unresolvable friction of multiple meanings along a "join" (or in our case, mountain ridges) create a certain reading pleasure?

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Ngugi OV