The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Ngugi’s characterization in The River Between works well in two principal ways: He gives the land equal importance, in detail and development, to the characters, and he shifts the narrator’s point of view so that, while omniscient, it reflects primarily the sensibility of the most important character in any given scene. His descriptions of the ridges, the river, the sacred grove, the sacred tree, and the riverbank on which the circumcision rituals are held all serve to remind the reader again and again that Kikuyu identity is bound inseparably to the landscape in which the novel is set. When Waiyaki learns the ancient prophecy from Chege, he also acquires the lore of particular herbs necessary to traditional healing. His very absence, however, from the land while he is away at school deprives him of making traditional use of that knowledge and hence denies him an intimate understanding of what it means to be Kikuyu. Consequently, when blood from Waiyaki’s circumcision mingles with the symbolic unity of the river’s earth, he experiences a unified tribal identity but only momentarily. He has been changed by an education that prevents him from comprehending the Kiama’s legitimate concern for the loss of power over their own lands until it is too late. In a sense, Waiyaki’s failure to belong to the land is his failure to achieve the leadership of his people: As the prophecy’s mythic power originates from the land, so must its fulfillment speak to the land’s sanctity.

By shifting the point of view in his narration to permit his characters’ sensibilities to dominate from scene to scene, Ngugi allows the reader to perceive more fully the motives and moral choices of his characters than he could achieve with neutral, evenly sustained omniscience. When Joshua, for example, dominates a scene, the reader senses the fidelity with which he approaches his converted followers. From his point of view, he is no less a savior than Waiyaki or Kabonyi. As rigidly antitraditional as he is, Joshua still draws upon parallels to the Kikuyu religion, especially in matters of patriarchal authority. Kabonyi, on the other hand, reveals his own motives of jealousy and revenge. He leaves Joshua as much because he is not as good a preacher as he does because of his commitment to saving Kikuyu lands. In his envy of Waiyaki’s natural abilities and blood ties to the seer Mugo, Kabonyi develops a hatred of Waiyaki that stems from more individualistic rivalry than from what he perceives as divergent values. Muthoni, too, informs not only the sacrificial motive for unity but also the novel’s theme. When she died, as Nyambura (reflecting her own point of view—her own love—toward Waiyaki) reports, Muthoni had a vision of a black messiah in whom Christian values of love and reconciliation were embodied, precisely because of her moral choice to submit to the circumcision ritual. In the reference to Waiyaki’s role, obvious to Nyambura, Muthoni foreshadows, by her death, Waiyaki’s own failure to achieve salvation for the Kikuyu. In summary, Ngugi’s manipulation of the point of view creates an empathetic exploration toward almost all the characters, thereby forcing the reader to reflect beyond a superficial reaction based on stereotypical roles of conflict among a colonized people. That reflection, in turn, reveals the depths of psychological damage inflicted by colonialism itself.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Waiyaki (way-YAH-kee), a dedicated teacher. His father, Chege, rears him to appreciate his African heritage so that when he is sent to the missionaries to learn the white man’s magic, he acquires knowledge without repudiating his inheritance. Waiyaki urgently seeks to educate his people through schools that, being locally sponsored, will increase literacy but not undermine tradition. His determination to maintain a balance between old and new beliefs is suspect to those who prefer the extremes of total rejection and eager acceptance of colonial ways. Waiyaki joins Kiama, a secret society dedicated to maintaining the old principles, but he is uncomfortable with the restrictions it imposes. His dissatisfaction increases when he falls in love with Nyambura, because his relationship with her violates tradition. At the height of his achievement, he wonders whether he may not be the savior who is anticipated in local legend. He is given a people’s trial and although he pleads for moderation, he is defeated by Kabonyi’s bitter prosecution. When forced to admit his love, he is accused of treachery against the people. Guiltless but condemned, he sees fanaticism triumph and all of his dreams for reconciliation and education collapse.


Chege (CHAY-gay), Waiyaki’s beloved father, a distinguished elder, a Kikuyu seer deeply committed to the beauty and significance of tribal traditions.


Joseph, a self-righteous convert to Christianity who has established a church in Makuyu. His adoption of a non-African name indicates his determination to make a complete break with the traditions in which he was reared. As a minister, he develops an extreme ardor for rigid religious conformity, damning his own people as pagans. When his daughter Muthoni, though a devout Christian, follows the ancient custom of female circumcision, he rejects her utterly.


Muthoni (mew-DHOH-nee), Joseph’s daughter. She is converted to Christianity and has a deep commitment to the creed, but she also feels an obligation to follow to some degree the rites of her tradition. She undergoes the cruel ritual of circumcision and, in spite of Waiyaki rushing her belatedly to the hospital, dies of the resulting infection even while expressing her commitment to a belief in Jesus, as she has been taught.


Nyambura (NYAHM-bew-rah), Joseph’s other daughter. She reciprocates Waiyaki’s love but rejects his first proposal because of her obligation of obedience to her father and her realization that marriage will raise antagonisms that will destroy them. Her father disowns her for immorality, yet as his daughter, she is too Christian for the traditionalists: She shuns the circumcision ritual that killed her sister. Waiyaki’s continuing love for her is the cause of his tragic downfall.


Kabonyi (kah-BOH-nyee), the tribal seer after Chege’s death. Kabonyi has none of his predecessor’s gentle reasonableness. He is an angry, bitter man, and although his beliefs are diametrically opposed to Joseph’s, the two have much in common. Kabonyi engineers the persecution of Waiyaki because he fears the changes that will result from Waiyaki’s sensible moderation.


Kamau (kah-MOW), Kabonyi’s son. He follows the principles of his father without question but is constantly criticized for having achieved less distinction than Waiyaki. Kamau supports his father’s attack on Waiyaki only partly out of principle: He sees Waiyaki as his rival for Nyambura, and the religious issue becomes the means of confronting him.


Kinuthia (kee-new-DHEE-ah), a young man who is brought up with Kamau. In the novel’s schematic action, Kinuthia is Kamau’s opposite; he grows up to develop complete loyalty to Waiyaki and respect for his principles.

List of Characters

Chege is Waiyaki’s father. Chege is a much-admired tribal leader of the Gikuyu. He barely survived a great famine, later married and produced daughters who married well and one son. The other elders fear and respect him and some people believe he has the gift of magic. He bestows the responsibility of carrying on the tribe to Waiyaki, who he describes as “the last in the line” of tribesman in Gikuyuland.

The Elders
The elders are the old and wise leaders of the tribe that work closely with Kabonyi. They are the keepers of the tribe’s history and secrets. They are the defenders of the Gikuyu.

Joshua is the father of...

(The entire section is 462 words.)