The conflict between cultures is conveyed through a variety of techniques. For example, the characters’ names suggest the dichotomy between cultures: John and his parents use Western names, while Wamuhu and her family use traditional African names. Ngugi considered names so important that in the 1970’s he changed his own name from James Ngugi to the traditional name by which he is now known.
The setting, too, reflects the conflict between the traditional and the colonial cultures. Limuru village is contrasted with the new ugly villages (like Makeno) that developed during the emergency called the Mau Mau Rebellion against the British. John thinks of Limuru as a magical land of mist and hills and valleys; Makeno village enrages him and makes him feel trapped.
The initial tribal tale of the Irimu is the key to the story. The fact that John cannot remember the end of the story about the Irimu foreshadows the fact that he will not be able to find a suitable answer to his dilemma: He needs the traditional stories to help him cope with new situations, but he cannot remember them and his mother is not allowed to repeat them.
The Irimu emerges again when Wamuhu’s father fears that John will not treat his daughter fairly. Her father knows that colonially educated boys often sleep with unmarried girls, leaving them pregnant and alone. He compares the situation of the tribe following the ways of the colonizers to the girl who chased the Irimu. She had nowhere to go, and in this refashioned world, neither does the tribe.
The importance of the traditional tale is emphasized at the end of the story, when John himself turns into the horrible Irimu: John foams at the mouth and his voice becomes hoarse; he chases Wamuhu, and a terrible anger wells up in him as he unwittingly shakes Wamuhu too hard. He seems to have a second mouth, and this double mouth offers her increasing amounts of money rather than appropriate assurances of marriage. Rather than becoming an enlightened, educated man, he has become an exploiter and murderer of his own people.