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...
(The entire section is 1817 words.)
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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 and Kinuthia are fighting with sticks and wrestling. Kinuthia is insulting Kamau’s father, Kabonyi, who is from Makuyu. Kabonyi has converted to Christianity and is considered a traitor for becoming a part of Siriana, the location of a Christian mission. In their struggle, Kinuthia trips and falls. Kamau stands over Kinuthia with Kinuthia’s hands pinned behind his back. Kinuthia is bleeding and at a disadvantage. A third boy enters the scene, Waiyaki, the only son of Chege, to stop the fight. Waiyaki is well-built and athletic with a scar above his left eye from an encounter with a goat. Through his gaze, Kamau obeys Waikyaki and removes himself from Kinuthia.
Waiyaki’s father, Chege, is well known in Kameno. Many stories surround him and some say he has the gift of magic. He barely survived the great famine and continued to have a family with daughters who are now well married. Chege warns against the Siriana Missionary Center; along with the other elders, he is preserving the tribal culture—including passing along that responsibility to his son, Waiyaki.
The boys collect their cattle and drive them home. Darkness has settled in as Waiyaki reaches home, and his father is surprised to learn that he has returned with the cattle from the plains. He is impressed with his son’s endurance.
Later, Waiyaki is playing a game based on the stories of "The Demi". The Demi Na Mathathi go back to the beginnings of time and are legends. As he is playing this game with another boy, Waiyaki is told he cannot be Demi because he is not yet circumcised. This makes Waiyaki feel small and insignificant.
Waiyaki is preparing for the ceremony of his second birth, which includes learning the...
(The entire section is 1632 words.)