Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s third-person omniscient narrator opens the novel with a brief, symbolic evocation of the mythic landscape in which the plot unfolds. In the remote highlands of central Kenya, two ridges, each the home of a small Kikuyu community, rise on opposite sides of the river Honia, whose name means “cure, or bring-back-to-life.’’ Isolated even from other Kikuyu villages, this region bears the legacy of tribal identity, being the site of the Kikuyu origin myth where Murungo, the supreme deity, created Kikuyu and Mumbi, the first man and woman. Also the birthplace of legendary Kikuyu heroes, the land serves as the unifying ground for leadership and tradition, thus providing the basis for the identity of the tribe. Disputes have occurred, but even those that have resulted in the departure of the heroes, searching for contentment beyond the area, have been hidden from strangers.
Against this background of mythic unity, Ngugi details the present conflict between Komeno, the home of the traditionalists, and Makuyu, the home of the recently converted Christian Kikuyu. British settlers and missionaries have begun to approach the isolated area, and the Siriana Mission School, headed by the Reverend Livingston (an allusion to the explorer of the same surname), has successfully, through Joshua, a fanatical converted Kikuyu preacher, established a predominantly Christian community in Makuyu. Chege, a seer descended from the legendary Mugo, is the elder leader of Kameno, where traditional Kikuyu have ignored Mugo’s prophecy foretelling the coming of white settlers. Chege regards his responsibility as that of restoring unity to the Kikuyu, but, knowing that he will die before that can be accomplished, he bestows the charge of unified resistance to the whites upon his son Waiyaki.
Even as a boy, Waiyaki’s strong presence in appearance and mannerism is regarded as extraordinary among the Kikuyu. He seems a natural leader with “light” in his eyes, the last in a line of heroic seers. Chege takes him to the sacred tree and mountain of Murungo, revealing secret lore, recounting the ancient myths, and disclosing Waiyaki’s relationship to the ancestor Mugo. He also reveals an ancient, secret prophecy: A leader from the hills will bring salvation to his people. Chege reasons that, because other heroes have gone beyond the knowledge of the immediate region, Waiyaki must do so as well. Chege instructs his son not only to live by the traditional Kikuyu values but also—to the shock of Kameno—to attend the school at Siriana so that he may learn the ways of the whites, thereby gaining the necessary insights to meet the challenge that the missionaries and settlers pose to tribal integrity and survival. Waiyaki, obeying, then leaves for several years in order to be educated at the Mission.
The only other elder of the tribe who knows of the prophecy is Kabonyi, who, like Joshua, has converted to Christianity but is much less effective in his preaching. In the rigid interpretations of the Old Testament, Joshua is the patriarch of Makuyu, relegating Kabonyi to second-rate status there, just as Kabonyi has secondary status to Chege in traditional Kikuyu patriarchy. Joshua’s new sense of individualism and his new skills in literacy, however, owe as much to Livingston as to Scripture. Livingston, in accordance with the Presbyterian mission’s order to ban female circumcision among the Christian Kikuyu, brings Joshua into sharp conflict with traditional values: Circumcision is the central ritual among the traditional Kikuyu. When Joshua’s daughter Muthoni, believing, as she had been reared before her father’s conversion, that circumcision is necessary to become a Kikuyu “woman,” chooses to undergo the ritual ceremony, Joshua is forced to disown her as if she were dead.
Waiyaki, meanwhile, returns from the Mission in order to fulfill his own obligation to Kikuyu tradition. From his friend Kinuthia, Waiyaki learns of Muthoni’s rebellion, an affront to her father that Waiyaki cannot comprehend, despite his adherence to Kikuyu values. While Waiyaki and his friends Kamau and Kinuthia successfully complete the circumcision ritual on the banks of the Honia, Muthoni does not heal as she should. Throughout the ritual, Waiyaki suffers lingering doubts about its importance; his years at the school have, ironically, introduced ideas that foster his sense that Chege’s prophecy may be nothing more than an old man’s illusion. Consequently, when Muthoni’s condition deteriorates, Waiyaki, acting on his newly acquired principles of love and reconciliation, takes her to the hospital at the Mission. He is, however, too late: Muthoni dies soon after her arrival there.
Muthoni’s death provokes an even deeper division between the Kikuyu, and, insofar as the circumcision ritual serves as the central metaphor for Kikuyu tradition and values, it becomes the center of conflict. Those in Kameno believe the missionaries have poisoned Muthoni; Joshua, showing little grief at his daughter’s death, blames it on Satan’s influence over the “pagan” Kikuyu. The Siriana school refuses to admit the children of parents who do not renounce the ritual of female circumcision. The British establish a government post at Makuyu, imposing a “hut tax,” confiscating land, and forcing the dispossessed Kikuyu to work on their own land. Chege dies, doubting that his instructions to Waiyaki will save the people. Kabonyi, never one to miss an opportunity and the next elder in line for the leadership of Kameno—despite his residence in Makuyu—renounces his Christianity, assumes leadership, and founds the Kiama, a secret society dedicated to keeping Kikuyu culture pure and retrieving the tribal lands.
