The River Between

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The River Between
First edition
AuthorNgũgĩ wa Thiong'o
PublisherHeinemannAfrican Writers Series
Publication date
Media typePrint Paperback
Preceded byWeep Not, Child 
Followed byA Grain of Wheat 

The River Between is a 1965 novel by prolific Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o that was published as part of the influential African Writers Series.[1][2] It tells the story of the separation of two neighbouring villages of Kenya caused by differences in faith set in the decades of roughly the early 20th century. The bitterness between them caused much hatred between the adults of each side. The story tells about the struggle of a young leader, Waiyaki, to unite the two villages of Kameno and Makuyu through sacrifice and pain.

The novel is set during the colonial period, when white settlers arrived in Kenya's "White Highlands", and has a mountain setting.

Plot Summary[edit]

A young man called Waiyaki is a focal point in Ngugi’s story. At an early age, he was already considered to have special gifts. Waiyaki once encountered two boys fighting and attempted to break up the squabble. Although he was the youngest of the three, he was able to put a stop to the violence. Ngugi reveals the three boys, Waiyaki, Kamua and Kinuthia are all destined to study at a local mission school nearby and from there, to become teachers. Waiyaki is eventually enrolled at the school at the behest of his father, Chege. He explains to young Waiyaki the legend of a savior who would be born into their village and accomplish great things for his people. Waiyaki’s father believes that he is that savior. Although Waiyaki is skeptical of such a fantastical prophesy, he excels in the school and is well on his way to playing a vital role in the development of his people. The significance of Chege’s eagerness to send Waiyaki to the mission school rests on the fact that the boy would be in a position to learn the wisdom of the colonists. This knowledge would Waiyaki equip him for the struggle against the colonial government. Despite the liberating potential of this knowledge, Waiyaki must ensure he does not embrace the colonial system, as doing so would defeat the purpose of his training.

As the story progresses, the division between the two villages intensifies and the proposed circumcision of the young girl Muthoni causes much dissention within the community. Her death galvanizes the missionary school—in which Waiyaki is enrolled—into action, going so far as to expel children whose parents still uphold the tradition of circumcision. Waiyaki is among those forced from the school. In response, he decides to take up the challenge of building a school for the expelled children. While he still does not fully understand the leadership role his father predicted he would take up, he begins to realize that his mission is to enable education for the children of the villages. He becomes so preoccupied with this goal that he fails to recognize and address the other needs of his community, such as reclaiming lands seized by the colonists. Some villagers begin conspiring behind closed doors, eventually forming a secret organization known as Kiama, whose singular purpose is to ensure the purity of the tribe.

As a result of this upheaval, Waiyaki makes enemies. Among them is Kabonyi who begins to provoke dissenters in the community to undermine and destroy Waiyaki. Eventually, Waiyaki succumbs to Kabonyi’s trickery. While he desires nothing more than to quell the growing unrest within the village, and heal the angst among the people, he is powerless to undo the polarizing effects of colonialism. Waiyaki blames himself for having failed to address the lack of unity in time.

The story concludes on an ominous note. Waiyaki and his new love interest Nyambura find themselves in the hands of the Kiama who must inevitably decide their fate.


