How does The River Between express the impact of colonialism in Kenya?

The River Between reflects the impact of colonialism in Kenya through the description of cultural clashes between the African and the European culture. Chege is welcoming to the white man’s way of life while Joshua is trying to reject his African culture. Waiyaki is caught in between his loyalty to his father, who believes in preserving the indigenous culture, and his inclination for Western education.

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Ngugi wa Thiongo’s The River Between generally explores the coming of the British colonists to Kenya and the cultural clash resulting from the interaction of local and foreign interests. The impact of colonialism, as portrayed in The River Between, can perhaps be well understood by looking at how different characters respond to the colonial rule. First off, Chege is partially welcoming to the white man’s way of life. He tells his son Waiyaki:

Go to the mission place. Learn all the wisdom and all the secrets of the white man. But do not follow his vices. Be true to your people and the ancient rites.

Joshua, largely because he is a newly converted Christian, starts to develop a hatred for his traditional culture. He repents for all his past sins, including marrying a circumcised woman. Further, he warns his children that refusing to denounce the African culture will lead to serious consequences.

Faced with contending allegiances, Waiyaki is forced to choose between remaining true to his prophesied role as a “saviour” or custodian of the Kameno traditions and embracing the values of the white man’s education.

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The River Between expresses the impact of colonialism through the novel’s central conflict and the suffering that culminates as a result of colonial oppression. The arrival of the white man in Kikuyu land disrupts the ideal traditional structure of the Kikuyu people and sets the community on a path of discord, which is not resolved by the end of the book.

The main conflict revolves around the two ridges that have come about as a result of the introduction of Christianity; Kameno residents, strict adherents of their traditions who vehemently denounce Christianity against Mukuyu residents, the Christian converts. This conflict is heightened through Waiyaki, the main protagonist, who becomes ambivalent about western culture after his education at the mission school. Besides conflict, colonialism caused suffering amongst the people through its oppressive land alienation and forced labor system.

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From the very title itself and the description of how the river separates the community into two, this brilliant novel very swiftly introduces the idea of division as a result of colonialism. As we are introduced to the characters, more and more we understand the way that colonialism has resulted in a massive mix of beliefs and religions, as individuals find themselves trapped against a larger backdrop of tradition and behaviour that they may or may not agree with.

You might like to consider how this sense of confusion is captured most clearly in the central character of Waiyaki, who seems to dwell in both the ancestral world of tradition, but also the new world that has come to life as a result of colonialism. Even though he ultimately remains faithful to his own tribal community and background, he still draws upon the knowledge of the white community, and so is definitely a hybrid subject, as he becomes a mix of both worlds. Note the way that as an adult he implicitly recognises...

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the differingpoints of view of both Joshua and Muthoni. Colonialism is therefore shown to create a huge confusion in identity, as characters such as Waiyaki struggle to incorporate elements of both of the worlds to which they belong, and risk rejection by both communities as a result.

This sense of confusion of identity is something that other principal characters experience. Muthoni faces a massive challenge as she feels part of both her tribe and Christianity, which her father finds to be completely incongruous. Nyambura is yet another character who finds her sense of identity confused by colonialism, as her love for Waiyaki and her desire to remain faithful to her religion and family show. Again and again, colonialism has given rise to hybrid or fractured characters who find it increasingly difficult to remain true to themselves and their own sense of hybrid identity yet be accepted by their families and communities.

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