The River Between is set in the 1920s and 1930s in the Gikuyu community in Kenya. This region is where Ngugi was born and raised. The story is about the separation of the two villages, Kameno and Makuyu, in the region as the people struggle over their individual faiths and ways of life. The polytheistic followers of Kameno defend their rites and rituals against the monotheistic followers of Christianity. A Christian mission in Siriana threatens the Gikuyu way of life.
The story begins with a description of the traditions and history of the two villages represented by two mountain ridges. The river, Honia, runs between them. Chege guides Waiyaki through the region with a peripatetic lesson about the history of their people. Chege points out the bark of a tree which can be used as a salve for fresh wounds. The roots of a plant are good for a stomach ailment. Chege identifies another tree as one with poisonous fruit. These lessons bring Waiyaki closer to his father. He matures on this journey as the hidden things of the hills were being revealed to him.
At the beginning of the story, the ridges “slept on." Kameno and Makuyu were not antagonistic but had merged into one beautiful land. This opening journey sets the tone for the novel: Gikuyu and Mumbi are the “father and mother of the tribe,” and the mountains are the seat of Murungu. It is here that Chege explains the descendants from whom Waiyaki comes into the world. Waiyaki feels the full weight of responsibility from these lessons and this journey. It is here that he also learns the ancient prophecy about the white man and the dangers that he brings. In spite of this, Chege tells Waiyakai to go to the mission place in Siriana to learn the ways of the white man, but not his vices. These words are a challenge to Waiyaki throughout his life as he attempts to preserve and teach the ways of his tribe but to also understand and find some value in the ways of the white man, particularly in education.
The river, Honia, is the dividing line between the two villages. Its importance cannot be overestimated for the region. People draw their water from here. Cattle and goats rely on the water for their survival. It is called the “Cure.” It is life. The river is also the site where the girls and boys prepare their bodies in the cold water for their circumcisions. The cold water numbs their bodies, making the operation less painful.
The river also is a source of great comfort and relief for Nyambura and Waiyaki. After Muthoni’s death, Nyambura is often found along the river bank seeking solace and comfort. She and her sister drew water together from this river and Nyambura goes to the river to ease her loneliness. Waiyaki also walks along the river in search of Nyambura and for the comfort of its flowing waters from the tension of his work and the tribe.
The novel is also set on the backdrop of the Mau Mau Rebellion. In 1920, Kenya officially became a British colony. Whites settled in the area in the 1940s and achieved prosperity, but also initiated challenges to the idea of land ownership. In 1952, Africans organized a rebellion and a state of emergency was declared in the region. The Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group, began the rebellion by fighting against British rule and land ownership. The British responded by sending in the army and Royal Air Force and thousands of Kenyans were killed and close to one million people (mostly women, children and elderly men) were imprisoned. In 1957, African members were elected to the legislative body and the state of emergency was lifted....
(The entire section is 942 words.)