Prohibited from continuing his education, Waiyaki founds his own school, Marioshoni, to promote self-help for the Kikuyu and draws upon the assistance of his fellow teachers Kamau, Kabonyi’s son, and Kinuthia to start other schools. As the educational movement grows, Waiyaki becomes known among many grateful Kikuyu as the Teacher. (The schools reflect the historical Kikuyu Independent Schools Association begun in the 1920’s.) Kabonyi and his breakaway followers, however, are also gaining power through the influence of the Kiama, to which Waiyaki belongs. When the Kiama demands a “purity oath,” Waiyaki consents, despite his belief that his goal of uniting both ridges can best be fulfilled by education rather than by political agitation. Rather than advocate reconciliation, however, Waiyaki argues exclusively for educational programs. (The Kiama society reflects the historical Kikuyu Central Association, which lobbied, with Jomo Kenyatta as secretary, for political and economic rights in 1925.) While Kabonyi and Waiyaki vie for leadership of the traditional Kikuyu, Waiyaki begins to yearn for more individual freedom than the Kiama permits. To complicate further Waiyaki’s doubts about the effectiveness of the Kiama and how to achieve unity, he falls in love with Nyambura, Joshua’s second daughter.
For a brief time, Waiyaki seems the undisputed leader of the traditionalists; the Kikuyu widely embrace the necessity for education. Christians, however, begin to appear in Kameno, sometimes suffering the burning of their huts. Waiyaki lies in order to conceal his love for the uncircumcised Nyambura, and out of guilt and anger at the increasing militancy of the Kiama, he resigns from the society, leaving Kabonyi more power than Waiyaki realizes, preoccupied as he is with his courtship of Joshua’s daughter, to whom he has proposed on the very site of the circumcision ritual by the Honia. Nyambura, in deference to her father, rejects Waiyaki’s proposal for marriage but not his love.
As Nyambura struggles between her love for Waiyaki and her obedience to Joshua, Kabonyi initiates rumors that Waiyaki has betrayed the traditionalists’ cause. Kabonyi counsels action against the Christians and Waiyaki counsels reconciliation; meanwhile, white settlers increase in number and the threat to Kikuyu land and dignity grows. Kabonyi summons Waiyaki to a Kiama meeting, charging him with collaborating with the missionaries, when, in fact, he was recruiting teachers; with breaking the taboo of touching a dead woman, Muthoni, without having ever been ritually cleansed afterward, when it is not clear that Waiyaki was even present; and with attending Christian services at Joshua’s, when, in fact, Waiyaki had gone not for the preaching but to see Nyambura. Ironically, Kabonyi’s son Kamau is also in love with Nyambura, who has rejected him, and Kamau’s voice—in betrayal of his friendship with Waiyaki—is among those who charge Waiyaki with cultural and political betrayal. In short, Waiyaki fails to satisfy the Kiama’s charges because he will not reveal his love for Nyambura.
Kabonyi then reveals the prophecy of the “Sent One” to the Kiama, claiming the role for himself. When Kinuthia warns Waiyaki that the Kiama plans to attack Joshua and his followers, burning huts and forcibly circumcising Christians, Waiyaki, seeking to save Nyambura and to preserve a hope for unity, warns Joshua. Joshua, however, still steadfast in his rigidity, rebukes him as a pagan trying to steal his daughter, unaware that Waiyaki’s warning has diffused the secret attack. As a result, the Kiama seems convinced of Waiyaki’s betrayals as charged, and he is left with only a remnant of his previous support from the tribe. Nyambura, however, decides to consent to the marriage, despite the inevitable rejection from her father. To protect her, Waiyaki hides her in his hut.
Called upon by the Kiama to account for his perceived betrayal, Waiyaki has Kinuthia summon the Kikuyu, both traditional and Christian, to the banks of the Honia so that he can address them. While dubious about his motives, the Kikuyu’s respect for their Teacher is such that they willingly gather to hear him defend himself. They begin to gather by the river on the day before the circumcision rituals begin, which coincides with the preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Before addressing them, Waiyaki makes an early morning pilgrimage to the sacred grove. Meditating on the ancient prophecy and his hope for tribal unity, Waiyaki experiences a spiritual and political awakening: He realizes that education for unity is not enough to save his people. He concludes that that unity must lead to political freedom from the loss of tribal lands, forced labor, imposed values, and taxes to an unwanted government. When Waiyaki returns from the sacred mountain, he begins his speech successfully, for he seems to burn with the ancient prophecy’s power in the setting sun. Kabonyi and the Kiama, however, confront him with the kidnaped Nyambura, calling upon him to renounce her as unclean. When Waiyaki refuses, choosing love over purity, the people allow the Kiama to take both of them away for judgment. The Christian Kikuyu, deferring perhaps to Joshua’s rejection of his second daughter, do not intervene. Waiyaki, acting out of love and embodying reconciliation, fails to grasp the need for political action until it is too late to lead effectively in that action. His idealism has been too narrowly constrained by his belief in education, itself the product of his experience at the Mission.