Themes and Meanings
From the novel’s onset, when mythic unity gives way to the division of the Kikuyu on opposing ridges, the theme of a people’s right to authority over their own land and lives seems apparent. How the Kikuyu are to achieve that authority, however, is not so easily grasped. The central issues of education and religion under colonial domination pervade the novel, but the irreversibility of historical change, Ngugi suggests, does not permit one to linger in a sentimental vision of the way things were once done. Waiyaki’s role as headmaster and founder of the independent schools is evidence of the historical strength of the Kikuyu capacity to change, a capacity that bears witness to the Kikuyu dominance of modern Kenya. With respect to religion, Ngugi here seems to suggest that some degree of synthesis is possible between a politically informed Christianity and traditional values of kinship and prophecy (a view that he was later to modify considerably).
Certainly, the European institutions of education, religion, and government undermine Kikuyu autonomy, but the very subjugation of the Kikuyu that forms the historical background of the novel also raises the issue of adequate and appropriate leadership and resistance to European hegemony in Kenya and, by extension, in all colonial Africa. Waiyaki’s final realization, though it comes too late for him to make use of it, that education alone—specifically, a European education—cannot establish tribal unity and that political action is necessary for preserving cultural identity in the midst of change suggests that the oppressed in a colonial situation must act in order to regain self-respect, even as the culture changes under colonial domination. Chege’s instruction and Waiyaki’s enactment of it, paradoxically, do not go far enough. Chege’s failure to see that his son will be changed by his strategy of resistance is Waiyaki’s failure to realize that one must act out of a consciousness that itself is inevitably changing.