In the 1960s, Ngugi wa Thiong'o produced a large volume of material, including stories, novels, plays, and a newspaper column. His first major play, The Black Hermit, was performed in 1962, which introduced Ngugi into the literary scene in East Africa. He published The River Between in 1965 following his novel Weep Not, Child, which was then followed by the critical success of A Grain of Wheat. This early trilogy set a firm foundation for his writing.
Ngugi’s The River Between focuses on the lost heritage of Eastern Africans through the characters of Waiyaki and his tribe. Ngugi was the first English-educated African writer to develop fiction portraying the Kikuyu view of the colonial war, the Mau Mau Emergency or Rebellion, which was a violent uprising by the Kikuyu people against British control. This event put the region in a state of emergency from 1952 to 1960.
The novel focuses on the conflict between Christian missionaries and the indigenous tribes. It also explores the long-lasting effects of colonialism and the consequences of struggling for independence.
In this work and others, Ngugi attempts to correct Western literature’s image of Africa, by offsetting the perspective of writers such as Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness. Ngugi’s work occupies the category of contemporary African fiction that began with Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drunkard and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Ngugi’s initial works were written in English, not the language of his own people. In the 1960s, he wove the stories and folk traditions of his culture and restated historical legends for a country that was less than a decade old. His later work is written in Gikuyu, the language of his tribe, as he seeks a more authentic literature and voice. His work represents the tenuous balance of cultures, languages, and nations that continues to be present in news headlines into the twenty-first century.
Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s third-person omniscient narrator opens the novel with a brief, symbolic evocation of the mythic landscape in which the plot unfolds. In the remote highlands of central Kenya, two ridges, each the home of a small Kikuyu community, rise on opposite sides of the river Honia, whose name means “cure, or bring-back-to-life.’’ Isolated even from other Kikuyu villages, this region bears the legacy of tribal identity, being the site of the Kikuyu origin myth where Murungo, the supreme deity, created Kikuyu and Mumbi, the first man and woman. Also the birthplace of legendary Kikuyu heroes, the land serves as the unifying ground for leadership and tradition, thus providing the basis for the identity of the tribe. Disputes have occurred, but even those that have resulted in the departure of the heroes, searching for contentment beyond the area, have been hidden from strangers.
Against this background of mythic unity, Ngugi details the present conflict between Komeno, the home of the traditionalists, and Makuyu, the home of the recently converted Christian Kikuyu. British settlers and missionaries have begun to approach the isolated area, and the Siriana Mission School, headed by the Reverend Livingston (an allusion to the explorer of the same surname), has successfully, through Joshua, a fanatical converted Kikuyu preacher, established a predominantly Christian community in Makuyu. Chege, a seer descended from the legendary Mugo, is the elder leader of Kameno, where traditional Kikuyu have ignored Mugo’s prophecy foretelling the coming of white settlers. Chege regards his responsibility as that of restoring unity to the Kikuyu, but, knowing that he will die before that can be accomplished, he bestows the charge of unified resistance to the whites upon his son Waiyaki.
Even as a boy, Waiyaki’s strong presence in appearance and mannerism is regarded as extraordinary among the Kikuyu. He seems a natural leader with “light” in his eyes, the last in a line of heroic seers. Chege takes him to the sacred tree and mountain of Murungo, revealing secret lore, recounting the ancient myths, and disclosing Waiyaki’s relationship to the ancestor Mugo. He also reveals an ancient, secret prophecy: A leader from the hills will bring salvation to his people. Chege reasons that, because other heroes have gone beyond the knowledge of the immediate region, Waiyaki must do so as well. Chege instructs his son not only to live by the traditional Kikuyu values but also—to the shock of Kameno—to attend the school at Siriana so that he may learn the ways of the whites, thereby gaining the necessary insights to meet the challenge that the missionaries and settlers pose to tribal integrity and survival. Waiyaki, obeying, then leaves for several years in order to be educated at the Mission.
The only other elder of the tribe who knows of the prophecy is Kabonyi, who, like Joshua, has converted to Christianity but is much less effective in his preaching. In the rigid interpretations of the Old Testament, Joshua is the patriarch of Makuyu, relegating Kabonyi to second-rate status there, just as Kabonyi has secondary status to Chege in traditional Kikuyu patriarchy. Joshua’s new sense of individualism and his new skills in literacy, however, owe as much to Livingston as to Scripture. Livingston, in accordance with the Presbyterian mission’s order to ban female circumcision among the Christian Kikuyu, brings Joshua into sharp conflict with traditional values: Circumcision is the central ritual among the traditional Kikuyu. When Joshua’s daughter Muthoni, believing, as she had been reared before her father’s conversion, that circumcision is necessary to become a Kikuyu “woman,” chooses to undergo the ritual ceremony, Joshua is forced to disown her as if she were dead.
Waiyaki, meanwhile, returns from the Mission in order to fulfill his own obligation to Kikuyu tradition. From his friend Kinuthia, Waiyaki learns of Muthoni’s rebellion, an affront to her father that Waiyaki cannot comprehend, despite his adherence to Kikuyu values. While Waiyaki and his friends Kamau and Kinuthia successfully complete the circumcision ritual on the banks of the Honia, Muthoni does not heal as she should. Throughout the ritual, Waiyaki suffers lingering doubts about its importance; his years at the school have, ironically, introduced ideas that foster his sense that Chege’s prophecy may be nothing more than an...
(The entire section is 1817 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The River Between was written for a literary contest that Ngugi entered while he was in college; the entry won first prize. Events in the novel take place about twenty-five years earlier than the action of Weep Not, Child. Set in Gikuyu territory, the novel portrays the struggle among natives of the ridges of Kameno and Makuyu, who have conflicting ideas about the presence of the white man. The two main forces are the traditionalists, led by Kabonyi, and the converts to Christianity and Western ways of thinking, led by Joshua. Finding some merit in both tribal traditions and Western thinking, but not subscribing completely to either, the protagonist Waiyaki is pulled by both sides as he attempts to educate his people. His father, Chege, who believes his son is the prophesied messiah, sends Waiyaki to the mission school to learn all that he can of the wisdom of the white man, but he warns Waiyaki to remain true to his people and their ways.
Waiyaki takes his place as an adult member of the tribe when he participates in the circumcision ceremony. The missionary school vehemently opposes the rites, and when his friend Muthoni dies of an infection after her circumcision, the missionaries refuse to allow the circumcised students to attend further classes at the mission school. Waiyaki returns to the ridges and sets up his own schools. His great enthusiasm for education earns the respect and affection of his people, who see him as their savior...
(The entire section is 562 words.)
The River Between opens with a description of two ridges and a valley in East Africa. One is Kameno, and the other is called Makuyu. The river, valley, slopes, and trees exist gracefully. The ridges have been sleeping lions for ages. Now they are the site of the struggle for leadership, life, and death in the region. According to legend, a man named Murungu rose from Makuyu and claimed the fertile land for the Gikuyu country. He gave the land to Gikuyu and Mumbi, a man and a woman. From these ancestors came Chege and also Waiyaki. A sacred and spiritual superiority exists here and the people pay homage to it.
The valleys and ridges now lay behind as the next scene emerges. Two boys burst from the bush. Kamau...
(The entire section is 1632 words.)