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Religious Rites in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between

August 20, 2012


Right from time immemorial mankind has always had a belief in one thing or the other. The intoxicative effect of this belief might influence him to behave in a particular way and manner either as an individual or as a group. Collectively, it forms the pool which the entire community drinks from and any contamination is seen as a grievous and heinous offence. This binding factor and belief is called religion. E.B. Tylor sees religion as a “belief in spiritual beings”. To express their belief, people would often employ such means such as religious rites. For Charles Taliaferro, Religious rites encompasses such things as prayers involved in praise, petition, confession, vows, commissions such as ordination, rites of passage such as baptism, marriages, funeral rites and burials. Religious rites are repeatable symbolic action involving the sacred.

In summary religion is a process where by people reach beyond themselves to connect with the true and ultimate reality that will save them from the destructive forces of everyday existence. It is from this angle that we would beam our radar and unveil how religious rites were portrayed in the text before us, The River Between by Ngugi Wa Tniong O.

In tackling and unraveling the matrix of the text before us, Fredrick J. Streng in his Understanding Religious Life posits that:

The idea of religion as effective power,…stresses the

recognition by religious Adherents that their symbols,

techniques and social expressions are not wishes, hopes

or fantasies; rather, these are practical means of transforming

life from unreality to reality, from inauthentic existence to authentic

existence (1985:3)

This assertion is exactly what we see in The River Between. Each Religious sect-the traditionalists and the Christians- believe that it is only through their own doctrinal horizon that the transformation from “unreality to reality, from inauthentic existence to authentic existence” could be achieved. One of the easiest attachment people ties to their belief in one “spiritual being” can be through the erection of a place of communing or worship- shrine/ grove or church.

As we pedal down the read of this essay, emphases would be laid on the types of rites espoused, the cultural connection of such rites, effects of such rites on the individual and the community, the implications of non-abidance to the confinements of the rites.

The upholding of these rites is always rested on the shoulders of the elders or the chief priest as in the case of Ezeulu in Arrow of God. In The River Between, Chege is held in awe “for he knew, more than any other person, the ways of the land and the hidden things of the tribe. He knew the meaning of every ritual and every sign” (7). This also is true of Ezeulu as he alone determines the date the festival of the Pumpkin leaf would be celebrated.

Ritual which is a component of these rites is always a necessity for the transition from childhood to adulthood. In Kameno, the enclave of staunch traditionalist, the “second birth” a rite forming the prelude to initiation- the final transition to adulthood is not only vital but a fundamental rite which every male aspires to undergo. The importance of the “second birth” is so high that much emphasis is laid on it.

As a reminder, Chege tells his son “… tomorrow is the day of your second birth” (9). We also readily see the rays of happiness in Waiyaki’s face. The reverence of this rite waters the anticipations of not only the participants but the clan as a whole. It is of high significance as it marks the readiness “for the biggest of all rituals, circumcision” (11). The rite is such that a goat would be slaughtered for every one present to eat and “the spirits of the dead and the living would be invoked to join in the ritual” (11). This is the first phase and it is meant for the spirits to sanctify the atmosphere. We see the parallelism between this and Joshua’s congregational songs and prayers to God for an answer to their requests. This is the Christians own rite as there is the believe that their heart desires would be met.

In the protagonist’s (Waiyaki) case during his second birth:

His mother sat near the fireplace in her hut as if in labour. Waiyaki sat between her thighs. A thin cord taken from the slaughtered goat and tied to his mother represented the umbilical cord. A woman, old enough to be a midwife, came and cut the cord. The child began to cry. And the women who had come to wait for the birth of a child, shouted with joy. (12)

The whole thing is not just an exercise but a symbolic and spiritual one. It is not just a rite for one person but a rite for the whole tribe. We see the umbilical cord as the source of life to the child. He is further dipped later in the day in Honia River, a parallelism of Christian baptism, and “he came out clean.” The deeping in the river symbolizes a new lease of life, a sanctification and total cleansing and like Jesus Christ, he is ready for greater venture which is the long awaited initiation-cum-circumcision.

As earlier stated, the rite is not a mere exercise but a rite that forms the foundation of the cultural practices of a community. Any one who does not partake in it is seen as a weakling, as a result of this, the entire community wholly participated in it. With the grave dichotomy and disparity that exists between the predominantly Christians of Murungu and the traditionalists of Kameno, each points to the other’s religious practices with disdain and grimaced face yet their rites are not all that in contrivance to each other. The same way Joshua and his fellows see baptism from a symbolic lantern is the way the people of Kameno sees it-the second birth –as regeneration.

Religious rites have its root in ancient time. The same way the “Greek drama developed as part of the cultural activities in honour of the god Dionysus” (Akwanya, Discourse Analysis and Dramatic Literature,1998:31), is the way religious rites and practices act as the breeding ground of cultural practices. For Gilbert Murray, the festival in honour of Dionysus is engraved on the platform that commemorate “ the insight that death is not absolutely final”. The Greeks see their testival as being “connected to the vegetation cycle and the pattern of death and renewal of the year”(Akwanya,1998:31). This is typical of the lineage it shares with Umuaro’s Festival of the Pumpkin Leaves in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God where the festival is not just a festival but a purification rite in readiness for the next planting season and also of request and thanksgiving.

