James Ngugi Ngugi, James (Vol. 7)

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Ngugi, James (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ngugi, James 1938–

A Kenyan novelist, playwright, and short story writer, Ngugi, as Nadine Gordimer comments, succeeds in his fiction in placing the Mau Mau movement in the historical, political, and sociological context of the African continental revolution.

I am concerned here with Mr Ngugi's consistent statement on life and religion. He knows that religion can be meaningful to a people only if it relates to them in their daily lives, only if it rises out of the important aspects of their past and speaks directly to their experiences in the present. A religion which speaks only of religious ideals and moral truths, without touching on the concrete situation of man in his everyday life, can give to man nothing but emptiness. Specifically, Ngugi is concerned in The River Between with the Gikuyu people of Kenya, and with Christianity. He is very consciously aware of how meaningful the Christian faith can be for the Gikuyu people, but he knows that it can be so only as it grows out of their own life situation, not as it is imposed upon them from above by the white man as law.

James Ngugi expresses in The River Between a line of thought which is dealt with in depth by two theologians, Dr Amos Wilder, Professor of Theology at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and the great, late Dr Paul Tillich, former Professor of Philosophical Theology at Harvard. In Otherworldliness and the New Testament, Wilder concerns himself with the place of Christianity in the modern world; with the question of how the Christian message can be made relevant to the modern man. Dr Tillich's work, The Shaking of the Foundations, deals with the burden of the 'religious law'. The parallels between the theme developed by James Ngugi in The River Between and the ideas of Dr Wilder and Dr Tillich as presented in the two above-mentioned works are striking. (pp. 54-5)

What James Ngugi develops in The River Between … is the theme that a people's religion and a people's way of life must be one; each must grow out of the other. Either one by itself is incomplete. The River Between is an image which I feel may justifiably be interpreted in the light of this theme. It represents the unity of the two separate forces. It is symbolic of the road between the two antagonistic forces which Waiyaki, Nyambura, and Muthoni attempted, each in their own way to travel, the road they knew was the only one which could give them a full and meaningful life. Honia River is described as flowing between the two opposing ridges, Makuyu and Kameno. On one side of the river the Christians of Makuyu conduct their Christmas celebrations; on the other side the tribe conducts its rite of circumcision. And it is here, on the banks of Honia, that Muthoni—a Christian from Makuyu—is made a woman of the tribe through circumcision, and here again that Waiyaki from Kameno and Nyambura from Makuyu come together in their embrace. Honia river is the site of these two symbolic acts of the coming together of the tribe and the Christian religion, and is itself, a symbol of that unity.

Ngugi's most striking clarification of Honia River as a symbol of tribal and Christian unity (and in broader terms of life and religion's unity) comes in the form of a biblical passage which Ngugi quotes through the thoughts of Nyambura. Nyambura has just denounced in her mind the harsh and sterile religion of Joshua, a religion which separates and causes pain. She relieves her frustration by reflecting upon the kind of religion which would be meaningful to her, a religion expressed simply and beautifully by the words of the Bible…. Waiyaki, too, has a similar vision, a vision which centres on Nyambura, and on the river…. And as Waiyaki and Nyambura stand mute together before the people under the ringing challenge of Kabonyi to deny each other, James Ngugi writes:

And Honia River went on flowing through the valley of life, throbbing, murmuring an unknown song.                          (pp. 64-5)

Lloyd Williams,...

(The entire section is 4,982 words.)