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...
(The entire section is 1817 words.)