The River Between Summary

In The River Between, Waiyaki tries to educate his people without destroying their traditions. He was born in Kenya to the Kikuyu people, but was educated by Christian missionaries. In the end, he fails to preserve his people's traditions, and his dream of providing an education to the Kikuyu dies.

  • Waiyaki's father wants him to become a leader of the Kikuyu people. There's a prophecy that a man from the hills will bring salvation to his people.

  • Christian missionaries bring division to the Kikuyu. Waiyaki goes to the Mission for his education, but never forgets his traditions.

  • Waiyaki falls in love with the daughter of a Christian convert, Joshua. He's put on trial for appearing to betray his people's traditions. In the end, his dream of bringing education to the Kikuyu dies.


The River Between cover image

In the 1960s, Ngugi wa Thiong'o produced a large volume of material, including stories, novels, plays, and a newspaper column. His first major play, The Black Hermit, was performed in 1962, which introduced Ngugi into the literary scene in East Africa. He published The River Between in 1965 following his novel Weep Not, Child, which was then followed by the critical success of A Grain of Wheat. This early trilogy set a firm foundation for his writing.

Ngugi’s The River Between focuses on the lost heritage of Eastern Africans through the characters of Waiyaki and his tribe. Ngugi was the first English-educated African writer to develop fiction portraying the Kikuyu view of the colonial war, the Mau Mau Emergency or Rebellion, which was a violent uprising by the Kikuyu people against British control. This event put the region in a state of emergency from 1952 to 1960.

The novel focuses on the conflict between Christian missionaries and the indigenous tribes. It also explores the long-lasting effects of colonialism and the consequences of struggling for independence.

In this work and others, Ngugi attempts to correct Western literature’s image of Africa, by offsetting the perspective of writers such as Joseph Conrad in his Heart of Darkness. Ngugi’s work occupies the category of contemporary African fiction that began with Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drunkard and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Ngugi’s initial works were written in English, not the language of his own people. In the 1960s, he wove the stories and folk traditions of his culture and restated historical legends for a country that was less than a decade old. His later work is written in Gikuyu, the language of his tribe, as he seeks a more authentic literature and voice. His work represents the tenuous balance of cultures, languages, and nations that continues to be present in news headlines into the twenty-first century.

The River Between Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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 elder leader of Kameno, where traditional Kikuyu have ignored Mugo’s prophecy foretelling the coming of white settlers. Chege regards his responsibility as that of restoring unity to the Kikuyu, but, knowing that he will die before that can be accomplished, he bestows the charge of unified resistance to the whites upon his son Waiyaki.

Even as a boy, Waiyaki’s strong presence in appearance and mannerism is regarded as extraordinary among the Kikuyu. He seems a natural leader with “light” in his eyes, the last in a line of heroic seers. Chege takes him to the sacred tree and mountain of Murungo, revealing secret lore, recounting the ancient myths, and disclosing Waiyaki’s relationship to the ancestor Mugo. He also reveals an ancient, secret prophecy: A leader from the hills will bring salvation to his people. Chege reasons that, because other heroes have gone beyond the knowledge of the immediate region, Waiyaki must do so as well. Chege instructs his son not only to live by the traditional Kikuyu values but also—to the shock of Kameno—to attend the school at Siriana so that he may learn the ways of the whites, thereby gaining the necessary insights to meet the challenge that the missionaries and settlers pose to tribal integrity and survival. Waiyaki, obeying, then leaves for several years in order to be educated at the Mission.

The only other elder of the tribe who knows of the prophecy is Kabonyi, who, like Joshua, has converted to Christianity but is much less effective in his preaching. In the rigid interpretations of the Old Testament, Joshua is the patriarch of Makuyu, relegating Kabonyi to second-rate status there, just as Kabonyi has secondary status to Chege in traditional Kikuyu patriarchy. Joshua’s new sense of individualism and his new skills in literacy, however, owe as much to Livingston as to Scripture. Livingston, in accordance with the Presbyterian mission’s order to ban female circumcision among the Christian Kikuyu, brings Joshua into sharp conflict with traditional values: Circumcision is the central ritual among the traditional Kikuyu. When Joshua’s daughter Muthoni, believing, as she had been reared before her father’s conversion, that circumcision is necessary to become a Kikuyu “woman,” chooses to undergo the ritual ceremony, Joshua is forced to disown her as if she were dead.

