The River Between
, by Ngugiwa Thiong’o, tells the story of the first settlement of Kenya by white Europeans. Their arrival sparked a period of revolutionary change that challenged the Kenyan people’s traditional ways of life. The division caused by the Europeans is illustrated in the novel by the fact that the two communities who were affected by their arrival live on opposite sides of the same river. The imposition of a new way of thinking by the colonists presented a fundamental paradigm shift in the minds of the indigenous communities. Either they accepted the ‘new world,’ or rejected it in favor of keeping their traditional Kenyan culture undiluted. A village on one side of the river embraced the Europeans and their new religious views. Another village sought to preserve the independence of their tribe. Therefore, although the river united the two villages on its shores, it also served as a symbolic divide between them and their opposing perspectives on European colonialism.
Ngugi’s novel tells the story of a girl whose family embraced Christianity and decided to convert. The young girl had decided to undergo the ceremonial act of circumcision, a ritual considered by the tribe to mark a girl’s transition into womanhood, signaling that she was ready for marriage. She eventually dies due to complications from the surgery and even her death is interpreted in two distinctly different ways. Some thought it was a sign that the new religion had angered the spirits. Others saw it as the inevitable result of an antiquated system of beliefs and thought circumcision should be eliminated. The girl’s death also symbolized the rejection of the idea that these two conflicting viewpoints could ever be reconciled.
A young man called Waiyaki is another 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 Kiami who must inevitably decide their fate.