Religion played a powerful role in both the subjugation and liberation of Africa. Drawing from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “The River Between”, author and critic WONDER GUCHU looks at the role of religion in Africa’s struggles.
It remains a very thorny issue, but it is hard to escape the fact that religion – particularly Christianity and Islam – played a very big role in Africa’s subjugation.
It is often said that the gun of the colonialist followed behind the flag and the Bible, and with good cause too.
The use of religion was referred to by one of the stalwarts of Africa’s liberation, Amilcar Cabral, as “ideological justification”.
This was where the oppressors tried to justify their oppression by claiming that the Bible gave them the mandate to “civilise” Africans and to get them out of the “darkness” in which they lived prior to slavery and colonialism.
And the manner in which religion very quickly subjugated peoples perhaps gives truth to Karl Marx’ assertion that it is the “opium of the masses”.
The effects of religion last longer than effects of military occupation.
Today, religion is at the centre of wars all over Africa, not least of all the conflicts involving Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
And Ngugi wa Thiong’o in “The River Between” aptly depicts the scenario where people in the interior of Kenya, represented by two ridges (Kameno and Makuyu), peacefully share the Honia River - until the British colonialists arrive.
This invasion sees those from Kameno Ridge converting to Christianity while those from Makuyu stuck to tradition. Pitted against each other are Chege and Joshua’s families.
Fully aware that colonialism is unstoppable, Chege encourages his son Waiyaki to learn the settlers’ ways so that he understands them and knows better how to engage them.
Therefore, Waiyaki attends Siriana Mission as preparation for assuming a position of leadership as prophesied by his father.
But when one of Joshua’s daughters, Muthoni, dies after rebelling against her father’s beliefs and runs off to be circumcised (circumcision had been banned by the Christian missionaries), the rift between the ridges (representing communities) widens.
It is worsened when authorities at Siriana Mission expel children whose parents have still not yet fully converted to Christianity.
Cast out, Waiyaki sets about establishing community schools in a bid to give education to all the children on both ridges so that they can fight the settlers from a position of enlightened unity.
He also believes that education, despite its link to colonialism, can heal the rift between Kameno and Makuyu. Unbeknown to him, the rift will not be healed because the hardliners on both ridges are determined to outwit and outdo each other.
Kabonyi, who grew up with Waiyaki and is envious of his work and leadership, belongs to a secret organisation called Kiama, which is concerned with protecting the people from cultural contamination in addition to spearheading the fight for land reclamation.
Bent on his mission of educating the people and his desire to unite the ridges, Waiyaki falls victim to his obsession by giving the detractors room to bring him down.
To make matters worse, Waiyaki marries Joshua’s daughter Nyambura in what is seen as the worst violation of an oath he took when his leadership was prophesied.
Typical of Ngugi, this narrative ends where it must start – the unknown fate of Waiyaki and Nyambura before the Kiama.
Of course, it is an open-ended way of concluding a painful story not only about Kenya but Africa as a whole.
Whatever fate Waiyaki and Nyambura face is an indictment on the peoples of the continent.
The two symbolise the new generation born of tradition and Christianity. They both come from extreme ends of the continent’s cultural spectrum.
A crucial question Ngugi raises in the narrative is the role of education in the subjugation and liberation of the people of Africa.
Should it transform the African into a yes-man who sits by while his resources are plundered?
Should it create a comprador, who actively assists in the plunder? Should it be taken by the oppressed and turned into a tool for liberation?
The Waiyakis, the Joshuas and even the Kabonyis of Africa have not offered solutions through either selective acceptance, complete acceptance or complete rejection of Westernisation.
Is this not why Africa is still struggling to be truly free today?