Waiyaki, meanwhile, returns from the Mission in order to fulfill his own obligation to Kikuyu tradition. From his friend Kinuthia, Waiyaki learns of Muthoni’s rebellion, an affront to her father that Waiyaki cannot comprehend, despite his adherence to Kikuyu values. While Waiyaki and his friends Kamau and Kinuthia successfully complete the circumcision ritual on the banks of the Honia, Muthoni does not heal as she should. Throughout the ritual, Waiyaki suffers lingering doubts about its importance; his years at the school have, ironically, introduced ideas that foster his sense that Chege’s prophecy may be nothing more than an old man’s illusion. Consequently, when Muthoni’s condition deteriorates, Waiyaki, acting on his newly acquired principles of love and reconciliation, takes her to the hospital at the Mission. He is, however, too late: Muthoni dies soon after her arrival there.

Muthoni’s death provokes an even deeper division between the Kikuyu, and, insofar as the circumcision ritual serves as the central metaphor for Kikuyu tradition and values, it becomes the center of conflict. Those in Kameno believe the missionaries have poisoned Muthoni; Joshua, showing little grief at his daughter’s death, blames it on Satan’s influence over the “pagan” Kikuyu. The Siriana school refuses to admit the children of parents who do not renounce the ritual of female circumcision. The British establish a government post at Makuyu, imposing a “hut tax,” confiscating land, and forcing the dispossessed Kikuyu to work on their own land. Chege dies, doubting that his instructions to Waiyaki will save the people. Kabonyi, never one to miss an opportunity and the next elder in line for the leadership of Kameno—despite his residence in Makuyu—renounces his Christianity, assumes leadership, and founds the Kiama, a secret society dedicated to keeping Kikuyu culture pure and retrieving the tribal lands.

Prohibited from continuing his education, Waiyaki founds his own school, Marioshoni, to promote self-help for the Kikuyu and draws upon the assistance of his fellow teachers Kamau, Kabonyi’s son, and Kinuthia to start other schools. As the educational movement grows, Waiyaki becomes known among many grateful Kikuyu as the Teacher. (The schools reflect the historical Kikuyu Independent Schools Association begun in the 1920’s.) Kabonyi and his breakaway followers, however, are also gaining power through the influence of the Kiama, to which Waiyaki belongs. When the Kiama demands a “purity oath,” Waiyaki consents, despite his belief that his goal of uniting both ridges can best be fulfilled by education rather than by political agitation. Rather than advocate reconciliation, however, Waiyaki argues exclusively for educational programs. (The Kiama society reflects the historical Kikuyu Central Association, which lobbied, with Jomo Kenyatta as secretary, for political and economic rights in 1925.) While Kabonyi and Waiyaki vie for leadership of the traditional Kikuyu, Waiyaki begins to yearn for more individual freedom than the Kiama permits. To complicate further Waiyaki’s doubts about the effectiveness of the Kiama and how to achieve unity, he falls in love with Nyambura, Joshua’s second daughter.

For a brief time, Waiyaki seems the undisputed leader of the traditionalists; the Kikuyu widely embrace the necessity for education. Christians, however, begin to appear in Kameno, sometimes suffering the burning of their huts. Waiyaki lies in order to conceal his love for the uncircumcised Nyambura, and out of guilt and anger at the increasing militancy of the Kiama, he resigns from the society, leaving Kabonyi more power than Waiyaki realizes, preoccupied as he is with his courtship of Joshua’s daughter, to whom he has proposed on the very site of the circumcision ritual by the Honia. Nyambura, in deference to her father, rejects Waiyaki’s proposal for marriage but not his love.

