Ngugi’s book still relevant 42 years on

EAP's school edition of The River Between

More than 20 years after Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s book The River Between was unceremoniously bundled out of the Kenyan school system, it is now set to make a major comeback after the Ministry of Education approved it as a compulsory set book in literature studies in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE).
Many will be the questions asked as to whether Ngugi’s early works – The River Between included – are still relevant in today’s dispensation. A careful analysis of the book and the issues and themes it addresses reveals that they are still as relevant as they were those many years back.
Just like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi’s early writings dwelt at length with the clash of the white man’s culture with that of the Africans. Also addressed in those writings is the issue of oppression.
As far as oppression is concerned the author concerns himself with the methods the oppressor employs to achieve his ends and how the oppressed coped, and the means they employed to counter the oppression.
Colonialism, as was practised then might have come to an end, but the world we live in still remains an unjust place. The West, courtesy of their superior weaponry and improved economic status are still very much oppressing the poor nations particularly in Africa.
Closer home, oppression among ourselves – African against African – is even more pronounced than that of the West against Africans.
Kenya, as a country might have rid itself of colonialism more than 40 years ago, but the issues people used to moan about in the colonial days – poverty, landlessness, oppression, unequal distribution of resources, lack of education – are still burning issues today.
Thus it can be argued that when the white oppressors exited the scene they were replaced with more vicious black oppressors. Pupils studying the book would draw important lessons from how Africans today have coped with the Western Culture in relation to their own African cultures.
A casual look at the youth of today – who will be studying the book – reveals that many of them have completely abandoned their African roots and are busy trying to ape the Western culture, sometimes blindly. Evidence of this is in the way they dress, talk and how they relate with each other.
Thus the book will offer them an opportunity to examine themselves.
While The River Between, when it was written, mainly dwelt with the contact point of the two opposing cultures, the youth of today are the perfect examples of the after- effects of that culture clash. Today, most of them cannot construct a coherent sentence in their mother tongues.
It would be interesting for those studying the book to examine the rapidly emerging Sheng’ culture, which is today a much preferred means of expression by the youth. Simply put the Sheng’ generation in Kenya is a hybrid of Western and Kenyan/Swahili culture.
Looking at today’s youth some comparisons can be drawn between them and Waiyaki a leading character in The River Between, locally published by EAEP. Drawing from Mugo wa Kibiru’s prophecy, Waiyaki’s father, Chege, implored the young man to go the white man’s school and learn their ways. Chege knew the white man could only be countered by learning his ways.
Just as culture is dynamic, and is bound to change, Waiyaki is well aware that there are some aspects of the white man’s culture that are not as bad as they were made to appear, and therefore could be assimilated into the African culture. Thus Waiyaki is entrusted with the unenviable task of trying to harmonise the two cultures, unite the two opposing camps and come up with a model that would be acceptable to both, a task he utterly fails to accomplish.
Waiyaki might have failed in his gigantic task in the book, but evidence of the Sheng’ generation is enough testimony that Waiyaki’s efforts might not have been in vain after all. In his quest, Waiyaki was vilified by both sides. The same can be said of the Sheng’ generation. Aren’t they also being vilified by both sides of the divide, especially when it comes to matters of language?
Today Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a hot issue within government, religious and NGO circles. Sustained battles are being waged in communities that still cling to the ancient culture, with varying results.
The tragic character of Muthoni, in the book, and the tribulations she underwent as still are relevant today as they were when Ngugi wrote the novel. Muthoni, in spite of her parents having been converted to Christianity, had a burning ambition to undergo the rite, so as “to become a woman.”
She underwent the ritual, eventually dying as a result of the attendant complications. There still many Muthonis today as they were then. The issue of symbolism, as employed by Ngugi in the book, is one pupils studying the book will especially need to take into consideration. Such symbolism is brought into sharp focus with Muthoni’s death.
What did her death symbolise? The death of African traditions and customs? That is a debatable point.
Religion is another issue Ngugi never tires tackling in his works. In The River Between, he examines African traditional religions alongside Christianity, which was introduced by the white man. Today, roles appear to have changed. Christianity is on the rise in Africa, while diminishing in the West. Still in spite of their new-found faith, Africans will still revert to their traditional beliefs, whenever it suits them. I think The River Between is a valuable text for our children to study in schools. What is more, they will be interacting with ideas from one of their own.
You can order the book here

