European Imperialist Culture v. Native Traditions in Kenya and Bosnia

Imperialism began as a sort of international battle to promote one's country. It quickly became an overzealous way for capitalists of Europe to make a quick dollar and for religious zealots to spread the word of God. While for the most part Europeans that traveled to these lands were either of the upper class or clergymen and nuns, West European society and culture was still able to force its way into the jungles of Africa and even in the Balkans. Imperialism ‘benefited’ those natives who embraced the western European culture while those that did not, or those that the west did not favor, often time faced dire consequences.

In Kenya

In Ngugi’s novel, The River Between, the Gikuyu tribe is divided into pro-European and Anti-European factions, each living on a different ridge. The book, a story about coming of age and love, also deals with the tribe’s inner struggle with imperialistic ideals. The tribe ultimately splits into two factions, the pro-European lead by Joshua, and the other, more or less, was run by European-educated Waiyaki. Joshua’s faction was educated by missionaries and was fiercely Christianized. Waiyaki’s faction, as it was, was more primitive but had more culture. Unfortunately the white-man’s way slowly but surely forced itself into the tribe. As quoted from Ngugi’s book, “In Joshua’s last visit, one of the white men that people… paying taxes… People shrugged their shoulders, not knowing what a tax was.”1 The white-man’s ways did quickly influence the tribe in one aspect, however, and that is education. The “white-man’s magic”2 was learnt by many of the village boys, Christian and non-Christian alike. Waiyaki went to the missionary as a youth and benefited from the education, but remained loyal in the practices of his tribe and was not Christianized.

Waiyaki embraced his tribal traditions. He was circumcised, as was the traditional rite to manhood or womanhood. Along with him, Joshua’s disowned daughter was also circumcised; she later died as a result of an infection. Muthoni, as was her name, quickly caused a greater schism to erupt between the factions. Joshua claimed that she died because she disobeyed him (and God) and because she went over to the dark side; while the traditional tribesmen believed that Muthoni’s death was a form of their Gods punishing Joshua for becoming a Christian. As a result from her death, the missionary, which educated boys from the tribe, closed its doors to all except the Christians or those that outright opposed circumcision. This obviously benefited the natives that embraced and adopted the European culture.

The dispute over circumcision became the metaphor for the entire Christian vs. Native ideological ‘war’. Muthoni’s death launched a fierce campaign on both sides, the Christians attacking the practice and the tribe defending it. This can also be seen as the battle between European and non-European ideals. The European ideal condemning the ‘barbaric and primitive’ tribal practices and the non-European ideal being that the ancient rituals and practices of the tribe were the only truth in the world. Muthoni was able to find the perfect link between the two, but she died for that knowledge and salvation.3 Waiyaki also tried, later in the book, to find that link, unfortunately for him it cost him his leadership position within the tribe, and it is implied he died for it.

Waiyaki was known as simply “Teacher” by many of the tribes’ people. His father’s vision of “salvation from the hills… a son shall rise… to lead and save the people”4 burned Waiyaki with a desire to educate the boys of the tribe, since now the missionary was closed to them. His idea was to educate and eventually unite the tribe, but his closed-mindedness on education, as well as his secret love for Joshua’s other daughter caused him to forget about what the original intent was of the schools, keeping the tribe pure. His mistakes, many in number, condemned the tribe into further factions, those that followed him, and those that were loyal to the Kiama, or formal tribal government. It could be said that because his students, since they were not favored upon by the missionaries, did not benefit from imperialism.

Violence had already beseeched the two factions before the onset of a formal ‘war.’ In the book it was rumored by both factions that a fire that burnt down a hut of one of Joshua’s followers was started by a tribesman. Ngugi does not tell what happens to neither the tribe nor the Christians at the end of the book, but one can assume that a violent war broke out between the two. It can also be assumed then, that the Christians, who were favored by the Europeans for their acceptance of Christianity, benefited from European aide, and that the natives did not.