As Nyambura struggles between her love for Waiyaki and her obedience to Joshua, Kabonyi initiates rumors that Waiyaki has betrayed the traditionalists’ cause. Kabonyi counsels action against the Christians and Waiyaki counsels reconciliation; meanwhile, white settlers increase in number and the threat to Kikuyu land and dignity grows. Kabonyi summons Waiyaki to a Kiama meeting, charging him with collaborating with the missionaries, when, in fact, he was recruiting teachers; with breaking the taboo of touching a dead woman, Muthoni, without having ever been ritually cleansed afterward, when it is not clear that Waiyaki was even present; and with attending Christian services at Joshua’s, when, in fact, Waiyaki had gone not for the preaching but to see Nyambura. Ironically, Kabonyi’s son Kamau is also in love with Nyambura, who has rejected him, and Kamau’s voice—in betrayal of his friendship with Waiyaki—is among those who charge Waiyaki with cultural and political betrayal. In short, Waiyaki fails to satisfy the Kiama’s charges because he will not reveal his love for Nyambura.

Kabonyi then reveals the prophecy of the “Sent One” to the Kiama, claiming the role for himself. When Kinuthia warns Waiyaki that the Kiama plans to attack Joshua and his followers, burning huts and forcibly circumcising Christians, Waiyaki, seeking to save Nyambura and to preserve a hope for unity, warns Joshua. Joshua, however, still steadfast in his rigidity, rebukes him as a pagan trying to steal his daughter, unaware that Waiyaki’s warning has diffused the secret attack. As a result, the Kiama seems convinced of Waiyaki’s betrayals as charged, and he is left with only a remnant of his previous support from the tribe. Nyambura, however, decides to consent to the marriage, despite the inevitable rejection from her father. To protect her, Waiyaki hides her in his hut.

Called upon by the Kiama to account for his perceived betrayal, Waiyaki has Kinuthia summon the Kikuyu, both traditional and Christian, to the banks of the Honia so that he can address them. While dubious about his motives, the Kikuyu’s respect for their Teacher is such that they willingly gather to hear him defend himself. They begin to gather by the river on the day before the circumcision rituals begin, which coincides with the preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Before addressing them, Waiyaki makes an early morning pilgrimage to the sacred grove. Meditating on the ancient prophecy and his hope for tribal unity, Waiyaki experiences a spiritual and political awakening: He realizes that education for unity is not enough to save his people. He concludes that that unity must lead to political freedom from the loss of tribal lands, forced labor, imposed values, and taxes to an unwanted government. When Waiyaki returns from the sacred mountain, he begins his speech successfully, for he seems to burn with the ancient prophecy’s power in the setting sun. Kabonyi and the Kiama, however, confront him with the kidnaped Nyambura, calling upon him to renounce her as unclean. When Waiyaki refuses, choosing love over purity, the people allow the Kiama to take both of them away for judgment. The Christian Kikuyu, deferring perhaps to Joshua’s rejection of his second daughter, do not intervene. Waiyaki, acting out of love and embodying reconciliation, fails to grasp the need for political action until it is too late to lead effectively in that action. His idealism has been too narrowly constrained by his belief in education, itself the product of his experience at the Mission.

The River Between Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 against the domination of colonialism.

Waiyaki finds himself in love with Nyambura, the daughter of Joshua, a man who has embraced Christianity and turned his back on the tribal customs of his people, especially the circumcision ritual for women. The dead girl, Muthoni, was Nyambura’s sister, greatly conflicted in her desire to be both Christian and Gikuyu. Joshua had forbidden her to participate in the rituals, but she disobeyed him in order to be part of the tribe. Joshua is an unforgiving, unyielding father and leader.

The other political force to be reckoned with is the Kiama, a militant organization devoted to the protection of tribal ways. The Kiama requires an oath of loyalty to uphold tribal purity. Waiyaki is vulnerable to the Kiama because of his political naïveté; he thinks only in terms of education as the key to helping the Gikuyu, not political action. His other point of vulnerability is his love of Nyambura. He is seen with her and will not deny his feelings for her; he and she are turned over to the Kiama for justice. Waiyaki’s opponent and the leader of the Kiama is Kabonyi, and he has effectively turned the Kiama against Waiyaki. Presumably Waiyaki and Nyambura will be executed.

The dominant theme of The River Between is the role of education and political activism in the resistance movement. Waiyaki’s idealistic response to the needs of the people gives them only part of what they need from him. They need the education he brings to their children, but decisive political action is also called for, and he seems too preoccupied with his schools and with his feelings for Nyambura to be aware that he is ultimately failing the people and placing himself in danger. Like Njoroge in Weep Not, Child, he has a messianic vision of himself but is not able to fulfill it.

The River Between Extended Summary

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...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)