Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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Ngugi wa Thiong'o World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The inevitable conflict between the people and tribal ways of Kenya and the imported culture, religion, and politics of the colonists is the subject of most of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works. The importance of reclaiming the land, which has not only economic but also spiritual value to the natives, is one of his frequent themes. He portrays the devastating consequences of imperialism on a national, local, and personal scale. Some of the most painful effects of the encroachment of white culture are manifested in fractured family relationships and friendships. His novels are often set in small villages that stand symbolically for the whole of Africa in its struggle for independence and identity. Similarly, his broken families and severed friendships are meant to be representative of the breakup of Gikuyu society as a whole. Ngugi’s vision is highly political. His early fiction was conservative; it eventually became more liberal and militant, but later in his career he expressed more moderate opinions.

Central to Kenyan consciousness, and therefore to Ngugi’s fiction, is the sacredness of the soil. The Creator, Murungu, gave the land to the first man and woman, Gikuyu and Mumbi, and told them to rule it and cultivate it. This myth of the land as an emblem of sacred trust is always in the background, and often in the foreground, of Ngugi’s fiction. When foreigners seize the land, Kenyans are not only displaced and financially ruined but also alienated from the deity and their heritage.

Most of Ngugi’s characters feel the urgency of reclaiming the land but are unable to agree on how this should be achieved. The older generation cites the prophecy that a leader will arise from the hills someday and lead the people from their bondage, so they are willing to wait for that savior. The younger generation, however, is less patient and more militant. Ngugi portrays the clashes between the generations and the devastating effect their divisiveness has on their resistance to the colonists. This divisiveness also strains families and friendships. In Weep Not, Child, generational conflict is depicted in the tragically broken relations between Ngotho and Boro, father and son. An additional source of conflict comes from those natives, like Joshua in The River Between, who embrace white humanity’s religion and customs, shunning their own people and condemning their ways.

The impact of colonialism on traditional ways of life is another key theme in Ngugi’s fiction. A conflict between natives devoted to an important tribal custom and Christian missionaries who oppose the practice is at the heart of The River Between. The missionaries do not understand or accept the significance of the circumcision ritual as the means whereby young men and women attain full standing in the tribe and receive secret tribal knowledge. Ngugi opposes this ritual but also opposes the Christians’ condemnation of it. He makes it a riveting symbol of the clash of cultures. Ngugi portrays the ways in which the colonists punish the Kenyans when native and Western ideologies conflict; for example, the missionaries in the novel refuse to make education available to the young people who have been circumcised. In Ngugi’s early fiction, education is a key to solving Kenya’s problems, so depriving the children of schooling is a serious blow, although education provided by the missionaries comes with a liberal dose of religion. Thus, Waiyaki in The River Between is often warned by his father to take the white man’s education but eschew his ways and his faith.

The scenario at the missionary school illustrates another of Ngugi’s themes, that of the exploitative role of Christianity in Kenya. Ngugi believes that Christianity has served the purpose of colonial expansion and the obliteration of native cultures, and his Christian characters are often depicted as rigid and uncharitable, if not downright unscrupulous. In the play I Will Marry When I Want , Ngugi depicts a wealthy...

(The entire section is 3,194 words.)