  • Waiyaki: an ambitious young man who tries to save his people from the white man by building schools and providing education.
  • Chege: Waiyaki's father. He is a well-respected elder of his tribe, presiding over a range of ceremonies. He also knows all the prophecies, including the invasion of the white people with their clothes like butterflies, and a savior rising to face this threat.
  • Joshua: Father of Muthoni and Nyambura, he represents the influence of the white man and is one of Waiyaki's antagonists. He was one of the first people to be converted to Christianity, seeking refuge in Siriana because he feared the revenge and anger of his people, who felt betrayed. He becomes increasingly religious until he is almost a fanatic, renouncing his tribe's rituals and traditions. Considering his people to live in darkness, he is dedicated to converting as many people as possible to save them from hell.
  • Muthoni: she is Joshua's eldest daughter, instead of following the Christian way of life, she follows the traditional path and chooses to get circumcised to become a woman. However, the circumcision leads to medical complications, and even though Waiyaki managed to get her to a hospital, she dies after claiming that she sees Jesus.
  • Nyambura: Muthoni's younger sister, but not as revolutionary because she is not as independent. While Muthoni openly rebels against her father, Nyambura follows him because she fears his anger. She falls in love with Waiyaki and started a secret affair which lead to his downfall as their relationship is considered a treason amongst the council.
  • Kabonyi: He is the father of Kamau, he represents the council of the elders and, therefore, the conservative forces within the community. He detests Waiyaki due to conflicting ideologies and fearing that Waiyaki may be the one sent to save the people. Eventually, however, Kabonyi is able to punish Waiyaki during a council meeting, effectively ending the struggle for reconciliation.
  • Kinuthia: A close and loyal friend of Waiyaki's and a teacher at Marioshoni. Kinuthia loves Waiyaki and thinks he is a great leader, but he often warns his friend of imminent trouble. At Waiyaki's final stand, he is nearly crippled with fear and foreboding; he can say nothing to dissuade the Kiama from punishment.
  • Kamau: Kabonyi's son and peer of Waiyaki; he is a teacher at Marioshoni. Kamau is extremely jealous of Waiyaki, especially when he realizes Nyambura loves Waiyaki. He works with his father to topple Waiyaki from his perch of power.
  • Livingstone: The British missionary who founds Siriana and carries on a more than twenty-five-year outreach in the ridges. He is devoted to getting rid of circumcision, which he considers to be a barbaric practice.
  • Miriamu: Joshua's wife and mother to Muthoni and Nyambura. She is a devout Christian, but she still has a Gikuyu spirit inside. She loves her daughters and weeps for their sorrows, but she believes that they must obey their father.

Major Themes[edit]


The River Between is an allegory of the colonization of Kenya when the British introduced Christianity and exploited the country. Joshua represents the converted African who does everything in his power to support the colonialists, represented by a man called Livingston (possibly referring to David Livingston, the pioneer missionary). The British secure their power by building government posts and collecting taxes, which at first does not concern the people because they do not know what taxes are. Only later do they realize that they are exploited. Therefore, Waiyaki tries to lead his people to independence through (Western) education, after his father tells him, "Learn all the wisdom and all the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices." However, in the end, he realizes that education alone is not enough to improve the lives of the people. Instead, it is necessary that the community gains self-respect through political action uniting the different tribes.

Individual vs. Community[edit]

The two characters that try to follow their own agenda without first consulting with the elders and their community meet with an unfavorable end. Waiyaki keeps building more schools in an attempt to provide education to the people, but even though he has good intentions, he underestimates the power of the council of the elders, who consider adhering to ancient traditions more important than taking over parts of the white man's culture. In the end, he is punished by the council and the people, which indicates that all his efforts were in vain. Similarly, Muthoni goes against the will of her father and Christian community when she decides to follow the traditions and get circumcised to become part of the tribe. Muthoni dies because of this procedure, which also indicates that reconciliation is impossible.


Waiyaki's main flaw seems to be that he is not entirely self-aware. He knows he is a vital member of the community and most of the time sees himself as the savior from Chege's prophecy, but he is incapable of acknowledging that his vision for the tribe may not be what the tribe actually needs. He also cannot really see how crucial his failure to talk about unity was, and how he is being selfish by putting it off. He ignores aspects of what his elevated role in the society might mean for himself and others.


Tradition is exceedingly significant to a society, especially in terms of their founding history, rites, rituals, etc. The Kikuyu have long held their own beliefs on these subjects, and the white man's influence is seen as deleterious to those beliefs. Ngugi suggests that not all new ideas are bad—Waiyaki and Muthoni and Nyambura articulate the need for a fusion between Christianity and tribal tradition—and that traditions can be problematic. He is aware, though, that traditions are excessively difficult to change or eradicate, and that the white man and his African supporters cannot expect to order the Kikuyu to get rid of something overnight. Rather, patience and understanding are necessary.

Unity and Division[edit]

Ngugi evinces complicated views on human nature, suggesting that both unity and division can be sustaining and dangerous in various circumstances. The two ridges are unified by the river but at the same time divided by it; there is neutral ground but it is nearly impossible to occupy. Division is present in the novel through the white man and his religion/education/influence; as we watch, various Kikuyu come down on either side of these encroachments. Division is natural because a population cannot be perfectly homogeneous; however, these divisions can become dangerous when they are accompanied by violence, ignorance, and intolerance. There is a need for unity on the basis of something deeper to preclude the complete fraying of a society. Thus, by the end of the novel unity is needed to patch the two ridges together in order to maintain autonomy over a way of life—but Ngugi indicates that this is a difficult thing to achieve.