The focal point in The River Between is the circumcision of young boys and girls who have undergone “the second birth” and are thus qualified to be properly initiated. Circumcision as a religious and cultural rite is seen as a sin and a pagan practice by the Christians. For Joshua, their leader and staunch opposition to the rite, “Indulging in this ceremony was the unforgivable sin” (31). Though a product of circumcision, alongside his wife, his repudiation of such rite is based on the ground that “he had been told to take up everything and leave Egypt ”. With this forming the basis of his Christian vision, he sees no form of intersection through which his newly found and supposed superior faith and circumcision-the unforgivable sin-could meet. Apart from this, any wandering during the period the initiation song would be sung is not only unchristian but a contamination.

This blazing dichotomy is seen in Roger Schmidt’s words that “what one group reveres as sacred, another may regard as defiling”. The traditionalists Majorly in Kameno regard and see circumcision as an integral part of their existence. The importance is such that no one would marry an uncircumcised girl.

Circumcision was the central rite in the linkuyu

Way of life. Who had ever heard of a girl that was

Not circumcised? Who would pay cows and

goats for such a girl (37-38).

It is seen as all in all, something that is “good and beautiful”. The exaltation of this rite affirms what Ninian Smart calls “rituals for transitions to new positions in the social order”. On his own ground, Roger Schmidt calls it “puberty or initiation rites.” Like we said before, it is the most important rite in the tribe and the symbolic grace it showers on all is so desirous to the extent that Muthoni, a Christian and Joshua’s daughter wants to be circumcised. The desire and passion in her is seen as she passionately says “….. I want to be circumcised …. I want to be a woman. I want to be a woman. I want to be a real girl, a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges”. (26) Why does she whole heartedly yearn for circumcision despite her being a Christian? We see the taproots rites such as this have on individuals. Hers is based on her innate conviction that partaking in it doesn’t make her less a good Christian just as her father. In it she finds fulfillment- “….. I am a woman, beautiful in the tribe….”

The attainment of adulthood is followed by the building of new huts for the initiates.

One of the core fundamental importance is that the rite does not only hold sway for the new generation but also the old whose faces would beam with pride on their child’s success story. It is not just an exercise but a symbolic one. One which Frederick j. Streng says:

Initiation rites in any religious context expresses

To the community the power of the symbolic means

To transformation and by repeating the ceremonies of

Ages past, offers the community a sense of continuity

(Understanding Religious Life 1985: 57).

In consonance with Streng’s sayings, the importance of this rite on the people is seen further in the text.

Circumcision was an important ritual to the tribe. It kept people together, bound the tribe. It was the Core of the social structure, and a something that Gave meaning to a man’s life. End the custom and the spiritual basis of the tribe’s cohesion and integration would be no more (68).

The bond and unity that religious rites offer is also elaborately expressed in the text. It also offers a new freedom from the shackles and chains of religious taboos. The would- be initiates in the circumcision are released into a frenzy from the spells that prevent them from speaking their minds on every subjects.

They were free. Age and youth had become reconciled for this one night. And you could sing about anything and talk of the hidden parts of men and women without feeling that you had violated the otherwise strong social code that governed people’s relationships especially the relationship between young and old, man and women (41).

The belief in these rites is not only cordial but shared between ranks and files. Non accordance to it is believed could unleash punishment on the people. For this to be averted, every uncircumcised girl would be circumcised by force.

Everything dirty and impure was heaped on them

They were the impure things of the tribe and they

Would bring the wrath of the ancestral spirits on

the ridges (121).

Despite the numerous essential importance of religious rites, it has its own implications. Following the dictates of one’s heart when it comes to religious rites could be consequential. In fact it is a double-edged sword which in operation would not only ricochet but also boomerang to the detriment of the individual. These implications as exemplified in the text are as a result of cultural disharmony between two entirely religious renditions. These implications are seen in Muthoni’s case. Her father, Joshua would not hear of her daughter been circumcised. Muthoni’s refusal to drink from the communal pool her father and others like him drink from earns her an immediate disownment. Thus, she becomes entangled between two worlds; the traditionalist would not accept her and her folds, the Christians- likewise.

The mystery surrounding her death could not be comprehended. The two ridges, (Kameno and Murungu) and the two worlds (Traditionalists and Christians) have their different reactions and interpretation to her death. For Joshua, Muthoni’s death is as a result of disobedience. The paternal sorrow a man should show for the death of a daughter is not expressed. Even if he feels this sense of loss it is not shown, rather her death acted as a catalyst, a new zeal for greater missionary peregrination.

Muthoni was an evil spirit sent to try the faithful.

…… Joshua, their leader was inspired. He now

Preach with vigour and a strange holiness danced

In his eyes (58).

On the other hands, Chege and his cohorts see her death as a punishment on Joshua for hood-winking with a foreign religion. He “feared for those who had embraced strange gods”.

Despite the different interpretations vis-à-vis her death, it remains ironical that she alone do not survive the circumcision.

Conclusively, religious rites should not be a source of cultural disharmony, treated with disdain. It should be a case of live and let live with everyone to his opinions. The author’s portrayal of these rites in the text should not be seen as a wanton attempt to increase the volume of the book but as a telescopic attempt to draw us closer to the root of things-the view from which the society in question sees its religion from. In so doing, sacred rites should be seen as profusely symbolic following Victor Turner’s entrenchment that “every gesture employed, every song or prayer every unit of space and time, by convention stands for something other than itself” (Streng: 1985: 145).


From → Literature

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