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A few days ago, I finished Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers. It is an incredible book, powerful and eye-opening in the ways that only words have to power to do. It is the story of the British colonisation of Kenya in the early twentieth century- told from the perspective of a succession of Kikuyu tribesmen. Huxley manages to craft the perspective of the Kikuyu people so convincingly that by the time the British -the sunburned Red Strangers of the title- arrive on the scene with their alien ways they are as bizarre and nonsensical to the reader as they undoubtedly were to the people.
Of particular amusement to me are the scenes where the newcomers attempt to explain the Christian God to the locals, with his Son and his willingness to speak to children and his distaste of sacrifice. It brings to mind the fact that all religions are equally insane, and it is only through the contempt of familiarity that we do not laugh at the notion of a God murdering his Son so that he may be turned into weekly crackers to munch on.
Here is one such scene, quoted in full:
“The biggest building of all, made of mud and poles with a pole sticking up out of the roof, seemed always to be empty; and [Matu] asked Kamau the reason for this.
“That is a place where people go to talk to God,” Kamau said.
Matu was very surprised. “Why do they not go to a fig tree?” he asked. “The fig is sacred to God, because its roots have grown from the sky, and God sends sprits there to eat sacrifices.”
“This God does not eat sacrifices,” Kamau replied. “He does not like them.”
“How can God fail to like a good fat ram without blemish, the pick of the flock? Matu asked, even more amazed. “And why should God listen to a prayer which is not considered to be worth a sacrifice by those why pray?”
“All the same, the strangers do not sacrifice rams or he-goats,” Kamau said. “They talk to God in a loud voice and sing, and then he listens to them.”
“God listens to a song?” Matu asked incredulously. “Surely he does not attend to such trifles as that!”
“This God does not mind; but when people disobey him he uses a very strong magic to turn them into salt, and he sends cattle plagues and diseases. But he loves everyone, and when a small bird, such as an njigi, dies, he can hear it fall.”
“That is absurd,” Matu said. “Birds are senseless things which eat millet; God cannot possibly be interested in them.”
“The strangers say he is, nevertheless. He has a very big bird in the sky which he sends with messages, and it helps him to rule. It can fly from here to the big water, called in Swahili the sea, without rest. He also has a son, who was born in the country of the strangers, but was killed there a long time ago.”
“That is quite impossible,” Matu said. “God has no children, nor wives, nor goats. He is quite alone. Everyone knows that.”
“This God had a son,” Kamau insisted, “who was killed by very wicked men who did not listen to what he said. All this is recorded in signs, and those who can understand them know exactly what happened, although it occured many generations ago.”
“Has this God, then, a wife?”
“No, there is no wife. God chose a virgin and she became the mother of his child.”
“But that is a very shocking thing indeed!” Matu protested. “If a girl conceives before she is married, everyone ridicules her, and the man is fined ten goats. That story cannot possibly be true.”
“It was magic,” Kamau replied. “She did not lie with anyone, yet she conceived.”
“Now I know that this is all untrue!” Matu exclaimed. “Can a plant sprout from the earth without a seed, or a child grow in its mother’s womb without the intervention of a man? All this has nothing whatever to do with God.”
“You are very ignorant,” Kamau retorted angrily. “You do not know anything, and for that reason when you are dead you will go to a place where there is a very big fire and there you will roast like a yam for many, many seasons.”
“Now I see that your sense has flown off like a bee,” Matu said. “That is quite impossible.”
“You think so because you are ignorant. I have become a follower of this stranger’s God, who is very much more powerful than any other and protects me from illness without my going to a mundu-mugu to get charms. When I die my spirit will go into the sky, where I shall find many companions, women as well as men, and be very well content.”
“Are there are any cattle and goats in this place as well?”
“No, I do not think so, but there is much singing, and a kind of musical instrument, bigger than a flute.”
“I do not think it sounds a very good place,” Matu said.