The Land[edit]

The land is of paramount importance in the text. Ngugi begins the novel with an image of its ancient presence, its sustaining nature, and its centrality to rite and ritual (as seen, for example, in the way that the circumcision and initiation ceremonies are tied to the river). The land is tied to culture, and when the Kikuyu feel like their land is under siege by the white man, it is so much more than that. That the white man builds on their land, taxes their land, and eventually will take their land is what so horrifies the Kiama; even though Waiyaki is the central protagonist, the reader feels sympathetic to the Kiama's goal of routing the outsiders.


The characters in The River Between exhibit courage in a variety of ways. Sometimes this courage is standing up to family or to the community, and sometimes it is being honest with oneself. Muthoni has convictions that necessitate her standing up to her family, and Nyambura stands up to her family and her community for love. Similarly, Waiyaki demonstrates courage as he pursues his goal of education, as he seeks unity between the ridges, and as he defends his love for Nyambura. Having courage doesn't guarantee a positive outcome, but it can foster a sense of wholeness and peace in a person.


  1. ^ "The River Between, work by Ngugi". Britannica. Retrieved 30 March 2020.
  2. ^ "Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: The River Between". The Modern Novel. Retrieved 30 March 2020.


  • Amoko, Apollo O. 2005. "The resemblance of colonial mimicry: A revisionary reading of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between". Research in African Literatures 36, : 34-50.
  • Bongmba, Elias. 2001. "On love: Literary images of a phenomenology of love in Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between". Literature & Theology: An International Journal of Theory, Criticism and Culture 15, (4): 373-395.
  • Gordon, Natasha Maria. 2004. "To write what cannot be written: Female circumcision in African and Middle Eastern literature". Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 11, (1): 73-87.
  • Alphonse Odhiambo. 2016 made a secrete change on the unity of the two antagonizing communities that struggle over faith with the people they should lead,but the elders show their dignity and their readiness to follow change, a change that is brought by a young leader who is WAIYAKI.
  • Grobler, G. M. M. 1998. "And the river runs on ...: Symbolism in two African novels". South African Journal of African Languages/Suid-Afrikaanse Tydskrif Vir Afrikatale 18, (3): 65-67.
  • James, Trevor. 2001. "Theology of landscape and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between; Mapping the sacred: Religion, geography and postcolonial literatures; Cross/Cultures: Readings in the Post/Colonial literatures in English." In (pp. 227–40) Scott, Jamie S. (ed. and introd.); Simpson-Housley, Paul (ed.), Mapping the Sacred: Religion, geography and postcolonial literatures. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2001, xxxiii, 486 pp. (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Cross/Cultures: Readings in the Post/Colonial literatures in English 48), eds. Jamie S. Scott, Paul Simpson-Housley, 486. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi.
  • Karambiri, Sarah. 2003. "Hybridity and mimicry in two novels: The River Between and In Search of April Raintree; intercultural Journeys/Parcours interculturels". In (pp. 83–96) Dagenais, Natasha (ed.); Daxell, Joanna (ed.); Rimstead, Roxanne (collaborator and preface), Intercultural Journeys/Parcours interculturels. Baldwin Mills, QC: Topeda Hill, 2003. xiv, 270 pp., eds. Natasha Dagenais, Joanna Daxell and Roxanne Rimstead, 270. Baldwin Mills, QC: Topeda Hill.
  • Nicholls, Brendon. 2003. "Clitoridectomy and gikuyu nationalism in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's The River Between". Kunapipi: Journal of Post-Colonial Writing 25, (2): 40-55.
  • Raditlhalo, Sam. 2001. "'Kenyan sheroes': Women and nationalism in Ngugi's novels". English Studies in Africa: A Journal of the Humanities 44, : 1-12.
  • Wise, Christopher. 1995. "Messianic hallucinations and manichean realities: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Christianity, and the Third World novel". Christianity and Literature 45, (1): 31-51.