17 replies on “Ngugi’s book still relevant 42 years on”

Thank you thank you for compiling all these great reviews, commentaries and critiques of the current kenyan literary scene. so exciting to see it coming alive…. thank you so much for playing your part. it is large and it is important…no need to just depend on kwani! which i actually havent seen of late, but i feel from a journalistic point of view that what you are doing is timely and essential to our understanding what is going on right now. now all you have to do is add an online link to an online Kenyan book seller so that we can buy these books on the spot. i confess i am addicted to in the u.s. where i buy books all the time online, simply because i love the book and it is so simply to buy.
thank you for noting that Ngugi’s book is of course relevant. anybody who thinks otherwise would probably say tolstoi’s war and peace is outdated too! who would be so foolish to dismiss a kenyan classic just because you have a grudge vs. the man. For only a personal grudge would compell someone to dismiss any of Ngugi’s writing. Sorry! that is my view. i just finished reading a book by Wendy Griswold, an American scholar, on the Nigerian novel, and she read more than 500 novels that have come out since the early 70s, so kenya has a ways to go to catch up and surpass the Nigerians. Kenyans can do it but they need spurs like yourself. One reason i would love to come back to kenya is because i know Kenyan artists, including kenyan writers, respond to criticism positive or negative. We all thrive on feedback, so keep up the good work. Hope to see you soon.
Margaretta wa Gacheru

They are so many kenyan literature out there,contemporary ones at that. Why are we being taken back to hapo zamani za kale kind of books? I loved The river Between but i dont think it should be a set book once again. Wish I had a say on what students should read.

I must say you do an excellent job here at Word Press!

I beg to differ with Njoki my name sake…is hapo zamani za kale totally outdated?

Being taken down memory lane is not a bad thing as many people tend to think! We are what we are today because of our past. In order to fully understand the present we must be able to understand the past and take it from there.

I have no problem with contemporary writers…big ups to Smitta Smitten who sought to introduce gangster love in poetry but do we dismiss Song of Lawino and Ocol! Certainaily not!!!!

The Beautiful ones are not yet Born…that is the same approach that writing should take….look at the past and realize that we still have more to do…without looking at the past we are lost and are without direction.

Lets the children learn history…the present is all over!!!

Hello Ngunjiri

I find your blog to be not only intellectually (shall I say literary?) stimulating, but also a way of giving literature a shot in the arm, especially in this era of a proliferation of writings and varied shades of opinion vis-à-vis the book. Its approach is even much more fulfilling, attracting, as it has done, such respected critics like Margaretta wa Gacheru (hey Margie, where art thou? We miss your reviews!).

I would encourage you to continue igniting debate and discussion, and focus on the different genres of literature. And market your blog (I’m already doing that on your behalf – but don’t rest on your laurels!).

Keep up the great job!

Kiarie Kamau

Great review Ngunjiri,

I would like to first respond to Wa Gacheru. Some good news, EAEP, the publisher of all Ngugi’s books as well as many others by African writers, recently launched an online book buying system. I’d recommend that you check it out.

The relevance of ‘the River between’ remains debatable although it is of great importance to understand why set books are part of the school syllabus.
I do not refute that there many great up coming writers who are tackling more current issues. However, I feel that instead of looking at the present issue and start wondering how they came about(AIDS, poverty, Drug addiction, etc) we need to look at the source of it. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o takes us to the beginning, to the root of the problem.
Why are so many youths without proper morals? why are they so heavily influenced by western culture? Why is there such a huge gap between the rich and the poor. why are Kenyans/Africans fighting amongst themselves? These are the questions young people have been asking themselves and they will find all the answers in ‘The river between’.
Therefore, It is the most relevant book anyone could read in order to understand what is ailing Kenya and Africa as a whole.
I’ll give you an example of a book by George Orwell ‘The animal farm’. Kindly check when that book was first published. Do you think it is still relevant in this day and age.

I rest my Case.

Ever since i laid my eyes on your blog am hooked, this is what proper literary criticism and review should be like. It makes me JUST LOVE TALKING BOOKS as part of my MAISHA.

Eh? Just realised that someone asked whether Ngugi is relevant to Kenyan youth today to be taught in schools. My reply: The Bible, written centuries before Ngugi was born, is still taught in schools because it is relevant. Relevance is not about WHEN something was written or done, it is about WHAT content is therein.

