By the time The River Between was published in 1965, Ngugi wa Thiong’o had already introduced his work to the literary scene in East Africa. His previous novel, Weep Not Child, was published to critical acclaim the year before in 1964 under the name James T. Ngugi. Ngugi’s own life and works reflect the success and tragedies of contemporary African society in Kenya.
The turmoil of former British colonies, such as Kenya, consistently reaches the headlines into the 21st century. Ngugi’s work was among the first to explore these topics, including the efforts of Christian missionaries and the uproar over female circumcision. Ngugi’s decision to initially write in English and then later in Gikuyu also parallel the African writer’s efforts to hold on to the idea of true identity and adherence to a culture. He embodies the education of Britain and the ideal of his own culture.
Critics consistently praise The River Between for its love story and its steadfast effort to remain distinctly African. The novel is touted as a sensitive treatment of the Gikuyu. Reviews of the book also tend to criticize Ngugi’s treatment of Waiyaki. Critics describe his portrayal as too romantic and glamorized because Waiyaki’s opponents in the tribe are presented as only vindictive. Critics write that Ngugi does not present a serious consideration of the political approach of Waiyaki’s enemies. Kabonyi is a complicated character who only seeks vengeance and yet no explanation is fully given for his return to the tribe. Kamau is developed as a character who is only the tool of Kabonyi. The elders are only critics of Waiyaki.
Some of this early inconsistency may point out an internal struggle for Ngugi himself. At this point in his career, Ngugi was writing in English. His evolution to employ his own language, Gikuyu, happens later in 1980. Ngugi has stated that art is a constant attempt to return to the language of the people. To understand daily life and national traditions, writers naturally return to the representative language. The democratization of Africa and its spiritual awakening is strong in post-colonial times, following a period when that spirit had been crushed with French and English in places where most people speak African languages.
Through his numerous novels, plays, and essays, Ngugi continued to represent this voice and struggle. His personal exile from Kenya lasted twenty-two years. Ngugi said he would not return to Kenya as long as Moi, a dictator, was president and the Kanu Party were in power. By 2004, both had been ousted and Ngugi returned to release his first volume of a novel in Gikuyu. He was met by a crowd of press and supporters at the airport. Two weeks later, he was beaten and his wife was assaulted. This was a political act representing an entire life’s work about the tensions in Kenya.