The River Between Essay - Critical Essays

Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Critical Context

Ngugi’s first novel, The River Between (1965), was published after Weep Not, Child (1964) but written beforehand, originally entitled “The Black Messiah.” With revisions, The River Between forms the initial “chapter” in Ngugi’s chronological cultural history of the Kikuyu. While The River Between reaches back indirectly to the origin and focuses directly on events in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Weep Not, Child continues the chronology by examining events at the end of World War II, speculating on the causes of the Mau Mau wars. A Grain of Wheat (1967), while set on one day in 1963, looks back at events from the Mau Mau years to Kenyan independence. The fourth novel in Ngugi’s cultural history, Petals of Blood (1977), written in 1972, focuses on neocolonial practices in independent Kenya.

Throughout the period of these four novels, Ngugi himself undergoes significant changes in his own perspective, just as the sequence shows changes in style and thematic concerns. Sharing Waiyaki’s idealism and writing The River Between as a devout Christian (having been educated in a mission school), Ngugi nevertheless also labored under the memory of his father’s poverty and degradation at the hands of an African landlord. Soon, Ngugi was to drop his Christian name James, renounce altogether his Christianity, and adopt elements of the psychological analysis of Frantz Fanon (as expressed in Les Damnes de la terre, 1961; The Wretched of the Earth, 1965) and the political philosophy of Karl Marx, both of which inform Petals of Blood. When his explicit criticism of colonialism in the first three novels developed into an attack on neocolonial corruption in Kenya and when he began to write in Kikuyu rather than in English, the Kenyan government imprisoned him for his play Ngaahika Ndeenda (1977; I Will Marry When I Want, 1982), despite his widely acclaimed status as Kenya’s best-known writer. Along with his fiction and social criticism, Ngugi is credited with helping not only to popularize African fiction abroad but also to establish African literature and criticism as central to literary study in African universities.