Thursday, August 18, 2011

94. The River Between by Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo

Title: The River Between
Author: Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo
Genre: Fiction/Social Realism
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Pages: 152
Year of First Publication: 1965
Country: Kenya

The River Between is a story about leadership, changes and identity. It concentrates on social and political change at the onset of European invasion. As a colonial literature the story is set in the period where the Kikuyu highlands of Kameno and Makuyu was at its nascent stage of Christian European invasion. Though similar to Weep Not Child, the struggle in The River Between against Christian European revolves around the issue of tradition and identity.

The story opens with an omniscient narrator who tells of Kikuyu creation; of how Murungu created Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first man and woman. The narrator also debates which ridge is the eldest: Makuyu - where it is claimed that Gikuyu and Mumbi sojourned with Murungu on their way to Mukuruwe wa Gathanga - or Kameno, where they had stopped, as each ridge claims leadership based on its own story. However, a common river, Honia, runs through the valley between the two ridges. And it is by this river that the ritual of circumcision is practised. The river also gives life to the people of both ridges.

Chege, a descendant of a line of prophets and seers most notably of whom was Mugo wa Kibiro, led his son Waiyaki into a sacred grove to show him the secrets of the land and to tell him about the prophecy that would become Waiyaki's sole objective in life and his ruin for Chege believed that Waiyaki is the son in that prophecy. 
"Salvation shall come from the hills. From the blood that flows in me, I say from the same tree, a son shall rise. And his duty shall be to lead and save the people!"
However, these two ridges are now divided along religious lines:
Makuyu and Kameno still antagonized each other. Makuyu was now home of the Christians while Kameno remained the home of all that was beautiful in the tribe.
with leadership under different personalities. Mayuku's leadership is under Joshua and his fiery brand of Christianity whereas Kameno's leadership is under Waiyaki. Things came to a head when Joshua's daughter, Muthoni, died after she ran away from home to participate in the circumcision that would usher girls and boys into adulthood. Charged to bring these two groups together, Waiyaki vowed to use education as the tool to keep the village's identity and to keep the white man at bay whereas his detractor - Kabonyi, himself an ex-follower of Joshua - vowed to use political force. When Joshua's second daughter, Nyambura, falls in love with Waiyaki, things spiralled out of control for both sides of the divide for Nyambura has not been circumcised and a Christian and Waiyaki has sworn an oath to protect the traditions and secrets of the people. This internal struggle and autophagy blurred Waiyaki's vision for he was a man who paid no particular attention to such traditions as circumcision.

Could Ngugi be speaking to us metaphorically? So that the ridges today are nothing more than the diametrically opposing ideologues and ideologies running and ruining our countries and tribes. For instance, on the political front there is Socialism against Capitalism with the the latter abhorring everything about the former even if it presents itself as the best policy to solving a problem. And vice versa. However, if Kameno and Makuyu are metaphors for ideologies or ideologues, then they would aptly represent the socio-religious divide more than the political. For from the Muslim-Christian clashes in Nigeria to the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland, we are confronted by a group of people with equal eagerness to tear themselves apart to preserve their faith and not their humanity. And this is what gives this localised novel, an international appeal. 

This novel, though not Ngugi's best, emphasises his interest in social realism; in documenting the changes that are or have taken place. In this story, Ngugi shows a different method of fighting the oppressor: using the oppressor's own tools. He shows that education is not mutually exclusive to the preservation of tradition and not all rituals are important to preserving tradition and culture.

As an Ngugi, need I say it is recommended?
Brief Bio: Click Here

ImageNations' Rating: 4.5/6.0


  1. Interesting review, Nana. I like how you relate the book to modern events. I believe Ngugi may have written this book out of a political urge. Of course, his voice is politically strong in Kenya so that might make sense. Thanks for the post.

  2. I agree Dela. The issues affecting our world is one that's cyclical in nature. We're never able to get the answers.

  3. what is the difference betwwen NUGU WA THIONG and JOSEPH CONRAD?


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