As far back as I can remember, the theme of religion in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between was very special to my English teacher. But he seemed to always have something against the white man's religion; just like Ngugi I should say. But hey, Ngugi is a good writer and I take a bow. But I will do the praise-singing later. So what was I saying? Mr. Indoshi, our English teacher seemed to have a personal conflict with Joshua, the symbol of Christianity in the book. Let me see if I remember what he taught us about the conflict between 'converts and conservatives' in the book.
Religion in The River Between has been cast in two ways; there is the traditional worship of Murungu on Mt. Kerinyaga and the worship of the white man's God who had a son called Jesus who died in order to give life.
Religion in the book touches on virtually everything that goes on in the novel; it is to say the least the source of the major conflict in the book. The traditional worship has been portrayed as the best religion, a religion that connects people to their humanity and purpose, a religion that gives life to people. On the other side, Christianity has been portrayed as a negative religion, a religion of deprivation, a religion that denies one life, a religion through which people lose themselves in order to have it...
Joshua stands for Makuyu, one of the ridges that also claim the identity of Christ a people who are destined for the new Jerusalem. And in accepting Christianity, Joshua denounces everything traditional because the white man says it is pagan worship. So Joshua embraces the white man's religion as the white man puts it not as the bible says and this becomes his major weakness. Joshua tags his entire family into his new belief and since he controls his family with an iron hand, no one dares complain loudly. But one of his daughters, Muthoni does the unimaginable.
Although we do not interact with Muthoni a lot at the beginning, the very first time we meet her in the book we get the idea that she is the kind of person who will stand anywhere to defend what she believes in; on a cactus or on a velvety surface. It is easy to empathize with her. Muthoni's heart beats for the land, the ridges and the traditions of the people. Hers is not a solid rebellion against the white man's God but a plea to be understood first as a human being before any other things are imposed on her including the new religion. She believes that for religion to exist, she must first have life. Muthoni seems to know fully well that religion in and for itself is nothing. She says that she is a Christian and she has no intention of abandoning the faith. But she knows too well that her life is inseparably bound to the tribe and that Christianity cannot be meaningful to her if it attempts to meet her outside her tribe.
On the day she plans to escape and go to her auntie's place in Kameno in order to get circumcised she tells her sister Nyambura;
Why! are we fools?... 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. You learn the ways of the tribe. Yes, the white man's God doesn't quite satisfy me. I want, I need something more. My life and your life are here, in the hills, that you and I know. page 25
In this circle, there is Waiyaki as well. Waiyaki is the protagonist in the novel. There is a tale about an ancient prophecy that declared Waiyaki the leader of his people. Waiyaki is as a result expected to maintain the sanctity of the tribe and this includes not violating the ancient ways with anything; not even the white man's religion... But there is a problem; Waiyaki is so attached to the daughters of Joshua, a convert! So is there hope for his 'throne'? Will he succeed in leading his people or will he join the list of rejected 'messiahs'?
But we can also tell through his character that Waiyaki is troubled. He believes there are good to be picked from either side and there is also bad that has to be rejected from both sides. Here, the challenges of reconciliation begin to hit him. His thoughts are streamed as follows;
But the religion, the faith needed washing, cleansing away all the dirt and 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 couldn't 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 did not recognize 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 maim a man's soul, making him cling to whatever promised security, otherwise he would be lost. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Joshua.
Waiyaki like Muthoni believes that his life is dependent on the tribe; there is nothing wrong with a religion except when it denies a person the very essence of being who they are, what they are. Muthoni eventually runs away from home to go to Kameno and be circumcised because she believes in it. But Joshua thinks it is the most unforgivable sin and she ceases to exist in his mind from that day henceforth.
From that day, Muthoni ceased to exist for him, in his heart. She had brought an everlasting disgrace to him and his house which he had meant to be an example of what a Christian home should grow into.
Alright, let her go back to Egypt. Yes. Let her go back. He, Joshua, would travel on, on to the new Jerusalem. page 35
Joshua's religion as depicted in the book is slightly unrealistic. The white man says it is wrong to marry many wives yet he himself has a lot of women in Siriana who are said to be his wives. And even then, Joshua can recall some old testament people who used to walk with God and angels and yet they had more than one wife. Joshua as a man, as an individual doesn't seem to have fully understood what his new religion is about nor what he stands to gain except the elusive promise of going to heaven.
It is this lack of a grounding that disintegrates Joshua's family. After the death of Muthoni, Nyambura discovers that she too is in love with the forbidden_ Waiyaki. The love feeling is so intense and totally beyond her and for the first time, she contemplates disobeying her father.
Day by day she was becoming weary of Joshua's religion. Was she too becoming a rebel? No, she wouldn't do as her sister had done. She knew however, that she had to have a God who would give her a fulness of life, a God who would still a restless soul, so she clung to Christ because he had died on the tree, love for all people blazing out of his sad eyes.
Joshua's religion is not bad in itself; but there is something that makes it fail to speak to the people; to satisfy them fully and keep them from going back and forth in search of something to appease themselves.
(All quoted texts are from The River Between)
So I actually remember something after all these years? I wasn't as daft as my maths teacher used to suggest after all. But really, the contact point between a people's ancient beliefs and Christianity have always been a source of discomfort. But the book itself is an interesting read. It has twists and turns that will rivet you; the anxiety it creates is almost touchable... Grab your copy now!