Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Images of Africa in 'The River Between' and 'Things Fall Apart'

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Images of Africa In ‘The River Between’ and ‘Things Fall Apart’


The colonization of Africa enforced peoples of different cultures, who had lived practically separate, and who probably fought wars against each other, to accept the same political boundaries, common citizenship, one national name and a unified administration. It is a fundamental fact that the process of colonization overwhelms the whole culture of the society it possesses, inevitably leading to a hybridization of that culture. This not only applies to countries on the African continent, but all countries where occupation and suppression for economic gain has taken place. Different writers at different times have attempted to supplant the impressions of the African experience and stereotypes, portrayed by writers such as Joseph Conrad and H Rider Haggard, with their individual vision of a complex society in the process of coming to terms with the legacy of Western colonial oppression. A legacy that had forcibly divided the continent into manageable units to suit the colonizing powers, enabling them to establish political and social control. This process of divide and rule even after independence results in conflict. ‘The River Between’ written by Ngugi in 165, two years after independence, parallels some of the political events happening at the time of writing, with the events in the years he is writing about. Setting the novel between two mountain ridges emphasizes the antagonism between the two native groups and their irreconcilable belief structures.


“When you stood in the valley, the two ridges ceased to be sleeping lions united by their common source of life. They became antagonists. You could tell this, not by anything tangible but by the way they faced each other, like two rivals ready to come to blows in a life and death struggle for the leadership of this isolated region.”


Ngugi also wrote a play ‘The Black Hermit’ which is concerned with stamping out tribalism and was produced in 16 marking East Africa’s debut in drama. The antagonisms at that time between the ethnic groups comprising the Kenya African National Union, and the Kenyan African Democratic union resulted at independence, in a ‘quasi-federal society with seven provinces each with their own authority, which only worked out its differences in December 164 to become a unitary, one party state, and a republic.’ The contradictions and antagonisms created by the process of colonization are still realities in contemporary Africa.


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Fanon postulates that the first step for a colonized people in finding a voice and an identity is to reclaim their own past. The initial literary reaction to this is a relative over production, taking as a theme a ‘cry of protest’ addressed in such a way as to either ingratiate himself with, or reproach his oppressor. To do this the writer writes in the language of the colonizing power, effectively affirming his assimilation of that culture. The next stage the writer arrives at is a remembrance of his origins. In this the writer appeals to the native peoples to remember who they are, recalling the past to emphasize his conceptions. However, returning to the past is impossible, he is no longer a part of that culture only, but also that of the colonizing power. Succeeding this is the stage Fanon considers to be the beginning of a national literature, the ‘literature of combat’. This is the clarion call of the writer to the people to defend their culture, his attempt to become the ‘mouthpiece of a new reality’ but any struggle whether political, military, or the struggle for enlightenment, irreconcilably changes the culture you are trying to defend. The traditional stories, rituals, customs and philosophies that form the ideology of a people change and evolve over time, and they can be manipulated and adapted to suit the situation, and to mould the consciousness of that society. Under these influences all society’s can be considered to be hybrid. On this basis, and in the light of his own experience the writer has set himself an impossible task and he can only present an individual ideal, creating a pre-colonial version of his own nation. It is not only the literature, but also the painting, sculpture, music, drama and dance of a nation that represent the perceptions of the culture of a nation at a given time.


Whilst agreeing that contemporary issues are legitimate themes for the novelist, Chinua Achebe in “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation” states ‘the novelist’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headline in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history.’ Achebe has designated himself an educator writing to teach his readers that


“their past with all its imperfections was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them”.


The novel ‘Things Fall Apart’ attempts to do this using the themes of tribal traditions, proverbs, folklore, and the philosophical and political concepts, of the Ibo people, and the changes that occur with colonization. Both authors are not writing a history, they are writing a fictitional representation of the past in an attempt to reclaim it. Ngugi uses many of the same themes, but in ‘The River Between’ greater emphasis is placed on religion and education. At the time of writing both novels were attempting to challenge the hegemony of the colonizing power. In the second half of the nineteenth century the continent saw a rise in the activity of Christian missionaries, especially after the abolition of the slave trade and growing interest in other types of trade. The missionaries established schools originally intended to train local helpers, but they later served European colonial administrations and commercial concerns by preparing low-level functionaries. In ‘Things Fall Apart’ these functionaries are derisorily named ‘Kotma’ and the treachery, corruption and betrayal that they display is highlighted when the six leaders, Okonkwo amongst them, are imprisoned for the destruction of the church. This highlights the process of the pacification of the people undertook by the colonizing power. The increase in the fine from two hundred to two hundred and fifty cowries emphasizes the corruption and shortcomings of these natives.