In Bosnia

The Austrian-Hungarian Empire formally annexed Bosnia in 1908, but long before that, Austria had nearly complete control of the area, and long before that even, their influence in the area was great. When Bosnia was under Ottoman control, the Catholics within it looked to the Austrian Empire for support and aide.5 So when Bosnia became a territory of Austria in 1878, Austria favored Catholic Serbs more highly. Muslims suffered from Austrian rule, being removed from their seats of power granted by the Ottomans and replaced by Catholics. Austrian rule did, in a way, benefit all of the Bosnians. Railroads were constructed, roads bridges were repaired, and telegraph lines were put up. While the lesser educated Serbs did not see any apparent benefits by these things, the construction nevertheless increased trade and flow of ideologies. With the increase of trade and use of Austrian monetary, wealth, of sorts, became a norm, and things that had “earlier been unattainable… now became, in many cases, possible and attainable to all who had or who knew.”6

The Austrians also helped introduce new agriculture techniques, and even built model farms and an agriculture college. While this did well and good for the Bosnian people, it was foreigners that benefited most from Austria’s policy in Agriculture. These foreigners built ‘Agrarian Colonies’ and were favored highly by Austria.7 The ‘invasion’ created resentment of Austria in the native Bosnians, who saw the Austrian-Hungarian population alone grow from 16,500 to 108,000 in a short 20 years. This invasion could not be helped, however, and Andric, in his book The Bridge on The Drina, says that the Bosnians that accepted the foreign culture, mostly Catholics and Jews, “began to look more and more like the newcomers in dress and behavior.”8 This violation, of sorts, to the ethnic Bosnian way of life, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, was seen as an atrocity by many Serbs. Anti-Austrian groups, two of which were the Young Turks and The Black Hand, used terrorist methods to attempt to rid Bosnia of Austrian rule and influence. Much like Waiyaki, these groups wished to unite the Serbs against the invading European power, but unlike Waiyaki, these groups chose violence over education.

Education, it seemed, was also something Austria seemed to introduce into Bosnia forcibly. In 1902, only 30 Bosnians had a college education.9 These came from a rich, pro-European background, and thus were rewarded by the Austrian Empire and given Administration posts within the government. Mass education was ignored by Austria because of the traditional ‘backwardness’ of the Serbian culture. This ‘backwardness’ it seemed, would be Austria’s undoing. The terrorism conducted by the Serbian groups and the view that Austrians adopted of the Serbs was, to put it briefly, caused the start of the First World War.

Western Europeans had always viewed all or Eastern Europe as backwards, and Austria’s view on Bosnia was no exception. J. De Asboth summarized this view perfectly when he visited a small Bosnian town as reported in his An Official Tour Through Bosnia and Herzegovina; “It is a rare event for the villagers to behold a human being…”10 This view was also present in the large Austrian military presence in Bosnia. It could be said that the presence was in reaction to the terrorist acts, but it could also be said that many of the terrorist acts were somewhat caused by the military presence. In the year 1882-1883, the number of Austrian military companies within Sarajevo doubled from 4 to 8. The military punished those that did not conform to the European ways of life, and protected those that had. Bosnians were also conscripted into the army, as those in Andric’s story. This was with much reluctance on both the Austrian’s part and the Serbian part, especially the Muslims. Austria did, however, favor the Bosnian draftees, the required serving time was two thirds that of other non-Bosnian draftees.12

From Joshua’s followers to the Christians of Bosnia, Europe favored those who conformed to European ways. While there were both benefits and consequences of imperialism, the fact remains that those who adopted the European way of life were more accepted by the European powers than those who did not. The people who did not conform, Muslims and the Gikuyu tribe, were often times subject to punishment, whether by exclusion, forced compliance, or in some cases, physical harm. Imperialism was a bitter sweet tool used by Europeans to get money and force their ways onto natives of the conquered lands.

1 Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, The River Between. (Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1965), 31.
2 Ibid, 21.
3 Ibid, 142.
4 Ibid, 20.
5 Noel Malcolm, “Bosnia” in Hist 113 Reading Packet, 149.
6 Ivo Andric “The Bridge on The Drina” in Hist 113 Reading Packet, 176.
7 Noel Malcolm, “Bosnia” in Hist 113 Reading Packet, 142.
8 Ivo Andric “The Bridge on The Drina” in Hist 113 Reading Packet, 174.
9 Vladimir Dedijer, “The Road to Sarajevo” in Hist 113 Reading Packet, 176.
10 J. De Asboth, “An Official Tour Through Bosnia And Herzegovina” in Hist 113 reading Packet.
11 Asboth, “An Official Tour…” in Reading Packet.
12 Ivo Andric, “The Bridge on The Drina” in Hist 113 Reading Packet, 170.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, The River Between. Johannesburg: Heinemann, 1965
History 113, Modern Europe, 1789-Present. Article and Document Reader Packet.