New chapter on The Black Messiah in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s The River Between

The book Reading the Abrahamic Faiths: Rethinking Religion and Literature, edited by Emma Mason from Warwick University, has just been published by Bloomsbury Academic. The volume includes my chapter entitled ‘The Black Messiah, or Christianity and Masculinity in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between‘. This chapter is my first exercise in writing on religion and/in African literature. I really enjoyed working on it, and I am already developing ideas for a new essay in this field. I have copied the introduction to my chapter below, to give an idea of my reading and discussion of The River Between.

The Black Messiah, or Christianity and Masculinity in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between

Salvation shall come from the hills. From the blood that flows in me, I say from the same tree, a son shall rise. And his duty shall be to lead and save the people.

In the emerging study of religion and literature, so far there has been little engagement with non-Western literary texts, especially not with African texts. This corpus tends to be left to postcolonial studies, and indeed scholars in this field have extensively studied African and other non-Western bodies of literature. However, scholars in postcolonial studies tend to have a secular bias and demonstrate little interest in the religious aspects of literary writings. This is surprising since religion is a recurring theme in the vast and diverse body of postcolonial literature. Writing about African literature, F. Hale (2007, p. 47) points out that,

The relationship between missionary Christianity and traditional African cultures was a prominent theme in post-colonial literature during and for many years after the era of decolonisation. (… ) At least as early as the 1950s, and seen perhaps most vividly in Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart, African littérateurs began to use fiction as a forum in which to challenge the tribulations resulting from the impact of European cultures on their own.

Addressing the above mentioned gaps—the lack of attention to African and other non-Western texts in the study of religion and literature, and the lack of attention to religion in the study of postcolonial literature—Adogame, in his introduction to a special issue of Studies in World Christianity on religion in African literary writings, points out that scholars ‘should begin to pay more attention to how and to what extent religion is embedded within African literary cultures; ways in which African literary scholars and their works are informed and illuminated – in their ideas and preoccupations, by religious traditions, imagery, ideas, and concerns; and how they engage with and reshape traditional and non-traditional discourses and repertoires’ (Adogame 2010, 3-4).

Taking this call as an impetus, in this essay I focus on the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who, together with the late Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, is one of Africa’s most well-known creative writers with a worldwide readership. My option for Ngũgĩ is not just informed by the fact that he received his degree in English literature from the university where I am currently lecturing and where his work now is an important subject of study (Nichols 2010). More relevant to me as a student of African Christianity (rather than African literature as such) is the role of religion, in particular of Christianity, in Ngũgĩ’s writings and, related to that, also in his biography. As Nicholas Kamau-Goro (2011, 68) captures succinctly, ‘A product of the mission school, Ngũgĩ started his literary career as a Christian but later developed into a radical critic of Christianity. Despite this, Christian idioms and allegories remained prominent features of his aesthetic praxis. Of all African writers Ngũgĩ has perhaps most consistently used the Bible as a frame of aesthetic reference.’ Especially his early novels, written in the period that Ngũgĩ identified as a Christian, which also was the period of the decolonisation of Kenya, are examples of the type of postcolonial African literature referred to by Hale above, in which the relationship between missionary Christianity and traditional African cultures, but also between Christianity, liberation and anti-colonial nationalism, are central themes. In this short essay there is no room to explore these themes in Ngũgĩ’s life and work in-depth, for which I refer to other publications (Anonby 1999; Kamau-Goro 2010, 2011; Siundu and Wegesa 2010). Building upon this body of scholarship, I seek to make an original contribution by intersecting the themes of Christianity and masculinity in Ngũgĩ’s first novel, The River Between, focusing my reading on the figure of the black messiah.

In my reading I will interrogate the argument made by Kamau-Goro that Ngũgĩ represents a ‘secular reconfiguration of Christianity’. It is not clear what exactly is meant with ‘secular’ in this context, but usually the word is opposed to ‘religious’. In that case, the suggestion is that Ngũgĩ’s interpretation and appropriation of the Messiah-figure in the context of colonial Kenya is secular because it is social and political as contrasted to religious. This suggestion is problematic, not only because in African cultures generally there is no clear distinction between religious and public or political spheres (Ellis and Ter Haar 2004), but also because it overlooks the possibility that Ngũgĩ’s deployment of the Messiah-figure in fact offers a particular religious interpretation of, and commentary on, the socio-political situation in colonial Kenya. Further, I will take issue with an essay by Andrew Hammond on representations of masculinity in Ngũgĩ’s work. Hammond (2011, 116) takes no pains to understand the messianic dimension of the novel’s main character, Waiyaki, simply referring to it as ‘arrogance’ and ‘fantasy’. Hence he fails to acknowledge the crucial difference between Waiyaki and other male figures in the novel. Though this essay is too short to offer a full exploration of Christianity and masculinity in the novel, at least I hope to explore the meaning and significance of messianic masculinity as embodied by Ngũgĩ’s protagonist.

Wanna read the full chapter? Order the book, or drop me an email.

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