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Jennifer Patterson

Global Literature
November 8, 2008
Essay #2

Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes about the struggle between traditional African cultural identity and that

of the oppressive white colonial culture. In The River Between the main character’s personal struggle to

find his identity reflects the much larger social, political, and religious struggle throughout Africa. The

effects of colonization in Africa not only devastate the indigenous population, but also other cultures that

have come to call Africa home in the course of many generations. Ahmed Essop illustrates this plight in

the short story “Hajji”, and here the main character feels alienation in the colonial society where his

struggle with race and religion tests familial bonds.

The introduction of Kameno and Makuyu on the first page of the novel foreshadows the events

that will take place and indicates the issuesprevalent throughout the novel. This is particularly evident in

the description of Honia River. In the third paragraph Ngugi describes the river as the, “soul of Kameno

and Makuyu. It joined them. And men, cattle, wild beasts and trees, were all united by this life stream.”

But, this outlook changes very rapidly because at the end of the fourth paragraph he further states that the

ridges were “antagonists” and “like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the

leadership of this isolated region.” Honia River quickly transforms from a life-source that joins and unites

the valley into that which divides and separates the people. Kameno symbolizes the traditional African

culture where local prophets and tribal customs like the rite of circumcision that signals a man or

woman’s entrance to adulthood are embraced. Likewise, Makuyu becomes a symbol of British

colonialism and Christianity, so much so, that by page 115, “Joshua and his followers were now

completely identified with the white man.” These two separate ideologies do in fact cause the battle

within the valley and within its inhabitants. In this way the river reflects the barrier between ideologies.

Upon reading The River Between one does begin to sympathize with Waiyaki because he is the

character who is most entangled in this struggle and internalizes it causing him to constantly question his

self identity. His father, Chege, acts as a catalyst for this. Chege falsely believes that by sending Waiyaki
to the missionary school in Siriana he can learn the ways of the oppressors, while at the same time staying

true to the tribe and returning as the “Messiah” to unite the people of the valley. But, considering that

education plays a formative role in a person’s identity and worldview this “white man’s” education is the

reason that Waiyaki feels alienated from the tribe and from the Christian settlement in Makuyu. The first

indicator that Waiyaki does not feel linked to the tribe comes just before his circumcision. Ngugi

asserts,”Waiyaki’s absence from the hills had kept him out of touch with those things that mattered most

to the tribe. Besides, however much he resisted it, he could not help gathering and absorbing ideas and

notions…” (p.46) He could not resist the ideas of the missionaries or the education his father forced him

to get. He does go through with the circumcision rite to prove his courage and make his father proud. But,

it is somewhat ironic that he feels strongly that Livingstone will never understand the significance of the

circumcision rite as a custom and as an integral part of their culture, after he admits that he himself is

detached from tribal life.

Waiyaki’s internal struggle causes him to take actions that are detrimental to the tribe even though

he believes that he is unifying the people and fighting the colonists/missionaries. He genuinely considers

that by impersonating the missionary schools and teaching the children of his tribe the white man’s

language (English) that they will rise up and resist further attempts at colonization. He is intensely proud

of his students’ ability to sing in English. Although he teaches them to utilize the language and songs of

the oppressor, instead of teaching the children traditional tribal songs relevant to their history and culture.

In many ways, he disseminates his internal struggle and identity issues into the next generation.

The main character in Ahmed Essop’s short story “The Hajji” also faces a personal internal

struggle as the result of white colonization. Hassan finds himself thrust into this state of questioning due

to his brother’s request to see him before he dies. The problem with this is that his brother, Karim,

married a white woman and was effectively disowned by the family for doing so. His brother’s wife

convinces Hassan to see the dying man and Hassan is lured and intrigued by the mannerisms of the white

woman. But after an altercation with some white youths when leaving his brother’s apartment he again

struggles with his identity as an Indian living in white controlled Africa. Hassan’s discomfort with white

people is expressed in the statement, “In the coach with the blacks he felt at ease and regained his self-
possession. He was among familiar faces, among people who respected him.” Once again Christianity

causes conflicts within the main characters in African texts. When Hassan decides not to take Kamir into

his home before he dies, the priest of the Newtown mosque reminds him that despite the fact that Kamir

married a white woman he is still Muslim and, “can’t be allowed to die among the Christians.” Race and

religious issues plague Hassan until the very end of the story and even with his brother’s death he feels no

relief.

Racial, religious and sociopolitical conflicts always impact and affect individuals. The external

environment in which one lives will often be reflected internally. Unfortunately, colonialism occurred in

Africa. Whether it was enacted by force, or hidden inside education or religion it eventually caused

conflicts within tribes which can still be seen to this day. Decolonization is no less destructive and

heartbreaking especially as generations pass and tribal customs are lost or forgotten by those living. The

colonizers left corruption and greed behind where there was once a strong collective spirit and

community. Hopefully, one day Africans will find a way to reverse or overcome all of the detrimental

effects of colonialism.

Bibliography

Essop, Ahmed. The Hajji. (1993). S. Geok-lin Lim & N. Spencer, One World of Literature

(pp.161-170). Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Ngugi, James. (1965).The River Between. London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd.