The Gikuyu tribespeople in the ridges of Kenya live a traditional agrarian lifestyle and are isolated from the rest of the world. However, when white colonialists begin to spread across Kenya and even into the isolated hill-country, Waiyaki recognizes that the Gikuyu must be adapt themselves to this new threat or be overrun by it. Through Waiyaki’s mission to transform the villages, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o suggests that the world is changing around the Gikuyu people whether they like it or not, and they must adapt themselves to the modern world by pursuing education, even if they long for the old ways.
The Gikuyu tribespeople lead a simple agricultural lifestyle—one that they would prefer to maintain. Makuyu, Kameno, and the other Gikuyu villages in the hills live a traditional agrarian lifestyle, cultivating crops and raising livestock. Even as white settlers spread across the lowlands, the Gikuyu in the ridges believe that the world will never change for them—they will be protected by their seclusion: “The ridges were isolated. The people there led a life of their own, undisturbed by what happened outside or beyond.” Their remote location lends a sense of security that they will never have to change to adapt themselves to the outside world, suggesting that such isolation can lead to a sense of complacency. However, even in Kameno, some villagers sense that their world is about to change. Less land is available to cultivate—due to the spread of white settlers and relocation of various tribes, exiled from ancestral lands—and the livestock are failing. Recognizing that their environment is changing, children sing, “Land is gone / Cattle and sheep are not there / […] Father, if you had many cattle and sheep / I would ask for a spear and shield”—the weapons that they use to war with other tribes, signifying their traditional lifestyle. This indicates that the children would prefer to maintain their traditional way of life and live as their ancestors did.
Waiyaki recognizes that with the arrival of white settlers, even the ridge tribes will soon be affected and must adapt by embracing education, which will allow them to operate in this new world. The white colonialists spread by establishing new administrative governments, which the Gikuyu are ill-equipped to handle without education. Early in the story, rumor spreads that the white settlers will build a government outpost near Makuyu, and the Gikuyu villages will have to start paying taxes to the white people. However, since no one in the tribe understands what taxes are, they pay little heed to the rumor, demonstrating the need for Western-style education so they can understand and defend themselves from the white colonialists’ schemes. Waiyaki thinks of education as “the white man’s magic,” the weapon that allows white people to organize and operate at massive scale, allowing them to take land or spread themselves into other people’s countries. Waiyaki hopes to protect his tribe and “give it the white man’s learning and his tools, so that in the end the tribe would be strong enough, wise enough, to chase away the settlers and the missionaries.” Although it is the white people’s tool, Waiyaki proclaims that education is the key to his tribe’s survival, the way for them to adapt to their changing world. Taking up Waiyaki’s call to education, children sing, “I do not want a shield / I do not want a spear / I want the shield and spear of learning,” signifying that education will be their new means of protecting themselves from the foreign colonialists now that the world has changed and their old weapons are no longer effective. They no longer fight other tribes but the threat of white colonialism.
Although some tribe members resist education as an artifact of white society, Waiyaki demonstrates that tribespeople can embrace education and learning without living like white people themselves or abandoning all of their cultural heritage. Although he firmly opposes the white colonialists, Waiyaki’s father, Chege, sends his son to learn from the white missionaries, counseling him that he must “learn all the wisdom and the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices.” Chege’s advice suggests that Waiyaki and all of the tribespeople can learn from the white people’s knowledge without abandoning their tribal values or acting like white people themselves. After studying with the missionaries, Waiyaki returns to Kameno and begins building schools for the tribe’s children to learn in. He carries Chege’s advice with him and, with his tribe’s help, builds their school buildings as thatched huts in the tradition of their tribe rather than as European-styled rectangular buildings. Waiyaki reflects, “Few wanted to live the white man’s way, but all wanted this thing, this magic [education]. This work of building together was a tribute to the tribe’s way of cooperation.” Rather than imitate the white people and their methods, Waiyaki takes their concept of education but conducts it in ways that suit tribal tradition, thus proving that tribal people can adopt concepts like education without losing their cultural heritage.
Waiyaki’s leadership in developing education for his tribe ultimately suggests that, although tribal people may want to simply live as they have always lived, the world is quickly changing around them. However, embracing education and adapting themselves does not require them to abandon their traditional values or heritage.
Tradition vs. Progress ThemeTracker
Tradition vs. Progress Quotes in The River Between
The ridges were isolated. The people there led a life of their own, undisturbed by what happened outside or beyond. Men and women had nothing to fear. The [white people] would never come here. They would be lost in the hills and the ridges and the valleys.
The ridges slept on. Kameno and Makuyu were no longer antagonistic They had merged into one area of beautiful land, which is what, perhaps, they were meant to be.
“Arise. Heed the prophecy. Go to the Mission place. Learn all the wisdom and the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices. Be true to your people and the ancient rites.”
Schools grew up like mushrooms. Often a school was nothing more than a shed hurriedly thatched with grass. And there they stood, symbols of people’s thirst for the white man’s secret magic and power. Few wanted to live the white man’s way, but all wanted this thing, this magic.
Circumcision was an important ritual to the tribe. It kept people together, bound the tribe. It was at 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.
Father, if you had many cattle and sheep
I would ask for a spear and a shield,
I do not want a spear
I do not want a shield
I want the spear and shield of learning.
For Waiyaki knew that not all the ways of the white man were bad. Even his religion was not essentially bad. Some good, some truth, shone through it. But the religion, the faith, needed washing, cleaning away all the dirt, leaving only the eternal. And that eternal was that the truth had to be reconciled to the traditions of the people.