The River Between Summary

The River Between is a novel by Ngugi wa Thiong'o in which 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.

  • Waiyaki's father wants him to become a leader of the Kikuyu people based on a prophecy.

  • Christian missionaries arrive, which sews division among the Kikuyu. Waiyaki attends the Mission school, but maintains his people's traditions.

  • Waiyaki falls in love with the daughter of a Christian convert and is put on trial for betraying his people's traditions. His dream of bringing education to the Kikuyu dies.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314

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...

(The entire section contains 1946 words.)

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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.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1632

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 ways of the land and the magic ritual of being born again. The elders drink beer and slaughter a goat in preparation. The ceremony itself is not complicated and requires only that he sit between his mother’s thighs as the tribe reenacts his birth using a thin cord taken from a slaughtered goat. The ceremony leaves Waikyaki upset, crying, and falling to the ground. This was not what usually happens, which raises some questions for the others in the tribe about Waiyaki’s character.

Waiyaki returns to the daily rhythm of life in the village by looking after the cattle and hunting. Chege, his father, gives Waiyaki a lesson about the sacred grove and the responsibilities he has to the tribe. He tells Waiyaki that he must go to Siriana to learn the ways of the white man, but not his vices.

Waiyaki goes to Siriana and is joined by Kamau and Kinuthia. The boys impress the white missionaries, including Reverend Livingstone.

Two daughters of Joshua, Nyambura and Muthoni, are also at the mission. Joshua has betrayed the tribe by becoming a full Christian. The people who have converted have been circumcised and now are following the teachings of Christ—and in that they embody both traditions. Nyambura and Muthoni are very close and Muthoni confesses to Nyambura that she’d like to be circumcised even though she also embraces Christianity. Circumcision is considered a central rite for the Gikuyu. Nyambura realizes this will greatly anger her father and protests to Muthoni that she not do go through with her plans for circumcision.

One evening Muthoni is not found at home. Her mother, Miriamu, and Nyambura keep this a secret and search for her as long at they can. In their frustration to find her, Nyambura finally tells her father of Muthoni’s plans for circumcision and he nearly strangles her. Joshua sends Nyambura to get Muthoni from Kameno where she is staying with her aunt for the rite of circumcision. Muthoni refuses to return. Her revolt is news all throughout the hills.

At this point, the circumcisions of the boy and girl, Waiyaki and Muthoni, are nearly simultaneous. Waiyaki goes to Kameno and speaks with Muthoni about her decision and her upcoming circumcision. During the celebration, he becomes attracted to her and also admires her courage and beauty as she sings and dances as part of the ritual.

Waiyaki’s circumcision is performed in the manner of the tribe in very cold water in the river. He experiences great pain but accepts this as part of his education, as are the stories and teasing by those around him during his recovery.

Muthoni’s circumcision is also completed and she becomes quite ill. Waiyaki visits Muthoni and she tells him she wants to see her sister, Nyambura. Waiyaki gets her and Nyambura decides that they must take her to the white hospital. With great effort, they deliver her there. Muthoni dies hours later. When her father Joshua hears of her death, he is so shocked and angry that he shows no emotion.

Each leader interprets this event differently. Joshua is undeterred in his journey to the new Jersualem. He understands Muthoni’s death to be a warning against those who rebel against Christianity. Chege takes the death as a lesson that the tribe should adhere to its rituals. The two areas, Makuyu and Kameno, are distinctly separated; Makuyu is the home of the Christians and Kameno home of the tribe.

Muthoni’s story becomes legend and great divisions occur. Chege is dying from a stomach disease, and Waiyaki does not go back to Siriana but stays with his father. Kabonyi breaks away and returns to the tribe. Chege’s death leaves a great responsibility to Waiyaki and he starts a school called Marioshoni, which educates children of the teachings of the tribe. His fellow teachers are Kamau and Kinuthia. At this time, a government post is being constructed and the tribe feels even more vulnerable.

Waiyaki experiences great success as a teacher and gains wide respect. Additional schools are constructed and he often meets with the elders, including Kabonyi, who has become jealous of Waiyaki’s success.

Tension builds between Waikyaki and Kabonyi. The Christian missionaries also begin building schools. Waiyaki becomes consumed by the tension and division. He seeks to be free and run away from it all but the tribe depends on him.

To escape momentarily, he visits the river and finds Nyambura there. She is quite lonely without her sister, Muthoni, and she finds comfort near the water. Waiyaki and Nyambura are attracted to one another, but their meeting is considered to be a threat to both the tribe and to the Christian mission.

They attempt to continue to meet, but Nyambura feels the pressure from her father not to do so. Waiyaki visits her church just to get sight of her and this causes a great uproar with the elders, particularly Kabonyi. At the river, he expresses his love for her and asks her to marry him. At the same time that Waiyaki’s love for Nyambura is growing, Kamau also loves Nyambura. Kamau tells stories of their meetings to the elders, which causes problems for Waiyaki.

Waiyaki begins to resent that his actions are being watched and begins to understand why Nyambura will no longer meet with him. During his attempts to see her at the church, Waiyaki pauses to witness Joshua’s intensity during a sermon. Joshua’s preaching and vocal power are impressive to Waiyaki. Waiyaki admires Joshua’s commitment to Christianity.

Kabonyi begins to challenge Waiyaki by giving a speech at a public school event. The crowd favors Waiyaki’s speech and this humiliates Kabonyi.
As the tension builds, one of Joshua’s huts is burned. Nyambura’s fears grow and she has a great longing for Waiyaki. She considers Waiyaki her only savior from her overbearing father.

Two events approach, Christmas and the Day of Circumcision, and both sides are preparing. Waiyaki is called to visit the elders for a meeting and they confront him about his plans with Nyambura and his visits to the church. They challenge his commitment to the tribe. Kabonyi accuses Waiyaki of being unclean based on his interaction with Muthoni and with Nyambura. Waiyaki is furious. Kamua also says that Waiyaki is the greatest threat to the tribe.

On the hills, a large crowd gathers at the meeting ground. The people want action. Waiyaki speaks about uniting the people. They cheer for him when he appears. He speaks of education, unity, and political freedom. He decides he will also fight for his love for Nyambura.

Kabonyi defends the tribe and ancient rituals. He speaks as one who formerly followed Christianity. He speaks of the inner workings of  evil and good in men’s heart snd in the country. He says Waiyaki is unclean and working with the white man. Kabonyi speaks about their tribes history and its heroes.

At the end, Waiyaki is asked to confess his love for Nyambura or for the tribe. Waiyaki and Nyambura are placed in the hands of the Kiama who will judge them and decide what to do. The people leave them in the darkness and the elders’ judgment.

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