Hi Ngunjiri,
I read your comments regarding the reintroduction of “The River Between” to our secondary schools, but before I could respond a computer virus wiped out all the documents in my In- box.
In my view the book is as relevant today as it was when it was written in spite of the fact that( as you pointed out) a lot has happened since then.
Personally I hold that book with a lot of reverence. When I read it many years back- I was in form three- I couldnt sleep the whole night. I asked myself many times why Muthoni had to die. The book captivated me so much that I promised myself i’d one day write a novel as good as that one. I still have that dream.
I read in the Standard the publishers were making some alterations.I think it is necessary but I do hope they will not kill the spirit of the book.
By the way, where do you get all that energy to read and write so much?

I read with enthusiasm Tony Mochama’s article (The Sunday Standard 9th 2007) and which was a reflection of his frozen past that is currently melting ‘beyond the river’.
Certainly, the poet cum-writer’s ‘hit and run’ esoteric etymology of ‘The River Between’ is seen to be pseudonymously counterfeit.
First, he chooses to make his mundane poetry works look abysmal an intifadal against other great reads, as Ngugi Wathiongo’s.
Secondly, he introduces ‘literary botulism’ by cunningly re-constructing ‘The River Between’, to read ‘Between the River’. This he makes by making us believe that, ‘it is time to look beyond the river. My emphasis being, ‘beyond the river’. A writer of his genre would be smarter to rename that as ‘The River Between’, and not ‘beyond the river’ which carries a totally different meaning altogether. Or it is matter of poetic gangsterism? Or may be an obsession to confine and submerge oneself in the river or beyond”.
On the other hand, is ‘what if I am a literary gangster’ an upstart indemnity for the post – (1978-2000) literary drought that comes with solace? Or are his untethered works archetypical that unrestrained or scathingly leftist than fascistic in constant and style?
Even with his literary treatise around, I equally equate Mochama to LRA’s ‘Kony’ for his literary violence that is against a seemingly stable pre-millennium societal ideologies, no matter the trans-historical taste.
Aren’t Kenyan teens yearning to conceptualize and understand better the climatic political underpinnings between the year 1978 and 2000 that clouded and prevented Kenyan youth from accessing the likes of ‘The River Between’ in schools?
Believing that KIE is ‘forcing old work on young students’ is not only mischievous but utterly perfidious. Not having read and analyzed a pre-millennial by current youth not mean that the book should lose its relevance. Instead, the writer becomes inebriatingly partisan by flaunting the likes of Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘Beyond the River Yei’ (that has a rather consorting poetic prose as his). Isn’t this literary escapism and defense mechanism taking the toll of a ‘youngster against his grandfather’, than a step-father a.k.a ‘literary godfather’.
Or is it me et al getting stuck in the mud at the banks of ‘the river between’ of the 1960s and 1970s at this post-millennium age?
Personally, I strongly feel that Tony Mochama is suffering from Wathiongo’s pre-millennium reverse social re-unification of our historical past and present.
On a reflective pattern, Ngugi Wathiongo’s contribution has led to the re-assessment and (dis)-qualification of female genital mutilation (FGM). Issues involving ‘forceful circumcision of women, trusting a boy than a Kihii (uncircumcised man) and ‘tribal’ victories of one community over another/others only serves to re-educate ourselves in black and white terms than the same author’s ‘Petals of Blood’, Ngugi’s ideologies are as green as our cyber-lives through some of us would still be mowing in ignorance.
Part of chapter 7 of the same book reads, “Circumcised in hospital under a pain killer……” chapter 9 “But we were soon intrigued, fascinated, moved by the entwinement and flowering of youthful love and life and we whispered; see the wonder-gift of God.
Chapter 11, ‘she is the most powerful woman in all Ilmorog. She owns houses between hear and Nairobi. She owns a fleet of matatus, she owns a fleet of big transport Lorries “. Aren’t all these a reflection of our post-millennium lives though written in the 60s?
One more thing, the book carries with it in its pages sex-episodes and scenes even in pyrethrum fields. Just what our youth do with a misconceived notion of having fun, only this time with a condom as a scare-crow for HIV/AIDS.
Thus, as Mochama wants to entangle us in a ‘fast and forwards’ generational discourse, we should desist from defacing Ngugi Wathiongo’s literary bust from our school shelves. With sex and circumcision tools, why doesn’t Mochama see Wathiong’o as ‘young at heart but wise of mind’?
Instead, he brings conflict to the same younger generation by playing a ‘literary gangster’, thus going against his godfather’s ‘Beyond the River Yei’ that carries cross-border peaceful identity. If in fact it is now raining heavily in the literary community, then clouds, drowning and collapse of infrastructure and subsequent ‘drought and a desert’, from the likes of Mochama should await us big.
In Ngugi Wathiongo’s piece (Sunday Nation; 9th December, 2007), titled ‘Why I maintain faith in my Country’. He reminds us of his commitment to citizenry. In his words he starts by stating that, ‘I celebrate with my fellow Kenyans the present moment in our country.’
He challenges us with his concept that, ‘The party represents the leader, not the leader representing the party. Or rather the leader is the party itself’. Coming to Mochama, is the teargas book, ‘What if I am a Literary Gangster’, a representation of his character, or is he the subject of his poetry book’? Mr. ‘Taban Lo Liyong’ of armed alphabet!
Mundia Mundia Jnr.

