I found this a difficult book, because of my cultural background. The book describes the split within the Gikuyu people: those of them that wish to keep the tribe and its ways pure, and those that have converted to Christianity and have denounced the ways of the tribe. In the midst of this stands Waiyaki, born from a line of prophets he wants to unite the two factions – driven by his love of Nyambura, a Christian woman from the other side.

 The splintering event, that shattered the uneasy co-habitation that had existed before between the sides, was when Joshua, the leader of the christian faction, lost his daughter Muthoni to the rites of the tribe. She had wanted to be ‘a woman beautiful in the tribe’, so had left her father to undergo the circumcision ritual. She then died from complications. 

This book describes beautifully the situation that can arise when people split into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the dangers anyone faces who tries to breach this split. But I found it difficult to feel what I think the author was trying to get me to feel about the value of both tribal traditions and the new learning that the white man brought with him, and that the Gikuyu split was unnecessary and would end by them being destroyed by short-sightedness.

My problem was with the word circumcision I’m afraid I’m not a relativist who thinks that we should have unquestioning respect for other culture’s traditions no matter what, and think that other cultures values are just different but as good as ours. I always come back to one of Peter Cave’s philosophy problems in which he states, ‘Place a moral relativist in front of a screaming, innocent child being tortured. Ask her if she still thinks that what is being done is only relatively wrong’.

Now, I’m not comparing female circumcision, or to use the term I prefer, female genital mutilation, with child torture, but I do think it is a wrong and I think it is a practice that should be discouraged. It is much more invasive than the male version, and in some cases can have life-long gynecological ramifications. So, because of that viewpoint I found that unfortunately it coloured by reading of this book, and meant I had difficultly concentrating on the messages the author wanted me to take away from it.

However, I have another one of his to read as part of my African Writers challenge. So I have another opportunity to engage with his writing and hopefully my moral sensitivities won’t interfere with my reading in that case.