Ngugi attended the mission-run school at Kamaandura in Limuru, Karinga school in Maanguu, and Alliance High School in Kikuyu. During these years Ngugi became a devout Christian. Later he rejected Christianity, and changed his original name in 176 from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiongo. This is significant in that the main theme of ‘The River Between’ is one of deeply rooted religious conflict. The Kameno ridge symbolizing the continuation of indigenous cultural traditions such as circumcision and polytheism, the Makuyu ridge, Christianity and a British educational system. Christian missionaries attempt to outlaw the female circumcision ritual and in the process create a terrible rift between the two Kikuyu communities on either side of the river. The people are divided between those who believe in the Western Christian education and the opportunities it will offer, and those who feel that only unquestioned loyalty to past traditions will save them. Waiyaki the main protagonist is placed between the two trying to reconcile his sense of responsibility as the saviour of the Kameno traditions, and a rising belief in the value of the British educational system, as a result of his father sending him to the school at the Siriana mission, and so subjecting him to the colonizing influence.. This inner conflict is prevalent throughout, further complicated by his growing love for Nyambura, the daughter of Joshua, a convert to Christianity who fervently preached against the old ways. The author depicts his predicament in such a way as to involve the reader in making value judgments, which from a euro centric view would invoke sympathy and understanding for Waiyaki, but from the viewpoint of a native could be considered to be a betrayal. A view that is subtly enforced throughout the narrative, one of the more obvious ways of doing this appearing early in the text, written in both English and the native language.


“The oilskin of the house is not for rubbing into the skin of strangers”


At the time of writing this could equate to Fanon’s ‘clarion call’, emphasizing the betrayal of the people not only by the colonizer but also by the colonized. In ‘Things Fall Apart’ Okonkwo far from being converted to any part of the ‘white’ man’s culture actively fights against it and after his seven years of exile comes to realise that this encroachment in the form of the church, government, judicial system and trade has fragmented the traditional way of Ibo life. Achebe successfully creates a character who can be seen as exemplifying a traditional Ibo worldview with all its positive and negative aspects. His portrayal of a Okonkwo’s thoughts are a means of revealing his feelings and responses, and is an invitation by the writer to see things from a his point of view. Achebe shapes his life and his death by suicide to parallel the process of colonization, the ‘falling apart’ and the destructive compromises the indigenous culture and ideology is forced to make. The tempo of the narrative stays constant throughout leading to a climax that descends on the reader with the same force and speed with which the colonizing power descended on the land.





Ngugi is an active campaigner for the African language and form. And has made a conscious choice to write in his mother tongue as has the Nigerian writer Obiajunwas


Wali believing writers should not go ‘whoring after foreign gods’. Other writers acknowledge that the choice of English may in part, contribute to the death of the mother tongue, but any diachronic study of a language will trace changes in the language over time, and given the escalating use of the English language it could be presumed that they face a continual challenge. A return to the native language can be seen as an attempt to restructure attitudes to the indigenous culture and create a link to those people whose lives have continued to be conducted in their mother tongues. Nigeria has as many as 400 indigenous mother tongues and three widely used link languages. Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba as well as English. Achebe distinguishes his writing from the writing of other English language novelists by introducing the rhythms, speech patterns, idioms and other verbal nuances of Ibo.


“ In literary writing the dominant language and its discursive forms are appropriated to express widely differing cultural experiences. Chinua Achebe (quoting James Baldwin), noted that the language so used can bear the burden of another experience and this has become one of the most famous declarations of the power of appropriation in post-colonial discourse.”


The third person narrative provides a voice that conveys the sense of order and harmony in the rhythms and rituals of the clan before the coming of the white man, conveying the sense of native Africans speaking and living in a genuine native African living situation, whilst ensuring the meaning remains clear. African literatures have been influenced to a remarkable degree by the continent’s long tradition of oral artistry.


“As Edward Sackey observes, Ngugi and other African writers depend on the oral tradition of Africa to deform the received Western novelistic pattern in order to challenge our received notion while our African identity is also affirmed, thereby freeing Africa from the negative image in which others have created us”.


Achebe uses folklore legend, myth and proverbs to point out the indifference, selfishness and stupidity of man, and to portray the traditions and customs of the clan The story of the bird Eneke-nti-obi and the wily tortoise feature prominently, as does the descriptions of the treatment of a guest and the sharing of the kola. The folktales are often employed for social commentary and instruction and also serve as a potent means of affirming group values and discouraging antisocial behavior. Whilst Ngugi doesn’t use the didactic animal tale in his novel he places great emphasis on the myth surrounding the activities of the gods at the beginning of creation,


“This land I give to you, O man and woman. It is yours to rule and till, you and your posterity”


The two novels looked at are representations of ‘Africa’ and as such must be viewed as constructed images that need to be interrogated for their ideological content. In ‘The River Between’ there is undoubtedly a political message whereas in ‘Things Fall Apart’ the underlying theme is one of pathos. Ella Shohat claims that the reader should constantly question, and that representations in one sphere effects other spheres of representation, particularly the political one.


“The struggle to speak for oneself cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard.”


Edward Said in his analysis of textual representations of the Orient in ‘Orientalism’ emphasizes the fact that representations can never be exactly realistic. Whether Achebe and Ngugi have been realistic or not they have both achieved significance in what are considered to be post colonial literatures.


“Post-colonial literatures, which were not considered to be part of the canon, found themselves able to represent their own worlds, their own local cultures with an immediacy often denied so-called Universal literature. They appropriated the techniques and the genres of literature and made them work for African forms of representation.





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