hi,you have really done the kenyan literary scene a great service. Not only that your blog is a real promotion of kenyan writing and the writers, but also an avenue for the lovers of kenyan writings for mind boggling revelations and reviews. A good example being tony mochama’s what if am a literary gangaster.
I feel the guy should be encouraged atleast to come up with his relatively new crop of writing.
For Wathongo’s river between, it is the high time K.I.E selected books which rhyme with the youths expectations. Some of the themes in this school text is just too outdated for the teengers to be enthusiased about. Consedering the tribal animosity in our country after the just concluded elections, the book should be shelved away for a while for it feuds tribal animosity between tribes. Not matter how the editors try to edit it,the book cant be justified for our secondary school youths
It is the high time K.I.E introduced new books to read in high schools as away of promoting the reading and writing culture into our society. ERIC MWENDA

it was mark twain, the american satirist who defined a classic novel as one which everybody applauds but no one reads . The river between is firmly in the category of readable classics and all with a strong sense of serious literature should feel the intensity of the plot.
However as a compulsory text for student, literature tutors are going to have it rough. The only exciting thing to my students from the text is the symbolism of the ‘river between.’ I wish the ministry could have decided on weep not child.

Personally what I feel important about The River Between is that it marks a definite growth in the author”s perspective as a writer in terms of the failure of education in serving the cause of the nation”s liberation – specially since Ngugi views western/EURO-CHRISTIAN education as a suspect in dividing Kenyan people at an important point in the liberation struggle.

I totally understand your liking for the book.Like one blogger put it,it sends you down memory lane.Unfortunately,it doesn’t send our students that same lane-they don’t relate to half the stuff in the book.As a result the book ceases to be literary and becomes historical.

Having said this,I think the book carries a valuble messege especially to the youth and we should therefore identify a book with a similar messege but with a setting and circumstances closer to our students.Otherwise we shall go down memory lane and abandon our students in class

Thanks Triza.
My only beef with these wa Thiongo golden oldies is other than background, they do not address the concerns of our youth in the here-n-now, the way so many other stories do. I personally have no doubt that PEV stories from Kwani n company will be school texts … in 2022!! And my ‘Sex Connexion’ antho a set book in 2030 – when HIV has a vaccination. Sigh – our nation!! t Mochama.

Thanks so much Ngunjiri for this review which i am commenting on belated. i love all ngugi’s writing and when i hear critics claim his books are outmoded and irrelevant, i get livid. i’m so grateful his book was put back on to the national syllabus and i dont care whether students ‘dont relate’ or not to his references to pre-colonial culture or even early post-independent culture. what do they relate to? Beyonce, J-Z, Tyra banks and American sitcoms, films, hiphop rappers and all things Western? it is most unfortunate that Ngugi confirms the biblical verse about a prophet not being valued in his own home land. Ngugi is adored out there by students who feel honored to study with him. Meanwhile Kenyan youth think they’re cool when they succeed in aping Western fashion, style, and pop culture generally. Ngugi is deep so if some critics dont want to go there, let them stick with “the young and the restless” West soaps. but they wont know what they are missing. Ngugi is one of the greatest writers working in the world today.

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